Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Road Ahead (Part Two)

Further to my last piece on the intersection of religion and morality, I want to talk about the intersection of religion and intelligence. A lot of New Atheists are pretty derisive when it comes to the beliefs of the religious - a fair bit of mocking goes on, rightly pointing out the ridiculousness of some of the beliefs, but then extending this by laughing at the believers as though they were stupid, ignorant children.

In response, it is often pointed out how many brilliantly intelligent people are in some way religious - even scientists, a fact which is used specifically to undermine the New Atheist claim that the God Hypothesis is a scientific theory that holds no water. In point of fact, both these attitudes are wrong because they misunderstand the intellectual terrain being traversed.

These people see it like this: Stephen Hawking, say, or maybe an equivalent theologian, is the top of the peak - the Mt Everest of the intellectual landscape. He’s at the far right of the bell curve, therefore he is the standard against which intelligence should be judged. His intelligence is not really seen as a relative thing: because he is so much smarter than the people in question, he is labelled in the brain as “smart” - as an absolute, not a relative quality. Therefore, the things he does are the things that intelligent beings do.

In reality, the situation is more like this: Stephen Hawking is a chimpanzee who has figured out how to fish termites out of a mound more effectively than anyone else in his tribe. He’s less the peak of Mt Everest than a coral reef, slightly above the seabed. Sure, he’s the smartest, but are you really going to take his word for everything? Is it really sensible to judge the concept of intelligence as a whole by his benchmark?

The arrogant view undergirding both sides (falsely justified by either creationism or evolution or whatever else fits their preconceptions) is that humans are the top of the world, a miracle of intelligence, a wonder of ingenuity and adaptability. And sure, at a glance, when you compare us with the other animals on this planet, we are. But the thing is, we’re not being judged against the slap-bang intelligences of the animal kingdom - we’re not being graded on a curve at all. As we face the challenges the universe throws at us, we’re being graded in absolute terms – though most of humanity’s current problems could probably be solved if we would just get our shit together, there is a very real chance that we will one day come up against a problem that we are flat-out not smart enough to solve.

We’re riddled with cognitive biases. Our senses lie to us constantly. What seem like perfect, untouched memories are in fact constantly being altered and misremembered. Indeed – we forget things all the time without having much control over what we do and do not retain. We reason incorrectly. We do things that are diametrically opposed to our goals, both stated and innate – and those goals often conflict with each other. In short, the more you learn about human psychology, the more you realise how really fucking stupid we are. It’s just that some of us, like Stephen Hawking, are slightly less stupid than the rest of us.

It’s not all nihilistic and gloomy, though. To borrow a metaphor, if you know how a lens is flawed, you can compensate and get a clearer picture – and one of the many things our brains are smart enough to do is invent tools to investigate this lens. Science and logic are chief among them – so the more you learn about logical fallacies, the more you learn about how your brain twists the world, the better you can compensate.

So, yes - for the many reasons that have been outlined by people over the years, a small percentage of which I’ve made reference to on this blog, the God Hypothesis is an untenable one. The idea that religion is the source of morality has the same holes shot through it. Religion is wrong - don’t mistake my point about human fallibility for a culturally relativistic argument that suggests that all ideas are equal.

All I’m saying is, the atheist who mocks the believer is like a six-year-old who mocks a five-year-old for not being able to spell as well as him. Sure, technically he’s right, but he’s still far too ignorant to justify the arrogance he’s showing. He’s still got so much to learn - and after we shed our childish notions of religion we will still have a lot of other biases and wrongheadedness to get rid of.

Like I said yesterday, atheism is just the beginning. And we have one hell of a long road ahead of us.

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