Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Big Problem for Militant Atheists

I don’t like calling myself an atheist these days, not because I’ve found God or anything (although the idea of an Old Testament God appearing and smiting the human race for its horrors is deeply appealing), but because I find the activities of the Militant Atheists to be deeply off-putting and repugnant. In particular, I have in mind the so-called “Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse” (a title that tells you everything you need to know about the egotism of its members): Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I generally find the pronouncements, arrogance and shallow philosophising of these individuals to be deeply irritating. My favourite philosopher John Gray is of a like mind, and he recommends that anyone similarly afflicted calls themselves a “sceptic” rather than an “atheist”.

Anyway, to the matter at hand. Sam Harris’s latest book is entitled The Moral Landscape. I confess that I haven’t read it, but I have read and heard a few interviews with Harris and have a few observations to make. Basically, Harris’s book presents the thesis that science will help furnish us with an objective set of ethics, all designed to help minimise human suffering and maximise human well-being. Nothing wrong with the latter in theory (although one wonders if Harris has heard of John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism; given the general philosophical illiteracy of the “Four Horsemen” I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t) apart from the fact that all such attempts have failed in both theory and practice and will doubtless continue to so for all the usual reasons. As for science furnishing “objective” ethics, again, this idea is so pedestrian and discredited, it boggles the mind that people still float it.

More directly damning for Harris’s project of coupling the maximisation of human well-being with the elimination of religion is the fact that numerous scientific studies have established that people with religious belief are happier than those without. Now before anyone says that that’s because belonging to any old group makes people happier, it’s also necessary to include the fact that believing in a transcendental deity, a teleological purpose for humanity and something better than the current mess awaiting us on the other side of the curtain all play a massive part. In short, you’re not going to get the same thing from following your local football team than you are from attending church. Now given this to be the case, how can people like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al. claim that the world will be improved by the end of religion when science itself (their god) conclusively proves the opposite? Dare these people show consistency? In fact, if Harris and co. are true to their aims they should be out promoting religion rather than attacking it. Can’t see it happening somehow.

32 comments:

  1. This is a lovey and surprising argument.

    We as atheists will have a hard time proving that elimination of religion will lead to utopia . . . because science demonstrates that false beliefs are a crucial part of most people's happiness!

    So which is more important: truth or happiness?

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  2. (Here's a nice popular treatment of some of the research explicitly connecting self-deception with happiness - unrelated to religion.)

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  3. Nice, provocative theme here. I like the way you put it. If science says that people are happier with God and all the shenanigans that go along with it, what can this very science do? A paradoxical, provoking thought.

    Cheers!

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  4. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Sister Y: I think we have to be careful with the 'false beliefs' statement. Technically, the existence of God can neither be proven nor disproven, so therefore we're in a position where we can only state that people's 'beliefs' make them happier. On what grounds does someone of no religious belief have the right to attempt to dissuade a believer given that neither of the contending parties beliefs can be verified?

    And lest anyone be tempted to start bleating about crimes carried out in the name of religion, only a tiny minority of believers commit violence, and most of those crimes are politically motivated. The moral burden therefore lies on the atheist. Why would an atheist attempt to eliminate religious belief knowing it would make the new non-believer unhappy? Furthermore, if the atheist beleives that all life is futile/horrible etc. then why shouldn't he or she be content to let the believer believe given that it makes no ultimate difference anyway from the non-believer's perspective?

    As a side-note, it's also worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of the world's population are religious: there are roughly 2.75 billion Christians, 2.25 Muslims and 1 billion Buddhists plus who knows how many members of various denominations. This doesn't leave a whole lot of non-believers in the 7 billion total. It's a mistake to think that the world is secularised or atheistic just because the western 'intelligentsia' largely is.

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  5. I think fundamentalist religion is definitely an evil the world should be rid of as soon as possible - the worst laws in history have all been because of short little passages in some religion's holy books. However, if the separation of church and state is strictly adhered to, and religion has no way of infecting science's foundations, then I believe that yes, religion is probably a force for the better.

    There is this new trend with atheists to start worshipping science, and the 'truth' - despite how inductive logic has no basis in pure reason (you cannot be 100% certain the sun will rise tomorrow, or that there is no magical unicorn living inside your toenails), and despite how all that we have found out about the universe so far (again, trusting in inductive logic) is thoroughly depressing, at least from my perspective. My point is, most people need something to believe in. The best-case scenario I think, is that a man-made religion is created based upon liberal values, with people then simultaneously following that religion and becoming happy BUT without cause suffering to other people due to that religion's teachings.

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  6. Well, we don't actually know if religious people are happier. The term happiness doesn't even have a solid, universally accepted definition; much like the term God, BTW. Correct me if I'm wrong, but all the studies that purport to show it rely on self-reports of happiness, life satisfaction, or some such similarly vague bullshit. So all we know is that religious people report being happier. So what? It tells us nothing about how well their lives are actually going. While positive illusions do seem to improve one's quality of life, it is by no means clear that they outweigh the costs of religious observance as practiced by most people.

    Also, Sam Harris has a Bachelor's in Philosophy from Stanford, so I'm sure he's familiar with J.S. Mill.

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  7. EstNihil: I agree with you about the depressive findings of natural science. How anyone can find consolation or beauty in the thing bar a few seconds of “awww” when you look at a Hubble photograph is beyond me.

    As for a religion based on Liberal values I just don’t think that works. The essence of religion is faith in a beyond. An anthropocentric religion is just slugs worshipping slugs. And we also saw the effects of such political religions in twentieth-century history.

    CM: I don’t really get your hostility to the findings. I’ve always thought the Pollyannism aspect of Antinatalism was the weakest element. If someone says they’re happy for whatever reasons, who are you, I or anyone else to dispute it? Such disputation implies the existence of objective, easily accessible standards that all can see, but these clearly do not exist. Ergo, happiness is a subjective state. And if the cost of religious observance did outweigh the benefits then presumably that person would cease that observance. If religion makes people happy, then I don’t see a problem. And if a religious code of ethics promotes care and compassion, so much the better.

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  8. I´m with Karl on that one.

    I don´t even see a problem with people having faith in things. For me, they can do whatever they want with their time, as long as they do not harm each other.

    Hey, people NOT harming each other, what a great thought!

    Anyway, I digress...

    I also do not believe religion is the worst thing ever. Life is bigger than what kind of god someone worships.

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  9. Excellent blog Karl.Nobody really knows what's going on; we tend to adhere to beliefs,which are circumstantially of most utility to us, whether logic or faith based.Sam Harris and his ilk find meaning/solace in science;others do not.We're all going down irrespective, or so it seems:)

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  10. Karl-

    it's not hostility; it's deep and profound skepticism inspired by numerous studies that actually dug a little deeper than asking people "how happy would you say you are?".

    If someone says they’re happy for whatever reasons, who are you, I or anyone else to dispute it?

    Who are people to dispute their own self-assessments, you mean? Because they do it all the time (without realizing they have changed). I have posted about some of this on other fora, but here is one of the examples again: Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators discovered a heuristic called the peak-end rule. People remember the most intense point of the experience and the end of the experience better than other parts of it and base later assessments of their experience on the peak and end. These later assessments deeply disagree with their own assessments that were made while the experience was happening. Here's Daniel Kahneman's TED talk on the subject. If we have to choose whether we should trust immediate or ex post facto self-assessments (which, evidently, we do), I would rather trust the immediate ones. Wouldn't you? And when people are asked to not just recall a past specific experience, but make a global self-assessment, there are even fewer reasons to take it at face value.

    Daniel Haybron published an excellent article in Nous called Do we know how happy we are?. He provides an overview of various empirical studies that cast serious doubts on people's assurances that they are happy. I do disagree with his conclusion that we can mistakenly believe we are less happy than we actually are because there seems to exist an asymmetry of happiness and unhappiness. While believing one is happy is not sufficient for a having a good life, it seems to be necessary; but I won't go into it now.

    In short, we don't have to have objective standards of happiness to determine that there are internal contradictions in people's self-assessments.

    if the cost of religious observance did outweigh the benefits then presumably that person would cease that observance.

    That's not quite how it works. For instance, Utah, which boasts a very involved and tightly-knit religious community, has the highest prevalence of depression in the U.S. More anecdotally, there is reason to believe that the large percentage of those depressed are Mormon women who are expected to be perfect, have large families which cause a lot of stress and are deeply entrenched in a patriarchal culture that makes their life choices for them. Any patriarchal religion has less benefits to offer women than men by definition. And yet women are more likely to be religious. This is yet more evidence that people don't know what's good for them.

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  11. It may not be good for them in this life, CM,but in analysing religious observance one has to factor the devotees belief in the rewards of the afterlife into the happiness/unhappiness equation.Therefore, those Mormon women may feel somewhat oppressed in the temporal realm,but for them this life is preparation for the spirit world, and afterwards, the unification of their souls with their bodies for all eternity!

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  12. CM: I think that the happinness that derives from religious observance is more to be measured over the long-term and doesn't really fit into the kind of short-term experiences that Kahneman seems to be talking about. Religious people talk about their lives within the overall structure of belief, not short rollarcoaster style experiences.

    I'm not sure, either, that the arguments of Pollyannism don't cut both ways. It's extremely easy to be forgetful of the things one takes for granted during the course of one's normal grousing: shelter, food, friends, art etc. If you sat down and focused on these things for a moment, you'd probably be grateful for their existence. I'm not saying such a reckoning would make life worth living (impossible!), but I think it would up one's happinness levels to some degree.

    As for the Utah example, I think that reflects more the social structure of those religious communities than the metaphysics of belief. There's also the danger of lapsing into the Marxist notion of false consciousness if one declares that 'people don't know what's good for them'. As lifehater says, most of the time we wander around in a fog, so I'm obliged to respect people's choices and modes of life if they declare they follow them freely and it makes them happy to do so.

    lifehater: Thanks for the astute observations. We're certainly all going down, and there are no lifeboats!

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  13. Actually, there is evidence that the "extra happiness" from religiosity is from belonging to a social group, which is why I included the non-religious self deception/happiness link.

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  14. Religious people talk about their lives within the overall structure of belief, not short rollarcoaster style experiences.
    I'm reminded of this post of yours:
    http://saynotolife.blogspot.com/2011/07/cumulative-vs-reiterative-suffering.html

    You say:
    "Unfortunately the pronatalist can only see his or her own existence and regards life as fundamentally an ego-trip and private joyride with suffering as an inconvenience and the suffering of humanity as a whole as an irrelevance."

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  15. I think what this comment thread demonstrates is the difficulty in discussing practically any aspect of religion.

    I'm just not convinced that group-membership is either the sole or largest provider of the happiness attested to by religious people. I'm pretty sure that if you told the 6 billion+ to give up religion and go to a rotary club because it wouldn't make any difference to them, you wouldn't get far.

    As for equating the religious with active pro-natalists, I'm doubtful of that, too. There are plenty of religious non-procreators and there are plenty of religious procreators troubled by the misery of the world.

    What's prompted my thinking about this whole issue lately is the wave of nihilism that appears to be engulfing Europe: the London riots, Behring Brevik in Norway, the fears about Islamification and so on. Europe is definitely (or apparently) in a Post-Christian phase and I'm wondering if this is a good or bad thing. The effects on the world at large of a broadly atheist, individualistic, "liberal", money-obsessed Zeitgeist are obvious to all but the deluded and it's hard to see anything but further catastrophe emerging from it.

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  16. I don't think religion is ALL about social belonging. It's also a technology that promotes trade with other tribes.

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  17. I'm more interested in the phenomoneological/subjective approach to religion and how that impacts on the broader moral picture than the materialist reductionist approach. Also, given the polyvocal identities that many people have today, I'm not sure how enlightening the 'tribal' approach is outside of Old Testament studies.

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  18. As for equating the religious with active pro-natalists, I'm doubtful of that, too. There are plenty of religious non-procreators and there are plenty of religious procreators troubled by the misery of the world.

    Right, but to the extent that the happiness religion brings makes people more optimistic, that in itself causes more procreation (or resistance to antinatalism) and, therefore, more suffering. As somewhat of a religious sympathizer, I'm not happy about this.

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  19. Pual, I guess it depends on what religion. Are pure Buddhists in favour of procreation? Imagine how different human history might have been had the Gnostic or Cathar sects of Christianity triumphed!

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  20. Karl,

    In general religion spreads from parents to their offspring. http://filrabat.blogspot.com/2011/06/globalization-and-diversity.html

    Antinatalism (I HATE getting a spell-check error for this!) cannot reliably spread from parents to their offspring -- and continue spreading this way over several generations.

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  21. As for science furnishing “objective” ethics, again, this idea is so pedestrian and discredited, it boggles the mind that people still float it.

    Let's forget about ethics and just assume that we want to minimize bad sensations and maximize good sensations for those who live. In order to do this, we need to measure the value of these sensations and be able to predict the influence some high-level decision (e.g. "kill the serial killer") might have. In what way is science not the best tool for this?

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  22. Tim, you're assuming that science is a neutral, value-free enterprise. Sure, painkillers and anti-depressives (for those who want them) are undoubtedly good things, but if you're talking about something deeper, then the same old questions emerge: who holds the power? Who decides what sensations are good or bad? Who controls access to such technology? And so on and so on. The kind of science you're talking about is an instrumental tool wielded by people with values, and those valus aren't necessarily universal.

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  23. Ideally, the person who has to experience the sensations decides whether they are good or bad.

    Of course, they don't know this beforehand, so we have to extrapolate based on past results. Also, we can't be bothered to keep track of everyone's preferences all the time, so we also have to extrapolate from a sample to the population. This is par for the course in science, as you probably know.

    What may be new is the part where we turn subjective states of mind into objective measurements. First, state of mind is not in any relevant way subjective. To see this, suppose I prefer blue over red. Then my statement "blue is nicer than red" is a subjective one, whereas "I find that blue is nicer than red" is objective. The fact that I find blue nicer than red would be an objective property of the universe we live in.

    Moreover, my preference could be measured. The world is not black and white, but I think it is very likely that we will soon be able to measure a brain's level of frustration/dissatisfaction/discomfort to useful accuracy.

    This would help us figure out where we are and where we could go in state-of-mind space. The above assumption that we want to minimize bad/maximize good sensations tells us where we want to be.

    The question that remains is how to go there. This is a very difficult question to answer, because there's a shitload of moving parts to take into account. Think climate prediction to the power a million. However, I am confident that even if the complexity forces us to go with a crudely approximate answer, we will still do much better than if we continue to do what we are doing now, which is nothing at all.

    The takeaway here is that the only loaded and therefore controversial and difficult part is figuring out where we want to go. Once we settle that one, science is the tool to get us there.

    (By the way, I do not think science works perfectly. But it is the least bad we have.)

    So I am talking about something deeper than pain killers. I am talking about determining "what to do" in whatever context you want to ask that. Ideally, everyone would make every decision in this way. But it would also be a step in the right direction to patch up current policies based on what the science tells us would be more productive (i.e. would result in more good, less bad).

    I should also mention that I am in favor of more practically open science, where there are fewer barriers (of whatever kind) to reproducing experiments. This includes better education, which in turn includes more than a few lessons on how to keep ego and other stupidity in check.

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  24. Tim: But who is this "we" you continually refer to? Science is funded by governments and corporations with vested interests. The main aim of such institutions is to ensure the endless supply of tax-paying functioning drones. There is never going to be a possibility of science coming into "public ownership" in the way you're talking about.

    Furthermore, there still remains the diversity of values and pleasurable sensations. Who decides what sensations are "good" or "bad"? Should science be at the service of providing the kind of pleasurable sensations to, say, paedophiles, that they judge to be "good"?

    As well, your comment about first-person subjective preferences becoming objective by being rendered in the third-person is tenuous. What if I change my subjective opinion? Then the so-called "objective fact about the world" changes too.

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  25. This is a little off-topic, but is your "life is pointless" blog still available, Karl? I'd like to browse through that one but couldn't spot it.

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  26. But who is this "we" you continually refer to? Science is funded by governments and corporations with vested interests. The main aim of such institutions is to ensure the endless supply of tax-paying functioning drones. There is never going to be a possibility of science coming into "public ownership" in the way you're talking about.
    This is obviously hyperbole, but I acknowledge the problem. I agree that a _lot_ has to change before we even get to the foothills, let alone the top of the mountain. The biggest problem I see is that people don't care enough to listen to why they should care. They do almost anything to avoid a serious discussion.

    Antinatalism has the same problem, except less so because it is less ambitious. Most importantly, it has to go up against the same status-quo embracing culture. That said, violation of consent is "wrong" by almost everyone's standards, so the deontological approach may be most useful to make progress fast.

    Furthermore, there still remains the diversity of values and pleasurable sensations. Who decides what sensations are "good" or "bad"? Should science be at the service of providing the kind of pleasurable sensations to, say, paedophiles, that they judge to be "good"?
    Yes, the person who has to experience the sensations is the only one who has a say in the matter. But in considering the possible solution of giving paedophiles "access to children", so to speak, the welfare of the children must of course also be taken into account. It may well turn out that the combined cost to the children outweighs the gain of the paedophile.

    Other solutions might be virtual reality, therapy, putting him to sleep, not satisfying his desire, etc.

    As well, your comment about first-person subjective preferences becoming objective by being rendered in the third-person is tenuous. What if I change my subjective opinion? Then the so-called "objective fact about the world" changes too.
    The point was that preference is subjective in that it is a property of an individual, but objective in that that individual actually has that preference. I find that conflating these two ways in which perception can be subjective or objective is a commonly made mistake.

    I don't see how the fact that it can change over time is relevantly different from the fact that it can differ between individuals.

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  27. Hi, Martin. The "Life is Pointless" blog was an earlier attempt at this one. It had only one entry and was pretty much along the lines of the current post, so you're not missing anything. Thanks for your interest, all the same!

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  28. Tim, re. paedophiles, you write "the welfare of the children must of course also be taken into account. It may well turn out that the combined cost to the children outweighs the gain of the paedophile." I presume you're kidding in even allowing such a possibility to be contemplated, right?

    To be honest, I just find the whole "let's plug into the matrix science can provide us with" as yet another utopian fantasy. And the irreconciliable nature of certain values and pleasures seems to me to be an insurmountable obstacle even if such a thing were possible.

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  29. Tim, re. paedophiles, you write "the welfare of the children must of course also be taken into account. It may well turn out that the combined cost to the children outweighs the gain of the paedophile." I presume you're kidding in even allowing such a possibility to be contemplated, right?
    No, I'm not kidding, but thanks for asking. In what way is a paedophile exercising paedophilia bad, except in how it affects the people involved? Apparently you are applying some other standard of judgment here. If your argument would be that it is "just wrong", "just not right", or that the paedophile is "just a pervert" and should therefore be exposed and locked up and humiliated or even just denied that which he desires "just because", or because he doesn't have the "right" to take it, that won't cut it. If that is not your argument, then please express it explicitly.

    To be honest, I just find the whole "let's plug into the matrix science can provide us with" as yet another utopian fantasy.
    So do I. I am not under the illusion that we will be making big steps anytime soon. Nor am I under the illusion that the sterilization of the planet will happen anytime soon. If sentient life is going to exist for another thousand years, it would be a Good Idea to make that existence more bearable. This does not necessarily involve plugging into a pleasure machine or taking happy pills; the progress could also come in the form of better public transport, higher-quality products, making said products more accessible (i.e., getting rid of patents, copyrights and other monopoly enablers somehow), more automation of shitty jobs, et cetera.

    And the irreconciliable nature of certain values and pleasures seems to me to be an insurmountable obstacle even if such a thing were possible.
    What values and pleasures are you talking about here? I suspect you are wrong about them being irreconcilable. It will always be a trade-off, if that's what you mean, and I agree that it would be better if we didn't have to make that trade-off. Sentience has to stop, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, let's make life easier on those who shouldn't have been born but were.

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  30. I'm employing the standard use of paedophilia, ie. rape of children. I presume no one approves of that.

    As for science guiding our pleasures and pains, I really can't see anything other than a kind of matrix-type scenario coming from what you describe. The people who are really into that (not saying you, Tim) often overlook the practical problems: how is the system maintenanced, powered, controlled etc.? What power shortages, people who want to live in the real world and pose a threat to the ones in the vats and so on. Like any utopia, it will never happen, or if it's tried, it'll end in disaster.

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  31. @Sister Y

    "Which is more important. Truth or Happiness?"

    I stumbled across this idea when I posed a question on city-data.com. The idea was not to debate, per se, but to "poll" people's reactions (CD is a huge board with a lot of hits on a consistent basis). Interesting reactions from that crowd.

    www.city-data.com/forum/religion-philosophy/1247122-why-have-children-when-our-extinction.html

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  32. Thanks for the link, Filrabat. Interesting stuff. The usual range of answers, from the realistic to the "we'll conquer spacetime/control evolution bull". Ah, people just can't help hoping, can they?:-)

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