Thursday, July 23, 2009

Philosophical differences underlying the secular in-fighting

The most recent flare-up in a long running personal battle between PZ and the co-authors of Unscientific America is just one instance of many between concerned secularists.

These arguments between the 'appeasers' and the 'fundamentalists' have intensified since the release of the New Atheist books. But they do have a far deeper and broader origin than one of just messaging and presentation.

Yes messaging is important. If the aim is to promote secularism and atheism then the most effective means should be identified and pursued. For me, it was the science that pushed me in the right direction. In particular it was reading A Brief History of Time and other popular physics.

Pushing Atheism and ridiculing religion would have had a counter-productive effort. I would have gotten defensive. I would have retreated back into my faith and wrapped it around me even more tightly.

Suggestions of positive and hopeful alternatives are almost always a better motivator for change than attacking the current status quo.

But having become certain of Atheism, I was still reluctant to come out and say it. I was a closeted Atheist for a long time after. I would call myself an agnostic without really knowing what that meant. I would play nice.

So maybe 'rounding up the base' is more fruitful than converting new people from scratch. Maybe the majority of efforts should be to get the closeted atheists to come out in force. If that is the aim, then PZ, Dawkins and Hitchens are on the right track. It was Dawkins' books that made me drop the agnostic label and come out as an Atheist.

For some of us it is the scientific method that is the ultimate goal. We want people to respect science over anything else. Dawkins would say the main obstacle to science is religion. So we need to attack religion first, then proceed to replace it with science.

Eugene Scott would say science education is the best way to get people to stop believing in superstition.

And I would agree. It worked for me.

If the end goal is science, are we reducing its credibility by conflating it with Atheism? But on the other hand, can we lie and say science and religion can be at peace, when we truly believe they are not? PZ would say a scientist should not lie. Lies damage credibility more than anything else. Lies are the tools of the religious, and us rationalists should not sink to their level.

Thus the 'appeasers' are not appeasers and the 'fundamentalists' are not fundamentalists. They both have their persuasive moral reasons for their respective strategies.

In addition to the messaging problem, we also have the disagreement over 'how bad is religion anyway?' I have a feeling that if we summed up quantitatively all the ill-effects of religion and subtracted all the positive effects of religion then it might turn out to be a wash. I am sometimes one of those that Daniel Dennett disparagingly calls 'believers in belief."

Until there is quantifiable evidence that swings one way or the other, I'm not going to get all flustered up about that argument. In the end, we have to be scientific about this. It is after all the way of knowing the truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Michael Collins from the Moon.

There are some brilliant essays and accounts all over the web commemorating the moon landing. But none of them got to me more than Michael Collins' own words as quoted in an Atlantic article on heroes.

"I really believe," he said, "that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogenous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Obligations to the future

One of the main considerations in ethics is the 'Veil of Ignorance', a concept put forward by John Rawls in Toward a Theory of Justice:
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

Racism and sexism are bad for many reasons, one of them being that they violate this social contract. Reasoning from the Original Position also leads me to support public education, and public health care, especially for children and those with genetic disorders.

It is obvious to see why people should not be discriminated on the basis of where they are born. But how about when they are born?

We are polluting the world today, and incurring debt, all at the expense of people who are born 10, 20, 30 or a hundred years from now. They do not have the choice as to when they would be born. They are people just like us, albeit located in a different time.

So when we dismiss their concerns and well being, when we harm their interests to gain immediate benefits for ourselves, are we making a moral mistake somewhat akin to racism?