August 25, 2009

So Gog & Magog walk into a bar...

I caught the segment on Real Time with Bill Maher Friday night where Sam Harris, arch-atheist and general nemesis of the Pious Majority, talked calmly to Bill about his non-belief. Harris is the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, two of the seminal texts of the New Atheism movement (of which Maher himself, and such writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might also be called leaders).

Harris declines to call himself an "atheist," because he contends atheism is a concept without any content. Rather (though he didn't say it in exactly these words), a lack of belief in religious ideas about gods and whatnot flows naturally from a more general approach to epistemology. We don't, for example, call someone who doesn't believe in astrology an "a-astrologist" (however impossible it might be to pronounce such a term); we're content with the idea that astrology is a superstition (the astronomical silliness of which has been demonstrated by such thinkers as Isaac Asimov), and that no "counter" term is needed for those who don't believe it. It's only the more general acceptance of organized religion (particularly Christianity in this country, where some 80% of the population believe in myths such as the Second Coming) that gives rise to a special name for not buying into a general delusion.

As a prosaic example of how such thinking works, which I'm making up right now: suppose you become intensely interested in the phenomenon of disappearing socks. I've given this matter some thought from time to time, and even done some research. You've probably noticed the problem: over the course of many laundries, you find yourself with increasing numbers of unmatched socks. One reasonable explanation is that socks are among the smaller items routinely washed in washing machines, and they find their way into the drainage hose in the wash tub and disappear. Or they become trapped under the agitator. Or static cling conceals them (after drying) in the sleeves and pant legs of other clothing where they are lost. Of course, one can check out the plausibility of these theses by examining the washing machine to see whether the drainage aperture would permit this, lifting the agitator, and other tests.

A person inclined to superstition might explain the riddle by reference to a "Sock Gremlin" that steals socks and then would defy you to prove him/her wrong. And as proof would note the essence of the mystery: why only socks? This is akin, to my odd way of thinking, to the argument that the universe was designed by a human-like intelligence because of the peculiarities of its perfect "balancing," the complexities of its inter-workings, the perfect fit between its expansionary forces and the countervailing tendencies of collapse caused by gravity. You know the drill: the Argument by Declaration. The argument is "won" at the outset by the positing of a seemingly unanswerable (to the Believer) contention, which no amount of scientific investigation or thinking will be allowed to disturb.

My response, on the more important point of socks, is that I doubt it's really only socks that disappear. Such items as handkerchiefs, men's briefs and women's panties, which when saturated are similar in size to socks, probably also make their way up the tube, under the agitator, or become stuck by static electricity to other clothing. We notice it in the case of socks because they come in pairs - it's obvious when one is missing.

You might call this approach the application of intelligence and logic to reality. By a parity of reasoning, one might say that the existence of the universe, as explained by evolutionary and aleatory processes, can be understood as the result of its very "perfection:" if it didn't work this well, it wouldn't be here, and there would be no evolved intelligences walking around on one planet wondering where it all came from. And in no case do we have any right to suppose that there were not 3,374,287,890,278,458,382,902,983,876,458,429 previously failed universes which did not get it quite right and so did not last long enough to support evolution. Or that there are not currently a similar number of parallel universes where the physical laws are different and are either abiotic or support life forms we would have no way to understand. If such concepts make our heads hurt, and we recoil from the overwhelming images they suggest, it's only because our own limited brains are not really formidable enough to grasp such notions, a truth which has always suggested to me that an anthropomorphic-type god is probably a very unlikely candidate for a Creator of the Universe. I was thinking that as computer science progresses, we will probably be able to design computers which can comprehend such enormous complexity (their vastly superior computational speed, orders of magnitude faster than an organic brain, could do a much better job of handling the data. If you don't believe me and you're, say, just a fairly good chess player, try beating a good computer program. Sooooo humbling.) If we could then program the computer to explain what it knows in terms we can understand, we might get somewhere with these circular arguments.

So, as Sam said, there is nothing special about atheism - it's the natural result of thinking about religion in the same way you think about missing socks. Religious thinking, unfortunately, does have a profound effect on human behavior, as when adulterers are stoned in the Middle East or a U.S. President decides to invade Iraq because otherwise the Gog & Magog alliance (no joke) will get a leg up on the invasion of Israel, although you might read Ezekiel until your head explodes without ever finding the punch line.