Posts Tagged ‘Reason’

The passing scene: Links & comments 9/28/14

September 28, 2014

Emotion Is Not the Enemy of Reason by Virginia Hughes for National Geographic.

All normal human beings are both rational beings and emotional beings.  Someone who claims to be rational and above emotion is simply being dishonest, either with themselves or others, about their feelings.  Someone who claims to be intuitive and above reason is being dishonest, either with themselves or others, about their thought processes.

Rational people direct their feelings toward appropriate objects.  They fear that which is truly dangerous, admire that which is worthy of respect and yearn for that which will make them happy.

This is your brain on narcissism: The truth about a disorder that nobody understands by Sarah Gray for Salon.

Someone who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder has, on the one hand, an enormous sense of self-importance and entitlement and, on the other hand, an ego too fragile to accept criticism or recognize unwelcome facts.

Nations as well as individuals can be narcissistic.  Patriots are willing to defend their native lands.  Narcissistic patriots insist that their native lands are the greatest countries that ever were and any criticism or doubt is by definition disloyal.

Simplifiers and Optimizers by Scott Adams for boingboing.

Do you try to do things the best way, and never get done?  Or do you do things the easy way, and never get an excellent result.  Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, advises striving for excellence on the few things that are important to you, and looking for the simplest way to get through everything else.

 

A rationalist martyr in India

August 23, 2013

Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.

Narendra Dabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.

His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.

At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic.  My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power.  There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.

Dabholkar didn’t see it that way.  He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion.  Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.

And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism.  Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.

Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.

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Reason and human nature

June 30, 2013

All human beings are rational beings.

All human beings are emotional and intuitive beings.

All human beings are moral beings.

robert-weber-the-dawn-of-reason-new-yorker-cartoonWhen someone says he is above reason, I believe that the person is either unaware of his thinking processes or has a hidden agenda.   A person completely without the ability to think rationally would be unable to function in the world.

When someone says he is unemotional, I believe that the person is either unaware of his feelings and desires or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without feelings or desires would have nothing with which to reason about.

When someone says he is morally neutral, I believe that the person either is unaware of the moral nature or his beliefs, or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without morals would be a dangerous psychopath.

Experience is subjective.  Facts are real.

Everyone experiences life in a unique way which never can be fully communicated to others, although great artists come close.  In that sense, and that sense alone, we each live in our own separate reality.

At the same time, there is the reality of facts, whose existence is not dependent on our beliefs and which are the same for everyone.  Our knowledge of facts will always be partial, tentative and subject to correction, but it behooves us to understand them as best we can, because they will catch up with us if we don’t.

As someone once said, it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

I wrote this post as a generic response to my acquaintances who tell me that my thinking is superficial because of my belief in reason.   Of course I do not believe that there is a rational philosophical or scientific system that, once  you understand it, explains everything.  What I do believe in is the reality check.   If my ideas don’t make sense, or if my ideas are contrary to the facts,  I should stop believing in them.

Does this make sense to you?  What have I got wrong?  What have I left out?

An atheist critique of Christopher Hitchens

June 23, 2013

An avowed atheist named Curtis White has attacked the late Christopher Hitchens for being unfair to religion.   He stated in an article entitled Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors on the Salon web site this morning that Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is not only wrong, but dishonest.  He said Hitchens’ book was full of factual errors and failed to appreciate how much of culture, philosophy and civilization itself is embedded in religion—both valid criticisms.

Beyond this, White attacked Hitchens for his belief in individual reason and conscience, which is not a valid criticism.  White thinks reason and conscience are incoherent concepts, and no substitute for the authority of poetry and religion.  So he may be an atheist, but he is not a freethinker or a rationalist.

I’ve encountered this kind of anti-anti-religious polemic before, when people without definite religious beliefs themselves say atheists are out of line for attacking religion.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

White did not mention the most important theme of God Is Not Great—that religion makes it possible to commit crimes with impunity.  Hitchens piled up example after example.   When the theocratic ruler of Iran took out a murder contract on an allegedly blasphemous writer, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem condemned the writer’s irreverence, not the instigation to murder.  Catholic clerics who helped instigate the Rwandan genocide were given sanctuary in France at the urging of the Vatican.

The Bush administration for supposedly religious reasons worked against use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Muslim governments have sentenced people to death merely for renouncing Islam.  American religious fanatics bombed abortion clinics and murdered abortion doctors.  Religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank are a chief obstacle to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Hitchens claimed that his examples show that organized religion is all or mostly bad.  I don’t agree, but I think that he did show that religion provides a shield people to get away with things that anyone else would be condemned and punished for. Suppose a public school superintendent shielded a teacher who sexually abused little boys – you can imagine what would happen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Ireland for years protected pedophile priests and got away with it.

GodIsNotGreatUnfortunately, as White correctly noted, God Is Not Great was riddled with easily check-able factual errors.

Contrary to Hitchens, the Q document is not a lost book that formed the basis of the four Gospels. The Dalai Lama does not seek to return as hereditary ruler of Tibet. “Syntopic” is not the opposite of “apocryphal.”  Catholic Maryland in colonial times never barred Protestants from public office.  The Bible scholar Bart (not “Barton”) Ehrman was not the first one who found that early versions of Mark had no mention of meetings with the resurrected Jesus.  I think I could add more examples, if I had the book in front of me.

I think these mistakes were due to carelessness rather than intentional dishonesty, as White charges.  The errors do not affect Hitchens’ main arguments, but they do undermine his credibility.

Hitchens’ insistence that religion is all bad, and that opponents of religion are all good, forced him into strenuous intellectual contortions.  He had to explain away the evangelical Protestants who campaigned for abolition of slavery on the one hand, and the crimes of the atheist Stalin on the other, which he did not convincingly do and could not have done.

As White points out, our civilization and culture are a product of religion, even for atheists like Hitchens.  In Western civilization, without Christianity, there is no Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Flannery O’Connor, no Christmas carols or Negro spirituals, no Sistine Chapel or Chartres cathedral, no Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Archbishop Romero.

If I were better educated, I am sure I could make up an equivalent list for other civilizations.  I can’t imagine China without Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, India without Hinduism or the Muslim world without its core religion.

Religious congregations provide people with community, ritual, moral ideals and a way to understand their feelings of transcendence.  I have been impressed throughout my life by the simple, unpretentious goodness of ordinary religious people.  Hitchens was unable to acknowledge this.

But religious belief is not necessarily inspiring or consoling.  Hitchens wrote a chapter on the doctrines of blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment and guilt for failing impossible tasks, which reflects my own experience.  I remember the sense of guilt I felt as a young teenage boy as I listened to Easter sermons about the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and how it was because of the sins of people like me that Jesus had to suffer a horrible death on my cross.  I heard about this every Easter. It was almost too much to bear.

I was freed by the use of reason, the strange metaphysical concept that, according to White, nobody can define.  For me, reason requires asking two questions: Does this make sense?  Does it contradict known facts?  It did not make sense to me that a loving Heavenly Father could be deterred from sentencing me to an eternity of pain only by the torture and death of someone else, and so I stopped believing it.

White contends that conscience comes from religious teaching, not the other way around.  I thought the same for many years, and it bothered me that I did not have any supposed religious foundation for my moral beliefs.  What changed my mind was reading Kierkegaard’s essay on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because he thought God commanded him to do so.  If Abraham not been willing, Kierkegaard wrote, then he would have put his love for his son and his personal moral beliefs ahead of belief in God.

Today’s world is full of people who believe that God has commanded them to kill, and, like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” they put their faith in God ahead of their affections or their moral beliefs.  That kind of faith is evil.

White, who does not believe in God, affirms religion as the source of morality.  But if God does not exist, where do religion’s moral teachings come from?  They must come from human beings, based on their own individual thoughts and feelings.   So how would that be different from humanism?  I would respect White more if he weren’t so reticent about his own beliefs.

White’s Salon essay is a chapter of a newly-published book, The Science Delusion, which I haven’t read.   The title indicates it is a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I have no quarrel with White if all he does is stress the importance of literature, philosophy and tradition, and defend them against foolish claims that science can replace them.   But based on the sample chapter, I think I would not like his book.

The Salon chapter is a vituperative personal attack based not on what Hitchens wrote, but on motives White attributes to Hitchens without evidence.  God Is Not Great was published in 2007.  Hitchens died in 2011.  White had plenty of time to attack Hitchens when he was alive to answer back.   But a living dog is always a match for a dead lion.

Click on Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors for Curtis White’s full Salon article

Click on The real problem with Curtis White’s The Science Delusion for a review of White’s book.

Click on Taking on scientism’s big bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins and Pinker for another review of White’s book.

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