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