Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut, Einstein, Dawkins, and the Public Face of Atheism

There's been a lot of talk around lately about what is termed "radical atheism," "evangelical atheism" or "fundamentalist atheism." Generally associated with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but also with atheist bloggers (some of whom play here from time to time), the talk is of those who not only hold no faith in an All-being and defend the view, but folks who put forward polemical writing arguing that religious faith is dangerous and harmful to society, and therefore to be actively opposed. With the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., an outspoken secular humanist, this seems as good a time as any to engage the question.

These non-believers are compared with fundamentalists by opponents for a couple of reasons. First, because there is a some sense in which there is a conversion type mission -- they are trying to convince people of something. But secondly, because it's a cute cheap shot that the opponents know will really piss off the atheists -- see, atheism is just another faith and you are the worst kind of them.

A more subtle version was given by Kerry last week, attacking what he termed fact fundamentalists who reject the idea that there are truths that are not facts, that is, not open to confirmation or empirical evidence. The basis for this rejection he argues, is that it is "spawned by the modern era's (1) emphasis on scientific ways of knowing, (2) its insistence that all truths can be precisely expressed in some kind of language, and (3) its depreciation of nonscientific ways of knowing (insight, intuition, imagination) and nonempirical modes of expression (metaphor, poetry)."

This is a strawman. When you look at the scientific project, there is great room insight, intuition, imagination, and metaphor. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to do science without all of them. Science relies on models which are nothing more than intricate metaphors. Some of the metaphors are mathematical (mathematics is nothing but a language with an incredibly intricate and malleable grammar), others are scale models, some are metaphors to common everyday objects -- for example, Thomson's "plum pudding model" of the atom. The greatest scientists are the one's whose insight and creativity took us beyond our dull mechanistic picture of the world to one that is more fantastic than any sci-fi writer could invent.

But the difference is that in the scientistic approach, one is not allowed to simply stop there and accept the really provocative, really intriguing, really moving idea. History is littered with really provocative, really intriguing, really moving ideas that turned out to be wrong. I am not at all sure what Kerry means by "truths that are not facts," (cue Confused, Maybe Not telling me that he believes his father loves him without believing "that his father loves him" -- never understood that one either), but it seems that if there are some truths that are not facts, that these truths would have to be a subset of all possible non-factual beliefs, only some of which are true. So, is there a means of separating the wheat from the chaff? How do you tell the non-factual truths from the non-factual falsities? We get mesmerized by our ideas, sometimes we are wrong about what we "feel in our heart" and we need what we call in the biz, criteria of theory choice, that is, ways to tell the ones that we just want to be true from those that likely are.

Some of those criteria for those of us scientistic folks are the sort of empirical confirmations that Kerry refers to. We do take a true statement to be one that is consistent with our best observational data. But there are other criteria as well and here's where Kerry's poetry comes back in. Elegance, simplicity, and coherence are taken to be indicators of better theories. If there are fewer ad hoc, seat of the pants patches needed to account for the world, then you have a better account. There are aesthetic qualities that count towards truth in science.

The greatest example of this comes from Einstein whose general theory of relativity had little empirical verification beyond being able to account for everything Newton could and one thing he couldn't -- the way Mercury's orbit shifted slightly each time it went around the sun. When word came back from an expedition to view a full eclipse headed by A. E. Eddington that verified Einstein's prediction that light would bend noticeably around massive objects like the sun, it was seen as a great triumph. When informed of the confirmation, Einstein was unmoved. Shocked at his lack of interest, his assistant asked him what he would have done if the observation had turned out the other way. Einstein's response, "I would have had pity for the dear Lord, the theory is right." It was simply too beautiful, too elegant not to be right.

Ah hah! So you atheists do have faith -- it's just faith in a beautiful universe, something for which you have no evidence and accept uncritically! Gotcha!

Well, no. Imre Lakatos talks about research programs, sets of beliefs that form worldviews. These consist of what he calls the hard core -- proposition you are loathe to change, things you will try to save at all costs -- and a protective belt -- propositions you believe, but are willing to jettison if needed to save the hard core. In the face of the world we live in, research programs are always forced to change, we acquire new beliefs, alter or reject old ones. If you are clever enough, you can always readjust and reconstitute your protective belt to save your hard core. You will never ever be forced to give up the heart of your beliefs.

But that doesn't mean that we can't see one set is better in a real sense than another. Some sets of beliefs will become progressive, that is be able to account for new things that you never even thought about with no modification to your collection of other beliefs at all. When things you believe can effortlessly account for more things you never considered, that coherence, that unity is a sign of truth.

On the other hand, some sets of beliefs will become degenerate, they will require all kinds of shifting and stretching and playing to finesse new things that pop up. This doesn't mean that you have to give up that set of beliefs, but it is certainly an indication that in its advancing clunkiness, it is showing intellectual weakness.

Einstein's theory was progressive, it was able to maintain its intellectual integrity and coherence without ugly add-ons. It is not faith, just reason to think it is a better made intellectual garment. Similarly, we can look at the set of beliefs at the heart of the scientistic atheistic approach. In the same way, we can look at its trajectory historically, see whether it is progressive -- able to account for more and more things we never thought to be within its realm -- or degenerate -- needing more and more awkward add ons as time goes by. It seems pretty clear that what we have is a rather progressive set of beliefs. We are able to make sense of things now that a decade, much less a century ago were thought to be well out of the circle of things science could talk about. Is that a guarantee that the program won't go south and begin to become degenerate? Of course not. But what it does mean is that the view is not mere religious zealotry.

But these folks are strident like zealots. Damn right. Why? I think for the same reason that Don Imus just got fired for saying something no worse than what he's been polluting our airwaves with for years. There is suddenly, with the loss of political power by the right, a sense that oppressed groups can speak up for themselves and atheists are an oppressed group. No matter how threatened the religious community feels by "Enlightenment values," the fact is that atheists are despised for holding a set of beliefs that is perfectly rational. Think that is an overstatement?

"A 1999 Gallup poll conducted to determine Americans' willingness to tolerate a Jewish president (Joseph Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for Vice President at the time). Here are the percentages of people saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person for president" on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:

Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
Baptist: 6%
Woman: 8%
Mormon: 17%
Muslim: 38%
Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
Atheist: 48%"

More than African Americans, more than Muslims, even more than homosexuals, almost half of the country would not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he or she is an atheist. And if you think that stops at the ballot box...

"But these uppity atheists are abrasive, shrill, and in your face. They only serve to alienate people. Why do you have such zealots as the public face? Wouldn't it be strategically better to have more Vonneguts and Einsteins?" I think we need both Malcolms and Martins. True, we could use more of an Anthony sometimes when the media only shows Stantons. But then, I think Daniel Dennett is taking that role quite admirably, but yes, we do need more Asimovs, more Sagans, more people like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who we miss in many, many ways.