Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An Unbridgeable Gap?

In recent months I've largely withdrawn from commenting on sites where people already largely agree with me, and I've tried my hand at commenting at more neutral or even hostile venues. My hope was (at least how I consciously rationalise it) that the conversation would improve because one factor contributing to hostility - venturing into a place where people disagree - would be removed. Needless to say, it was a fool's hope.

I'm not trying to say it's everyone else who is the problem; I see no reason to think that my attitudes and biases weren't a factor in my failure to have meaningful dialogues. The cynic in me would write it off as: one's desire to have an interfaith dialogue is inversely proportional to their ability to engage in one, though that is probably a skewed view from encountering too many Jesus-bots*.

Perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that there is a gap between the language of the scientific and the language of the spiritual. To be more precise, there's a focus on private experience at the heart of many spiritual claims that are shielded and privileged beyond anything the sciences can say.

The general argument is that there are certain things that we can hold as self-evidentially true simply by our experience of them. In the case of near-death experiences, we'd have to take at face value the accounts of people sensing themselves leaving their bodies and experiencing that environment without the sensory organs nor the brain to process it. In the case of private revelation, we'd have to take it at face value that the experience of God is a divine one.

And due to privileging the private experience, the lack of having a private experience is taken as lacking the knowledge to make an informed decision. One claim was that Richard Dawkins is deluded to deny the supernatural because he hasn't taken any magic mushrooms - a nonsensical proposition until it is factored in that private experience trumps all. The same factor makes sense of those who define faith as God-given. It may seem to the outsider that it's an irrationality, but that's because they haven't been touched by God.

Because of all this, I'm coming around to the opinion that interfaith dialogues aren't just hindered by our personal biases and convictions, but that the nature of beliefs act as a barrier to exploring the issue at all. While one can discuss and share publicly-accessible knowledge, private knowledge is off limits to all but the one who has the experience. Any belief that ultimately roots itself in a private experience means that the conversation hinges around accepting such an experience at face value.

If one side is approaching the question through reason / evidence, while the other is relying on personal experience, what's left to discuss? Perhaps all that's left is the argument over whether private experience can really have the epistemic power that is assigned to it, but that approach is fraught with motivated reasoning, and really not the domain of anyone outside of the relevant scientific and philosophical disciplines. For the rest of us, the gap between what's publicly debatable and what's privately held prohibits any meaningful dialogue.

*To be fair, it wasn't just aspiring apologists. There were plenty of people of various backgrounds all believing they were right, and spoke only to that effect. One of the saddest cases was someone whose interactions with others was to call them "word slaves" ad nauseum. A more facile case was someone who claimed to be the world's foremost expert on religion as well as a branch of quantum mechanics (nowhere to be found on Google Scholar), then got offended when asked to present his qualifications. In any case, it wasn't the ideal circumstances for reasoned conversation. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Driving Analogy

Consider the following three scenarios:
  1. A driver refuses to wear a seatbelt
  2. A parent fails to secure their young child's seatbelt
  3. Someone drives drunk
In each of these scenarios, it reflects the choice of an individual. Yet these three scenarios aren't equivalent. In the first, the person is taking a personal safety risk. If they end up in a car accident, the chances of injuring themselves are much greater. In the second, their own choice puts at risk someone who couldn't make that choice for themselves. In the third, their choice is putting at risk other people since roads are a shared resource.

When I think of health claims, I don't care so much if a person chooses to treat themselves with whatever they think were work. If they have cancer and want to cure it by homoeopathy, it's their funeral. Think that magnets or shark cartlidge will cure a bad knee? A fool and their money are soon parted. This is the equivalent of someone not wearing their seatbelt. While there might be other factors to consider (such as individuals organising together to claim that seatbelts are a propaganda device of Big Auto that cost countless lives), it's their freedom to make that choice.

The child case is a bit more tricky. After all, parents do have responsibility for their children, but it's also recognised that a child has rights beyond the parent's dominion. A parent using prayer to cure a sick child while there's actual medical intervention that could help the child a gross violation of that child's liberty. Not strapping a child in securely may be harmless in most trips, but seatbelts aren't there for most cases - they are there for when things go horribly wrong.

Many diseases are communicable. Someone infected with the flu deciding to come to work because they're "taking echinacea" is shirking their social responsibility and putting others at risk. Like the drunk driving scenario, there are potential consequences for people who didn't make that choice. Vaccines are a good example of this, as not only is it putting the individual at risk, but it also puts others at risk (as recent epidemics have sadly shown).

The idea that it's one's personal freedom to choose what "treatments" they wish to undergo only works when that ailment/treatment is only putting themselves at risk. For the latter two cases, it should be uncontroversial that it's not just their own freedom at play. It is uncontroversial in the seatbelt case because people agree that seatbelts save lives. Yet if someone believed that seatbelts not only have no effect, but actually caused harm, how do you separate out that they should be forced to use a seatbelt with their child? Or if they believed that they were a good driver no matter how much they drank, would it be seen as anything other than intrusion that they would not be allowed on the road in that condition?

The difference between driving and alt-med is that people don't dispute the facts in driving. Alt-med is filled with science-denial and paranoid conspiracies in order to justify the harm that they cause. The personal freedom many argue for harms the personal freedom of others, so they just deny the facts instead.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Am I A Dishonest Atheist?

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
The above quote is taken from a review of A.C. Grayling's The God Argument written by Damon Linker. I've heard this sentiment expressed often enough, yet I've never really understood what it means. Perhaps I am only paying lip service when I affirm all those points, but haven't truely internalised it. And while I could nitpick that humanity is not entirely the product of random events (natural selection is a non-random process), it's hard to see just how all these things are meant to be so terrible.

I'd like to dismiss it at rhetoric (can one be a fair critic of the arguments for a position if they find the consequences for that position so dire?), but since the point comes up often perhaps I am missing something. Why do we need to worry about being alone in the universe? There are 7 billion of us after all - and our brains don't need more than about 150 of them at any given time. Why do we need someone to hear our prayers? We can communicate with others here and not. Why do we need humans to be wanted into existence? I'm here because my parents wanted me. Why do we need to have intrinsic dignity? We decide the dignity for ourselves. Why should our certain annihilation worry us? It's life we care about, and that comes before death. Why does ultimate suffering matter? We live contingently. Why does it not matter that our lives matter in a larger sense? Our lives matter now. Why does it matter that there's no ultimate punishment for crimes? Again, we don't live in the ultimate.

Now perhaps I'm being dishonest with myself. This blog entry won't matter in any ultimate sense, nor will it make much of a difference to anything other than satisfying a personal psychological disposition. Yet I'm not deluding myself (at least I don't think I am) into thinking that there's some ultimate sense in which this is ultimately meaningful and enriching.

God, it seems, solves a problem that is of the believer's own creation. Are these really universal problems, or problems that come from a belief to begin with? And even if they are universal, would we be doing anything other than appeasing our psychological dispositions? It's hard to see that even if these are real problems for us, that they are real in any sense other than a projection onto the universe.

It does seem odd that religious people keep telling atheists how terrible it is to be an atheist to the point that they have to tell happy atheists that they're doing it wrong. I can only conclude that divine hiddenness is only a problem if you believe that there's really a God.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Classic Films: The Seventh Seal

"You're lucky to have such a fluid tongue that you believe your own twaddle." - Blacksmith Plog
I worry that I'm not qualified enough to deal with literature heavy in symbolism. I always wonder whether or not I'm taking the right messages away, or whether I'm simply projecting, or even if I'm too dumb to get it. Or perhaps I am meant to inject myself into art, in which case I worry any such interpretation will come off as primitive and shallow.

Det sjunde inseglet is a film about a man having an existential crisis in the face of his imminent demise. More specifically, he wants to overcome the problem of divine hiddenness, for he foolishly seeks meaning in God. If there is no God "Then life is a preposterous horror" the knight Antonious Block laments. This quest for God manifests itself mainly in conversations with a personification of death, which no doubt carries far more symbolic significance than I can project onto it. It's a Faustian bargain sans bargain, though the cynic in me writes this off as a way of sparing us (the audience) an internal monologue.

Setting the film during the plague - and having the protagonist serve in the crusades - adds a sense of authenticity to the struggle. While Woody Allen might craft out meaning through opining into a camera in modern-day Manhattan, a conversation with death while surrounded by plague victims and repenters engaging in self-flaggelation really hits home. It's a cruel and vicious world; a world normally far removed from what modernity has given us, but the great existential questions are still the same.

It felt more like reading philosophy than watching a film; with characters and events merely serving as vehicle for exploring underlying themes. The dialogue was clever in a profound way, giving much for the willing viewer to contemplate. In the week or so since I watched the film, I've found myself going back over certain scenes in my mind; and rereading the "memorable quotes" that people put on the Internet. Yet it feels like I've only scratched the surface.

Not having a strict religious upbringing, I felt that a lot of the symbolism of the film was lost on me. I found myself confused at the knight's dilemma; nodding along to the squire, laughing at the fools whipping themselves, pitying the plight of the blacksmith, and (like the knight) finding comfort in the familial. And if I were to draw a conclusion of what the film-maker wanted the audience to come away with, it was the most important move the knight made in his game. It was that same lesson that Ridley Scott masterfully portrayed at the climax of Blade Runner. The Danse Macabre is our eventual fate, and there's no escaping that. Until then there's life.