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.