Sunday, March 20, 2016

Not Because It’s True

     [This first appeared at the Palace of Reason on December 30, 2003. I felt it a good time to repost it, as several commentators have recently fallen into the trap of exhorting Americans to return to Christianity for utilitarian reasons. -- FWP]

     Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

     Recent pieces by Kim Du Toit and Commander Will have reanimated an old debate: whether religion is, on balance, a positive or negative contributor to social soundness. While the question is interesting, more interesting yet -- and much more dangerous -- are the temptations that surround any sort of definite conclusion on the matter.

     The Du Toit essay cites religion as a source of behavioral constraints that all persons should observe, regardless of the specific creed to which one goes to find them. Kim posits that the major religions share a common behavioral code, which he approves, despite being an atheist himself. Along the way, he makes the following statement:

     [T]he basic tenets of religious precept are critical to the proper functioning of society -- it's why I as an atheist send my son to a parochial private school, and why the two homeschooled kids are held to rigorous standards of behavior. Children have to be drilled in the basic concepts of behavioral restriction -- theft is wrong, killing is wrong, etc. -- and the instruction is easier to do with religion, but not impossible without it.

     From this he progresses to the following conclusion:

     Religion and manners, properly observed, have served our society well over the centuries, and it's wrong to toss out everything on the basis that when employed to their extreme, they cause harm.

     In his comments on the matter, Commander Will says:

     But Kim, there have been so many very successful liars. And who are you to say that anyone should not lie if they are good at it? You see, the question is, from what basis or authority do you sit there and pontificate about why anyone should not lie? From where comes your authority? Truly honest atheists acknowledge that without a supreme being, creator, authority; it is every man for himself.

     And further on:

     Where we have screwed up as a society, is in the lapse of both religious precept and manners -- which results in ever-expanding laws to deal with all the exigencies which were once covered by religious and mannered proscription -- and which is also why more lawyers graduate from college each year than the year before.

     Before your Curmudgeon launches into his own, quite different take on the matter, he'd like to reassure you that he has no bone to pick with either of these worthies. Indeed, raising the questions they have is a valuable public service, for which they deserve thanks...but not because they've hit the target squarely.

     I contend that we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, then you will know why I dismiss yours. -- Stephen F. Roberts

     Is there anyone in the audience who'd defend the position that an atheist cannot be a decent and entirely acceptable man?

     Well, the crickets are certainly loud today. Your Curmudgeon just wanted that straw man out of the way before he proceeded to demolish the Roberts quote above.

     Religious belief as a category of human mentation has received far too little attention. Most of that attention has come from persons determined to destroy all foundation for religion, which makes matters worse; they're not objective analysts but partisans on a crusade.

     Your Curmudgeon, much given to pondering the categories into which ideas fall, after long and hard thought has arrived at the following partition:

  • Theses which can be proved or disproved: mathematics.
  • Theses which can be disproved, but not proved: science.
  • Theses which can neither be proved nor disproved: religion.

     By "proof" is meant the modus ponens / modus tollens sort of logical proof that proceeds from widely accepted postulates and uses implication to reach the desired conclusion. By "disproof" is meant the demonstration of one or more counter-examples to a theory.

     Atheism, gauged against this partition, is a religious creed: the creed that there is no God. It is distinct from agnosticism, a purely heuristic stance which maintains that personal experiences of the mystical and numinous cannot be used as evidence for a religious proposition. The Roberts scheme of things evades this point neatly. Rational agnostic Smith would concede that there might be a God after all, even though he refused to accept religionist Jones's private personal revelations as evidence to that effect. The atheist fails to grapple with the fundamental limitations of Man's mind and senses, which make it impossible to evaluate claims of Godhood with confidence.

     When Roberts dismisses God -- any God -- he does so out of prejudice, not from a sound evidentiary or logical basis. His position is no more provable or disprovable than that of a devout Christian. Humans simply don't have the necessary assets to prove that God does or does not exist. Were Brahma standing before us today, were Christ to return in all His prophesied glory, this would remain the case.

     Religious creeds that require their adherents to accept demonstrably false dogmas will always fail and be abandoned. Had the Catholic Church continued to insist that the Sun revolves around the Earth, it would have been laughed into irrelevance. Were conclusive evidence of evolution by mutation and natural selection ever amassed, those creeds that insist that God created the world as it is, with all its existing species, would have to back away from that stance or be discarded.

     But as Kim Du Toit has told us, the Ten Commandments are common to essentially all religious systems. That is, the fundamental rules that make for a peaceful and sustainable society are upheld by all major creeds. (No, your Curmudgeon refuses to talk about Islam today.) Since these rules are self-demonstrating -- history records appalling tides of carnage from every attempt to set them aside -- it would be madness for a religion to gainsay them. Among other things, that religion's adherents would be identifiably dangerous to others; the desirability of wiping them and their creed from the face of the Earth would be overpowering, as it was in the case of Nazism.

     So religious belief of some sort is not required to absorb the importance of the Ten Commandments. Kim concedes this as well, but stands on the more modest point that religion is useful in teaching proper moral behavior to the young, and in reinforcing moral conduct in society in general.

     Which explains the quote at the start of this tirade.

     It's time to pass from Kim's utilitarian approach to religion to Will's explanatory one:

     [W]here did DNA come from? If you respond with "It evolved." You are incredibly stupid.

     First of all, that would require some mechanism that defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Any scientist who could demonstrate such a mechanism would make Einstein look like a moron. DeoxyriboNucleic Acid is an extremely complex code, a language. It is a set of instructions that "tells" molecules and atoms how to construct themselves into useful proteins and organelles so as to support cells and organs and all sorts of life.

     If I were to tell you that if you simply wired enough microchips together, in no particular order, and plugged the whole thing into a 110 volt power supply, that eventually, the whole mess would begin reorganizing itself into something useful, you would laugh at me and call me an idiot.

     But the very same person that would think I'm an idiot for suggesting such a thing wants me to believe that long ago in a cesspool, some byproducts of animal waste, (CO2, CH4, H2) somehow decided to combine themselves into racemic (dextrorotary) molecules to form amino acids and proteins that cannot survive in an unprotected state.

     Unfortunately, the foundation of Will's argument, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, doesn't say what he thinks it does. (Trust a former astrophysicist to be picky about such things.) It applies solely to the aggregate entropy of a closed system. It dictates nothing for an open system -- a system capable of importing net non-heat energy from "outside" and expelling heat and wastes to "outside." Zones within a closed system may exhibit decreasing entropy for indefinitely long periods of time; else, life could not maintain itself at all. Moving from theory to practice, laboratory researchers have demonstrated the spontaneous formation of amino acids in primordial-Earth conditions, so there's no real objection to the evolutionary thesis on the basis of practical implausibility.

     As for the "microchips" analogy, it doesn't hold up: the fundamental properties of a primordial-Earth environment and the things in it differ qualitatively from those of a random assemblage of electronics. For one thing, the elements and small molecules in a primordial-Earth scenario are all highly mobile and reactive. For another, the energy flows into that system are various, powerful, and chaotic; they contrast sharply with the way energy enters an electronic assembly.

     This is not to say that the spontaneous genesis of life under primordial-Earth conditions is unchallengeable. That thesis is simply another explanation for how life began here. For the moment, it is no more nor less provable or disprovable than any theistically founded explanation. More, it posits nothing about the way those conditions themselves came to be, which many regard as the gate through which theistic premises will always be able to pass.

     So: Religion is neither demonstrably necessary for the formation or perpetuation of a good society, nor is Divine action the sole conceivable explanation for the emergence of life on Earth. Given that, by its nature, a religious proposition can neither be proved nor disproved, what, then, is the "value" of religious belief? Why does anyone hold to one?

     Many who are disdainful of religion posit "psychological" justifications -- the unwillingness to accept the finity of human life; the need to feel that one has a place in a grander scheme of things; the desire to believe that there is an ultimate dispenser of justice that the villains of this world cannot evade; and so forth. Your Curmudgeon would suggest that the matter is not quite that simple. If it is one to which yardsticks and photometers cannot be applied, neither is it exhaustively covered by explanations rooted in human emotional frailty.

     Man's mind is free.

     Despite hypnosis, brainwashing, and drugs of immense potency, it is impossible to impose an idea on a human mind beyond all possibility of rejection. Why this should be so is a subject for a later screed. For the moment, it's the most important of all postulates.

     Not only is the mind free, but the sensory conduits that feed it data are free as well. That is, they are not strictly bound by the objective universe -- the things and effects that are independent of our opinions. Things happen privately in the brain. This is borne out by such phenomena as hallucination and mirage, both of which are irreproducible in detail in objective observers, but which have occurred too frequently, and to too many persons, to be sniffed aside.

     This opens the door to the consideration of private experiences as elements in the formation of religious belief. The agnostic will argue that private experiences cannot be used as evidence for anything, and he's absolutely correct. But the person having the experience is not bound by the rules of evidence and inference. He is free to interpret it in whatever manner best pleases him.

     Though many accept a religion because of successful indoctrination or social pressure, many others accept one because they've had one or more private experiences that persuaded them of the reality of God.

     Much distress and social friction arise when believers attempt to persuade others to their convictions on the strength of such private experiences. The most important revelation in the history of Christianity, the "road to Damascus" vision of Paul of Tarsus, the doctrinal founder of the Church, was made to a single person. Saint Paul spoke of that private experience to many other people, and persuaded a great number of them...but not all. Of those he did not persuade, many called him a liar, and became his mortal enemies.

     Still, who shall say that Saint Paul did not have the vision of which he spoke so movingly? Who shall say that any of the saints of legend did not have their particular visions -- or that those visions, being irreproducible, could not possibly have been veridical?

     One may dispute accounts of miracles, which occur in the "public" world where such things can be dispassionately witnessed and quantified. One may not dispute something as private as a vision of revelation. There are no metrics for them.

     He who has elected to interpret a private event of that kind as a testament to a religious proposition is a "true believer." That is, he hasn't absorbed his religion through some process of indoctrination, or chosen it for utilitarian reasons such as to promote social health or to fit in better with others whose good will he values. He's decided that his vision was the truth, and has formed his conscious convictions around that truth as he sees it.

     That such events must necessarily be private and non-transferable is simply in the nature of religious belief. That not all persons who experience them choose to interpret them as messages from God is merely the operation of human mental freedom, without which we would be indistinguishable from the beasts.

     Ultimately, the question is not "why believe in God;” it's "why believe anything." When are beliefs distinguishable from both provable propositions and more pragmatic postures of the sort Kim Du Toit approves? When are beliefs not forced upon us by evidence or a lack of coherent alternatives nevertheless too appealing to evade, as Commander Will would have it?

     Simply, when the mind and heart, working in tandem from private experience, privately decide that they're true.

     To adopt something as consequential as a religious creed for any other reason carries much danger. Social utility does not demand the ultimate postulates of any religion. Nor is there any natural phenomenon which demands a theistic explanation. A faith predicated on either basis is subject to being overturned convulsively, with proportional damage to the sanity and happiness of the holder.

     Which explains the quote with which your Curmudgeon will close this essay:

     Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that "only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations." You see the little rift? "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason." That's the game. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for saying so well those things I hold so dear.


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