Friday, 5 August 2011

Life, the Universe etc, part 2

Judging by the response to the last posting I've clearly failed to make myself understood.
I really didn't want to get into the whole atheism vs religion debate. I know it's very popular but I think it's redundant. Frankly I'm sick of it. But I was trying to say something else...

What was I trying to say?
Actually I think I was trying to say why I think it's redundant.
In my experience these discussions seem to begin with someone claiming that such and such a thing cannot be explained by science, and it's not just the existence of God. People believe in ghosts and like to recount their bizarre experiences, and invariably (in the movies at any rate) the man says "There must be a rational explanation!" and the batty old woman gives him a look that says "There are more things in heaven and earth Sunshine..."
Many people believe that each of us is born with some sort of non-material soul or spirit that is our essence and gives us our basic personality, and possibly our conscience. Most people I would think, believe that there is some sort of existence after death, either in an afterlife or in another life. Some people believe that the good and bad things we do come back to reward or punish us according to some sort of cosmic reckoning, in this life or the next. A lot of people seem to think there's no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.
Am I alone in finding all this a bit weird? Maybe I'm missing something.

My first thought is that when people explain these beliefs they put a lot of trust in their Intuitions or Instincts. Basically, if they Feel something very strongly to be true then they feel it must be true, unlike the rather abstruse arguments of science and reason which can be very hard to get a handle on. (I genuinely sympathise, having tried and failed to become a professional scientist.) By comparison, the immediate experience of just realising that something is simply True is incredibly powerful.
I'm not just saying this as an outsider. I was converted to Christianity when I was a teenager. I can't remember what he said - the chap who converted me (Hi Ralph) but I do remember that ecstatic feeling of 'Of course! It's so obvious...' that I had for a while there. (I also remember the deep distress I felt at the Hove Town Hall prayer meeting - everybody up and dancing and speaking in tongues, when it became obvious that God wasn't talking to me.)
I also took a keen interest in Astrology for a while there. My mum was doing a course and I thought it was interesting and it really didn't occur to me to wonder if it actually made any sense. I had my horoscope done and lo and behold, there seemed to be some truth in it! (Plus it was an excellent way of getting into conversations with girls.)
I used to go to a homoeopath too, for my allergies. I was aware at the time that my body's responses seemed rather unpredictable but it didn't occur to me at the time to wonder if it was any more or less predictable with the homoeopathy. Sometimes it seemed to be working, but it didn't occur to me that my symptoms flared up irregularly anyway. I just went along with it, because a lot of my friends swore by it. I didn't consciously form a belief in homoeopathy. I just didn't really question it.

So I'm no stranger to credulity. I know what it's like. I still touch wood whenever I tell someone things are going well, because, well, why not? (If the custom was to touch shit I might not be quite so superstitious.)
The trouble is, this trust in personal experience is a major problem. I understand that there are all sorts of problems with impersonal 'objective' experience (as in science), but we massively underestimate the fallibility of our own personal subjective experience. There are several levels to this.
Anyone who understands anything at all about neurology will know that it's extraordinary that we manage to maintain any sort of coherent view of the world at all, and I'm not talking about brain damage here - I'm talking about normal brain function. We make stuff up all the time to fit our preconceived notions. We ignore stuff all the time and think we remember things as having happened that didn't - things we were told happened, or things we dreamed. My mother insists I took her advice and hit a bully at school when I 'know' I never did. She's absolutely sure it happened, because she remembers it, whereas I'm only 70% sure it didn't, which puts me at a disadvantage, but what I do know is that she can't possibly be that sure.
On top of all this there's all sorts of psychology involved. My mum probably really wants to believe that I took her advice (Bullies are just cowards really. All you have to do is stand up to them) and proved that I wasn't a complete weed after all. It's a nice story, but I really don't think it ever happened.
Then there are simple failures to think clearly. Understanding probability is the obvious one.
An Australian woman I once knew told me how extraordinary it was that she had met some neighbours of hers at Anapurna Base Camp. 'What are the chances?' she said. Uncanny. Except she forgot to factor in all the other possibly millions of people she'd encountered on her travels (all through Thailand, India and Europe) who she didn't know, and all the other people travelling with her who didn't meet anyone they knew at all. Given the numbers, the chances that an Australian will meet someone they know somewhere on their travels are practically 100%. Coincidences can be inevitable and meaningless.*

So we're fallible. Most of us I guess sort of accept this, and yet some of us are prepared to stand up and say that God exists, or that we have souls, or that there's an afterlife, or that we'll all ultimately get what we deserve.They have these deep intuitions. The religious typically get it through reading scriptures and/or contemplation or prayer, but I've known enough people of a sort of indeterminate spirituality of no fixed religion who make similar claims, who just seem to think they can just know that sort of stuff, just by, you know, sitting down and thinking about it. Why on earth, they ask, would that not work? I think they don't perhaps appreciate the magnitude of the things they are claiming to know. The existence of God is about the force behind the entire universe. And they imagine they can have some meaningful comprehension of that simply by sitting on a mountain, or by repeating something over and over, or by smoking dope.
Is it just me or does that seem preposterous? I honestly don't get it.
Tell me, genuinely. I really want to know. What is going on?
I'm certainly not saying that science or reason can step in and do it better. Science is good at mundane practical stuff, and it can extrapolate, to some extent, to the cosmic and the subatomic, but putting that on one side, how can anyone even begin to imagine that our limited, biased, flawed minds can understand anything about the ultimate nature of life, the universe and all that, just by contemplation? Why on earth would so many of us assume that? I can't help feeling there's a kind of arrogance to it.

So (nearly there) this is my basic question. Why, when we come up against this argument about the existence of God do we sceptics enter into a complex defence of evolution or cosmology or whatever, when the alternative hypothesis is simply nowhere? There's nothing to argue about. People are welcome to believe in all that stuff about God and so forth but let's not pretend that it is in any way a well-founded belief. It just comes down to what we happen to feel like (in a very deep sort of way admittedly) but there's no justification for imagining that these beliefs have any greater significance than that.
Does that make my position any clearer?

* For anybody who's interested in pursuing the subject of all the myriad ways we can't know for sure all the things we'd like to think we know, I can recommend nothing better than Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz


Vincent said...

I never felt your position was unclear, Steve! I just feel that there is more to life.

And I'm going to explore that with one or two others who may hold similar positions to yourself, and our investigation may get put into a book, whose theme will be something like "Is there more ...?"

I shall acknowledge your role in inspiring it!

Steve Law said...

More to life than what?

Steve Law said...

Sorry - just to pre-empt you.
I'm actually not sure i could cope with 'more'. Life for me has always been so overwhelmingly full and extraordinary (in both beautiful and scary ways) - It's been more than enough frankly. I've never felt the need to invent more.

Vincent said...

Sorry about the poor communication. I didn't mean more to life than we have known. I mean more to life than is expressible in the realm of reasonable discourse. Perhaps we will never be able to cross this gulf in communication, you and I!

Steve Law said...

Oh God, in that case of course there's more. I would never hope to express everything, or even most things in "reasonable discourse". How boring that would be.

The posting though is about belief. My questions are genuine, not rhetorical. So many otherwise intelligent people seem to be convinced of so many things that seem utterly without foundation – I really don’t understand what’s going on.
It has been suggested that ‘belief’ is hard-wired into the human brain (of some of us at least.) Perhaps that’s all there is to it.