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Sunday, 25 July 2010

On The Complexities of Modern Atheistic Views (Part ~1)

Abstract: Modern Atheism is rooted in Enlightenment values, though man-on-the-street Atheist is only dimly aware of what these are..... Science is erroneously presented as a united front and sure-handed authority on everything when that’s not quite true..... Accounts of the mechanics of “trees” do not tell us what we’re supposed to make of "the wood”..... Epicurus was "not interested" in Gods.....

We cannot objectively apply moral value to rationality..... The Terminator is a metaphor for call centres.....

I have tagged myself as “Atheist”, “Nihilist” and “Militant Agnostic” but all are misleading..... The question “What is going on?” is unanswerable..... I talk about Nietzsche too much, like some kind of philosophical tourettes..... The Black & Decker Linefiner will liberate our future.....


I am clearly an Atheist, though I rarely apply that label to myself. Because I can’t say my ontology (my view of what IS) is defined by whether there are Gods or not (by Zeus! what the Holy Father Abraham do we really even mean by “God” in a philosophical context? That concept is by no means standardised or nailed down – another discussion for another time) and in applying the label “Atheist” these days you are aligning yourself with a particular view which is not quite me: i.e. a faith in the safe, secure hands of the scientific world view and the progress of humanity towards utopian godhood. Whilst I clearly do take a broadly scientific world view (largely because it would seem to me mule-headed c***ishness to the point of pathology to deny the rationale behind the most basic scientific conclusions) I have too much training in the history of scientific methodology, and the philosophy of knowledge and truth, to view everything scientific as safe and secure.

In the media “science” is all too often presented as a consistent, united front, with the conclusions of scientific research presented as certainties, which you – yes you, you dancing ass! (Ok, maybe not you, dear reader, but most man-on-the-street peasant folk) – lap up without question. But this is not how it is. The scientific world is a raging hotbed (a very polite and professionally restrained raging hotbed, but a raging hotbed nonetheless) of conflicting schools of thought, theories, convictions, agendas, egos and reputations; of specialist areas that barely understand what each other are doing, let alone attempt to reconcile their disparate findings with one another. And conclusions presented are not the same as the raw data – conclusions are the raw-data-findings of a study after interpretation has been added – i.e. put together with other background knowledge and spun in a way to make it meaningful and applicable to other... “stuff”. Furthermore, very few experiments are perfect, in that there is often room for doubt that one is really measuring exactly what one set out to measure, that there might not be some “extraneous variables” affecting your results that you hadn’t thought of. And, when talking about broad conclusions, there is always a slight bias skew in the agenda behind the design of the experiment in the first place; that you decided to look at this rather than this or this – why are you doing this research? Is it really for simple, dry, open-minded truth-gathering curiosity? No, it’s because you wanted to finally K.O. the idea that IQ could be purely genetic... or you wanted to create a man-made fibre that can lift Hawaii on a spider-web-thin thread... or you wanted to show that the theory you’ve devoted the last thirty years of your life to is ok, dammit, and those pesky island hobbits are not a new species of human at all... This is how science works, and, actually, what is so good about it – it is pragmatic, focussed, directed, and develops through competition of people and ideas, peer review. But that means we have a skewed, oddly weighted, and constantly revisable set of information to deal with if we are going to try to draw broad conclusions about life in general. No individual research aims to do this – science is about how the trees work, not what we’re supposed to make of the whole wood.

Whether you realise it or not, as a standard modern Atheist you are necessarily buying into Enlightenment values – the primacy of logic and rationality above all else, the fundamental goodness of logical, rational, systematic thought and the liberation and salvation of mankind that it will effect. The Enlightenment is the label historians give to the explosion in scholarship, intellectual, scientific and cultural pursuits that happened in the West in the 18th century. The fallout from this had a massive sea-change effect on Western society and set in motion a transformation that is still on-going today. The fact that many Western societies, whatever their tired traditions and affectations of multi-faith acceptance are, consider themselves secular (i.e. basically a-religious) is a direct effect of this. No random hoon would casually consider themselves an Atheist before the Enlightenment – that was a weird, radical, cultish, metaphysical position to take, rooted in obscure esoteric philosophy, and besides it didn’t mean the same thing as it does today. Epicurus, an ancient Greek, for example, was an Atheist not because he didn’t believe in the Gods per se, but because he figured if they did exist their concerns would be so utterly divorced from ours, our lives so utterly inconsequential to them, that any meaningful communication with them was impossible and pointless. So forget about them. On the other hand, when Abraham’s faith is tested, when he takes his firstborn Isaac up the hill to sacrifice, it’s not his “belief whether God exists or not” that is being questioned – the guy is talking to Him. No – what “faith” means here is whether Abraham believes that he should obey God, that God has humanity’s best interests at heart, that God is really the true authority Abraham should be bowing down to. That God(s) existed was a given – practically no-one doubted this in antiquity. But to be an Atheist today is to dig all that “faith in the primacy of rationality” stuff that the Enlightenment offered, and to be impressed with the fruits produced by it, the transformative effect on human society that it’s had. It is very tempting to say that if you don’t dig all that maybe you should GTFO of modern society and go and live in a candle-lit hut. At least the Amish have the guts to follow the strength of their convictions in that respect.

I clearly do buy into Enlightenment values to a massive degree – though it is a quite post-modernist warped version that has filtered down to me. I’m by no means convinced that we can ultimately attach a definitive value to human progress, or that it is necessarily going anywhere. For example the fundamental “goodness” of logic and rationality, their “liberating” effect on humanity – logic and rationality are as likely to be used for soulless reductionism, narrow standardisation and systematisation of life, manipulation, control and tyranny: Both the politics and technology that made Stalin’s reign possible are direct results of the application of Enlightenment rationality; as is the atomic bomb; as is mass-pollution planet-rape by multi-nationals; and, ok, not quite as serious, but still horrible: Battery-hen farming. Or call-centres. Or systematic technology-aided genocide (that one is bit more serious). These are examples of “instrumental rationality”, where all of life and the world is rationalised as a set instruments to be used, instrumentally, towards some specific end. “Instrumental rationality” is personified in the fear-of-technological-progress-orgy that is The Terminator – its “rational” narrow-focus cannot be “reasoned” with (the end goal is self-justifying and all that matters) and it “absolutely will not stop”. If that sounds like the management at the call-centre I once worked at, it is no co-incidence. But this stuff is a result of Enlightenment values playing out, as much as any cure for cancer or tolerant humanitarian peacenik vibes. Which is not to say Enlightenment values are bad (grr!), but they are not uncompromisingly good, golden, utopian, and wonderful either. Rationality is simply a tool. I may be tempted to harp on about the "goodness" of my Black & Decker Linefiner, and how it is going to liberate our future, when I first get it and I’m still all excited. But I could just as easily use it to build a gas chamber or mutilate fluffy rodents as make a nice set of functional shelves. In fact applying moral values to the progress of rationality and technology is a bankrupt exercise – moral values are not factual and objective. We can’t say this progress is good or bad, it just is. It’s simply a transformation, an increase in the complexity and power of our species, and where it’s headed, who knows?

So. I sometimes call myself a Nihilist, but I don’t really mean it. Besides, the term is misleading – people normally take it to mean 1) I am some kind of decadent, immoral, self-destructive time-bomb of a human being, that took all that late-70’s punk fashion-pose guff a little too seriously; or 2) I sit in my Spartan hovel staring blankly at the paint peeling off the bare walls and bewailing the meaninglessness of existence, probably in black and white photography, and probably in Swedish. Neither of these is true. Ok, the latter is slightly true. But my moroseness is probably about some girl or another – I don’t really have a problem with the meaninglessness of existence, that’s fine by me. Nobody, in reality, can actually be a Nihilist. Nihilism means no belief in any value system whatsoever, and everyone has a value system – in the sense of valuing some things over other things – it’s kind of necessary to living. Attaining true Nihilism would result in death within 24 hours, one would suspect. Nietzsche is often said to be a Nihilist, but this is a confusion – his life-long philosophical project was dealing with the impending onset of Nihilism, which he saw as a given, given how Enlightenment values would play out. They would destroy our previous value systems (i.e. religious values), undermining them and making them untenable by revealing them to be simply necessary myths and fictions. This would leave us with a void that needed to be filled, like having a lover who has just moved out, taking all the furniture. We would be left hollow and directionless, and probably spend our time splashing out on creature comforts, getting make-overs and partying with strangers to try and distract ourselves from the weeping of our souls in the small hours of the night. He was kind of right, that’s kind of what did happen, except that he didn’t see the reactionary resurgence in literalist, fundamentalist religion (fleeing doormat-style back to your old lover) or the kind of progressive, broad-minded, flexible mutations in faith that would occur to accommodate the progress of knowledge (staying friends with your ex... maybe?). But Nietzsche was all about the idea that this hollow void, this Nihilism, was simply a transitionary phase, a dithering despair caused by not knowing which way to turn now, and he was adamant that if we really looked into to void, the worst-case scenario, we would see nothing was necessarily as bad as we thought it was and we could move beyond our Nihilistic fug and into something new. Trouble is, most people are too scared to do this. Oh well, eh?

I have also called myself a “Militant Agnostic”, though this isn’t quite true either, since I have very definite views on what kind of deity doesn’t exist, what definition of “God” simply does not make sense. What I mean by “Militant Agnostic” is that I am utterly convinced that, not just me, but no f***er at all, really knows what, fundamentally, is going on. The question of what is going on, y’know, like, here, now and everywhere, all the time, is pretty damn fundamental. What exactly is going on, and what exactly am I? That’s a question I’ve been trying to find out more about since I became sentient, and I’ve never received a satisfactory answer. I don’t believe anyone has, but most people somewhere along the line seem to have quickly decided it was not worth pursuing much and either settled for some inadequate fudge that actually answers very little, or just ignored the question altogether. I find this incomprehensibly, pathologically insane, but I know I am in a minority. Most people simply don’t see the point in asking that kind of stuff, and I guess, if I’m honest, I can respect that – while it’s the reason I got interested in philosophy in the first place, philosophy does not provide any answers either, though the territory you explore, if you look in the right places, gives you a much better handle on the complexities of our basic situation. I no longer think that question is answerable – not just because of lack of information or reasoning ability, but because I can’t imagine what an answer to it would even look like, let alone one that would be sufficient, satisfactory or make sense. No amount of scientific knowledge about the mechanics of things will do this justice. And that is an assertion I will explore in successive parts. Brace yourselves, I can’t promise this will be “fun”...

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