The Message To The Planet

I was replying to this last night, and then decided I was bound to go on for hours. Which I will in just a moment, but first, my reply:

Wow, very late to the party, but I’m glad you mentioned this, as I’m also a frequent Edge reader, and part of the fun for me is getting mad at World Question answers I think are unreasonably dopey. I’m cooking up a post on it, in fact.

And I’m also pleased because I noticed this particular atheism problem just as you did, except I think for me it means something a little bit different, i.e. a way to spit in the eye of Dawkins and Dennett and all other laypeople who pretend to expertise in this kind of argument just because they also happen to be biologists or somesuch. But since when did having a degree in one field entitle you to claim another in a different discipline, free of charge? Like the person who replied above, they seem to think that simply stuffing unbelief down the world’s throat would be a good idea…but I don’t think they’re right about that.

Here’s what that atheism problem gave me: that while I would certainly think myself foolish to hold the opinion that there is an afterlife, I must concede that I believe in one, because I can’t conceptualize a world without a “me”. Ipso facto, I don’t believe I vanish from myself after death! Although I may, indeed, be of the opinion that I do.

And that’s an inconsistency, but it might after all be a good kind of inconsistency to have, because although I don’t think existentialism is corrosive of moral behaviour (rather the opposite), I do think that it’s a struggle to fend off nihilism long enough to arrive at it, if you think when you die you’re dead. If I vanish even from myself when I die, then to “me” it will be the same thing as never having lived at all, because “I” will be absolutely extinguished. In fact it’ll be the same as no one ever having lived, to “me”; I won’t care that I’m remembered well, or if justice is done, or if my loved ones are taken care of, because the instant I die all that vanity and idealism and love will be entirely and utterly swept away, just as if it never existed at all…which in a way it didn’t, because everyone is fated to die, and be unmade, and they won’t remember, either, so why worry about them? As soon as they die, well then they’ll have no complaints, will they? Thus, the paradise of the now means nothing if not remembered by some self, somehow, just as the hell of the now must be completely drained of force, of even the idea of force, for the same reason. Because if the dead don’t exist, neither do the living.

Call that a psychology of religion, if you like: even in those somewhat lacking in empathy, one imagines that it’s a constraining (if invisible) world-view. This matters, to somebody, somewhere, somehow, in a non-transient and non-trivial way. Well, and that is some underlying philosophy at work right there, supporting the idea that taking, giving, killing, saving, all are consequential acts…and at least because of that I think it’s maddeningly naïve of the would-be “brights” to think that the elimination of religion is a) simply accomplished, if only people are willing to listen to reason, and b) a good idea in the first place. This is the same sort of thinking that says “look, the Bible contains contradictions, also some legal prescriptions odious to the modern mind – gracious, that means it’s good for absolutely nothing!” Nonsense. It’s good for thinking about, at least, and who cares who believes it anyway? Seriously, who gives a damn about that? What does it matter? Just as the atheist secretly clings to the ineradicability of his selfhood, proponents of “bright” seem to cling to a value of legacy and progress (not to mention understanding) that their own position makes absurd…so to folks of that stripe who comment on Edge, I’ve often wanted to say: by all means, do away with God and the afterlife, but please make sure that the personal and social codes you’re left with after their demise are your own, and not leftovers from the religious past that you’ve decided to falsely privilege by calling “normative”…and please do make sure to try to account for what conclusions others may come to, once you’ve uninstalled the psychology of religion program that keeps them from always smacking their noses against the hard windowpane of “the depressing hypothesis”…

Yawn…kinda pompous, wasn’t it? Oh well…thanks, John! That was fun for me, at least. I do like Edge, and I do like to recommend it to people, but I also tell them to beware the rather rich self-congratulation of the “digerati” that it sometimes trips into for pages upon pages…the latest World Question has been very disappointing in this respect, as tough to slog through as a swamp full of chocolate cake, and as a result I’ve given up on it: Freeman Dyson’s ideas about what’s going on in science are worth reading, as are Douglas Rushkoff’s about what’s going on in culture, but if I have to read one more engineer’s utopian fantasy about how the intersection of Milton Friedman, Robert Heinlein, Paul Churchland, and Nicholas Negroponte will bring the Millenium, I think I may have to start smashing some machinery. There are a great many people who have a great many interesting things to say on Edge – Wired magazine’s own publisher (or was it EIC, or both?) not excepted – but there are also a great many who don’t seem able to say it unless they’re pointed in the right direction first. Some of the sources of their future-optimism even fill me with dread, like this one guy’s idea that individual carbon-trading vouchers, set loose to do what they will in a free market, will necessarily cause the invisible hand to produce universal equality…

I mean: amazing, that an educated person could think that. For God’s sake, unnamed multi-degreed ingenue, this is the world, not the damned Internet! And you’ve just proposed selling 90% of it into eternal slavery; now only make it 100% and you really will have universal equality. Jeez. I love Edge, and it rarely makes me think of how desperately our society needs to give its university graduates a good grounding in Philosophy of Science…or any Philosophy…or any History, or Literature…or, you know, just some plain old general Arts, that would be helpful too…but this last one doesn’t just need Kuhn or Feyerabend to provide a little balance, it needs bloody Chesterton, in full obnoxious prosyletizing mode! Sorry, but it kind of does.

But by all means, read the previous Questions, they’re fascinating and educational. The longer essays are interesting, too. Also, never trust a group of philosophers discussing 9/11 on TV or radio, because they’re rarely any good at it, and they too may cause a little machinery-smashing. Also also, my father informs me that Law & Order has in fact run an episode in which a polygraph test was shown to give a false positive…so if you’re ever asked to take a lie detector test by a bunch of cops, don’t just refuse, be sure to also reference that episode as the reason for your refusal! I really cannot stress this enough.

Furthermore, watch the parking meters.

I think that’s probably all for now.

13 responses to “The Message To The Planet

  1. Miguel de Unamuno’s “most tormenting dizziness?” Yeah, I know that one very well. Very, very well.

    The stridency and utopianism of some of the atheist contingents on the internet are, in part, derived from the furious righteousness of theists. How often does one hear about a person’s values and morality coming from religion, that faith makes one a better person? More importantly, how often does one hear the argument that morality derives from religion?

    As an agnostic brought up outside of a religious tradition, does that make me amoral? My own life would indicate otherwise.

    What’s frustrating is the constant conflation of religion, culture, and human nature. Yes, they’re interwoven, but they’re different things.

    Since it’s easier to examine other cultures critically than our own, take Islam in the Middle East and central Asia. Does the Qu’ran tell people to dress their women in giant sacks with tiny eye-holes? No, it does not. But many Muslims believe that such control measures are integral to the Way of God. Why? Not because God said so, but because their culture said so. They can’t draw a line between the laws of God and the tradition of their region, and it all becomes a big mess of Stuff That God Decrees. Even when it’s nothing of the sort. This conflation leads to a lot of stridency and cruelty, since the Divine Edicts, which tend towards charity and inclusion, get mucked up with tribal or national crap, which tend towards control and exclusion.

    Another factor is the inherency of altruism and justice in humanity. This isn’t muzzy-headed hippie noodling, either. Science backs this up. Check out “Give unto others: genetically unrelated cotton-top tamarin monkeys preferentially give food to those who altruistically give food back,” by Marc D. Hauser, et. al., published by the Royal Society on 12 September 2003, or even better, the short article on the BBC here, called “Monkeys show sense of justice.” People are wired with a basic sense of altruism and justice. Religion did not put it there. Any claims to the contrary are essentially advertising puffery. And it pisses a lot of people off.

    So religion is, very often, a vehicle for perpetuating the worst aspects of a culture by suppressing any questions, and it claims centrality in the areas of morality and ethics, which is flat wrong.

    Modern mainstream America’s relentless ass-kissery of faith grates. There was a great piece called “What It’s Like to Be an Atheist,” that puts it well:

    Imagine that you live in a world where 90% of the people around you sincerely believe in something that appears to you to be downright whacky, if perhaps relatively pleasant on the surface in many respects. Say they believe in Santa Claus; beard, the big red suit, the flying reindeer, the sled loaded with a billion gifts, the North Pole Workshop, Mrs. Claus and the elves; all of it.

    But in this fantasy world, they’re not content merely to believe in Santa Claus, they want you to publicly agree all the time that you also believe in Santa, in their specific version of same, and they pressure everyone else in numerous ways to pretend that they’re not strange or childish for believing in this. They don’t just limit it at that even, they insist everyone kiss their ass about their Santa belief every damn day of their lives and if you don’t humor them at the drop of hat under any circumstances, you’re being disrespectful, you’re out of line. No matter how much you humor them, they always demand more.

    Now further imagine; although the underlying story is sweet enough on its own, the actual uses it is put to by various self-serving factions are about as ugly as it can get: The ruling party is supported by a large block of truly radical Santa believers who want to run the entire country like they believe the North Pole facility operates, including sweatshops with kids all busy working away seven days a week 365 days a year in long assembly lines, with hand tools, in the freezing cold arctic winter, all for benefit of a few old men with long white beards who live in complete splendor on that labor. Because that’s how Santa wants it, see?

    Yep. (I recommend the whole rant. It’s shockingly accurate in describing the atheist perception of modern public life. Or at least mine.)

    The particular sin of Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity in particular, is to render people credulous. Once you get used to short-circuiting one’s reason and accepting what you’re told, well, crap, what the hell won’t you swallow? (“My pastor said global warming’s a crock–and he’d know better than them scientists who’ve studied it for decades, because he’s got faith!”) For those who believe in the efficacy and value of reason, this is enough to make one insane.

    All that said, I agree that stuffing unbelief down the world’s throat is a bad idea. There is a portion of the human mind that needs to believe in something larger than itself, and that religion is simply too large and integral a part of humanity to declare good or bad. It’s like arguing (to quote a bad movie) that “greed is good.” No, and it’s not bad either–it simply is, and it is worth exactly what we make of it. I’ve seen people Get the Jesus and become more caring, loving folks, and their faith helped them rebuild shattered lives. I’ve seen others Get the Jesus and become closed-minded, dangerous ass-clowns and ruin their lives over it. I can’t call Christianity a force for good or evil, since it leads to both on a regular basis. Getting rid of religion would be like getting rid of greed. Good luck trying.

    More to the point of your post, hell yes, more people need a grounding in basic philosophy and history. More people need a grounding in basic freakin’ science, too. Being able to see the world from more than one perspective is key to appreciating how complex everything is, and how easy, abstract answers are almost always wrong.

  2. Harvey, I don’t know why WordPress held your comment for moderation for me! Maybe it’s learning. Anyway, will respond to your excellent comment just as soon as I dig up some coffee, and perhaps a banana.

  3. Now, a thought I had about this years ago is that if you want to know which people around you are not thinking about the world outside the routine of their daily lives very much, which to my mind also means people who are often caught in pathologically-repetitive issue-loops inside their skulls, just look for the ones who don’t listen.

    But then I thought, which of these is the chicken, and which is the egg? Because it seems to me that the inability to listen is itself at least the proximate cause of the inability to move forward into any fresh perspective on life. If you can’t listen, or don’t know how to listen, then possibly you’re not getting enough information to construct mental simulations of the other minds around you…

    I like this better than saying, “the modelling of minds” circuit, the mirror neurons or whatever, are just not working in such a person. For one thing, it forestalls the necessity of placing psychopathy on a continuum with empathy.

    But that’s just me.

    Good reading you’ve given me here, Harvey: and I definitely feel for you folks down south, who must negotiate Santa-maniacs all the time. Canada is fortunate in that respect, for whatever reason — not even our pro athletes seem to feel the need to publicly thank Jesus for their victories, at least not very often. And I absolutely understand and sympathize with the average educated American who lives in fear that Intelligent Design will be propped up in their schools by theocratic fiat, and thus wash away the intellectual ideals of their country forever. Although I do think sometimes they worry about this too much, because I don’t think it will actually happen. HOWEVER. Wow, you know I was looking around online the last little while, and noticing some blather about the neurophysiological infrastructure of religious feelings, and I thought: all to the good! So often the discussion of such things seems crammed into a little zero-sum corner where “religion is all in the brain, you can simulate it with a hat!” is on one side, and “all you sinners are going to hell” is on the other, and it seems like no one has ever heard of a philosophical question beyond “whose cuisine reigns supreme?” and “isn’t this exciting?”…

    And then I noticed it was just that damn Dawkins again, trying to promote scientific findings as proof that religion is, not just bunk, but stupid bunk. Me, I’m very attached to the idea of a “psychology of religion”, and don’t know why no one seems able to resist dumbing it down to “he said/she said”. But I’m particularly pissed-off at the sciencey people for this: the Amazing Randi sticks to debunking things he has some expertise in, so why can’t they? Instead of playing the evil twin to Intelligent Design, and arguing just as ignorantly (wow, just read Dawkins sometime, boy is history not his field), but for the other “side”. But who has said that there are “sides” in the first place? Only the Santa-maniacs themselves.

    I said that the “brights” can’t let go of their inculcated beliefs about the value of progress any more than the atheist can let go of his belief in the indissolubility of the ego-focus…I’d add to that, that these digerati types may be fighting the good fight within the set of assumptions that say “religious belief must be good if true, and bad if false”, but unhappily those assumptions are the very same ones that lead the evangelicals (for example) to claim that they are virtuous because their religion is the only good one…because they also think that religious belief is good only when true, it’s just that they define “true” differently. However the tension is the same, it seems to me.

    I call ’em poor atheists, indeed, that have to lean on the walking-stick of righteousness.

    Ooooh, I’m angry: coffee must not have kicked in yet. Plus I think I’ve only restated your comments in less elegant terms. But why can’t those high-profile, high-prestige arguers against fundamentalism display the same willingness to separate the interwoven strands of unreflective “Faith” that, for example, you do? I also call ’em poor scientists who can’t make their point except from out of a pulpit. Plus it’s counterproductive, I think.

    Better stop ranting for a while, now. Caffeine, why do you always keep me waiting…?

  4. Well, to be fair, the rule which allows Dennett and Dawkins to share their expertise on theological matters is the same rule which has allowed theists of every stripe to comment on the matters of science since the days of Copernicus. With the caveat that, while Galileo’s persecutors and the moron faculties of the Discovery Institute and Liberty University have spent no time training in the sciences and have indeed done everything they can to distance themselves from such secular matters, Dennett and Dawkins live in a world and a society in which religion is inescapable, and in which frequently those who are accepted as ‘experts’ in the field of religion have little more knowledge of their faith, other faiths, or world history, than they do of biology. The rest of the world has been stuffing belief down the throats of every successive generation for millennia; you can’t blame the occasional stuffee for getting frustrated and wanting to do some counter-stuffing.

    That, and Dawkins’ gene-centric view of species development and his theory of memes, and Dennett’s philosophical (he is a philosopher, not a scientist, which qualifies him to discuss theological matters to some degree, I’d say) work on ‘neural Darwinism,’ put them in particularly significant positions to comment on the science of cognition and belief, the transmission of ideas, and the evolutionary development of cultural traits. Exactly what qualifications should you have to talk about religion from a scientific perspective?

    “look, the Bible contains contradictions, also some legal prescriptions odious to the modern mind – gracious, that means it’s good for absolutely nothing!”

    That’s a complaint which you could levy equally at the conservative Christians. Certainly, there are quite a few atheists who will claim that the Bible is utterly worthless (I’ve been idly arguing against just such a crowd here), and there are quite a few more who will concede that while there might be worthwhile material, you can get it elsewhere without all the atrocity and genealogy. But there are also the legions of Christians who defend the total inerrancy of the book, as if one misplaced comma would invalidate the whole thing, which is just as nonsensical. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not invalidated just because the situation was fabricated and the characters fictional. The moral lesson is still there, still valuable, and still worth considering and following. Why is the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Moses, or–heaven forbid!–the story of Jesus Christ so different? If Jesus of Nazareth were as fictional as Kal-El of Krypton, would his message be any less poignant? Would his lessons be any less true? ‘Tis the Christians who started the “if there are contradictions, the Bible is false, so there must be no contradictions. If the Bible conflicts with reality, reality must be wrong,” game, the atheists and scientists are merely playing along. And if mainstream Christians want to wager the truth of their faith on whether or not humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor, or whether or not the universe is billions of years old, or whether or not the Earth goes around the sun, then they’re going to have to accept the consequences of the lost bet.

    Just as the atheist secretly clings to the ineradicability of his selfhood

    Sigh, Pillock. I would have thought you above strawmen. Though I suppose there may be some atheists in such a position, I can assure you that atheism=nihilism is an invalid canard to most of the godless.

    do away with God and the afterlife, but please make sure that the personal and social codes you’re left with after their demise are your own, and not leftovers from the religious past

    Mm, the Euthyphro dilemma. Theists like to claim that morality originates with their deities, yet it seems that all societies share similar values. Either all the gods are on the same page, or one (group of) god(s) likes to play dress-up, or there are simply certain rules that must exist for society to function. I can’t interact with you if I can’t reasonably trust you to not kill me. I can’t communicate with you if I can’t reasonably assume that you’re speaking truly. Society can’t exist unless groups of people trade some of their freedom for the ability to interact.

    I don’t think theism is, in and of itself, dangerous. Personal religious belief does no harm to anyone. It’s when religious belief becomes public–and forcefully so–that it becomes seriously problematic. You have some groups trying to make everyone accept that their belief is right, others trying to validate their beliefs with bad science and worse history, still others using their beliefs to justify all manner of atrocities, and so on, and so on. It may be somewhat simplistic, but removing religion would remove one source of conflict. Even Dawkins, much though he is villified, wouldn’t suggest that everyone would suddenly live happily ever after, but they’d have one less reason to hate each other.

    I wish I’d read more of Chris Hallquist‘s blog, but at one point, he posited that faith removes a guardrail against dangerous beliefs. This isn’t to say that all religious folks are dangerous, or that only religious folks are dangerous, but once you’ve accepted one improbability or one impossibility or one doctrine of discrimination, then it’s not so hard to adopt others.

    But that’s all fairly academic and debatable. What I take umbrage at is this attitude of “atheists should stay in the closet” that you seem to be espousing. While I’m sure others among the godless would call me a Neville Chamberlain atheist (or agnostic atheist, or whatever I’m calling myself) for not particularly wanting to eradicate all religious belief, there is the need to stand up and look to those who are trying to rewrite science and history to support their pet beliefs, and say “just hold it right there.” No, history isn’t Dawkins’s strong suit, but I would bet that he’s a lot more accurate than the large and vocal crowd who believes that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church, that God Himself penned the King James Bible, and that every one of the American Founders believed in the divine right of Presidents, and just kind of forgot to include it in the Constitution.

    And yet, Dawkins’ particular expertise is on genetic evolution and the evolutionary propagation of ideas. The only way speaking about religion falls outside his expertise is if religion is more than just a set of ideas. For Dawkins, it’s all the same, and religious ideas are only privileged because society privileges them. You can disagree with that on religious grounds, but science really doesn’t care. The supernatural rather falls outside the purvey of science; in effect, it doesn’t really matter where the idea originated, so the study would be the same. You can disagree with him on scientific grounds, and the suggestion of a psychology of religion would be just such an objection, one that I’m sure would be subject to debate and research. But recognize that, until God is verifiable through experimentation and falsification, science really can’t say anything about him more specific than “he doesn’t matter.” Scientists, on the other hand, are rather more free to say what they want, but tend still to be inclined to believe the majority of physical evidence.

    By the by, Randi doesn’t just stick to things he has expertise in, unless you claim that his particular expertise is in frauds and charlatanry (and I suppose it mostly is). But he calls out Sylvia Browne on her knowledge of scripture in addition to her science and her showmanship, all of which are equally shoddy. You don’t need an advanced degree in theology to see that some people are full of it. He debunks religious types too, and faith healers, and I’m reasonably certain I’ve seen him link to at least one of the numerous studies which shows that prayer has no discernable effect. So long as religions make testable claims, they are not outside the purview of science.

  5. Some more links that might interest you:

    There’s an excellent “discussion” on Edge where Scott Atran, who, like, actually studies religion scientifically, tears a new one for people like Dawkins. I have to use scare quotes, because most of the replies to Atran are pretty useless.

    Dawkins has a hilarious blog post where he can’t work out why Christians who have become atheists might be angry at their Christian parents, etc.

    Jaron Lanier is always wonderful in countering the brights and the techno-utopians.

  6. Regarding selfhood and where “you” go after you die… where were “you” before “you” were born?

    I’m a real Epicurean on death, it doesn’t bother me.

  7. Hmm, it held your comments up for moderation here too, guys…funny, it doesn’t do that on the other posts…

    David, thanks for the link (I feel the joy which is a correlate of revenge! especially about the thrice-damned memes), and agreed about Lanier, he’s always pleasant reading.

    And Tom, pleasant to read your thoughts as well, but Land O’ Goshen, man! I ain’t the religious sort, and definitely don’t want to come across as apologizing for religion or advising atheists to stay in their closets; if you took umbrage, it’s probably because I may have bobbled that a bit, and presented myself poorly. However, I gotta say…I think you may read that last half-paragraph of my pontification as a bit more loosey-goosey than it is, because:

    If we can say that Unamuno’s Paradox is something for the atheist to grapple with (one way or another), but also say that there are atheists who apparently choose not to confront the conceptual puzzle that it offers…

    …then can’t we profitably compare them to existentialists who would balk at their freedom to exercise moral choice, in favour of continuing to uncritically follow the codes and values society has handed down to them, as “probably right”?

    I think so: because however natural moral behaviour may be, moral prescriptions in (say) our society do emanate from religious authority, as a purely practical day-to-day sort of thing…therefore, once you reject the “truth” of your religion’s cosmology, how can you not then reject its right to thrust the “truth” of its moral compulsions and codes on you? We all know that if there is a natural morality, then it already conflicts with lots of stuff that’s in the codes…but just which is which, that’s what we don’t know, and it seems to me that to be a card-carrying atheist is to have to start trying to make those distinctions where we can, without relying on what “tradition” is already telling us about it. So to me, atheist doesn’t necessarily equal nihilist, but not just because nihilism isn’t the only answer — also because some never even make it to the preliminary stage of “free-thinker”. And when I see the brights being so casual — so cavalier! — about their belief in non-existence, while simultaneously so content to follow the commonsensical herd’s common-good values, I can’t help thinking: same diff, damn it. They haven’t thought about it hard enough, so they’re getting all turned around, in just this way. They’re fishaterians. But preachy fishaterians!

    Having said which, I’m flattered to hear you would have thought me above strawmen! I’ll take that as a win in itself, even if it isn’t true anymore…and I do have one or two more tiny things I’d like to say in reply to your excellent comment with which I of course largely agree, but unfortunately I must crash, so…more later, probably! Hope this all made sense…

  8. If we can say that Unamuno’s Paradox is something for the atheist to grapple with (one way or another), but also say that there are atheists who apparently choose not to confront the conceptual puzzle that it offers…

    Well, speaking only for myself… Sure, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be dead, but that’s not something for me to grapple with. I can’t imagine lots of things: the nation of Chad, for instance. I don’t have a clear picture of it at all. Experience has taught me that when I try to anticipate what almost anything is going to be like, either in and of itself or in terms of my personal experience of it, I get it completely wrong, and the only thing for me to do is to wait upon the event. Confrontation by winging it.

    And when I see the brights being so casual — so cavalier! — about their belief in non-existence, while simultaneously so content to follow the commonsensical herd’s common-good values, I can’t help thinking: same diff, damn it.

    To me it’s just a question of what you want to spend your time on. I went through a phase (in university, of course) of being way big into Ayn Rand, and one of the things that transitioned me out of it, to the extent that I am out of it, was this set of realizations: a) to be a good Objectivist means that you’re in conflict with almost the entire rest of the world almost all of the time, b) I’m almost certainly not going to get anywhere with that, and c) it isn’t going to be any fun.

    The morality and rules and social conventions of modern society may not be perfect, but they’re not so bad either (and don’t all derive from religious authority), and while there are some gages that have to be picked up and flung back, if I stop to contest every little thing I’m never going to get any blogging done.

  9. Well, Matthew…I never meant to imply there’s anything wrong with being a fishaterian! In fact I respect fishaterians, and get along with them. I also get along with hardcore Vegans, so long as they’re not constantly trying to convert me. But fishaterians who assume themselves to be Vegans, and who are always in my face about the evils of flesh-eating…and then I find out that what they’ve been calling “fish” all this time is really chicken at least half of the time…they make me think: how is it that I’m a full-on omnivore, and yet I’m a better Vegan than you?

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