November 21st, 2006


on reason as panacea

Note to self: I wish I could be more careful with the use of universals, such as words with a- or pan- as prefixes.

There's also been a huge gap in my usage of my journal, which I hope will cease shortly. I've been very busy consumed with the issues of relocation. I don't ordinarily post from work, either, but I'm a little bored right now and on lunch break.

I've noticed a shift of sorts in atheist speakers to conflate the actions of suicide bombers with religion, more particularly directed against religions which believe in an afterlife (one hopes this is the extent of the attack, though many seem to lack distinction), as though the solution to suicide bombings is reason. (There's a parallel tendency to Christian description of Islamic suicide bombers, but that's not important to my point) I've been pondering this connection for quite some time, more pointedly since the first couple episodes of BSG this season. A little bit of research over the last few months or so hasn't turned up a particularly good citable source one way or the other, but it is my impression that suicide bombings happened occassionally among the anarchist movement of the late 19th century- and that movement was not motivated by religious fervor or a promise of socialist babes in the hereafter (and could be deemed atheist, even).

I've also noticed a certain level of ad-hominem attack behavior to the apparently irrational, of which of late I am focusing on the comment here on the "news story" of a cat "giving birth to puppies". (I could target to criticize Randi or Shermer or Dawkins or the like in parallel form but choose not to do so here for time's sake). Reality aside, let's look at the reasoning process used by the Brazilian couple:

1: Pregnant cat. 2: Time passes. 3: Non-pregnant cat nursing puppies.

Compare this with the argument used by the great grandfather of science and hero of reason, Aristotle, to justify what is now the highly discredited theory of spontaneous generation:

1: Fresh meat. 2: Time passes. 3: Rotting meat covered in maggots.

In both cases, the problem is with ceteris paribus in step two- all other variables are not controlled. It is insanely difficult to do step two well, and in the case of modern science, many experiments, especially those studying quantum phenomena, can't discuss, control, or even observe step 2 to ensure this.

I feel vaguely offended that the proposed remedy for this is to do genetic testing! First of all, everyone "knows" that a child will have the same number of chromosomes as its parent, so the assumption is that if the offsping have the same number of chromosomes (except when they dont- as in the case of polyploidy!) as a cat, then they are cats. The act of genetic testing simply introduces too many opportunities for alternative explanation- if the animals are doglike, the spermist homunculus argument could be made (again, assuming we are arguing based upon what is observed, not what is known by authority). The fact is, simple reason and what the couple believes to be diligent observation is not sufficient- you have to have a lot of experience (and this whole affair is only news because people like to look down their noses at the "stupid") to know that an animal who loses their offspring may adopt other species' offspring as their own. Stating anything, even this prior sentence, from a position of authority is not a valid teaching technique. Even more so, invoking a procedure which can only be performed by an expert in the field and is thus unverifiable by the aforementioned couple is tantamount to invoking deus ex machina- "We put the blood in the machine, and number x mans you are wrong, and number y means we are right". Do they weigh less than a duck? What "American God" is this?

I know and understand fairly well the genetic arguments of change over time and evolution, so I can accept that different animals have wildly different numbers of chromosomes even though it's a long line of begats on the the evolutionary tree. But think for yourselves- has this ever bothered you? The fact that animals up and down the family tree have wildly varying numbers of chromosomes? That if they all have common progenitors, why isn't the number of chromosomes the same or predictable or whatever?

Plato argued against there being a "beginning" to the universe quite compellingly, and yet we "know" there was a big bang. The power of reason and observation of any single being is limited- at some point, we drift from what we can directly know into what we accept as true because we believe outside authority. This is the basis/beginning of theism- and whether we crown an ineffable being in such a role, or Socrates (irony intended), the tendency to do this is nearly irresistable.

My point is that people don't always need a good reason to do the things they do, even self-destructively. They just need good enough reason for them. Reason, with a capital R, is just a highly benighted form of the same "reason" which drives all people. There's probably good "reason" to prefer the highly scientific worldview presented by many atheists, but in the end, it's not a replacement for the heuristic process we actually follow. We have other, non-Reason driven motives, such as Beauty, or Goodness, or Pleasure, or Economy.

I'm not trying to justify intelligent design, nor do I feel it is deserving of considered reasoning or equal time or whatever. Evolution is really solidly put together, and is worthy of being "taught". BUT: the process of teaching is not easily done, and often resorts to position of authority to do so. One must recognize that the position of authority is, ironically, a position of great weakness, and it must be avoided if at all possible.