The Hillsong Hoods

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Musings on the intersection of religion, psychology, philosophy, and science.

Politics and Truth

The more that a movement or ideology desires power, the more tenuous their devotion to the truth. Truth can be inconvenient to power, and if the goal of a movement is to gain power, truth is used as a weapon rather than as a goal in itself.

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Reality, Science and Errors.

So, to recap, in my first post on this subject, I argued that religion has no claim to scientific truth (as the fundamentalists would have us believe). From a hard scientific truth perspective, we’re left with either a non-interventionist deist God (or, perhaps, a phalanx of non-interventionist deist flying spaghetti monsters) or no God. But in my second post, I think I made a reasonable case that religion has some claim to human truths – St Paul on love, for example. In this post I intend to discuss how much claim religion has on human truths, on how we should act as individuals and societies. With religion not being true in the scientific sense, and neither deism or atheism permitting any secure foundation for morals, what are we to do?

Questions of how we should act are, more or less, in the domain of human truths, and human truths are complex and messy. We need to do what we can to make these human truths less messy. If we can make them less messy, we have more chance of actually doing the right thing. So, how do we make things less messy?

I have some principles: firstly, be aware of the facts of the world. Though I argued in the previous post that The Bible is worth reading, and contain human truths, there are profound ways in which The Bible is misleading as a source of how to act. These have to do with its ability to deal with the reality of the world we live in. Though the Bible contains truths about human nature, it prescribes solutions to these problems that might have been good solutions in 70AD. Robert Wright points out that even within the Bible there are a good variety of different solutions – for example, the Bible is in places xenophobic, and in places full of universal love for all – and it is not clear at any given point whether xenophobia or universal love is the correct prescription. But many of the problems that face the world today would largely be completely alien to someone from 70AD, or would be transformed in fundamental, significant ways. For example, safe, cheap, reliable contraception and protection has fundamentally changed the way we have to look at human sexual behaviour. The old pros and cons of sexual freedom no longer apply, as sex is now much more disconnected from reproduction, and serious sexually transmitted diseases can be protected against. There are now a different set of pros and cons for people to negotiate. Pastors can (and do) re-interpret old parables for the modern world – I mean, Martin Luther King did this in epic style - but these re-interpretations are only as good as the pastor. There’s little reason why they’re better than secular ethics. In fact, for all intents and purposes, they are secular ethics. The real moral failure of the Vatican regarding its stance on contraception is that it refuses to face the reality of the modern world (mostly because it wants more Catholics in the world, and more power, as a result).

But it’s also not as if religion is the only shrewd, intelligent source of advice on how to act. Philosophers are not silent about the matter; in the last decade alone, take Simon Blackburn’s How To Be Good, Alain de Botton’s The Consolations Of Philosophy, and Andre Comte-Sponville’s A Treatise On The Great Virtues. And psychologists have a lot to say about what makes us happy and productive, and how to make better decisions, based on a literature full of painstaking empirical research; take Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling Into Happiness, Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier, or Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (called The Decisive Moment in Australia). I don’t really see much reason to listen to religious men instead of psychologists and philosophers. Unless you’re about to be burnt at the stake, I mean.

A second principle is that human truths are going to more closely resemble reality, on average, the closer they heed scientific truth. We are the product of evolution and biology, whether we like it or not, and our evolution and our biology influences our behaviour and our thought in ways that we are not even necessarily aware of, whether we like it or not. This is not to say that culture and society do not play a major part in who we are, but brains are built in certain ways, for certain evolutionary ‘reasons’, and this affects and effects what we are capable of. Science itself cannot tells us how to act; it describes rather than prescribes. But political philosophies and ethical philosophies cannot seriously contradict what we know about human nature and still hope to be correct.

And from a psychological perspective, many of the big ideologies are laughable. Utilitarianism is all very well and good until you think about the limitations of working memory – we can only think so quickly, and we can only handle so much complexity. Friedmanite economics may be mathematically beautiful, but the idea that we are self-interested rational actors is laughable. We are motivated by emotions. People who are purely rational do not act. Marxism/communism (or hippie communes) works wonderfully until you think about the ability of people to act selfishly and greedily, at the expense of the community, if they think they can get away with it (which they often can, especially if they’re in power). Libertarianism would be a perfect political philosophy if everyone had Aspberger’s disorder. And as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, liberalism would be perfect if we were tabula rasa purely molded by our environments (in contrast, conservativism has the faulty assumption that people don’t change, that we’re stuck the way we are). The world seems to be crying out for new political philosophies that fit these facts.

Thirdly, another worthwhile principle is self error correction. There is a tendency in humanity for us to join teams, to want to be in an ingroup, and to want to compete with the outgroup. The interests of truth are often served badly by this; it may motivate work, but it also limits work, because we let our feelings for our friends get in the way of the truth. (This was, basically, the insight of Kuhn). In the less complex sciences, this tendency to join teams is offset by reality of a situation – before too long, if the theory is wrong, it will start to stink enough that most people decide to find new friends (well, there are still some lonely pockets of Skinnerian behaviourism). When it comes to the humanities, error correction is simultaneously more difficult and more necessary. People arguing about human truths have more invested than people arguing about science stuff; the existence of another planet simply doesn’t affect most peoples lives in quite the same kind of way that the existence of a political philosophy might. (if evolution is an exception, it is because it is relevant to human truths). This investment in human truths means that people are more likely to cherrypick evidence to suit their purposes, less likely to spend time considering evidence that might complicate things, more likely to argue against strawmen rather than actually try and understand the arguments of the opposition, and more likely to have logical mistakes in their arguments. And this applies even for honest, thoughtful people. Also it’s harder to correct these mistakes than in the natural sciences because everything is, of course, so complex.

I feel that these things – being aware of our own errors, being aware of the facts of the world, and the efacts of science – provide some sort of guidance as to which direction we should look in in regards to how to act. Things that survive these tests are more likely to be accurate. But, at the same time, human truths are complex, and we can only get at interpretation, rather than explanation. So we should keep an open mind. There will be things that work, and we may only realise exactly why they work in the distant future.

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Human Truths and Scientific Truth

So anyway, back to Robert Wright’s book Evolution of God. As I established in my previous post on the book, Wright’s argument for God from a ‘moral order’ standpoint founders fairly quickly, taken at face value. But I’m not entirely sure it was meant to be taken at face value. Perhaps there is another way to look at it. The argument between Wright and Jerry Coyne that I alluded to in the other post looks more like an argument between two competing ideas of truth, rather than an argument between religion and atheism. Perhaps one way of looking at the argument between them is that Wright believes in human truths whereas Coyne believes in scientific truth.

So, what’s scientific truth? It is no accident that many of the most influential atheists today are biologists – Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and PZ Myers. Even Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, has an intimate knowledge of biology (see his excellent Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). These are people who believe that science gets to the truth. They are certainly aware of debates within the philosophy of science about the nature of that truth, but I doubt that they are swayed by them, one way or another. Perhaps with good reason; a lot of philosophy of science is after the fact, describing how it seems to work, rather than prescribing what scientists should do. In a sense, science is basically about error correction. Sure, it’s got theories and observations, formulae and experiments, but the bit that makes it science is the elaborate lengths you go to to avoid errors when you do the experiments, the way you control the variables. Oh, and the assumption of materialism. In any case, the project of science has obviously been phenomenally successful. There’s something mathematically exact about science. The fact that you are probably reading this on a thin laptop LCD screen suggests this. So whether or not the current theory about the way evolution works is 100% true in the philosophical sense (it isn’t, but very little is true in the philosophical sense), it at least resembles reality very closely in important ways.

When it comes to human truths, we humans are bewilderingly complex. Those brains of ours, so essential to who we are, are mindbogglingly complex. There are a trillion neurons in my head, each of which is connected by synapses to tens of thousands of other neurons. We don’t have a complete, useful understanding of how the genetic code puts our brains together, of why it puts our brains together in such a way, or of how all that turns into somebody who is capable of typing into a laptop about religion, atheism, and scientific and human truths. The complexity is simply immense. And that’s before you point out that there are 7 billion different humans on this planet who interact with a surprising amount of other humans in all sort of ways that involve ethics, culture, society, and class (etc.). So far, so complex.

Science doesn’t cope well with that kind of complexity. Science works via the systematic control of variables. But here, in humanity, there are simply too many variables to control. There are too many errors to correct. When it comes to society, culture and humanity, we basically have to give up delineating and mathematicising as we do with nature; instead theories are at best, useful interpretations. The famous Sokal hoax (in a nutshell: physicist publishes deliberately nonsensical article in cultural studies journal to show that postmodernist cultural studies types can’t tell the difference between nonsense and sense) gets its sting from the implication that human truths are basically bollocks compared to scientific truths.

In a lot of ways the battleground between scientific and human truths is psychology. There’s no neat dividing line between scientific truth and human truth. Human behaviour is made of both science stuff (atoms, DNA, cells, etc) and human stuff (morals, culture, knowledge). Many psychologists – including psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud, behaviourists like BF Skinner, cognitive/evolutionary psychologists like Stephen Pinker, and cognitive neuroscientists like Victor Ramachandran – see psychology as a science; they think that we can know some scientific truth about human nature. Of course, other psychologists - e.g., Mihail Csikszentmihalyi, RD Laing, and Carl Rogers - are dubious about the worth of this scientific base in knowing about human behaviour and thought, and their theories are more like interpretations of behaviour than explanations of behaviour. It is for perhaps this reason that they are often called humanistic psychologists; they are fundamentally people from the humanities rather than the sciences.

Psychology as science ultimately has to be reduced to biology. Before Darwin, a scientific psychology was thought to be impossible – it is no coincidence that the first psychology labs were founded after Darwin published Origin, but within his lifetime. After all, if our behaviour happens because we have free will, because we have a soul, our behaviour is by definition not something science can look at – science looks at the material world, and souls are not part of the material world. But if our behaviour is derived from natural selection - if we behave in ways that re at least partially determined by evolution and biology - psychology is more than capable of being a science. We can limit the variables. That psychology as science has been so successful (e.g., see half the links I post on my link dumps) suggests that souls are either unimportant to behaviour or nonexistent. In some ways it is odd that it is biologists who get the bulk of the fundamentalist hate mail, because the bulk of mainstream academic psychology is much more dangerous to the religious worldview than the bulk of mainstream biology.

I am a scientific psychologist. I studied, broadly, the way that our brains process music in such a way that adds up to the way that we understand the music. What I did was ultimately based on the assumption that we are evolved creatures. My field has found many surprising and interesting things – Dan Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia books have been successful because these things are very interesting – but, oddly, the stuff we music psychologists are best at explaining is with music people don’t think about. We can explain fairly well how movie music functions – most people don’t think about the soundtrack, they just let it do its job. And we’re better at explaining why something might get stuck in your head than at explaining why you might like a particular song. That is, if complicated human truth things like culture, politics, and social pressures are major variables – which they undoubtedly are in music taste - scientific psychological explanations get less powerful. A Britney Spears song like “Womanizer” might be expertly pressing all our musical buttons from a music cognition point of view - it almost certainly is, otherwise it wouldn’t have been quite so big a hit. But whether that makes it a good song, as far as you’re concerned, depends on your musical politics, your relationship to culture, etc. This is not to say that scientific psychological explanations are unimportant – if they were, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade of my life studying them. But they are by nature only part of the equation, and the rest of the explanation is too complex for science to accurately delineate. This is what Stephen Pinker is saying when he says in How The Brain Works that his genes can go jump in the lake.

So human truths, as complex and problematic as they are, are still incredibly useful. You’re not going to understand why someone like “Womanizer” without first understanding where that song and that person fits culturally, politically. And the proponents of human truths would say that an incomplete, inexact theory of these human truths is better than no theory at all. We try to find out human truths because it is useful to know why people do the things they do, and useful to know why societies and groups of people tend to do the things they do. Very few, these days, would claim that the theories of Karl Marx are as true as, say, the evolutionary modern synthesis, or quantum physics. But his ideas have been powerful and influential because they are a way of interpreting human behaviour that has a grain of truth. The same goes for Slavoj Zizek or Noam Chomsky or Pierre Bourdieu or Edmund Burke; there are grains of truth in each. And, I suspect, the actual truth of the matter when it comes to, say, class, or the merits of change, are so dependent on so many variables, that we would be unable to understand it. Interpretation is the best we can do, but we must do it.

Taken from this angle, some of the things found in religion begins to look more appealing. It’s not true in the scientific sense, but, then, neither is Marx or Zizek. This doesn’t mean that Marx and Zizek aren’t worth reading, though. There are human truths in religion. Even those scourges of religion Dawkins and Hitchens are quite happy to extol the virtues of the writing in the King James Bible. Part of why they are happy to extol these virtues is their human truth. St. Paul’s passage about love that commonly gets recited at weddings, is simply wonderful. And there’s a hard core of truthiness in it. The Bible, after all, is the repository of the wisdom and history of the Jews and early Christians, and successful religions are successful religions partly because they do capture something about human nature. Some of that wisdom is still going to hit the mark, because people are basically still the same as they were in 30AD.

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Robert Wright’s Moral Order

I’ve just read Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, which is a book about the history of religion, about the changes in the ways that people have seen the idea of God. There are quite a few excerpts from the book on its website if you want an idea of the flavour of it. Wright spends most of the book arguing that the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Koran make so much more sense if we see them as written by real, flawed people with political agendas, and with theologies that sometimes differ quite dramatically from how we would interpret them today. His footnotes regarding all this are positively centipedal, and without knowing the literature thoroughly, I suspect that Wright presents current critical thought about this stuff fairly accurately.

However, the oddest thing about the book is its conclusion. There are three odd things about it: a) based on the rest of the book, it is unexpected, and b) it is nowhere near as well argued as the rest of the book; and c) It really reads like a major, important, part of the book that seriously matters a lot to Wright (borne out by the voluminous online arguments he has had with Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and atheist, about this conclusion).

Wright’s argument, basically, is this:

1.The history of the Abrahamic religions can be explained quite easily through a materialistic viewpoint, considering what we know about human psychology, game theory, and history. The presence of God is unnecessary to explain the writing of the various holy scriptures.

2.However, the history of religion shows a moral order – people in general have become more “moral” as time goes on (which Wright seems to see in a “if we act nicely towards others, it’s a win-win situation”).

3.This moral order needs an explanation, and one explanation is a deist, non-interventionist God, who set up the universe in such a way that we would happen.

Point 1 is hard to disagree with, given the voluminous evidence he presents in the book. Many of our motivations are subconscious, and people are capable of acting in ways that are self-interested without realising it. This applies to the people who write the books, and it is hard to prove assumptions otherwise. Points 2 and 3 are working on the assumption that just because we cannot rely on scriptures for knowledge of God does not mean that God does not exist. This is a fair point, but is not going to change the mind of anybody who believes that the burden of proof lies upon the believer. Wright hopes, however, that his argument from ‘moral order’ might change minds.

Wright argues that the existence of ‘moral order’ is really quite special, and something that demands more than a materialistic explanation. Wright is of the school that the important truths revealed by religion are moral truths, that religion is about how to live your life, how to act morally, how to be a good person. Wright clearly holds this to be self-evidently true, and this is why he does not try very hard to prove points 2 and 3. Wright also believes that there are major threats to the world as we know it that loom in the near future, and that the moral truths of religion are necessary for dealing with these major threats.

So there’s two questions here. 1) Has there been moral progress in history? and 2) Does moral progress in history logically lead to deism?

In regards to whether there has been moral progress in history, it depends on how you define moral. I suspect I define moral differently to the people in Iraqi gangs who are currently lynching gay men, and secular philosophy has long argued about what ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ mean. But say we take Wright’s definition of morality as being that which encourages ‘non-zero-sum’ relationships between large groups of people – morality is things that lead to well-optimised win-win situations. In a lot of ways, war and slavery are the opposite of moral in Wright’s world.

So how do we fare, if we use their elimination as examples of progress? There hasn’t been a year in history since about 3000BC when, at least somewhere in the world, there was no war. (And before that, it’s just that we don’t have records of it). But, for example, the majority of Europeans, Australasians and North Americans and East Asians living today don’t have first-hand experience of war, whereas war was probably an everyday part of a hunter-gatherer’s life. There are more slaves at the moment than at any other point in history. On the other hand, there’s a smaller percentage of people who are slaves these days, and the US has managed to elect a biracial president, and that means that previously very strong prejudices have been reduced, at least. John Gray has argued in books like Black Mass that (the hope for) moral progress is an illusion based in unexamined assumptions of Christian dogma, and that our seemingly improved situation today is illusory and about to collapse. But then he’s the kind of disillusioned ex-Thatcherite who would argue that kind of thing. So, sure, there has been some increase in moral order. But, as Gray points out, there’s no guarantee (especially with the combination of looming increases in population and increases in global temperature) that this increase in moral order will last. If, indeed, the world plunged into chaos in 50-100 years, it would disprove Wright’s argument. Wouldn’t it?

So, is this (perhaps tentative) moral progress ascribable to God? Note: arguments like “Lincoln believed in God, so slavery ended because of God” (or the opposite) are beside the point that Wright is making – he is not arguing that believers in God ended American slavery, but that God set the whole process in motion so that American slavery would end. But I doubt that a fair-minded materialist would be convinced by this argument to change his mind. Wright argues in an early section of his book that the increase in population that led from hunter-gatherer culture to villages and farming were behind the intrusion of the supernatural into the moral sphere (hunter-gatherers do not seem to feel that there is a supernatural basis to morality). Might the further increase in morality – decreases in war and slavery – simply be a result of the moral demands of living with even greater amounts of people than those in Middle Eastern towns 2000 years ago? And of course, this increase in moral order might be just as fairly ascribed to improved technology, improved scientific knowledge, and improved economic and political theory.

There’s nothing about this that an omniscient God couldn’t have set up, but there’s nothing about all this that needs an omniscient God to set it up. There’s nothing in the moral progress that has been made which really really needs a God to explain it, so far as I can see. Someone of a scientific/atheistic bent would here apply Occam’s Razor (all other things considered, the simplest theory is correct), and argue that if God is unnecessary to explain ‘moral order’, then God probably doesn’t exist. But religious people, in my experience, don’t find Occam’s Razor all that convincing, because God seems very necessary to living their lives. And Wright clearly believes that God, and religion, are necessary for solving the problems that loom in our world; whether he is right about this would be another post.

Update: A sequel to this post: The Empire Strikes Back.

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First post in blog.

I also do o-song.tumblr.com, and I often have things to say about the intersection of religion and science and psychology. I posted a couple of things on religion there, but no-one really cares over there, and I’m probably better off posting them to a separate blog. So, here’s The Hillsong Hoods.

Note: I’ve used the name ‘hillsonghoods’ on forums and twitter in the past; the name implies no relation to the Hillsong Church, or the hip hop group The Hilltop Hoods (both well known in Australia). But there may be some wordplay involved between the two names. I am also not related to a comedy duo who apparently used the name once or twice and who someone thought was me.

My first couple of posts are going to be reposts of things I have previously mentioned on O-Song.

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