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Ignorance and Identity

Zach Steward

We have distinguished ourselves from our genetic forebears principally by the development of a refined tendency to recognize mechanical patterns in nature, and to infer from these patterns a coherent picture of material reality. This tendency is responsible not only for the advent of natural philosophy, the success of the scientific method, and subsequent material improvements to the majority's quality of life in those societies which embrace falsifiable testing, but also for a number of less desirable cognitive byproducts, including confirmation and congruence bias, the tendency to order categories for creative products which have no categorical intent (such as schools of art or genres of music), and the tendency to resist surrendering simple explanations for phenomena, especially when replacement explanations require special intelligence to comprehend completely.

It is easy enough to recognize in biological terms why such a pattern-seeking specialization would develop. The desire to survive leads naturally to a desire to avoid threats. For threats to be avoided, they must first be identified, and once identified, their patterns of behavior recognized and integrated into our picture of reality. Working conclusions thereby minimize or even mitigate threats, and secure us a longer and better future.

As our population expands, so too has our individual ability to specialize. In the wake of this expansion, our knowledge base has deepened and broadened dramatically, including technological knowledge required to develop tools sophisticated enough to enable still further development. Societies which enjoy access to both the scientific method and resources to develop such tools have used them to secure systems of emergency response and communications, medicine and sanitation, and food and energy supply to degrees of effectiveness no other society has historically been able to approach, but especially the society which embraces a nonscientific approach to the organization of material reality.

In illustration of this, let us imagine a modest archaic settlement situated along the banks of a river. Especially fierce weather patterns visit the region of this settlement every dozen years or so, and these are attended by uncommonly powerful floods capable of decimating the settlement. And so this happens once again, with many casualties, and some survivors left to contemplate the wreckage.

Since this is not the first time the settlement has endured such a calamity, it is only natural that the living victims, gifted as they are by speciation with the tendency to observe patterns in nature, should eventually decide that this latest disaster must herald a pattern which they had never theretofore considered. Clearly something has been done wrong, though what exactly is less clear, and so a deal of thought is required to account for the error. Unfortunately, they are yet too few and too disorganized to know very much about cyclical weather patterns, and possess only the merest acquaintance with concepts of topology, computational fluid dynamics, and the rules of engineering which might allow them to counter such events, whether or not they are predictable.

What questions will our ancestors ask, then, and at what conclusions will they rationally arrive? They have taken a wrong step, they know. A mysterious force is at play in the world, one which can devastate their lives by little effort and which they can neither predict nor control. What is the identity of this force and what is its nature? How have they acted contrarily to its expectations, and what can they do to mitigate any further punishment? Does the force respect limits? Is it able to explain itself?

Since at this point in their cultural development our survivors have only an elementary understanding of their own psychology, they could hardly be blamed for prescribing characteristics to the mystery force which render it more comprehensible to them. Causality, which they perceive, if only in a vague way, holds logical sway, and so it is simple to imagine that a mover which they cannot observe must have set into motion the event which they could not resist.

In any species which desires above all else a comprehension of its environment sufficient to ensure its survival, we can expect to see the sequence logic that might lead the survivors, in their imperfect comprehension of it, to conclude that any master of nature itself must have at least their own personal comprehension of reality, and perhaps even one which transcends subjectivity. This is the moment in human culture when the gods appear, either as forces with personal identities but circumscribed abilities or as ones large enough to contain and perhaps even generate objective reality.

Religion follows quickly by inductive reasoning. If a god is greater than a man, and a man is endowed with character, than a god must have, as a minimal requirement, the greater expectations of a greater character. Whereas previously the victims saw only vast gulfs in their comprehension of reality, the supernatural now appears to offer a working model of it.

As they have experienced supernatural power and constructed the logical argument for a transcendent personality, so now they can go about the business of constructing their propitiatory approach. They cannot avoid the wrath of supernatural powers by continuing along in their ordinary way any more than they can rely on their limited knowledge base for technologies powerful enough to reduce or eliminate the threat. Instead they must build a behavioral framework for their lives and society which soothes the insurmountable temper, or perhaps even wins them its extraordinary favor.

Thus religiosity is not simply challenged by an "argument from ignorance" it is also motivated by one to the extent that at any given moment individuals and societies have limited knowledge of the mechanics informing their existence, rendering problematic any nontheological propositions for reality.

This paradox opens a path to the popular religionist characterization of science as a mere world view, or at least any branch of it which resists a teleological inference, and at best one no better than their own.

So time wears on, while individuals of special charisma influence the development of these new social frameworks in either the direction of falsifiable observation or against it. In resemblance to an evolutionary process religion does not progress except where progress is inevitable, and like a deformable fluid changes its shape to accommodate the hard limits of the civilization containing it. The argument-from-design view of the divine Artificer gives way, where it must, to the anthropic principle, the disinterested First Cause, or the god of the gaps.

Unfortunately the gaps in question will only continue to shrink so long as support for scientific study persists. The passive nihilism of Christianity, as described by Nietzsche, combined with the material resources made available to Europeans by conquest, guaranteed Western civilization an Enlightenment. But as positive outcomes are desired more than truth, that framework which affords maximum survivability while making the fewest personal demands on its converts is preferred by most people to the disquieting conclusions of science. Thus modern subjects of scientific inquiry, such as quantum mechanics, statistical thermodynamics, evolutionary biology and abiogenesis, incite the average religious believer to revolt not so much owing to their theoretical gaps as to the challenge of comprehending them at all. The average human desires a description of reality smaller and less complex than that provided by verifiable observation. As the new description departs from the desire, so the temptation to abandon it grows.

In societies where the population is split between those who seek opportunities for independent expression and those who seek material satisfaction, it is not too difficult to predict that science would not only fail to put an end to religion, but would inspire the kind of religious backlash we see now in many otherwise advanced societies such as the United States, where religious identity tends to override ethnicity or even cultural identity, and where virtually from its colonial outset faith-based culture claimed the upper hand.

Thus, explanations of polyphosphate-driven amino acid polymerization provide very limited satisfaction to the man who can carry on far more easily armed with Bronze Age meditations on the origins of organic life. No one who longs for an end to entropy could be expected to readily accept biophysicist Karo Michaelian's proposal that the existence of life is precisely predicated upon it.

Of course in any system of thought not based exclusively on direct observation, recourse to the imagination can always be made. Even if scientists were completely successful at producing a complex but verifiable picture of material reality, we can still expect billions of people to take comfort in the fact that dimensions which obey entirely different rules, such as Heaven and Hell, still defy discovery. Some religionists decry the atheist community for its failure to conceive of--or even to pursue--a proof of ultimate universal justice, and yet the Christian conception of ultimate universal justice fails to meet even the imperfect standards of the forms of justice we recognize here on Earth. The prisoner who pleads guilty in a criminal court is handed a reduced sentence in exchange for the admission, but he is not wholly absolved of punishment. Imagine a criminal court where the prisoner who pleads innocent is instantly condemned to the fire, while the one who pleads guilty is not only not punished, but instantly awarded everlasting life in paradise. This of course is exactly the court of a Christian God, constructed upon the hope for unaccountability that Christianity offers. That is all it can offer.

If Einstein was correct to assert that the true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self, than clearly most of humanity is headed in the opposite direction of value. In the majority of religious traditions the self and the soul are practically indistinguishable, and even in allegedly sophisticated theological traditions such as the Judeo-Christian, where ultimate truth is so often lauded, reasoned debate is intended not to annihilate self but to scrape from it every barnacle of rational curiosity, every doubt, all skepticism, even interest in the very scientific methodology which made it possible for Judeo-Christian civilization to claim heuristic victory in the first place.

Cognitive bias is second only to traumatic bonding as the foil of any nontheist, as it disturbs even the most rational adult's ability to abandon an assertoric judgment in favor of verifiable apodixis, that is, to substitute that which could be true for that which is observably true. A theological response to the classic Wason bias experiments would undoubtedly lead to the eventual denial of science's ability to demonstrate that religious impulse falls into any cognitive category that might leave it subject to bias at all. This, of course, is proof of bias, but by suggesting so aloud, skeptics are inevitably enjoined either to demonstrate that the liberal multiculturalism they claim to encourage does not cut both ways, or that modern religious identity is open to different levels of personal interpretation, or to leave the subject of theology to those who take its legitimacy for granted--or to resort to Stalinism. Many of us are familiar by now with the tendency of apologists to offset religion's culpability in the execution of various historical atrocities by pointing out that totalitarian atheism has its own body count with which to reckon.

The typical atheistic response to this gambit is to blame dogmatic thinking in general, but this does not really satisfy, as humans so often resort to dogma to justify pathological impulses, rather than as an end unto itself.

The real source of authoritarian repression lies not with dogma, in the form either of totalitarian atheism or religious orthodoxy, as even in a closed system dialectic reigns, as we see from the fact that Stalinism failed to survive its namesake, or that the ambiguities and contradictions of Christian scripture forced sectarian splintering on the order of some 40,000 historical denominations of varying scale and significance. Hitler was probably faking when he claimed to fight the Jew on behalf of the Almighty, but while he was appealing to a largely Christian nation for support, there is nothing in Christian dogma to support either nationalism or violent conquest, and yet organized Christian denominations in Germany mounted little to no resistance to Nazism, though they were almost certainly powerful enough to stem that movement's tide, as evidenced by the Catholic Church's success in pressuring Hitler to cancel the T4 euthanasia program.

Dogmatic ideology has only ever been the nearest convenient crutch for people crippled by cognitive bias and traumatic bonding. Since, unfortunately, we are all subject to some degree of both bias and bonding, it is difficult to imagine a future in which crimes against humanity carried out by zealots do not figure, whatever the particular catechism of the zealot in question.

The virtue of the scientific method is that it is not a closed system of belief, and those societies which embrace it honestly and wholeheartedly will undoubtedly find that it renders the threat of authoritarianism very small indeed, in fact smaller than is offered to us by the faithful of any cause. Whether they were atheistic or not, neither the Soviets nor the Nazis saw it as anything but a tool to advance their violent goals; their causes were too radical to leave to doubt and public inquiry, and so they chained science to ideology and the machinery of propaganda.

In like spirit, those rendered simpletons by the tautologies of religion will fend off the encroachment of complexity by whatever necessary and increasingly desperate means, whether by earnestly insisting that the lunatic improbability of material phenomena actually supports the probability of a personal creator; by ignorant semantic attacks of scientific theory; even by claiming that no foundation for moral behavior or creative expression exists without that body of ignorance with which superstition has saddled us, along with all its worthless magical concepts (e.g., eternity, the Holy Spirit, divine inspiration, sin and damnation, soul, transfiguration, transcendence, etc.).

Those religionists who claim that religious conceptualization is innate to humankind are not wrong, then, though concepts such as prevenient grace (a medieval Catholic concept adopted by the Calvinists and subsequently revised by the Methodists, and which is not explicitly described in the Bible) are less to blame than the neurological neediness of a species designed by natural selection to compulsively draw conclusions from quasars and hallucinations in exactly the same manner that they compulsively draw conclusions from a nearby automobile accident, and for identical reasons. A model of expectations has been disrupted, and by gathering enough data to draw conclusions about the disruption we are not only able to reorient ourselves to the model but to improve it, thereby improving our chances of survival. It can only be regretted that this compulsion shows no particular regard for the fact that the easiest conclusion is not necessarily the most realistic one, and that so long as it subdues our uneasiness any conclusion has served its basic purpose.

While ignorance is allowed to pass as a reasonable component of personal and public identity in human society, efforts to construct a more just and lasting one will be all but hamstrung.

How, then, do we proceed, and for whom? We have observed that no amount of theory will serve to convince the man or woman who cannot comprehend it, especially when they are offered the contrasting and childishly simplistic terms of existence portrayed in dreary legends handed from opportunistic warlords and schizophrenic druids, all chanting endless exhortations to fear the bizarre and pointless cruelty awaiting them should they fail to surrender their minds to faith in the glory of blank walls. We are disdained by these same men and women for our supposed lack of ethical grounding, even as each one of them elects to crucify a perfectly innocent man rather than accept personal responsibility for their real or imagined crimes; who accuse us of degrading humanity, while they judge all humanity to be fundamentally depraved, and the majority doomed; who scorn the discoveries that raise them from total subjection, even as they accept without reservation the garbled analogies, stupefying contradictions, revolting moralities and preposterous myths that crowd their scriptures from start to end.

There is probably no effective appeal we can make to those who construct their intellectual models around fantasy and the terror of punishment. At most, we can support that emerging global superorganism of which we are all unique, meaningful, and mutually supportive expressions, and continue to develop that body of knowledge which promises humanity something better than hope. In this way, we can at least demonstrate to history that science was the positive argument, that faith without evidence had a retarding effect on our moral and material progress, and that the probability of a finite existence was not enough to deter us from addressing real challenges, but gave us the sense of urgency necessary for their overthrow.

By most religious reckoning, history is and always has been a foregone conclusion. All wisdom, all grace, all law was bestowed upon human beings long before the arrival of any now present, and so there is nothing for the living to do but fulfill someone else's plan for them. We are relieved of the burden of free will and responsibility for our misdeeds by a simple act of repentance. In effect, God finished us, and long ago. When a human being rejects this conception of the universe, they simultaneously reject the hubris and vanity required to create it in favor of a universe where real choice reigns, along with real possibility, opportunity, discovery, maturity and the right to know.

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