Thursday, June 24, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - The best for last

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 236 Freider Otto Wolf “Not Even Begin to Ignore These Questions” A Voice of Disbelief in a Different Key”

For the most part, I selected the essays randomly, except for a few that attracted me by their titles, or by the author. I started reading this essay back in March, but did not have the time to devote to it that it deserved, so I eventually decided to leave it until last. It is the longest essay but that is not the only reason it earned its place as my final blog of the 50. It accomplishes what I was hoping the book would accomplish. It looks past the God debate, and creates new ground for discussion.

Frieder Otto Wolf lives in Berlin. I could not find other works of his on the web relating to this topic. I will reproduce much of his essay here. The actual essay is worth reading.

The “Not Even Begin to” part of the title comes from an Austrian German idiom of a way to state that you so don’t care about something that you won’t even recognize it enough to say you are ignoring it. He eventually does give reasons to acknowledge religion in some circumstances and he also gives some reasons to ignore the claims of the role of science. The theme is that the framework of the debate for the last 200 years has evolved due to historical circumstances, and it is time to review how we got here and reframe how believers and nonbelievers relate to each other. Most of the essay is taken up with defining where we are. There isn’t an action plan at the end. There are some very specific suggestions for where our priorities should be.

He ends with a statement about the things that I have been supporting throughout my reviews of the other essays. I hope that this book helps believers and non-believers gain some understanding of each other and work together. As he says at the end of the essay:

“The urgent task of human liberation has, in fact, far more important aspects – starting from the challenges of world hunger, pandemic diseases, and the ongoing expropriation of human beings from their personal belongings which is currently highlighted by the “financial crisis” or casino capitalism. Whoever is willing to help in liberating human beings from these plagues should be accepted as an ally by all practical humanists – irrespective of the belief or faith in fact accompanying such a positive and practical attitude.“

To reach this conclusion, Frieder works through history and the definition of many terms. The first thing he defines is the name for those who currently use terms such as “non-believer” or “atheist”. He points out that both of these are reactions to something so they are, in a way, an acknowledgement that theology is a legitimate practice that possibly has something to offer.

An important aspect of this is just what is it that you don’t believe? In America, the voices of fundamentalist are loud and have the ear of our highest government officials. Frieder points out that considering those voices to be the core of Christianity, as they certainly claim, is dangerous and bordering on paranoia. To do so is to ignore important figures that used theology in their social movements such as Deitrich Boenhoffer and Martin Luther King Jr.

Our cultural views of science also need to be examined. He traces our current views back to the early reactions of science to the Catholic Church. This developed into what is now sometimes referred to as the “God of the gaps” argument, that God and gods were once used to explain natural phenomenon and as science figured them out, they had to be relinquished from theology. This approach to religion is clearly wrong, but as an approach to science, it is also problematic.

Against False Simplications

Science can no longer be viewed as a march toward determining the entire book of nature. To still believe that we will accomplish that is to not understand science today. It is a view developed in the Elizabethan era. Nor is science simply a statement of facts, cold and hard, that we can then draw from to solve a given problem. To examine something scientifically requires speculation, theorizing, and holding on to an assumption for perhaps years. The application of scientific data and its conclusions is not as simple as selecting the right tools from a toolbox.

So, Frieder suggests we abandon this “positivism” and the notion that “positive scientific knowledge” is somehow replacing religion. This does not reject either approach entirely. Instead we must cope with our lives as each generation has, creatively appropriating the cultural heritage that is available to us.

Frieder notes that we, at least in the West, no longer live in an age where Christian theology is central to an exploitative and repressive structure. Consumerism has taken over the legitimating function of government and domination. The details of these structures of domination can be argued, but he suggests three important ones:
1. “economic necessity” over human liberty
2. human objectives over natural processes
3. male domination over the female gender

In the section sub-titled “Transforming Metaphysical Questions from Urgent Problems Into Interesting Puzzles”, Frieder discusses some history of metaphysical thought, touching on Kant, Keirkegaard and Wittgenstein. He concludes that there may be some value to delving into these interesting puzzles, but that we need to eliminate them as urgent problems.

In the next section he warns against regressing into delegating the hard work of determining how to live our lives to “New Age” thinking. This does not mean that we should leave these decisions up to every individual either. Some people do not have the proper tools available to them. We need to develop ways of helping each other without having that lead to domination as it sometimes does and often has. For intellectuals, this means:

“think beyond their customary dichotomy between producing scientific insights, as results of research, and popularizing them”

It means including everyone as “equal participants in public deliberation.”

Scientific Solutions to Problems and Philosophical Answers to Questions

Frieder points out that questions about the soul, or whether or not laws are ordained by God will not help us with questions about the planetary “biosphere” or other pressing problems of the day. We should not expect science to provide answers to these metaphysical questions either. Nor will science make us capable of defining a “one best way” of action.

Science will no doubt make progress and provide solutions. However some of our problems are pressing and science must proceed at its own pace. Problems are not always well defined and scientific solutions can’t be relied on to come to fruition as they are needed. At some point, scientific deliberations cross with political deliberations and “ethical” discourses. Frieder says, “radical philosophy can take up the part of critical mediator, bridging the gaps” between these. I’m not sure if I got what he meant by “radical philosophy”, but he did say that it would be a “vanishing mediator”, helping people advance their arguments then moving on. Not becoming a dogma or something that itself would be argued about.

Struggling Toward Humanism

He concludes with a brief history of humanism, where it started and how it has evolved. There were high hopes for humanity in the nineteenth century, but after what Frieder calls the “night of the twentieth century”, the light of those hopes does not seem so bright. I agree with him that it is time to again take up this notion of seeking common ground.

Go back to the first in this series

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