Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 15 March 2009

The problems with fundamentalism

It’s a sad indictment that I should feel it necessary to write this post, but the blogosphere, at least considerable sections of it, are full of it. Notice the use of the plural, though there is one specific problem that compounds all the others – it’s called intolerance. Not that long ago, in the land I inhabit, we had our own brush with intolerance that had ramifications right across the nation and across the political spectrum – she was called Pauline Hanson.

I’ve always had a tendency to analyse, even when the issues are emotive and personal. What I found interesting about the Pauline Hanson phenomenon is that she created intolerance in people like myself who are normally tolerant. Pauline Hanson taught me that I’m intolerant of intolerance. Pauline, a fish and chip shop proprietor, who became a parliamentarian, created a political storm that pretty well divided a country and even divided families. The link with fundamentalism is that fundamentalists, like Pauline Hanson, create intolerance on both sides.

This is why someone like Richard Dawkins, with whom I share many of his arguments, not only shows contempt for anyone with religious beliefs but contempt for anyone who is tolerant of people with religious beliefs (just read his introduction to the paperback edition of The God Delusion). So, whilst I support Dawkins in his fight against religious fundamentalism completely, I don’t support his fight against religion per se at all. I don’t agree with a black and white view of the world, that he tends to portray, which is divided between atheists and religious fundamentalists, and therefore one must take one side or the other. I wish to lay out my slate that there is a world that can include atheists and religious believers. My role models for this perspective are Karen Armstrong and the Dalai Lama.

I write a lot about science and mathematics on this blog, but almost every essay includes an aside to explain why the mysteries of the universe cannot be resolved by the invocation of God. It seems to me that many people don’t appreciate that a philosophical argument that uses science to support it, doesn’t necessarily turn it into a scientific argument. I believe that even Dawkins makes this error when he introduces the anthropic principle, in concert with the concept of the multiverse, as if it’s a scientific argument rather than a philosophical argument supported by both known and speculative science (The God Delusion). There is nothing wrong with Dawkins’ argument – it’s philosophical in the same way that Paul Davies produces an alternative philosophical argument in The Goldilocks Enigma, only, with Davies, one is more aware that it is philosophical. I make this distinction because many fundamentalists don’t seem to appreciate that a philosophical argument that includes scientific evidence or a mathematical proof is not of itself a scientific or mathematical proof. There are no philosophical proofs in my view (refer my Mar.08 post: What is philosophy?).

But I’m getting off the track before I’ve even started. If one reads a lot of science, like I do, then one sees a history of investigation at many levels where the solution of one mystery reveals other mysteries that we didn’t even know existed. I contend therefore, that it’s quite possible, even reasonable to assume, that we will never know all the mysteries of the natural universe, let alone resolve them. It is for this reason that any sceptic of science, which includes all religious fundamentalists that I’ve read or heard or argued with, can find a hole in any area of science, which they believe they can exploit.

It follows, according to their logic, that the answer to any mystery, still unresolved by science, can therefore be found in the Bible, as if the Bible has provided all the information we currently have on the natural world. Therefore the Genesis explanation, of man being made from dirt and woman from a man’s rib, overturns all the scientific evidence of biological evolution discovered in the last 2 centuries. ID and creationism are not about studying science, despite the camouflage rhetoric to the contrary, they are about proving that the Bible is true. For Christian fundamentalists, the Bible is the only source of truth in the earthly world. Despite all the discoveries of science, especially in the last 500 years, any conflict with biblical scripture, whether apparent or real, rules science invalid. It is on this battle-line that I firmly side with Dawkins.

Mathematics and physics are my private passion, and I’m currently reading about Paul Dirac’s discovery of an equation that didn’t just predict anti-matter but insisted upon its existence. In 1928, Dirac took the recently formed Schrodinger equations of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s equations of special relativity, and in resolving their apparent dichotomy, not only justified evidence already known yet unexplained (the magnetic moment of electrons), but predicted the electron’s anti-particle, the positron. This is an intellectual achievement that is monumental in its consequences, comparable to Einstein’s equation: E= mc2. There is nothing in the Bible to compare with this. Imagine if the Bible told us that God created anti-matter alongside matter. On the contrary, the Bible tells us about a global flood that is physically impossible, a woman turned into salt, a child born from a woman who never had sexual intercourse, and I think the sun stops at some point, which was a particular point of contention that the Catholic Church had with Galileo in 1633 (ref: Livio, see previous post).

So while Christian fundamentalists want equal time to teach ID or creationism, or whatever they want to call it, in a science class alongside evolution, someone should point out to them the discrepancies between biblical myths and scientific theories, as well as the criteria involved (refer my Nov.07 post, Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?).

My point is that yes, there are lots of questions still unsolved in science, including questions inherent in evolutionary theory, but the successes of science far outweigh any explanation of the natural world found in any religious text, so there is no logic, and absolutely no justification, in replacing science with a biblical account in any area of the sciences at all.

I contend that there are questions science can’t answer. Philosophical questions on why humans look for meaning in their lives or the resolution of moral dilemmas. This latter issue leads to the argument, that I’ve heard from a number of religious fundamentalists, that without a belief in God one is a moral relativist. I find this a truly bizarre conclusion and it’s always presented as if it’s self-evident – there can be no alternative. You either believe in God and have morals or you don’t believe in God and you’re amoral. They should read Hugh Mackay’s book, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself, which is the best book on the subject I’ve read.

There are a number of ways of looking at morality. For a start, you can read a book that prescribes everything you do, from how to treat slaves to whether you should eat pork, and what you can do on what days of the week, and also throws in 10 solid statements, or rules, on how to get along with your fellow man. But there are other approaches, like a meta-philosophical approach, attempted by people like John Stuart Mill, and before him, some ancients like Plato and Aristotle, and even a Chinese bloke called Confucius. Then there’s Hugh Mackay’s approach where you look at every situation on its merits and decide for yourself. No, that’s not moral relativism. Moral relativism is where you accept whatever any culture decides for itself, which may include cultural practices like the mutilation of girls’ genitalia at puberty, or the public beating of someone for selling meat on the wrong day of the week, or a woman having to be sacrificed at her husband’s funeral. That’s moral relativism; atheism is rarely a factor at all.

Then there is your conscience: one of the most misunderstood but most manipulated characteristics of human nature. Religious fundamentalists may tell you, or imply, that your conscience is God whispering in your ear, but in reality, your conscience is conditioned by your culture and your upbringing. Freud called it the super-ego. Your conscience is what made you feel guilty about masturbating when you were an adolescent – not God whispering in your ear at all, though it can be made to feel that way.

Hugh Mackay explains the dangers of taking your morals from God, because once you believe that, you can justify any action, like flying a fully loaded aeroplane into an occupied building. That is not an isolated example – just look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, and any number of atrocities justified in the name of God. Mackay is not anti-religion by any means, and explains that religion is more about finding meaning in your life.

Dawkins, if I read him correctly, is contemptuous of people finding meaning through religion. But according to Dawkins, we are just ‘gene-replicating organisms’, therefore any intellectual ruminations concerning our raison d’etre must be a waste of time. No, he’s never said that, but it’s the only logical conclusion: we live for our genes; they don’t exist for our benefit. So, I do see a role for religion, which makes me a bit of a weirdo. But at least I can acknowledge that my religion is nothing special compared to anyone else’s. You see, I grew up in a culture where religion was considered something very personal, like your most intimate thoughts, so you never discussed it unless you were invited to. I also realised that if everyone followed that precept then people with different religious views could get along just fine. In fact, I contend that everyone’s religious point of view is unique to them, so why should I intrude or insist that mine is better?

But this in itself begs another question: why do I argue with fundamentalists? Because fundamentalists believe the exact opposite to this: that everyone should believe the same thing, which is exactly what they believe, and, what’s more, they have the text to prove it. But this text, when taken literally, conflicts with current scientific thinking, so now we have scientists in opposition to all religious belief. As I said or alluded to at the beginning: intolerance breeds intolerance to itself.

13 comments:

PK said...

I know that you know that Russell resolved the paradox inherent in any formulation isomorphic to "the set of all sets that are not members of themselves" by inventing type theory, which expressly disallows such self-referential constructs as semantically ill-formed, but I mention it just by way of providing a context for those of your readers who may not be familiar with the history. Briefly to recapitulate Russell's argument, a sentence that makes a statement about an object is not the same type of thing as the object itself. So why is this relevant?

Well, intolerance of intolerance of other people's ideas or beliefs is not the same type of thing as simple intolerance -- which is not to say, ipso facto, that it, the metaintolerance stimulated by any kind of cognitively dualistic fundamentalist intolerance, is necessarily less regrettable than the intolerance itself (or less reprehensible, if one were to admit moral judgments, themselves often if not inherently predicated on a kind of fundamentalism, into the realm of discourse). Howsoever, I do think it worth emphasizing that your distaste for intolerance is not the same kind of thing as the intolerance you find distasteful, so we can move on from there.

I join you in feeling intense admiration for Karen Armstrong and for the Dalai Lama, both, and I have my own religious beliefs which I don't universally forbear to express, though I do systematically exclude them from discussions of a scientific nature, since I (personally) consider spirituality to exist on a dimension orthogonal to that of scientific discourse.

Perhaps I am putting beliefs in your head, which would be more egregious even than to put words in your mouth, but I feel I know that you well know that many fundamentalists, operating on Perry Level number one, cannot choose but think as they do (though exactly what they choose to think in that manner is, perhaps, a matter of choice). On the other hand, even as John Stuart Mill, whom you mention, observed that conservatives (whose ideology -- apropos of nothing -- I personally abhor) should not feel distress in recognizing that whereas most "non-intellectual" people are conservative, not all conservative people are "non-intellectual," since it would follow that numerically, then, they would always enjoy an advantage... even as Mill said this of conservatives, I would venture to say of religious people (and thereby partly self-referentially) that not all of them are cognitive dualists, and neither Descartes nor Pascal was particularly deficient in mental acuity. (Nor is Karen Armstrong, nor is the Dalai Lama.)

A tenet of one particular religion, that "from him or her to whom much is given, much is expected," is one that seems to me not at all counterintuitive or unreasonable (if I'm not crossing the line, here, by mixing "dimensions"), and I would put it to you that, whereas cognitive dualists do not have a choice, you do, and so your choosing to "tolerate" religious belief, by not condemning wholesale all those who have it, is one I respect.

On the other hand, as to "why [you] argue with fundamentalists," I would suggest that you refrain from so doing. By arguing, you are invoking a set of rules, those of logical discourse, which your interlocutors do not embrace, and do not find relevant to their Weltanschauungen. Nor can they feel differently.

Now, lest anyone misunderstand:

1) I have my own (strongly held) religious beliefs, so obviously, it's not my opinion that having religious beliefs is wrong or that religious people are stupid.

2) I understand your dismay at what you perceive as an onslaught of fundamentalist anti-rationalism from all quarters of the blogosphere. But i don't think the fault is attributable to the existence of religion, but to the existence of human beings, who, even if deprived of any beliefs that could imaginably be characterized as religious, would still find reasons to persecute one another -- and to attempt to suppress scientific enquiry -- philosophical reasons, ideological reasons, Schadenfreude, xenophobia... whatever.

3) I would love to see the advent of universal tolerance (and metatolerance). I'd also love to see peace on earth, the obliteration of poverty and disease, and a remission of suffering everywhere. I'm not crazy, so I anticipate none of these outcomes within my own life span or the life expectancy of the known universe.

4) I haven't specifically addressed all your concerns, but my intent hasn't been to affirm or rebut them. It's been to express sympathy and encourage metatolerance. I think Terence (if I have the right Roman) had a good thought. Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi PK,

I agree with all your points 1 to 4, especially point 2, as it's one that seems to escape some people, but I never studied Latin, so your closing aphorism is lost on me, I'm afraid, for lack of erudition.

Thanks for your comments. I actually wrote an essay once, though I didn't post it, on 'The Limits of Tolerance' and the limits of tolerance are determined by the intolerance of others. So I would not tolerate Sharia law, for example, if someone tried to introduce it into Australia as a 'parallel' legal system. No one has suggested that, by the way, though someone on Stephen Law's blog seriously suggested it for the UK. I know it exists in some countries, like Malaysia, apparently, though I've no idea how it works. Badly, I expect.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I guess the point I was making about the 'intolerance of intolerance' is that it always polarises and divides. You don't know about Pauline Hanson but it's a logical analogy, because she created an emotive division at many levels from the political to the street level where previously it had not existed, or, at least, not overtly.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

Sort of on a tangent, you might like The Age of Entanglement, which is a book about the history of quantum physics that I just finished reading. Not that I understand anything more about physics than I used to, but it was at least entertaining and you might be able to get more out of it than me - I'm not terribly inclined towards the natural sciences.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Larry,

I will look out for it. A lot of the books I read I get from reviews in New Scientist. I'm currently reading Antimatter by Frank Close, Professor of Physics at Oxford, which was reviewed in NS. It's copyrighted 2009, so it's very recent. A very accessible and informative read.

Regards, Paul.

PK said...

1) "Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto." roughly translates to: "I am a man(person). Nothing human could be foreign to me." Perhaps not so apposite in retrospect as when first it popped into my head, since it now occurs to me that there are a number of attributes particular to some humans which are almost entirely foreign to me (not to say utterly incomprehensible), such as Schadenfreude and the propensity to vote for Republicans. :) Also, I should apologize for the unintentionally pedantic descent into the language of a culture I don't particularly admire. Starting or ending an essay with some vaguely relevant comment in Latin (or French, German, Tagalog or whatever) is a hitherto-common stylistic quirk I acquired back in the Dark Ages, which (albeit still sometimes useful for establishing your bona fides in the company of humanities professors) is one I should definitely forswear, now that we are living in a world not heavily populated by Ancient Romans. Anyway, my bad.

2) Your inference about my ignorance of the doings (or, for that matter, the existence) of a certain Antipodean racist was correct. We don't get much news about Australia here in the States. Actually, for the last eight years, we haven't got much news about America. :) I do see the analogy.

3) I agree with larryniven. Several people have commended Gilder's book to my attention, though I haven't yet got 'round to it. An erstwhile colleague of mine (a physicist) used to be fond of proclaiming that "anyone who wasn't profoundly upset by Bell's Theorem just didn't understand it ." Interesting subject matter, in any case.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I have to admit that I've never got my head around Bell's Theorem, yet I still find it 'profoundly disturbing' even so. As did Einstein, even though it came after him.

Anyway, if Larry recommends it, I expect The Age of Entanglement is worth reading.

Your quote appears so obvious it makes one wonder how so many people could behave to the contrary.

Actually, I attempt to answer that question and the inference in point 2 of your first comment in another post I wrote in the early stages of this blog under the title, Evil

If you're interested.

Regards, Paul.

Paul Carlin said...

Intolerance is a complex issue and almost always brings with it a high degree of emotion. For some it comes down to a battle to claim the high MORAL or RIGHTEOUS ground, either because that is a deeply held belief and a critical part of a person’s identity/reputation. It can also possess a significant POWER factor – either personal or institutional. All of this has much in common with fundamentalism.

On the other hand, it is important that each person thinks through their reasons for ‘engaging’ or ‘not engaging’. If I engage what am I hoping to achieve, what might be a by-product of engaging (perhaps feeding the fires and the agenda of a protagonist?) In terms of agenda and power, this is where politics at any level and of any ideology emerge. A classic example of power, agenda and creating divisions is the famous George Bush line, which originated form many predecessors from many walks of life, “If you are not with us, then by definition you are against us”. The drive to construct and reinforce a THEM and US frame is raw power. It seeks to remove and condemn the possibility of middle ground or particular contexts or circumstances. When the ingredient of the MEDIA is added to this potion the whole things becomes very intense and volatile. In order to gain media attention and priority very often extreme positions and tactics are introduced and any reference to reason, human rights, etc can quickly be lost.

With regard to religion, it is worth noting the critical differences between religions that started with a prophet and led to the growth of followers and communities, and those that took the structure and power of an institution with its ideology hierarchies and rules and regulations. Karen Armstrong has written of this often and with reference to the Dalai Lama, there is a religious community as distinct from an institution.

When the conversation looks at mathematics, science and religion, I tend to agree with the work of Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.

'Our preferences for synthesis and unification often prevent us from recognising that many crucial problems in our complex lives may find better resolution under the opposite strategy of principled and respectful separation. …..'

'I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesised, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict.'


It may well be that for may people do not want or indeed have rejected religion in their lives, and so it is not an issue. On the other hand, for someone like Richard Dawkins, who actively opposes religion, then the conceptual framework and motivations are very different.

This is a very important discussion on a very complex issue that has been an integral part of life since time immemorial. O’ Murchu (1997) reminds us that spirituality has been part of the story of human evolution for 70,000 years whereas formal religion emerged about 5000 years ago. Therefore in our attempts to navigate and understand life’s mysteries, contradictions and disappointments, each of us brings our partial knowledge, beliefs, hopes, hurt and prejudices to the process. But it is through reading, discussion and reflection that we might gain greater insight and knowledge.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Paul,

I've said else where, that God is an experience, in my view, which is unique to the person who has it. It makes sense to me that anyone who has a 'religious' experience, in whatever form that may be manifested, would be religious but anyone who doesn't would be an atheist. By this criterion, it's logical for the world to have both theists and atheists.

To quote Mario Livio from Is God a Mathematician? 'The validity of the cosmological ,teleological, and similar arguments as proof of God's existence has been the subject of debate among philosophers for centuries. My personal impression has always been that theists don't need these arguments to be convinced, and atheists are not persuaded by them.'

I make a similar point, though not as specific, in a post I wrote last year (Jun.08) in response to one of Philosophy Nowmagazine's question of the month: Is there a God?

Basically, I approach the question by asking another: what is God? And that leads me back to my introductory paragraph, though I try to put it into a context that I believe anyone can relate to.

Regards, Paul.

The Atheist Missionary said...

First of all, thank-you for the thought provoking post and the recommendation for Right & Wrong. I just ordered a copy from Down Under.

I am interested to know whether you have read Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. While Dawkins delivers a searing critique of the irrationality of religious beliefs in The God Delusion, Harris does a much better job of illustrating the danger of supposedly moderate religious thinking. Harris' thesis is that moderate religious beliefs (and tolerance of those beliefs) enables religious extremism.

I came across your post while I was considering the question: Does atheism necessitate moral nihilism? The question arose from numerous comments from religiots on my blog suggesting that there can be no morality unless it is grounded in a belief in God. Of course, this is a silly suggestion in circumstances where those who do not believe in God can (and often do) lead morally upstanding lives.

You wrote: "I contend that there are questions science can’t answer. Philosophical questions on why humans look for meaning in their lives or the resolution of moral dilemmas. Are you suggesting that religion and science are a "non-overlapping magisteria"? If so, I think I would have to respectfully disagree. The reason why humans look for meaning in their lives can be explained by the evolution of our brain. Religion can be explained as a natural response to this evolutionary desire for meaning, as well as our natural fear of death. The debate as to whether religion is primarily a good thing, a bad thing or (as I read you as suggesting) benign remains open. However, my view remains that the world would be a better place if people would dispense with leading their lives based on irrational delusions and allowed reason to govern their actions.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Atheist Missionary,

Thanks for your contribution – I’ve come across your comments on Stephen’s blog.

You’ve thrown a lot at me in one go, so this may be a lengthy response. Firstly, I think you will enjoy Right & Wrong by Hugh Mackay, though it includes some references to local politics, but that shouldn’t throw you.

I haven’t read Sam Harris’s book, or any of his, and I concede I probably should if I get into these debates.

In regard to the question: ‘Does atheism necessitate moral nihilism?’ I’ve written a lengthy essay on this subject in a very early posting on my blog: Evil. In a nutshell, I argue that evil is an evolutionary/psychological problem not a religious one.

Your last paragraph gets to the nub of my ‘departure’ from most philosophers and commentators that I read, with a few exceptions. I don’t like the term, ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, and I’ve personally never used it. However, I’ve argued previously that science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions and I’ll stick to that. There are questions science can’t answer, and this is where philosophy comes in, if not religion.

Religion is an experience, not an institution, in my view. On another one of my earliest postings, Religion, I explain the difference between ‘intrinsic’ religion and ‘extrinsic’ religion as discussed by Helen Phillips in an issue of New Scientist. In fact, from memory, the post arose from a letter I wrote to NS. The problem with religion in general is that it tends to become political and that’s when it creates division even without necessarily being fundamentalist. But the distinction from science is that religion is a personal subjective experience whereas science is universal, almost by definition, so there is a fundamental epistemological divide in my view that people on both sides of the argument tend to ignore.

Now, if I can backtrack slightly, there are some who argue that if there are questions science can’t answer, it’s only a matter of time before it can, and, failing that, then the question is wasted because there will be no answer forthcoming.

But this is not a view I endorse. To give an example, according to science there is no such thing as ‘free will’ – it’s an inconvenience. I discuss this on another post (but I won’t impose on you with another reference). Gregory Graffin and William Provine argued in American Scientist (Sep. 07 or thereabouts) that '[free will] adds nothing to the science of human behaviour'. That’s because human behaviour can only be explained by our genes or our environment. Free will doesn’t come into it at all. Does that mean free will doesn’t exist? I would argue no (meaning: yes, it does), and so would John Searle (refer his book, Mind) because it’s tied to the philosophical problem of ‘intentionality’, which, I believe, is imagination dressed up in academic clothes, but that’s another discussion again. I once had a personal correspondence with Peter Watson, whom I greatly admire, who argued that ‘imagination’ is a term past it’s use-by date.

Now, this is also discussed indirectly in last week’s New Scientist (where there are 2 discussions, including one by A.C Grayling, of Thomas Metzinger’s new book, The Ego Tunnel). Apparently, we all live in a virtual reality we create in our minds. But Searle’s discussion of ‘Self’ in Mind would challenge this view. I won’t elaborate on that here as I’ve digressed too much already.

As for finding meaning, the best book on that subject is Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. If you can find all the meaning you need in science’s interpretation of our minds and evolutionary history, then I can’t personally argue with that. I think there’s more than that, and so do many other people, so I can’t say that they are all nuts and delusional, or particularly lacking in intelligence or anything else. This is where it really is a question for each individual and I don’t like to judge. I only judge when they attempt to impose their beliefs on me or the rest of the world – in other words, when it becomes political, and that’s the difference.

The Atheist Missionary said...

I am sitting here smiling because Frankl's book is #1 on the list of books I have been meaning to pick up.

I will review the posts you have referred to and will continue to follow your posts with interest.

Best regards, T.A.M.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I have my own battered copy - it's one of the few books I've managed not to lose through lending it out.

I've read a number of books on a number of subjects, but Frankl's small tome is the only book I read where I thought at the end, this should be compulsory reading.

Regards, Paul.