Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cosmic Crackpot

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

Paul Davies, the director of a something called "Beyond" (a research center?!) at Arizona State University and author of Cosmic Jackpot has written a depressingly witless editorial contribution in this morning's New York Times.

One of the things that especially irks me about the article is that it makes takes a number of propositions that I believe should be fundamental to a modern scientific understanding--for instance, that there are assumptions behind science that need consideration and examination on occasion--and puts them to wholly illegitimate (I'd say villainous) purposes: to equate science and religion.

As I read over my last blog entry, which was rather intemperate, I hesitate before writing what I really want to write next . . .

There are at least two reasons why Davies ought to be horsewhipped. First, this sort of article gives the forces of unreason comfort they in no way deserve. Religion has a very fraught relationship with reality, and no believer should for a second forget that. I know people who believe and I even respect a fair number of believers. But what I cannot respect or even tolerate is the idea that revelation can trump science when we speak of material reality. While Davies would not himself go so far as to say this, the position he stakes out is effectively a means of intellectually legitimizing the very worst forms of know-nothingism and unreason.

Second, Davies argument makes it all thee more difficult to overcome the sort of naive empiricism and plain arrogance one so often sees on the scientific side of this dispute. But when the alternative to that arrogance seems to be Davies and his cohorts, who can blame scientists for becoming even more entrenched and unyielding?

Well, I can, for one. It is NOT as Davies and Lewis Wolpert might have it. Our choices are NOT an equation between science and all other faiths on the one hand and blinkered materialistic hubris on the other.

Davies makes crucial errors here: one is the easy conflation of order--which scientists do tend to seek--and meaning, which is not necessary to the endeavor. The fact that scientists presume there is an underlying order to discover behind physical phenomena is not an act of faith--it is simply a well-reinforced presumption. In the past when order and rules were sought, they were found. This presumption by no means rules out the possibility that there may be no ultimate order (so far as we can perceive) in the universe. And that order (or lack thereof) has little to do with the sort of meaning that religion traditionally provides for people.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Boycott this Moron!

Paperwork filed in effort to recall Dean
Posted by The Grand Rapids Press October 25, 2007 16:23PM
Categories: Breaking News

GRAND RAPIDS -- The owner of a Cascade Township printing shop today filed a request to recall state Rep. Robert Dean, D-Grand Rapids, because of two tax increases Dean supported last months.

"I think there's a sentiment that the wrong votes were cast," said Brian Ebbers, a resident of the city's Northeast Side and owner of Cascade Printing Co.

Ebbers, who listed himself as a member of "Taxpayers to Recall Robert Dean," submitted a request for the recall election with Kent County Clerk Mary Hollinrake on Thursday.

In his request, Ebbers gives two reasons for recalling the first-term legislator: Dean's "yes" vote on a state income tax increase and his "yes" vote on a bill that imposes a 6 percent tax on a variety of services.

Hollinrake said she will convene a Nov. 5 meeting of the county's election commission to make sure the recall language is clear.

Dean said the recall effort will not affect his work. "To me, this is an abuse of what the recall is for," he said.
Brian Ebbers is the sort of fellow that gives the right to vote a bad name. Here we have it: the "give me everything and make me pay nothing" John Q. Public who has no business voting on anything, because he can't quite wrap his mind around an actual public issue. When Britain wanted to deny us representation, it was people like Ebbers who were their shibboleth: "you wouldn't want thoughtless, selfish idiots like this running your public affairs, would you?"

Michigan has budget problems. Big ones. And Mr. Ebbers would probably be first in line to piss & moan if a billions plus in budget cuts were taken out of the state budget "Why did I have to stand in line?!" "Why are the roads so bad?!" You can probably add to Ebbers' litany of compalints.

Well let's show him that citizen action need not be moronic (or toothless). If you live in or near Grand Rapids, take your printing business elsewhere that Cascade Printing. Mr. Ebbers would feel much better is he were out of business and not subject to this onerous new service tax. (Just look how the sales tax on goods has curtailed the traffic in stuff of all kinds!)

It's about time Michigan stood up and said, "You have every right to be willfully stupid. Just not with my money." Boycott the Recallers!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Frans de Waal

To quickly follow up on my last post: I don't want to give the impression that Frans de Waal is not an important thinker on topics like culture, society and morality. He is. I almost always take something valuable away from an encounter with de Waal. But I am also sometimes puzzled by how de Waal positions his own work.

I was reading an interesting interview with de Waal here, which is what got me thinking about him and digressing about him below. I highly recommend reading this interview and other work by de Waal, because I think he far too often gets misconstrued as some sort of sentimentalist Margaret Mead II, which he is not at all. He is hard headed about things and pretty instructive about the heavy ideological valence of a lot of recent discussion around the topic of human nature and evolution.

Also while doing some quick research on this topic I stumbled upon Letters from Le Vrai, which seems pre-occupied with many of the same topics I've been on about recently. Also well worth reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More on Morality

Don't want to wear this topic completely out, but there was quite an interesting piece on this in the New York Times recently.

In a series of recent articles and a book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

Moral dumbfounding, in Dr. Haidt’s view, occurs when moral judgment fails to come up with a convincing explanation for what moral intuition has decided.

Now, this part of the article seems to me to be pretty elemental--that there are "deep brain" elements to moralistic judgment has been observed by literature through the ages. The conflict between moral intuition and our sense of justice and or different elements of our moral intuition is basic to Greek tragedy, I'd say. So this isn't anything new. Not even the ineffability.

And, as usual with evolutionary psychology (which this is, in large part) the immediate cover sought for being accused of merely repeating commonplaces is to invent an enemy: "Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, [Haidt] believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant."

Why Haidt's interesting re-imagining of this old idea requires strawmen, I don't know. There may be some psychologists and philosophers who have concentrated on the "rider," but I think for some very good reasons--they were interested precisely in talking about/reforming the volitional element of morality. The tendency to blame prior scholars and commentators for not having written the same book as you is both tiresome and disingenuous.

Frans de Waal does much the same when he constantly speaks as if his work is most important in that it challenges human self-importance. But who are the great apostles of human self-importance? Are they worthy opponents? Do they read Frans de Waal? Will they know they've been challenged? Is there no better way to present your work than by imagining idiots somewhere who would be absolutely opposed to its findings?

De Waal, for instance, almost always figures his work in this way:

I've argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that's why we like them so much, even though they're large carnivores.

But, the point that humans and animals are not as easy to categorically/morally distinguish as was once thought is by now an old point (though still worth making). What's really new about de Waal's work is the fact that he shows that animal society and even animal culture are important, and that these overlaying systems probably considerably complicate the interpretation of animal behavior.

In other words, the research model of evolutionary psychology--to explain human behavior by arguing direct links to evolutionary forces of early human development--is probably deeply flawed. Some crucial elements in our "environment"--society and culture--predate our species' early development.

But de Waal, apparently, would rather attack faceless "humanists" than fellow scientists.

But, anyhow, on to what I find to be the more interesting stuff in Haidt's article:

[Haidt] identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.

Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

The five moral systems, in Dr. Haidt’s view, are innate psychological mechanisms that predispose children to absorb certain virtues. Because these virtues are learned, morality may vary widely from culture to culture, while maintaining its central role of restraining selfishness. In Western societies, the focus is on protecting individuals by insisting that everyone be treated fairly. Creativity is high, but society is less orderly. In many other societies, selfishness is suppressed “through practices, rituals and stories that help a person play a cooperative role in a larger social entity,” Dr. Haidt said.

I'm not altogether sure Haidt has the categories completely right--I'm not sure for instance that the sense of purity is really so basic and visceral as he seems to imply, but this is a much more interesting take-off point for discussions of the use and future of religion than, say, pointing out that a great many religious proposition are probably false.

There is a portion of Haidts's article that deals with liberal/conservative issues that I think largely recapitulates--perhaps codifies--longstanding observations about our political instincts. One flaw with the political stuff is that it is largely based on what people say they value, not what they demonstrate they value. But, again, Haidt's refiguring and reviving of the argument is worthy of some thought.

Haidt's point of view on both politics and religion takes in individual human psychology, social relations and structures and evolution.

On the other hand, I think we [and Haidt] ought to recognize that he is giving an up-to-date form to a discussion that Freud contributed pretty heavily to about 80 years ago (Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents). Haidt's point of view is less colored than Freud's by the romantic obsession with the struggle of the individual within society, but he seems to be taking up the same conversation.

A little less Oedipalism would be nice from our contemporary scientific thinkers--it tends to distract from the real contributions being made.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Biology, Morality, Religion

I have been invited to write on this topic by our kind host here. [This was written to be cross-posted at Inalienable Rights] The invitation stemmed from some discussion surrounding the “New Atheist” writings of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

These are different writers who have written different books, but I feel that there is fairly good reason to speak of them as a sort of movement. But we should remember (I should remember) as we move along that these writers have written distinct books and what is attributable to one is not necessarily attributable to them all.

The focus here, as it has been in most discussions I’ve seen on the web, will be on Dawkins. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion was published in 2006 and has sold more than a million copies to date, which is remarkably successful for a book advocating atheism or for a book written by a scientist. If the goal of such a book as this is to nudge public discussion in a particular direction, then Dawkins has succeeded. It has been a long time since atheism has gotten as much sustained and serious attention in the popular media as it has over the past year or so.

Before I venture forth, I’d like also to point out that this is an essay—there are lots and lots of assertions here without real evidentiary support. But this is in keeping with the tradition of the essay. So how does one evaluate these assertions? Not by rejecting them because there is insufficient evidence provided here. In fairness, take a minute to think about a) what might have prompted me to write what I have and b) what specific arguments you may have against my assertion, and if you think you’ve got a valid criticism or something that could be interestingly hashed out: post away!


The rise of the “new” atheism has a lot to do with the political changes wrought by the election of an evangelical christian as President of the United States, the attack on the US by Islamic fundamentalists on 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the general divisiveness that has arisen in US politics through all this and two very closely contested presidential elections.

And Dawkins’ book is not at all immune to this air of contention. In fact, Dawkins wrote a much-publicized (metaphorical) call to arms against religion in the immediate aftermath to 9/11. And while The God Delusion has been a great success in many regards, some have pointed out a certain contemptuous disregard—by which I mean not just a lack of respect, but also a lack of attention—for his subject in the book, religion.

And that is more or less where I come in: complaining about the fact that The God Delusion reads more like wartime propaganda than the work of a prestigious scientist helping the public delve into a difficult subject. Not to say that Dawkins ought not have an agenda, but to say he ought to pursue that agenda while upholding a certain level of scholarship.

Here is Dawkins in a atheist FAQ:

Q: There are billions of people across the world following their faiths and living their life. How do you describe them?

A: Of course, there are billions of people living their religious life and most of them are harmless people. But, they are carrying a virus of faith with them, that they transmit from generations to another, and could create a 'epidemic' of faith any time. As I said, I am a kind of person who cares about the truth and also want to see people following the truth. The truth is not a revelation, but truth that has been established though evidences and repeated experiments.

And what repeated experiments have established the existence of this “virus?” Metaphor has been a powerful force in Dawkins’ career, for both good and ill*. [note 1] And here I think we see it used decidedly for the ill. Religion is to be thought of as a force of nature, as a thought contagion colonizing human minds because otherwise we’d be forced to ask, “What good does religion do that so many people adhere to it?” And that, for very unscientific reasons, is a question Dawkins just doesn’t want asked.

One of the “goods” that religion has traditionally been thought to deliver is “morality.” Dawkins also specifically addresses this issue in the same FAQ:

Q: Religious people claim they derive their morality from religion. Where from an atheist derive his morality?

A: Religious people do not derive their morality from religion. I disagree (with the interviewer) on this point. Almost all of us do agree on moral grounds where religion had no effect. For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established. We derive our morality from the environment we live in, Talk shows, Novels, Newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents. Religion might only have a minor role to play in it. An atheist derives his morality from the same source as a religious people do.

This actually makes for a pretty good starting point for a discussion of biology, morality and religion.

First off, I’d agree to some extent that people do not derive their morality from religion. Religion is the invention of man, and whatever is in it, whatever it inculcates or demands of us, man put in there. And so we’d have to look elsewhere for the ultimate origins of our morality.

But this does not mean that most people have not derived their morality through religion; that religion may be an important delivery system for things like morality.
Secondly, I’d point out that this passage represents an interesting departure from some of Dawkins’ earlier assertions on this subject: there is no mention of innate empathy, which figured prominently in the last chapter of The God Delusion.

[I don’t have a copy on hand so this summary from John Hick will have to serve] :

Richard Dawkins, in his widely read book The God Delusion speaks of 'our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity . . the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain' and 'the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we shall never meet' (215); and he has his own biological explanation of this. He lists four Darwinian sources of morality. One depends on what he calls 'the selfish gene'. He says that 'a gene that programs individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm' (216). Hence, he thinks, parents' care for their children, both in humans and other animals. This care is undoubtedly the case. But whether an individual 'selfish gene' wants to benefit itself by making unconscious statistical calculations about how best to do this, seems to me to be suspiciously like an anthropomorphic fairy tale. And indeed how does it benefit an individual gene that there exist many copies or near copies of itself? The second Darwinian source of morality, according to Dawkins, is reciprocal altruism: 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. This occurs not only within but between species. 'The bee needs nectar and the flower needs pollinating. Flowers can't fly so they pay bees, in the currency of nectar, for the hire of their wings' (216-7). This is the basis of all barter, and ultimately of the invention of money.

So, why doesn’t innate empathy figure in Dawkins 2007 FAQ? Dawkins certainly still believes in it, I’m sure, as do I. But I think Dawkins may have come around to my point of view as to how important it is since he wrote the last chapter of his book. What would now be considered abhorrent practices—like slavery, the mass execution of war prisoners, the suppression of women, the exposure of children, the wholesale rape and slaughter of non-combatant populations—all of these things thrived for quite a long time before the emergence of a sensibility which could effectively suppress them.

In other words, morality is historical to some extent: what we consider abhorrent was once considered acceptable or even praiseworthy. So, apparently, a fairly broad variety of human practice can be accommodated to our innate altruism. The line that Dawkins has previously taken up, that religion is the “root of all evil” so to speak in that it allows us to rationalize our behavior when it defies our altruistic instincts is only half true.

Human beings have a great many other innate drives aside from empathy. Some of them lead to behavior that we would regard as selfish, acquisitive, violent, and paranoid. So when I ask myself whether or not I should seduce my neighbor’s attractive wife, my empathy for the plights of the cuckold and the guilty wife are only part (and perhaps a small part) of what goes into the moral calculus behind the decision.

So, moral decisions often involve a conflict amongst our instincts and between our instincts and our reasoning abilities. As Dawkins would readily point out, one role that religion has undoubtedly played over the millennia is as a mechanism by which one set of instincts may be assuaged when we choose to follow another, conflicting set of instincts.

But, this critique of religion has its limits. First, religion is but one mechanism that can accomplish this task of adjudicating between our good and bad angels. When the Mongols swept over the Eurasian landmass, destroying entire cities and spreading terror over two continents, they were not driven by religion, and they did not justify themselves through religion. Religion is just one way for a people to justify the rape, murder, dispossession and even elimination of other peoples.

Also, the mechanism works both ways: I can tell myself that though burning people alive for what they believe seems brutal, when it is done for the greater glory of god it is alright. But I can also tell myself that though my selfish instincts cry out when I give my wealth to the poor, that I am paving my way to heavenly rewards by doing so. The idea, which Dawkins endorses, that “you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion,” is just plain wrong, and oversimplified wrong at that.

People commit evil acts, even atrocities, out of all kinds of motives, some evil, some mistaken. And religion, as I point out above, doesn’t just cut in one direction: toward justifying evil. It justifies all kinds of acts, kindly and self-sacrificing ones as well as vicious. The balance between the two is dictated not by religion itself, but by our nature and the nature of our social behavior.

What Dawkins and his adherents should acknowledge on the point of human morality is that all the elements at play here--empathy, altruism, reason, greed, glory-seeking, selfishness, xenophobia, brutality and rationalization—all of these things logically precede religion.

While morality can indeed be said to derive ultimately from some of our kinder social impulses, what we recognize today as our “moral consensus” does not just arise naturally from innate empathy. That moral consensus has a pretty specific and well-known history.

Religion in some sense of the word—animism, ancestor worship (?)—no doubt precedes civilization. And the impulses that drove these earlier forms of religion are doubtlessly still important in people’s personal adherence and belief, but as Dawkins has pointed out elsewhere, his real beef is with more developed forms of religion. The kind that arose with civilization.*[note 2]

The rise of the city took us out of the simple contexts (small bands of related individuals with more or less constant mutual surveillance and strong hierarchal relationships) in which our instincts—selfish, empathetic, greedy, fearful—were a reliable guide to social behavior. As cities grew, with large numbers of unrelated people performing differentiated tasks grew, something that would shape and guide those instincts had to arise with them.

The state and its organized violence (executions, seizing & destruction of property, enslavement, forced exile) were one way of accomplishing this, but attempting to avenge every crime takes up a lot of resources. It is far more efficient to have the people police themselves. Hence the rise of “The Law” (e.g. the Torah) as a set of rules that not only lay out those practices that will (if discovered) result in immediate stoning, but a set of rules you ought to follow in order to be righteous and deserving in the eyes of the gods (or god).

Religion, therefore, could be quite useful in inculcating forward-thinking behavior among those who were less inclined to it; in regularizing people’s expectations of one another; in encouraging solidarity and socially-beneficial self-sacrifice in time of war; in wealth redistribution.

Unfortunately, religion could also put at the service of all the bad motives of those in charge, as well. And it could become the vehicle through which the mania of an individual or a small group could be given the force of an entire society.

Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses. But it is much, much more than that: it is the hallucinogen of the masses, its stimulant and sedative. Actually drugs are probably too limiting a metaphor: Religion is a mechanism through which the play of reason and instinctive impulses in a large and disparate population can be affected to create outcomes we would not otherwise expect.

Dawkins, no doubt, has plenty of reason to hate religion, but I think this is one that he hasn’t openly acknowledged. Religion is to be hated because it throws into high relief the limitations of his own field of study: biology. The virus (or meme) explanation for religion is more or less his white flag. Religion makes it obvious that culture creates forms that are too complex and distinct to explain easily in terms of biology, much as biology creates forms that are too complex and distinct to easily explain in terms of chemistry. Since he is unwilling to admit the limitations of his explanatory tools, Dawkins’ only recourse is to the mythological: memes.

But I digress.

One of the things that will no doubt be pointed out is that I have dealt with religion and morality in a very non-personal way—from the perspective of a putative social entity. I take this tack because I think that it is in its social role that I feel religion is primarily important in our world. Religion as a truly and deeply held belief system with all the attendant consolations is important, but, I would argue, for a relative few.

More important is religions role in structuring society and helping create a certain kind of social imaginary. For most people religion is important less on a personal basis but rather on a basis of the fact that it helps create predictable interactions with others. It is less important that I actually believe in a resurrected Christ than it is that I believe that others believe (or at least others will behave much as I do) and that the socially prevalent version of Christianity (which may have little to do with textual Christianity) will serve as a rough framework guiding most people’s behavior.

It is only for a select few sensitive and discerning souls that the qualities of the religion itself—its poeticism, its ability to capture and express the human situation, its plausibility, whatever—is a great matter of import. Religion is not one’s personal relationship with God. It is one’s personal relationship with the mass. Of course, religious people will vehemently deny this. But remember, these are the same people who claim to believe people like Joe Smith.


Our modern sense of morality developed just as the first great challenge to religious belief arose in our civilization. The Enlightenment was inspired largely by the challenge to custom—religious and other customs—that was presented when Europeans encountered civilizations—both ancient and contemporary--that were coherent, accomplished, even noble, but which had no notion of the western god.

The Good Life apparently was not dependent upon one particular religion. And philosophers began working on ways in which morality could be thought about without recourse to revealed truth. Kant’s categorical imperative is probably the most famous of these efforts: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

The retort “Why should I?” has never been sufficiently answered.

Ultimately, as Kant intimated in his Critique of Judgment these things come down to an aesthetic judgment on the part of the agent, and that judgment probably comes down to certain inherent capacities we have as well as “talk shows, novels, newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents.” But the final outcome of our individual moral judgments ends up being highly contingent, not universal. And even if they were, there is no universal police force enforcing the secular universal law, and the temptation to be a free rider on this moral system is obvious—“let everyone else embody universal law, I will look to myself” would appear to be a highly profitable strategy in a Kantian society. Thus we have the moral crisis depicted in so much literature created in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Secularism brought Raskolnikov onto the readily imagined horizon of possibilities. It doesn’t matter that there will never be many Raskolnikovs in any readily conceivable society, it is the fact that such a man is easily imagined is the key factor.

Now, instead of imagining a moral order shaped by a common, sometimes deeply sincere, sometimes hypocritical belief in religion and religious morality, I imagine a world of moral free agents all susceptible to the same temptation toward low-consequence free-riding as myself. In such a situation defection—acting selfishly rather than morally—seems a more reasonable course.

I should note here that the two social imaginaries I have depicted here—one of Christian regularity; one of moral free agents—always co-existed in Western societies. The key factor is the balance, the relative strength of the two visions. And religion, so far, has been an important factor in managing that balance.

We cannot just rely on our innate empathy to see us through this one, because there are (at least equally strong) innate impulses pulling in other directions. We can’t relay on pure reason, either, because a) the moral reasoning vs. amore-propre is always a bad bet from a social perspective; and b) because reason will probably tell us to defect more often than any society can live with.

We have to create social structures and well-accepted guarantors of social reciprocity in order to encourage what we would call morally acceptable behavior and social stability. And it is only through stability that the billions of people who inhabit this earth will have any hope of the good life at all.

The question for activist atheists is what those social structures will look like in the absence of religion. Atheists have to stop thinking about religion as if it were a way of explaining the world the way science is, or as if it were a leach that must be pried from the skin of our culture. It is a social structure with functions. Functions that must operate within the moral universes of illiterate peasants as well as for clever college undergraduates.

Religion is here and has been here for reasons. Whatever its origin, religion has come to serve important functions within human societies. Otherwise it would not be as widely practiced as it is and we wouldn’t currently be arguing about whether it is time to jettison it.

I am personally all for moving forward to a post-religious future. I just think we ought to have a cold honest look at what religion is and how it works before we do that. So far, none of the new atheists has gotten very far in doing that.

* [note 1] Andrew Brown on Dawkins’ birth: The good fairy gave [Dawkins] good looks, intelligence, charm, and a chair at Oxford specially endowed for him. The bad fairy studied him for a while and said: `Give him a gift for metaphor.'

* [note 2] I’d very much like to extend the discussion of morality and religion backwards to more “primitive” religions and lifestyles, but I am not prepared to do so at present. My supposition is that early religion did much the same thing—encouraged self-surveillance—for somewhat simpler groups. I think there are more powerful influences at work in early religion, like fear of mortality. But not the subject for here and now.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cultural Relativism

Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite
--Richard Dawkins

As a bit of background: years ago I was a graduate student in a pretty high-flying humanities department (by high-flying, I mean there was a LOT of theory, theorists and theoretical blather of varying degrees of intellectual rigor). So cultural relativism is something that I know about first hand. The more extreme version Richard Dawkins argues against in River Out of Eden I have encountered (and argued against), as well.
For a long time I've been dissatisfied with Dawkins's line here--there is something willfully oversimple in it, something reminiscent of the kind of anti-intellectualism Dawkins usually decries. Anyhow, here's the whole passage:
It is often thought clever to say science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norsemen their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth--that the moon is about a quarter million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth--is no more true than the tribe’s calabash? "Yes," the anthropologist said. "We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. Neither way is more true than the other." 

Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. [Obviously this was written before 911 returned a strong element of the mythical to commercial air travel.] Airplanes built to tribal and mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't. [But what of Deadalus?] If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there--the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field--is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the earth a quarter million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

Dawkins' note: I must stress that [this argument] is aimed strictly at people who think like my colleague of the calabash. There are others who, confusingly, also call themselves cultural relativists although their views are completely different and perfectly sensible. To them, cultural relativism just means that you cannot understand a culture if you try to interpret its beliefs in terms of your own culture. You have to see each culture's belief in the context of the culture's other beliefs. [But of course, in spite of the sensibleness of this form of cultural relativism, Dawkins finds himself unable to manage it.]

There are loads of questions begged by this little story of Dawkins', and they all go back to the fact that he is a lousy philosopher, and an even worse practitioner of social critique.
For one thing the calabash just out of reach story is implausibly stupid. No one would actually believe that the calabash was just above the treetops. For the simple reason that, climbing to the treetops, as some in this tribe would no doubt be able to do, the tribespeople would find that the moon still seems far away. How far away? Farther than just out of reach.
And, as someone who has made these arguments in graduate school literary theory classes, in the presence of "cultural relativist" anthropologists, I can guarantee you Dawkins colleague answered his question in nothing like the direct manner he portrays for us. The relativist colleague who says Western notions of the moon are no more "true" than tribal ones is probably operating with a vastly different notion of what "true" means than Dawkins is, and before giving anything like a positive answer would have expatiated at quite some length about those differences. A particularly daring relativist might have said something like " Yes . . ." and continued on for several paragraphs letting you know precisely what was meant by yes.
Some readers may be now comparing me to Bill Clinton in his famous parsing of the meaning of "is." But that's far from the case, there is a big, important discourse on what truth is and how we can come to know it--it's called epistemology, and practically every great philosopher you care to think of has made some contribution to it. This discourse has been driven by the challenges that arise out of cultural difference--the conflicts between reason and faith, between faith and classical learning, between faith and science, between our values and those of other cultures.
When Andrew Brown says that scientists are "bad philosophers" part of what he means is that they are fairly unschooled about this literature, and fairly naive in speaking about truth: they only know their own notion of it, and they judge everyone else's notion of truth only by their own standards.
As Dawkins does here.
How would entertaining a different notion of truth change how we think about Dawkins's story?
One might, for instance, try to imagine what significance the scientifically correct information about the moon would have in the calabash society. They probably have no conception whatsoever of the distances involved, a half-million miles would mean absolutely nothing to them. Their knowledge of math might be minimal. The notion that the moon is a big rock would be mere trivia, even if they believed it, because they have no prospect of using that knowledge in any way. So Dawkins's facts about the moon might be accurate, but they wouldn't be "truths" in the society in question, because they have no use whatsoever for these facts.
But they might have use for the moon as metaphor, or as a celestial entity having impact on everyone's life or whatever social uses we might think up.
The calabash notion of the moon does not "work" to get these folks to the moon, but no notion of the moon is going to do that for them. Going to the moon is a function of a whole host of social and cultural structures; it isn't just a function of a scientifically appropriate notion of the moon.
But that's not the only work the moon can do, which seems to be a significant blind spot in Dawkins own point of view.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Dawkins' God

PZ Myers has become one of Richard Dawkins' champions in the whole religion dust-up. Here he jumps into a pretty dull and pointless exchange between Orr and Dawkins-defender Daniel Dennett:

H. Allen Orr and Daniel Dennett are tearing into each other something fierce over at Edge, and it's all over Orr's dismissive review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. It's a bit splintery and sharp, but the core of Orr's complaint, I think, is that he's unimpressed with Dawkins' 'Ultimate 747' argument, which is basically that postulating an immensely complicated being to explain the creation of an immensely complicated universe doesn't actually explain anything and is self-refuting — if you need an intelligent superbeing to create anything complex, then the superbeing itself is an even greater problem for your explanation

Orr: Dawkins clearly believes his argument is much more than this [more than a parody]: it's a demonstration that God almost certainly doesn't exist. Can Dennett really believe that some facile argument about the probability of correctly assembling all of God's parts by chance alone is anything of the kind? Does he really believe that God is (necessarily) complex in the same way as the universe, just more so?

I think Orr is looking at it in the wrong way, and part of his problem is a failure to define the god he is talking about. If we are talking about something that is not necessarily complex like the universe, that is basic and fundamental and that we derive in some way from something as essential as the laws of existence, then we are not addressing the existence of the god worshiped by almost any religion in existence. Sure, we could equate "god" with simplicity, but that's Einstein's or Spinoza's god, which are not a problem. Dawkins clearly lays out his terms and states his position:

Dawkins: Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles
Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.

Dawkins explicitly divorces his argument from the idea of god as impersonal primal force, which the 'Ultimate 747' argument does not address, and instead focuses on the kind of god-concept we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis in the real world — not the abstraction of theologians, but the capricious, vindictive, meddling magic man of the churches and the weekly prayer meetings and the televangelists.
The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.
I wouldn't go so far as to call it treason, but it certainly is intellectual foolishness. I like Orr's work, I usually greatly enjoy his reviews, but I think in this case he is, perhaps unconsciously rather than deliberately, confusing the pantheistic cosmic force he is unnecessarily defending from Dawkins' argument with the righteous anthropomorphic bastard that is actually refuted.
And yes, I know it is the nature of religion that everyone who believes will automatically state that their god sure isn't the complicated caricature of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran and will retreat to the safety of the Ineffable (but Simple) Cosmic Muffin until the bad ol' atheist is out of sight, and then they will pray to Fickle Magic Man for the new raise or that their favorite football team will win, and they will wonder if Righteous Bastard will torture them for eternity if they masturbate. Until that atheist glances their way again … then once more, God is Love, can't get much simpler than that, man, your arguments against that silly version can't touch my faith. It's familiar territory. Get into an argument with someone over Christianity or Islam or any of these dominant faiths, and you'll see them flicker back and forth between the abstract and the real god of their religion — their only defense is to present a moving target.
I think Orr would be better served by putting up a clear statement of what god he is defending, rather than shuttling back and forth. I suspect that if he did so, he'd either find himself agreeing with Dawkins, or finding his choice of god bedeviled with a very pointed criticism, one he can't dismiss so easily.

Myers' sycophants, as usual, have nothing but praise for anything that seems to be hostile to religion, but his post doesn't make any points at all.

1. On the complexity of God. First off, this is a pretty stupid argument over a pretty stupid argument (Dawkins Ultimate 747), but even arguing over a completely artificial issue, Myers leaves everything hanging. Does he really think that God, as described in the Old Testament, say, is more complex than the entire known (and unknown) universe? Does he believe that people who believe in God MUST believe their Gods to be as Myers or Dawkins takes their God to be depicted in scripture? Does Myers believe that an argument that is ineffective against an "impersonal primal force" can possibly be effective against a personal God? How? Does Myers honestly believe that the only alternative to some uber-complex God is Einstein's God (which is no God at all, really)? Does Myers believe that he (or Dawkins) knows what "the kind of god-concept we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis in the real world" actually is? I wonder if we can have a detailed description with sources (not religious texts, sociological research) cited, because Dawkins God does start to look suspiciously like "the stupid, cruel, impossible God Dawkins and Myers would have you believe in, as it makes it easier for them to argue against you." Does Myers believe that a relatively complex thing cannot emerge from a relatively (not absolutely!) simple thing?

Myers seems so utterly out of his depth in this argument it isn't even funny. He seems completely oblivious to any arguments Orr makes, but most especially to the fact that Dawkins has a real problem defining the God and the religion he's talking about, and that treating religion scientifically means your research agenda has to extend beyond finding outrageous quotes from fundamentalists. Even people who revere the source of an outrageous statement DO NOT NECESSARILY BELIEVE THE STATEMENT in a simple, direct and obvious sort of way. And what are we going to say about the folks who don't revere the particular source of outrageous commentary? Western Christianity, for instance, has largely become an a la carte affair. In fact, most religions may have always been more or less a la carte affairs. Figuring out what God is and how religion works is complicated work that extends far beyond finding out where people stand on certain hot-button doctrinal issues.

This is the kind of lesson that people studying cultural phenomenon have long since learned but which has apparently not quite penetrated into certain scientific discourses.

2. On what God we're arguing about. The big question is not what God Orr thinks he's talking about, the question is what God Dawkins thinks he is arguing about. We know it is not the deists' God (though I don't see why not) and it's not the pantheists' God (ditto) and it's not Einstein's God (I know why not here: Einstein didn't believe in God, he believed in high-sounding rhetoric). But what God is he talking about?

I don't think he can just say "the Bible God" or "the Koran God," because I've read the bible, and what God is exactly isn't particularly clear to me--sometimes he just seems like some cranky old guy with supernatural powers, sometimes he seems like something else. And if you ask people what they think God is--that is the God we have to deal with on an everyday basis--what you get is a lot of different kind of answers, and none of them are mind-blowingly complex.

The whole complexity issue seems to me AT BEST no better than the old Carl Sagan argument: if you ask "Where did the universe come from" and you answer "God," the logical next question is "where did God come from," and we know even less about how to answer that. At worst it is a red herring that does nothing but prove clever-looking but stupid arguments aren't the sole province of creationists.

The issue here isn't that Orr doesn't limit himself to the same God that Dawkins does, it is that Dawkins wants to choose the argument of his opposition as well as his own. If Dawkins wants to disprove that God exists (yawn) and to demonstrate that religion is useless and, in fact, pernicious--all stated aims of the book--then he has to argue against God as he is believed in and religion as it exists and functions in real people's lives. He doesn't get to choose the easiest God and the easiest religion to argue against.

The question is what does Dawkins think "God and religion as they are believed in/function" is? And does it have much basis in reality? Or is it a radically incomplete and distorted vision?

Orr has not written a book about God, so it isn't up to him to define what the God under discussion actually IS (rather than is not). My impression is that his notion of the God to be reckoned with falls somewhere between deism and brain-dead literalism. My feeling is that Dawkins' notion of religion and God are what he imagines a brain-dead literalist must believe and that his book is essentially an extended argument between Dawkins and Dawkins conveniently limited image of his enemy.

This just isn't particularly interesting. Which is essentially Orr's point.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sticky ideas

Made to Stick has just come out, a book inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. Rather than dealing with idea/diseases on a theoretical level like Tipping Point, Made to Stick tries to develop a practical guide to effective communication using Gladwell's principles.

I have to admit, my response to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point writings--and his writings more generally--is that Mr. Gladwell is not much of a thinker.

Gladwell reminds me of some of the folks I went to grad school with, who were great at throwing together plausible sounding ideas from all over the damn place and drawing startling conclusions without stopping to wonder whether a) those inspiring ideas were actually right, as opposed to interesting; and b) whether those ideas actually went together the way they thought.

Gladwell starting off with the identification of ideas as viruses immediately loses me. There are, of course, analogies to be made between ideas and diseases. Before mass communication, ideas were spread person to person (word of mouth), just like a lot of diseases. Other diseases spread through vectors that touch a lot of people's lives, like water sources. And some ideas spread through such vectors: newspapers and television. So we'd expect a "catchy" idea and a virulent disease to have similar looking patterns of propagation.

But that doesn't mean that ideas are themselves anything like viruses, or that the analogy can be pushed any farther than this.

One big difference most would immediately point out is volition: we can pick and choose ideas we wish to propagate or condemn or ignore. Not necessarily that we always so choose--we may involuntarily store and pass along certain ideas with certain "catchy" qualities, but our purposes play a role, and an important one in the big picture of what gets spread and what doesn't.

This isn't the case with diseases. You don't choose smallpox over cholera because you're more of a smallpox person.

The difference between someone like me and someone like Gladwell in explaining an idea is that he looks first to some quality of the idea to explain why it spreads. I'd look to the motives of the people. These are themselves essentially ideas, I realize.

For me, though, the system of ideas is incredibly complex, and there is absolutely no point in claiming we can look at a particular idea or expression and pass anything like absolute judgement on its "virulence." What would help an idea in one culture will kill it in another. What will help in one year will kill it in another.

Subtracting that complexity--what I call (admittedly shorthandedly) "volition"--is essentially to give up on the task of explaining why and how ideas spread before you start. Starting with "idea as disease" as your central metaphor is like explaining the weather by starting with the "storm system as brick" metaphor. In some ways a storm system is like a brick--it is a physical entity, it can travel through the air from place to place, you can get hit by one much as you would get hit by a brick. But nearly everything that's important about storms, their movement and behavior is entirely unbrick-like. And the differences are all in the direction of greater complexity and less predictability.

Just look at fashion. Are there general principles that can scientifically be applied that will cause a garment to succeed without fail? Not that I've heard about. And those people who are able to produce successful collections year after year are more than anything keen observers of the tenor of the times, rather than observers of general principles.

For this reason, when people begin to look for the general principles of "what makes and idea stick" or "what makes for success" what we usually get are reworkings of well-known rules of thumb, as one Amazon reviewer notes about "Made to Stick," or Polonian absurdities, like E.O. Wilson's formulas for literary success.

The successful venture in this field will not start with the notion that we've just got to find some common virulence factors in ideas themselves. It'll start with a theory of human socialization, as ideas are nothing but a currency between humans, NOT parasitic entities.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Heard public radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge yesterday. Yet more apologia for literary theft and dishonesty! There's been a lot of stir about plagiarism of late, and it's really rather stupefying to see how much niggling and bad faith has been said and written in defense of what is euphemistically called "borrowing" (or in the case of Jonathan Lethem "good plagiarism").

I think it'd be instructive to have a quick look at the two high profile cases that have hit the news of late, Bob Dylan's "borrowings" from Henry Timrod, a civil-war-era poet; and Ian McEwen's "borrowing" from
Lucilla Andrews.

(from the New York Times, full article here)

(passages "borrowed" from
the Mail on Sunday)

No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews

Our "nursing" seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.

... the life-size dolls on which decades of young Nightingale nurses had learnt to blanket bath. Mrs Mackintosh, Lady Chase and George, a baby boy of convenient physique to allow him to double as a baby girl. In the absence of an adult male doll, the technique for blanket-bathing men was explained with ambiguous exactitude. At a precise point after the second change of washing water, the freshly soaped "back" flannel and "back" towel were to be handed the patient with the words, "I am sure you would like to finish yourself off now, Mr Blank, whilst I fetch your mouthwash."

"Six days we had of it. We'd start building a runway in this field, see, but before we'd half the job done, along comes Jerry dropping his load, so we moved back, starts another in another field and back comes Jerry. We got shoved so far back we run out of fields, and seeing as you can't build runways on the sea, here we are.

We counted them together as I removed them with forceps.

The deepest and largest was in his right thigh. It looked small until I began to take it out. It measured just under five inches and at its widest, half an inch. When all were out I nearly had to use force to get him to swallow an ounce of stock brandy. "It is you that should be having this, nurse, not me." In the few scribbled notes I made that night, I added, "I didn't dare tell him I'd thrown up in the scullery before getting his brandy ... When I tugged out that big one he hung on to the bedhead so hard his knuckles were white but he didn't make a sound until I got it out ...

"Bit sort of tight. Could you loosen it?" ... Then as I did not think it would do any damage to loosen the gauze bows, I let go of his hand, stood up, undid the first and, as the sterile towel beneath slid off and jerked aside the towel above, very nearly fainted on his bed. The right half of his face and some of his head was missing. I had consciously to fight down waves of nausea and swallow bile, wait until my hands stopped shaking and dry them on my back before I could retie the bow... [After he dies in her arms, a Sister says to her] "Go and wash that blood off your face and neck, at once, girl!

It'll upset the patients."

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise.

But mostly she was a maid ...

... practising blanket baths on life-size models Mrs Mackintosh, Lady Chase, and baby George whose blandly impaired physique allowed him to double as a baby girl ... [Sister Drummond] was always there ... murmuring in her ear that she had failed to pay attention during preliminary training to the correct procedures for blanket-bathing male patients: only after the second change of washing water should the freshly soaped back flannel and back towel be passed to the patient so that he could "finish off for himself." "We'd get going on the job, then Jerry comes over and dumps his load. We drops back, starts all over in another field, then it's Jerry again and we're falling back again. Till we fell into the sea." "Let's count them up together, shall we? ... When it's over I'll bring you a measure of brandy." He sweated, his whole body shook, and his knuckles turned white round the iron bedhead, but he did not make a sound ... She slipped away to get his brandy, and stopped in the sluice to be sick.

"These bandages are so tight. Will you loosen them for me a little?" She stood and peered down at his head. The gauze bows were tied for easy release ... She was not intending to remove the gauze, but as she loosened it, the heavy sterile towel beneath it slid away, taking a part of the bloodied dressing with it. The side of Luc's head was missing ... She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass ... fixed the gauze and retied the bows ... The Sister straightened Briony's collar. "There's a good girl. Now go and wash the blood from your face. We don't want the other patients upset."

Authors and fans are coming to the defense of this borrowing or apporporiation or whatever you want to call it by telling us that "this is part of the folk process," or "research is essential to novel writing" or "The myth of originality? There's no such thing."

But frankly, that's all rubbish. Deeply dishonest rubbish.

McEwen, to his credit, did cite Andrews' book in an afterword, but this sort of "borrowing"--closely following passages in the original work, often adding very little of his own--merits more than a mere citation: he should have acknowledged relying heavily on passages from her book in particular portions of his.

Dylan, on the other hand does nothing whatsoever to acknowledge where and when he adapts the work of others into his own. The liner notes do nothing but trumpet his own creativity "All songs written by Bob Dylan." Not a word about Henry Timrod. At the very least, if Timrod is good enough to inspire the mighty Dylan, he ought to be good enough for a recommendation?

And why don't these writers tell us where they "borrow"? Because they are interested precisely in maintaining the illusion that they are fonts of pure creativity. That their originality is, if not quite superhuman, at least far out of the reach of your typical fan or reader.

No one is interested in STOPPING borrowing. It has, of course, always been the case that authors borrow. But authors aren't valorized in our culture for clever borrowing. They are valorized for creativity. And if "originality" doesn't exist, then say so. Stop trying to make a buck and foster the illusion by keeping things ambiguous: if you borrow, let us know in a graciously composed side note.

You don't need footnotes, just something like, "Much of the material regarding field nursing in this book relies heavily on No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews, a memoir of the era that I highly recommend to interested readers blah blah."

Or, "Several of the songs on Modern Times owe a debt to the work of the Civil-War poet Henry Timrod, whose Collected Poems are published by blah blah"

That's how you acknowledge and repay a literary debt. Anything less and you are essentially a rip-off artist, trading on the fact that for most of the public "originality" is far from dead. Though "truth" and "graciousness" might well be dead amongst authors.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On belief

I am not a believer. Not in anything. Or at least not in a whole lot. I don't think.

I don't believe in God. I don't believe in memes. I don't believe the study of nature will reveal anything deeply significant for us--no "universal acid" to be used on every problem or field of inquiry, no evidence of the hand of some designer, no "ultimate meaning," no "key to the universe."

I just don't believe the universe exists to provide us with comfort or closure.

This puts me at odds not just with the religious, but also with the fervently anti-religious. People like Daniel Dennet think Darwinism is the "universal acid," a set of concepts that can be applied to practically anything. To me, the drive to believe this, or anything like it is fundamentally religious in nature. Especially when there is so little evidence that the "universal acid" theory is true. Richard Dawkins has a similar pet theory: memes. Memes are essentially ideas that we pass around. The purpose of memes is to explain cultural phenomena in the same language as is used to explain the rise and development of biological traits. In short, to make biology the "key" to explaining practically everything that we really care very much about.

But why believe in memes? It isn't as if "ideas" and "trends" (perfectly good words, those) are something Richard Dawkins discovered and had to give a name to. Ideas and trends and their many permutation have been a topic of discussion at least since we developed the ability to record discussions. Dawkins is, naturally enough, largely ignorant of the work of dozens of very, very smart people who have been wondering and arguing how ideas and trends spread and why. These range from philosophers to revolutionary (and non-revolutionary) Marxists to marketing men. And here we get to the heart of the meme business: it allows a person like Richard Dawkins, who essentially nows nothing about ideas, ideology, sociology, etc. to speak knowingly about them because he's reduced all of these things to a function of something he does know about: genetics and natural selection.

The only trouble being that there is no reason to do that. Unless you are inspired by faith in natural selection's universal applicability.

I'm not. Natural selection obviously works very well in explaining the diversity and seeming design we see in nature. It probably can explain or help explain or create models for a fair number of other things as well. But it probably has it's very distinct limits.

Richard Dawkins certainly does.

Dawkins' latest book (The God Delusion) is in some ways welcome. It really is long past time atheists were forthright in their non-belief and properly skeptical of the beliefs of others. "Properly" being a) when confronted with those beliefs in a manner requiring a response; or b) when those beliefs interfere with the interests of others. "Properly" is NOT tirelessly ferreting out absurd beliefs, refuting them and ridiculing them.

The spirit of Dawkins' book often runs beyond what I'd say is proper. But this is more or less a matter of taste and political tactics, not truth.

Dawkins does have his problems with truth, though, too. The God Delusion serves several purposes. One is to stiffen secularist resolve against the ongoing resurgence of religiosity in public life. Another is to factually and logically provide a refutation of God's existence, for those who might be wavering between tradition and reason. And so far, so good. A book that did these things would not be an intellectual triumph (the ground has been gone over quite a bit) but it would be a service.

But The God Delusion also tries to do a few other things. One is to prove that religion is pernicious. Another is to prove that it serves no useful purpose. And here, I think, Dawkins consistently proves himself either ignorant or intellectually dishonest.

Whether religion is good or bad on the whole is to me an open question. I'd like to think that we can do better without it, but I don't know.

If Dawkins had a well-thought-out starting point in this part of the book, he'd have been much better off. Dawkins seems to believe that religion performs essentially the same sort of role as does science: answering questions, solving mysteries and providing us with tools to manipulate our environment.

Some careful thinking would have shown him that to construct religion this way is simply to provide himself with the most easily defeated enemy he can imagine. Conceived of in this way, science is the successor to religion and religion has no further excuse for existence now that science has come along.

This is a fundamental error, and one which Dawkins has long been prey to. Dawkins' famous quip that Darwin made it possible to be "an intellectually satisfied atheist," which is usually cited by scandalized believers, actually speaks loudly of Dawkins' need for explanations. If science had not provided an alternative explanation, Dawkins would probably be a fervent theist, because a designer would then be, in his judgment, the most viable remaining explanation for what we see in nature.

Dawkins' basic problem is that he conflates religion and science--he cannot imagine any other motive for religion than a scientific one; and seemingly he can't imagine a science that is not evangelistic, universal, intolerant and imperialistic like Christianity has, by and large, proved itself to be.

But most people aren't like Dawkins. (A bit of observation might have told him this!) Most people don't care that much about thunder, and they don't require sets of belief, rituals, sacrifice and all the obligations and strictures that go along with even primitive religion just to have an explanation for it.

Just as a for instance: today, we have a scientific explanation for thunder. How many people know it? Or care to know it? It just doesn't matter. The sort of curiosity that drives science is actually relatively uncommon, and the extent to which religion has sought to satisfy that sort of curiosity over the millennia is a reflection of opportunism amongst religious authorities, not of the essence of religion itself.

To explain why people believe, we need to make reference to an experience that everyone feels quite powerfully and which religion, from its very outset, is obviously structured to accommodate: loss and the fear of death.

Every one of us will die, along with everyone we love and admire. And chances are in a few decades you won't be remembered by anyone. Though maybe our genes will be out there somewhere in some essentially random combination with those of other people.

This is a deeply disturbing thought to most people. Most people think their lives ought to be remembered. That their deeds should count for something, that they should be regarded and rewarded by someone. And who else can do this but God?

With God we work to change our live from "one damn thing after another" to a story with an end--an end as in a purpose rather than an end as in "full stop." And a story requires not just a universal author, but a universal and eternal reader.

Religion exists because our self-regard (and our feeling for those close to us) demands some kind of meaning to our existences. And religion has NOT been the only attempt to provide this meaning: science & the myth of progress is a meaning-giving story; as are some versions of aestheticism, humanitarianism, tribalism, political extremism--all of these are to some extent attempts by people to imbue their lives with meaning, with a narrative shape that life, in all honesty, does not have in itself.

And this is something that's been talked about quite a bit already: that conversation is called existentialism, and near as I can tell Dawkins knows nothing of it.

One of the questions brought up in these conversations is whether or not man, by his nature, needs the sort of meaning provision provided by religion. That wouldn't mean that everyone is naturally theistic. It would mean that in a world of several billion people, a fair majority of them would be liable to believe in god unless provided with some other meaning provision system--barely plausible (that's all it has to be, really) literary egotism, say.

Enough for now, more on this later . . .

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More on the religion debate

H. Allen Orr, a real, live working biologist who can also think and write well (Boston Review, New York Review of Books, New Yorker) has a review of Dawkins' God Delusion in the current NYRB.

It's a solid piece, but I can't help being somewhat disappointed by it. It makes a lot of valuable points, but I don't think it takes Dawkins on as strongly as the case merits, and it doesn't do much to point the way forward as to what might be a better way for science to engage with religion.

In my opinion, Dawkins' recent book as well as his recent work on inanities like memes merits a full-on challenge to his intellectual seriousness and his appropriateness for his position as public spokesman for science. The sad fact is, as Terry Eagleton pointed out in his review of The God Delusion, that Dawkins looks a looks a lot like proponents of Intelligent Design in this work: uninformed about the basics of the fields he's working in (sociology, psychology, theology, pop culture) but with a strong agenda behind him (condemning all religion; reducing culture to a function of biology).

The point of much of Dawkins recent writing seems less to enlighten or even to sway his opponents. It seems to be written to rally the troops provide (disingenuous) talking points. In short, Dawkins has been writing a low sort of propaganda.

Orr more or less makes this clear to us, but he doesn't lay into Dawkins quite as vigorously as he ought to. This may be in part a political move: Perhaps Orr doesn't want to make enemies with Dawkins as he has with others in the Dawkins camp like Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett.

What with Dawkins writing propaganda and Orr playing politics, it should be crystal clear to us that this is nothing but a political dispute, not a scientific one.

The trouble is that some of the folks involved in this deeply political discussion, making deeply political statements, have little esteem for or skill at politics. One can contrast Dawkins' book, which essentially calls for science to take on a series of battles where it has nothing whatsoever to win, with Stephen Jay Gould's earlier Rocks of Ages.

While, as Orr pointed out at the time, there are some problems with Gould's idea that science and religion have "non-overlapping magesteria," his basic idea--that science should continue doing what it does best and leave to religion those things--like morality ("ought" questions) and meaning provision--that science has nothing to say about anyway--would be a brilliant diplomatic move. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that Caesar says he can have," was Orr's complaining summary.

What Orr didn't realize was that this lopsided deal was precisely the point. Gould was advising science to make conciliatory sounds, grant to religion those things that science can only speculate about anyway, and keep everything that's important.

Later when reviewing Dawkins' book of essays, The Devil's Chaplain, (which employs many of the same arguments later used in the God Delusion) Orr began to reconsider Gould's solution in contrast to the indiscriminant pugilism of Dawkins.

Orr's pithiest assessment of Dawkins' recent effort: "Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case."

Unfortunately, the scientific blogosphere, which is often as self-congratulatory and unthinking as the partisan political blogosphere, has been doing all it can to defend Dawkins.

The main argumentative strategy seems to be to behave as if Dawkins has only one point in his book--There is no God--and that all quibbles go to this point. In fact, Dawkins tries to do a lot of other things in The God Delusion. After all, what's the use of a book that refutes what is essentially an insupportable proposition?

Dawkins also tries to assess religion in the world (Is it good or bad?; What's it good for?; What bad has it done?), and to explain it (where did it come from? Why does it persist?). These later questions are the interesting ones, and here his effort to answer them is severely lacking from a number of different points of view.

Orr's review is coming under a lot of attack at scienceblogs because he has dared to attack the master, but Terry Eagleton has probably been the main whipping boy.

Eagleton is actually a very clever fellow, and a fairly judicious reviewer. But he's Catholic--I don't know if he believes (my bet is yes)--but he's Catholic to the core. A very sophisticated Catholic, though.

But, the way to read Eagleton's review is not to wonder about whether or not he believes in God or whether he is making a case for the existence of God. That's just not particularly interesting.

What is interesting is how Eagleton answers the other questions "Why do we believe?" (as most of us do); "What good does it do us?"; "What good does it do society?"; "What's the relationship between religion and fellow feeling?"

These are interesting questions that Dawkins has no good answers to. Eagleton's got some good ideas, though. And it is here that we begin to see the failings of Dawkins' book. He once again, uselessly, proves to everyone who already disbelieves that God doesn't exist. And he has no good explanation of why so many should continue to believe in spite of all the evidence.

Even David Lodge does a comparatively good job on this topic in his novel Thinks:
Some of Darwin's closest associates, for instance, whored after spiritualism . . . Wallace, Galton, Romanes, they all went to seances, consulted mediums . . . as if having destroyed the credibility of the Christian religion they were desperate to find some substitute for the Christian heaven . . . .One has to remember there was alot of death about in those days, much more than now, ordinary childhood illnesses could be fatal, childbirth, too . . . it wasn't so much a desire for their own immortality that led Galton and Co. to spiritualism, it was the longing to meet their dead loved ones again, especially if they died young . . . .
Does God exist is just NOT an interesting question. Dawkins success in answering this question is about as exciting as a demonstration that air does exist. The real question is, why does religion exist in spite of God's absence? Dawkins has little to tell us, and that's too bad, because there is little reason other than self-congratulation to read such a book as this.