Friday, June 18, 2010

We Begin the End of Faith

Having learned from Barrett’s book everything there is to know about our brains, and how we believe this or that to be true or not . . . no that’s not really quite right, now is it, I don’t think, but I DO think . . . I think.  

Ok, so with Barrett’s book we have barely begun to understand how my brain is telling my fingers what to type at this very moment – or how your eyes, sensing the difference between the black from the white on your screen right now, are getting that information (if that’s the word for it) to your brain, and it is putting it all together to make “sense” of it . . .

I start again. 

How we think, know, believe . . . these are complex issues that neuroscientists are barely beginning to understand.  It is fascinating stuff, and far beyond the reaches of my aging brain.

The Harris book -- The End of Faith --  in the second chapter touches on cognitive science research in the section, “Beliefs as Principles of Action” – The human brain is a prolific generator of beliefs about the world – but that is not the subject of his book.  (Lurton has lent me a book he has read – How God Changes Your Brain (Newberg and Waldman) that goes into brain theory in much greater detail.  The authors are neuroscientists who study the neural mechanisms of spirituality. They argue that “the human brain is uniquely constructed to perceive and generate spiritual realities.  Yet it has no way to ascertain the accuracy of such perceptions.”)

The “accuracy of such perceptions” is exactly what Harris is concerned about.  It seems to me that his base assumption is that ideas have consequences . . . “As a man believes, so he will act.”  Harris wants us to be sure we have good reason to believe what we do, because believing the wrong things (false ideas) certainly has spawned some nasty behavior across time – much of it by religious people.  That he documents without question.  And the advent of nuclear weapons makes the consequences of religious belief potentially disastrous not just for a few, but for the world.

The focus of his (justified) ire is what I would call “fundamentalism” of any faith – those who take their sacred book literally, and to heart, and act upon that faith.  It is of interest, though, that he doesn’t spare the likes of me – a religious “moderate” – and he makes good points we need to deal with.

Note that Harris is careful to helpfully define the “faith” he is questioning  – faith “in its ordinary, scriptural sense.”  Paul Tillich’s use of the word (and other contemporary people) is not the “faith” Harris is attacking – and my own faith is much closer to Tillich’s than the other . . . but as we talk about faith we need to have in mind just what it is that we’re talking about.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is it hard to be an atheist? Barrett's last chapters

In Chapter 7 Barrett asserts that if you believe in the existence of “minds,” (yours, and others’) then you can believe in the existence of gods, or better yet, God.   No scientific evidence exists that proves people have minds. (p. 95) Minds, he says, are not accessible to direct investigation, and have not been proven to exist.  The brain can be scientifically explored – observed, weighed, measured, experimented with.  But the mind – that’s something else.

Why then do we believe in “minds?”  We do intuitively – universally, and tenaciously Barrett says.  We just know.  We see evidence of what minds do – but we can’t look at a mind, as we can a brain.  Further, says Barrett: if we can believe in the existence of “minds” without any empirical evidence, why not God too – a divine “mind” for which we have no empirical evidence, but that our minds quickly, naturally, seemingly inevitably, and almost universally want to believe in.

He concludes Chapter 7 with challenging scientists (by this I understand Barrett to mean someone who adopts a solely empirical approach to what is real; see his definition of "scientism" below) to be consistent.  For example, when a person denies that people can willfully do anything but still hold their children responsible for “willful” disobedience. (p. 104)

Barrett gives another great summary at the end of the chapter, p 104.  He states his most direct criticism of the followers of “scientism” - These same scientists who reflexively assert that belief in any and all gods is unwarrented on scientific grounds blindly ingnore the countless other beliefs they hold near and dear that find themselves in the same scientific predicament as God. (p. 105)

Chapter 8 begins with a summary of his entire thesis.  Thus, believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable consequence of the types of minds we have living in the sort of world we inhabit, similar to why it si that people almost universally believe in minds of humans and many animals. (p 108)

He then addresses the question, "If theism is so natural, how do you explain the existence of atheism?"  Being an atheist, he says, is not easy. (p 108) You have to overcome a number of factors that have led most of humankind to believe in gods.

At the end of Chapter 8 Barrett talks about scientism – the worldview dedicated to the notion that science ultimately can answer all questions and solve all problems.  (p 118)
And on that same page those helpful words again . . .  To summarize . . .   Including these provocative words: Only privileged minorities enjoy atheism.  If religion is the opiate of the masses, atheism is a luxury of the elite.   . . . Religious belief is the natural backdrop to the oddity that is atheism.

“In Conclusion” is Chapter 9 where Barrett addresses the objections that religion exists largely because it has been spread by threat (of hell) and by force of arms.  Nor do people, he says, believe in God because of “mystical experiences.”  On page 123 he admits that people for the other side of the fence from him (atheists) may well use the findings of cognitive science, and Barrett’s own arguments, to support their conclusion, and not his.  He does not argue with that – he has not been trying in his book to prove the existence of God, but only to show that belief in gods is quite natural.  Whether God exists cannot be proven (or disproven) by science.  Metaphysical concerns such as this remain in the domain of philosophy. (p 123)   We will hear this argument again in Jay Gould’s book, Rocks of Ages.

His concluding statement: Why would anyone believe in God?  The design of our minds leads us to believe.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bottom-Lime Question

Nathan in his Comment under “Know . . . Understand . . . Believe” asks the right question, namely, Does acknowledging that feelings of love or beauty may just be chemical reactions in the brain do anything to diminish their importance?” He doesn’t think so . . . but I am guessing that most people would say it does.  Or at least they would if we put the word “meaning” in place of “importance.”  Is that a fair substitution, Nathan?

The argument for God, or for a spiritual realm that is above/beyond the “mere” physical world of chemical reactions, often (always?) goes back to the question of “meaning.”  If I were bright enough, and rich enough, I could build a pair of robots who, from the outside, appeared to be in love.  But I as their creator would know better; I would know that they are doing only that which they have to do, by my direction, not theirs.  And love, I want to believe, has something to do with – a lot to do with – free decision.

Using Barrett’s terms, I would know that my amorous pair are not “agents,” but “objects.”  And objects, as judged by us agents (objects can’t judge on this, so we get the call) have less meaning in the scheme of things than agents.  We agents don’t want to be considered objects, and it would seem that if everything I think, feel, imagine, long for, dream about, decide, do is reducible to complicated, yes, but still merely chemical reactions in my brain then I have become an object – and have lost all meaning.  Or rather, have no more meaning – significance, purpose – than, say, a tree.  So goes the argument from the theist side.  Where does meaning come from apart from the properties we attribute to agents?

Nathan is exactly right when he says the question of importance – meaning, to use my word – is a separate question from whether or not consciousness is the result of (to use Sagan’s words) “the number and complexity of neuronal linkages.”  The article he cites – very interesting, thanks for pointing that out – talks about the feeling of love being explained by the levels of oxytocin in the brain.   We need to be careful that we don’t answer scientific questions with spiritual/religious answers – “If I say that this feeling of love I have is caused by oxytocin, I am in danger of making those feelings meaningless, and so I will, in order to rescue some meaning, deny the science.”  

So a question is, if someday we could in fact describe every human spiritual feeling – love, beauty, morality, sacrifice, virtue, joy – in terms of chemical reactions in the brain, would that destroy all meaning for you?  For me?