Sunday, September 9, 2007

Buffers against fear

So I was reading a reply to a reply the other day in a thread about the atheist/theist debate, and it seemed to me that what the author of the reply was suggesting is that religion and belief in God (I am making that distinction) acts like a buffer against fear of uncertainty and the unknown. I would imagine that for certain believers this is at least partially true. But then to me that begged the question, what is the adamant, anti-religious atheist afraid of? I would no more wish to make an unfounded generalization about the non-religious than the religious, even small segments or subgroups. Still, it is an interesting question. Why it is that some folks seem to, by their rhetoric, prefer to think that reason alone can and will uncover all there is to know about reality? That once we have sophisticated enough technology and sufficiently informed theory, that there is no significant value in any other way of knowing, let alone wisdom and insight from traditional sources, which are seen like an unfortunate side effect of our brilliant minds or outdated relics to be replaced by that which is "newer" and "better".

There is, after all, the tacit assumption in science itself that it is limited in both the scope of what it can properly investigate and how such things can be investigated. Perhaps it is related to a couple of common errors in understanding what science is. The first is the idea that science is presumed to be free of any personal, cultural, or other forms of bias or subjective influence. It isn’t. And this refers to all parts of scientific knowledge, from observations and facts (which are created from observations) to methods and theories. The second miconception is that science has the “best” possible explanation for everything. Science can be used for fashioning a particular way of understanding the world based on logical inferences of empirical observations, but that does not automatically grant it any particular worth. Such a standard of value is assigned by different people based on their needs and desires.

So, that said, why is it that some are content to let science inform one aspect of reality and other ways of knowing inform other aspects, and whichever works best to serve a particular need for truth, accuracy, comfort, meaning, etc is OK, while for others there is a need to disparage other views (either scientific or nonscientific) while maintaining the absolute "correctness" of the values that their own philosophy prizes (materialism, objectivity, love, trust, fulfilment of material needs and desires)? Perhaps *all* such polemic partisans of a particular philosophy are suffering from the same dread of uncertainty (how's that for a speculative generalization?). While one may object that a scientist and a skeptic is not afraid of uncertainty, that indeed they embrace it, I am not so sure all of them do. For a PPPP, or Quad-P, of science and skepticism, I sense based on my readings and discussions (and hence this is purely anecdotal conjecture) that there is usually a degree of confidence in certain areas of what they "provisionally know" with regard to the subject of debate. That is, while one may claim she or he would be open to new evidence (and I wouldn't doubt said person believes that), I get the impression this person also feels the likelihood of being confronted with what she or he would anticipate as being "sufficient evidence" to challenge her or his views on such beliefs is virtually nil.

Hence, there is this core of certainty which one can formerly believe in because it has the "I'm open-minded" seal of approval, much like the dogmatic religious literalist has their certainty based on the "it's in the word of God" seal of approval. This is not an attempt to draw an equivalence or suggest both are equally flawed, it is just an idle speculation about possible sources for the the similarities between the hard-core fundamentalists of religion and the hard-core ultra-Positivists of atheism, the latter of whom may indeed believe that it is likely (though it isn't guaranteed) that science will continue explaining just about everything and the rest is triviality that is best suited to each person's preference or taste. Which was anticipated earlier in the blog post thread that started my speculation by original post author:
I suppose that a lot of them haven't thought about religion at all for years - have assumed that it was a thing of the past - and are then taken aback by finding that it is alive and kicking. But I still find it bizarre that they don't even want to look into the political background of this - colonialism etc - but instead go on like crude nineteenth-century American `scientific atheists'. Is it just the well-known Quest for Certainty? are they simply seduced by the idea of being sure about Something (namely, that there's no God.) (This might account for the denunciations of mnystery [sic] and the insistence that, if there's anything we don,t know, science will discover it next week. And do the people who buy it similarly think that, since it's Science, it must be the final answer to everything?
-Mary Midgley

Well, I don't claim to know if such speculations are valid. And again, each individual has their own background and impetus for their beliefs and behaviors. I have no wish to construct a straw man and then burn it. Instead, here is something to ponder. For me, my early introduction to religion, while it was not just a "buffer against fear" (or uncertainty), did have that "what we know we can count on and the rest is no big deal" mentality. While my introduction to science and multiculturalism were greatly beneficial in expanding my view of reality, there was also a culture of certainty there too, masked behind the righteousness of tolerance and open-mindedness. So, in a way, going on to reopening myself to studying and participating in spirituality and religion has also gone a long way toward further expanding my view of the possibilities of existence and revealed many of my latent biases and assumptions. This did not require a rejection of science, but a critical review of the more extreme views of contemporary modernism and positivism. While this technically can be referred to as post-modernism, which often gets an eye-roll from "serious-minded" academics of the "harder" sciences, I like to think of it as an adjusted and balanced view that attempts to draw on the best aspects of modern and traditional thinking but that is oriented toward being restricted by neither. In opening myself to uncertainty, I find I am often wandering into territory not favored or sanctioned by either camp. I hope to see you "out there" (Mulder was right, that is where the truth is). Which inspires me to end this bit of reflection with -

Happy trails!

(PS: Didn't I just say I sometimes get bored reading the kind of thing I just wrote? Sheesh.)

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