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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"All non-believers stand aside in fear"

Alternative title: Truthiness and Political Power

Reading this post over at Deus Ex Malcontent a while ago reminded me of some thoughts I had bouncing around my head since I started listening to the How to Think About Science broadcasts that I mentioned even longer ago. In his post, Chez states that society requires a common basis for facts and methods for ascertaining them. I agree with that statement in principle, but it does not preclude religion. The thing is, a state-wide accepted pool of knowledge can come in many forms, and until relatively recently it was usually in the form of a state religion. In many ways, a non-science based approach is more attractive for a ruling party as there is more control. When the belief system in question is a religious or philosophical system (I include the philosophical system to cover things like Confucianism) the ruling party is completely unconstrained in what the knowledge they impart upon their subjects entails. If they are careful enough (and, to be entirely honest, "careful enough" doesn't really have to be all that careful) they can even entirely change their stance on an issue and convert the people under their care from pacifists to bloodthirsty crusaders like magic (or some other such dramatic change). To a certain extent, this might even be a desireable situation if the ruling party itself is able to see through their own nonsense and rule in an enlightened manner (like Plato's dream of benevolent philosopher kings). However, since true enlightenment and benevolence are awfully hard to come by, I think this can be safely ruled out and non-reality based systems of knowledge can be assumed to inevitably be used to serve the interests of those making the knowledge up.

Which leads me to science. Science is designed as well as we currently know how to default knowledge to what is real. While evidence can be spun and twisted and even sometimes outright manufactured, eventually the truth should come out. It is for this reason that it is so often at odds with the powerful and the elite, who would much rather have people believe whatever they are told regardless of the actual truth. To give perhaps a simplistic example, if a powerful ruler wants a rainforest destroyed so he can put in a golf course and a resort, it is much more convenient to have people believe that the Earth is created by a benevolent deity who will provide for mankind's prosperity than have to deal with facts of the disastrous ecological fallout that is likely to result. However, I fell into the same trap that skeptics and rationalist so often fall into and defaulted to a religious example. It isn't just religion that does this. Stalin did the same thing by trying to exercise complete control over the beliefs of his subjects. Jackasses like Dinesh D'Souza perpetuate the talking point that atheism is clearly morally bankrupt due to the abhorrent "atheist regimes" of the 20th century (he then goes on to list Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Sometimes Mao is in there too). Leaving out the fact that I have seen pointed out to Dinesh D'Souza in multiple debates (but which seems to fail to penetrate his mind) that Hitler and the Nazis were decidedly not an "atheist regime", this historical tit for tat of "look at the crusades", "Stalin killed more people" and so on is a complete mischaracterization of the rational secularism (as I understand it) being argued for by those I find intellectually inspiring on this account (namely, Richard Dawkins).

The debate, which so often is framed as religion vs. atheism, isn't and shouldn't be about that. Rather, it should be about a rational, confirmable world view as the paradigm one accepts for truth vs. a socially constructed dogma. While it is unreasonable to expect to completely get rid of dogma (as there will always be the temptation to at least try to warp or spin evidence to fit a previously expected result or to come up with a policy in favour of those performing the spin), requiring a knowledge base to be as evidentially based as is humanly possible provides the most protection for those not in decision making power. This, in essense, is what secularists are striving for. The cultural relativism of freedom of religion is a wonderful thing as long as it is restricted to the philosophical domain of non-practical matters. If people find comfort in the deistic notion that the Big Bang was caused by a powerful entity one would like to call God, that is perfectly fine. Likewise, if people find comfort in the spiritual community of weekly church attendance, that is also fine. What is not fine is when the freedoms of other people become infringed upon under the protection of one's right to the freedom of religion or when a religion is used as a position of authority to propagate a non-evidential base for knowledge and moral judgement used to inhibit the actions of those who do not adhere to the same belief structure (such as the limits on same-sex marriages or birth control). As I believe I have mentioned before, whenever the freedom of religion and other freedoms and rights conflict, I have yet to hear a rational argument for why the freedom of religion should not be overruled by the right with which it has come into conflict.

Somehow, I am back on religion again, and I apologize. I hope what I have written here makes sense, although I am not entirely sure I have said what I wanted to say either coherently or completely. Anyone else want to chime in?

Note: Not to distract from the possibility of a good debate this post might inspire, but one should note that I have used a quotation for the title, so it is part of my new figure-out-where-the-title-came-from contest. This one is somewhat obscure, so I'll give the hint that it is the opening line to a song.


Anonymous said...

You slip into religion so often because, believe it or not, religion is part of that basic cultural system hinted at in another of your posts. Because it is there, it has to be recognized. One can not argue coherently for something when one completely ignores its alternative. By the way, I vaguely remember the Canadian writer (I forget his name but he was the partner of a former GG) who argued that our "culture" was a result of the aboriginal culture that pervaded Canada before the immigrants came -- (just remembered his name John Ralston Saul). At least I think that was his argument.

Paul Kishimoto said...

@above: that may have been part of his 1995 Massey Lectures.

Calden, I admit to not reading your upstream source, but I have some remarks nonetheless.

The first concerns knowledge. I took a very helpful (from an engineer's standpoint) elective on epistemology. Modern philosophy mostly accepts a trifold definition of knowledge as justified true belief and discusses the nature of each of those aspects.

Few philosophers would deny that most knowledge is, as you say, "as evidentially based as is humanly possible." However uncomfortable it may be, the rational secularist must confront the fact that most of what we take to be "knowledge" in our daily lives involves epistemic justification that is far from scientifically rigorous.

The ways in which we self-justify the beliefs that "the door is open," "it is nighttime" and "I am cold" are very cursory and bear certain similarities to accepting religious justifications, similarities which cannot be discounted.

Another relevant point, made on the first day of a public policy course I am taking this term, is that the Wikipedia definition of policy as "a deliberate plan of action to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s)" is incorrect. In a democracy, the outcomes of policy need not be rational, only popular. Thus, while a court may decide, rationally, that the Constitution places other rights above the right to freedom of religion, that ordering is ultimately subject to popular approval. Unlikely as it may be, with sufficient electoral support such a ruling could be overruled, or the Constitution amended.

Mozglubov said...

Paul, you are completely correct that policy need only be popular rather than rational. Part of what I was trying to get across in my musings was the idea that when popular beliefs and common knowledge cease to be rooted in rational thought, policy (which is dictated by the popular) also ceases to be rational and can be used against the very people who support it to better serve those with the most clout in the sphere of public opinion.

I also accept your statement that most knowledge does not go through any sort of rigorous peer review or deep thought, but at the same time a well-educated citizenry with training in critical thinking is still better protected against exploitation than one without such a rational grounding.

I wouldn't mind you elaborating, however, on how the examples you gave ("the door is open", "it is nighttime", and "I am cold") resemble religious beliefs, as the first two are directly observable (whereas direct observation of godly things tend to be rather difficult) and the last is a personal state (which is rather hard not to be directly observable).

Anyway, I have not taken a course in epistemology (though I would like to... perhaps one summer if I have money and time to burn), so if my musings in this realm seem amateur, please forgive me.

Regan said...

The song the title of this entry references is "The Running Free" by the band "Coheed and Cambria"

Great track by a Great band

So what's the prize?

Mozglubov said...

Hey Regan, I didn't realise you read this too... had I, I would have known you would get this reference. The prize is the pride you get for solving the puzzle. Not much of a prize, I admit, but I thought it was a fun game anyway.

Regan said...

I'll accept your prize of an ego boost :p

I followed the links over from Ian's newly restarted blog, so I guess I'll have to keep an eye on this too. I really like your style of writing.

Good to see you over at Barefoot Bum too, Larry is fucking smart, but it's still nice to see someone else calling him on some of the stuff he says. He's a great sport, and it's a good forum for debate.

Mozglubov said...

Now I'm the one getting the ego boost... thank you.

Yeah, I like the Barefoot Bum. He is extremely smart and well written, but we often disagree, so I think it is worth the debate. He's certainly changed my mind on some things.