July 27, 2007

On Reason and Wonder

There's been a running debate over at Scientia Natura between its author, Shalini, and a rather thick-headed true-believer named Jared White (who also runs a blog. The crux of White's argument in favor of Christian belief is essentially tripartite:

  1. That reason is incapable of addressing his sense of wonder, romance, etc.;
  2. That he refuses to consider any viewpoint that asserts that his version of deity exists because he claims direct experience, and
  3. That morality originates from the existence of and belief in said deity.

I've essentially decided to sit on the sidelines and watch the debate at this point because the points that White are raising have been raised and addressed so many times in the past. I've been involved with exactly this argument before; I'm only pointing to White in this case because he's the latest instance of all of this.

None of these points hold up upon even the slightest scrutiny. In fact, what they portray is a caricature of non-belief (at least non-belief in terms of the way that White and his fellows believe). All of this is exactly what I wrote about a few days ago in my musings on Coffin Joe. It's this idea that so many Christian believers have (I assume this applies to other religions as well, but I don't interact with them as much) that to be a non-believer is to be immoral and cold.

As a self-avowed mad scientist, I feel that I should do here what any mad scientist worth his lab coat does. I'll use myself as a guinea pig. It should be clear by now that my ideas about life, the universe and everything are pretty far removed from those of the true-believers.

First, I have never found it necessary to believe in a personal divinity in order to experience wonder, beauty, awe, love, or anything else. If anything, it seems to me that many true-believers experience a mediated sense of these things and find value in them due to supernatural teleology instead of having a direct experience. That is to say I see no particular value in ascribing some divine purpose or design to a thing; it is enough to simply experience it. When I go into a forest, I don't need to think about the reasons for what I see in terms of supernatural agency. I can admire them for their novelty, elegance, what have you.

The believers are correct, of course, in that science is not meant to describe or explain individual experience. In fact, that would be counter to its utility, which is to explain and model general systems. While science certainly uses data gathered from the observation of individual phenomena, it doesn't seek to explain that particular case but to build a view of the principles underlying all such phenomena. It builds from data point to set; it's in the application of scientific knowledge (e.g. technology) that the individual is addressed. For instance, we've developed quite a bit of understanding of neurophysiology. If we wanted to investigate White's personal experiences, we could apply that knowledge by measuring physical changes in his particular brain and ultimately build a good profile of what's going on there and so explain what is happening and thereby provide a reason for his own awe, wonder, what have you. These things are not themselves quantifiable at this point in time, and the exact changes that an individual associates to them may vary between subjects, but we can rest assured that similar things are happening and that the differences are a matter of scale. We could say that in one case we observe a 5% drop in serotonin and 3% rise in dopamine levels, for example, and in this person these changes are a signal for the emotional state that individual calls "wonder." We could also build a profile of what experiences trigger these changes and so come up with a very good emotional dictionary for that one individual. Still, the definitions in that dictionary would be applicable only to that one person, and so there generally isn't much value for scientists at large to do all of this. On the other hand, a psychiatrist might find such data points about a patient useful in treatment of, for example, depression... but the expense would be astronomical to gather all this data. It's not that science can't be applied in this way, it's that it generally isn't.

This also goes to the second argument, that Jehovah (or Jesus, or Cthulhu...) must exist because people claim to have personally experienced the entity under discussion and that others have had similar experiences. Of course, people experience things that seem real nearly every day and are entirely incorrect about them. Dreams are a good example of this. Moreover, question any two completely unconnected people long enough about their dreams and eventually you'll find commonalities to the experiences they've had. We see such commonalities all the time; we're all familiar with dreams of finding ourselves giving a speech only to discover that we've neglected to slip on a pair of trousers that morning. That doesn't mean that anyone who has had this dream has actually stood red-faced and pantless in front of an auditorium full of snickering onlookers. We all have enough in common as human beings to abstract real experiences into new ones that seem quite real; they follow logically and emotionally from what we have experienced into a novel realm.

Pareidolia is another good example of this. Believers see Jesus-faces popping up quite frequently in trees, clouds, rocks, tortillas, you name it. I was sitting on our deck with LL two days ago; we were staring up at the clouds and playing the idle game of describing the shapes therein. I came to the realization that almost every cloud I saw looked like an amoeba! LL saw a giraffe, a toaster, etc., and I pointed to cloud after cloud and said, "Amoeba!" Does this mean that I was experiencing signs being sent from a divine amoeba in the sky? I certainly was seeing things that looked like amoeba and thus thinking about amoebas, but it was all me doing it. I can prove to anyone that amoebas exist because I can show them one under a microscope, so it's even more likely that they'd be sending a message ("Hey buddy, which way to the paramecia? Mmmm....") I was wrong, though... the clouds didn't look like amoebae, they looked exactly like clouds. In just the same way, I could extrapolate my experience with a caring authoritarian figure into some over-arching entity and believe I'd experienced the god Jehovacatlipocaluluwithasideofhomefries, and if I told enough people about this wonderful, loving, all-powerful entity who maketh me to lie down beside tall glasses of pink lemonade, a few of them would agree it existed and experience it as well. In fact, I once participated in just such an experiment as a member of an occult organization; the entity we created belief in was called Daarnizhaan, and from the shared experience of that entity a sacred text was generated. All of those who participated in the exercise had common experiences with the entity thereafter, allowing us to create a divinely inspired text that wasn't in any way the product of a single person. Does that mean that the text was authored by Daarnizhaan or that Daarnizhaan even exists? Of course not! The point is that the mere experience of something that seems real, whether by one person or one hundred or one billion, doesn't tell us anything about whether or not it exists apart from the imagination. There must be supporting evidence for the existence of a thing, and that evidence must be objective to the extent that anyone will experience it, whether they believe it exists or not. I can disbelieve in gravity all I want to, but if I drop something while on Earth that thing will fall toward the planet's center, and the same thing will happen no matter who tries the experiment. Gravity exists, and we can thus make predictions about it, measure it, etc. The same can be said of electromagnetism, radiation, squirrels and lima beans. None of this can be said about any particular person's chosen divine object of worship.

Finally, as to the idea that morality stems from deity, I find it more likely that the statement should be the other way around. Morals are of human origin and codification under the auspices of a deity is a means of preserving them and explaining how they came into existence. The idea that one is rewarded for "good" actions and punished for "bad" ones is universal. It can be found not only in the Jehovah-based religions, but in every other that has ever existed, even in Buddhism which posits that the idea of god is as much an illusion as is every other discreet phenomenon. That isn't to say that morals are the same across all religions; they do, in fact, vary between cultures and chronologies. Even Christian morals appear to have undergone profound changes in the few millennia of its existence. The core of all of this is a means of insuring that the members of a society can live together as comfortably as possible; by lending divine authority to these codes, the population comes to believe that if they do something immoral that they will be called to account for it even when no other person has witnessed their acts. This is true of every religion, without exception, because it is a basic truth of human nature that those who enforce the rules can't be present at every instance of their violation. None of this lends much weight to the idea that morals must themselves be given initially by a divine source, though, nor is it necessary for someone to believe in such a divinity in order to choose to follow a few basic precepts of conduct. It is enough to have the degree of empathy needed to put oneself in the place of another and so not wish to do them harm. Moreover, we know that even true-believers do immoral things; Christians commonly say that we're all sinners, and this statement is a recognition of that fact. If we can find professed non-believers who conduct themselves morally and professed true-believers who do not, we can safely say that whether one chooses to follow some religion or not, the choice as to whether or not to harm others is still a personal choice.

Essentially, there is nothing much to the arguments of White et al. They boil down to nothing more than argument from incredulity, a disbelief that those who don't believe what they believe in can't experience the things that they experience in the objective world. This notion stems from a certain lack of empathy that certain varieties strict religious belief imposes upon those who subscribe to it based on doctrines of human nature (e.g., souls and their origin and destination) and a general lack of meaningful experience with non-believers. It comes down to ignorance — which is not the same as stupidity, though it ignorance can be fostered by stupidity, certainly. Ignorance can be willful, and for a substantial fraction of true-believers this is the case, particularly in America's ongoing flirtations with Neo-puritanism.

All of that is the subject of a future entry, though. My fingers are getting tired.

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