Friday, December 02, 2005

BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | When science meets God

Interestingly, Winston argues that the longevity and ubiquity of the idea of God is not an argument for God's existence. Quite right.

Of course, the varieties of religious belief is real, and should and has been the object of study for about two centuries. However, Winston is very slippery: "No, I'm not arguing about the existence of God; I'm just talking about the endurance of the Idea of God." OK, fine. Many secular scientists have studied just that. What exactly does Winston have to share if not "a personal account of my own struggles with God [written as though He exists, of course], and an impression of how I continue to attempt to resolve that conflict[.]"

I think the slipperiness is not at all consciously, let alone "maliciously," intended. The confusion here is real, and it is not only Winston's, and it, too, deserves serious study.

It derives from what Winston rightly noted: science does not give us certainty.

My question is, why do so many people _need_ certainty?

Uncertain people tend not to lauch crusades, burn people in ovens, or fly planes into skyscrapers. (Religion is a type of ideology; hence the inclusion of Nazism, which is not meant to "shock the burgoisie" but only to make a point. If you don't like that, put in Stalin's gulags.)

I think learning to live with and within the limits of verifiable knowledge and warranted inference, both epistemological and moral, would do a world of good.

But, as Winston shows, the lure of certainty is too much a Siren for, apparently, most people.

Too bad that the lust for the security blanket of certainty, which is not given to us mortals, is likely to founder at least our civilization, if not our species, on the rocks well before its time.

4 Thoughts:

Blogger Kyahgirl said...

Doug, I'm interested in your last statement. Do you think its the religious people who are lusting for 'certainty' and thus driving us to ruin? Please expand.

Friday, December 02, 2005 1:45:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Kyahgirl:

Nope; I mean really anyone who adheres to any rigid ideology, religions (if they are doctrinally rigid or practitioners who like things strict and orderly foist that upon the religion -- or both) being only a subset of ideology.

It's not really "religion vs. non-religion," but rather "a worldview that encompasses doubt and reacts to verifiable knowledge when it comes up" vs. "any ideology that advertises that or acts as though it has all the answers."

I'm more concerned with why folks seem unable to handle doubt, or a lack of certainty. I do think that discomfort with or fear of doubt underlies many a person's religious belief, but I'm sure it also underlies many a hardcore Marxist's or atheist-neocon's or any other nonreligious ideologue's belief, too.

The key here is epistemological. How do you know what you know; how do you know you know it; by what criteria do you decide what's real and what's not. You know, the thorny old questions. Between the digital options of (1) a relativist whirlwind of competing power structures with no connection to anything really real (a la Foucault); and (2) a fundamentalist, literalist belief in some ideology that gives all the answers, by holy writ or otherwise, lies a whole analog splay of options, I should think.

There are two kinds of people: those who see only two binary options and those who don't. ;)

In other words, the psychological fear of doubt is the substrate out of which any of these "comforting" ideologies can grow. Which one takes root is contingent, but it's the psychological substrate I've been thinking about. That substrate is quite widespread, but obviously not impossible to overcome. And I don't think we'll make it as a civilization or even perhaps as a species unless we overcome our fear of doubt.

Ironically, but unsurprisingly, it's often easier to act on real issues, such as global warming, when you don't require the 100% certainty of ideological adherence. 99% will do just fine.

Certainty seems to me to be a totem held up against the even deeper suspicion that in fact we really are not in too much control of events. However, in order to exert what control we can over events -- and we can exert so much positive control over things such as global warming, nuclear proliferation, human health, population overgrowth, et al -- it seems like we need to take our heads out of the sand, throw the totems away, and finally grow up as a species. Because the consequences of remaining wilfully ignorant or sessile in our pre-nuclear past have reached the point at which we could actually blot it all out in about a half hour. We simply can't afford to let ourselves get away with fooling ourselves -- which means, we need to eschew certainty so we can act on high probabilities.

Of course, the terrifying nature of the problems that beset us encourages totem-worship of the kind I'm talking about.

Furthermore, these new terrors are superimposed on what I think fuels much of the fundamentalist reaction -- most of which is religious in nature, although the literal worship of the eternal and eternally good workings of the "free" market, or "market fundamentalism" -- is a reaction against major changes in the conditions of existence over the past 500 years.

Meaning, for short, technoscience, democratic and republican theories, empowerment of women especially, the breakdown of Western colonialism, and surely many things besides.

Much of what passed for the established order of nature and society has gone by the wayside.

That's another way of saying that freedom, so often touted, has indeed increased for many -- or at least the possibility for it has. Pandora's box is open -- there is no good reason why any human being should dominate any other, and an increasing number of people have been realizing this since the notion was invented but only partially applied by some rich French, English, and American landowners a ways back.

Freedom carries responsibility, though, and as Erich Fromm pointed out, most/many want to escape from freedom -- and thus from responsibility. One way to do that is to surrender -- the translation, I think, of "Islam," although I think all monotheistic religions demand surrender -- of one's fate and freedom to a diety. Sure, you get a choice in some versions of the monotheistic religions (no other way to explain evil without that ol' free will that was somehow inexplicably inserted into an omniscient creator's masterwork), but in actual psychological practice, at the very least, once you've given yourself to Jesus, Yahewh, or Allah, you are the instrument, not the player.

Obviously, since the Enlightenment, medieval versions of the monotheisms have grappled with "modernity" -- you could even argue (as many have) that Protestantism was in part a religion more cozily related to the economic needs of the bourgeoisie and the scientific activities that were propagating. So, you get interesting mosaics (no pun intended) of ancient religions and modern sensibilities, which, to me, are really not particularly convincing but rather post facto saving of the "phenomenon."

But as cultural space was opened up through the rapproachment of medieval monotheisms and early-modern and modern societal needs and desires, a cultural space was opened for the "true believers" to occupy. Any psychological, social, or economic dislocation that could be attached to modernity is -- and furthermore, modernity itself is blamed (in a sense, rightly) for the sense of dislocation.

Thus, you have a perpetual motor for breeding fundamentalism, and this is what we see. Over the past 30-40 years, as technological change has continued to accelerate, dislocation has increased proportionally -- and I think the key piece is the increasing liberation of women. Note how much of fundamentalism is concerned with the role of women, family, sexuality, etc. The worldwide liberation of women is just begun, but is increasingly considered a birthright, as it should be. That will inevitably threaten men. Ditto the equilibration (or not) of various "races" and world cultures, except here you also have the basic fact, ignored by the neocons, that dominance is simply impossible. (It actually never was possible, as any cursory reading of history would show, but nevermind.)

Anyway, freedom and security are roughly inversely related. Those who fear true freedom, and not just the bleating of the word while retreating from the reality for which it is a symbol, are quite intent on fixing a star in the sky in order to ward off this psychological fear. And many are willing to kill or die for it.

I find it hiliariously ironic that those who insist upon an absolute standard, usually diety-based, for morality, knowledge, what-have-you, are themselves acting exactly like the power-based relativists they protest against (perhaps a bit too much?). Each of the various groups of humans, sure of their fundamental validity, invent a superhuman standard, for which there is zero evidence (thought they'll fight you to the death on that, without showing a shred of positive evidence, relying instead on the gaps in our knowledge that are probably permanently inescapable becuase we are, after all, mere mortals to whom omniscience is not granted) place that "star" in the "sky," point to it and say, "by this star shall ye steer your boats." And if you question that star, or even the necessity for having one to navigate through life, you are immediately labeled a "relativist," and are a threat.

Who, I ask, is the relativist? The one who twists reality to match a remembrance of ideologies past? The one who insists upon following a creed invented at time when humanity's material culture was not species-threatening and when humanity itself numbered in the tens or hundreds of millions? Or the one who embraces uncertainty and it's handmaiden, prudence, and does what one can to make the world a better place -- based on a wholly human social contract, which is itself based on the pre-Christian, wholly Confucian, and utterly un-supernatural rule that one should do unto others as one would like done to oneself. Simply following that one rule only half the time would improve the material and psychological level of human life immensely. And, ironically, we actually do have the technology to meet all the basic needs of life for all humans.

Thus, my concern is, whence this fear? Since it is that very fear that worldwide fundamentalist movements are based on -- from Bush and the homegrown religious right and neocons to Islamism to Hindu nationalists, and on and on -- understanding its basis seems like a good idea if one wishes to combat it.

I'm sure many folks much brighter than me has written on just this topic -- possibly Wilhelm Reich in his work on fascism, which I haven't read.

Anyway, that's what I've been cogitating upon -- would love to hear all opinions.

Friday, December 02, 2005 5:09:00 PM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

Well first, thanks for 'expanding' on your thoughts. That took a lot of effort. I understand your position much better now. Geez, I even had to pull out my bloody dictionary. You and your big words! :-)

I certainly don't have any arguments to make on this topic, I actually agree with a lot of what you say. I have a few thoughts/opinions to share.

One is, speaking from a scientific perspective, uncertainty is an inherent part of everything. Some people tend to think 'science' is exact and everything is measurable but any good practicing scientist will never forget to put uncertainty estimates on all their measurements. And uncertainties accumulate. You have to be comfortable with that. Somewhat like the idea from quantum physics that by the process of measuring something or looking at it, you change it and thus introduce more uncertainty.

Over the years I've learned to embrace the idea that 'the more I know, the more I know that I don't know.' Its a moving target for sure!

Likewise, there is a lot of uncertainty about 'god' or the spiritual nature of our existence. If people are uncomfortable about that, they should be considering the meaning of 'faith'. Faith is whole big topic on its own.

Your thoughts about the changing role of women in society are interesting. It does seem like an inordinate amount of energy in the world is spent on trying to disempower, subjugate, and in some case eradicate women, doesn't it? I see very exciting times ahead of us as the balance of gender power tries to change in many countries that have, up until now, managed to keep the women under wraps. The world wide web is a huge factor. Its a changing world. I hope we don't destroy it before we see what positive changes happen.

I don't really believe that humans are evolved enough to handle the weapons, technology, etc that we've created. We still act and react based on some fundamental human needs and weaknesses. That may be our downfall for sure.

I liked your comment about how much better the world might be if we all followed the golden rule. Although I consciously chose to leave the Catholic faith and haven't joined another, I do have a spiritual life and believe in some fundamental laws of the universe that could encompass what some would say are religious beliefs. Do unto others is one of them. Another is that of ability to attract things into our lives by wanting it. Somewhat like 'prayer' I do believe that you can make things happen. Its the power behind affirmations, goal setting, visualizing. I've seen it work too many times to doubt it. Unfortunately, it works for evil too.

I don't know if we progressed anywhere with this but it was nice chatting about it anyway.

Have a good weekend.

Friday, December 02, 2005 6:35:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Kyahgirl:

Thanks for your thoughts!

I should also add that it is not only possible but also obviously extant that religious people can and do work for good. In no way would I want to alienate those folks. One of the brilliant notions of those French, English, and American rich landowners was the absolute separation of Church and State, for the good of both. This was based on centuries of pointless religious wars and slaughter in Europe. It's a good idea.

The point, which seems to infuriate fundy-types, is that my metaphysics and yours and everyone else's doesn't really matter in the social sphere. What matters there is right action, whatever its source. I could care less, as I think I told Allen, whether people build houses for the homeless because they think a Jewish carpenter who died 2000 years ago would want them to, or because they believe in the essential dignity of man, or because they believe in a classless society. Who cares? It certainly doesn't matter to the person now housed how the house got there, and the public action of getting the house build is completely unimpeachable.

This, though, is not enough for the fundamentalist. He or she wants your MIND and your SOUL, not your actions. In this respect, totalitarianism is really only the (sometimes religious, sometimes not) epitome of earlier attempts at absolutism. Now we have the technology to make totalitarianism a reality.

I agree that the trend lines of social progress and technological progress are totally out of whack, and that we probably don't have much of a chance to keep republican democracy going much longer. That is usually the fate of what few attempts at this there have been. We might be able to avoid the species-threatening issues, but we might not.

Of course, unlike many, I don't require any faith-based "knowledge" that "it will all be OK" in order to keep working for unfunny peace, love, and understanding. This gets back to my point: very often, the notion that right will triumph because it is written in the stars or by God or in our genes or whatever is an excuse for inaction. Furthermore, when it is a spur to action, it is quite dangerous, even if it's working toward a beneficial social goal, because sooner or later, the totalitarian/ fundamentalist drive will seek other goals and find other impurities to expunge. This may be a psychological way of explaining why so many revolutions fall into their Thermidors. Sadly enough, it often (usually?) takes fanaticism to overthrow any unfair power structure, and that fanaticism cannot be easily turned off.

Yes, it's complicated, and I see an apparent contradiction in what I just wrote: I said one shouldn't care about other's motivations, just their actions. As usual, this isn't an absolute law, as anyone could generate case-based objections at will. I guess the resolution of it, if it can be or should be resolved, is that you keep an eye on those whose metaphysics you think might lead to bad social outcomes, but you damn well leave them alone unless and until they actually cause bad social outcomes.

Hence, when fundy Christians weren't voting pre-Reagan, I really didn't care much about them. Since their mobilization and politicization, with all that has entailed domestically and globally in our foreign policy, it's now my business, since, as philosophers are wont to say, they are now fucking up my shit, big time. :)

If only so-called conservatives actually followed Burke!

Have a good weekend!

Saturday, December 03, 2005 10:39:00 AM  

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