Friday, August 21, 2015

Must We Choose Between Faith and Reason?

Near the end of my first Faith and Reason post I began to consider the view held by some that the world would be better off if everyone would simply eschew such things as faith, belief, spirituality, and religion in order to become more rational and scientific in their thinking. Sure enough, I’ve seen and heard enough to know what kind of harm can be done in the name of religion and the potentially dangerous dogmas that they sometimes espouse. I’ve seen how the metaphysical realities believed in by some can hinder the more rational thinking individuals in our midst from taking steps to address those problems that are very much a part of our reality here and now. But is it really fair or true to say that religion is the cause of all of those problems, and rational thinking the solution? Does faith, belief, spirituality, and religion really have no place whatsoever in the lives of modern, forward-thinking humans – those who are hoping to build a better world?

Before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps I should say a few words about what I mean by faith, a word that clearly means different things to different people. To some it means belief in the absence of any evidence whatsoever. To others it means belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whereas some view it as little more than a cohort group identifier, others view it as a way to bring the entirety of their being into resonance with that which is bigger than they are. In this regard, it might seem like a form of submission; but it might also be viewed as an opening up to greater possibility. Faith might look like a crutch to those who see it as weakness, or it might look like a tool to those who see it as strength. Regardless, for the purposes of this post I will simply contrast faith with reason. Reason encompasses that which is rational, scientific, quantifiable and verifiable. Faith, then, will be what is left over after that which is in the realm of reason has been identified.

At this point I think we’re ready to springboard right into the depths of the questions posed above by considering the work of Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist whose recent research related to human violence seems to indicate that the world has never been a safer place (at least for us humans.) In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Pinker draws his conclusion after comparing changes in the levels of various forms of individual and state-sponsored violence over time. The abstract on Pinker’s webpage devoted to the book states:
Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence. 
It would seem that reason has won out over faith right out of the gate – to the extent that government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism generally fall within its purview! The data speak for themselves. Reason is helping to make the world a better place. Or is it?

Without a doubt Pinker is a brilliant and compelling researcher with many insights to convey. That notwithstanding, I feel compelled to consider his conclusions within a broader context: Human activity is changing the earth’s climate, thereby pushing species toward extinction – maybe even Homo sapiens. The ever-increasing human population with its commensurate demand for natural resources is putting unprecedented pressure on domestic and international relations as competing interests become nudged further and further toward conflict. Add to this the possibility of more and more nations gaining access to nuclear weapons. Consider the increased potential for a viral pandemic due to overcrowded agricultural operations, increasing temperatures, ecosystem destabilization, and the ease with which people traverse the world. Consider also the economic interdependence that has recently revealed (again) that the world economy behaves like a house of cards under certain circumstances, the collapse of which could propel the world into unprecedented chaos and violence. Given all of these very real challenges, are we to think of our relatively improved human circumstances as existing in stable equilibrium, or should we be concerned that the these recent centuries of declining violence constitute little more than a period of unstable equilibrium from which we might be tipped toward much more dire circumstances by any number of forces? In other words, should we congratulate our species on a job well done for our diminished rates of violence, or should we hang our heads for having brought all of life on earth to the brink of disaster? The stark reality is that our anthropocentric system is really not a very robust one at all. There are too many ways for a catastrophic outcome to result.

Pinker glancingly responds to such concerns. In the FAQ section of his website he considers the possibility of nuclear war:
There is no answer to the question of how to compare the decline in actual deaths from dozens of high-probability categories (homicide, war, domestic abuse, and so on) with the increase in hypothetical deaths from one low-probability category – it is, as they say, a philosophical question.
Indeed, a philosophical question, a question of values, a question of morals and ethics, a question of worldview, perhaps even a question of faith. My contention, then, is as follows: Without a doubt, reason, the scientific method, and rational enquiry are indispensable to our ability to successfully navigate this modern world. On the other hand, if we rely on them alone we risk behaving as mere tool-users devoid of any meaningful way to ascertain the quality of the outcome after all of our hacking and sawing and chiseling has taken place. What will reason have ultimately wrought if it leads to our marching, however peacefully, to a calamitous end that our reasonable minds could do nothing to forestall?

I’m reminded of the Robert Pirsig novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (and also its sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.) The protagonist in ZAMM is an English professor and motorcycle enthusiast who descends into near madness while wrestling with what it means to say that something has quality, whether in regards to quality writing or small engine repair. He is well aware of how motorcycle maintenance is amenable to a rational approach, but he also senses something greater, something much more nebulous and difficult to define: the transcendence of subject and object as the mechanic applies just the right amount of torque to a screw without reliance on anything but the feel of the process; the transcendence of subject and object as the rider becomes one with her machine. Does she feel the road through and in her bike? Does she hear the subtle changes in sound and vibration that indicate what is going on with her machine, with her? We might try to quantify various aspects of these processes in order to arrive at some kind of measure of their quality, but the essence of quality will still somehow manage to slip through our fingers. And so it is that we can examine various measures of societal well-being, as Pinker does, and completely overlook the dangerousness of the circumstances that we’ve gotten ourselves into. We risk getting lost in rational measures that are not necessarily good stand-ins for inherent quality.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the new Cosmos television series, got himself into a bit of hot water recently when a video clip of him answering a question about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seemed to reveal an inability on his part to grasp the significance of the difference between the selective breeding and hybridization that humankind has engaged in for millennia and our modern endeavors in the field of genetic engineering – the “splicing” of genes from a different species or even a different kingdom onto those of another life form, perhaps even the creation of new life forms. DeGrasse Tyson subsequently expounded on and clarified his thoughts on the matter in a social media post. In it he opined on the matter of farmers becoming dependent upon non-reproducing GMO seed stock even as they are struggling to become self-sufficient:
Corporations, even when they work within the law, should not be held immune from moral judgement on these matters.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into deGrasse Tyson’s words in noting that, at least with respect to some circumstances, he understands that scientific measures of safety and nutritional content only go so far. We need also to be mindful of the nature and quality of the processes that bring food to our tables. Some opponents of the labeling of GMO foods point to what they refer to as an inability to find any objective measure by which we might judge GMOs negatively as reason enough to dispense with any labeling by which they could be distinguished by the consumer. What these labeling opponents are not recognizing is that many proponents of a more natural or organic food supply are making a statement about the inherent nature of the food that they want to eat – not merely its safety or nutritional value. They are making a statement about the quality of the food (and the world) that they desire.

Could there be a more inspirational champion of reason than Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist who has risen above his ALS diagnosis to contemplate some of the most vexing cosmological questions of our time? However, despite his vast powers of reason, or perhaps because of them, he’s not above speculating on matters that are more in the realm of philosophy, or even faith for that matter. Given his assessment of our chances of lasting another millennia here on earth, Hawking has posited that we have a moral obligation to colonize space, or to at attempt to do so. In his own words, from ABC News and CNN articles, respectively:
I don't think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.

It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next 100 years, let alone next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.
And you might have thought me a pessimist!

Interestingly, whereas Pinker seems to relegate such “low-probability” hypotheticals as nuclear war to the philosophical realm, without bearing on the focus of his work, Hawking is ready to plunge into the middle of any number of hypothetical annihilators of humankind to conclude that we must act to leave forever this beautiful place that we call home. From what I can tell, however, Hawking’s conclusion isn’t based on any probabilistic study of the likelihood of climate change-induced mass extinction, nuclear devastation, seismic catastrophe, asteroid collision, viral pandemic, supernova explosion, or what have you. From what I can tell, Hawking didn’t even consider our chances for making a successful landing on a habitable planet on which human life might be sustained. Oh, and I don’t believe he took into consideration the cost of such a prolonged initiative, including the opportunity cost of not investing similar sums into ensuring that we don’t kill ourselves off in preventable ways! No, from what I can tell Hawking is relying on a very unscientific and unreasoned assessment of what constitutes quality with respect to the human race. He is making a statement of faith about our world, about life, about our species and our future – not that there’s anything wrong with that!   

Next up: Beyond Faith and Reason.

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Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Faith and Reason

I attended the inaugural Gateway to Reason conference in St. Louis last weekend and very much enjoyed all of the half-dozen or so sessions that I managed to fit into my schedule. Although I don’t consider myself an atheist, for all practical purposes Gateway to Reason could have been referred to as an atheist convention – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Fans of the old Seinfeld television show will recognize that last aside as the reoccurring punchline from one of the episodes, uttered each time one of the show’s characters disavowed being gay. Come to think of it, it’s a fitting punchline to invoke in this context because it quickly became apparent to me that atheists are members of a similarly oppressed subculture here in the U.S.

Being “out” as an atheist is much like being “out” as a gay person, with all of the concomitant dangers of being ostracized, unfriended, disowned, oppressed, and threatened. Questions and comments from those in attendance frequently alluded to being “out,” and some expressly solicited guidance as to how to navigate as a known atheist in a family or community that is so steeped in Christian culture. Take that to the extreme and consider what it would be like for a Christian minister who has lost faith and subsequently “come out” as an atheist. That is precisely what one of the speakers, Teresa MacBain, spoke of during her session. She now directs the Recovering from Religion hotline project, a resource for those who may be suffering deeply for not believing as their families do, or as their community does.  She also spoke of the Clergy Project, a resource for religious professionals who have lost their faith, thereby jeopardizing their livelihood and, if the threats are to be taken seriously, their lives.

Such work is not readily visible, understood, or appreciated by those of us not affiliated with the atheist community. The fact is, however, that this is important, compassionate, and necessary work that benefits all of us. Society as a whole suffers when any one of us is wrestling with feelings of isolation and meaninglessness. Society as a whole also suffers when any one of us is ignorant, uninformed, or misled. And so it was that I appreciated the talk given by Aron Raa rational/intellectual who, among other things, has taken up the cause of trying to keep religious superstition from being inserted into the textbooks used to educate our public school children.

I didn’t manage to catch his talk, but I can even appreciate the work of Lucien Greaves, an atheist and spokesperson for the Satanic Temple whose activism helps call attention in very bold ways to the fact that recent legal and political developments promoting Christianity are not really in the best interests of society. Sometimes it takes something as “shocking” as the proposal to erect a statue of Baphomet on public property to reveal how Christian symbols on public property might appear to those who are not Christian, or to those who simply believe strongly in the constitutional separation of church and state. So, make sure that you really want that Ten Commandments statue to be placed on public property because you might just have to put up with a goat-headed man/deity glowering at you as you pass by! By the way, you might be surprised at how…, well…, reasonable the tenets of the Satanic Temple actually are!

Regular readers of this blog – a rather rational and reasoned exploration of spirituality and religion, if I do say so myself – might think it makes perfect sense that I’d be interested in attending such a convention. After all, spirituality, as I define the word in general, and in my Spirituality and Religion post in particular, is not off-limits to even the staunchest of atheists or rationalists. On the other hand, given the fact that I still call myself a Buddhist, and given the fact that many in attendance likely consider this to be a rather quaint, anachronistic, and irrational system of belief, I did feel a little bit as though I were harboring a secret – despite my being present with the sincerest of intentions. I wondered if some might consider me an outsider at best, a spy at worst, but most certainly not as reasonable as the others in attendance. Indeed, despite much of the conference’s focus on the detrimental impact to all of us caused by the more dogmatic adherents of Christianity, it is not a stretch to say that this pro-reason gathering was also very much an anti-religious gathering – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my first criticism: Despite the preponderance of examples of religious inanity coming from the most stubbornly dogmatic and literal-minded fundamentalist Christian camp, despite most of the “deconverted” speakers in attendance having come from the ranks of Christianity, the conclusion seems to have been drawn that all religions share equally in the guilt by mere association. They are all non-rational in their various ways and therefore subject to dismissal out of hand.

Let me be clear, I consider myself to be anti-religious in many respects. I’m anti-religious when it comes to religion being used as a basis to deny the science of climate change. I’m anti-religious when certain adherents want all children to be taught a blindingly ignorant version of creation in lieu of the solidly scientific version that is indisputable to all but the “faithful.” I’m anti-religious when a certain religious group thinks that they are divinely entitled to the land of others. I’m anti-religious when a powerful religious hierarchy goes out of its way to protect pedophile priests. I’m anti-religious when those in the U.S. government want to base foreign policy on some misguided modern biblical interpretation of what the so-called “end times” are supposed to look like. Yes, I’m anti-religious when Christians are killing Muslims and vice versa. I’m anti-religious when Jews are killing Muslims and vice-versa. I’m anti-religious when Buddhists (yes those ostensibly peaceful Buddhists!) are killing Muslims, or anyone else for that matter. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of Buddhism: I’m anti-religious when it comes to Buddhist practices that are imbued with sexist attitudes, and when teachers are little more than sexual predators masquerading as enlightened beings. I’m anti-religious when a narcissistic Buddhist teacher stops at nothing to hold onto the absolute power of his position, and others reflexively support him. Yes, and I’m anti-religious when the hierarchical organization of which that teacher is a part remains silent in tacit approval of his actions. Check out Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking and my August, 2013 series beginning with Power - A Prelude if you would like the backstory for these latter remarks.

So…, if I’m as rational as I say I am…, if I’m as peacefully and selectively anti-religious as I am…, if I was present during this Gateway to Reason conference with the sincerest of intentions…, why then did I still feel a little bit like a mole who’d popped up out of his burrow with hundreds of hawks circling around overhead? I think the reason is that, whereas I describe myself as peacefully and selectively anti-religious, my perception was that many in attendance were peacefully anti-religious, period, with no selectivity about it – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my second criticism: Most of the presenters that I listened to seemed to be of the opinion that the world would be much better off if everyone would just cast off the yoke of superstitious and destructive belief and become a rationalist, an atheist, or what have you. Much of the focus seemed to be on winning arguments and changing minds, thereby incrementally moving the world in a better direction. The problem is that ALL religion seems to be considered superstitious and destructive. As you can see, I’m very ready to call a spade a spade, but I am not quite ready to draw the conclusion that the world would be better off without religion. Sure, John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion” is a fruitful one to consider. But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean that we are not spiritual either? Are we still spiritual but we just don’t allow ourselves to be tainted by religiosity? Should we eschew both spirituality and religion in order to become purely rational beings – whatever Spock-like entity that might be? Is that what will make the world a better place? That’s a lot to consider! I only think it reasonable to revisit such questions in a future post!

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank