Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Preferisco ragionare...

"I prefer to reason rather than believe, that's why I'm an atheist."

That's the motto on the billboard created for by the UAAR (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalistici) in Pisa and subsequently set up behind a tree by a 'charitable' local firm, even though the organisation had specifically paid for it to be on the other side of the highway where there are no trees.

I'm reasonably content to describe myself as an atheist, largely because the term, — though it can feel like having a monkey on your back— presents fewer problems for me than agnostic. Having said that, the 'rational agnosticism' absorbed by the UAAR is not something I could seriously object to.

In the recent Intelligence Squared Debate Stephen Fry joked that the Roman Catholic Church talks much about 'moral relativism', something he himself has always equated with 'thinking'. The trouble is that there really is an insidious form of relativism out there, which I have always equated with not thinking, and I find many agnostics guilty of this abjuration from thought. ("So open-minded your brain falls out..." sayeth Richard Dawkins. More on him shortly.)

In cultures such as this, where the majority still inherit their beliefs from their parents, atheists are typically branded as individuals who have turned their back on morality, purpose and a concern for justice. Nihilists do exist, but I'm not one of them, and I tend to think that people who have thought through their moral positions make better judgments than people who have picked them up from sermons.

Yet any educated person privy to my views might still be inclined to describe me as an agnostic, just as they would probably label the (very undogmatic) intuitions of my wife pantheistic. The idea that the ultimate meaning of the cosmos is somehow immanent within it, is one I am also sympathetic to, as I am to the 'atheistic' tradition within Hinduism and Buddhism.

For a long time atheists were given a very bad name by the likes of Joseph Stalin. Just when that nasty spectre had started to fade, along comes Richard Dawkins. The philosophy of both men should properly be described as materialist — where legitimate enquiry/struggle is supposedly confined to the material world and all other viewpoints are dismissed as spiritual...which to them means hokum.

The 'dialectical materialism' which underlay the communist ideology of the Soviet Union was shown to owe is deeper origins to Plotinus, the Christian Neo-Platonists and John 'the Scot' Eriugena by the late, great Leszek Kolakowski. These early streams of Western thought led to a bias within our culture towards a process-driven view of history, with a beginning and end, and in between a teleology that gives the whole thing meaning (though Marxist thinkers and Christian theologians map this onto an external system of justice rather differently). And as far as I am concerned materialism is faith in another guise.

Listen to Richard Dawkins and you might think that Charles Darwin had come up with the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Darwin's achievement was to record numerable observations which demonstrated how life-forms — once they had acquired the ability to self-replicate— could make use of the external selection services of Sex and Death to adapt themselves to specific environmental niches, and thereby improve their survival opportunities in what has always been a highly competitive natural world.

This 'theory' has significant explanatory power outside biology — specifically in computer science — but it is not a complete philosophical system. Yet Dawkins's public preaching on the merits of science over all things religious, occasionally gives the impression that that's exactly what he thinks it is.

His position reflects the prejudices of a biologist whose discipline has necessarily remained rooted in the material world and the classical science of Newton, while his colleagues in the department next door have strayed into the altogether more exciting space where Physics and Metaphysics overlap.

Dawkins actually considers himself an agnostic because he claims to be only 99% sure that there isn't a god — and one has to be 100% sure if one wants to call oneself an atheist, he argues. This is of course nonsense. If there is one thing atheism is not about, it is certainty.

He has fallaciously equated the case for God with that of a giant spaghetti monster, which is nothing but a generically-unlikely supernatural thingamajig, as opposed to what my learned colleague refers to as a 'first cause'.

It is of course absurd to speak of probability outside of the behavioural context of matter in the observable universe....and then only matter in macro form, because down at the more fundamental, quantum dimensions, the very notion becomes problematic. So when in The God Delusion Dawkins describes God as "improbable", he's betraying much the same philosophical naivety manifested by many of his chosen adversaries. So in that respect at least, he might have to consider himself "trounced"!

Yet for much the same reasons, the idea of causality at the cosmological level is equally problematic. Hence, I would suggest that a belief in first causes necessarily requires a leap outside the bounds of logic and into assumption...if not indeed faith.

In the course of the past half century cosmology has had to relinquish its commitment to the 'steady state universe' in favour of the Big Bang model, which might initially have seemed more amenable to first cause enthusiasts, except that physicists went on to posit a number of possible explanations for the Big Bang which don't in fact require an intelligent detonator.

I mentioned one of these the other day: the notion that many big bangs have occurred as the more mysterious structure of the outer cosmos inflates, each one embodying the moment of decay when the process of rapid expansion ceases locally, causing energy to transmute into the firey creation of matter.

Which takes me back again to Richard Dawkins. Most people are atheistic when it comes to Thor and Zeus, he quips, "I've just added Yahweh to the list of deities that I'm atheistic about".

Now Zeus was the alpha-godhead of a society which generally thought the universe eternal: it's always been here, and always will be, so not much point in discussing who was responsible for creating it. Thor meanwhile, was the metaphorical embodiment of something scary which the Vikings didn't understand in a scientific sense, but which had the power to make their transatlantic voyages extremely uncomfortable.

Neither of these mythological personages can be a straight swap for the God of the Abrahamic tradition, said to be the Creator of everything.

Yet for a long time after they invented him, the Israelites conceived of Yahweh as a member of the Divine Assembly of 'holy ones' presided over by El, the high god of Canaan with his consort Asherah. Yahweh was essentially the supernatural being one wanted on one's side in battle, but when it came to agriculture, the people of Israel and Judah turned to Baal and his sister-spouse Anat. But being atheistic about Yahweh when he was part of a well-demarcated pagan pantheon, is not the same thing as being atheistic about Him once He has emerged in the eighth century BC as the peerless primal cause. (However, being atheistic about the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Gabriel, Lucifer and St Peter is perhaps more logically consistent with a rejection of other pre-monotheist deities.)

So, another potential trouncing for Dawkins? To a point, but I've yet to be exposed to a convincing logical/factual explanation for why the universe had to have had a beginning and why that beginning had to have been caused by something omnipotent and omniscient. In fact, our current cosmological model suggests that the very idea that our situation here involved the creation of something out of nothing is a category error, one of those sticky misapprehensions which 'common-sense' thinking occasionally serves up.

Digression: Though of course, 'folk' interpretations of phenomena are often found to be accurate by subsequent scientific investigation — I recall Guatemalan presecriptions for harvesting avocados at full moon and the local technique for containing the effervescence of a shaken fizzy drink bottle by placing one's palm along the base.

Anyway, I've asked myself a number of times whether either Darwin or Einstein really succeded in making the world less mysterious. When you are dealing with a mystery that is in a sense infinite, incremental steps in human knowledge are never really going to do philosophers out of a job.

Yet Darwin provided a concrete explanation for something which had no business being ineffable in the first place — the dynamics of the natural world that were going on literally beneath our noses, not outside the scope of the visible universe.

On the other hand, from the time he first came across a compass, Einstein was far more concerned with the world beyond appearances — and so his own contributions to science have that strange dual quality of clarification and re-mystification. (The idea that spacetime is grainy and that the chronological aspect of it doesn't flow as it appears to subjectively, wraps the essentially linear process of evolution in a blanket of inscrutability that Dawkins seems reluctant to touch upon.)

Like many of his contemporaries during the first half of the last century Einstein showed us that the barrier between the effable and the ineffable is a real and unyielding one, and that however many new ways we find to think about it, we are unlikely to be able to think our way around it.

Preferisco ragionare. I prefer to reason about these matters, to find my own path towards ultimate purposes rather than accept a culturally-mediated solution that has inevitably been distorted by historical contexts and human psychology.

I claim no special access to the ineffable, but then nor do I blind myself to the philosophical challenge that it presents, and seeing matter as a side-effect of a more fundamental reality, I find it hard to share Richard Dawkins's apparent faith that Science — at least as he conceives it — is making small but significant steps towards de-fogging everything that religion has traditionally sought to explain.

That's why I'm an atheist.


Anonymous said...

For an engaging range of perspectives, I recommend highly the book "Philosophers without gods." It contains a variety of essays by professional unbelieving philosophers. Some of the essays are fantastic. The book is orders of magnitude above the level of the entertaining Intelligence Squared debate. Best regards,


El Blogador said...

many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Poor skillets