Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Convenient Fictions

With the death of Antonin Scalia, I return to my long meditation on how some highly intelligent people are not immune to errors in their thinking when held to simple empirical standards. I'm not referring to constitutional law, in which I have no expertise, but rather to the disappointing similarity of Scalia, who was a devout Roman Catholic, to Marilynne Robinson and W.H. Auden, among others, with respect to his religious faith. Though, strictly speaking, agnosticism is the appropriate position on God given that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of such a being and that there remains the possibility that God exists but is undetected or undetectable, my view is that atheism is the more appropriate position to adopt in connection with the Abrahamic religions, since, besides having no empirical basis, there are compelling anthropological explanations for them that do not require the existence of an actual divine being.

I think that religions are precipitated by our social and psychological needs, and that these are the primary reasons why we have them. When I studied Greek mythology in college, I was surprised to find it more interesting than Christianity while serving the same functions. In the absence of knowledge about lightning, why not say that Zeus is angry about something or other and hurled a lightning bolt? The Greek gods were understandable because they resembled humans, had similar emotional baggage and additionally had the ability to help or hinder us behind the scenes: they played favorites. The Greek gods were everywhere, making daily living an exercise in magical realism, while Christianity is comparatively boring. You are supposed to believe some guy who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago and supposedly said that there is only one God, with whom he happened to have a connection. Then, six hundred years later, along comes Muhammad, who also claimed to have an inside track to God, whom he called Allah. The Christians didn't recognize Muhammad or Allah, the Muslims didn't recognize Jesus Christ or God, and war ensued intermittently for a thousand years. That was only the beginning of the confusion, because before long each religion began to splinter into different sects. Christianity divided into Eastern and Western branches, and then along came the Reformation. Islam split into Sunni and Shiite branches. Both religions continue to generate new sects, of which al-Qaeda and ISIL are among the more recent. Ideologically, the links between the original tenets and the latest iterations become increasingly tenuous.

There are many good reasons to adopt a religion, but adopting one makes the most sense when one has grown up with it and it permeates one's culture. At a minimum, being, for example, Christian, may permit you to set aside a host of questions and doubts, enabling you to focus on other aspects of your life that more directly influence your well-being. Instead of wasting years trying to understand the universe, which you would probably never succeed at anyway, you can file away that topic under "God" and, for example, go to law school and become a Supreme Court justice. If you are Antonin Scalia, your family will be very proud of you; you will also make a lot of money and have nine children, fulfilling Darwin's prophecy, if not God's. For someone like Scalia, there may be no penalty for adopting a religion, but negative consequences may be created for others. For example, Scalia seems to have believed in a version of American exceptionalism that contains traces of the idea that the U.S. is favored by God, a notion that I consider ludicrous. It is plausible that Scalia was an originalist because he considered the Constitution a divine document. If Scalia had taken a different path and chosen to become, say, a nihilist, he may well have died young, friendless and childless, and that is why I think adopting a popular religion usually has evolutionary benefits.

For me, people like Scalia are due credit for their contributions to society, but if you're going to be a purist about their ideas you can't ignore the fact that they fall seriously short. They do well in their lives by conforming to a fiction that has no basis in reality. On broad questions about the universe, I think it is more honest to say that you don't know, and that mankind may never know. My view is that we are all finite creatures whose brains were not evolved to answer such questions, and try as we might we are bound to fail. That may apply equally to science; even if science eventually explains all of the workings of the universe to our satisfaction, it will still be a limited enterprise. In the best case scenario science may provide an accurate, mathematically sound model that meets all of our needs as organisms, but the models themselves will be limited by our inherent limitations as biological entities. For example, scientists often remark that they find the beauty and symmetry of mathematics in nature, but that may be only because that is our favored way of understanding; there may be deeper, more elusive ways of understanding that are completely beyond our comprehension. For this reason, rather than worship at the altar of religion or science, I am content to say "I don't know" and accept the true mystery in which we all live.

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