Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Boring is worse than wrong

The real reason I find myself vaguely defending some religious ideas against village-atheism is the same reason I used to go around getting into arguments with libertarians. It's that overly simple belief systems really annoy me, even if (especially if) I mostly agree with them. Libertarians used to make me crazy, because I always knew exactly what they would say in any situation (the spur for this post is this column (TNR subscribtion required) which makes the same observation about the New York Times op-ed libertarian, John Tierney). Same for the atheists, like PZ Myers. I can pretty much predict his reaction to any piece of news involving religion, which makes his posts on those subjects information-free (they can be entertainingly nasty though).

I guess I don't like fundamentalisms of any sort. Libertarianism and atheism both tend to be all-explanatory and ignorant of nuance. Libertarianism in its fascination with the distributed market model ignores anything which doesn't fit its framework, such as public goods, distortion of the market by the overly powerful (who can manipulate it unfairly) and the poor (who may have no motivation to respect property rights). Atheism tends to ignore the nature of religious belief, treating as something like bad science, rather than trying to understand what it might really be about. Let's just say God is the referent of the word "God", and while it may not exist the way a chair exists, it has a real conceptual role in thought which it might be useful to understand.


Anonymous said...

That PZ Meyers sure is a pistol! Funny as all get out.

Atheism isn't a "world view" or anything at all. It's disbelief. You don't believe in Santa Claus, Zeus, Ganesh, or anything uttered by a politician. Adding God to the list doesn't make you a fundamentalist. It makes you the person behind the yawn.

Anonymous said...

I find this related to Bruce Sterling's assertion that, because Science Fiction is entertainment, it's more important to be Entertaingly Wrong than to be Dully Accurate. I suppose that's also true about many other intellectual pursuits: certainty is boring. The point when you become certain is the point where your brain has shut itself off, "OK, quittin' time, I'm done thinking. Certainty on, brain off, thinking over. Move along, nothing to see here." Sure that's useful, even essential for daily survival; if you wondered about every little detail you encountered, all the time, you'd be living in a perpetual acid trip (not that there's anything wrong with that...). But certainty and absolutes are like death to people who love to wonder, ponder, and explore. Certainty is dull. "Maybe" and "I don't know" are where all the fun is... if you like to think about stuff.

And all the spiritual fulfillment too: the more you wonder, the more "enlightened" (as described by various mystical traditions) you are. I suspect this is what mystics and scientists have in common-- and what provides the mystical and spiritual fulfillment component of scientific and secular intellectual pursuit: "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out", as was titled an interview with one of my favourite scientists-with-a-mystic-sense-of-wonder, Feynman. Or, perhaps more accurately, the pleasure of wondering about them and trying to figure them out: the journey is the reward, the puzzle is the game and the solution merely an end-product.

And I suspect that uncertainty is closer to the truth (whatever that is or isn't) anyway. I'm reminded of Robert Anton Wilson's assertion that "If you think you know What The Hell is Going On, you are obviously full of shit".

I personally find it interesting and intellectually entertaining (and often productive too) to embrace the uncertainty and dive right into it. I find hand-waving uncertainty away to be boring and lazy, and to willfully ignore it or violently argue against its existance to be simply ignorant, even terribly dangerous in certain contexts (c.f. Neocons, Religious Fundamentalists, Totalitarianism, etc).

I've seen enough evidence so far to discount any world-view which attempts to claim objectivity: be it religion or "fundamentalist materialism" (i.e. scientific atheism, Marxism). What I am required by law and social convention to acknowledge as "consensus reality" is a more or less arbitrary map produced through combination of democratic agreement, collective empiricism (science), rival-gangs-of-apes power-struggle, and gamble: a cultural artifact.

Anyway, that's what it seems like right now. Who knows, someone might discover some real convincing proof of an Absolute Objective Reality, but I haven't seen it yet.

Veg said...

We need to recognize the absolute truth that various ridiculous untruths in the world are the Truth for others. It is True, for example, that you are Satan, from the perspective of others (and perhaps vice versa).

As W.I. Thomas said (though some say it was his wife): what is perceived as real is real in its consequences.