Tuesday, 9 October 2007

My discussion with David McLeish who is an "atheist"

I had an interesting discussion with a fellow who emailed me after a posted a comment on a blog entry titled Spiritual Pornography. If you follow the link you can read David's original post, and my comment. My comment went something like this:

I did a search on "spiritual pornography" hoping to find people having graphic x-rated union with god... Hmmm. No such luck!... ;-) ... Even so your comments are interesting. However it seems to me that your insight points to a different conclusion than the one you draw: that having discarded world-view A for world-view B, and then discarded world-view B in favour of world-view C, and then having discarded world-view C in favour of world-view D, a pattern is emerging. The reasonable conclusion is not world-view D, but rather the discarding of world-views.


David then responded to me, asking "For what definition of 'world-view' does that make sense?"

Here was my response:

If you would allow me I would prefer not to be too precise about definition, and instead try to provide more a flavour of what I’m suggesting.

This is not because I want to weasel out of giving you an adequate account of my meaning.

I was only meaning to suggest that for example in moving on from theism to atheism, and then from atheism on to agnosticism, and then from agnosticism to pragmatism – and so on – any of those sorts of progressions that many people do – I’m not saying that’s what the writer I was responding to did exactly, but it is the kind of thing that some people do – and the writer I was responding to did at least one of these steps, if not 2 – I was just saying that the process of discarding the old ideas and taking up the new ones is more significant than either the old way of thinking or the new way of thinking.

Being able to give up a point of view (to move on from one point of view to another, to leave one point of view behind and move on to another, to 'change my mind'), is at least as useful a skill to have as being able to hold on to a point of view, defend a point of view, and argue for a point of view. And this is still the case even after I have moved on from 20 previous 'conclusions'. Theism, atheism, agnosticism, pragmatism, etcetera, etcetera we might say are 'conclusions'.

And noticing that I have repeatedly through my life abandoned previous ways I had been thinking about the world and seeing the world, has led me to think that the particular place I am currently standing ('my world-view') is less valuable than the direction I am moving in, and the speed with which I am moving.

So you might say the belief is 'no belief'… but I don’t think this quite hits it. Beliefs are so hard to avoid. It is more like the spiritual PRACTICE is no belief. It is something I have to practice – it requires discipline and commitment. Catching myself going off believing something again, and noticing how the experience of life (the universe and everything) is at every turn, and moment, pulling the rug out from under all the conclusions I foolishly (not an insult) keep coming to.



David then very kindly continued the discussion:

Interesting. I can see the sense in what you're saying.

I'd have to argue that the conclusion we're currently at is important in its own way. Not because it's perfect, but because if the direction you're moving in (as you describe it) is a good direction, then your current conclusion is always an improvement over the previous ones.

For example (and to use an analogy that removes the spiritual element from it), our understanding of how massive objects interact has changed from "celestial spheres" to Newtonian gravity to relativity (and a lot of steps in between). The process of improving on earlier ideas is very important, I agree. But that doesn't mean relativity itself is unimportant. It's almost certainly wrong in some details, but it's the best we've got at the moment, and it's demonstrably better than the ideas that came before it.

I'm currently an atheist. The reason I call myself that is not because I've chosen to adopt it as a world-view; it's because it accurately describes my current opinion about how the world works. It's just a label. If something changed my opinion tomorrow, the label would change. In that sense, I agree with you that the process of changing and improving how you see the world is important, and is independent of where you currently stand. But the process is meaningless if you disregard the places it takes you to. Even if you can never say that you've got the perfect answer, you can still say that your answer has improved over what it used to be.


You can read David's latest blog entries at: David McLeish.

It occured to me that this was quite a interesting discussion, and someone else might have a comment they wanted to add to it.

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