February 01, 2006

Mr. Belloc Still Objects

Well, before I get any more letters advancing the theory that my views on life, the universe, and everything are as they are because I have engaged in intimate relations with one Pat Robertson, I think I'll remain more or less silent on the Big Questions for a bit here. For the record, let me state that I do not in fact find Mr. Robertson attractive in that, or in any other, way. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I do, it is true, believe in God. More than not. What's more, apart from this shocking moral failing, I am just plain interested in God and stuff like that. And though it might sound kind of weird, I expect that even if I were entirely (rather than only partially) unencumbered with that particular moral failing, I'd still be interested, maybe even more so. But, and I know this will also sound weird to some ears, it does not bother me at all to learn that there are those whose moral inferiority and interest are less than mine. Everyone should go around having a good time, and if that involves a bit of dour preaching against the morally inferior, well that's just swell. As long as you don't kill anyone or anything.

However, it is surely a strange state of affairs (and one that I imagine would rather surprise HG Wells or Bertrand Russell, were they to be transported to the contemporary blogosphere) to notice, from afar, a group of people going around scolding everybody for being morally inferior, some of whom appear to be carrying little digital "repent" signs, only to realize that they turn out, on closer inspection, to be the atheists! O! Middle-class morality! Well, these things evolve, or so I'm told.

The world is full of surprises, which is just one of the few things I love about it.

UPDATE: OK, I'm going to break my vow of silence momentarily to recommend Norm's beautifully written, powerfully argued, courtly response to the Ophelians.

Also, here's some food for thought from John Weidner of Random Jottings:

If science prolongs lives, that's a plus. But if the secular-rationalism that is often considered (somewhat mistakenly, I think) as "science" renders those lives less worth living, less sweet, less beautiful, that's excluded from the argument...

And it usually doesn't get mentioned in this sort of discussion, but science itself is a faith. It rests on the assumption that the natural world it studies is "real." Is not a dream or an illusion. But science cannot ever prove that this is so.

OK, I will remain silent, starting... NOW!

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 1, 2006 05:35 PM | TrackBack

I'm sorry to hear that - I like your religion posts. The suede/denim secret police need to relax.

Posted by: Mike at February 1, 2006 07:08 PM

Where in the Bible does it say you're allowed to be interested?

Posted by: Wesley at February 1, 2006 08:25 PM

Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastard. Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off.

Posted by: josh at February 1, 2006 08:57 PM

interesting how that works isn't it?

in my experience those who claim to revel in immorality are never quite so much as they want to be...just full of excuses.

Posted by: just me at February 1, 2006 09:45 PM

I just wanted to tell you that you remind me to Nino Quincampoix picking up broken letters on the street.
Also, I would like to remind you that it has been a long time since The Mr. T Experience played in Madrid.
You should think about it...

Posted by: me at February 1, 2006 10:50 PM

Har! I guess the "unofficial" Dr. Frank bio I read was not bogus after all, eh? Catholic, chessmaster, hisotrian, musician and now writer... the "bio" needs updated. Heck, I've forgotten where I saw it. I think there was a link to some Amazon.com website from the Lookout! website. Alas, I digress......

Oh, bother....

Posted by: Heffelump at February 2, 2006 02:11 AM

Science is merely a method of testing hypothetical models of physical phenomena and, frankly, the idea that science makes are world less beautiful is just a cop out. People have been throwing this accusation out since before Newton. It's utter nonsense. Science is the reason that I've even heard an MTX album or have seen the Sisteen Chapel. It's also the reason we know about this stuff:

Posted by: josh at February 2, 2006 02:09 PM

here I had posted a link to the hubble site that was denied for questionable content. What's the matter Frank, afraid of a little truth? (joke, just a joke)

I hope you can see why I would find the idea that people whose beliefs I do not share have monopoly on beauty offensive. That's as bad as the atheist claiming they make the world more moral.

Science doesn't necessarily rely on the idea that the Universe is "real" per se (if we live in the Matrix, which you would know is not out of the realm of possibility if you've ever read Nick Bostrom, we could still test the physics of that Universe. Even the idea that the laws of the physical Universe are constant is a testable hypothesis. Recent discoveries have called into question whether the Cosmological Constant is in fact constant, a discovery which could lead to an explanation of dark matter, but this is a very long parenthetical), but I get your meaning. Under the rules of science, no scientist could tell you that the Universe is in fact "real".

However, proof doesn't exist. Even in philosophy and mathematics you need to start with axioms, which are inductive. If we're perfectly rational truth seekers its our priors and our evaluation of their probabilities. From my perspective the probability of the existance of an itelligent, personal god decreased when the probability that we are at the center of the Universe decreased (sharply), when the probability that we were created in the image of this being decreased(again sharply), when the probability that living and non-living are somewhat arbitrary distinctions based on heritage rather than any kind of life force or specialness increased, when the probability that time and space are related and relativein sucha way that there doesn't a "before" the universe increased, when the probability that human intelligence is neither prefect nor particularly special nor more than a few genetic variations different from that of a chimpanzee increased. I find it unlikely that the origin of the universe is intelligent in any manner resembling our own random put-luck, patch-work intelligence or a "living" "being" in the way we think of living and being. You may have different priors and weigh them differently. It's unresonable to expect any single person to incorporate all available information and way it properly according to how it actually effects the likelihood of a given solution. Now I'll be quiet, I've posted too much already. My apologies.

Posted by: josh at February 2, 2006 02:12 PM

Life, the universe and everything. Thanks for the nod, Frank. Funny thing is that Douglas Adams was a flaming Athiest.

Posted by: Zaphod at February 2, 2006 04:11 PM

Josh, I agree with every point you make. I can't speak for Weidner, but I doubt he's saying that science is bad, or that its claims to allow us to know things are false, or that there's no such thing as natural material beauty. Who would say that?

I think what he's getting at, and I see what he's saying, is that the radical materialists in this sort of (generally idle and unproductive) discussion tend to give short shrift to some pretty important human experiences, to the degree that the picture of man that arises from reading the arguments, even when they are persuasive on this or that point, looks a little... inhuman. If surrender to the irrational is inherently bad, then curing it would involve eliminating a hell of a lot more than just "religion"; our lives as human beings would be totally unrecognizable. That's what happens when you mistake an analogy or a thought experiment for an actual description of reality: reality recedes.

He's also right, I think, that "secular rationalism" is not an exact synonym for science, even as that word is sloppily used these days; it's not even the same kind of term, really. And just speaking for myself here, I don't think "secular rationalism" is by any means a bad thing, though when it seeks dogmatically to replace Everything it does end up as a poor and kind of sad substitute for philosophy, like many ideologies. (Is it an ideology? - an interesting question that I'm not going to take a position on. Not necessarily, but some people seem to employ it as one.) When you take it one step further even than that, and enshrine the scientific method as the sole, exclusive means for judging the validity of any thought or sentiment about anything, including ethics, including metaphysics, including spirituality, even including abstractions that are experienced and perceived through intelligence and theory rather than only observation, even including culture itself and its endless undifferentiated array of complex interleaving layers of the products of the whole of human experience (with optional arbitrary exceptions for stuff you happen to like, e.g. art, brotherly, sisterly, fatherly, and erotic love, justice, etc.) and decide that all other ways of viewing, experiencing, engaging, and describing reality are worthless and, indeed, pernicious, I think you do have something like a full-blown ideology on your hands. At this level of alienation from reality as it is experienced socially (at least), this quasi-ideology is still, narrowly, "rational;" yet its picture of Everything is, from the perspective of this human anyway, strangely incomplete and not a little bizarre. Unreal, in fact.

The objection to this description is that it is a straw man, that no one really thinks this way, that it's a caricature. I agree that it is. So why do people speak this way in places like the Butterflies and Wheels comments box? I do not know. But for some, including some very smart and learned people, this quasi-ideology is so intoxicating that they can easily stumble into the most obvious failures of logic and common sense without even realizing it, e.g. the righteous, surprisingly tenacious skepticism about Norm's simple point that something that can be correctly analyzed as having good and bad qualities has good as well as bad qualities. Wait, really? Even if the thing with good and bad qualities is predominantly bad? Even if I have convincing reasons for disliking it very much? Yes, dear, even then.

That's why I find much of the yammering of sanctimonious atheists (how sad and yet wonderful that this term is even intelligible!) not only unpersuasive personally, but far more irritating than their atheism (which I don't mind and to which they have every right and for which they indeed have much empirical ground); or their often sententious claims to infallible rationalism (which can be amusing enough to redeem it, thank God, if I may quaintly, in the manner of my forefathers, so invoke the teapot in the sky); or even their "arbitrary dealing" (to use Norm's phrase) when trying to belittle willy nilly this or that aspect of something of which they disapprove. These matters (the nature of reality, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, all of it) are worthy of debate and for skeptical examination, of course. But that's not what has been happening over at the Ophelian echo chamber. What is going on is, I think, more akin to politics than philosophy. As Wes has pointed out, it is much like the situation I've written about before, where communities of believers lull themselves into the complacent, implicit assumption, never seriously questioned except perhaps as a stunt to create the appearance of evenhandedness, that their tastes and prejudices alone are valid and that those who oppose them must be blind, brainwashed, or evil. E.g., Berkeley, "liberals" vs. "repug-licans," real vs. evil, free spirits vs. sheep, saved vs. damned. Do they really believe that? Maybe not, but Lord do they ever talk as if they do.

It has to do with culture, it has to do with class and politics, with the joy and thrill of the sense of belonging to an elect and often allegedly beleaguered minority, with the excitement of creating the kind of stir a teenager can cause by standing up at Thanksgiving dinner and announcing his intention to become a Communist (as I once did, believe it or not) or a priest or a punk or a Republican, or what have you. It also has to do, or it usually does, with sincere aspirations on some level to be a participant in a movement for a better world, to right the wrongs of the past, etc. But what it doesn't seem to have much to do with, as I see it, is anything "real" (if I may use the term) in this case actual science. It's more like it is science's publicist. I think the claim to have cornered the market on the truth is hypocritical and self-defeating strategy. It implicitly belies the laudable liberal rhetoric at every turn, but it does no real harm. (And I'll add the obvious observation that most people can appreciate and benefit from the virtues of science and technology in this sense without feeling they must attempt to destroy every other sort of belief system or mode of understanding. Those who feel like this are a small, and very weird, group.)

Anyway, in a social milieu where taking pot shots at a belief system or a given social or political culture and ridiculing those who belong to it or espouse its values are rewarded with hugs and cookies every single time without exception and without much regard to content, people will do it for its own sake for the sheer pleasure of it. We have all done it. It's fun to do. It's also not an edifying spectacle, nor is it anything to be proud of. It is suspect when anyone does it, but of course particularly ironic when it is being done by people who ostentatiously array themselves in the pomp and circumstance of Secular Rationalism.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 3, 2006 01:11 AM