18 February 2015

No, no, no.

I came across a 2011 article by John Gray on the BBC News Magazine website called Can religion tell us more than science?  As a glaring example of Betteridge's Law, the answer to this question is an emphatic NO!  It's an old piece (of crap), but I still find myself driven to write about it.

In the article, Gray explains how Graham Greene came to be Catholic.  It's not a pretty thing to read:
The arguments that were patiently rehearsed by Father Trollope faded from his memory, and Greene had no interest in retrieving them. "I cannot be bothered to remember," he writes. "I accept."
Okay; first of all, let's set aside the irony of the priest's name and how close it is to "trollop."

Here's the first real thing: this is a great example of how religion encourages apathy and disinterest in the real world. Greene couldn't be bothered to even recall why or how Trollope convinced him. Surely coming to a religion warrants some justification.  But no; it doesn't matter if one just feels it to be right.  Maybe like how Craig Hicks just felt it was right to kill three people?

Then we have:
We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.
How exactly is religion related to establishing beliefs?  What causality is implied here?  More than is warranted.  And the bald assertion that the "debate" on atheism is dull is just a poor attempt to marginalize the very significant arguments that have been mounted against religion for centuries.

(I should note here that I do not use "belief" as a synonym for "religious belief."  I take "belief" in the philosophical sense: a claim held to correspond to reality.  I use "faith" to describe what others call "religious belief."  And faith in holding a claim to be true without, or even in spite of, evidence.)

It gets worse. Gray writes:
In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion.
There's so much wrong here, I don't even know where to begin.  Religion is not based on evidence, by definition, because religion deals with the supernatural, for which evidence is not possbile.  As such the old trope of religion being like science is utter bollocks.  Science is a way of knowing, a process by which knowledge is accumulated, and which can be revised in light of new evidence. Religion is... not anywhere near that. It's dogma; it's fixated pronouncements held to be true in spite of evidence, not because of it. The only reason some religions (e.g., Catholicism) have come to revise certain tenets is that science has roundly shown those tenets to be crap. If it weren't for science, no religion would ever revise its tenets, and we'd still be living like it was 1599.

Religion requires its tenets to be accepted as correct; science, in the meantime, is constantly seeking to prove itself wrong.  More irony: that which claims eternal correctness turns out to be incorrect, and that which seeks to prove itself incorrect turns out to be correct.
This was the view presented by the Victorian anthropologist JG Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, a study of the myths of primitive peoples that is still in print. According to Frazer, human thought advances through a series of stages that culminate in science. Starting with magic and religion, which view the world simply as an extension of the human mind, we eventually reach the age of science in which we view the world as being ruled by universal laws.
Because the Victorians were soooo right about everything....

In this case, there is an argument to be made - and that I've made myself here and here - that science is the latest version of the overall human project of "understanding reality." But Frazer forgot the intermediate step - philosophy - probably because so much of philosophy questions the need for and existence of the supernatural.

Also, there's no chance that back in the days of "magic and religion," the world was viewed "as an extension of the human mind," because no one had any real idea what that even meant.

Religion is an attempt to understand reality - a piss-poor one by modern standards, but at the time, over 10,000 years ago when religions started, it was as good as there was. Understanding led to decreased stress.  We evolved to avoid stress, because less stress led to greater overall survival. Philosophy, only a few thousand years old, recognized that predictability was important. Predictability decreases stress further, far more than the silly fairy tales of religion. Philosophy established rules that increased one's ability to be correct in one's conclusions.  Science, finally, developed the iterative/recursive loop of the scientific method, where philosophizing must be driven by evidence, and result in evidentiary results (via experimentation). By closing that loop, science exceeded philosophy as a way of knowing.
Frazer's account has been immensely influential. It lies behind the confident assertions of the new atheists, and for many people it's just commonsense.
Ey?  I've read a lot about atheism and I've never seen anyone cite Frazer.  Frazer may well have been cited somewhere, but "immensely influential"?   More bald assertions.

Let's also remember that common sense is very often wrong.  Appealing to it is no way to increase the authority of one's arguments.
In most religions - polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions - belief has never been particularly important. Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.
More bollocks.  Belief motivates action.  You bring an umbrella to work on a sunny morning because you believe it will rain later.  You treat women and men equally because you believe that superficial biological differences do not affect a person's worth.  And the only reason to practice what a religion tells you to do is because you believe its tenets.
The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.
Then why do Buddhists and Hindu practice their beliefs?  D'oh!
Art and poetry aren't about establishing facts.
Aren't they?  They're about communicating emotion and experience, sometimes abstractly (through metaphor, etc.) There are rules to the arts.  They're not very good rules, because theoreticians in the arts have yet to recognize that one must think systemically - that the reader/viewer of art is as much a participant in its creation as the author/artist.  Someday - and of this I have no doubt - we will understand the human mind so well, thanks to science, that we will be able to describe how to write a brilliant novel to the same level of exquisite detail as we can now describe the structure of an atom.  Just because we can't do it yet is no reason to think it will never happen.  Indeed, this kind of let's-give-up-because-the-answer-isn't-obvious is exactly the kind of thinking that religion promotes.  So it doesn't surprise me that Gray would attempt such a flaccid argument.
Even science isn't the attempt to frame true beliefs that it's commonly supposed to be.
While Gray is trying to undermine the spectacular power of science here, what he's really saying is: Most people haven't got a clue what science is.  Nice use of rhetoric.  Too bad it's for a fundamentally harmful cause.
Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus.
Gray hasn't a clue what a "scientific consensus" is.  It's not the same as agreeing where to go out with friends for dinner.  I've written about the scientific consensus too.  Either because of ignorance, or in attempted deceit, Gray is misrepresenting how scientists reach consensus.  It's convenient for him to do this because in doing so he undermines the rigor of science - and props up his tired old religiosity.
Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.
Wait, what?  You can use the theory of gravity without believing it to be true?  A belief is a claim that you hold to correspond to reality.  Why would you use it if you honestly disbelieve it?  This is just word salad.
Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories.
Well, at least Gray is right that myths aren't childish.  They do have value in that they help us understand how primitives lived in unenlightened times.  And modern myths (if they even exist - and I think they don't) can capture cultural idioms and perspectives in metaphorical form.  But they can be captured in scientific theories too; that's what sociology, anthropology, and even cognitive science are for.  Myths may be useful in cases where scientific knowledge is (temporarily) lacking, but given the choice, only a fool would prefer myth to scientific fact.  Science, therefore, trumps myth.
The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There's nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind.
First, who's idea is that?  No one that I know holds this to be true.  It's a strawman argument, especially if one understands enough about science to know that science gives us the framework to understand what the point of myths really are.
If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.
This is a categorical lie born of Gray's patent ignorance.  This "struggle for life" is a horribly naive description of evolution.  Evolution has been such that organisms able to control their environments have survived better than other organisms, which led to those organisms squeezing the others to extinction.  To control one's environment requires predicting it reliably.  To predict it requires understanding it.  Therefore, the exact opposite of Gray's silly pronouncement is true: we evolved exactly to understand the universe.
Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that's forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can't overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren't equipped to see into the nature of things.
But if we aren't equipped to understand reality, then science cannot possibly do what Gray claims. More word salad.
Darwin's theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited.
This is nothing more than bad science fiction.  No version of evolution ever made claims about humanity's eventual end state.  The notion of inherent limitation of the human mind might be derived from science (like physics), but it's not a part of evolution, not even by implication. Again, Gray is only exposing us to his own lurid ignorance.

And another thing: what's with the constant references to Darwin?  Doesn't Gray know how far evolutionary theory has come since The Origin of the Species?  Well, no, probably not.  After all, let's remember that Gray has drunk the religious kool-aid.  It's a chestnut for them to always refer to Darwin's version of evolution because it's easier to argue against it.
It's been said that the universe is a queerer place than we can possibly imagine, and I'm sure that's right. However rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable.
So, now Gray is a seer too, able to predict the future.  Riiiight.  Knowledge, by any reasonable definition, requires order; in fact, knowledge is itself a kind of order.  But the universe appears to be becoming ever more disordered (thermodynamics, bitches!)  The order of our knowledge increases, but the universe's order decreases.  At some point, those two curves will intersect - it seems inevitable that we will someday know everything.
Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science.
Actually, science has dispensed with myths.  The problem, again, is that most people don't understand science well enough and as a result become brainwashed into believing myths.
Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world.
Yeah?  So?  Religion has directly enabled suffering and death that, quite frankly, is on par with anything else nature has ever done.  Science, on the other hand, has progressively refined the foundations for equality, health, and well-being.  Sure there have been individuals and groups who have misused scientific knowledge for harmful ends; but science alone didn't enable their malevolence, which was fundamentally rooted (I believe) in personality disorders, mental illness, and demonstrably faulty reasoning.
But "humanity" isn't marching anywhere. Humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves.
More bollocks.  Systems science has demonstrated plainly that there are properties of systems that emerge from the systems' components. Humanity is more than a collection of humans, and this can be proved to the same level of certainty that 2+2=4. Again, Gray is only demonstrating his ignorance of (system) science.
Science has given us many vital benefits, so many that they would be hard to sum up. But it can't save the human species from itself.
Yes it can.  Science allows us to demonstrate that understanding truth matters.  The more we understand, the better off we will all be in the long run.  We live longer and healthier now than ever before.  We live much more peaceably than ever before.  And there is no reason to think that this trend cannot continue.  Where do all these good things come from?  Science.
Because it's a human invention, science - just like religion - will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad.
Science was not invented.  It was discovered.  Science is a method that follows the structure of reality; indeed, it is the best image we have of reality.  But it was not pulled out of thin air; it is not made up.  Science simply wouldn't work at all if it didn't actually adhere to nature's fundamental structure.  Science wasn't always as good as it is today.  We have learned to do science better and better because we use it to discover the structure of reality.

Religion, on the other hand, is just shit some guy made up.
Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that "humanity" can use science to remake the world.
This is just playing to the masses.  Look at modern societies and you will see more healthier, happier people living lives more meaningful lives than at any other time in human history.  Do we have religion to thank for that?  Do we have religion to thank for increased longevity?  Do we have religion to thank for ever-increasing gender equity?  Do we have religion to thank for vaccines that prevent horrible deaths? Do we have religion to thank for levels of education never before seen in humanity's history?

In any case, it's a bald assertion.  I would like to see proof - even if just a silly philosophical one - that the claim "science can save the world" is necessarily false.  (Spoiler: no such proof is possible.)
No doubt there will be some who are deeply shocked by Graham Greene's nonchalance about the arguments that led him to convert to Catholicism. How could he go on practising a religion when he couldn't even remember his reasons for joining it?
No doubt there are some people who are shocked that Justin Bieber earns more than $1.25 when he performs.  So what?  People are constantly falling prey to their own psychological frailties. Greene just fell prey to his, big time.  Whoopie do.  I'm more shocked by a paper cut.
Human beings don't live by argumentation, and it's only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.
Another strawman argument.  Of course, myths aren't taken as literally true. Any more. Once upon a time, they were taken just that way.  And it was science that showed that literalism to be laughably false. The reasons to object to religion are rich, and nuanced, and based on careful thinking.  And whether or not humans "live by argumentation" has nothing to do with the superiority of scientific thinking to religious thinking.
What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.
And that brings us back to the crux of the matter.  Belief matters absolutely!  Belief guides action. How we live is driven by our beliefs.

John Gray clearly got his degree from a cereal box.  What's worse, his delusional advocacy for patent falsehoods makes him a malevolent liar.  Fuck him.

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