Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Asymptotically approaching religion

Good stuff in the atheism discussion.

John Wilkins points out that religion is a human institution, and like all such is responsible for a lot of good, evil, and none of the above. Ascription is difficult to impossible, and because religion is an inextricable part of human culture and psychology, it won't go away just because some scientists don't like it.

Sean Carroll has a very interesting post where he (starting from Terry Eagleton's negative review of The God Delusion) dissects the standard Western idea of God into its component parts: the abstract, impersonal, and universal god of the Greek philosophers, and the personal tribal deity of the Hebrews. This post, more than any other, is resonating with my own semi-articulated thinking, so I'll jump off with it.

The one idea in my head that won't go away is this: God is not an existing object, like a chair or a person or a teapot orbiting Jupiter. Whatever the word "God" means, it's not that, not this. Whether you are an atheist or theist, it seems clear that whatever kind of existence you believe in, it's not the kind of existence engaged in my ordinary objects, but something else, something that ordinary language fails at capturing.

There are other things we think about that have an existence of a kind other than chairs and teapots; things which are real (in some sense) but not material. These would include concepts (like the number 2) and fictional characters (Harry Potter), as well as religious concepts like gods, spirits, and souls. It is at best misleading to say that these either exist or don't exist. My strong intuition is that both theism and atheism, at least in their naive forms, are philosophical mistakes.

Of course such intellectual games satisfy nobody. The faithful don't believe in abstractions, and the skeptical don't want to be bothered with sophistry.

Carroll points out out a deep flaw in Eagleton's argument. Eagleton chides Dawkins for having a naive concept of God, as opposed to the more abstract kind preferred by sophisticated theologians. Fine, But then Eagleton goes on to attribute anthropomorphc properites like love and creativity to what was until now a vague abstraction like "the ground of being". I may as well quote Carroll at length:

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

Carroll goes on with an excellent analysis of the incompatiblity of these two concepts of God, which is entirely worth reading, but I disagree with his conclusion that the incompatibility and incoherence of these ideas means that God doesn't exist. As I said, both existence and non-existence seem inapplicable predicates.

I believe that "God" is a coherent idea (or meme if you will), as it seems to be, since both theists and atheists seem to have a rough agreement about what they are talking about, and just disagree on its ontological status. It's not coherent in the philosophical sense (as Carroll shows), but coherent in the sense that its a stable idea, a mind-virus that thrives in the environment of human culture. Is it an idea like "Harry Potter", that is, purely fictional and arbitrary? Or is it more like a mathematical idea, like pi or the Pythagorean theorem, immaterial objects that seem to have a real existence outside of human culture and invention? Harry Potter is likely to be forgotten in a thousand years (well, maybe not...) but God is likely to stay, despite the best efforts of people like Dawkins.

My intuition, which I can't yet articulate, is that there is something about the concept of God that can almost be captured in a formal mathematical way, something that makes it a necessary concept of minds that are conscious and have agency. God's ontological status is somewhere between Harry Potter (wholly fictional and arbitrary) and pi (an apparently inevitable aspect of some deep structure of reality). Or so my flailing intuition tells me.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Against easy atheism

Atheism is much in the air these days, with new books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and a secondary wave of reviews and criticism, including Thomas Nagel in TNR, Marilyne Robinson in Harpers, Terry Eagleton in the LRB, and Jim Holt in the NYT, and Gary Wolf in Wired. These responses are mostly not from a standpoint of religious faith, rather, insofar as they are critical it's because of Dawkins' deliberately crude argumentation tactics. I find myself fence-straddling in this conversation -- on the one hand, I'm a sciencey guy and am alarmed at the rising political power of religious nfundamentalists. On the other hand, I don't think dismissing a large chunk of human culture and experience as simply a "delusion" is wise, from both the abstract philosophical standpoint and as a political tactic. So I find myself in sympathy with Dawkin's critics.

Dawkins engages in inverse cherry-picking (there should be a word for that) when it comes to religion, cataloging its many sins and failures but mostly ignoring whatever positive contributions it makes to human life. Robinson points out that science is not without sin itself and that if you are going to compare the two it must be done fairly:

The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison. What is religion? It is described by Dawkins as a virtually universal feature of human culture. But there is, commingled with it, indisputably and perhaps universally, doubt, hypocrisy, and charlatanism. Dawkins, for his part, considers religion wholly delusional, and he condemns the best of it for enabling all the worst of it. Yet if religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by “science” is meant authentic science, then “religion” must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.

Dawkins fails to recognize that religion is not primarily about belief. Religion is about community, ritual, and emotional comfort, which is why people are so attached to it. The facticity of religious belief system is a secondary matter, and that's why attacks like Dawkins just seem misplaced. Dawkins takes religion as merely a bad form of science, a theory of nature which happens to be untrue. This misses the point completely, and it misses the point in the same way that religious fundamentalists seem to miss the point of their own faiths. Dumb religion breeds dumb criticism of religion. He's picking on the weakest form of religion, practiced by the weak-minded. It's not very interesting.

It's also ineffectual. The spiritual side of human nature isn't going to respond well to reason and argument. By deliberately promoting war between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism, and lumping in religious moderates with the former, Dawkins may stir controversy but is unlikely to change any minds. Religion won't go away. Atheists don't have the numbers to win a straight-out political war, so it just seems like better tactics to promote weak forms of religion that do not conflict with science, rather than lump moderates with fundamentalists.

So, while no religious believer, I'm not a fan of the sort of fundamentalist atheism espoused by Dawkins, Harris, and PZ Myers. I'm find it much more interesting to search for some way to reconcile spiritual concepts with with science. It's more challenging and risks being ridiculous, but something compels me to think about this nonsense (see here and here for previous attempts).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Who's writing this?

It's a pleasure to see the Republicans in such disarray. After years of misrule by these clowns, years where it seemed their chokehold on power seemed impregnable, this sort of downfall provides a very satisfying dramatic arc.

It seems very likely that some kind of military action in Iran was being planned, and it also seems likely that the combination of Predatorgate and the new Woodward book has made that impossible now. It would be too obviously an attempt to change the subject and influence the election.

The world can hardly afford another horrendous mess in the middle east. If we are spared, we might have Mark Foley's creepiness to thank for it.

Having a war stopped by intenet sex chat also has a certain literary feel to it.