My recent posts on atheism and a highly speculative theory of how the universe might work sparked a lot of debate. Although I am pleased to find I have some incredibly intelligent readers here, I am alarmed by some of the comments that were made.
I’m generalizing here, but the basic structure of the complaint goes like this:
“You aren’t even aware of your own assumptions! If you think about it, we can’t really know anything. Therefore, you should just let people believe whatever they want. All beliefs are essentially equal.”
Every time I hear this type of comment I cringe a little. It strikes out against the very core of what I am and what I strive to do here. That is, improvement based from observation and reasoning. Although most of these comments are directed at esoteric areas of existence and religion, there is a subtle venom in these remarks.
I’ve heard the above comment enough times that I feel a large percentage actually believe it. I’d like to dissect that above, generalized comment to point out what is wrong with it. And why I feel that the message it holds poisons living life rationally.
Let’s take a look at the parts:
“You aren’t even aware of your own assumptions!”
This is the only part of the statement I fully agree with. Unfortunately, I am too often blind to my own assumptions. The good news is that once someone can clearly explain where you are misguided, you can see past those assumptions. Once assumptions are revealed to you, you can see flaws in your own beliefs.
But there is a hidden misunderstanding in this attack. It presumes that I hold my ideas as convictions. That with atheism, or my speculative universe theory, I am convinced these are correct. Being rational, however, requires that I am able to entertain ideas without committing to them.
Trying to attack me by way of my ideas is attacking nothing. I am not my ideas and I fully admit my own weaknesses. I’m not afraid to flip-flop to a new idea if the evidence counters my current ones. So yes, I do make assumptions, but to put my hesitant speculation on the same level as blind faith is a gross exaggeration.
“If you think about it, we can’t really know anything.”
Now I am forced to disagree with this statement. On the surface, it may seem correct. Since you can always come up with alternate explanations based on alternate assumptions, how do we know anything?
My answer is the same as the one you use. Life is a best-guess. You can’t know anything with perfect accuracy. But you can have different probabilities of accuracy. Even if neither of us can hold 100% accurate beliefs, I’d rather hold 90% or 50% accurate beliefs than 4%.
This statement is a misdirection. It’s an attempt to diffuse the issue by making it black and white. Since no one can know anything with perfect certainty doesn’t imply that you can’t know anything at all. The goal of rationality is to slowly refine your knowledge so you grow closer, if never reaching, 100% truth.
Just because you can never reach the pot of gold at the end of thought, doesn’t mean that steady improvements are meaningless.
“Therefore, you should just let people believe whatever they want. All beliefs are essentially equal.”
People should be allowed to believe whatever they want, provided their inaccurate beliefs don’t hurt me. This is a founding principle of most enlightened nations, and one I wholeheartedly agree with.
But that doesn’t make them right. Just because someone is free to have flawed beliefs doesn’t make them equal. The truth isn’t democratic.
The problem here is one of hypocrisy. You can’t justify convictions in highly speculative ideas by saying that we really don’t know anything. Your own conviction betrays you. If you believe something fully, then your beliefs imply that you think you know something fully. If you believe in a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, you can’t turn around and justify that belief by saying the true nature of the universe is impossible to understand.
All beliefs aren’t essentially equal. And I don’t claim to currently have the most accurate versions of them. Outside this blog I don’t strive to convert people to my viewpoint. That’s a waste of time. It’s far more useful to look at others beliefs to find flaws in your own.
The Goal of Living Life Rationally
My post, Why Atheism, could probably be translated to, Why Rationality? The purpose of that post was to show how pursuing truth can be even more emotionally satisfying than just blind faith. Rationality isn’t cold mechanics and terrifying uncertainties. It is also new possibilities, opportunities and an adventure in what it means to be sentient.
Living rationally is living consciously. It is using the cognitive powers you have been endowed to make decisions about your life and beliefs. I’d like to think most the people here would agree to living consciously. But do you live rationally? Because they describe the exact same thing.
Does this mean you should become an atheist and subscribe to all my personal ideas and convictions? Of course not. Rational living means you are the one thinking it out and you place the same level of questioning on me as you do for anyone else.
Emotions Vote, But Shouldn’t Rule
Many decisions in life require emotions. Who your friends are, relationships, passionate work, hobbies to pursue and quality of life. The goal of rationality isn’t to suppress these feelings. Instead you strive to understand where those emotions come from and veto them when they are based on inaccurate assumptions.
Emotions and rationality aren’t working against each other. Instead they work together. Rationality should strive to understand where the emotions originate so it can consciously solve problems and redirect them. Similarly, emotions should guide where you invest thinking power to solve the problems most relevant to quality of life.
Emotions need to play a role in decision making. I’m simply afraid that too many people use this as a justification to ignore the brain they were born with.