the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a much needed break: on incompatibilism and insignificance

religion's first and last argument

I’m at Victor Harbour, near the beach. Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach with four-year-old Courtney. She was sulking about something, so I distracted her by pointing out to her a large ant, of a species she’d probably never encountered before. "Oh yeah," she said, "I’ll kill it,’ and before I could say anything more, she'd crushed it with her thong.
As ants to wanton girls are we to nature, I might add.
As I've already argued, religion is about protection more than about morality or anything else. Protection from the arbitariness of a nature indifferent to our sufferings and achievements, our complexity, our striving, our pride and our humility.
It's been claimed that 99% of all the species that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct. The skeptic in me questions such a claim; it sounds too much like a figure plucked out of the air. Still, if it's anywhere near the truth, the implications of such a claim ought to be disturbing for those interested in the preservation of humanity - i.e. humans. We look destined to be snuffed out as a species as surely as we're snuffed out as individuals.
Looked at this way, it's hard not to be sympathetic to the religious view. Indeed it might seem an eminently rational view when you consider the alternative – that we''re ultimately as insignificant as the ant under Courtney's thong.
Ego is not a dirty word.
Human egotism drives religion as surely as it drives environmentalism. Environmentalists by and large like to say they're concerned for the survival of our planet, but I don't believe them, because it seems to me that our planet is very far from being in imminent danger. I expect it to outlast the human species by a long long way, though of course it will finally cease to exist, along with our familiar sun and less familiar galaxy. Global warming doesn't threaten the planet, which has experienced far worse than a slight change in temperature. Global warming merely threatens species, and mass extinctions in the past have always been followed, generally with spectacular speed, by mass speciation. Environmentalists are interested not in the preservation of the planet but in the preservation of a particular expression of the planet, its here-and-now expression, one of a myriad of expressions, but the one that contains us.
In the end it's always about us.
Humanism is a term I only really became aware of through so-called anti-humanist writings. Humanism apparently had a religious cast – with humanity rather than gods like Yahweh placed at the centre. It was depicted as arrogant, deluded, falsely rationalist, naïve. I recognized the force of the claims, but it also seemed painfully obvious just from the term itself, that for a human to seriously adopt an anti-humanist position would be self defeating. I noted that later critics of humanism avoided the anti-humanist term, thus reducing humanism to a movement rather than something so complex as a perspective on the world shared by members of the same species.
Speciesism is a term used by environmentalists and some philosophers too, but I can't take the term too seriously, though I do have sympathy with the idea of the expanding circle. My view is that, as we become more sophisticated and knowledgable, we'll tend to use our greater knowledge and understanding to enhance our environment, to promote our survival and thriving. That means preserving as many species as we can (always, of course, for their own sake), expanding our sympathy for other species as we understand them better, respecting the planet and so forth.
Religion is by its nature obscurantist to a degree. Religious thinkers often talk about spirituality and meaning in ways that obscure the human interest at the heart of religious belief. For spirituality, in essence, is about a transcendence of material, contingent existence, and meaning, too, is about seeking to provide a place for we humans beyond that of simply enriching or comforting a merely material, contingent existence. Those gods and mythologies, taboos and rituals are all about us. And I think I can understand the dissatisfaction the religious feel for the attitude of such scientific thinkers as Robert Atkins, who delight in our increasing knowledge, and increasingly sophisticated knowledge, of our increasingly insignificant place in the cosmos. I can also understand their disinterest in the attitude of such resolute secularists as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, for whom death can only be transcended through genetic continuity and cultural transmission.
Still, this obscurantism can be particularly devious in the hands of sophisticated exponents of religious thought, who are able, in their groping humility, to make the pronouncements of secularists seem smug, naïve and empty. For example, I once heard the oh-so-humbly spiritual John Carroll referring to Bernard Crick [presumably he meant Francis Crick, the geneticist], who, according to Carroll, claimed that the soul would soon be reduced to a ganglion of neurons. I don't particularly trust Carroll, who is innocent of science, on the Crick quote, but it's clear to me that the soul, as a concept, is incapable of such reduction, for the soul is a product of the human ego not of human knowledge. As long as there are such spiritual promoters as John Carroll around, we secularists will have a lean time of it.
However, as with the invention of the soul which I dealt with in an earlier post, the various religious inventions, designed largely to protect or save us from our own contingency, have to contend with scientific explanations designed less for our comfort than for the satisfaction of a larger need to comprehend and know.
I've never believed that the scientific worldview and the religious worldview are compatible. Many secularists are compatibilists, as are many believers. The official line of the catholic church is compatibilist, but I'm not sure that this line is as coherent as it is politically expedient. I hope to explore this matter further.
Meanwhile, I recognize that the greatest challenge for the secularist, recognized by Pascal centuries ago, is the matter of the insignificance, in the grand scheme of things, of the miracle of life in general, and human life in particular.


Blogger Nicholas said...

It's official, life is meaningless.

Anyway, I just thought I would say hello, and ask if you are going to be up for some more talks?

Also, I should mention, it is doubtful that religion 'invented' the soul, or many of the other things that people think it invented (the afterlife, even perhaps). I can send you the full version of Jesse Bering's "folk psychology of souls" again if you like, and I also have a good book by Paul Bloom called "Descartes' Baby" which is also relevant. I also go the vary inappropriately named "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer, which is in the same vein of Atran's work which I could probably lend you at some stage.

On humanism, it is interesting what you say in the last few lines, since I think these days that secular humanism is somewhat like the compatibilist stuff (as you put it) in a way. While it is not as wrong, I think that if there is anything to warm 'n fuzzy in your ideology it's probably false, based on what I know of the facts....

Probably just the (lack of) serotonin speaking....

7:43 PM  
Blogger Stewart said...

Molto apologies for my anti-social behaviour of late, but things have now improved and I'm ready to come out and play. Yes, looking forward to the philosophy group again.

Not sure that I said religion invented the soul [not even sure what that means], rather that these supernatural bits and bobs are human inventions, whether in the context of folk psychology or religion isn't so important to me. Maybe it should be?

On readings – I do have Bering's folk psychology piece, and now you've reminded me I'll read it tout de suite. I read religion's evolutionary landscape, by Atran and someone else, which was heavy but very interesting and useful, the commentary especially. I was looking at the Boyer book in Borders just the other day, but chose instead to buy a cheaper but much crappier book from the other side – the God factor, 40 scientists and intellectuals explain why they believe in God. The editor in his preface is prepared to believe that the miracles in the Bible really took place coz there were lots of witnesses. Oh dear. Time to read something a bit more substantial.

Not quite sure what you're getting at with the humanist comments, but no doubt we'll discuss it further in due course.

I hear you won a prize, so congrats for that. See you soon.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

However, as with the ,invention of the soul which I dealt with in an earlier post, the various religious inventions,

I must have misinterpreted, but this is what I read. Also lots of people seem to think something similar. I.E. that say, dualism was invented, through racionation. After reading the works mentioned, I am begining to doubt this. As with the moral issues, it seems that intuitions which are rather hard wired perhaps have become developed/brought to the surface/made explicit through cultural forms of various types.

How they were invented {came to be, whatever} is important to me, since my interest is in comprehension, not normative matters. For instance, your post seems to indicate that you think that at least part of the reason these beliefs came about (or perhaps just continued their existence?) is because they allay certain fears. In Artran & Norenzayan's piece they broach this topic. From, memory, I think they are at least partially for it. But,Boyer, for instance, argues that this is false; supernatural agents are the cause of distress as much as its cure. etc. etc. Finally, whether or not something come from the outside in, or ther other way around is both intersting in itself and important if you want to 'do something' about religion as, say, Dawkins wants to.

Regarding 'humanism' I was being fuzzy in to many different ways. All I was making is point I feel like I need to make at a thousand junctures. I agree with you that science is incompatible with religion (intellectually, anyway) but that is not the only thing it is incompatible with. I keep getting the feeling it is incompatible with a whole suite of philosophies or modes of thought which are not particularly religious. Again, that is why I liked Greene's work; it's extreme, but doesn't pull any punches.

Yet how can such have much effect anyway, since so much is seemingly innate and the conscious mind is seemingly so puny....

3:22 AM  
Blogger Stewart said...

clearly what you're objecting to or questioning is the notion of invention itself, and the rhetorical use to which such a term can be put. On the other what Dawkins, Sam Harris and others are worried about is the more-than-rhetorical use to which full-blown, culturally developed and organised religion is put, and i strongly share that concern.
I accept that much - or something - is innate or hard-wired, even if only because, spending a lot of time at play with a four-year-old, I'm always struck by her easy shifts from the natural to the supernatural world, even if only because it's such fun..

I'm a bit pressed for time now but i'll get back to this soon. Watch this space.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

Yeah, that is probably fair enough. As I said before, you're a good stylist, in my humble opinion. You studied English, didn't you?

6:03 PM  

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