How did it get there?

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Remember THE ENEMIES OF REASON? With richard dawkins? He talks about how astrologers and psychics are full of crap, and they're destroying civilization. It's a TV documentary.

It's not particularly good. I mean, he does a good job of explaining why psychics and astrologers are full of crap, and he's not as screamy as penn and teller, but the idea that these people are destroying civilization seems a bit unlikely to me, and while i agree with dawkins's methods, i don't, of course, entirely agree with his conclusions. If, somehow, magically, shucksters and people who make money by exploiting incredibly idiotic crap didn't exist, you just move on to the next lowest layer of scum.

Used car salesmen, I suppose. It depends on where you draw the line between a scam and an ad, or between a delusion and a diversion. I mean, who does more damage, astrologers or burger king? And yet, I'd hardly say burger king is destroying civilization either. Did you watch that roundtable discussion between dawkins, hitchens....... uh....... who else...the black guy? with the funny name? No, it was dawkins, hitchens, dennett, and harris.

It's not a bad discussion, but the interesting thing to me is how sam harris seems to be kind of in a corner by himself through most of it, not disagreeing with the rest of them, but basically tired of the way they just keep rehashing the same crap they've been saying for years and years. Hitchens, dawkins, and dennett are these three old guys, and they do that thing old people do where they pick up a thread of conversation they're familiar with and launch into a speech they've made a million times. And a lot of the things they say are really rather disingenuous. They pretend not to understand the people who disagree with them, in order to gripe, and he calls them on it.

The whole thing the new atheists do where they blather on about the beauty of nature and science always seems rather flat to me. Knowing how a butterfly works, all the little bug organs and DNA and behavior patterns and evolutionary history doesn't make the butterfly prettier. It might make it more interesting, and it certainly is more useful, but to pretend the rational, scientific world view is a beautiful one is absurd, it's practically delusional. To see the world as it really is is something so painful that people actively avoid it. Reality is NOT, as the new atheists present it, a beautiful harmonious place comparable or even superior to the vague grand sketch of a cosmic theater presented by religion. It it something entirely different, and it is in many cases scary and unwelcome. Sometimes it can even drive people insane.

People didn't evolve to enjoy knowing how their digestive system works, or about the existence of germs, or having the biological roots of their happiness deconstructed. The point that should be made is not that these things are wonderful and lovely, it's that they're IMPORTANT. When people miss this distinction, it's troubling to me.

There's a difference between someone who is objective and someone who is simply right, someone who is in the camp of objectivity. There's a certain class of skeptics, atheists, etc, who tend to their beliefs in a very parochial way, who only think about things, and only enter the domain of discourse, to reaffirm for themselves the identity they have constructed as champions of objectivity and reason.

This is not to say that they're wrong, or even that their arguments are wrong. They may be entirely right, and they may argue using the most upstanding rhetoric. But sometimes the important issues only enter the argument in small ways. You may have a position which is ALMOST right, and there's just a hairline crack where it's wrong, a crack that becomes a vast fissure as it descends. In order to see these cracks, you have to be objective, and you have to be critical on a fundamental level, before being impassioned or indignant or smug, because if you set any belief or interest or opinion even SLIGHTLY further forward in your mental hierarchy than that critical edge, you will slide over the crack without ever noticing.

There's a difference between objectivity and science. Not just between objective thinking and the scientific status quo, but between objective critical thinking and SCIENTIFIC thinking.

Science is to critical thought as law is to ethics. Science is the critical thought of the society. As an individual, it is possible to KNOW something, objectively, rationally, that is scientifically impossible for you to prove. It doesn't even need to be something groundbreaking. You can know who committed a murder because you witnessed it, but have no way to prove your story is true.

But there are some who are more committed to science than they are to reason, and when the two diverge, they side with science. If they witness something that they cannot prove, they will rationalize it away, because in their mind, truth has become misidentified with provability.

My point is, when I see richard dawkins or whoever trumpeting the majesty of science or the wonder of math, it makes me say "Hmm". Eliezer yudkowsky does that trumpeting-the-wonder-of-science thing too, as well as the self-righteously-clamouring-about-incredibly-minor-issues thing. When I used the word "rationalized" just now, it brought to mind something he was blabbering on about one time about how "rationalizing" is irrational and thus the word SHOULD BE BANNED OMFG!!! Actually that may have been someone else. if so, I apologize.