Sunday, November 19, 2006

The elephant in the atheist living room

Richard Dawkins shows off his finest fundamentalist form when he attempts to discredit any possible reason an atheist might have to tolerate religion. Dawkins to my mind is no better than the assholes who work the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica waving their Bibles and spouting off about the evils of homosexuality. [UPDATE: This is worded too strongly. I should have said something like: some of Dawkins's rhetoric is no better than...]

I personally subscribe to a variant of I'm-an-atheist-but-ism #2: people need religion. There is palpable irony in seeing the Great Logician himself trying to refute this argument by saying that it is condescending. Even if it were (I don't think it is), so what? Aren't we supposed to judge the truth of falseness of a proposition by the evidence rather than on whether or not we think someone might be offended? By rejecting this argument on the grounds of political incorrectness Dawkins shows himself to be just as much of a hypocrite as all the other religious fundamentalists.

But the problem runs even deeper than that because not only is Dawkins arguing ab-political-correctness, he is also knocking down a straw man: It is not that people need relgion, it is that they want religion! Some people, to the perennial chagrin of people like Dawkins, simply prefer existence with the sense of purpose that faith can provide (and frankly I can muster a great deal of sympathy for that position if jerks like Dawkins are the role models for the alternative). This is simlpy a fact. People choose religion of their own free will. It is the height of condescension to suppose, as Dawkins does, that choosing religion is ipso facto an unsound decision, and to appoint yourself as the arbiter of what they should have chosen for themselves.

It gets worse still because there are manifest sound reasons why someone might reject science in favor of religion, not least of which is that there are important questions that science cannot answer. Science, being objective by definition, is by its very nature unsuitable for addressing questions of subjective experience. We can tease out, say, all the chemical reactions that occur when one eats a chocolate bar and still have made no progress towards an understanding of what it is like to eat chocolate.

Science is likewise impotent in the face of mystical experience. Scientists tend to write it all off as delusion, but that is unjustifiably facile. Imagine that there were a genetic mutation that made one unable to taste chocolate, a sort of color-blindness for your taste buds. (When I was in my twenties I caught a weird virus that actually made me completely lose my sense of taste for a few days. It was a very distressing experience.) Someone with this mutation would be utterly unable to grasp the subjective experience of eating a chocolate bar, and if there were enough of these people they might suppose that all the folks waxing rapturous over the wonders of chocolate were (no pun intended) nuts.

Although we are making astonishing progress in understanding how the brain works, the mind is still a deeply mysterious phenomenon. Science cannot yet eliminate the possibility that some minds might be in contact with something extra-physical (or even just complex and subtle, but nonetheless real that we do not yet understand), and so to dismiss religion on the grounds that it is a priori untenable is, at best, premature. But, as ever, it's actually much worse than that. There is an elephant in the atheist living room, a question that is both obvious and unanswerable by science. It is this: why am I me? From my point of view there is this very obvious asymmetry in the Universe that the symmetric laws of physics not only cannot account for, but with which they are in fact fundamentally incompatible. The facile answer -- that the situation is symmetric because everyone experiences this -- is not an answer but an evasion. It does not address the question, which is why do I have this particular subjective experience.

I am personally content to let that question remain unanswered and revel in the delicious mysteriousness of it all. But I see no rational reason for passing judgement on those who might choose to do otherwise.

10 comments:

KarstensRage said...

Its a difficult position that Mr. Dawkins is in to try and explain what he is trying to say and not come off as you have misinterpreted him. I'm sure you would agree that Mr. Dawkins is very "smart" in whatever context you might define that word. Unfortunately no matter what context you define that word in, the measurement of "smart" over a general population can be graphed on a Bell curve. What that means is that most people are sort of in the middle.

In many many ways, from his books, his speaking engagements and his television spots, one gets the impression that Mr. Dawkins feels that if you are religious you are either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. I tend to agree. I think what Mr. Dawkins truly wishes is that the general populace is just ignorant, and as such if they would only rise above the condescending notion that anything they don't understand must be "God" they would see, as he does, that a notion of God is not necessary.

I take issue with your great questions as to "why are you you?" and "why do you have your particular subjective experiences?" First of all you argue that science is not adequate because it cannot answer these questions to your satisfaction. Like it or not, science does answer these questions. What you have a problem with is you don't like the answer. Just because you don't like the answer doesn't make it less "true." But you say that religion does answer these questions satisfactorily. But religion was made, by man, to manipulate you and marketed to you. If you can't see that then you are ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked.

Many misinterpret Mr. Dawkins because of his zeal, which, I agree, is in many ways, like the zeal of an evangelist. I tend to forgive Mr. Dawkins because of the atrocities committed in the name of religion all over the world for as long as human-kind has been around. Religion is used to manipulate the masses, infect children, kill, judge and "dumb" down society in general. Mr. Dawkins points out that belief is not to be accepted because of the dangerous notions it creates. Even in the most benign ways, religion sets up a dissonant way of processing the world that leads to judgement and violence. A "my way or the highway" sort of thinking. Frankly I do find it condescending that one would put so much import on a childish question like "why am I me?" How about "because?"

Ron said...

First of all you argue that science is not adequate because it cannot answer these questions to your satisfaction. Like it or not, science does answer these questions.

No, it doesn't, and it can't. The laws of physics are invariant with space and time, but my subjective experience is not -- it is here and now. My subjective experience (and everyone else's) is therefore at odds with the fundamental structure of the laws of physics.

What you have a problem with is you don't like the answer. Just because you don't like the answer doesn't make it less "true." But you say that religion does answer these questions satisfactorily.

Excuse me? You seem to have me confused with some other blogger. I personally find science's answers quite satisfactory (and where science fails to provide answers I am perfectly content to be left to wonder). But many people find science's answers wanting and religion's answers to be satisfactory. There are no logically tenable grounds for preferring one over the other. To argue for science on logical grounds is to assume the consequent. To say that logic is logically preferable to faith is no different from saying that the Bible is true because the Bible says it's true.

beepbeepitsme said...

People need religion? What for? Seriously.

They need it to negate their existential angst?

Larry Clapp said...

I personally subscribe to a variant of I'm-an-atheist-but-ism #2: people need religion. There is palpable irony in seeing the Great Logician himself trying to refute this argument

I haven't read the book, though I've read about it and listened to an interview with Dawkins about it. I got the impression more that he wants to change people's need and want for religion, not deny it. Moreover, in the interview he identified his target audience (iirc) as on-the-fence types who value rationality and logic, and who might like to know some logical arguments for atheism.

... people need religion ...

I disagree. I think that (some) people think they need religion. I think Dawkins agrees with me, and wants to give them some good (in his opinion) reasons to change their minds.

People choose religion of their own free will.

Really? In the technical "everyone has free will" sense, yes, I agree. In a looser sense, I think most people would have a hard time identifying when they chose their religion. If people choose their religion, then why do we have "predominantly Christian" or "predominantly Jewish" or "predominantly Islam" or "predominantly anything" areas? In other words, don't you think the data points out that most people go along with their religion, more than explicity choose it? And if they merely go along with their religion, why not try to change their minds?

Why am I me?

I do not understand this question, as it relates to a discussion of physical laws and their (lack of) applicability.

But many people find science's answers wanting and religion's answers to be satisfactory. There are no logically tenable grounds for preferring one over the other. To argue for science on logical grounds is to assume the consequent.

If someone explicitly values faith over logic, Dawkins has nothing to say to them. He speaks to the folks out there who say they value logic over faith and endeavors to show the consequences of such a value system. If people say up front that they value rationality and logic (an axiom, requiring no proof), then Dawkins can indeed argue that they should logically reject religion.

Matt. said...

This is a great article. Either way.

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200512/god-accident

Matt.

Ron said...

People need religion? What for? Seriously. They need it to negate their existential angst?

More or less. But I should clarify: people don't need religion the way they need, say, food and water. People choose religion because it "negates their existential angst" or (to put a more positive spin on it) gives them a sense of purpose, or makes them feel like they are in contact with the divine, or gives them a community of loving, caring people to hang out with.

I got the impression more that he wants to change people's need and want for religion, not deny it.

Of course that's what he wants. My position is that his tactics are self-defeating because he starts from the false premise that people are religious because they are stupid or ignorant.

don't you think the data points out that most people go along with their religion, more than explicity choose it?

Certainly, but they choose to go along. But that's the case for most things that people choose, not just religion.

And if they merely go along with their religion, why not try to change their minds?

I have nothing against trying to change their minds. I just think that being beligerant is not going to be particularly effective. I think religious extremism is one of the biggest problems the world faces today, and I don't think that the best way to combat it is with anti-religious extremism.

I do not understand this question, as it relates to a discussion of physical laws and their (lack of) applicability.

It's a somewhat subtle point. I perceive the Universe from a particular place (here) and a particular time (now). Why? Why am I me and not somebody else? Of all the human brains my consciousness might have resided in, why this one? Science cannot answer that question, it can only dismiss it as unimportant by saying e.g. that there is no asymmetry because everyone has this perception. And yet this asymmetry is manifest to me, and the question of why I perceive things from this particular vantage point is very important to me and so I will not accept such a facile answer. And I don't think that's an unreasonable position for someone to take, and so it's not unreasonable for someone who is not, like me, content to simply live with the mystery to imagine that the answer is "because God gave me an immortal soul" or somehing like that.

If someone explicitly values faith over logic, Dawkins has nothing to say to them.

Of course he does: he says they are deluded. He says so in the title of one his books. It's hard to be more explicit than that.

To be clear, I do not disagree with Dawkins' claim, only with his belief that there is anything to be gained by shouting it from the rooftops.

Niku said...

And I don't think that's an unreasonable position for someone to take,... to imagine that the answer is "because God gave me an immortal soul" or something like that.

That is an un-reasonable position. Of the hundreds of explanations that exist and millions you can think of, which one do you think is reasonable. And how to decide that. The point is that religion is not answering questions. But I'll agree with your point that people have a right to choose.
Still I don't think that Dawkins is doing a disservice. His position is 'extreme' but atleast it allows you to think clearly. I personally have Dawkins to credit for a few things! (And you see I am no gun-touting anti-religious-fundamentalist!)


Finally, why are anonymous comments not allowed? There are many bloggers on other domains. I am one of the one million on wordpress.com .

Ron said...

That is an un-reasonable position

Not until someone comes up with a scientific explanation. Until then it's as reasonable a position as any of the alternatives.

why are anonymous comments not allowed?

Mainly to avoid spam. But if enough people ask I'll consider enabling anonymous comments. Still, it's not that much of a burden to create a blogger account, is it?

oranje said...

Ron, your arguments smell funny.

Mickelodian said...

Okay Ron, from the top... yes for sure Richard Dawkins is by no means the worlds most effective theological diplomat. He approaches the issue of education of the masses in science the same way a drunken mountain gorilla approaches the construction of a house of cards.

However your approach to his approach is in fact the very thing Dawkins is attempting to demonstrate is not the best approach. In another article you even point this out yourself.

It goes like this.

Science is a set of rules that if applied will allow you to 'predict' things. These things will allow you to calculate which actions will have a degree of efficacy above random chance. I am making assumption here and paraphrasing you but I think you would agree with this so far.

Religions on the other hand might give people comfort and warm fuzzy feeling and also give them explanations... but if they are now silly enough to try take actions based on whatever predictions they make harmful results will ensue. Moreover its not like this is an opinion... religions do in fact attempt to put into practice what they preach and those actions do indeed have an effect on the world around you and I and the person taking the action.

Would you rather actions taken by the majority with a known placebo level of efficacy? Or one with an above placebo level of efficacy?

Should we offer a furry comfort blanket to the masses and allow below placebo levels of efficacy to impact the world at the expense of a higher level of efficacy.

Is this even moral? What if its something like the following?


1. Human instinct can be controlled but experience in doing so has taught us that the level of control is low in a large population.

2. Sexual intercourse with a partner using no barrier protection will leave both partners open to diseases, some of which are fatal all of which are dangerous.

3. The most efficient way to combat these diseases is there fore education of the population in sexual desire coupled with the availability of barrier protection for those who give in to their natural urges.


OR the following

1. It doesn't matter whether humans have instinct Don't ever have sex unless you are married and only with that one partner. Control instincts by force of will...and all of you need to do this.

2. Never use any form of protection during intercourse ever, no matter what you are told about it, regardless of its proven efficacy!


Which of those do you think gives people most comfort? Are you willing to live in a world where the efficacy of the placebo argument PLUS the downside of a disastrous prediction should outweigh a demonstrated positive prediction and a proven one...and allow this just so that those that survive can feel all warm and fuzzy inside and have a comfort blanket?

I would agree with your position if the world religions and their followers were 'mostly harmless' ... but over the course of recorded history its been demonstrated that any philosophy or methodology which is 'controlled' not by results but by lip flapping idiots with an axe to grind tends to lead to disasters...I will include Dawkins in this too...but in this case Dawkins is the least of our worries!

In the past these little downsides like religious wars, inquisitions and the wiping out of civilizations were affordable...

I predict this is no longer the case. And to be honest given the ease at which a simple atomic weapon could be constructed by a warm fuzzy feeling religious whack job I'd really rather not put that prediction to the test!