Monday, June 24, 2013

Reason is what is left.

There is a problem with unconstrained human thought that dogmatism is fairly good at correcting over the short run: Sensible, coherent, valid arguments are far more difficult to construct than nonsense, but proper reason is often required in response to bad arguments. The result is that it is easily possible to spend all of one's energy debunking bogus critiques of good works, essentially spinning one's intellectual wheels in an unfathomable quagmire of ignorance or even dishonesty. This is one of the huge benefits of dogmatic thinking- It quashes the spread of heretical ideas and even their formulation in the minds of its subscribers. No lay Catholic need waste time grappling with the intellectual difficulties of salvation and damnation; they already know that the Church is guaranteed to be right.

Those of us who wish to forge ahead into the intellectual frontier are then deprived of the protected status afforded established religions and other doctrines. The result is the production of and response to articles such as "Christopher Hitchens' lies do atheism no favors" by Curtis White. I hesitate to attach adjectives to pieces like this unless they apply to the text as a whole so, while parts may be dishonest or ignorant*, I can't call it anything but depressing. The obviously interested and engaged White is so far off the mark that it enters the realm of things which make the aforementioned unfathomability of the pseudo-intellectual muck readily apparent. From a list of anecdotes as part of his response to Hitchens' so-called anecdotal God Is Not Great, to what seems like an out of hand rejection of the physical manifestation of conscience in the brain**, to a rather obvious straw man argument in which White essentially converts Hitchens' thesis from "religion poisons everything" to "only religion poisons anything".

The most troubling of White's claims is that Hitchens isn't clear as to what he means by the term reason. This is depressing both in that it is a wearyingly semantic argument and that, in full, it is so completely incoherent and yet so persistently used as an excuse to hold a stupid position when no other reason exists. The rest of White's particular flavor of spittle in this direction is along the lines of accusing Hitchens of not examining his rejection of non-reason and also of not acknowledging "the spiritual and anti-rational contributions of 19th-and 20th-century literature and philosophy[.]"

To address the first objection, what Hitchens means by reason is left unexplored because he really does mean it in the simple, everyday sense (Hitch's talents were wasted on such banalities). When searching for an answer to a question, always choose the one that, through evidence and logical conclusions, has the highest probability of being correct, not the one that you feel the best about, not the one you think will have the best consequences if it were true, and definitely not the one that you know isn't true. After formulating all the possible candidates for the truth, reason is the remainder when doubt is properly applied. The characteristic of reason which makes it unique among any other mode of thought is recursion; reason can be applied to itself in order to ensure self consistency and to improve its methods. If we were to find that in some cases, "If A then B, A, therefore B" is not valid, we would have to incorporate those cases into reason itself.

Now, as for the second point of dispute, how exactly does White intend to evaluate the contributions mentioned in the latter? One would expect reason to play a prominent role, therefore illuminating that when contributions come from non-rational sources, their value is contained entirely within those sections of the manuscript which align themselves with reason. Any sermon given is an implicit acknowledgement of this fact; the verses chosen are taken from the subset of verses which contain reason. Rarely does one have need for the commandment to kill all the men, boys, and deflowered women of another tribe but to keep the virgins for yourselves. It is only if reason is not unique among our tools to access truth that this is an acceptable moral obligation placed upon a righteous nation by a benevolent God (this was what Hitchens meant by religion poisoning even human decency). What's more, only through reason are we able to dissolve away the violent, insular, ignorant residue of a religion's primeval origin and extract any useful moral teachings from its brittle manuscripts.

Reason is not just one of many modes of seeking the truth, it is what is left when doubt is cast on the lot of them. It is not performed at zero cost, however, and for the conversation about truth and morality to move forward at the rate we'd all like to see, a bit more introspection is required of all of us as we blaze our own trails through the intellectual frontier, or else we'll all be so busy slogging through everyone else's muck we'll hardly make any progress at all.

* Sam Harris pointed out in a Facebook post that White claims that Hitchens never mentions a book about secular Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor in trying to paint Hitchens as ignorant and dismissive of Eastern religions. If White had done the research he claims wasn't in God Is Not Great, he would have noticed that Hitchens not only read the book but endorsed it. This being because the book is essentially misusing the word religion when discussing its philosophy, which contains no dogma, karma, or reincarnation whatsoever, and focuses on reason and evidence as sources of knowledge.

** In later reference to this, White apparently makes the hilariously bold claim that because global political and social phenomenon like war and capitalism are approved of by the (largely religious) masses, there is reason to suspect that conscience does not exist innately in the brain of a primate evolved under the pressures of societies numbering less than about 100 individuals each on the African Savannah, and that it is instead irrationally implanted by religious belief.