Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thin Ice and Electronic Autism

A woman bore two children eight years apart. When the second child was an infant, mom was a little reluctant to leave her alone with the older girl. The mother feared her first born was jealous of the baby. Nonetheless, after constant pleading, the older girl was allowed to baby sit. Still fearful, Mom left the nursery door ajar, but stayed within ear shot. After a long silence, she heard her eldest whisper to the baby; “Tell me about God, I’m starting to forget”.

Children are born believers. They have to be. No creature is more dependent on others to survive the rigors of infancy. Trust is the primal virtue that makes any society possible; family, enterprise or nation. Religions take advantage of these early inclinations with rituals of initiation: circumcision and baptism are examples. In time, an adult may choose from various degrees of observance, but they are not choosing among religion, faith or reason. Religion is cannon or cant, organized or not: faith or trust is a component of adult character; and reason is merely a tool – like arithmetic. The so called clash between “faith and reason” is a false dilemma. The first is a belief, the other is an instrument. There is no conflict.

Atheism is a simple religion; a disbelief in God. Many who think of themselves as atheists also subscribe to subordinate doctrines such as secular rationalism or secular humanism; that is, all that we can or should know can be induced or deduced with the aid of scientific method or reason. As logic or even arithmetic, this is very thin ice.

There are many roads to knowledge; reason is just one. We are born with a degree of inherited information, conscious or unconscious. Indeed, we stand on the shoulders of thousands of generations of ancestors. Call this information instinct, DNA or the collective unconscious (thanks to Carl Jung); it’s all the same. My neighbor has a terrier. The first time it got out of the yard, it caught and killed a squirrel; a blessing on my block. This dog did not have to learn to kill rodents. That skill is hard wired by generations of experience and breeding.

Could we say less about humans? The English language is rich with patronymics that
suggest skill sets passed from generation to generation; Carpenter, Harper, Driver, Smith, Farmer, Butcher, Cantor, Levy, Knight, Mason, and Fisher - just to name a few. Call it heritage or genetics, these veins of inherited knowledge play a powerful role. And ground truth exists long before “science” examines it. If you’re broke, balancing your check book doesn’t change truth or reality. A little arithmetic merely confirms your poverty.

Our senses are another way of knowing; what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell - and feel emotionally. Common sense, although not as common as we would like, is a way of knowing to often ignored or devalued by science. Senses and emotions are critical to human intelligence. Indeed, we all would like to be associated with “sensible” people. If we do not learn from what our senses tell us, no tool like reason will compensate. Indeed, academic rationalists and computer “geeks’ are notorious for their common sense deficits. This is no accident.

Our true sixth sense is our feelings or emotions. Emotional responses, intuition, hunches, and gut feelings often guide what we accept or believe. If you can’t see a role for emotional knowledge, just talk to your daughter, sister, mother or wife. Indeed, the most difficult problem of human intellectual history is the chasm that separates analysis and acceptance. How we feel about thing is often more important than what we think. No amount of fact finding and logic will overcome a strong belief. Truth is simply what we choose to believe: reason is simply one of the tools that get us there.

Any belief is more potent than any idea. An idea can turn on a dime: a belief is truth derived from ideas. If you don’t believe in something, you will probably fall for anything. This American mantra can be traced to ancient Greece, the trail of Socrates. He was tried for lack of piety and corrupting his students. He questioned the Athenian belief in democracy; he challenged the very freedom that made his questions possible. Unfortunately, Socrates didn’t have the benefit of Aristotle’s logic. Socrates wasn’t executed; he swallowed his foot and died from internal contradictions.

Democracy assumes a culture of belief, faith and morals; atheism is a kind of moral anarchy. All of what we think of as the best of Western culture, including our legal system, has proceeded apace with the evolution of the ethics associated with Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, democratic capitalism (are you listening Noam?) is impossible without these influences. The moral code that these great forums continue to debate, imperfect as it may be at times, is our cultural cement. The most advanced and just societies on earth are the product of these ideas. None of this proves a thing about God.
Yet, it illustrates the value of faith. Cotton Mather is as American as popcorn.

Mather likened mankind to a spider suspended by a thread over the fires of hell. Science tells us that we literally float on a sea of molten lava below and we are dependent on the fires of the sun above. We are also told that a meteor could end life as we know it in an instant. A few nuclear weapons might do the same. As Jared Diamond points out; our world will end with a bang or whimper (some unknown pathogen). How do scientific assessments differ from Mather’s spider or the horsemen of the apocalypse?

In several respects, reason is, and maybe should be, a last resort. The most important questions facing humanity will not be answered by mathematicians or engineers. Further, reason it is a relative newcomer – Aristotle forward. Our moral and genetic heritage, our common sense and our emotions have been with us from the beginning. We were a race of thinkers long before Plato’s pupil formalized logic. In recent memory the luminaries of rational atheism include Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Adolph Hitler, Josef Mengle, and Joseph Stalin - and now we have Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and Eric Schmidt, just to name the celebutantes.

If you read Hitchens’ latest polemic (God is Not Great), you might suppose that priests and rabbis were pursuing him through the salons of Georgetown – somehow infringing on his right not to believe. You might also think invective was a logical argument. The name calling is directed at all manner of secular apostates like Mother Teresa. Ironically,
Christopher Hitchens’ atheism mirrors the certainty of orthodox clerics.

The Maher film (Religulous) fails as logic or humor. A Borat derivative, his film allows an edited selection of unwary and inarticulate ‘marks,’ including his aging mother, to be ridiculed on subjects religious. ‘Foot in mouth’ as science and art seems to be Maher’s strong suites.

Hitchens and Maher might be dismissed as media clowns, but Schmidt’s influence has Orwellian import. His faith in Goggle, engineering and digital technology has messianic dimensions. Yet, when Schmidt is confronted by ethical questions about data collection, storage and potential political abuses he takes a pass. “Trust me,” he says “we have the appropriate internal controls”. This is where binary logic leaves the track. If we couldn’t trust the government (i.e. NSA, the FBI and the IRS) not to use personal data for political purposes; why should we trust ‘.Com’ billionaires or Google? Unlike Hitchens and Maher, Schmidt has the cash to buy the political support he needs.

Digital evangelists are notably tone deaf to internet ethical sensitivities like exploitation, predation (economic and sexual) and electronic autism. The autism is not limited to the ethical blind spots of science and engineering, but the more widespread symptoms of obsessive and compulsive electronic addictions among users. Follow the logic! Government should not regulate, police or tax the internet; but, at the same time, .Com moguls shouldn’t play cop either! Even if you ignore the circular logic, this is just another version of the Hitchens “unfettered scientific inquiry” dogma. If you combine the ethics of evasion and known political cant, in Schmidt and others, you have a critical mass.

Indeed, if we examine most of the ‘Google as God’ arguments, they are similar to historical variants of political rationalism; National Socialism and Communism just name two. It might also be prudent to recall that there isn’t a dimes worth of difference
between National Socialism and Communism; except that one is a virulent nationalism and the other is ecumenical totalitarianism. The legacy from this toxic mix includes infanticide, racial genocide, euthanasia and the ABC’s of “unfettered” science – atomic, biological and chemical weapons. In fairness, we should point out that science also gave us Diet Coke, panty hose, U Tube, digital porn, Bart Simpson and Noam Chomsky’s web site.

Indeed, the danger of rational atheism (aka religious rationalism) in the 21st Century is that it is capable of producing a digital or binary science that is both indifferent and imprudent. Scientists are uncomfortable with the unquantifiable; morality sounds a little too much like religion. In another era, a complete education would have included ethics, rhetoric and the sciences. Ethics was not only the first condition of enlightenment, it was first among equals. The sciences were listed last for a reason. Historically, should do has been more important than can do.

Modern atheism and “unfettered scientific inquiry” is the flotsam left in the wake of Karl Marx and the fall of Communism. Along with “democratic” social engineering, it was the great secular religion of the 20th Century. Rationalists see traditional religions as kinds of pious bigotry. Worse still, they conflate God, religion and faith - things that can be as different as day and night. Faith is a complex phenomena; religion is not.

Indeed, the crisis of faith, or ‘revolution,’ that began with Luther and Calvin fell off the cliff and brained Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin. The German monks dismissed free will and good works; and introduced the notion of predestination – an elect. Calvin’s elect morphed into Nietzsche’s “superman”. Marx dismissed the values of Judaism and Christianity whole scale. Indeed, he was a virulent, self-hating, anti-Semite. Marx’s “internationale”, Lenin’s “vanguard of the proletariat” and Hitler’s “master race” are the logical outcomes of “objective considerations” unfettered by moral traditions.

It also takes a special arrogance to claim to know what you can’t possibly know; to assume that reason trumps faith. The notion that truth (or progress) will emerge from the mouth of a test tube or a computer program is an assumption, nothing more. You may recall that Einstein was for nuclear weapons before he was against them. Einstein’s dilemma is an eloquent testimony to the binary simplicity and subsequent danger of many science projects. Unfortunately, courage is not a required course for science or engineering.

Rationalism often flies in the face of history and consensus; and atheists often confuse apex predator with apex of evolution, a dangerous proposition indeed. Humility has never been a strong suite for science. In contrast, people of faith have the modesty to admit that humans may not be the top of the food chain and there are things we do not and may never know. The recent play and film adaptation of Doubt is an excellent treatment of ethics leavened with uncertainty - an intramural moral struggle between two Catholic clerics. Say what you will about the progressive religious views of the priest and the conservative religious views of the nun; in the end, you would still trust your kids to their school. Faith and trust are synonymous.

Finding Hollywood and virtue in the same argument may give you a bit of jolt. Nonetheless, theater and film frequently treat ethical questions with candor not arrogance. Art is always more candid than science. If ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge; stupidity is the absence of faith in spite of knowledge. The question has never been faith or reason; but the answer has always been - faith and reason - in that order. Thank God!

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