Tuesday, February 21, 2006

VB 1 - religion of rationality

Voltaire's Bastards
The religion of rationality

Let's face it, religion today has a bad name. What protestantism was to Catholicism, individual morality now is to organized religion. And yet the more one looks at our society the clearer one fundamentally ingrained religious tendencies appear. While this certainly doesn't imply people are out recreating pseudo synagogues, cathedrals and catechisms, it does mean many of the principals that lead to religious belief and organization somehow get represented in people for whom religion has become a hiss and a byword.

Like many avante garde modern moralities, adherents of politically correct morality could probably best be described as a religious sect. However in place of formal organization, the fear of such has lead to what could best be described as a guerilla organization. Coincidentally this seems to mimic the success tribalism is having dealing with large world powers - it decentralizes responsibility preventing any sort of consequential accounting. Modern "religion" seems to be re-inventing moral dogmatism under other auspices, couching itself in sacrosanct positions that empower it to define new heresies. Fundamentally, has anything except the structure really changed?

John Ralston Saul, perhaps expressed similar ideas in his 1992 book Voltaire's Bastards. However his concern is that our modern faith in reason has left us blind to issues surrounding it's use.

One thing is clear: despite successive redefinitions by philosophers, the popular understanding and expectations have remained virtually unchanged. This stability seems to withstand even the real effects of reason when it is applied: to withstand them so effectively that it is difficult to imagine a more stubbornly optimistic concept, except perhaps that of life after death.

pg 15

What is John Ralston Saul talking about here? Religion? The endless circularity that occurs in philosophy? The ineffectiveness of idealism? Actually, it seems to be about a miscalculation concerning the dogmatic nature of reason.

The original easy conviction that reason was a moral force was gradually converted into a desperate, protective assumption. The twentieth century, which has seen the final victory of pure reason in power, has also seen unprecedented unleashings of violence and of power deformed. It is hard, for example, to avoid noticing that the murder of six million Jews was a perfectly rational act. And yet our civilization has been constructed precisely in order to avoid such conclusions. We carefully - rationally in fact - assign blame for our crimes to the irrational impulse. In this why we merely shut our eyes to the central and fundamental misunderstanding: reason is no more than structure. And structure is most easily controlled by those who feel themselves to be free of the cumbersome weight represented by common sense and humanism. Structure suits best those whose talents lei in manipulation and who have a taste for power in its purer forms.

pg. 16

While many find religion easy to critique because of disappointment in moral absoluteness, I wonder if the world of reason in to which they escape is fundamentally different in anything other than degree? While science certainly leads to true and false answers, believing that life can apply black and white rationality may be quite a leap of faith. Despite it's limitations, is it possible that aspects of religious morality may be functionally equivalent to more progressive attempts at delineating the same?


Clark Goble said...

Doesn't this return us to the cognitive science issues? We are wired to have certain social beliefs, values, and expectations. There may be outliers like sociopaths who have different wirings. There may even be evolutionary value to the community for having folks like that. But by and large community is moral at an instinctual level.

chris g said...

I don't know what specifically those cognitive science issues may be so I can't say. However it certainly does imply that it may be functionally impossible to try and escape the world of religion and other evolutionary tendencies. Doing so is perhaps as idealistic as any other attempt. (Well at least when one applies things to society as a whole).

If that is the case, then it seems like people who throw things out just because familiarity has made them aware of limitations may be ignoring the value of pragmatism. Personally I think the grass is always greener approach is all too common today. People tend to think a quick ouda loop is the solution to our social woes. While redefinition has proved socially sucessful, I don't think it is coincidental that it is beginning to spawn an age of fundamentalism and division. Either you buy into the 1984 religion or you don't

chris g said...

Oh just to add a point, I certainly think rationality is a good thing in general. Like anything else though, perhaps its personal effectiveness is governed more by what individuals do with it than anything else. Of course this also holds true for religion. Both seem perfectly capable of empowering and broadening certain individuals while at the same time limiting and oppressing others.

People who say religion should be optimized for their specific situations may be missing out on the importance of group dynamics.

By the way thanks for the book. It has been on my self since last christmas. At least I think it was a christmas present, I found a copy of focault's history of sexuality and can't remember if I borrowed that from you, bought it myself, or got it as a present. I ahve a feeling I borrowed it.

Clark Goble said...

Did you ever read that Science of Good and Evil by (forget the name). It's the guy who writes the skeptic column for Scientific American. Dad gave it to me for Christmas last year. It's actually not a bad book. It's definitely written for a wider audience than say some of the more cog sci books I've read of late. So it's much less technical. But it basically covers the evolution of our views on good and evil.

If you or Mom and Dad come down I'll lend you a copy. You'd probably like it. (It looks like the chances of us coming up are slim given Nicole's pregnancy and Conner getting to hate the car even more of late)

I think that at a social level we are wired for some instinctive behaviors. We can conquer these by working out carefully rational behavior that contradicts or instincts.

That's not to say instincts aren't "rational" in a sense. I think they are. But we aren't necessarily aware of the premises and values that are part of the reasoning - and we may disagree with them when we think about it more carefully.

I think the fundamentalism and related movements does arise out of our desire to think and function at the tribal level. It works great when there are only 30 people. But not necessarily so well at our level of technology and population. I think the reasoning regarding terrorism is an apt example of this. Can our tribal desire for autonomy at all costs and so forth survive in this age of weapons of mass destruction? (I note that last week the UN issued some statements that end up asserting that terrorism ought be handled as a police matter and not a military matter)

It's interesting how our instincts have problems when situations don't fit our expectations. i.e. questions of where tribal lines are drawn, who the "others" are, and then our notions of good and evil that are based upon these earlier notions.