Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?

Theism is the belief that there is at least one supernatural god, a perfect (all-powerful, all-knowing) person who created the natural universe and who intervenes in that universe, particularly in human affairs. Theism is the philosophical content of religions which is almost never discussed in mainstream journalistic coverage of religions, whether on the radio or TV, in newspapers or magazines. In the West, addressing the philosophical merits of theism would inevitably call the monotheistic religions into question and alienate consumers of news, most of whom pretend to follow a traditional religion without actually doing so. In short, monotheistic religions are currently farcical.

The farce begins with the theist’s erroneous notion that theism can and should be rationally supported, as though theism were something like a scientific theory. The scientistic blunder here is monumental and often motivated by comically misplaced arrogance, as in the case of Catholic pomposity or the militant Islamist’s woefully perverse delusions of grandeur. A monotheist’s condescension towards a nontheist or an Eastern mystic is like an ant’s deeming itself to be taller than a giraffe. (I’ll speak of nontheism rather than atheism, because “atheism” has negative social connotations which are irrelevant to the core issue I mean to address.) However, the farce ends when we see that theism’s irrationality may not matter and that the theist may have the last laugh. The rational case against theism may itself rest on a category error. Indeed, the rational ideal that our philosophical beliefs be logical and attuned to the evidence conflicts with the more Humean reality confirmed by cognitive scientists, that humans are not as rational as we might prefer to think. I’ll provide an overview here of why theism is indeed irrational, but then I’ll turn to what I’ll call the existentialist’s nonrational case for theism. 

Mysticism and Literalism

First of all, we need to observe the split in all religions between their mystical and exoteric traditions. The mystic seeks transcendent experience of the divine, not a rational justification for intellectual beliefs. She understands that language and logic simplify and thus to some extent falsify reality as they map it, and that in any case those tools evolved to provide us with practical knowledge of how to get by in the natural world, not to contact anything that might lie beyond that world. The mystic prefers a direct, intuitive grasp of supernatural reality, but if she’s forced to speak of what she thereby grasps, she often resorts to myths and metaphors which she knows shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Mysticism is central to Eastern religions but marginalized in Western, monotheistic ones. What replaces mysticism at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a colossal misunderstanding, called literalism, which is the mistaking of exoteric knowledge for the esoteric, mystical kind. Literalists err in literalizing the mystic’s metaphors. So while a mystic may compare God, that which transcends nature, to a loving parent, the literalist falls in love not with God but with the image, succumbing to our primitive, tribal inclination to worship an idol. From the mystic’s viewpoint, the literalist’s ego gets the better of her; like Narcissus she’s captivated by her own reflection, in this case by an image poured out of a mystic’s mind to provide a sketchy map of what transcends our rational comprehension. So one of the initial mistakes made by Western theists, at least, is the elevation of their anti-mystical tradition. Thus, Christians persecuted their Gnostics and Muslim jurists have a strained relationship with Sufis. 

Indeed, when theism is reduced to literalistic idolatry, the contents of theistic beliefs become ridiculous. The images contradict each other or are otherwise preposterous, leading the indignant literalist into a web of falsehoods as she has to rationalize the absurdities that inevitably follow when she naturalizes and anthropomorphizes something that’s supposed to be supernatural. For example, how could God literally have thoughts and feelings with no physical brain or other substrate? If a substrate is needed for psychological states, who made God’s? Needless to say, if God evolved, he’s not the creator of everything. Literalists have traveled far, looking for Eden or Noah’s ark, always ready with a spurious explanation when they fail to find any archeological evidence for the biblical tale’s historicity. And literalistic theology becomes the proverbial tennis match played without a net. So-called systematic theology tomes are written to map every nuance of theistic imagery, arriving at creeds that purportedly specify God’s attributes--including, no doubt, what God had for breakfast the other day.

Oligarchy: Nature’s Inhumanity to Humans

In my rants on liberalism, conservatism, and happiness, I contrast some myths we live by with unsettling natural realities. Liberals believe we’ve progressed socially as well as scientifically and technologically, that we’ve discovered civil rights and the superiority of capitalism and democracy over all other economic and political systems. Unfortunately, liberals borrow their unidirectional, teleological notion of history from monotheism, and while modern, secular humanistic societies have “moved forward” in that they’ve developed--which is virtually a tautology--they’ve entered a postmodern stage of decline by way of nihilism. Oswald Spengler may have been correct when he observed that, much like an organism, a culture passes through inevitable stages, leading from energetic growth, when the citizens believe fervently in an ideal that distinguishes their culture, to corruption and extinction when the people lose confidence in that ideal. Mesmerized by technoscientific advances, liberals assumed that scientific methods can be applied to social problems. But science can’t tell anyone what ought to be done. When social progress failed to materialize as expected--witness the many wars and holocausts in the last century--liberals lost their faith even in their substitute religion, which is scientism. And so liberal myths have become mere shibboleths, empty, politically correct slogans and talking points that no one would die for.

Conservatives have two myths: theism and social Darwinism. Science and philosophy have demolished the rational basis for theism, a point to which I’ll return in my next rant, and social Darwinism is both internally and externally inconsistent. The libertarian faith in the wild market commits the naturalistic fallacy of inferring that because natural selection actually makes use of brutal competitions in the biological sphere, economies ought to be similarly structured. Moreover, the evidence shows that a wild market simply clears the way for the default social order, for the dominance hierarchy, which is what the religious and libertarian conservative actually defend, whether that oligarchy takes the form of a theocracy (on Earth as in Heaven) or of a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or kleptocracy (rule by the vicious). Unlike the narrow liberal myth of scientism, which captivates only Philistines in certain scientific circles, conservative myths are still powerful. Most westerners think of themselves as monotheists, although their behaviour shows clearly that their true religion is the libertarian’s faith in the economist’s god, in the creative force unleashed by a free-for-all of human vice. A consumer’s true faith is that when we’re at our egoistic worst, society is miraculously at its best, because of the invisible hand of natural selection. Again, though, while this myth still enchants, the myth is a noble lie rather than a spiritually uplifting narrative, since the myth rationalizes the gross, natural inequalities that inevitably result from vicious competition.

Consumerism and Oligarchy

Most people want to be happy, but the worthiness of happiness as our ultimate goal is another delusion, one which ought to be replaced by the nobler goal of creatively overcoming the knowledge of where we stand in nature. In Western, pseudodemocratic oligarchies, happiness is also misconstrued: the rich are presumed to be happier than the poor, because money buys pleasure and contentment indirectly, with the purchase of material goods such as high tech gadgets, luxury cars, or even fast food. Studies show that the rich are just as stressed as the poor, if not more so, but the materialistic delusion persists because of its usefulness in stabilizing society. Materialistic happiness is quantifiable: the more private possessions someone has, the greater his or her happiness; indeed, money is countable, so following the myth of happiness through to its absurd end, precise judgments can be made about degrees of happiness depending on the consumer’s calculable net worth. Tangible status symbols, like bank accounts, home appliances, fashionable clothing, home square footage, and so on, indicate a person’s place in the pecking order. If happiness is pleasure, everyone has the capacity to be happy, but if pleasure is caused by ownership of material products--as associative advertisements fallaciously suggest 24/7 on most surfaces of modern cities--there’s a happiness hierarchy. Now, the money that buys those products also buys power, and so the happiness hierarchy corresponds to the dominance hierarchy, which is the shape of an oligarchy in which the many are ruled by the few.

Happiness is Unbecoming

Many people profess to be confused about the question of life’s meaning, of whether there’s a best way of life: the question is a philosophical one, and since philosophy has so little cultural prestige, people suspect that the question is idle. These people are doubly mistaken, since their behaviours if not their words indicate that they typically accept not just the question, but the hedonist’s answer to it. The best way of life is assumed to be the one filled with the most happiness, which is to say the most contentment and pleasure.

But should happiness be the ultimate goal of a person’s life? There’s a clue in the fact that people are widely thought to be perfectly happy only in heaven, when God shows his face and directly rules over creation. The myth of heaven, in which disembodied people feel ultimate joy on a spiritual plane, implies, of course, that there are presently obstacles to feeling happy. In theistic terms, the main obstacle is God’s remoteness from the world, which permits the inhumane forces of nature to dictate the course of our lives. Some people win the lottery, others get hit by lightning, while nothing of lasting significance happens to the majority.

In nontheistic terms, there’s no God and there’s just the frigid, impersonal universe, evolving along its alien trajectory. Far from being at home in nature, we live in one of the few, relatively miniscule spots that aren’t perfectly lethal to us; were we to try to explore the outer reaches, we’d be snuffed out. We can take pockets of the Earth with us in spaceships, but we’d die within them before passing much beyond merely the neighbourhood of our own solar system. Most of the universe is thus effectively hostile towards us, has no mind that can be changed on the subject, and seems far beyond our power to modify to our benefit. Even on Earth, our oasis, the universe rears its alien head in the frugality of natural selection, which equips species with barely enough adaptations to survive, if even with those, so that shortages of resources are commonplace and many people suffer rather than flourish. A meteor could destroy us all as one wiped out the dinosaurs, making nonsense of any pretension to our cosmic importance. I’ll call the set of such obstacles to our happiness, whether they be characterized theistically or nontheistically, Our Existential Situation (OES).

OES, then, necessitates the myth of heaven in an afterlife, on the assumption that happiness is the ultimate good in life. We can’t be perfectly happy here and now, and some of us are prevented from being even remotely happy, but there will be a time and a place in which everything will change for the better. I’d add, though, that when our response to OES is weighed by an ethical standard, we’re left with the normative implication that happiness should not be our ultimate goal in the first place. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy

What does the conservative believe, deep-down, if anything? While liberalism is rooted in the Scientific Revolution, conservatism has a much more ancient pedigree, stretching back to ancient monarchies and aristocracies, to prehistoric nomadic tribes, and even to the dominance hierarchies in most social species, from fish to birds to mammals, in which a minority of elite members rule over the majority by force, for the group’s stability. Prior to the advent of capitalism and the rise of modern science and the middle class, resources were lacking to educate the majority of people to make them fit to rule; the majority had to work tirelessly on the farm and had no time for more intellectual pursuits. Elites and predators arose to occupy the power vacuums, and the paths they carved established pecking orders. Myths accumulated to rationalize those unequal social arrangements, associating the leaders with gods and positing the wickedness of human nature that’s overcome either by the will of God bestowed on the king who’s given the divine right to rule through his bloodline, or by intensive training in a religious or secular institution.

The British conservative, Edmund Burke, argued that this traditional form of minority government is the most prudent and shouldn’t be tampered with by rationalist radicals, such as the Jacobins who were to do just that in the French Revolution. Conservatism is thus opposed to scientism, to optimism about the prospect for social progress that mimics the scientific kind, making government out to be social engineering. According to Burke, traditions that stand the test of time have more authority than an unproven abstract theory of how a society might be designed from scratch. Moreover, democracy is an unwise system for the above reason having to do with original sin. Whereas liberals trust in human nature, replacing God, angels, and other supernatural forces with human technocrats, conservatives are pessimistic about human beings: we tend to behave wickedly because we’re innately depraved. We’re lucky that some few of us manage to control their beastly impulses, excel in their education, and act for the general welfare by taking up the thankless task of government.

Elitist Conservatism

Talk of original sin is, of course, the oldest form of monumental fear-mongering for narrow political advantage. Granted, there must have been nomadic tribes or villages whose ignorant members were indeed thankful that they’d been blessed with leaders who stood out from the crowd by being not just more intelligent but more virtuous. The majority then would have benefited from the work of that elite minority, and the inequality between them would have been not just real but relevant to the different tasks for each social class.

Liberalism: from Scientism to Nihilism

The story of liberalism, in my view, is that of the fall from Enlightenment to postmodern versions of that value system. This is the story of a loss of confidence in the myths of the old atheistic, science-centered religion of secular humanism.

Enlightenment Liberalism

To get a sense of this decline, imagine how a liberal would answer this question: What do you believe as a liberal, deep-down, if anything? The old liberal answer to this question derives from Enlightenment humanism. Inspired by world-shaking progress in science, humanists became confident that similar progress could be made in human affairs, that societies could be greatly improved through our own effort, using institutions such as government. Following science, humanists elevated Reason over faith and religious dogma. Whereas religious faith divides people, exacerbating our tribal instincts, reason unites us. Reason leads to consensus in science and is a basis for universal values and rights: in so far as we’re all rational, we’re equally precious as self-guiding beings.

Thus, the liberal believes in the equality of human beings and in human rights, including the rights to life and to pursue our own goals as rational, free persons. These rights are thought to follow from the dignity of rational persons. Whereas in a religious society, rights come from God’s commands as revealed in some holy text, in a liberal, humanistic society, rights are discovered by the power of human reason. Just as scientists learn how nature works by objectively testing hypotheses, we learn about ourselves by reflecting on our distinguishing features: we’re sentient, free, intelligent, social creatures, and those qualities dignify us, elevating us above the other species, but only to a degree; as science shows, we’re part of nature. But we have skills that make us special, and what the old liberal believes, as a humanist, is that we can use these skills to improve our situation on this planet. We can use government to help the poor, who have just as much dignity as rich people due to their shared humanity. We can think our way out of crises, negotiating and compromising for the common good.

Above all, then, the liberal used to be a rationalist. But the liberal can no longer afford to be such, because the history of western rationalism has moved from a modern to a postmodern stage. The modern stage is what I just described: people were inspired by scientific advances and trusted that any species that could win for itself so much control over nature can learn to control itself. Like the technoscientific kind, psychological and social progress lay in the hands of reason, hands we all possess just by being members of our species. In this way, modern rationalists were scientistic, trusting that societies could progress by extending scientific methods or at least science’s general rationalistic approach to problems.