Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Secularism, Religiosity, Empiricism and Worldviews

Reihan has an interesting post on The American Scene which in turn comments on an interesting post by Razib on the question of whether religiosity in particular and supernaturalism in general is indeed waining under the influence of the modern world. Which in turn is pointed to by John Farrell.

Short version: For all of the current sound and fury about the secularization of Europe and the angry middle-aged men of the New Atheism, the tendency to see the supernatural as real is not going anywhere, and is probably a fairly basic artifact of the way the human mind works. Thus, when "religiosity" declines, it usually does so only to be replaced by more vague forms of mysticism.

The real question, to my mind, is of course whether our inclination towards belief in the supernatural points to the very real existence of the supernatural, or is simply a side-effect of our ability to look for patterns and intentionality in nature. (The answer to that question being where I would part company with Razib and Reihan.)

Since I'm wandering... The question of why people tend to remain open to supernaturalism, regardless of their affiliation with an organized religion, reminds me of a thread of comment I read the other day in which John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts laid out his explanation of why one should be agnostic (rather than atheistic) on supernatural questions.

He sets forth five steps:
1. Each claim is independently assessed. You make a Thor or a YHWH claim, and I will take each one separately.

2. For each claim my first question is: is there a factual claim here that is empirically decideable?

3. If so, has that claim been empirically disconfirmed? [Does that god require belief in something false?]

4. If so, be atheist about that claim.

5. If not, be agnostic about that claim.
Maybe I'm unduly narrow in what I tend to consider "empirical" (indeed, it seems to me essential to science to be pretty restrictive with the term) but I can certainly see why (for all of Wilkins' rigor as a thinking) this is not an appealing worldview to most people. Indeed, I can't help wondering if it's even a livable worldview for life as a whole (as opposed for one's specifically scientific activities).

I mean, taken strictly, if someone comes to you and says "It's wrong to squash your aged and ailing mother with a steam roller," I'm not clear that this would actually be an empirically falsifiable claim. Indeed, the whole idea of "wrong" is not an empirically falsifiable one so far as I can tell. One could reason to the conclusion, but one could not discover it empirically.

And it's because of that fairly restricted realm of empirical information that those who abandon religion, for whatever reason, generally do not become strict empiricists. Invariably they end up believing in something. And (to allow Chesterton to get the last word in -- as he is so wont to do) on many occasions they simply end up believing in everything.


John S. Wilkins said...

I have spies everywhere (well, feeds of links to me) and I would like to make a passing comment.

The agnostic debate is about knowledge of facts (of the existence or otherwise of a deity claimed to exist). It is mute about whether it is right or not that such a deity exists.

Likewise, the source of morality, and the rightness or wrongness of a moral claim, are quite distinct from the existence or otherwise of deities.

As an agnostic, I have moral values. This is not, despite the oft-repeated truism, something that I have to struggle for because I lack a god to underpin morality. In fact, I'd have to struggle pretty hard to not have morals - everyone who is not psychotic would, belief or no.

So morals are distinct from the existence of a god. And as the Euthyphro Dilemma shows, having a god doesn't in itself make a moral value right or wrong.

Anonymous said...

One could reason to the conclusion, but one could not discover it empirically.

The atheist might say that it's wrong to steamroll your mother because it violates an evolutionary principle, man being a social animal, empathy is an adaptive trait, etc. Would that be considered "reasoning" to a conclusion or empirically discovering it (i.e., if there's some empiricism behind the evolutionary theory)?

I'd argue that, if this evolutionary-origin-of-morality hypothesis is true, then the wrongness of steamrolling your mother isn't more or less great than not having children. Both being maladaptive behaviors, why should we feel so much more revulsion at a person squashing mom than a person who decides, "Hey, kids aren't for me."


Darwin said...


Point taken. I had, I guess, been taking the point too broadly in that I thought you basically saying: Look, I have an empirical worldview. Therefore, if I can't find a way in which what I'm saying has empirical implication, I'm agnostic on it.

I have actually known people to state this outright, but I can see how I was assuming to much in imputing such an absolute application of your principle here.

Darwin said...

j. christian,

Actually I picked the "steamrolling your aged and ailing mother" example because it's not particularly mal-adaptive: If she's aged she won't have any more children, and if she's ailing he is probably producing a net burden on the social group rather than helping to raise he descendants. And while steamrolling is visually much nastier than giving the Dr. Kevorkian treatment, it's not actually different in outcome (unless one includes consideration of the potential emotional scarring of bystandards).

I would say that an atheist or agnostic _can_ arrive at the clear conclusion that killing the weak and the elderly is wrong via reason, but that the empathy as evolutionary trait argument will not get you there. I think you would need to go the route of assigning a certain degree of essential (as in essence) value and dignity to the human person qua human person beyond any current qualities of age, usefullness, etc.

But I also think that Plato is more worth listening to than he is often given credit for when he argues that when we simply _know_ that something is wrong (which in this case I think one unquestionably would) one may take this as a sort of inborn knowledge which should be listened to rather than ignored.

John Farrell said...

John, I hope you send spies to my site once in a while.

I could use the traffic.


Anonymous said...

"when we simply _know_ that something is wrong (...) one may take this as a sort of inborn knowledge which should be listened to rather than ignored."

Should it? Many people _know_ that homosexuality is wrong.

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