Christmas Chat 2006
Last year at this time I invited my readers to sit down with me, enjoy a nice glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, and just have a friendly little chat about the world.
I am honored that there seem to be a lot more of you out there this year than there was last year. In fact, there are about three times as many of you. That’s quite a crowd.
Though, I have always said that if I had to make a choice between being right and being popular, I would rather be right. I’ll let the popularity take care of itself. Unfortunately, popularity is the easier of the two to measure. Being right – it’s a bit harder to tell when one has met that particular objective.
I have lamented on this before. How easy is it to be certain that one is right, when so many people who are certain they are right are so dreadfully wrong?
Oh well, the best I can do is to hold my beliefs up to the best possible light of reason and constantly ask myself, “Have I missed anything?”
Yesterday, pbabbott asked a question about harm . . . whether teaching false beliefs is itself harmful. He wrote:
If education is benificial, how can "dis-education" not be harmful? With all the wonderful improvements in life that result from education, how can a struggle to suppress it not be harmful? I take no issue with those who desire to be willfully ignorant. However, to coerce or force this darkness upon others is certainly harmful. Are we on the same page here, or do you have a perspective I've not considered?
Again, let me return to the basics for a moment. Desires are the only ‘reasons for action’ that exist and nothing is bad that does not thwart desires. Desires give us ‘reason for action’ to act so as to bring about states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.
One of the things that this means is that nothing is just, simply, bad. Pbabbott spoke of the benefits of education – and education does produce benefits. Yet, not all education is equally beneficial. We have reason to focus more attention on education that produces greater benefits, and less attention on education that produces fewer benefits.
(Note: a ‘bad action’ need not thwart desires directly. Actions come from desires and, from an act that does not do harm itself, we can sometimes infer that the agent has desires that will tend to cause harm, and condemn him for the desires that would motivate such an act, rather than the act itself.)
False beliefs can harm us in two ways.
(1) False beliefs about whether the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true in a given situation cause us to act to bring about states of affairs that have no real value.
This, I am willing to argue, is the tragedy of religion. They cause people to desire certain states of affairs (one which would be pleasing to God as described in some book drawn from a set of ancient myths). Yet, there are no states of affairs which pleases such a God. In fact, no God exists.
This is the tragedy I attempted to describe in my story, “The Meaning of Life” – the tragedy of devoting one’s life to an empty box, rather than focusing on the relationships with others that exist in the real world.
(2) False beliefs can harm us by telling us to select means to bring about states of affairs that have value that do not work.
We can see this in the claims of those who hold that we can protect ourselves from hurricanes and other natural disasters by banning homosexual activities, banning abortion, and requiring prayer in public school. Some argue that we can protect ourselves from terrorism in this way – because otherwise God would deny us his divine protection from these threats.
In fact, these practices cause harm and provide no benefit. What we need to protect ourselves from natural disaster is a greater understanding of and appreciation for the laws of nature. Weather satellites and computer models – and the understanding of the sciences that make these things possible – does more to protect us from the costs of hurricanes than prayer.
One of the things that we need to better protect ourselves from terrorists is a better understanding of human nature and the types of things that cause people to become terrorists – so that we can find the swamps in which the terrorist mindset grows, and drain those swamps, so as to save future generations from this plague.
Illness is one of the greatest sources of misery. Fighting disease requires knowing biological facts, and those biological facts include the fact that humans evolved.
Climate, the environment, and ecology all require knowing about how natural systems work. Any person who thinks that the earth is less than 10,000 years old does not know how natural systems work and, as such, they are no help (and, in fact, are a hindrance) to rational attempts to avoid these harms and harvest these benefits.
So, yes, dis-education is likely to lead to harm.
Now, another bit of fundamental desire-utilitarianism. Morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of malleable desires – those we can strengthen through praise or inhibit through condemnation.
The points I made above argue that a desire for truth, intellectual curiosity, and a love of reason are all virtues. They are things worthy of promoting through praise. At the same time, dishonesty, intellectual laziness, and intellectual recklessness are vices worthy of condemnation.
Above, I tied the value of education itself to benefits. Yet, this section also argues for a love of truth and intellectual curiosity. It argues for a desire to learn things that might not produce any benefits – just for the pure joy of learning. This ‘pure joy of learning’ is, itself, a virtue, and one we have reason to nurture in ourselves and others.
Yet, this must be tempered by the fact that none of us can have perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom, which tells us to demand more attention to things that are likely to produce harm, and to admit to our need to have less-than-perfectly-rational rules for making snap judgments in emergency situations and on matters where the threat of harm is reduced.
In this, a mistake about the age of the earth is not as bad as a mistake about the nature of harm itself. A person with false beliefs about the age of the earth is not likely to a threat to others on the basis of that false belief alone. A person who makes a mistake on the nature of harm is likely to either cause harms he cannot see, or cause harms he can see in an attempt to avoid harms that exist only in his imagination.
Of all of the mistakes that we have reason to avoid, mistakes about the nature of harm top the list.
Atheist Observer wrote in a comment a few days ago, “Religion claims the right to declare what brings harm.”
Yes it does. In doing so, it often promulgates false beliefs about the nature of harm itself. In doing so, it ‘sees’ harm where there is none and encourages people to inflict real-world harms to avoid harms that exist only its doctrinal imagination. It fails to recognize harms that do exist and, as such, it stands in the way of people avoiding real-world harms.
Every time religion makes a mistake about harm, it does harm.
Of course, every time atheists make a mistake about harm, they also do harm – and not all mistakes about harm are religious.
Pbabbott said, “I take no issue with those who desire to be willfully ignorant.”
I cannot agree with this. A desire for willful ignorance is a vice – an evil to be discouraged. It is one thing to admit, “I cannot know everything, so I must leave those subjects over there for others to study, while I focus my attention on these subjects over here.” This is not “a desire for willful ignorance”. Such a person will still desire to understand those things over there as well, but admits to the real-world fact that those desires will never be fulfilled. No virtuous person seeks ignorance, he simply resigns himself to ignorance that cannot be avoided.
One thing about admitting to the necessity of ignorance and the possibility of mistakes, is that one is not inclined to teach ignorance to others. There are issues that I know I do not have time to study in detail. Yet, I also make a point of writing only about those things I do have time to study in detail. I have 12 years of college and the vast majority of my waking (not-working) life behind each post I put on this blog. I try to avoid writing about things I know little about, and seek instead to rely on the conclusions that I find most popular among those who do study those issues.
This is all a part of the general virtue of intellectual responsibility – writing about subjects in one’s realms of expertise, rather than subjects in one’s realm of ‘things I do not have time to study in detail.”
People who teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old or who bring up bogus arguments against evolution can be condemned for their intellectual recklessness. A drunk driver can sometimes make it home without killing anybody. Our condemnation is not derived from the harm he does, but the risks that drunk driving in general creates. The condemnation of the intellectually reckless does not depend on the harm the intellectually reckless person does, but the risks he creates.
Yet, even here, there must be a genuine risk of harm. The drunk driver who confines his driving to his own (otherwise unoccupied) ranch does not create a risk to others. His recklessness is not the type worthy of condemnation. We must continue to remember that condemnation belongs only to those who are guilty, and not to those who are like those who are guilty except for the fact that they (the not-guilty ones) are not a personal threat to others.
It is still the case that the worst of the worst when it comes to intellectual recklessness are those who are intellectually reckless about the nature and substance of harm itself. Of all of the intellectual mistakes that people make that we have reason to condemn, mistakes about harm sit at the top of the list.
Mistakes that assert that ‘harms’ exist where none can be found, and which ignores real-world harms, are not the type that can be dismissed as unimportant, innocent mistakes.