Reality Conditions

Monday, October 30, 2006

Atheism, Religion, and Rationality; or, do you think that all those who believe in God are stupid?

When I was 17 years old I went with some high school friends on a holiday to a sort of seaside resort, where one of us had somehow won a week staying as prize for something. We passed most of the days playing paddle (a sport popular in Argentina and unknown everywhere else; the closest thing I found on Wikipedia is plataform tennis) and most of the nights discussing philosophical matters, in the wonderfully passionate and earnest way you can discuss at that age. Our discussions covered the nature of the self, the soul, infinity, determinism, ethics, and God. I was quite vehement in those days about my then rather recent atheism, while one of my friends was equally convinced of God's existence and lectured to us on the Hinduistic conceptions of God and reincarnation; the discussions between us both were Titanic, unless they have been magnified by memory, which is certainly possible. What I am sure of is that one day, while we were in the paddle court and he was about to serve, he stopped, looked at me and asked suddenly: "Do you think that all those who believe in God are stupid?"

I think I, taken by surprise, told him that was not the moment, and to continue playing that we would discuss this later. And on the evening the question was posed again, and I can't remember what I said but we drifted into another long and unresolved debate on the existence of God, and many other things. But the question has stayed in my mind, sometimes making me feel a bit ashamed of how arrogant and certain of things I talked like in those times. And the memory has come back reading all the discussions all around the blogosphere on Richard Dawkins's new book, The God Delusion.

I have not read it yet, and I don't know if I will, but (as even someone who hadn't read anything by Dawkins before should guess from the title) it seems to be a rather aggresive attack on all forms of religious belief, which for Dawkins are both irrational and harmful. The reason it is so discussed is that Dawkins is not only a well-known biologist but a major public intellectual; he seems to fullfill more or less the kind of role Richard Feynman had twenty years ago, that of being the public Voice of Science. And the question under discussion, echoing my friend's one, is: is it true that all religious people are being stupid, or at least irrational?

I have no patience at the moment to trace and link to all the posts I have read discussing the book and its reviews; it seems that almost all the blogs I read have had something to say about it. To a rough approximation, they can be divided in three groups. First, those who think that there is no God and Dawkins is great (PZ Myers is the prime example). Second, those who think that there is no God but Dawkins is a jerk (Chad Orzel and John Wilkins are two good examples, though there are much more; perhaps more than in the first group.) And last, those who think there is a God and Dawkins is a jerk. (Brandon is one example among those I read regularly.) Unsurprisingly, I have not yet found any blogger who believes that God exists and Dawkins is great.

So what do I think? I tend to fall more into the second group; but there are at least two senses in which I could think "Dawkins is a jerk". [Perhaps needless to say, I do not think really that Dawkins is a jerk (nor do Chad or John or Brandon, I would think!). I admire him greatly and have been much inspired by his books on evolution. I use "Dawkins is a jerk" as a substitute for "I don't agree with/admire him for/respect him for his attacks on religion."] The first sense is pragmatical: even agreeing fully with him on philosophical grounds, and believing that religion is wholly irrational, it could be that scathing and disrespectful attacks on it are likely to backfire, to give a bad reputation of arrogance to atheists, to fuel the evolution controversy instead of defusing it, etc. The second is philosophical: I could think that the question of God's existence is not nearly so simple as Dawkins (and PZ and others) make it. In this post I will discuss only the second sense. There is much to be said for the pragmatic question, both for (perhaps strong atheistic voices are something our culture needs) and against. But at least if examining the philosophy we find that Dawkins is right on it there is a prima facie case for saying it loudly and clearly, and viceversa if we find he is wrong there is an even stronger case for not doing so, so examining the abstract matters first seems sensible.

So, is belief in God necessarily irrational? In one sense I agree with Dawkins that it is. (Don't I sound like a real philosopher, making one new pedantic distinction on every line? Be patient.) I have never seen any convincing argument for the existence of God; I believe all the evidence we have should compel us to reject it. I even accept what may be called the Master Argument for Scientistic Atheism, which implicitly or explicitly is used by Dawkins, PZ, and so many others, and which goes more or less:

1) Science can explain many things about the world without assuming the existence of God, and on those which it cannot explain, there is no reason to believe that it cannot explain them eventually; the hypothesis of God's existence is useless as a scientific one. When it makes specific predictions (like in creationism or studies on the efficacy of prayer) they are invariably disproved, and when it is stated in a metaphysical way that doesn't make predictions it becomes untestable, unnecessary and eliminable by Occam's Razor. In summary, following the rules of scientific evidence we ought not to believe in God.

2) But science is the only reliable source of knowledge we have about the universe, so we can only accept rationally those beliefs about the universe that are endorsed by the scientific method.

3) Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

I think most "reasonable" theists (whatever that means until we have reached a conclusion in our argument!) would accept some version of 1) and take issue with 2). And here comes the second and crucial sense in which I disagree with Dawkins et al. While I accept 2), and therefore am commited to say that belief in God is irrational, I don't think that 2) is so obvious that there cannot be "reasonable disagreement" about it.

What 2) is doing is to propose a standard of rationality, a standard by which to judge beliefs on factual mattes: to only accept those that science can endorse. If someone accepts this standard and then goes on to believe on, say, UFOs or ESP on presumed scientific grounds, we can say that the person is irrational (or misinformed about the evidence) and point out why. But if someone rejects wholly the standard 2), the situation varies. There are at least two ways in which the theist could reject it: saying that one can "in a way impervious to rational criticism" accept beliefs for which there is no evidential support when they are of great existential importance (Fideism), or that we can form rational beliefs upon factual matters which science cannot touch, using metaphysical reasoning. When any of these is embedded in a whole consistent philosophical system, be it William James's or Aquinas's, it is much more difficult to prove irrationality.

It would be tempting to say that it is impossible to do so, and that 2) is self-refuting in practice. The theist could say: "Your grounds for claiming 2) cannot be scientific, because your acceptance of 2) must be prior to your acceptance of scientific beliefs to justify them; so by your own standards you are being irrational". (Haven't you seen many times a theist argue on a discusison forum or blog comment that science is ultimately based on faith?) A similar argument is usually credited with killing logical positivism, the doctrine that statements which cannot be scientifically verified are meaningless; beacause this doctrine does not seem to be scientifically verifiable. But this would be going too fast. The scientistic atheist could answer "I propose 2) based on what science has shown us about the universe and ourselves, that we do not posses faculties to grasp untestable metaphysical facts, and that arbitrary beliefs will tend to be false no matter how existentially consoling they are. The whole of science and 2) support each other in a consistent way, forming an harmonious belief web which needs no external standard. [Insert references to Quine's naturalized epystemology, Neurath's boat, etc.] The theist's alternative standards of rationality will inevitably conflict at some point with the rest of his ordinary, scientifically endorsed beliefs and practices." (Perhaps logical positivism is also rescuable in a similar way, but this seems less likely.)

But the theist would now point out that sophisticated forms of fideism or of metaphysics are not shown to be inconsistent so simply; that a lot of philosophical work is needed to dispose of them. And this is what Dawkins, PZ Myers and the rest do not seem to see. It may be the case that naturalism (which Dennett defines as "the idea that philosophical investigations are not superior to, or prior to, investigations in the natural sciences, but in partnership with those truth-seeking enterprises" is the correct philosophy, and I in fact accept that it is and that there are compelling reasons for accepting it. But those reasons are philosophical; being a naturalist implies that "philosophical" does not mean for me "superior to or prior to" science, but it does mean that the arguments operate at a rather high level of abstraction, and that charging a Thomistic theologian or a Kirkegaardian fideist with simple irrationality is much more difficult than charging a believer in UFOs or in Creationism. The "sophisticated" believer has embedded the belief in God in a philosophical web of concepts and reasons that legitimitizes it while not conflicting overtly with undisputable scientific facts or practical-life rationality.

To many people trained in the sciences, who tend to be philosophical naturalists by default, these conceptual structures called theology are so weird, alien and uncomprehensible that they look sometimes rather like the elaborate "knowledge" exhibited in fandom (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), based on shared, intersubjective, but purely fictional premises. There seems to be (I speak from the first person) just no motivation for thinking of the world in these terms. And so we fall into the objectifications that so annoy theists: "They just believe it because they were brainwashed into it. " "It is a substitute for the Father." "It is the opium of the people." It is perfectly possible, indeed likely, that more sophisticated scientific theories on this same "objective" line will provide some day a complete understanding of why people are religious (this seems to be Dennett's program in Breaking the Spell, another book I haven't read) and allow us naturalists to account for religion "leaving no residue". But a large percentage of makind will in all likeness continue to believe in religions. And given that on issues so basic an central to peoples different "webs of belief" there is little possibility, as I said, of proving that the other is being irrational by the standards the other can accept, I think we ought to treat beliefs which people regard as central to their lifes with a modicum of respect, no matter how weird they seem from our perspective, as long as those beliefs do not become a clear danger to others as in militant fundamentalism.

These issues of rationality and meta-rationality are, as you see, tricky. And meanwhile, we must all concede that the "rationality" discussed here is just theoretical rationality, the standard by which we judge beliefs; but there is a commonplace practical meaning of rationality or at least of "reasonableness" which is up to a point independent of these philosophical standards. It consists simply in being open to arguments, criticism, and discussion, admiting the possibility of error, being fair to one's opponents positions while discussing them, and so on. And this is much more important for assesing a person in real life than his or her conformity to this or that standard of theoretical rationality. And by this token, there are many, many theists who are very rational indeed. And certainly not stupid.


  • Thanks for your visit.

    By Blogger fresquinha, at 12:34 AM, October 31, 2006  

  • I would largely agree, especially since naturalism and scientific atheism look to me precisely like "beliefs which [certain] people regard as central to their lives" evne though they seem rather "weird" from my theistic perspective. Down with fundamentalisms of all kinds, and on with the reasonable conversations!

    You did however miss or at least downplay one theistic response, which happens to be the one that I prefer: not all "beliefs" are the same kind of thing. Statements about God aren't propositions, strictly speaking, since they lack empirical referents for key terms -- I side with the Tractatus Wittgenstein here. Instead, statements about God inhabit the mythological realm where the sense of the world as a whole resides; this is precisely the same place, practically speaking, as the equally mythological statements that ground philosophical naturalism reside. And here is a place where instrumental reason simply breaks down: I can't rationally convince you, and you can't rationally convince me. So we have an impasse -- or perhaps an opportunity to confront real diversity without resolving it in favor of one or the other option.

    By Blogger PTJ, at 2:45 AM, October 31, 2006  

  • Hi Alejandro,

    very interesting line of thought. You come back to it in the end: now the question is left in how far is being irrational correlated to being stupid? Isn't it in many ways just exactly the irrationality of the human mind that makes up for ingenuity? Or, to put it differently: if believing in God gives your life a reason, your being a purpose, your search a goal, your acts a set of rules to obey, does that make your life happier? Does it help you to accept that life sucks, isn't fair, and gets you through the hard times. And if so, isn't it incredibly smart to believe in God, even if its irrational?

    Or, how about that:

    Either there is a God, then it's better if you believe in Him. Or there isn't a God, then believing in him doesn't hurt. So, why not just stay on the save side and go to church every Sunday?



    By Blogger Bee, at 1:59 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • PTJ,

    Interesting comment. I find Wittgenstein's Tractatus and its philosophical picture fascinating, but I am not sure that it ultimately makes sense -those mystical "non-propositions" that can be shown but not said, how can they be even understood? Most believers seem to be saying something fairly definite when they speak of God, even if it has no "empirical content".

    I view the impasse slightly differently than you. We do have very different assumptions and "central beliefs", true, and the fact that none of us can point a simple inconsistency or mistake in the others' is reason to treat them with respect. But we do after all live in the same world, share the same human nature, and to some extent also the same language and culture, and I see no reason to assume from the start that it is impossible than one of us should convince the other one, finding starting points for argument that are broad enough for both to accept. There is reason for accepting real diversity as necessary for the moment, but also there is reason to "keep the conversation going".

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:17 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • I agree mostly. Especially that it can be hard to understand why the f... people come up with these structures. I often find this to become clearer when one considers the initial questions that motivated these thinkers.
    Just to play (and ramble) a bit...

    I submit that 2) is obviously false IF by universe we understand the experienced world (Lebenswelt) we as humans exist in.

    "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be asnwered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer." - Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.52

    By Wittgenstein's analysis all statements that are -important- are by nature senseless (that is, not propositions):

    "Hence also there can be no ethical propositions."

    What remains in the Tractatus is perhaps the greatest punchline in all of philosophy, hidden in point 6.522:

    "There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical."

    Then the revelation of *God*, being the quintessential mystical is indeed more relevant then all scientific facts and completely unrelated to them. In particular it would not be related to the nature and the laws of the natural reality we scientists probe, and which we (materialists) believe to underly all our experienced reality. This is of course not a position that to many theists take, though I know some. They conflate the sphere of the factual and the experienced, and our science has opened a monumental gulf between the two.
    On the other hand it's enlightening to understand these weird philosophical systems this way: As creating rational structures that help us navigate the inherently irrational area of the experienced world.


    But then, one need not agree with Wittgenstein, right? Certainly many of those who built upon his work just ignored this aspect of his work. Still the question is valid from many points of view: Even if we figure out why people believe in Religion (something I'm doubtful about) why should that be a reason for people to stop believing?

    "Suppose we want truth. Why should we not prefer untruth?" - Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
    That is, we end as we started: At a moral statement.

    By Anonymous fh, at 10:32 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • geee... I see you've been talking about Wittgenstein already, I should have read the existing comments before posting myself!

    Personally, even if there was a God I wouldn't believe in them.

    By Anonymous fh, at 10:36 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • Bee,

    The kind of position you seem to be defending may be OK for some people, but I could never be satisfied with it. If examination of the evidence makes me come to the conclusion that there is (likely to be) no God, then I simply cannot start to believe that there is one just because it would make me happy/give my life meaning/etc. For me belief can't be decoupled in that way from recognition of facts. Perhaps if I thought that it is just as likely that there is a God or there is not I could follow that course; but not if the balance is anything other 50-50.

    Some people appearently can bootstrap themselves into belief in that way; even very rational people. The philosophaer, mathematician and pseudoscience debunker Martin Gardner is one of them, and defends "quixotic faith" in his delightful book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. The position appears at least self-consistent (it's what I call fideism in the original post) but it is not one I could take.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:39 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • fh,

    He. Wittgenstein has a way of appearing in the most unexpected places, doesn't him? I remember my surprise when I saw Rovelli's paper on relational quantum mechanics full of quotes from the Tractatus.

    If we interpret God-talk following Wittgenstein's philosophy, little of my reasoning in the post applies, because there is no question of "standards of rationality" at all. One might even doubt there is a real "belief" there. Is a senseless non-proposition the sort of thing one can "believe"? But as I said to PTJ, most of what religious people say does not seem senseless to me. Perhaps weird, unsupported by evidence as I interpret it, but not senseless.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:14 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • Hehe, yes I did spend some time discussing Wittgenstein with Mattheo, the other Author of that paper... ;)

    The key point is that "not senseless" in Wittgenstein's sense is a very stringent requirement. The sentence "Murder is wrong" is certainly senseless in Wittgenstein's terminology.

    This of course puts us firmly on the side of an abstract theoretical notion of rationality (or perhaps better: reason), and I agree with you and the pope that we need a wider and more accessible notion to put human affairs in order.

    By Anonymous fh, at 11:28 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • One further comment re Wittgenstein. My reaction to the philosophy presented in the Tractatus is a bit like the one taken to a great, classic work of art -it has a simplicity, compactness and starkness that have a great deal of aesthetic appeal. Trying to see the world through its lens is a worthwhile experience. That said, the way language, logic and facts are described in it strikes to me, when I regain my critical faculties, as having very little relation to the actual world.

    I find a similar disconnection between the aesthetic power of a philosophy and its amount of plausible truth in Schopenhauer (probably not by chance, as he influenced Wittgenstein a lot). And to a certain level in Spinoza, though I find much more of genuine cognitive (and ethical) value in him.

    I wonder if Borges ever read Wittgenstein. Probably not, as I can't remember any mention of him in his works. He would have enjoyed it.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:29 PM, October 31, 2006  

  • I don't think stupidity comes into it - we're dealing with something that is currently outside the entire sphere of human understanding: the creation of our universe.

    OK, so we've worked our way back to the big bang, but what happened before that? If we were able to reach the very edge of our universe, what would we find beyond that?

    The problem is that there's always this degree of uncertainty which allows theists to fill in the gaps in our understanding with god.

    It's possible to be a very smart person who understands the latest theories on the creation of the universe, and still find room in them for religion.

    That's why I love the FSM stuff, because it acts as a good retort to these people. If you want to argue that god is responsible for the things we cannot explain scientifically, then you have to accept by the same logic that it's equally possible that a flying spaghetti monster is responsible for them.

    By Blogger LC, at 1:55 PM, November 01, 2006  

  • Hi Alejandro,

    yes, I actually agree with you, I just meant to be provocative.

    I don't think we can really chose what we believe, otherwise we'd have a reason and it wouldn't really be a believe. I just think that many people believe in God, because they never really question His existence, a big part of which is just tradition and sociology. If you grow up being told there is God and he is so and so, and wants you to do this and that, it's significantly harder to question your believes, than as if you'd grown up among people who told you: look there's religion, and some people believe there's a God, and if you're old enough chose for yourself.

    But I do think that religion, in principle, can be good for a society, for the people, and their well being, how they keep communities together, how many priests are better (and less expensive) than therapists or prozac? E.g. just consider what a big role churches play in help for the poor, sick, and homeless. One has to make sure it's appropriate to the historical, socioligal and economical context, otherwise things can and will go badly wrong.



    By Blogger Bee, at 3:29 PM, November 02, 2006  

  • Interesting post, as always. I almost read it completely... as always. You should also write a specific post about those holiday days in that resort and your other intelligent friends who were there. And you should also state that you consider your Hinduistic Friend very intelligent... if that is true, of course. By the way, he's getting married on December.

    By Anonymous one of your friends from those days (but not the Hinduistic one), at 4:41 AM, November 03, 2006  

  • To Bee: I agree basically with everything you said, although for each positive thing about religion I could bring up a negative one as well... and I am sure you agree, so let's not waste space in pointless arguing.

    To my Non-Hinduistic Friend: Sure, I consider my Hinduistic Friend very intelligent... although I'm not sure if I can count him as a friend nowadays, as we have spoken only once, and briefly, in the past six years. But yes, he was much more intelligent than my Suspicious Friend who was also present there. I am sure you are not him and are my intelligent Jewish Friend-and-Brother-in-Law or my intelligent Protestant Friend instead, ;).

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 6:04 PM, November 03, 2006  

  • Hey!

    By Anonymous your suspicious friend, at 3:19 AM, November 06, 2006  

  • Hi Alejandro,

    yes. I didn't so much understand it as pointless arguing but as an intersting exchange of thoughts.

    I just read a pretty good interview with Lisa Randall, and I thoght you'd be interested in what she says in the end:

    This sounds like your formula for keeping science and religion from fighting with each other.

    LR: A lot of scientists take the Stephen Jay Gould approach: Religion asks questions about morals, whereas science just asks questions about the natural world. But when people try to use religion to address the natural world, science pushes back on it, and religion has to accommodate the results. Beliefs can be permanent, but beliefs can also be flexible. Personally, if I find out my belief is wrong, I change my mind. I think that's a good way to live.

    So does your science leave space for untestable faith? Do you believe in God?

    LR:There's room there, and it could go either way. Faith just doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing as a scientist. It's nice if you can believe in God, because then you see more of a purpose in things. Even if you don't, though, it doesn't mean that there's no purpose. It doesn't mean that there's no goodness. I think that there's a virtue in being good in and of itself. I think that one can work with the world we have. So I probably don't believe in God. I think it's a problem that people are considered immoral if they're not religious. That's just not true. This might earn me some enemies, but in some ways they may be even more moral. If you do something for a religious reason, you do it because you'll be rewarded in an afterlife or in this world. That's not quite as good as something you do for purely generous reasons.

    By Blogger Bee, at 6:10 PM, November 06, 2006  

  • Religious dogmas are stupid and potentially dangerous so I don't see anything wrong with calling it like it is. Of course, that doesn't mean theists are stupid and I don't think Dawkins is saying that either.

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