Sunday, February 18, 2007

I'm not that kind of atheist (Pt. II)

My atheism differs from Dawkins' in another way. While I concede readily enough that a life of reason is certainly preferable to one of faith in fanciful tales of angels, eternal torment and a last minute miracle on the road to Damascus, I would argue along with the Evangelicals that the difference between a life of reason and a life of faith is not predicated on rationality. However, they might be defined, these two different ways of life represent two different ideals, and as ideals are a matter of desire and even willful blind striving.



Dawkins argues forcefully and persuasively for a life of inquiry, investigation, and a pragmatic empirical-mindedness. As a preeminent Darwinian, he also must also acknowledge that human reason, however defined and understood, developed as it did because it allowed humans and proto-humans to persist long enough to reproduce and secure their continued existence and that of their children. Discovery and knowledge for their own sake are not the conditions under which human reason arose.



Further, because human reason is embodied, the limits of human physicality also limit human reason. Admittedly, this point is rather abstract, but consider if our ancestors had used echo location similar to bats, would our abilities to represent and visualize three dimensional space not be different? Wouldn't that in turn lead to different mathematical discoveries? Or, what if we had evolved so as to see gamma rays, would we look at the night sky differently?



More troubling, might it also not be the case that certain types of problems would be easier if our reason had developed differently, and also some types of problems would be more difficult, if at frameable.



Or consider this: Schizophrenia Delusion Without Illusion.



It seems that schizophrenics are not as prone to certain types of optical illusions as non-schizophrenics. Schizophrenics apparently take visual context less into account in evaluating visual clues. My big point here is that human intellect has not evolved to discover truth and if this study is any indication, human intellect is primarily "for" navigating the human social landscape.



Consequently, there is no necessary correlation between how the human brain works and the so-called natural order. The order and flow of human thought does not correspond to the order and flow of things. Again, if this study is any indication, illusion and error are necessary for the healthy functioning of human reason. Following this line of thought further, we can say with Nietzsche that Truth is another error.



But I've digressed. To sum up my digression: rational thought is as fraught with error and irrationality as an unexamined life of blind faith. One cannot choose rationality and a life of reason because of promises of harmony: self-respect forbids it. One cannot have the life of the mind because it of promises of truth. Again honesty and reason are obstacles to an easy acquiescence to truth.



I suggest rather that there are two grand strategies for living in the modern world. Reason and rationality as opposed to dogma and blind faith. "Strategy" is the right word. Strategy as a series of decisions that accomplish as their result but not as their end justification certain things: living, prospering after one's own fashion, have children (perhaps), etc.



A person finds himself in so many situations different and unrelated to the situations of his nearest and dearest. Great and trivial decisions need to be made in these situations. Some individuals, and individual is the right word, take pleasure in deciding without guidance in finding themselves in circumstances for which they have no precedent. The phrase existential thrill-seeking comes to mind. The motivations for this strategy are curiosity and courage.



The alternative strategy which I have labeled as dogmatic and as the way of blind faith, should not be underestimated in its power to guide. My labels also betray my sympathies. Its fundamental premise is that what is new is dangerous. The unprecedented is a calamity. There is a recognition that runs deep, so deep I'm tempted to say its genetic: a mistakes are always fatal. The only sure means to avoid ruination is to do only what has been done before.



What I call a strategy of blind faith should be recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with so-called traditional societies. The strategy of blind faith is also a very workable strategy for circumstances of extreme poverty. Experimentation is a luxury that cannot be afforded. It will bring disaster upon the tribe, the clan, or the village. This would also suggest that the strategy of blind faith is the strategy that has been pursued in almost all human societies throughout human history.



That the strategy of blind faith was not consciously chosen is irrelevant. It is never called the way of blind faith. Rather the way of heaven, the way of the Cross, The Path of Righteousness, and so on. The end result though is the same. An evolutionist understanding suggests that societies are organized not to attain their professed values and ends, but that some ways of organizing are self-perpetuating in spite of the best intentions of their members.



Considered in this way, a life of reason is not necessarily "better", more practical, or ethically and morally superior. Most accounts of the life of the mind fail to take into account the fact that the extreme conservatism of a life of blind faith also confers survival. In this regard, Dawkins is no different.




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