Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What are they Thinking?

Today I'm sitting here snowed in (yes, due to 1.5 inches, only in Washington state) with work being cancelled. I have been wondering to myself what must go through the mind of someone like Dennis Prager. How can anyone possibly believe what he does? And yet probably most of our friends and neighbors have more in common with his worldview than his oppositions.

After watching the recent science conference, it was perfectly clear that the overwhelming majority were embarrassed by faith based world-views, many of them vehemently and outspokenly so. Yet these people with faith based worldviews who poo-poo naturalistic

worldviews literally equating them with "the enemy" of our future, inundate the media and particularly talk radio. When I think of people who call themselves conservatives, the only thing I really acknowledge their designation to mean is that they allow faith to determine much of their opinion. Many of these people almost certainly have never once seriously considered that there may NOT be a holy father pulling strings and ensuring that good things happen to good people, and everything else is a spiritual lesson. I believe that you can distill roughly 85% of politics down to the differences between a faith based worldview and a naturalistic worldview and of course the degrees on the contiunuum where people are. And even part of that remaining 15% is about whether you have a traditionalist religious faith or a new agey sort of faith based worldview. Those two are very different also.

I am saddened by the fact that this bulk of our population, including Prager, do not understand the basic tenents of scientific naturalism. They have not internalized even the utility of scientific scrutiny to understand the world, and they most certainly have not made a serious attempt to understand the world through naturalistic science in an honest way. They have made up their minds before they have started, fitting part of nature, part of scripture, and part of human nature to their worldviews and ignoring the rest as (metaphorically or maybe not so metaphorically) "the work of the devil" or "God's will". People like Prager have said "my oh my, isn't the world pretty, there must then be a creator". On top of that they have said to themselves "my oh my, since the Western world is dominated by cultures which sprung from a Judeo-Christian past, lets assume that we can attribute the entirety of it's magnificence to the Judeo-Christian religion". They go even further and make this massive leap and say "and since the Judeo-Christian religion begat all this goodness, it therefore seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Jahovah is indeed the creator of the universe".

And they'll look at you with a straight face with bewilderment at why you can't see this.

This "conservative" worldview is pretty much what I believed as a teen-ager (I still wish to be called a conservative, but I can't in this present political climate). This was before I received a basic science education and learned about natural selection and exposed my mind to the importance of being deeply critical of claims which go against evidence.

I suspect Dennis Prager is a very intelligent person. People who argue seriously and stringently and somewhat coherently with opinions that have the preponderance of evidence against them have to be intelligent (see Michael Shermer's idea that smart people are better at rationalizing bad ideas). Intelligence has absolutely nothing to do with why Dennis Prager believes in the Judeo Christian Jehovah. You could spot him 50 IQ points and it would not make his opinions any more carefully weighed, it would only make him better at defending the same ideas. The issue is that Dennis Prager has not exposed his mind to the "Magisteria" of naturalism enough to even understand that his faith arguments pose no challenge or conflict whatsoever. Anyone who understands the extraordinarily powerful arguments of naturalism would never take seriously a plea to beauty as a reason to believe in a theistic God.

Dennis does. And with a straight face. And with hand-wringing delight.

How do you have a debate with someone whose most powerful and energetic argument is such a blatant non-sequitur to his scientifically informed opponent that it isn't even deemed worthy of discussion? It reminds me of the Dawkins interview with Ted Haggard where Haggard said the bible was so perfectly uncontradicting and flawless that nothing remotely like it has existed and this alone is amazing evidence for Jehovah's existence. Such a ludicrous and easily debunkable statement is so silly to Dawkins that he didn't even acknowledge that it was said. Like other people for whom reason and intellectual honesty is revered, Dawkins didn't find it worth responding. He assumes as good reasoners unfortunately do, that others watching are also reverent towards intellectual honesty and will see the absurdity. But they aren't. No doubt many people thought Richard dodged the question because of it's power of persuasion

And the Aunts, Uncles and Cousins in Prager's listening audience who also are incapable or unwilling to explore the arguments of naturalism in a systematic educational way also accept this argument from beauty as having some sort of obvious opinion swaying weight in debate. "Ah yes, the mountain is glorious, any fool can see there is a God". The flowers, the trees... the 20,000 species of grasshopper, all testiment to nature's moral underpinning. Even the most cursory pop understanding of modern neuroscience, natural selection etc, would evidence the futility of such a statement, yet this is lost on the vast sea of the well intended masses who deem naturalists as blind and insane, made worse and more blinded the more education and knowledge they accumulate. Once again, this anti-intellectualism adored by conservative talk radio hosts is obviously repugnant to those who feel edified by knowledge. Harris and Prager both agreed that more education makes people less religious. So it's natural for Prager to attack that which is making people less religious, namely knowledge about how the world works.

And Prager knows he lacks understanding of the magesteria of naturalism as evidenced by his debate with Harris where he appeals to the rather uncommon opinion of one great scientist (Francis Collins) as reason for intelligent people to believe in not just God, but can you believe it, a personal god named Jehovah who desired burnt sacrifices and demanded that the animal used in bestial acts was also destroyed. The God who shows no sign whatsoever of realizing that homosexuality is almost entirely biologically ordained and not a "moral" choice. Prager knows he would never waste his time seriously absorbing the educational bedrock which solidly encases naturalism into firm ground and unites the major sciences from Biology to Geology to Anthropology uncontested amongst the educated and informed. He would never bother to understand Richard Dawkins much less agree with him. The world is beautiful, therefore Dawkins is wrong. That is enough for Prager, and it's enough for millions and millions of people looking into the Escher maze and seeing no reason to doubt it's coherency or even listen to those who would point out to them how it isn't right. It is blindingly obvious to these people that they are correct, and they can see no reason why greater education would change them to a position they view as absolutely insane. The natural result is for Prager and his ignorant fellows to decry institutes of higher education as bases of conspiratorial assault on God belief as if all the world revolves around this political power struggle between secularists and the faithful, and teenage kids somehow go to college and learn their basic science and sociology or whatever and suddenly lose faith in traditional religion not due to the subject matter, not due to the information, not due to becoming more well informed, but due to the fact that the courses are taught by people who (naturally of course) have worldviews which are based on science and reason as opposed to faith. One wonders what the alternative would be? The Taliban certainly have an answer for me.

Prager would complain that our institutes of higher reason foster wacky ideas such that men and women are equal, and he is correct. There is an insidious and disturbing wave of moral relativity that obscures reason and obvious evidence precisely the way religion does. Despite trying to be clear and evidenced based, even those who revere honesty accumulate pet biases. We are all human. But the difference is that this idea for instance that men and women are equal is in the process of being undone by neuroscience. Yes, it should have been obvious before, but unlike faith, this disease has a simple cure. Reality is clarified over time. Good evidence accumulates and not even the grandest PR firm can maintain beliefs which go against solid evidence. This cannot be said about faith. Faith is the only thing in life where people feel as if they are rewarded more for believing in things which go more against the evidence.

What does Prager think about the beauty of the regal horned lizard which
squirts blood from it's eye? What about the orchid mantis pictured below (looks just like a dried leaf or flower petal)? Exactly how committed to intellectual dishonesty does one have to be in oprder to not see that these creatures evolved over vast spans of time via natural selection to fit their habitat? And if predators and prey are both perfectly designed by God, which side is God on?

How comitted to intellectual dishonesty does one have to be to see the quirky, bizarre, and brutal behaviors in nature and not notice that this process has absoutely nothing to do with an underpinning of primate style morality?

Peoople like Prager have a never ending supply of untouchable and unfalsifiable excuses.

As long as Prager and his kind can prevent the populace (and himself) from understanding that maybe, just maybe the foundational understanding of modern science accepted unquestioningly by the world's best and brightest science minds just might actually be true, then Prager will always have a nice porcelain pot to piss in.

We are reliving the Galileo incident in our modern times. Only difference is, evolution through natural selection arguablyt has more compelling evidence for it than Galileo had for a heliocentric universe. At any rate, both propositions should be equally obvious to the intellectually honest.

And it really all does boil down to intellectual honesty. The type of sophistry and non-argument used by Prager in his debate with Harris is a prime example. Prager is a talk radio evangelist for a crafted "conservative" ideology for which Judeo-Christian religious chest beating pride is a key component. The style of argument he uses is foreign to the intellectually honest truth seeker. It's a style of argument which is satisfied with straying from the spirit of a discussion by swapping meat with tangential word-dicing which should seriously have made even those rooting for Prager cringe. Prager's claims that the entirety of Western societal virtue can be credited to the wonder of the Judeo Christian God (who, due to the magnificence of western culture must then exist), is so loony and unconvincing that we can only imagine him struggling to keep his own face straight in front of the keyboard.

A good historian could probably come up with a near infinite number of explanations why Western society is successful in the ways Prager describes without crediting religion at all. To be fair, religion did motivate wonderful art. What better use of time for a talented gay man than to decorate an edifice of worship to a deity which has made it perfectly clear that he detests the architect in question for eternity due to the arbitrary swath of chemicals in his amniotic sac in the second trimester, or perhaps the small alteration caused in the genetic recombination which created the genome of his first cell. Sinful bastard.

The reasons for theism are ludicrous, whether they are espoused by Francis Collins or Ted Haggard. All the education and expertise in the field of genetics that Francis Collins has, and yet his arguments for theism could not possibly be any more sophisticated than those of Ted Haggard. Why not argue on behalf of Hinduism or Buddhism? What profound egotism makes a person insist that their God is true despite the billions of devout people with similar extraordinary feelings who believe their story for exactly the same preposterous reasons?

Another mystery is why is it that these talk radio hosts (Medved, Prager) are Jewish people who don't even believe in Jesus, yet are staunch defenders of the virtues of these falsehoods?

Intellectual dishonesty.

Politics. Intentional distortion. Self-deception so multilayered and deep that it is no longer even noticed by them.

There are many truth seekers in science who value rigorous honesty and disciplined clarity as if it were their religion. Unfortunately, this idea, this noble way of living is quickly beaten out by those who are adept at baiting an ideological hook whith the stink cheese of labyrinthine word games.

In the science conference, one person noted that when he flipped through science journals he would note that most of it was "nonsense". One after another idea that probably wouldn't pan out. But he never felt anxious to write a letter to the editor. He had perfect confidence that the bad ideas would be weeded for lack of evidence and for good counterargument. He pointed out that he could not feel this way in any other public arena. In Prager's world, shit ideas can become the cream of the crop with strong PR. The desire for meaning and the fear of death are a built in PR campaign inside each of us which has insured that even such a blatantly foolish and unmeritorious conclusion such as theism can continue to exist.


Anonymous said...

careful aaron, you're turning into a fundie atheist, which is almost as annoying as a fundie x-tian, just less fun to tease.

Aaron said...

I am certainly a fundamentalist atheist, but not a fundamentalist adeist. I think the laws of the universe may be too good for chance. Yes, I am as close to certain that a personal god does not exist as can be. The more I come to understand evolution, the more it seems clear that the feelings which make up spirituality evolved for similar reasons that peacocks feathers evolved. And Dennis Prager is a delusional twat.