The mythology of harmony


There is an idea in our culture, derived in part from the Enlightenment and many of its thinkers including many of those who helped form the United States, that the universe is fundamentally rational.  The idea is that as we learn about the universe and how it works, the underlying assumption is that what we find to be true is both true in every circumstance (universalization, which is also relevant in Kant’s ethical principle) and coherent with the rest of what we find.

That is, the world is essentially connected and coherent.  The basis for trusting in scientific methodologies as sensible predictions and descriptions of the nature of reality is based upon this view, because if this consistency was not true than using any description of the universe based upon any observation would be useless, since there would be no guarantee that another observation in another place or time would yield the same result.

As a side note, it has been pointed out many times that if such things as miracles, or more generally a supernatural realm or powers, were to be real then this would make this rationality of the universe meaningless, since at any given time a power, force, or being which is supernatural could simply dispense with that rationality and intervene essentially “magically.”  It would make science useless because we could not hope to make sense out of a world that can act essentially randomly or at least without consistent actions leading to theories or laws.

But enough of the opaque philosophical preface, let’s get to what I want to talk about today.


Especially in the more liberal world in which i grew up, there is an ideal of cooperation and striving for practical compatibility which underlies much of our thinking.  We want to get along with not only other people, but their ideas and dreams.  We want our dreams to fit in with the dreams of our neighbors so that when we all dream together, it creates a jig-saw tapestry of diverse and intertwining beauty.

It is a wonderful and beautiful image, especially for this polyamorous man who seeks intertwining in many ways in my own life.  It appeals to even me, the often-cynic and occasional (or not-so-occasional!) grump (or Grinch, as the time of this writing might imply) who is often found to be pointing out where things don’t seem to be cohering or cooperating nicely.

But is it true? I mean, of course t can sometimes be true (right?).  I mean, at least under ideal circumstances people’s beliefs, desires, and ideals will match up quite nicely and they can get along just fine.  And many people believe that if we were to be more tolerant and accepting of others’ ideas then we could all get along nicely.

And, to a certain extent this is true.  If we were willing to accommodate more, to compromise more, and to tolerate more we could all fit our puzzle pieces together and create, well, some kind of image.

But would that image be meaningful?  Would it be even internally consistent or coherent?  Could it be a picture of reality?

Truth and fallacy

The problem is that the best way to find ways to co-exist peacefully with people of different ideals is to re-shape our own in order to fit wither theirs, so long as they are also doing the same thing.  It may imply the occasional forcing of ideological shape into close-enough spaces (which we will politely ignore), but it can work.  I’ve seen it work, among people who are wont to maintain community with diverse opinions.  I went to Quaker school, ok?

The problem is that it sacrifices truth by too easily overlooking fallacy.  Because it prioritizes the coherence of diverse ideas over the question of whether any of the ideas are rationally defensible in themselves, it cannot reliably lead to a picture of what is actually true or real.  Rather than investigate each idea rationally and skeptically, the primary motivation is to fit everything together into a quasi-meaningful whole, which ends up distorted and full of many gaps and bulges where the pieces don’t quite fit.

This is why the skeptic, the new atheist, and the “realist” get such a bad rap around such harmonizing folks.  They are working so hard to find ways to get us talking, agreeing, and peacefully co-existing that they are really not even concerned, and perhaps not fully aware of the relevance, of rational defensibility of ideas themselves.  Such quibbling and nit-picking questions of such as us skeptics is annoying? Can’t we see that they are trying to paint a pretty picture? Why must we insist that it does not look like anything real?

We must be the kind of people that tell 3-year-olds that their picture of a pony looks more like, well, a crude circle and some randomly placed lines! This is not to imply comparison between 3-year-old children and defenders of social cooperation.  Not at all….

And yet, so many people are so enamored with the cooperation of ideas, whether they be science v. religion or otherwise, that they don’t pay attention to whether the larger picture they are putting together contains pieces from more than one puzzle.  They don’t pay attention to the fact that one might be labeled “reality” and the other “fantasy.”

They are blinded, or at least distracted, by the liberal mythology of cooperation and tolerance.   They are biased by the mythological desire for social and interpersonal harmony.  And then they rationalize it as if it were we skeptics and new atheists who are seeing it wrong; they often insist that we don’t understand what the picture is supposed to look like.  They are distracted by the mythological goal, while we are asking questions about the many parts which don’t seem to fit.

The only way to be sure that the image we create will be coherent is to make sure that each piece is the right piece, from the puzzle of reality.  We must each inspect our own ideas, as much as is practically feasible, to make sure that it is the right piece.  If it does not fit with others’ pieces, then we have to inspect both of them to see where the problem may lay.

And if it turns out that the whole puzzle is not coherent, that the universe is not rational, then so be it.  But so far it appears as if the many pieces fit together pretty nicely, so long as we are vetting ourselves–as well as others–before we place them down on the picture of human achievement.

Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough

I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.