Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Dogma: Belief without Proof

“Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks, but the task of science.”
Erwin Schrodinger. Science and Humanism.

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
Richard Dawkins. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.

"Guanine [the G in DNA's ACGT alphabet], for example, is named unpretentiously after guano, the bird droppings from which it was first isolated."
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. What do you know. We really are made of shit!

At the root of every evil of our times, it seems, stands the principle of dogma: Belief without proof. Some of these beliefs, these fictions, are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize they can or should be questioned. Paradoxically, the very stories that have made us who we are, the fables that have shaped our ethics as a species, are the same ones that are the hardest to abandon after they’ve served their purpose. Our only weapons in the battle against these fictions are science, logic, and skepticism.

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

In his brilliant book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari argues that we need to step outside our daily frames of reference in order to understand our history as a species. We have to realize that most of what surrounds us today - religions, nations, political parties, corporations, money, stock markets - are all figments of our imagination. They have no equivalents in the physical world, the one inhabited by all the other species on the planet: trees, insects, predators. If you don't believe me, try to explain what value (what actual physical value) that twenty dollar bill in your pocket has. Try giving it to a monkey in exchange for a banana and see how far you get. Or try to explain to your Martian friend exactly what the United States of America is.

“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”

These fictions, these beliefs, help us bond together around a set of shared values. They serve a purpose by uniting us around a common theme - be that theme a nation, a religion, or a stock symbol. In return, they ask only that we believe in their falsehoods, that we don’t question their logic. As long as we all believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something, that it is worth the same amount as a book or a meal, all is well. As long as we believe that there is a line in the sand separating Tijuana from San Diego, all is well. Never mind that no such line is visible from space (or even on the ground).

“Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else. In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community, no lion alpha male makes a bid for becoming the king of all lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one find the slogan: ‘Worker bees of the world – unite!’”
     Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It’s only when we start questioning these beliefs that we get into trouble. In some cases, these fictions continue to provide value and, as such, we collectively agree to uphold them. It makes sense to continue to believe in the United States or Germany or Japan as countries. It make sense to believe in GOOG and FB as corporate entities and to invest in them. It makes sense to believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something. In other cases, though, these fictions are causing more problems than they are solving. They made sense two thousand years ago when we needed an unruly illiterate populace to behave themselves but they stopped making sense long ago. In fact, they’re doing more harm than good. It’s high time for us to abandon some of these beliefs.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
     Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

In this day and age, I think everyone would agree, we have pretty much handed our lives over to science. Over the past few hundred years, science has made our lives better in almost every way imaginable. I’m not talking just about computers and the virtual online universe we’ve created that dominates most of our days. I’m talking about everything that impacts our lives directly and indirectly. The wheels that power our bicycles are brought to us by science as are the engines that propel our vehicles and the wind turbines that bring us our electricity. If we want to find out the temperature on Mars, we turn to science. And that’s the same thing we do if we want to know the temperature in Timbuktu or in the next room. Our very health and well being is completely under the control of science: everything from vaccines to amazing surgical procedures to antibiotics to genetic engineering and more.

Science has made our lives better but, even more importantly, science has brought us the rules and principles of critical thinking through which we can interrogate and improve the world around us. The forces of dogma were in charge for thousands of years before the advent of modern science and failed to give us much to show for their time. For centuries, we were convinced that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. We were told that all matter was made of four “elements”: earth, wind, fire, and water. We thought the human body was comprised of four “humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm!

We didn’t know what we didn’t know. And worse, we didn’t even try to find out the right answers. Anyone questioning dogma was a heretic and the authorities were justified in killing or imprisoning them. The Inquisition and the Salem witch hunts are just two better known examples.

It was only with the advent of science, of critical thinking and the principles of skepticism, that we started questioning these beliefs and looking for alternative explanations. It was only with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that humanity slowly awakened from its slumber and started sharing information broadly: Wait. What? You mean the earth is not flat? The sun doesn't go around the earth? What?!? Next thing you're going to tell me is that the universe wasn't created in seven days and is more than a few thousand years old. No, wait. I know, I know. You're going to claim we are related to the apes or that we share a quarter of our genes with a grain of rice.

Once you start questioning things, the whole story unravels pretty quickly.

Everything we do in life is governed by science… everything, except for one: the question of where we came from and whether a God created us. The most important question of all is simply answered with a shrug: "You gotta believe", "You gotta have faith." Even if there is not a single shred of evidence, even if every word goes against every logical tenet we know, we have to believe it’s true. Why? In what other discussion about any topic, in what situation in any other part of your life (or our universe, for that matter) would you accept such an answer? Why do we have to continue to believe in this fiction? What value does it serve?

If I told you your cancer was caused by fairies, you would laugh at me. If I told you the sun goes around the earth or that the earth is flat, you would have me committed to an asylum. How do we know these are ridiculous claims? Because science has shown us the right answers, because we took the time to understand the forces at play and to deduce the laws behind nature. Science is nothing but a language we have created for ourselves to explain the world around us. Physics and Biology and Chemistry and Mathematics are just languages we have created. Just like English and Hebrew and Spanish and Arabic.

So why is it that the only question we cannot answer with science, the only question we dare not approach with science, is God? As soon as the man's name comes up, we have to throw science and logic and reason out the window, we just have to "believe".

“Repeatedly, in many cultures, we invented reassuring fantasies about our parents - about how much they loved us, about how heroic and larger than life they were. As orphans do, we sometimes blamed ourselves for having been abandoned. It must have been our fault. We were too sinful, perhaps, or morally incorrigible. Insecure, we clung to these stories, imposing the strictest penalties on any who dared to doubt them. It was better than nothing, better than admitting our ignorance of our own origins, better than acknowledging that we had been left naked and helpless, a foundling on a doorstep.”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

Science has not explained everything yet but it has explained a lot more than anything else we tried before it. More importantly, it's the only tool we have that has even attempted to explain the world around us. The God of the main Abrahamic religions stopped explaining himself two thousand years ago. And what he said back then doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. Yet, religious dogma - there's that word again - tells us that we just have to “believe” what the good book tells us. Even non-religious people say they like to believe there is a creator of the universe, a life force, a force for good. I hate to say it, but there is no such thing out there. Nothing in the universe is “good” or “bad”. Both of those are labels that we, as humans, add to the world. If they were logical scientific terms, there wouldn't be so many disparate beliefs around the world of what is “good” and what is “bad”. There is no good. There is no bad. There is only what was and what will be.

“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.”
Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation.

But, these are our traditions. This is how we were raised and how our parents were raised and their parents before them. This is how we learned to be moral human beings.

These fictions that we tell ourselves - God, religions, nations, laws, corporations, races, cultures - are just that: fiction. We should use them as long as they are helping us and making us better people. But we must also recognize that they are fictions. The problem shows up when we dogmatically believe that they are true: dogmatically, as in "without proof". Islam is not the problem. Neither is Christianity. Dogma is the problem. We must let go of these fictions once they've served their purpose. I would argue that God and religion, in this day and age, are doing more harm than good. It’s time to let go of them.

As for tradition... Just because your parents told you something doesn't mean it's true. Question their beliefs. If they can't defend them, perhaps it's because they never thought about it themselves either. They learned it from their parents, too. Go back just a few generations, I claim, and you will find nothing but ignorance and superstition.

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
     Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Let's say God really does exist. He's just been busy dealing with a revolt over at Alpha Centauri for the past millennium or two. Let's say he shows up tomorrow and wants to know what we've been up to - as a species.

Which band would you rather be in? The one that says "Well, we spent our time praying five times a day facing in that direction and killed all these guys over here because they liked your third novel better than your second one."

Or the one that says: "Here's what we learned from the books you left us and here's how we improved upon them as we became smarter - while you were busy with our cousins over there."

“Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.”
Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

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