Saturday, November 29, 2014

Comparing Pontificating Paradigms

When vastly different theological paradigms are in play, simplicity and other reasoned criteria typically do not decide between them.

Arguments about theism are classics of Kuhnian paradigms. Each side has a completely different view of the world (taking atheism vs progressive theism as the pattern). The views are so different that people are reduced to vague formulations like "it makes everything else make sense" and the like. In the words of C. S. Lewis, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Theism, at any rate, is not a logical deduction from observed phenomena, (as it used to be in Anselm's day), but a speculation about the unknown- unknown souls, unknown life after death, and the unknown god. All strongly felt, but not known. God is forever in the gaps of knowledge, not in what the atheist would call secure knowledge- that which has been nailed down about reality in empirical and / or logical terms.

Non-theists stick to what is known, but in their own way also assume a great deal- that the brain-mind connection is not what is called "supernatural", and that whatever that connections is can be understood, someday, through the normal course of scientific endeavor. And that any god worth the name would make itself far more manifest than has been the case in the past, and certainly is now. And lastly, that the whole theological edifice is far more efficiently explained by our rich psychological archetypes, weaknesses, and hopes than it is by its mystical discernment of an entirely alternate reality. These assumptions do not credit theists and theology with any special knowledge or modes of knowing, but rather assume that everyone has largely the same perceptions and immediate reality, though they may make of them quite different inferred realities.

Which model is more in accord with the real reality? Which is more humble- that is another intruiguing one. Is there an actual reality out there separate from what we make of it ... that is yet another one, in a more postmodern / Platonic vein.

As vastly different models of reality, they can also be called paradigms. Kuhn told us that communication between strongly contrasting paradigms can be extremely difficult, since the concepts, and even the language used, have meanings that depend on the edifices of their own respective paradigms and communities. They are non-commensurate. This is especially true for beliefs that are acknowledged to come by non-scientific means; by faith, by mystical deliverance, by community engagement, by one's "gut".

Occam's razor tells us to go with the simplest explanation, all else being equal. And that certainly would be theism. God is the answer for everything that we do not know, and much that we do. Why does lightning strike? That used to be (a) god's job, but is now generally regarded as not supernatural at all. Why does evolution happen? Even those who agree with natural selection and Darwinian evolution in general often, if they are theists to start with, see a hand of god in the mix, perhaps pushing sub-atomic particles around just so, weighing the scales in some way we can't see and certainly couldn't reconstruct historically, to make that all-important creature, us.

It is a very winning simplicity, sweeping all our questions, especially the most important ones, under a totemic rug, while reluctantly recognizing the mechanisms that scientific thought has constructed for whatever has been rigorously explained. That is, if you are a progressive religious person, rather than a fundmantalist home-schooler barring the doors & windows against a much wider gamut of profane knowledge. But how far does progressive theology go? To remain theology, it can never go "too far". It can not empty god out of the world completely. While the whole point of evolution is that it is a mechanistic process, blind and brainless, and therefore explanatory of biological change, that is anathema to theology, however tepid. So at least we humans must have been granted some kind of grace ... some special relationship with god that sponsors our moral nature, even if it did not meddle with our physical evolution. Or something like that.

Then there is psychology. Are we beset by various biases and defects that impair our reasoning and tend to lend more credence to supernatural theories than they are due? Do we have an intense need for social hierarchy and father figures that we map onto an imaginary cosmos? Or are we blessed with a sort of sixth sense, by which god approaches us, perhaps in dreams, or in quiet moments of meditation, or in the rousing community of worship? Religious people make a great deal of "discernment", which usually means a very non-scientific feeling of a god existing, inherent in the world, and also relating somehow to us personally. This helps to construct non-believers as *blind, and also construct religious group leaders as somehow gifted with special abilities or relations with the divine. As Tanya Luhrman demonstrates so well, (as William James before her), this discernment is most clearly a sign of imagination, or considerable mental self-management, but not necessarily something that a skeptic is obliged to credit as discernment of something real.

The very immensity of speculation required in religious belief constitutes another psychological factor, as it can be a method that draws forth commitment and social bonding. The greater the unbelievability of a doctrine, the more isolated its believers, the more they depend on each other, and the greater the psychological barrier to entry and to exit. Atheists are notoriously unable to form communities, perhaps because their beliefs, at least in the religious sphere, are rather modest and skeptical. Believing in a lack of life after death, in a lack of priestly charisma, a lack of divine sanction for their endeavors, etc. is not calculated to create great devotion. Truly it is curious how real riches, such as wealth and health, have so much less purchase on our psychology of personal meaning than do the highly speculative riches of the hereafter and the invisible.

But broaching the subject of psychological explanation for religion is highly offensive to those in the paradigm. "Are you calling us nuts? Or stupid? Is this the first step to locking us up?" and so forth. And are atheists immune from psychological biases? To judge from the internet comment traffic, that is not the case, though the biases at work do seem different. Richard Dawkins has not yet been canonized or described as divine.

Obviously, simplicity is not the entire standard of paradigm comparison. Simplicity purchased at the cost of deep explanation, indeed of the very motivation to approach the mysteries of reality in analytical fashion, may not be (philosophically) superior to complexity, or even to ignorance. In any case, the test is not internal to the paradigm, but in its correspondence to reality, in some empirical sense. If all those correspondences are, in the face of a god who resolutely remains hidden from clear view, fobbed off to mystical senses or speculations about what must have ultimately caused the universe and ourselves to appear, then all the clarity and simplicity can't make up for explanatory weakness.

It goes without saying that what one wants out of a paradigm does not serve to make it more or less true. Whether theism makes us more moral, or whether contrariwise it makes us kill each other, doesn't speak to its truth or falsity. Indeed, the personal attractiveness and psychological tenacity of religion can be taken as an argument against its truthfulness. Except, of course, if one resides within a theistic paradigm, in which case god made us religiously inclined and mystically receptive, in a wonderful, if somewhat fuzzy, circle of logical causation.

Nor does arrogance or humility really decide the question. Each paradigm thinks itself nobly humble and its adversary perversely arrogant. Believers bow before god and seek to obey (or at least understand) "His" teachings and dictates, while viewing atheists as believing themselves to be god, and having no god-given, objective morals into the bargain- a lost and dangerous tribe. Conversely, atheists suspect theists of making it all up anyhow, thus conjuring around the back door the laws and deities that they so conspicuously bow to in front of the temple, all demonstrated by the appalling failures of the theist's own social institutions. Which are, under this view, incredibly arrogant, fraudulently leading their people to believe they are communing with the creator of the universe, who cares whether they win the next bingo game. Or the next war.

The consideration of these radically different, yet each widely believed, paradigms is the first step of theology. Before one can make suppositions about what this god wants, or what our meaning is as humans, or what moral consequences we think derive from it all, we need to situate ourselves in a model of reality, either supernatural or not. As an atheist, I think the choice is clear, that inferring so much as a premise, and in such imaginative fashion, however attractive and justified on traditional, moral, or hopeful grounds, is no way to begin one's philosophy. It is to fall into psychological traps from the very start and to build on sand.

But how to communicate all this to anyone outside the paradigmatic echo chamber? Our ability to close our minds to foreign and inconvenient thoughts is monumental. In this case, each paradigm is not just incommensurate, but is built on active, explicit opposition to the other. The most basic tool we have is philosophical / intellectual integrity, that each party has the courage to understand opposing ideas and to be wrong, if evidence dictates that conclusion. Also, perhaps a dab of introspective psychological insight, but that is extremely treacherous territory. Of course, what counts as evidence is as contentious as anything else across these paradigms. And the length to which evidence can be discounted, and even "truth" redefined, is quite impressive.

At any rate, it takes a strong stomach to even listen to the opposing side, since not only is its paradigm contrary to one's own, but it will tend to be dismissive and scoffing (especially coming from the atheist side) if not outright insulting to what it regards as false, ill-informed, possibly immoral views. But that is the price of dialog. Making small talk over tea and crumpets may smooth the waters psychologically, but it will not address paradigmatic or philosophical issues. And dialog is unlikely to change anything anyhow. It is a private process where each person has to search within themselves for their intepretation of reality, and their place in it. Such searching is most intense in adolescence, and that is where hope lies- when childhood indoctrination meets reality.

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