Liberty, Faith And Reason

Today, LibertyGibbert will look at the rôle of religion in an increasingly secular society, and question how religious faith can potentially add to, and conversely how institutionalized religion has so often subtracted from, the liberty of the individual.

In an article last year on religious tolerance in France I made some very sweeping statements about organised religion in general. Looking back at them now, I realize that saying something like that without qualification may have given the impression that I reject all religious faith out of hand, which is certainly not the case. So today, we are going to begin to explore in some depth, the place of religion in a free society.

Unfortunately, as I started to sketch out an essay on this topic some months ago, I quickly came to see that it was far too broad a subject to be encompassed within a single blog thread. So today’s article is simply in the way of an introduction and conversation-starter to a series on Libertarianism and religion which I will be writing over the next few months. I am going to focus on particular religions (and yes, there will be at least one thread dedicated to the impact of Islamic migration to the West), as well as issues (abortion, which we’ve already covered, being a good example) in which religious observance and public policy come into conflict.

I was spurred on to clarify LibertyGibbert’s position on the issue by an online exchange which occurred at Easter this year at the DT blog, between myself and Oppugner. He didn’t really believe a sensible online discussion of religion could be held, and despaired of the ignorance and prejudice he saw around him on the subject, even from blog commenters who were on the same side on other issues. So OP, this one’s for you—I hope this series will prove otherwise.

Where to even begin? Generally, we start these topics with an historical overview; but in the case of religion, that’s a whopper, as it traverses the entire course of human history since language was invented. Any number of excellent books chart the rise of religion throughout history; but in a nutshell, religion began as a construct of primitive society, which had two major aims: firstly, to provide an explanation of the physical world, and secondly, to provide the framework of an external, a priori moral code by which people could live and prosper sustainably, without resorting to violence to resolve even the most minor disputes—the first attempt at societal co-operation, or even (depending on your viewpoint), collectivism. These two basic aims of religion continued in parallel, and for millenia, until the Renaissance and the rise of science, the two did not come into conflict.

To explain the physical world in the absence of the scientific method, religion invoked deities of varying numbers, powers and spheres of influence. As a general rule, the more primitive the culture, the more gods were required to deliver a satisfactory explanation. A wind god, a rain god, a thunder god, a sun god, and so on. The multiplicity of deities was required because, to the primitive observer, all these physical forces appeared to be in conflict, and could only be explained by positing separate deities, at cross purposes, and with circumscribed powers. As the understanding of the physical world grew, in particular the ability to predict the movements of celestial bodies and agricultural calendars, the number of gods required shrank, and their power was correspondingly increased, until about four thousand years ago, came the rise of the monotheistic religion worshipping a single, omnipotent God.

The dispassionate observation and scientific process of explaining the physical world more or less came to a halt by the time of Aristotle, after which the body of natural knowledge was regarded as “settled science”, being sufficient for most purposes of explanation, and lay dormant—in the West, at least—for over 1,500 years. More on this side of religion later.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, France. The spires and arched entrance elements of Gothic church design were originally derived from the male and female iconography of ancient fertility cults.

The second aim of religion, the description of a moral and ethical framework to which all men must subscribe, was also heavily influenced by Aristotle. In his most widely-read work, Nicomachean Ethics, he advocates an honest enquiry into the nature of virtue itself, extolling the virtue of a “moral” upbringing and a logical progression from that which is known, to the Good, as an end in itself:

Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to the first principles. For Plato, too, was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, ‘are we on the way from or to the first principles?’ There is a difference, as there is in a race-course between the course from the judges to the turning-point and the way back. For, while we must begin with what is known, things are objects of knowledge in two senses — some to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact is the starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not at the start need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting points.

Aristotelian ethics provided much of the basis of the work of subsequent Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholarship of Maimonidies, Thomas Aquinas and Averroes respectively, all of who championed Aristotle’s approach to ethics (and invariably in the teeth of opposition) and sought to incorporate it into the magisteria of their own faiths. It is in these that our present-day Common Law is rooted.

How does any of this relate to Libertarianism? The fundamental problem of a general ethical framework resting on the existence of a supreme deity and a moral code handed down from Him, is the issue of ownership of self; the major monotheistic religions all contend that we do not own ourselves at all, indeed we are the creations of—and wholly-owned chattels of—God, who, while He does not actually prevent us from living lives those faiths teach us are wicked, immoral or unjust, will however subsequently seek retribution in a future life beyond the grave. To the Libertarian, it is enough that his neighbour’s actions do not impact adversely on his own life; similarly, he takes care to minimize any negative “footprint” of his own.

Live and let live, however, is anathema for the adherent to one of the evangelistic religions (I exclude Judaism here, whose membership is largely racially-based and does not seek converts); to the evangelist, there are souls to be saved, and God’s final judgement of him will rest to some extent on the degree of his success in proselytizing. In other words, it is not enough to live and let live for, to him, he is on a mission to rescue the wicked from eternal perdition. The “noble-cause corruption” that has sprung from this belief over the centuries is, I’m sure, too well-known to all of you to need further illustration in this thread.

Of course, most western Christians today (and in my personal experience, most Muslims as well) are, by nature and habituation, peaceful, tolerant and liberal people who would no doubt claim that their faiths, in their modern incarnation, are mis-characterized when compared to the models of a past they have long disowned. That is fine, as far as it goes; in fact, Libertarianism at all times upholds freedom of worship. The problem is, as I shall demonstrate in upcoming threads, that an interpretation of traditional faiths which seeks tolerance and inclusion at every turn, not only has watered down the robust, Aristotelian first principles of that faith, but has opened the way for any number of trojan horses to enter their citadel, whose outward appearance bespeaks of love and acceptance, but hides an agenda of corruption, usurpation and death. More often than not, it is the fundamentalist who speaks the true message of that faith; it is possibly up to the good, liberal members of the flock to demonstrate the contrast, and to hoist the firebrand on his own petard.

I’m also going to demonstrate how, paradoxically, on countless occasions throughout history, the Church has been the only force championing Liberty, so far as its theology has permitted; when, in a sea of brutality and death, it was the faithful alone who stood for the dignity of the individual, against the oppressive forces of totalitarianism, which regard men as mere tools of some supposedly “higher” end. From the heroic efforts of the Fathers of the Church in the first and second centuries A.D., to the day in 1979 when the entire might of the Soviet Union was reduced to a quivering jelly before the sheer moral force of one man, I intend to illustrate how, in fact, the church has also aided and defended the cause of Liberty. Those who read this series wishing to draw neat, one-dimensional conclusions about religion and its place in society are doomed to disappointment, I’m afraid.

In fact, given the charitable work the Church performs, both in the West and in the developing world—hospitals, schools, orphanages, clinics, sanatoria and hospices for the dying, most of which would have never existed if simply left up to government or private philanthropy—you will find me wondering aloud whether, in fact, the special-case laws granting tax-exempt status to religious organizations running such facilities are in fact no more than a just quid pro quo for the invaluable work they perform in the community. If you read no further than the mainstream media, you could be forgiven for believing that all such places were nothing more than hotbeds of physical and sexual abuse, set up by a decadent priesthood for whom the ministration to the homeless, sick and dying was only a secondary consideration. In truth, the overwhelming majority of religious and lay personnel who worked in such places did so out of a deep and unwavering commitment to their faith, to say nothing of their own simple humanity. The extent to which religion can also represent an ongoing force for good in a truly liberal society, is a topic I intend to visit on a number of occasions.

Then there is the issue of the decline of mainstream religion in modern secular society, and the law of unintended consequences. Is this decline a uniformly good thing? Has it, in fact, created a moral and spiritual vacuum which eager new players in the religious marketplace are rushing to fill? Players whose agendas we are only now beginning to understand? Recent best-selling works such as Christopher Hitchens’ spittle-flecked God Is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’ humourless polemic The God Delusion, champion a new evangelical atheism, one which is not content to leave the faithful to their beliefs, but which actively seeks converts to their own world view? Once people relinquish the faith that their societies have espoused for centuries, is the real problem, not so much that they will believe in nothing, but that they will believe anything? The recent environment-based cults, New-Age doctrines, Raëlism and Scientology would seem to suggest this is the case. Lacking any coherent moral philosophy, these movements tend to centre instead around the whims of their founders or leaders, as we have witnessed in the extremist, personality-based pseudo-Christian sects started by hucksters like Jim Jones and David Koresh. In fact, the next President of the United States may well be a man who believes the inspired word of God was dictated in 1827 to a petty grifter from New York State, from a pair of golden plates which promptly vanished before anyone else could read them. Good luck with that; but if he really believes this, what Executive Orders might he be minded to sign into law?

A secular society?

That’s probably enough for starters; I hope at least it gives you the flavour of where I intend to go from here. In the next thread in this series, I’ll be focussing on the faith in which I myself was raised, and the only one about which I am qualified, however slenderly, to write. Meantime, how do you see the place of religion in a liberal society? As a private means towards spiritual fulfilment, few could find quarrel with it. Yet given that our own laws are derived, however indirectly, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and before that from Greek philosophy, it begs the question, if ethics really are external to man, to what extent may the Church today claim the right to involve itself in the making of laws that affect all citizens, whether or not they may subscribe to any religious faith, or none at all?

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22 Responses to Liberty, Faith And Reason

  1. Kitler says:

    Religion is for the weak minded or rather those people who are hardwired to believe in anything, whether it is AGW, benevolent space aliens, the Force, Gaea, or God. This hard wiring probably occurs in 90% of people so we shall be unlikely to be rid of it.
    Admittedly it does serve a useful purpose in allowing a small minority of people to control the rest and make sure they do as they are told.

  2. izen says:

    I would question whether religions give an explanation (certainly not a scientific one) for aspects of the natural world. I think it is more accurate to describe religions as providing a narrative that confers meaning on the chaotic and complex material universe. It seems likely that the evolution of our intelligence, and possibly our sentience is deeply rooted in adapting to increasingly complex social interactions. So perhaps it is unsurprising that the stories that religions tell about Nature involve the anthropomorphic ‘disneyfication’ of Nature.
    The moral code that religions provide does not come without the memetic hook of narrative meaning either. In that case if reinforces the fundamental strategy of conditional reciprocal cooperation.
    The Golden rule, or ‘tit4tat’.

    The apparently paradoxical often reveals deeper aspects of a subject and are always worthy of examination. The way in which adherence to religious dogma, the least libertarian and most fascistic, anti-individual belief system humans ascribe to, results in the defence of individual liberty is a paradox to relish. Martyrdom can exhibit both the best, and most toxic in human behaviour. At the social level beyond the individual the religious intolerance and multiple schisms of the 1700s resulted in the formation of a society that enshrined religious plurality and tolerance after the dogmatists and fundamentalists pragmatically discovered that it was the only way to protect their own freedom of belief. The Plymouth brethren emigrated from England less because of their objections to the establish English church’s discrimination against them, but more because they wanted to exercise the SAME sort of discrimination, but on their terms. It rapidly became apparent that such religious homogeneity was not socially stable.
    And so we got possible the first society that explicitly defined a separation of government and religion.

    Well nearly….grin
    I noticed there has been some discussion on the interwebs of Mitt Romney and what book he might use to swear his oath of office if elected. Does he concede to tradition and use the Whitehouse bible, or his own family Book of Mormon?
    The last time I looked the question -‘what book will Romney swear on.’ at had as its top answer – His bank book.

    G’day Izen,

    A couple of brief responses:

    No, primitive religion’s explanations of the natural world were obviously not scientific, as we understand the term. Though early Christian cosmology was inherited from the Greeks, who certainly formulated theirs with some component of observation, hypothesis and falsification. Yes I know, try telling Galileo that 😮

    You have encapsulated neatly some of the paradoxes of faith which I hope to explore in upcoming threads in this series. I’ll be curious to see your application of socio-biological organizational systems and game theory to issues of faith and liberty. It’s a rich vein we’re mining here – Oz

  3. izen says:

    @- Ozboy
    “….Though early Christian cosmology was inherited from the Greeks, who certainly formulated theirs with some component of observation, hypothesis and falsification. Yes I know, try telling Galileo that …”

    Although Aristotle gets the credit for the scientific method and while it is true he defined and deployed logical argument and reasoning from observation. And he legitimised arguing from observation via hypothesis to absolute principles, the return leg of the horse race in the quotation you give, he did not practise what he preached.
    Which is probably why Aristotelian physics, chemistry and biology is largely a farrago of nonsense. The cosmology is a case in point. It is a conglomeration of Babylonian numerical astrology with a divinely ordained geocentric solar system with all external objects embedded in perfect crystal spheres…
    This was a product of starting with the Platonic absolutes {perfect circular motion} and using observations only to confirm the a priori assumption. The outgoing leg of the horse race.

    Despite the despite the emergence of a methodology that works from specific observations towards general principles as an element in Greek classical philosophy, it was not consistently applied by Aristotle. He had an inchoherent epistemology! {but then haven’t we all-grin}

    The christian church just compounded the error. As is common with religious dogma it took Aristotle’s cosmology as unquestionable. A Platonic absolute or starting point in any examination of astronomy. It is this enthusiasm for erecting absolute dogmas that are incapable of variance, even when new observations or circumstances refute them, that is one of the most damaging and restricting aspects of religious belief.
    It is an inherently regressive and anti-development force in human societies, locking them into neolithic beliefs.
    Religions are trapped in the first leg of the Aristotelian horse race. Unable to change their starting point, they have to reinterpret the changing world and observations of it within a fixed and unchangeable set of theological assumptions.
    Or divinely revealed truth as believers would describe it.

  4. Kitler says:

    It’s amazing Ozboy you write an article about religion and our religious friends wuss out, what no courage behind their convictions? You’re all a bunch of doubting Thomas’, some dude gets nailed to a couple of two by fours and nary a peep? Yet everyone is over articles on abortion for religious reasons, I suspect your convictions only run skin deep. Well I’m here to judge you and find you wanting.

    Not sure, Kitler – I think it may have to do with the fact I haven’t published anything for a few weeks and a lot of our regulars may have tuned out; give it a few days.

    BTW thanks for the recommend at Damian Thompson’s blog – had a lot of his crowd over here reading – Oz

  5. Kitler says:

    Ozboy well Damians crowd are interesting and on the whole decent people even if the odd one can be extremely serious religious wise to the point of burn the heretics at the stake scary. However that just adds to the debate.

    Well here’s a new post it’s a week old news wise but it’s the kind of thing that gets my blood pressure up….

  6. Kitler says:

    As for religion itself the whole topic is amazing while I feel okay for people to believe in something that does not seek to harm me and mine the trouble is there are lots of religions which do seek that.

  7. fenbeagleblog says:

    Ok I’ll throw my hat in this ring with some I did earlier, on JD’s that seem appropriate to this debate. …

    ….’ For many communities, particularly rural villages, the church is at the centre of the community, as it has been since the church itself was first built…Which could well be as old as Norman, or built on older churches still. To dismiss it, is to not understand what’s currently going on’.

    ….’Look around you, every village has a church, it is usually the biggest and tallest building in the village and can be seen for miles, it marks the village and defines the area. most are still in use, and serve a very important function in the village, as does the village hall, which is usually connected to the church. Only in towns and cities can people easily ignore the function of the church and behave as if they are not there at all. Only in towns and cities can people arrange their lives and social circles so that they exclude all church goers and imagine they have died out.
    …Nobody ever believed the stories told in them anyway. It’s theatre, and its purpose is to illustrate morality, and the need to love and respect those around you. A need that’s as important now as it ever was’.

    ….’Bufo, I am neither a christian, or a church goer. And you can worship what you like, where you like, and how you like. I’m just making an observation, as small dogs do’.

  8. izen says:

    Here is some systems, game-theory analysis of religion for Ozboy {and the fun of it!}

    I have already mentioned the way religion encourages the Golden Rule or reciprocal cooperation. I would back this up with the historical example of the emergence of civilisation in the form of large city societies with many thousands of people.
    Up until a certain point in human history the largest groups are tribal. They may use agriculture and domesticated animals, but at most they build hill-top or island forts. Nothing bigger than a small town. Then around 6000 years ago intensive agriculture, large scale irrigation schemes, 50,000 inhabitants in a architecturally planned city, mass produced ceramics and writing appear. Along with the massive increase in food production that the large scale cooperation enabled went a surplus that could feed specialist weavers, pottery makers, metalworkers, armies, priests and kings.

    It is clear from the sculpture, ceramic decoration and first written works that the primary driving force that brought people together in their tens of thousands to live in a city with a centrally planned intensive agricultural foundation was religion.
    They cooperated for mutual benefit not because they reached a rational moral choice that the mutual gain was a better outcome than the individual gain. A person in a small tribe might feed themselves better with less work than the farmers in the city society. They would have more freedom… But would never develop the social complexity that gives such freedom some meaning. Instead they are trapped in a tribal Hobsen’s choice.
    It needs large scale civilisation to build something like the temples at Karnak or the pyramids.

    Which is a good example of the other advantage of religions. They encourage the generation of social goods with trans-generational advantages. Clan and tribal societies tend to only carry out activities that are of immediate advantage to the people involved. There is little or no forward planning. Building something that takes many decades, and can exist for centuries like the great European cathedrals, is not motivated by individual self-interest. It requires a moral outlook that values the future benefits to generations yet unborn at least as much. Any immediate personal advantage may be offset by the immediate consumption of resources and labour, a cost that might outweigh the direct benefit.

    This ability of religion to motivate trans-generational moral benefits is perhaps one of the most important factors in making religion a driving force for general social benefit to large scale civilisations. The involvement of religion in education, hospitals and the study of Nature would be good examples.
    Only recently has it been replaced, or aided by other motivations that drive the production of public goods {both senses!} with immediate costs but future benefits. Science is now the source of much work that is of no direct immediate benefit, but enlarges the cultural wealth of future society. A prime example would be the Huygens probe….

    I am not arguing that the trans-generational moral benefits of religion, or its immediate social benefits in encouraging mutual cooperation over individual self-interest offset or negate the toxic effects of dogma or discrimination against heresy, but neither is it an entirely negative factor in the emergence of stable, morally just and effective social structures that strongly inhibit intra-personal violence and encourage mutual benefit as well as mutual coercion.

  9. Yes Izen, I am sure that religion was absolutely essential in kick starting civilizations, and in particular law, order, and justice that stems from the golden rule. It serves other important functions too for communities. The problems seem to stem from viewing it as a black and white issue.

  10. izen says:

    @- fenbeagle
    The problem often stems from the tendency of religions to view things as a black and white issue…
    Literally in the case of religions with a sacred text. -g-

  11. farmerbraun says:

    Here is a comment from The Digital Glebe:

    “The State solution -as always- is more State. Truly depressing, what’s more, the ‘masses’ seem to want it too.”

    I don’t think it’s so much that they want the state, but they want something — something to mitigate the uncertainty, and the resultant fear, inherent to a non-deterministic existence. That thing has, in the past, been religion, though this was generally, in practice, some form of religious state.

    What I find interesting is that where the Enlightenment intended to separate the rational from the mystical, it in fact accomplished no such thing, because it assumed, incorrectly, that the state and the church, science and religion, represented mutually exclusive polar opposites (a common failure, as seen in the form of modern-day political tribalism). In other words, it fell prey to the faulty assumption that that which is secular, cannot also be mystical. It is this error which caused it to achieve a goal quite contrary to that which it intended; specifically: the creation of a wholly new form of religion, which is far more pernicious, and far more resilient, than the one it had banished.

    This new religion is the religion of The State, whose priests are the Men of Science, and whose scripture is that of the Asserted Morality.

    Traditional religion has always had mysticism written directly on the tin; when pressed to elucidate its claims, it flatly stated: for no other reason than that we believe it to be so. This being the case, a person could readily choose, and understand what it was that he was choosing. Not so with the mysticism of the state; unknowingness, or even the appearance of such, represents to it an existential threat. Therefore, when the questioner asks of it the ultimate why, and how, it simply cannot answer — it must instead bury him in layers of abstraction, and nearly infinite appeals to its own authority, in an attempt to produce in him a doubt of his own faculties, experience, and reason. Underneath the diversion, though, the truth remains: we simply do not know.

    It is for this reason that the new religion will prove to be stronger than the old. It must still, though, ultimately fail, because counter to its wishes, its existence is not an end unto itself. Indeed, its purpose is still the same old one: to mitigate the fear and uncertainty inherent to the reality in which we find ourselves.

    The question I am left with is: how many similar mechanisms will men be able to construct in the future? One has fallen by the wayside, and another is clearly in the process of doing so. After it does, will humankind begin to realize that chaos and uncertainty are no cause for undue fear — that essentially, que sera sera, with the only alternatives being remedies that have always proven to be far worse than the disease? How many Pavlovian cycles are required for the unintuitive to become the intuitive? Because that is when you can expect to see real, substantive change — then, and no sooner.”

  12. The real religion….’Ting-a-ling!’…

    If only it were just a board game.

    Brilliant Fen, as always – Oz

  13. oppugner says:

    Thank-you for writing this article. You are trying to embrace a subject which is as big as the entire range of human experience, and the meaning of life, for which the answer of course is 42. In other words it is a hopeless task. Nevertheless it is good attempt for getting the ball rolling on some discussion.
    I would like to point out though that I have not asked you to produce an article. That is not meant as a criticism, it’s just that to me faith is a very personal thing, which I don’t really like to talk about in public. It is a bit like telling people about your bedroom antics, you don’t do it, because it concerns only you, and to some Christians my take on Christianity would be considered part-heretical.
    Anglican Protestantism is what they call a broad church, in that it has catholic views, catholic not in the religious sense, but meaning wide-ranging, not absolutist. This is an important distinction, and the strength of the Anglican church, in that it admits no-one can be arbiter of the absolute truth because no-one knows what the absolute truth is. One of the failures of organised religion in the past has been to dogmatically adhere to a strict series of rules or beliefs, and to vilify those who question the official interpretation. The Catholic church was bad for this, although among the Catholic hierarchy (the theologians) the articles of faith were constantly under review, and any changes would be agreed at the Synod meetings. The Vicars had to comply with those articles, and make sure they were preaching the agreed views, because the congregations were assumed not to have sufficient knowledge to decide for themselves. This led to schisms in the churches, because, well, you know, people will want to think for themselves.
    The church ended up with people wielding great power over others, and as always happens when you have an elite, corruption, politics and self-serving sets in, because there will always be certain people who are attracted to where the power and money is. But that doesn’t make religion wrong, it is merely a reflection of human character and the dangers of institutionalised religion.
    Thus we have had schisms in the church, leading to break-away churches, notably the Protestants, and then the Protestants had break-away churches, leading to the Methodists, and Non-Conformists, to name a few.
    It becomes necessary to keep going back to what the Bible says, the re-boot button if you like. For institutionalised religion is not the religion itself, but a club for keeping believers of that religion organised, to spread the gospel and to serve those believers.

    But this I write merely as an intro, I haven’t begun to address the topics raised in the article. Since it is such a big subject, I shall deal with my ‘view’ on each of the paragraphs in turn, in different comments, beginning with the fifth paragraph. This will take some time, probably a month in all.

    G’day OP and thanks for taking such an interest.

    You’re right, you didn’t ask me to write this, and I apologize if you feel I’d given that impression. Actually, I’ve had this series in mind for quite some time now, and the exchange you and I had at the DT, which I linked to at the top, merely was a kick-along for me. TBH, I don’t know anything at all about your views on the topic, beyond what you have shared with us over there. You’re also right, that religion is a private affair, particularly for those actively practising a particular faith, and I’m not asking anyone to share anything they don’t have a mind to.

    Don’t feel you have to respond to every (or any) issue I’ve raised in this thread, as I’ll be re-visiting most of them eventually; as I said, this thread is merely an introduction – Oz

  14. izen says:

    @- farmerbraun
    “I don’t think it’s so much that they want the state, but they want something — something to mitigate the uncertainty, and the resultant fear, inherent to a non-deterministic existence.”

    It is an evolved survival trait to detect patterns and construct narrative explanations, or ‘just so’ stories to remove the uncertainty of a non-deterministic existence.
    Because much of this evolved intelligence is concerned with the complexity of interactions between individuals, the social efficiency of our behaviour, most of these explanations and patterns we perceive tend to involve intentional agency. Because we have the ‘hammer’ of social understanding we turn many physical problems of uncertainty into the actions of an intentional agency.

    “What I find interesting is that where the Enlightenment intended to separate the rational from the mystical, … In other words, it fell prey to the faulty assumption that that which is secular, cannot also be mystical. It is this error which caused it to achieve a goal quite contrary to that which it intended; specifically: the creation of a wholly new form of religion, which is far more pernicious, and far more resilient, than the one it had banished.”

    I think I see what you are getting at, but I think the distinction of secular and mystical is wrong. That the secular can also be ideological is recognised before the Enlightenment. I don’t think anyone would claim political beliefs are always and inevitably rational.
    Despite the attempts by both Marxists and ‘Hayekians’ to claim the mantle of science.

    The rise of the scientific method and its proven utility certainly makes it a much more resilient system for generating explanations than religions, traditions or ideologies. I am not sure why this should be construed as making more pernicious. Perhaps you are thinking of the attempts by politicians, economists and sociologists to cloak themselves in sciencey sounding justifications.

    “It is for this reason that the new religion will prove to be stronger than the old. It must still, though, ultimately fail, because counter to its wishes, its existence is not an end unto itself. Indeed, its purpose is still the same old one: to mitigate the fear and uncertainty inherent to the reality in which we find ourselves.”

    I would argue that the scientific method {and just what that is can be disputed!} is not an end in itself, but it is the best way human societies have evolved to find not absolute truth, but accurate facts. Even correct narrative explanations for the uncertain and apparently non-deterministic. I know there are deep arguments about the epistemology of any method that claims to give accurate knowledge, but the scientific method is justified by its utility. No religion or political ideology ever provided insight into quantum mechanics or the HOX genes.
    The application of that knowledge may be driven by mystical or ideological beliefs however.

  15. izen
    Looked at from the point of view of those that write sacred texts, I guess they would say that some people just ask too many questions, and it’s the devils work trying to remember what answer you gave the last time.

    …I sometimes wonder whether some forms of what is now, still called science, works in much the same way…….Ok, that’s alight (I think)…….Now stand back, (I hope the fuse is long enough.)

  16. izen says:

    @- fenbeagleblog
    “…I sometimes wonder whether some forms of what is now, still called science, works in much the same way…….Ok, that’s alight (I think)…….Now stand back, (I hope the fuse is long enough.)”

    Damp squib {grin}
    Yes, science gets co-opted occasionally for ideological motives or because of a dominant concept. But unlike religions, or most political ideologies, it has an inbuilt system of error checking that corrects such errors.
    The comparison with religions is instructive. The Talmud, Bible and Koran have all been subject to very careful error checking to keep the text constant through translation and copying. The sacred texts are assumed to stay constant and form the unchanging basis for all subsequent theological interpretation.

    By contrast the basic text of scientific knowledge is expected to change, at least in part.
    Science establishes core facts like the heliocentric solar system, biological evolution and the Laws of thermodynamics. But is open to modification when general and special relativity extend Newtonian mechanics/gravitation, and quantum mechanics expands subatomic theory.

    The best example of science corrupted by ideology is Lysenkoism. The were ideological reasons why the quasi religion of soviet communism would wish to deny ‘survival of the fittest’, and a ambitious personality who exploited this tendency for personal gain.
    But like cold fusion, water memory and vaccine induced autism such conceptual edifices rarely outlast prolong exposure to reality.

    More often scientific knowledge conflicts with theological or ideological dogmas. The still running battle between neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and religious literalists would be the exemplar of that problem.

  17. Are but izen, you were talking about proper science, and so we agree, of course…..(I think the fuse went out altogether. I’ll try prodding it from a safe distance.) what happens when religion starts to use the word science to give itself some credibility and authority? What happens when the word ‘science’ becomes just a chant. Surely this would concern you, as much as it concerns me?

  18. Luton Ian says:

    Hi Oz,
    apologies for recent and prolonged absence. I’ve been establishing that appears to prefer to give trolls free reign and to both hold regulars’ comments in moderation for several days and censor them outright.

    I’ve spat my dummy over there.

    I’ve invited one of the fellow Austro-libertarians to look in here – he’s based in continental Europe – if that’s any help when his posts show up for approval.

    If he does look in, he’s a thoughtful and knowledgeable contributor.

    Thanks for that Ian; any regulars at Mises are welcome over here – Oz

  19. benfrommo says:

    Just a thought, the scientific method is compatible with religions. For anything science can not explain you can substitute God in there. It might not be tidy or otherwise neat, but it works with just about every major religion as long as you are willing to not be a “Fundamentalist” that thinks your respective holy book is literal.

    To put it into the Christian perspective since that is what most people understand: its not about the world being 6000 years old or however old the bible says it is….its about realizing that God created the world and the process. In other words, we can explain how things happen, but the why is always going to be above us. Why did life start evolving? What are the chances of this? Was there a God influence there. Perhaps God created science and the process that goes along with it. In Christian tradition, people are expected to learn and to otherwise grow as individuals.

    I could probably write a novel, but I think I will leave it at that to stir conversation perhaps. Been slightly busy recently and hopefully I will be back tomorrow.

    G’day Ben,

    “For anything science can not explain you can substitute God in there”.

    What you are describing is known in the trade as “the God of the Gaps”. If science can’t describe it, then ascribe it to God. God fills in the gaps in our knowledge.

    The problem with that idea is, as authors like Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking have pointed out, that as time goes by and the body of scientific knowledge increases, the gaps in which you would have God inhabit start to shrink. It also makes God, quite literally, the friend of ignorance, for the degrees of freedom in which such a God may operate are inversely proportional to our own breadth of knowledge.

    Don’t take this as too much of a criticism, in fact “God of the Gaps” was more or less my own position until about twenty years ago. To enable a God who can survive any number of new scientific discoveries, however, a somewhat more complex theology is needed – Oz

  20. benfrommo says:

    I think I might need to expand on what I was saying. “God of the Gaps” is not really what I was trying to explain it as. The thought is that God set things into motion including the laws of physics and that there will always be another “shroud” to uncover. The more we think we know, the more we find out that we do not. Even the so far undiscovered theory of everything wouldn’t cover every explanation under the sun. String theory on down has failed to explain this, and I won’t go into detail on this as that gets complex, but rest assurred that the more we think we know, the more we discover we have much more to “discover.” But I will mention this: The theory of everything fails in the following: It would not explain dark energy or deviations from the standard model or quark interactions.

    That being said, something had to set this entire existance into motion. Whether we believe that the laws of physics were a cosmic “quark”, an eventuallity or God, at some point we have to ask “why are we here?” Do we really understand the fundamentals of what started our laws of math and physics and what makes certain laws true? This goes beyond the big bang…..

    But lets cover those arguments of Steven Hawking and Paul Davies. Even if we uncover every shroud of mystery, there is still the question of, “how did physics and math end up like they are?” like I said. That being said, there is a certain higher mystery that science will never explain no matter how far advanced we get. The shroud of ignorance might be decreased, but the idea that everything under the sun literally can be explained is also a belief. Which therein lies the issue. When science becomes one of belief, we lose our objective nature. This goes into many fields of science where scientists think they understand everything and stand on the monument of ultimate truth only to be thrown down in just about every field from Newtononian physics to eugenics to planetary motion to relativity. And of course our old favorite climate change. The more we think we know, the more we find out we are just ignorant and even genius’s like Steven Hawking don’t have all the answers. In fact most of their ideas are conjecture which are untestable. In other words, another leap of faith so to speak to believe that they are correct. So what is the ultimate truth?

    I do not claim to know and will never force any belief set onto anyone, but we have to realize that explaining away God is not possible just like proving the existance of God is impossible.

    G’day again Ben,

    I don’t want to pre-empt myself, but a couple of observations on your comments above…

    Your first paragraph has a neat corollary in the first sentence of the second:

    That being said, something had to set this entire existance into motion.

    This is what is known as the “cosmological argument” for God’s existence. The notion that only a supernatural agency could ordain the rules of nature in just such the way as we observe them in this universe, or, put another way, that the universe cannot contain the secret of its own existence, or be created ex nihilo, was widely held, even by scientists, until about the 1970s. At that point, physicists like Professor Hawking started working on the “singularity” – that is, the boundary of space-time – at the “big bang”, or moment of creation. There are numerous excellent books on this written for the layman, and the grand-daddy of them all (though nowhere near the best) is Hawking’s own A Brief History of Time, which focuses on Hawking’s own area of black holes and spacetime singularities.

    Your response to the “God of the Gaps” argument, that

    The shroud of ignorance might be decreased, but the idea that everything under the sun literally can be explained is also a belief.

    may be taking it a little bit far. Science is founded, not on a belief, but on the inductively-reasoned principle that no physical phenomenon is inherently unknowable, or mystical; science can, even if only in principle, explain every physical phenomenon. And while quantum physics has defined for us limits on our observability of physical phenomena, and hence our predictability of future events, it does not prescribe any theoretical limits on our understanding of the physical laws.

    I was careful to say “inductively”, for the scientific method has never failed us to date, and while many pursuits in science are works in progress, that does not mean future advances will not push back the limits to our understanding; the examples you give of string theory and dark matter are good examples of areas where it is likely the next few decades may indeed provide answers to further fill in the “gaps” in our knowledge.

    None of the above preclude the existence of God (given the usual rubbery definition of “existence”, which we will firm up in a future instalment of this series which touches on Thomistic theology), and it’s important to emphasize this. It’s just that I would contend that the way to Him lies not, as you suggest, in defining impenetrable, mystical “gaps” in our understanding of the physical universe, (dark matter being but one example); arguing thus, cosmologically, for His existence, holds hostage to fortune that future advances in our knowledge will not plug those gaps. I do think, as do many Christian theologians, that in the light of modern scientific knowledge, the faithful will have to finally relinquish the idea that, in terms of an explanation of the physical world, some mystical component is a sine qua non.

    Further, no amount of scientific advance will give us a moral code; as I said at the top, religion has served two purposes, and providing a narrative explanation of the physical world was just one. Remember that the creation legends (and the legends of the Flood, and many others) served also to explicate a moral lesson, and have lost none of their validity in that regard, in spite of any amount of scientific advance.

    I do not claim to know and will never force any belief set onto anyone, but we have to realize that explaining away God is not possible just like proving the existance of God is impossible.

    Well, exactly. As a Libertarian site, we are committed here against forcing our beliefs on anyone else. It’s just that, as I explained above, while God’s existence indeed can no longer be proven conclusively (if indeed it ever could be), neither is He any longer a necessary agent in the “bringing into being” of the physical universe. Which should not disappoint the faithful too much; far more compelling arguments for invoking Him proceed from directions other than the physical – Oz

  21. benfrommo says:

    Been busy otherwise I would have responded earlier…here in North Florida we just got hit with about 20 inches of rain (in a 72 hour time period) with the town of Live Oak Florida which is not far from me getting flooded, so been busy with house-keeping and other stuff from the floods.

    I think you are taking my arguments past what I meant them as. Perhaps it was how I worded them? I am working on my writing skills as a hobby and this is always a good way to practice in other words to communicate. (and why I started my own blog to learn more) So take this as an attempt at a scientist to attempt to become more well-rounded.

    My attempt to get it right might not work either. I mostly agree with you (if not in entirely) and I think before I just bow down, I should at least attempt to explain myself better. here goes:

    We understand much more then we did in the distant past. This is through and thanks to science and the correct application thereof. Religions and deities were always invented or existed depending on your belief to explain away anything that science could not explain. As time progresses, our shroud of unknowns decreases. It is obvious today that religions can not exist to simply fill in the blanks or otherwise be “a God in the gaps.” but there is always room for religion at the most fundamental levels.

    The philsophy of religion is much more in depth then a simple “explanation for the unknown.” There obviously is a moral code involved along with other facets, but the truth of what made us as we are at a fundamental level begs the imagination. What makes certain laws and principals exist? Why is the speed of light the speed it is? Why is the gravitational constant as it is? These are the questions that are more philosophical and always will be despite the fact that perhaps we can explain them, but we must also realize that at some level we don’t understand why the physics operates like this. It just is, perhaps as I said because of a cosmic quark. Perhaps because of some higher power. Perhaps because of fate. Perhaps because the universe just is and that is that. Perhaps because we are one of many universes and this is just the physics of our universe. Perhaps there are other explanations, but even explaining the creation of the universe and the physics of black holes does not explain the more basic questions as I outlined. Religion and/or philosophy should be about the “why” of science even after the science is explained, understood and devoured as knowledge. Even if religion is not used, philosophy whether its religion-based or not is a correct tool to use. This is why even as our knowledge increases, we should have even more unknowns so to speak that demand philosophical questions of why. From the way our brain operates to emotions to everything under the sun as I said before, we always will have things we can discuss and learn about even after the scientists have gone home for the day.

    As we sit around and discuss the philosophy we should realize that there is no right answer in philosophy as long as it makes sense and is reasonable and logical. This is in direct contrast to science where there are wrong answers all the time even if they are reasonable and logical.

    To end, I think I might have explained it better this time. I do agree with you and I think I just used poor diction to explain myself. I don’t think its about God in the Gaps personally at all. I think that eventually you are correct as is the philosophy that religion someday will be unable to explain the unknowns as “god” by default and I would argue that doing so is incorrect anyway. Just because we do not understand something does not mean its mystical or special. Just means we do not understand it.

    I tried to explain it rather poorly and I think I should have explained it as I did here. The arguments I was making was that even after the scientists go home and we have an explanation, the why of the universe is the question for philosophers and/or religious leaders to explain.

    My best example to give is “why is the sky blue?” The scientists can explain what makes the sky blue. The philosopher explains things in a different fashion and although he or she might use science, he will tell us the “why” so to speak. The scientists is about the “how.” The philosopher is about the why. This makes the question of religion more or less about philosophy and a deeper understanding. That was the meaning I was trying to convey, which I did not do so by making it confusing when I was mostly distracting with bad examples.

    To go back to my first comment, I probably should have said a little more on the issue as I stated here:

    In other words, we can explain how things happen, but the why is always going to be above us.

    And less bad examples that did not show what I really meant. I think I was trying to give examples of things I just recently read about and the theory of everything is one of those. Its quite an interesting field of study which encompasses a ton of ideas and theories.

    To give you an idea of why I find this so interesting….in my field of computers we have for years attempted in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) to mimic the human brain. These attempts have resulted in neural networks among other things. But to focus more so on the neural networks, we know today that this method is incorrect as a model of the human brain. But neural networks are used in many applications from learning software for computer modeling to aircraft control systems. In other words, these learning algorithms might have been a waste of time for the main purpose, but the application of the science resulted in side benefits that still have uses today.

    So the theory of everything in other words might not be possible, but the discoveries we make in attempting to achieve this will be tomorrow’s great ideas. From string theory as I mentioned on down, the side applications should be wonderful as long as the science is sound.

    But that is enough off-topic remarks…I hope this time I explained it as I meant to, and of course having to explain it twice means that it loses its meaning. I had to step back and figure out where I went wrong since you basically just added to what I was saying and were agreeing with me and I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong… they say sometimes us scientists failz at communcations.

    G’day Ben,

    And thanks for taking so much time to set down your thoughts. I’d say you haven’t failed at communications at all!

    As you pointed out, we’re in approximately the same space here. I have studied theology quite rigorously as a young man, and read extensively on the science-religion interface in the decades since, so I can become something of a pedant when discussing the topic – call it my fault, not yours.

    It wasn’t initially my intention to drill too far into theology in this series, beyond what is necessary to understand the implications for the application to Liberty. But it’s becoming clear to me now that we may have to do so, in order to get to where we want to go. It’ll be a trade-off between being concise and being boring, but we’ll try to strike the right balance – Oz

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