The Church of Reason

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 at 11:19 am
by Borg

This post is a continuation of The Religious Roots of Science

Sincere and Insincere attacks on Science
I suggest one can classify attacks on the authority of science along an axis of sincerity. Insincere attacks are those that merely aim at undermining science to replace it with their own even worse justified belief system. To this end of the spectrum belong Christians like Bill O’Reily that try to argue that as long as science does not have all the answers he will stick to the old teaching. This kind of criticism is irrelevant and can be dismissed since it just tries to hide the basic message behind a load of hot air, namely that “I don’t care what you say [insert expletive], I will stick to what I already got”. They can never be proven wrong, and feel no need to justify their position with genuine reasons. At the same time we are supposed to respect their belief in talking snakes and virgin births, and not make any jokes about their prophets.

To this end of the spectrum also belong relativists that claim that science is just another belief system, and as such has no greater authority than any other. All views of the world, whether traditional or modern, are equally true. The insincerity of this position stems from the allusion to its own authority and how it is supposed to be somehow exempt from this criticism. I don’t think there are many sincere relativists in the academic world, since everyone that claims something does, implicitly or explicitly, believe in their own authority over someone else’s.  

There is of course also sincere criticism that can be dismissed as irrelevant because it is ignorant, nonsensical or just comical. An example of this could be the feminist Irigaray claim that E=M*C2 is a sexed equation because speed somehow is a masculine attribute. Or the Sokal hoax where a fake article was submitted to a post-modern journal by a physicist, just to see how much bollocks would be printed.

The danger of insincere critics is that they fight dirty. Insincere people don’t hesitate to twist the words of their opponents. The fact that insincerity still dominates the world I think goes a long way to explain the Darwinian Richard Dawkins political choice of “militant atheism”. In  one recent interview he claimed that science had about 95% of the answers to the ultimate human questions, and that it was working on the last 5%. That is a religious or metaphysical statement since there is no way he can know how much knowledge we will, can or even do possess.

In this interview however, I think Dawkins is getting close to being sincere about his faith in science. Anyone knows that being on the defensive often produces a bias, and while Dawkins enemies may be not just inclined towards their faith, but more like spun around it like a cat caught with the tail in the bicycle wheel, he himself is not exempt from this criticism.

The Church of Reason
I would like to outline some criticism that I think is both valid and sincere, that shows that science fundamentally will always have an element of religion in it. I distinguish between the scientific attitude, which adheres to the scientific criteria for knowledge, such as empiricism, accountability, impartiality, rationality, falsifiability, testability etc. and the religious attitude, which is the willingness to hold on to unproved beliefs for emotional benefit or practical necessity. Seeing is Believing vs Believing is Seeing. My point is that these two attitudes are two sides of being human, and they necessarily coexist in all of us – even in Prof. Dawkins.

1. The Rational Delusion – The basis of rationality is always irrational

Rationality as abstract deduction always begins with a set of premisses and is confined to language. It has been proven rationally all the way from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason up to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and later Wittgenstein that rationality can never become a complete system. It will always depend of some basic axioms, both linguistically, logically and epistemologically. It can say that if statement A is true then statement B is true, but how do the statements get their meaning? From the interpretation of them by person X in language L. Language needs consciousness and culture to have meaning, and while statements can be translated to other languages they ultimately only have meaning to us humans. Concepts mean something by pointing to something other than themselves, some object in the world or another statement perhaps. Even if we could construct a pure and exact logical language where every concept was unambiguous, like the logical positivists dreamt, all concepts still could not derive their meaning from other terms. The basic concepts had to be defined ostensively, by showing what they meant, eg.  like holding up a glass to a child and saying “glass”.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists, or at least that from what we can perceive we will be able to deduce all the rest. But we cannot know the limits of our own perceptive apparatus, because we can never get outside of our own bodies. Nor can we know for sure what other beings, human or otherwise, can and cannot perceive. We always perceive them through our own eyes and the limits of our nervous system. There is nothing irrational with an assumption that our perceived reality is one of many that may exist side by side and perhaps they have been rigged by a demon in such a way that neither our senses nor our intelligence will ever be able to grasp them. There could be a whole brass band of ghosts stomping away in a parallel dimension that we could never have the faintest idea about. We could be cosmically fooled and no amount of science can ever prove that wrong. This is why Descartes felt a need to invoke God exactly as the guarantor that he was not deluded by his senses. By doing away with The God Delusion Dawkins does not even have this consoling basis to lean back on. Not that I think he is left any worse off.

2. The limitations of the superficial sensory universe

Empirical science has a successful track record of explaining the world, but in a sense it has not only limited itself to that which could be attacked with its method, but also tried to limit the world to be only that which could be seen through this method. Almost all sciences are based on the experimental ideal of physics, and even in psychology there are many ridiculous attempts at applying this mathematical model on humans. This example is from Research Design Explained, (Mitchell & Jolley, 1992), where the authors teach us about love:

“Rafael Frank’s (1984) theory of love tells us how love can and cannot be measured. …”

           liking*maturity            sexual attraction
Love = ———————— *20*  ————————
dependency                         age

A formula like that exposes the parody that is academic psychology. Under the banner of “objectivity” and with a shield of statistics the quantitative researcher is proudly presenting his scientific results while the subject matter of his discipline has escaped through the back door and he is left with a pseudo-science with less substance than numerology. There is nothing wrong with numbers and statistics, but they only deal with the superficial, and a social researcher only dealing in that area is more like a tailor measuring an arm for a suit than someone contributing to the genuine understanding of what it means to be human. Sorry to be the one to break it, but no one really wears their heart on their sleeve, it is just a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I have nothing against tailors, but when it comes to interpreting human behaviour and human needs even cab drivers have more of value to say. If the problem of having a clear and simple language that represents easily identifiable objects is a challenge for natural science, it is immensely much more so for the social sciences. You cannot construct a scientific/logical/mathematical language by pretending the elementary concepts are obvious. There are no subjective or cultural facts that tell their own story without interpretation. Say we thought we loved someone only to later realize that guilt was what we really felt. Perhaps months later we again reinterpret the past and find that it was indeed profound love. The above formula will tell us nothing about what we actually have gone through. It pretends to be talking about love, but it is really talking about X as the outcome of whatever other factors you put into the equation. To understand ourselves, other people and human artifacts we must interpret, not just measure surfaces. We give love meaning, just like we give all subjective phenomena meaning. Likewise, cultural artifacts only have meaning to us. Money is only money because for a limited time in history we say it is.

There is no God that guarantees that there is a successful “scientific method” in the subjective and inter-subjective domain just because there was one in the natural sciences. When trying to understand humans and human artifacts it is not at all clear what is scientific and what is not, but operating with this inferiority complex of physics psychology as a science is dead. 

3. Our understanding of ourselves is limited to our metaphors

It has been said that what is uniquely human is our ability to understand something in terms of something else. For us a piece of paper can symbolise value. We learn the meaning of words from the world around us, and then we try to apply them to ourselves. Our language is full to the brim of spatial metaphors we don’t even reflect “over”, and we talk about our mind as being “inside” our head,  we “let someone in”, we are “superficial” or “deep”, we put ourselves “above” others and so on. Of course the mind is not “inside” the head, nor is the world “outside”. These are metaphors we have borrowed from the perceived world (or Euclidean geometry more precisely) because we cannot see ourselves “from above”.

Our understanding of ourselves is limited to the metaphors we have borrowed from the physical world.

It became very fashionable to talk about “the computational mind” and that the brain was a computer. Again, it was just because we found a new metaphor to use. But take three people, and let one of them be you. For science the fact that one of them is you makes no difference at all to any equation or theory. From a scientific perspective, even using subjective enquiry and phenomenology, the fact that one of those three is you is nonexistent. Why? Because we have no metaphor for being oneself. I don’t even think there can be such a metaphor, and it does not feature as a concept in language that I can think of. It is an example of something curious that is both experiential and fully familiar (metaphor) to everyone, yet outside normal language and the scientific method. And what about pure awareness? Is there anything else like it? Some things cannot be put into words. Sometimes it is beacause we cannot point to anything common and tangible to explain it, a specific sense of nostalgia provoked by a fragrance on a Spring walk for instance. But sometimes it is because whatever it is that produces words, is itself part of the universe. In the beginning there was absolutely not the word (to twist the Bible) as the words came quite a bit later and are but tiny parts of existence. Metaphorically speaking the rational faculty is stuck inside the basic Kantian categories like the brain is stuck inside the skull. To claim there is nothing outside language, outside our symbols and metaphors, is both naïve and a sign of grandiose hubris. Everything that appears irrational is not necessarily more primitive than rationality – it may be beyond it – not prerational but transrational. Who promised us that the mind ever be able to understand the mind? God!?

4. Science’ failure to give itself a scientific basis

All this leads up to the conclusion that science as an enterprise is yet another human project, while in many ways superior to previous efforts still very much bound to the limitations of being human. Humanity as a species will disappear one day, and with it science and its theories. Why would the theories of today be the true ones? Science itself cannot answer this, let alone religion. As long as there is no science of psychology there is no science of science. When listening to scientists like Dawkins one gets the impression that science itself is separate from all other human activities and somehow exempt from the need to explain itself as a phenomenon, but it isn’t. Why would human beings be able to get a true understanding of the universe? Science always gets into trouble when it tries to explain its own existence. One can say that the senses and reason are superior to other means of obtaining knowledge of the world, but one cannot use these means themselves to underpin this epistemological claim. One can point to practical and technological superiority yes, but one will never be able to obtain objective scientific knowledge about the minds relationship to the world. It would be like a camera trying to photograph itself or a thought trying to think about itself. However much science strives to arrive at the “view from nowhere” it will always remain our view. It threw out God and now there is no epistemological foundation to appeal to. Its hands are tied.

5. Since religion still exists does it not have survival value? 

According to Dawkins there is both a genetic and memetic evolution – the latter being the considerably faster cultural evolution that happens without any significant genetic mutations. Memetic evolution happens in the form of memes, or cultural elements, ideas, inventions, words, images, etc. all these things that make up culture and that can replicate themselves and spread. Science itself thus belongs to the memetic evolution. An essential element of Dawinian evolution is the idea that anything that remains in natural selection has survival value. Dawkins believes in the survival value of truth, and he is the first to admit that. However, the fact that religion is a universal cultural constant throughout the world for most known history raises the question about the survival value of delusions. Nietzsche was a Darwinian and while he strongly criticized Christianity, he was quick to point out that illusions can have great survival value. (And he did knock out a few of his own.) In natural selection of belief systems in the memesoup, science is not the inevitable survivor. While science may provide enough fascination for affluent rational people, for many the choice is not between truth and illusion, but between hope and disillusion. The need for purpose and hope might be stronger than the desire for intellectual sincerity and truth. If science wins over religious myths, ironically enough it won’t be because of its relative truth value, but on the merits of satisfying our existential needs. If it wins it might be simply because it is the best illusion we have hitherto constructed.

Morally speaking, science tries to describe what is, but what ought to be is essentially an extra-rational, and therefore extra-scientific matter.

One cannot derive an ought from an is.

One cannot derive an ought from an is. Looking at the world from the detached scientific point of view there is no scientific reason to care one way or the other what happens to mankind. Again, the fact that we happen to be us does not make any difference to the equations. If your goals were to exploit and destroy you could use scientific methods and technology and achieve this with utmost rational efficiency. For society at large it is quite possible that a degree of delusion is healthy and that a society without Hell or any Supreme Good could turn not only morally twisted but self-destructive. What is happening in Russia for example, a country that has lost its faith in both God and ideology? Why is it now trying to reinvigorate a nationalistic myth and hailing Stalin as the greatest Russian ever? Is this a desperate search for faith in something? Anything, even a mass-murdering dictator? Why myths exist is not a logical but a psycho-logical question. Why does the concept disillusion not have a positive ring? A degree of self-delusion may be essential to mental health and the rational thing to do, if one wanted to be happy and good, may be to partially live a lie. After all, it is inevitable as the ultimate illusion is the belief that one is beyond all illusions.

Can the idea that science is superior to religion at organising society be tested empirically? Is Dawkins belief that a “mythless life” is somehow superior to a “religious life” a scientific hypothesis, i.e. falsifiable? Religiously inspired violence comes to mind as simple examples in support of such a thesis, but isn’t science equally vulnerable to some such arguments? Looking at history, was not the Stalinist dream of a scientific Utopia just such a test? It was not Moses in the desert that invented the nuke or the psychological experiments of brainwashing performed by the CIA. It is in the choice of evidence religious bias shows itself. Dawkins says that he is not aware of any evidence that prove that a rationally based culture is any more moral than a traditional religious based culture, but he just “doesn’t want to live a lie”. If he is not aware of any evidence why does he not scientifically explore it? Not wanting to live a lie is a religious ideal as good or bad as any, but before imposing it on others should he not investigate the psychological and sociopolitical implications thereof? Maybe a “mythless life” is better for him, but how would he even test that? It is not like he can become religious for a day just to see. There is recent research to support that the God delusion may make people more moral and function better in society. Studies suggest that “belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous“. Who benefits from a scientific mindset? What societies are mature enough for it? While one can derive any type of morality one wishes from natural science – because there is none obligatory – hedonistic nihilism is definitely near at hand, and technology in the hands of hedonistic nihilists might ultimately lead to our demise. While cave people did not individually live as long as we do, they might end up having been here much longer than we ever will.

Ultimately science has no transcendental epistemological basis to offer itself, and while that makes it rationally inconsistent that is hardly a question that would keep people awake at night. The practical question of science vs religion is more important. I don’t think Dawkins is scientific enough about his own belief in science. I think he is much like an android finding a cable sticking out from its head and not understanding what it is for is wondering whether to unplug it. Until one clearly understands our need for religion simply trying to jerk the cable might do more harm than good. It is hard for a rational mind to believe in fairy tales, and to understand people that need them, but ultimately there are things beyond even the rational mind and its ken. Religion is not all about God, it is also about the Highest Good. How do you replace God with a secular Good? What does Darwin’s self-proclaimed pit bull know about this Brave New World? Well, nothing as it would be an evolutionary ermergence never seen before in human history. On what should this God-like intervention in the course of humanity be based so as to prevent this mutation in the memesphere turn out a freak? A hunch?!

I don’t know. What do you think? Please leave comments.

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7 Responses to “The Church of Reason”

  1. Ideation » Blog Archive » Ten days in Buddhist concentration camp Says:

    […] was the official absence of dogmas and mantras, and the emphasis on personal experience. I have elsewhere defined that I distinguish between the religious and the realist attitude to the world as seeing […]

  2. Ideation » Blog Archive » The Essential Tension Says:

    […] of a value neutral truth. The aim of knowledge is not truth, but a healthy society. I have tried to argue that the rationalist´s belief that truth is always good for people is an irrational assumption […]

  3. Ideation » Blog Archive » The Rules of the Game Says:

    […] than that of any preacher, no matter how many followers he may have. For all its shortcomings – incompleteness, Eurocentrism, self-forgetfulness, politics etc. – natural science remains the most reliable source […]

  4. Neill Says:

    How do you replace god with a secular good?

    I was reading the portable Atheist last night (now you already know what direction this piece is going to head in) and came across an interesting analogy. Roughly it goes something like this:

    “If you give a dog water, food and shelter, it will think you are god. If you give a cat water, food and shelter, it will think it is god”.

    Around ten months ago I acquired a puppy and so I couldn’t help but think that while the above is amusing, it has, at least in the dog’s regard, a very profound lesson to teach us about the way our species have been treated by the cruel and oppressive nature of religion.

    When I want my dog to do something, there are two approaches. One: I offer my pooch a reward/treat or two: I threaten my pooch with punishment. Both methods result in a favorable outcome.

    Is this not what religion offers mankind, as basic as it may seem? If you’re good, you get to go to heaven and if you are still not convinced by this tasty treat, well then you are threatened with hell and damnation, losing your very soul; the ultimate form of punishment.

    We as the human race are doing ourselves a great disservice by believing that we need religion to act morally. As religion, was invented by mankind, by default we invented morality. Our morality is in actual fact part of our evolution. A society that rapes, plunders and pillages, doesn’t survive long.

    The justice system offers us all we need to maintain a functioning society. The laws of this system was/is created by man, not god and as we progress we add to these laws. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thy, shall not drive faster than 120km per hour on the motorway”.

    We have created many modern day laws, which the populace obeys as fervently as they do laws from the good old book. We do not need god to know what we should or should not do.

    It would be ridiculous to assume that the psychopath would act any differently with or without the existence of religion or claiming that the narcissist could be curtailed by the priest who spends his time “educating” young boys behind altars in the “house of the Lord”.

    The singling out of Russia as an example of a nation that has lost its faith is in all honesty a poor one. I would rather live in Russia than Saudi Arabia or the American Bible belt to be honest. Russia has a leadership issue, not a morality issue. South Africa is a so-called Christian nation and yet it has the highest case of rape and gun violence in the world. Clearly the “hand of god” has done nothing for the virtue of the people in that country.

    Religion asks of us to grovel, to apologize daily for being sinners and to crave our deaths so we can go to a “better place”. Every fiber of my moral being wants to protect my fellow man from this fate. Where does this morality come from? It comes from within our evolved human nature and ability to anticipate what our fellow primates will feel in a situation based on our own emotional experiences.

    There is no question of science vs religion. The one is simply a tool to free mankind from a small oppressive minority that have used fear and violence to enforce itself not only on the wallets, wife’s and rights of the uneducated person, but most horrifically on their minds. Science in this equation should be renamed “education”, helping with simple biological facts such as that a virgin birth is laughable, that the molecules of water cannot turn to wine without a lengthy process of fermentation. Unlike religion, science does not claim to have all the answers, in fact, the more we learn the more we know how little we understand of the natural world.

    Religion is counterproductive. It refuses to evolve with us and it does its utmost best to keep us in the dark ages.

    In closing: religion is NOT about the highest good. It belittles, enslaves and harms our species and has nothing to offer us. Pulling the plug if we were so lucky to have that as an option would not result in anarchy or the downfall of society, I claim it would only stand the human race in good stead.


  5. b_o_r_g Says:

    “Pulling the plug if we were so lucky to have that as an option would not result in anarchy or the downfall of society, I claim it would only stand the human race in good stead.”

    Yes, that is what Dawkins et al claim as well but why would you need to “claim” it? Why is this not a scientific hypothesis to be explored? I am merely pointing out these flagrant inconsistencies in Dawkins. Where is the scientific evidence we need? Hoping, claiming, asserting etc. is all good, but if the thesis that a scienfic society is superior to a religious one is to have any credibility, it must itself be a scientific hypothesis, and thus be testable. To pretend to know the outcome of such tests is to be unscientific. You see the irony?

    “As religion, was invented by mankind, by default we invented morality. …Where does this morality come from? It comes from within our evolved human nature and ability to anticipate what our fellow primates will feel in a situation based on our own emotional experiences.” This is a circular argument. If morality comes from us how come we have such problems being moral. I agree with the assertion but not with how it tries to sidestep the problem. The problem is not that we don’t know what we ought to do in our moments of moral lucidity, but to remember it when our emotions are clouded. Frank Zappa said something along the lines of “if you were ever inclined to think that humanity was wicked all you need to do is to turn on the news and you’d know you are right.” The problem is exactly how this “evolved human nature” is to be brought about. Setting aside all the horrors of religion, there still remains the problems of existential anxiety and moral depravity that it has tried to solve. Science in general does NOT even try to. That is not part of its goals. So I don’t see how it will succeed. Apart from religion, what really shapes the way we live are market forces and shortsighted destructive stupidity is pretty much built into the consumer manipulation circus we are currently enjoying.

    Science needs to be transformed and rethink its purpose. Now it is mainly the lapdog of innovation hungry corporations. I am arguing for a rethink about its raison d’etre here (which is very funny considering I am so far outside that discourse I might as well be an exoplanet). The only purpose for science is sustained wellbeing of living creatures. From that axiom you can derive both morality and decide on scientific funding. I have more respect for Sam Harris who has realised this massive inconsistency and is trying to make up for it in his work The Moral Landscape. An obvious scientific approach to find out what factors are benenficial to a healthy society seems to me to be crosscultural studies of wellbeing, but there are very few such studies. Harris is clutching at straws when he is refering to “independent scholar” Gregory Paul
    Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies

    A new and more thorough study is this
    International Differences in Well-Being: Diener, Helliwell, Kahneman. Particularly the chapter
    Faith and Freedom: Traditional and Modern Ways to Happiness

    I also think you will enjoy this upcoming IQ2 debate
    “The world needs religion even if it doesn’t need God”

    Love it or hate it, religion will not go away, but it is possible we can reform it to at least not go against a healthy society, education, openmindedness, evidence and transnationalistic empathy. We are trying to rebuild a ship in midocean and we are better adviced to only do away with the bits that sink whilst keeping that wich will keep us afloat.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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