The Paradox of Popular Anachronism

Sometimes an idea, a strategy, or a style of communication becomes boring due to sheer repetition – and yet it remain popular. That’s especially puzzling when it’s never even worked. I’ll give two off-topic examples, and then get back to religion.

Example 1: Obsessing about who’s to blame for a problem instead of what we can do to solve it.

Is global warming caused by human activity? Who cares? The important question is whether human activity can slow warming or even stop it. I realize some people think global warming is a hoax, but that’s a different issue. Right now I’m focusing on how we think about problems: Let’s spend lots of time assigning blame.

Example 2: Emphasizing persons instead of systems. Who caused the financial crisis and the Great Recession? Everyone and no one. The system was set up in ways that rewarded imprudent risk-taking. Eventually we got burned.

Example 3: Dealing with religious differences by attacking, denigrating, and mocking those who disagree with us.

In his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman gives an example, quoting a prominent atheist named PZ Meyers:

“I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.”

This statement is frequently quoted on the internet by people who dislike atheists. Meyers probably thought he was striking a powerful blow against religion, when actually he was handing a big box of ammo to his adversaries.

I am so weary of polarizing, overheated rhetoric. It is so boring, so tedious, so passé. To use an old-fashioned analogy, it sounds like the record got stuck in a groove. And yet this approach is still popular. It’s out of date, and yet widely acclaimed: The paradox of popular anachronism.

On January 17, 2012, in a comment on Julian Baggini’s essays, I noted the popularity of shallow attack-rhetoric:

“Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings…. Posts given the thumbs-up by 25 or more readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning: ‘Rubbish,’ ‘You’re making ridiculous leaps,’ ‘Atheism is essentially irrational,’ and a scornful reference to ‘Dawkins and all you “atheist” lot.'”

Don’t people ever get tired of self-stimulating their own combat hormones?

There is nothing so pathetic as an idea whose time has come and gone … when people still think it works.

Nevertheless, I am still hopeful that more of us will wake up to the wastefulness of antagonism and the power of cooperation, among those of all faiths and philosophies. Reflecting on his own experiences with interfaith work, Stedman writes that our world needs “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (Faitheist, p. 133)

This is not yet an idea whose time has come. But I think it’s on its way.

May we live to see that day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Heathen Manifesto: An Appreciative Critique

I’ve written a lot about Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress essays in the Guardian website. He completed this series with a Heathen Manifesto, and I’ll make just a few comments about this document. The Manifesto includes these points:

1 Why we are heathens

2 Heathens are naturalists

3 Our first commitment is to the truth

4 We respect science, not scientism

5 We value reason as precious but fragile

6 We are convinced, not dogmatic

7 We have no illusions about life as a heathen

8 We are secularists

9 Heathens can be religious

10 Religion is often our friend

11 We are critical of religion when necessary

12 This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others 

For full details see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/25/atheists-please-read-heathen-manifesto

I appreciate the way Julian strives for humility, “acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion.” He likes calling his atheistic outlook “heathen” “… because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.” Actually many religious individuals realize that our understanding is quite limited. This is one of the very few times that Baggini has fallen into the trap of equating religiosity with dogmatism.

Overall I think Baggini has succeeded in sketching a distinctive and constructive atheistic stance, and I appreciate his efforts. Even so, I do want to propose one “friendly amendment.” The ninth principle mentions religions that are compatible with heathenism: “These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities …” I have the impression that Julian sees American Unitarian Universalism as heathen-compatible, and as a Unitarian Universalist minister I would amend item nine, changing “reject” to “do not proclaim.” Thus:

“There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion which do not proclaim the real existence of supernatural entities …”

Many Unitarian Universalists are atheists or agnostics, or naturalistic theists who view some part of nature as divine. But we do not specifically prohibit our members from believing that gods, goddesses, or spirits exist.

This amendment fits the overall thrust of the manifesto, which respects those who arrive at traditionally religious beliefs “on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry” as heathens do. I would be uncomfortable if a congregant emphatically asserted the existence of invisible spirits on the basis of non-debatable divine revelation. But if someone believes in such spirits after careful reflection, and is open to the possibility that other world-views may turn out to be more accurate, I would welcome his or her involvement in Unitarian Universalism. My religion is more about the values I affirm than the doctrines I reject.

I also want to especially applaud one statement in this document that many quibblers have evidently overlooked: “It is … almost a precondition of supporting [this manifesto] that you do not entirely support it.”

Amen, Julian (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Roger Christan Schriner

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Speaking of Non-Sequiturs …

On the Guardian web site, January 26, Julian Baggini critiqued an essay by Mark Vernon. Vernon, who is an agnostic, was criticizing “the modern atheist,” basing his critique on uncontroversial ideas “such as the fact that cognition is ‘embodied’ and does not take place in some kind of Cartesian ego which is distinct from our physicality.”

Supposedly atheists, under the influence of science-oriented philosophical traditions, value “knowledge that can claim objectivity,” while denigrating “subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards … The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions.”

Baggini replies: “I’m afraid it’s all too common for defenders of faith to start off by piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings, only to follow up with a plethora of non sequiturs.”

I agree, and I’d broaden that statement considerably. I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve read some article that mentions two or three new (and still controversial) research studies, and draws sweeping conclusions about psychology, economics, politics, religion, etc.

Vernon notes that “spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives.” He seems to suggest that these activities lead to new discoveries. Baggini, on the other hand, claims “that subjective experience, in all its forms, is a very unreliable detector of objective reality.”

My reply: You’re both right. Mark is right, in the sense that subjective experience gives us data about issues that would be hard to study scientifically. Example: When I worked as a psychotherapist I led personal growth workshops in which people delved into their own emotions, motivations, memories, fantasies, hopes and fears. It was common for them to make discoveries about values, priorities, and personal needs that would have been difficult to unearth through a scientific investigation.

Inward exploration can also deepen our understanding of what we already know. For instance, regardless of whether Joe Jones knows that he wants to be more assertive, after a few therapy sessions this fact may move from the back of his mind onto center stage, so that he acts upon it much more frequently. Facts such as these are not “known” in the same sense as knowing whether to check “true” or “false” on a quiz. They are known by degrees, and it’s the degree of knowledge that makes all the difference.

On the other hand, Baggini is right that subjective experience isn’t a particularly reliable way to establish theological truths. I notice that in Vernon’s essay, his comments about the benefits of spiritual practices mostly have to do with how these practices make people feel and act, not with whether the beliefs that grow out of these practices make any sense.

By the way, there is an intense debate among contemporary philosophers about whether we can learn about our own mental processes via introspection. See for example, Describing Inner Experience: Proponent Meets Skeptic, by Russell T. Hurlburt and Eric Schwitzgebel. I am currently writing a book about this issue and related topics. One of these days I’ll start a new blog on problems of consciousness.

For Julian’s essay see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jan/26/modern-believer-not-suspicious-enough

For Mark Vernon’s: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jan/17/faith-body-prayer 

Roger

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Physicalism and the Puzzle of Qualia

In my previous posting I discussed Julian Baggini’s “articles of 21st-century faith,” an attempt to find common ground among many atheists and progressive theists. It seems to me that these articles require an agreement that nothing exists except physical reality, and I see this as overly restrictive.

Let’s be clear: I’m not just talking about the fact that some things are hard to describe in physical terms. For instance, I have heard people object to physicalism on the grounds that it excludes love, beauty, and humor. How could physics ever describe the thrill of a kiss or the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa? But in principle, such phenomena could be described in terms of the behavior of elementary particles, if we knew absolutely everything there is to know about such particles. We do not, so we are not remotely close to expressing love as an equation, but ultimately it might be possible.

And it might not be. I’ll mention two problems with the physicalist viewpoint. In both cases I will state my opinion, and also admit that I may be wrong.

First, scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition (predicting the future in certain peculiar ways), and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind). I am a longstanding skeptic about such matters, but I admit that there is some evidence for paranormal events. I am not persuaded, but my skeptical stance may turn out to be mistaken.

If such events actually occur, a completed physics would probably explain them naturalistically. But this is not certain. Paranormal processes might involve mysterious entities that could never be understood by the scientific method. That seems unlikely, but it is might be the case.

Second, scientists and philosophers are not sure how even in principle we could ever have a physical explanation of conscious experiences. That’s part of the reason it seems odd to imagine explaining love, humor, etc. in terms of quarks and quanta.

Why do philosophers think it’s so hard to know how experiences could be brain events? Is it because the brain is so complicated that we don’t know where to find consciousness in its tangled circuitry? Is it because conscious and unconscious processes are so tightly intertwined that we aren’t sure how a brain scanner could ever tell which is which? Those are indeed difficult problems, but academicians seldom lie awake at night wondering about them. In fact, philosopher David Chalmers calls these the “easy problems” of consciousness, not to make light of them but to contrast them with what he calls The Hard Problem.

The hard problem of consciousness is ‘hard’ in the sense that once we understand the issue we have no idea how to even begin addressing it! We are perpetually stuck at square one.

There are actually several understandings of the hard problem and several ways of expressing it. But in brief, even though there is a lot of evidence that conscious experiences are brain activities, it seems difficult or impossible to see how this could be true of so-called qualia, sensory qualities such as our experiences of colors, sounds, tastes, touches, tingles, pains and pleasures.

As Colin McGinn writes in The Problem of Consciousness, “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” “What has matter in motion got to do with the way a rose smells? What is it that converts brain ‘gook’ into visual experience?”

I think we will be able to solve the hard problem. In fact, my current book project addresses this very issue. But having wrestled with this conundrum for twenty years, I am keenly aware that it might permanently elude physical explanation.

Those who think this problem is insoluble have two alternatives. (1) Conscious experiences are physical, but we cannot know how this is so. (2) Conscious experiences are non-physical.

Each of these options will be endorsed by highly intelligent and well-informed individuals. This is another reason the Articles of Twenty-First Century Faith should not require the acceptance of physicalism.

Roger Schriner

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Julian Baggini’s Articles of 21st-century Faith

I’ve been commenting on Baggini’s on-line series, Heathen’s Progress. One of his goals is to find common ground between atheists and non-supernatural theists, people who worship a god but do not think this deity is an invisible, miracle-working, thinking-and-feeling super-person. On November 21 he presented four articles of 21st-century faith which he hopes will be agreed upon by many atheists and progressive theists. This proposal is related to my idea of a theological Plan B, a theological position we are confident would be true even if it turns out that we are seriously mistaken about deity.

Here’s a possible theistic Plan B: “Even if there is no god, by living in accord with spiritual principles I am finding beauty and goodness in this Earthly life.” Similarly, an atheist might say, “Even if I find myself in a supernatural realm after I die, my secular humanist path has helped me savor life and act in ways that make this world a better place. And I’m not worried that God will smite me for having the ‘wrong’ theology. ” (For more about Plan B, see Bridging the God Gap, pp. 165-68.)

Here is an abridged version of Julian’s four principles, with my responses.

“1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices.”

Response: Right! It is absolutely crucial to move from belief-centered to value-centered philosophies. Beliefs about ultimate reality will be debated for centuries, but people of many different faiths and philosophies can agree upon core values.

“2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles …”

Response: There is a difference between not requiring assent to miracles and rejecting the possibility of miracles. I think it is unlikely that miracles occur, but I do not reject their possibility. I suspect Julian wants to completely rule them out.

“3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe.”

Response: If someone makes such claims, based upon, e.g., mystical experiences, I see no problem as long as these claims are testable in a publically verifiable manner. They seldom are.

“4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.”

Response: It’s hard for me to object to this principle. I think divine inspiration of sacred books is unlikely, and every sacred book I have read absolutely oozes with obvious signs of human flaws and foibles. But many intelligent, well-educated, and sincere individuals believe that some texts are divinely inspired. If I were smarter, more knowledgeable, and/or more sincere than any of these folks, I might dismiss their opinions. But I’m not, and I don’t.

In short, I appreciate Julian’s attempt to find common ground, but I would frame these articles of faith more broadly. I think he wants to include only those who categorically reject all supernaturalistic or non-physicalist orientations. That’s a legitimate approach, but few who consider themselves religious will sign up.

A lot more would come on board if he welcomed those who are open to both physical and trans-physical interpretations of reality: “I think there’s a God, but I realize this may just be a human projection” and “I don’t believe in God, but it’s conceivable that we will eventually discover something at least vaguely godlike that now escapes the reach of science.”

For Baggini’s full statement, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/21/articles-of-21st-century-faith

Roger

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Beyond Bad Religion

In response to one of my recent posts about Heathen’s Progress, ChristianAtheist wrote:

“OK, so we know what bad religion looks like, in terms of lots of propositions, ineffability at the points at which you need clarity, lots of cognitive biases, irrationality and an emotional investment in a group membership that is hard to shake. What would good, non-fundamentalist, realistic, eyes wide open, flexible religion look like? And will a group of people adhering to such a theology be able to form a cohesive, sustainable group?”

That’s a good list of what’s bad about some faith communities. I would add: a heaping dose of arrogance and self-righteousness, hostility toward other spiritual pathways, and suffocatingly-tight control over the personal behavior of group members.

What would constructive and creative religion look like? Certainly the quality of relationships within the community would be crucial. People would treat each other with care and respect, allowing flexibility for individual differences instead of embracing members in a vise-like grip.

Instead of being belief-centered, such a community would be value-centered, focusing on the commitments we make to each other and the larger world. One such commitment would be: Always stay open to new discoveries, including the discoveries of the physical and social sciences.

I have met many people who have felt a deep need to belong to a positive and non-dogmatic spiritual community. When they meet like-minded individuals they are delighted to make those connections. The formal and informal groups they create are often strong and viable.

Any other suggestions?

Roger

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Baggini’s “Heathen’s Progress” 10/21/11 – 11/7/11

I’ve been reflecting on Julian Baggini’s recent series in The Guardian, called Heathen’s Progress. Here are comments about some of his earlier postings:

October 21: Baggini cautions atheists against seeing science as “our savior.” It is not “the source of all the knowledge and wisdom we need to live,” and “The most egregious recent example of this is Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, with its subtitle ‘How science can determine human values’.”

I haven’t read Landscape, but I don’t see how science can “determine” our ultimate core values. Even so, once we define these basic values, science can help us attain them. If you have read Harris’ book, what do you think? Does he justify his subtitle?

Many secular humanists in Western nations base their moral judgments on typical progressive/left-leaning political opinions. That’s OK with me, but let’s not forget to reflect on the basis of our moral commitments. Regardless of their political inclinations, few people seem to have thought much about how we ground our values.

October 28: Even though Julian is trying to cool down the overheated theist-atheist debates, he cautions against going to the opposite extreme, which he calls dogmatophobia, the fear of having any definite beliefs at all.

My favorite quote from this post: “Unfortunately, the middle ground in the God debate is occupied by too many people who screw up their eyes to create the illusion of a mist when the view is really clear.”

So Baggini warns us against both idolizing science and worshiping uncertainty.

November 7: Julian points out that even though we shouldn’t criticize a religion without understanding it, greater understanding does not automatically generate more accurate beliefs. I agree. I do not need to comprehend a particular religion as well as an adherent of that faith, in order to critique it. The devotee and I see from different angles. S/he can see things I cannot, and vice versa.

In this post Baggini once again prods both theists and atheists. Religion at its best, he suggests must “have a big fat mystery at its heart…. If there is a God, it must surely passeth all understanding.” Many of his fellow atheists will find that comment challenging.

And here’s his challenge to theists: “Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers … have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.”

Do check out Heathen’s Progress for yourself: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.

Roger

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