Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Self Justification and dissonance

One of the problems of an unbalanced dependence on rationality is dissonance. Eventually, specific self justifying systems become more and more removed from actual events. In the start of the chapter "the rational courtesan", John Ralston Saul is highly critical concerning the difference between Robert McNamara's intended outcomes for the arms sales, world bank loans and the eventual outcomes that were diametrically opposite. While one certainly can say that these cases are much greyer than Saul presents, it seems apparent that idealistic projections mirror rational projections. The validty of this mirroring is probably based on the extent to which each fails to deal with human complexities, irrationality and chaotic meddling.

Most people naturally assume that religion is the ultimate self justifying system. Hence many people claim that dissonance is the end result of any sustained belief. In this case it is ironic to see rationalism suffer from the same criticism. Succeptibility to dissonance seems to depend on the degree to which seemingly insignificant facts are omitted. In terms of a scientific critique of religion, one would have to say that religion ommits key facts that, while they appear to be insignificant, are likely become anything but. Similarly a critique of the absolute nature of science would only be valid if science omitted some seemingly insignificant but ultimately chaotic facts. So the real question between science and religion shouldn't really be about who has the right facts at present (certainly things can change and grow), but who can incorportate the necessary facts. As Saul mentions, rationalism has left out chaotic facts about people.

Right now one really would have to conclude science is at the same stage. While it certainly can make some pretty good predictions involving people, it certainly isn't infallible or all reaching. Of course neither is religion. Realistically most people would conclude that science has no need to go down that road. If it doesn't any possible claims involving human interactions must suffer the fate of rationalism; they can be logically consistent, but ultimately only self justifying. Thus science may be able to discover an unchanging world, but it is not able to explain our relation to it - well at least not at any level that can effectively deal with human interaction. It certainly works well in dealing with absolutes, just as it works well when our chaotic nature is removed from the equation. It may leave one wondering if our chaotic nature is in fact real? If it can't be dealt with I don't know how science could say it is anything other that irrational lunacy. While this may certainly be true, an alternative is to treat our chaotic influence as if it was real. (Note I certainly don't mean that the chaotic aspects of human influence can't be noticed, only that they don't correspond to any sort of physical reality (communally accepted and domain independent))

Of course how does religion handle things? I don't see any reason why religion can't assume any of the facts that science does. Certainly it has dogmatic assumptions about the supernatural. But it doesn't seem to have to exclude any claims of science.

Problems with solidification

Why plugging all your cracks with drywall mud may be the wrong kind of sealing ordinance

Sitting down after spending a few hours mudding my drywall, I found a few minutes to again pick up Stages of Faith. While fairly tangential, a short passage got me thinking back to how as children we seem quite adept at accepting answers that can only be partially understood, and only partially comprehended. Perhaps it was just me, but at four, when asking why the sky was blue, Rayleigh scattering seems something one needs to file away for future use. However, while specifics of an answer may be unintelligible, I suspect that such things just "keep the doors open" until background connections are able to mesh with the perceived depth of response.

From page 132 in Stages of Faith, quoting Bettelheim,
A young child's mind contains a rapidly expanding collection of often ill assorted and only partially integrated impressions: some correctly seen aspects of reality, but many more elements completely dominated by fantasy.

Like Fowler, I suspect that children's fantasy may have a much closer correlation to reality than some superficial judgments may imply. After all, how accurate can answers be when the thought process is not only completely novel, but the language available is vague and imprecise. For those who have dived into a foreign language, imagine trying to explain a novel discovery without access to mental translations and without pauses or breaks. With unformed schemas and fewer rote connections to draw on, when pressed for answers, fantasical ideas may, in large part, be the result of badly described and poorly sorted reality. I still remember how confused I would get when I couldn't call all grown adults daddy. Looking back the idea of subsets was probably what baffled me.

Ruminations aside, I wonder if our youthful ability to deal with and file vague concepts is more of a positive than a negative. It certainly seems to correspond to periods of great growth and change. World outlooks can change on a dime, and processing routines seem better able to reconnect to new ideas. When one thinks about it, having so many concepts in limbo, waiting as it were for filing, such conditions of flexibility are required. Of course as we age, standard procedures become more refined, and thought patterns coalesce. While this is obviously very beneficial, I wonder if one can run into problems assuming that complete concretization is appropriate. In other words solidifying our view of reality towards those things on our current experience, while useful at the moment, may be limiting. This would mainly be contingent upon future change. Of course, the type of change required seems dependent upon some other things as well.

1. The solidification towards absolutes is difficult to undue. From a mormon perspective, (alma 34:34) the influence our physicality has on us, may be hard to undo without it. In one of my last posts I was trying to get at the same idea from more of a cognitive stance.
2. Change may involve alternate ways of looking at present constructs. I suspect if we were to encounter something completely novel, we wouldn't have a hard time reorganizing ways to deal with it. If however, things are only visible from more open perspectives, the more ingrained our outlook becomes, the less likely we are to see novelty.
3. Maintaining an ability to deal with vagueness implies that absolutes may be functionally impossible, or at least well out of reach. (this isn't to say that some absolutes don't exist, gravity for example, only that the world around us, including personal interactions, can't be broken down into a summation of absolutes)

These points seem quite feasible in mormon theology, or at least my version of it. The ups and downs of the scriptures make absolutism a hard case to argue. Post mortal progression and growth seems to imply an ever changing environment. While we like to think of this life as a short step away from final judgment, it may be a bit presumptuous to think we are at the final rung of progression. If this isn't the case, this life may be much more preparatory than judgmental. The divine use of religion as a source of tension and re-evaluation instead of a source of absolutes and scientific knowledge implies that a discovery of absolutes is less important than maintaining flexibility (well that is one possibility at least). Perhaps Jesus' injunction to be humble like little children means more than we think. Perhaps there is also a reason why religion encourages tension. We like to turn everything into a rut that leads to definitiy when it perhaps we should be following a path that leads to an unexpected type of divinity.

Stages of Faith - Tension

Stages of Faith 2

Concerning practical polytheism, Fowler had this to say from his book stages of faith

Here I use this anthropological term to characterize a pattern of faith and identity that lacks any one center of value and power of sufficient transcendence to focus and order one's life. For the polytheist not even the self - one's myth of one's own worth and destiny-can lay a compelling enough claim to unify one's hopes and strivings. The polytheist has "interests" in many minor centers of value and power. He or she may exhibit the pattern described by Robert J. Lifton's image of the protean man, a personality pattern he found in postwar Japan and in the United States in the sixties. Proteus was a minor sea god in the court of Poseidon who could readily adopt any form or guise he desired, but who found it impossible to maintain any particular identity or commitments. Protean people make a series of relatively intense or total identity and faith plunges, but their commitments prove to be transient and shifting. They thus move from one faith relational triad to another, often with sharp discontinuities and abrupt changes of direction.

page 19

I think the purpose of religion is best thought of as a tension. There are numerous equilibrium points that are easy to fall into. It might be protean polytheism, or diffuse polytheism where nothing ever has much importance. It may be religious fundamentalism or atheistic assurance. It might be a strongly deterministic god or practical agnosticism. In many things, the balancing point between these extremes seems to be unstable. That is not to say many people don't have moderated, nuanced views, only that over time, once we have seen the other side, we tend to become much more sure of our own position. While this doesn't seem like much of a problem, it can be if it limits our ability to move from the comfy coziness of deeply ingrained stability.

Now again, I am not saying stability and stagnation are bad, only that they can be if we confuse entrenchment for progress. In this case what may appear as a fabulous way for discovering the universe may in fact be a fabulous way to discover a tiny part of it. Bursts of activity tend to happen as we rationalize disparate points. It happens when we try and see how one equilibrium position can be connected with another. These connections open up a flood of new possibilities as weightings have to be re-evaluated and the freedom from a background of rigid cognitive subconscious enables novelty. Supposing that such a spark of creativeness is vital for exploring the unseen parts of our environment, we may well ask what should the major focus of revealed religion be?

1. It should enable a complete understanding of our material world through revelation that dictates scientific and technological advancement (ex God reveals to us scientific laws that can help us explore the universe or better our lives. new drugs, new physical laws, etc)

2. It should group people based on their commitment levels, personal preferences, hopes and aspirations. In this way it can unify minor differences creating a common perspective that solves many socially related conflicts, and enables the power behind group action. (ex. there are many different kingdoms of glory where we can work with those who share our way of being, and this life is a sorting process. Revelation provides doctrines that are key for this sorting)

3. It forces a continual re-evaluation of facts, opinions and ideas. While this may prevent the easy attainment of many answers, if our perspective is in fact rather limited, it can keep us from solidifying around absolutes that may be incorrect or valid over a limited domain. (ex facts from mortality, while useful are less important than whatever key may exist for discovering other aspects of our environment. Revelation is about keeping us on track with a long range methodology.)

Obviously many people fault religion because it doesn't provide a type 1 answer (controversial dietary laws aside :). The lack of this type of revelation implies that such advancement is not the primary purpose of religion. (some would argue that God's inspiration provides new ideas, scientific and otherwise, however it doesn't seem like this is the point of revelation. The book of mormon stones, and the ships of Noah, the Jaredites and Nephi aside - and perhaps some temple construction)

Answer 2 seems a popular idea. The earth as a test meme seems quite prevalent. The type 3 answer doesn't seem at all popular. While Atran from In Gods We Trust, seemed to think that religious thought is inherently circular (because it arose out of a hyperactive agent detection routine that feeds back on itself), most people critique religion because it provides a continually moving target. However I wonder if in this critique, we usually don't neglect some of the potential benefits of continual re-evaluation and reformulation. This seems a natural thing to forget when we assume the immediate product always outweighs the process.

Is your meme my god

I just listened to the good RSA symposium between Denkins and Alister McGrath about Dennet's book Breaking the spell of religion. I think one of the most interesting points demonstrated was the failure to admit to the prejudices of one's own belief system is the surest way to believe you have the winning argument. I think antagonism towards religion only proves this point. The degree to which religious like beliefs are mocked is often correlates to the degree to which someone is blind to the circular nature of their own belief system. This isn't to say some modes of thought are better at certain things than others, only that we tend to forget that individual priorities mean what we value may not be the same as someone else. Hence the circularity caused by background perspectives.

While Dennet is much broader in his definition of religion than most, McGrath's meme critique seems to assume a broader definition still. It seems to define religion in terms of faith claims rather than the supernatural. Therefore memes theory functions in a similar role as god, albeit in a much more palatable way for society. In relation to this, Dennnet raises a very interesting point, science has evolved a way to largely remove bias from its findings, making it able to escape endless cycles of handwaving.

With this possibility, I find it ironic that so many people who attack religion seem to do so in rather religious like fashion. I would suppose, from Dennet's position, atheism or feminism becomes becomes no different from traditional religion as long as they are unable to find tools to remove the inherit biases their own memes engender. Perhaps it is as McGrath says, any organization has its fanatical elements. Today's problem with religion may not be as much what it is about, but rather how it is perceived, presented and used.