Monday, October 19, 2009

On beliefs

There was a small but amusing brouhaha earlier this week because American humourist Bill Maher received the "Dawkins Prize" for being top atheist of the year, and some on the right disapproved, as far as I can tell, because he's not really hardcore atheist enough, but it got me to thinking.

I'm not a huge fan of the hardcore religionhating of the likes of Dawkins and that's largely because I see it as just the other side of the same coin as fundamentalist religion. Both seem to me to be products of belief that we wish to impose on others for their own good. (And it seems a key feature of beliefs of the type I am thinking of that they are not considered simply beliefs about what is good or right for us, but about what is good for others.) Neither is entirely rational.

By which I mean that believing there is a god of a particular type who wants particular things may not be reasonable, but believing that there is definitely not one is not either. Why not? Surely it's a fairy story?

Like most rationally minded types, I am a sceptic. Which means I don't accept what I'm told, but question it, and see whether it stands up to scrutiny. A sceptic's message to the world is "convince me not to doubt that". It doesn't seem to me as though Richard Dawkins has any doubt at all. Even if God personally told him he existed, and demonstrated it, he would put it down to a hallucination. I agree with Dawkins that science is sufficient to describe the world, but I allow the doubt that sufficiency is, erm, sufficient to exclude other explanations. I'll discuss why a bit later.

So I ask myself what I believe in. We should be clear that all of us, no matter how sceptical or rational, have many things we believe, although we usually describe them as things we know. There are objectively justified beliefs, such as that Moscow is capital of Russia, which I believe because so many people not only say so but present evidence that it is so. (It's not enough just that they say so, obviously. In medieval England, everyone would say there was a god.) There is more to say about this, but I'm seeking only to establish that this kind of belief exists and is reasonable. There are subjectively justified beliefs, such as that Paris is the capital of France. I have been to Paris and everyone there seemed to be acting on the belief that it was the capital. We must be careful here, because it is possible to believe things based on subjective evidence that can be faulty. If God speaks to me in a dream, I must take into account the context of dreams and the value of the evidence presented to me in that context. In any case, we are seeking here only to establish that there are things I believe with good reason: there is a lake in the centre of Reykjavik (not only did I see it but others say it's there), I believe I am in a room in suburban Brisbane, I believe I have two arms, two legs, and so on. I must presume that I am at least somewhat sane and that my senses mostly work if I am to hold these beliefs, but without those presumptions, it is impossible to talk about reason anyway.

There are also beliefs that are matters of discernment. I believe Fragile by Wire is a great song, and I can justify that belief some, but I am aware that this is a different kind of belief from believing that Paris is the capital of France. This is key in any discussion of belief, because many of humans' problems derive from not being sufficiently clear what beliefs really are objective. It's clear that an Islamist, for instance, believes that his belief in Allah is objective, as readily justified as my belief that there is a road from Brisbane to Logan, and that if I do not concur, I am denying something that is plainly true.

So although I can categorise different beliefs, it's evident that the categories can overlap, depending whose perspective you take. But in this case, we are taking mine, and talking mostly about what I do or don't believe. In this respect, what is interesting is the more ragbag group of beliefs that we have that are not so easily justified. Largely this is because they are not so easily resolved into binary questions. It's easy to say whether you believe the Australian flag is mostly blue. Yes it is or no it's not. Yes it's mostly blue, no it's not mostly red. The evidence is there to be seen, so long as we agree that we are looking at the Aussie flag. And beliefs that are opinions cannot be gainsaid, because if I say I believe that Fragile is a good song, you cannot say I don't, unless you think I am lying -- and it is fundamental to communication by human speech that we assume that people we communicate with are ceteris paribus telling the truth. Beliefs that we justify subjectively are tougher, because the evidence may not exist for you that exists for me, or we may interpret it differently.

Still harder are metaphysical beliefs. I have long considered that I do not have many beliefs of this type: beliefs about how things are or how we should be. For me it is more a question of how things can be. I do not have fixed beliefs, on the whole. I have a sliding scale of what I think is reasonable.

Take religion. (No, really, take it, ho ho.) If you believe that the universe has a creator, I consider you likely wrong but your belief not unreasonable. I don't see how a belief that some huge transcendental, essentially unknowable being created the universe is much more or less tenable than one that the universe simply sprang into being for no reason at all. Further along the spectrum would be the belief that that being takes any interest in you personally, and further still that it cares whether you pursue a particular form of rather human morality. In other words, it is scarcely reasonable that you should believe that a transcendental ineffable being should care whether you masturbate or cheat on your taxes. (It seems like this belief serves other purposes: to prevent you from doing what you want, to keep you from rationalising actions that serve you better than whoever invented this belief for you to hold.)

It's barely tenable that a being of this sort can "love" you. What would that even mean? As far as I can tell, most Christians see God's love for them as basically the same as human love. But human love, as we could reasonably demonstrate, is based in being human. (I understand, of course, that this is why we are said to have been created in God's image, so that human love can be a shadow of divine love, rather than something that otherwise would seem hard to scale up.) But I find it hard to believe, or consider the belief reasonable, that a being who loves me would, rather than simply endowing me with an eternal life of bliss, set me a test first. I wouldn't do that to someone I love, after all. I am yet to see a convincing argument why eternal bliss has an entrance exam that doesn't make God seem to be a sadist or a fool; neither of which is even close to possible, of course.

That this same being should not only set you a test to see whether you deserve something that it seems to me you'd just give freely to someone you loved is bad enough, but some believe he makes that test very strict: he cares whether women show their faces, cares what clothes you wear, having weirdly created you with parts he thinks you should hide, cares whether you listen to music.

So no, I don't believe in that. None of it is even close to reasonable, and without having had a religious upbringing, I have no good reason to adopt any of it. If Dawkins restricted himself to saying that some sorts of religious belief are pernicious, I'd agree with him. But he doesn't. Some religious belief is reasonable, not least because of the benefits it can bring. Life can be incomprehensible and difficult, and while it's easy to find horrors in religious thought, excuses for egregious behaviour, it's just as easy to find comfort, warmth, generosity, kindness. We should not wholly despise beliefs, however false we think they are, that have outcomes that match those we desire.

So take the universe and everything in it. I do have beliefs about that, but I think they are largely objectively justifiable parts of human knowledge. I have no reason to doubt that there are protons, but that is not what we are considering here. We are considering not whether there are protons but what protons are. So I believe there is a universe that has existed for, whatever it is, about 16 billion years, but I don't know what and why it is, how it got there, and I don't have any beliefs about any of that. I find it reasonable to believe it is a block universe: where everything that has happened, will happen, is happening, even could happen exists at the same time; or that there are multiple universes, each coming into being at the collapse of a wave function or whatever. I could believe that it has no end, and even, although I find it tougher, that it has no beginning.

I can believe that I am made up of atoms and nothing else, that I only seem to have a consciousness but am really just the reflection of a purely automatic process, but can I say I do believe that? It makes sense to me; it seems reasonable to believe it; so I suppose I do in a sense believe it. But not in the same sense that the Pope believes Jesus was the son of God. I could readily change my views to any other reasonable belief. If you said to me, we are distinct spirits in material bodies, my mind is not closed to that. I'd take some convincing but that is not the same as saying I cannot be convinced.

Does this mean my beliefs have no value? It depends what you mean by value, I suppose. I don't "stand for" anything. I wouldn't kill you for my belief that I don't really exist. I don't feel much urge to have others believe what I believe. One of the great problems of human belief, it seems to me, is that people are not content to consider what is right for them, or good for them and theirs, but feel the need to insist on imposing that belief on others. Which can be irksome, particularly when those people have access to the levers of power, or represent a constituency that those with power feel they need to satisfy.

I do have beliefs that mean something to me, which I would not surrender lightly. I suppose they are rather metaphysical, and I know I cannot substantiate them, at least not easily. I believe in love. I believe it exists and has a power to bring us together, to tear us apart, to comfort us and to remove all our comfort. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that you could give up everything else but love, and still somehow survive.

I also believe in us. I am a humanist and however disappointing we may sometimes be, I am never so disappointed that I am unable to think us worthwhile. That means I believe in you too. I believe you are worth something, and I hope that those who know me well would say that I do what I can to prove that. In this way I will impose my beliefs on you -- I am not immune to it after all.


At 9:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude, skeptics hate on bill maher because he's an anti-vaccine loony and doesn't believe in the frickin germ theory of disease.


At 10:01 pm, Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Yah true, there's that too.

At 12:12 am, Anonymous Paula Light said...

Is he really? I gotta watch more teevee one of these days. Anyway, beautiful poast, Z, articulates my beliefs as well. I'm no fan of the foaming atheists. ITA with the idea of leaving people to their mental comforts if they're not imposing them on others, though I want science to be taught properly to school children, of course.

At 1:45 am, Anonymous Arleen said...

Just came across this and thought it was apropos:

The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. -Mark Twain

At 3:15 am, Anonymous Don said...

Always seeking simplicity, my god-belief is as follows:

Human psychology is a product of evolution as much as any other system. For more on that, see Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett. This means that we all have minds organized to accept and believe religious thought, whether or not we use them for that, just as we have legs designed to run whether or not we use them for that.

I've deconstructed religion to the point I feel I understand its purpose and have no need for it. Yet I am still moved by much of it (for ex I love attending Mass on Christmas Eve, though that may mostly be childhood sentiment). My churching experience of a few years ago demonstrated for me the enormous value of a faith-based system to people being knocked about by life generally. There's no doubt whatsoever that strength of faith in a system that ultimately affirms life accrues an advantage in terms of survival.

But still, it is a product of evolution, co-developed with the brain itself. The religious sense is like a virus composed of symbolic patterns with which humanity has a symbiotic relationship. The pages linked to above illustrate the concept.

Thus I too am impatient with Dawkins' absolutism. He seems to have rejected his innate religious sense and come to conclude everyone else should do the same. Not too different from rejecting the consumption of animal fat in any form, and crusading to stop everyone else consuming it too.

I know nothing about Maher. Sometimes I wonder why pop culture passes me by so.

I love and want the best for all people too. I don't know if this sort of weak altruism is a part of the mental organization that supports religious belief or not. Probably so, in a sense: inextricably intertwined with the instinct that what is best for our fellows is best for ourselves; or more accurately, for our grandchildren, as it is their survival that assures our instinctive goals are met.

At 5:43 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

I have faith in the truth.


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