Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Home Turf

Yes, dear reader, you're getting treated to another of my regular helpings of "Why philosophy is great". I'm sure you're suitably thrilled at this prospect.

There is a school of thought within philosophy (generally Wittgensteinian if you're interested) which argues that the most (perhaps the only) important contribution philosophy can make to real life is the diagnosis and treatment of misunderstandings, particularly those caused by language. There are many possible examples of this, such as subjective definitions of "proof", "knowledge", "belief", etc.

As an illustrative anecdote from my own life, I occasionally have arguments (not rows; series of progressive statements intended to establish a consensus) with my dear mother about - amongst other topics - alternative medicine. Toward the end of one such discussion, I made note of the fact that we actually agreed, despite appearances. This was because I had noticed that we were simply operating on different definitions of the word "work"; when considering what it is for a treatment to "work", she includes the placebo effect and I do not. Aside from this, we were making entirely the same points and agreeing throughout; once I pointed out this fundamental misunderstanding, the discussion was less confrontational.

I believe there is a misunderstanding at the core much of the antagonism between science and religion, and it is what will always happen when a naturally rational being attempts to justify their irrational beliefs in rational terms. There is nothing wrong with irrational beliefs, as long as one accepts that they are irrational; as soon as you start trying to justify (for example) your belief in a deity on empirical grounds, you invite, if not outright ridicule, at least a sound defeat in rational debate.

God and all metaphysical phenomena lie outside empirical perception - that is why they're called metaphysical. There is no point looking for evidence because the very (supposed) nature of these things denies the possibility of evidence. All attempts to prove the existence of deities on purely logical grounds, too, have failed miserably and laughably. The fact that claims of the supernatural are exclusively beyond the purview of rational science means that there is a huge gulf separating them from it. Irrationality should never try to justify itself on rational grounds - its very nature precludes success.

This is why I believe religion should be kept on the personal level; as long as it does no harm and doesn't pretend to be rational, I have no problem with it - but society as a whole cannot afford to be irrational.

The only time that science and religion should engage each other is when one is attempting to pass itself off as the other. I won't lie here - it's (almost?) always religion trying to pass itself off as science; because guess what? They think that seeming rational and basing their beliefs on empirical evidence is a desirable trait - cognitive dissonance anyone? The current classic example of this is creationism (a completely irrational belief if ever there was one) trying to pass itself off as science under the guise of Intelligent Design. Apparently there are those who believe that irrationality has a place in science classrooms; this is exactly when science and the rational community should defend with every argument at our disposal, and keep the irrational separate.

The divide between religion and science is identical with the divide between rationality and irrationality. As long as you keep them separate, all is well. But cross over from one to the other and you've got a fight on your hands.


Tobias said...

Preparing to accept the risk of being laughed out of the house here, I'd like to suggest that it isn't always the lack of a rational argument that precludes religious beliefs from being treated as science. Clearly this is the case when dogma has a clear contradiction in science, such as with creationism; when obviously we should accept the theory that has proof over the theory that has only incredulous faith.

However, I'd like to make the case that, for many other religious theories, whilst they may not have any grounding in science without proof, their possibility still has a place in science, provided there is no counter-proof. This is pedantry, of course, but I would like to argue that the supernatural is not necessarily beyond the purview of rational science, but merely beyond the purview of presently perceivable proof. Not that this makes any practical difference right now, but I think it should remain a part of scientific possibility that should we someday discover the formula for God, or find the Holy Ghost when we split open a photon or somesuch, then these things will have to be accepted as scientific fact. Otherwise we'll be as bad as the religious nutters.

Oh, and while we're on this topic, I'd just like to respond to your tentative notion that it's only the religious folks who are nutters. Yes, it's mostly them, but I've met scientific fundamentalists as well; those people who cite evolution as fact, not theory, making them to my mind about as bad as the Creationists. Yes, the evidence for it is vast realms more plausible, but it remains true that we haven't *proved* evolution; it remains a theory. Science could yet be wrong on that one, however unlikely that seems, and people who refute that notion can hardly call themselves scientific.

This is my reason for disliking Richard Dawkins, High Priest of Science, but there's a rant for another day.

Darkwinter said...

Well said, and I agree with around 90% of your points - particularly about the scientific fundamentalists, which was the elusive counter-example that failed to spring to mind as I wrote this entry. Though it all hinges on the definitions of "proof", "fact" and "theory".

What I must (moderately) disagree with you on, however, about the possibility of religious theory. The fact that they have yet to form an hypothesis which passes rigorous - or even cursory - scientific scrutiny is a symptom of the "metaphysical divide". God as a notion is one of faith, nothing more and nothing less. There can never *be* proof, or even serious supporting evidence, for his existence or non-existence. It is a metaphysical concept which therefore, by its very nature as such, cannot be supported or falsified.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm merely saying that people could do with being more aware of this logically necessary division.

Von said...

"All attempts to prove the existence of deities on purely logical grounds, too, have failed miserably and laughably."

The issue is a non-starter. The issue has always been a non-starter. The real issue is how religious perspective affects the behaviour of the individual or organisation purporting to believe - what is done in the name of that belief, whether that belief is quantifiable or naught more than a political shibboleth, and what is to be done about it if the negative be true in either case.

That's my issue with Dawkins (I think we should have a Group Therapy session in which we berate Richard Dawkins for his many failings) - the tendency to piss on people's sandcastles without acknowledging that the sandcastles have some value as cultural institutions/semiotic code-sets/personal emotive or philosophical crutches. Obsessing over the unquantifiable means you miss the quantifiably undesirable, and nobody wants that.

Plus he's married to Lalla Ward. Bastard.

Darkwinter said...


"The real issue is how religious perspective affects the behaviour of the individual or organisation purporting to believe"

Absolutely. This is why we need to direct debate away from these tedious non-starters (which far too many on both sides, though more on the religious one, seem desperate to cling to) and on to the real issue.

My personal view on this, at present, is that religion has its place and can indeed influence one's behaviour for the better - or indeed for the worse. But those who argue that it is necessary in order to live a moral life, or have any sense whatsoever of the numinous, the awesome, are horribly mistaken.

The "crutch" metaphor is appealing (though not without problems, obviously); certainly it helps some act in what is generally considered a moral manner - but not everyone needs such support in order to act in that manner.

But these issues will always be in the backwaters of public debate, because they are complex and far from being the pithy, soundbite-friendly non-starters on which anyone can waffle in perpetual futility.