Back Off Science

Articles of faith

Posted in atheism, narrative by backoffscience on November 10, 2009

The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith.

In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world.

Making concepts real is what faith does, and all concepts, by definition, are human-created. Faith is simply a belief that a belief is real.

I, for example, have faith in the existence of love. I know it cannot be explained as the causal link between two brains or organisms. I know love only exists because I believe it’s existence is real. But I also know that my faith in love, along with everyone elses, is all that keeps love in existence. I could inspect as many brains as I like, and I will not find love, only the brain parts which make the concept possible.

So how can I have faith in something’s being real, at the same time as knowing that it only exists as a concept? Doesn’t this make it an illusion? all depends how you want to define reality. There is no absolute rule stating that you have to restrict the concept of reality to exclude concepts. You may choose to believe that there is such a rule, and you can make your arguments around assuming that rule is true, just as many atheists do. That just isn’t a good way to argue (to assume your answer).

Personally, I wouldn’t want my concept of reality itself not be real – for me that would be confusing. If you think it works, let me know how.

So if you allow conceptual as well as material reality in, what then?

Well you have to accept that things like love, happiness, joy, freedom, responsibility and community are real, but only in so much as we believe in them.

Actually, the relationship is much more complex than that, we’re not talking about twinkerbell here. Faith, defined as a belief that a belief is real, is a necessary condition for the existence of our conceptual reality. But the articles of faith still have to acted upon to make them real. It’s no good believing love is real when no-one is actually in love.

Now here’s the crunch. Communal conceptual realities (or you could call them faith communities I guess, or folks that share the same story) that do not include the discoveries of science don’t personally suit me. I’m an atheist, and always have been.

And there is no doubt that literalist religious conceptual systems can cause harm in some cases – the intelligent design lab biologist for example, or the Al Qu’aida bomber. However, most people who believe in concepts that massively contradict material reality – that the world is young, the people go to a special place after death and so on – lead pretty normal lives, considering.

The point is that there is so much more besides, which fits in just perfectly with the material reality, but which still make use of our ability to live our lives within complex and beautiful narratives. Here are just a few examples:

Awe and wonder. Richard Dawkins prefered conceptual reality, built on our emotional (concept) reaction to beautiful(concept) natural (concept) scenes.

Golden Rule. Love thy neighbour. Perfect consequentialist rule of thumb.

Humanism. Ain’t life great. Couldn’t it be great for everyone.

Humanitarianism. Ain’t life shit. Couldn’t it be great for everyone?

Progress. I believe there will be a situation in the future, which could be better or worse depending what I do now.

History. What I am now is because of great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s awesomeness.

Evolution. How brilliant is it that complex life, or life itself, even exists. How great that the ancestors survived and changed.

Freedom. I can do anything.

Community. We can do anything.

Creativity. I can improve the world by making interesting and beautiful things.

and last of all Depth. There are such things as shallow and deep experiences, and the deeper ones are often better.

There are tons more, let me know your favourite.

Rationalist judo

Posted in atheism by backoffscience on November 2, 2009

Viking myth cartoonThere are some things people cannot say. It’s not that they’re stupid, or that they’re particularly closed-minded, it’s just that saying certain things makes their world fall apart.[1]

“Myth” isn’t a word that can be used by the person who believes in the myth. There are enough magazine articles about the myth of sexuality or love or democracy or progress, to see it is a word that is used to undermine. You can’t have a debate about a myth without first accepting that someone accepted it as true – but always in the past tense. It is impossible to have a discussion about your own myths.

What is more, these stories-taken-as-real aren’t limited to Zeus turning into a bull or Jesus coming back from the dead. Think of the myths of genius or heroism. In the scientific sense there are no geniuses or heroes, but even the hardened rationalist might see the utility in keeping the stories.

jesusThe problem is that for these stories to find a place in the world, they have to sit in the place of scientific facts. Myths aren’t just stories, like films and novels, they are stories that people believe are true and which serve a purpose in people’s lives. They are stories that are lived by, are lived into existence, are accepted as (by necessity unseen) parts of the world.

So people who believe human-created stories are real and want to keep them – and lets face it, in some form that includes all of us –  are faced with a dilemma when asked to defend their beliefs.

They can’t, after all, discuss them as myths. That punctures the balloon which gives their life its certain kind of meaning.

And they can’t say they’re not factual claims, because that would mean they should treat them as stories, which they don’t.

So their only options are to defend them as factual claims, set up defences so as to persuade themselves that the facts are not where the scientist says they are, and pay as little attention as possible to the whole debate.

DarwinWhich is where the modern kind of atheist comes in, constantly asking them to defend their myths as facts.

But, as we know, the statements of religion are not factual statements, except obviously the myth believer has to say they are in order to keep the myth alive.

And the atheists know they are not facts, and they also know that the upholder of the myth cannot say that. They know the myth believer can’t even entertain the thought that they are myths, because that kills them as myths and makes them into stories.

The new atheist strategy seems to be to try and bully the myth believer into facing the scientific reality of the thing the scientific reality destroys. This is by no means an obviously good thing. It is rather an act with moral consequences, the justification for which has to come down to an argument about the worth of the myths in people’s lives. This is an argument that in some cases is obviously well made, in others clearly not, and in most utterly ambiguous. Even where the moral case is made, the fact that the myth only exists because it is somehow insulated from science means telling someone their belief is a myth is a very stupid way of trying to get them to change their mind.

There is a bludgeoning unsubtelty about some atheists’ approaches to religion.[2] Myths have to be approached crabwise, from the side – from the facts about their effect, their impact on people’s lives and their value. Straight on, all you end up doing is making enemies and forcing the mythics in more and more defensive directions. Science either needs to make its own myths, or just back off.


1. This post is in some ways a reaction to Lisa Miller’s editorial in Newsweek, much criticised by Bloc Raisonneur, Why Evolution is TrueMind Droppings, Reason.Science.Metal , Think Atheist and Poohsthink – although it gets a friendlier and altogether more subtle reading from In Living Colour.

2. I mainly mean sciencey atheists like Richard Dawkins, the Reason Project and  Pharyngula, who I’m sure are quaking in their boots.

Not everything that counts

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on September 28, 2009

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life. Einstein

450px-Albert_Einstein_1947Einstein’s definition of religion is very abstract, and could put people off.  It pre-supposes that there is something that is outside of the scientific description, something that takes an attitude towards it (just like Wittgenstein – see below). But this basic fact is the stumbling block in the debate.

It sounds funny to say it, but many rationalists actually belief that humans don’t exist.  And in one way, that makes perfect sense. You look at the world as a graph of atoms doing what they do and there is simply no need to outline a more abstract description. Everything that exists is accounted for, and what more do you need?

But on the other hand, what point is there in investigating anything if there is nothing with any meaning in your belief system, in fact nothing so grand as a belief?

It’s quite a big unintended consequence for science – the destruction of all meaning in life. And it’s not one that science has the tools to deal with. Science has no secrets, nothing is hidden. But the meaning in our lives is based on nothing more than things we take as certain. Meaning is created by humans, it doesn’t have a non-human foundation. As soon as you investigate the foundation you find we’re just making it up as we go along.

I think that’s what Einstein is talking about. Calling it religion is an offputting way of describing something that even the most irreligious person does all the time. Humans live in stories, human narratives are the basis of everything that matters to us. And science can’t say anything at all about them without smashing them up.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (Sign hanging in Einstein’s office at Princeton) Link