Monday, 21 January 2013

Dawkin's Atheist Fundamentalism Is Embarassing

I like trying to understand things - in the sense of considering how coherent thinking can be accomplished or developed or progressed. Where is our thinking coherent and where is it inconsistent? What is useful about it? What is not useful? What could it be used for?

What are we not yet thinking? Perhaps we can hope faintly that taking the thinking that has been done up to now and building on it could make something better.

One of the many mistakes Dawkins makes is thinking that "Atheism" is somehow opposite to "Belief".

Whereas in fact Atheism and Religious Believers are really just 2 kinds of believers... they both believe stuff. It may well be that one kind of believer has a bigger goody-bag than the other (arising by virtue of their set of beliefs) - I'm not going to argue about that right now.

But I don't think Atheists should be allowed to get away with the nutty notion that they don't have any beliefs at all.

Both Atheists and Religious Believers are kinds of what we could probably call "Positionalists" ... which is to say they speak on top of a structure of assumption that there is something fixed or fixable that can be said about the Mystery.

I don't think the idea that Atheists and Religious Believers are two kinds of "positionalists" is a hypothesis... I think it is more like a poem or a painting. I don't intend to say some "true description of some fact about the world". But rather I am mean to paint a picture of the world that is appealing or entertaining or beautiful enough that it gets repeated.

Let's hear from Richard Rorty about the perils of capitalizing the word Truth...
"We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations... The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.

The fact that Newton's vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle's does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian... The world DOES NOT SPEAK. Only we do that.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own - unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own. If we cease to attempt to make sense of the idea of such a nonhuman language, we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence true with the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called "facts".

But if one clings to the notion of self-subsistent facts, it is easy to start capitalizing the word "truth" and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God's project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail."
Richard Rorty, "Contingency Irony Solidarity"

So the irony is that Atheists like Dawkins, with their insistence on thingifying the world, are actually doing more to keep alive the legacy of pre-rational dogma, now wearing the clothes of rationalism, than the pre-rational religions they are seeking to liberate us from.

Atheism is a description "from the outside" applied by a language that takes theism as a starting point ... as opposed to what it looks like having an absence of belief "from the inside".

Interestingly enough, Dawkin's reductionism precisely does not allow for the existence of any views from the inside looking out.

Just as an example, one way (one fairly bad way) we could characterize god would be as a view from the inside looking out, contrasted with the view from the outside looking in... the one that western science is really good at!

Coming back to the question of what an atheist is or isn't, I suppose my thought was that Dawkins-infected people like to say things like "atheism is an absence of belief rather than the existence of any"... and I tend to think that is mostly a self-deception. Atheism (A-god-ism) exists as a reaction to godism. These are effectively two sides of the same coin. Which was the thing I was pointing out. Action and reaction.

If a person is a scientist, they don't need to say they are an atheist. They could just say "I'm a scientist". But lots of Dawkins-infected people like to say Atheist and Scientist like these are two words for the same thing.

Ken Wilber has written a lot of books that point out how a scientific methodology can be applied to the internal first person I and We realms just as it can to the external It and Its realms.

So science quite apart from not being the opposite of god, may turn out to be the most viable route to illuminating the nature of god - or even better providing access to god.

Hi, Andrew - just for clarity here - are you saying truth doesn't exist without language?

If so i'm tempted to disagree: surely x is x and not not x wether language exists or not...?

Yes, I think I am saying truth does not exist without language, or at least I was quoting Richard Rorty, and Rorty was saying that... He is saying truth does not exist without language because only descriptions of the world can be true or false. For example, you don't say of a chair "this chair is true"... "this chair is false" ... you only say that about descriptions of the world.

The world does not present itself to us in some already-pre-described state. The world presents itself to us in a state which does not have built-in descriptions. Human beings meet this world with our descriptions of it, some of which others of us may agree to be "true" descriptions, and some of which others of us may say are "false"... But the point is that none of the language that we use is "already out there in the world", just waiting for us to discover it.

This is not to say that the world itself is not out there (which is a common mis-interpretation of Rorty). Rorty is not proposing any kind of slide into nihilism or relativism or chaos. He is not saying that there is no world out there to be described. Only that, while the world presents itself to us in a state that is not of our own design, the languages that we speak are human creations. The world does not present itself to us in "sentence-shaped chunks called facts".

I'll try to use your language if I can, although I'm not exactly sure how it maps on, but something like: in "x is x and not not x", the world only contains x in the first place, if you language contains x.

Although it is slightly an aside, the whole technology of semantic search engines have made it clear that you don't need to know anything about the world as such, but instead you only need have analysis rules for the grammar of a language, to be able to provide pretty good answers to just about any question about the world that anyone cares to ask you. The reason this works is because our grammar provides us with what Kenneth Burke called a "terministic screen".

The wider context I was trying to think towards was an access to a relationship with the mystery that allows it to be itself. It has seemed to me for a long time now that we have almost no capacity for allowing the mystery to be itself. All our attempts to name it, dismiss it, deny it, understand it, appreciate it, dodge it, forget about it, laugh at it etc. etc. don't allow it to be itself.

We need a way of thinking about the mystery which confronts the void in all its voidness. Even saying it is unknowable starts to become an answer, and so dulls its edge. What relationship with the mystery allows it to be itself?

The mystery is unknowable, but also it is not even unknowable.

But the truth of a statement is dependent (and therefore based) on the truth out there in the world: a chair is a chair and not not a chair wether we can describe it with language or not.

If the world contains a chair the existence of the chair is true without the need for a language to describe it.

The statement: "the world only contains x in the first place, if you language contains x." also can't be true because it means we must have a word for an item before we knew of its existence...

We didn't have the word 'dog' before we had actually dogs and, further more, if dogs existed in another universe that lacked language the dogs existence would still be true.
In order to see the world in the way that Rorty is recommending, you could try the following question.

Here's the question: What things exist in the world, for which we do not have any language that describes them?

Something you may notice about the category of "things for which we don't have any language" is that there aren't any things in this category.

I think Rorty is saying is that this ought to make us suspicious!

Here is possibly a fuller answer that Rorty might have given himself. (Again from "Contingency, Irony, Solidarity").
"This conflation [between our language and our world] is facilitated by confining attention to single sentences as opposed to vocabularies. For we often let the world decide the competition between alternative sentences (e.g between "Red wins" and "Black wins" or between "The butler dit it" and "The doctor did it").

In such cases, it is easy to run together the fact that world contains the causes of our being justified in holding a belief with the claim that some non-linguistic state of the world is itself an example of truth, or that some such state "makes a belief true" by "corresponding" to it.

But it is not so easy when we turn from individual sentences to vocabularies as wholes. When we conside examples of alternative language games - the vocabulary of Saint Paul versus Freud's, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden - it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them.

When the notion of "description of the world" is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to the language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense.

It becomes hard to think that that vocabulary is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it.

Attention (of the sort fostered by intellectual historians like Thomas Kuhn and Quentin Skinner) to the vocabularies in which sentences are formulated, rather than to individual sentences, makes us realize, for example, that the fact that Newton's vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle's does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak. Only we do that."