Sunday, January 27, 2008

E2.0: Discussion: Reasons, Lies, and Types of Communities

This is the 13th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

After Shermer’s presentation, there was a panel discussion. As can be expected, the discussion wandered over a number of different topics. In this post, I want to address three of them; (1) A disagreement over the influence of reason on emotions, (2) a misinterpretation of a statement by Dan Dennett that many theists are ‘lying through their teeth’, and (3) a conflict between Michael Shermer and Jonathan Haidt over the diversity of communities.

Disagreement 1: Reason and Emotions

One area of disagreement was between Haidt, who claimed that emotions controlled our reason (that we are disposed to determine if we like a conclusion first, and then hunt out evidence for our belief), and <>, who suggested that it is also possible for reason to control our emotions. <> brought up cognitive therapy – a form of therapy that shows that many psychological problems are caused by agents holding onto false beliefs – and that by changing the beliefs, the problems go away.

For example, a terminally shy individual may believe that others are going to laugh at or ridicule him no matter what he does. He might have acquired a tendency to form this assumption through childhood experiences. These beliefs make him anxious or afraid to deal with other people. However, they do not apply to the adult world. In fact, if he looks around, he finds that he is very seldom being ridiculed in the way that he feared, and that most adults consider the behavior he fears childish and immature. Once he forms new beliefs that accurately reflect how adults tend to interact, his anxiety goes away.

Haidt responded by saying that the emotion’s effect on reason is immediate and powerful, whereas cognitive therapy takes a great deal of time and effort. That is, the relationship between the two is that there is a 6-lane highway that goes from emotions to reason, but only a small trail that goes from reason to emotion.

Actually, Haidt did not make an apt comparison. The effect of reason on emotion is sometimes (often) as immediate and powerful as the effect of emotion on reason. If you got a phone call in the next minute saying that somebody very close to you was hurt in an automobile accident and is in the hospital in serious condition, the effect on your emotions will be immediate.

Yes, it is often difficult to change a belief that we have an emotional commitment to. We tend to rationalize and look for anything that will allow us to answer critics, no matter how nonsensical. However, it is also often difficult to change an emotional attachment that one is committed to believing.

Disagreement 2: Dennett’s Accusation of Lying

In the discussion, Daniel Dennett tried to give an explanation for the ‘white-knuckle reaction’ among some theists to the works of Dennett and the other ‘new atheists’

He argues that a person in power in a country that is on the verge of becoming a failed state has no incentive to admit that it is on the verge of becoming a failed state. He has reason to do whatever it takes to try to persuade people that it is not a failed state because, as soon as the people give up, the situation becomes much worse.

This is the theory he offers to explain why many of the critics of the New Atheists, “Lie through their teeth,” in criticizing the atheist writers.

Michael Shermer questioned Dennett’s claim that religious people are lying. Shermer states that religious people sincerely believe that Jesus was the son of God and was risen from the dead and all of the other fantastic fantasies of their favorite religion.

Dennett did not get a chance to answer that this interpretation. In fact, I do not think that the types of propositions that Shermer was listing off as propositions believed by theists are the same family that Dennett was talking about. Dennett was talking about people who misrepresented his book or the books of the other atheist misrepresenting what he and the others wrote.

For example, there are critics who condemned the four atheist authors for saying with certainty that no God exists. They answered that no atheist can know this, since no atheist has perfect knowledge. However, none of the four atheists state that the non-existence of a god is certain. They compare beliefs about the existence of God to beliefs about the existence of a tea kettle opening Mars. Nearly everybody believes that such a teakettle almost certainly does not exist. Nobody complains that these people deny an obvious truth. In fact, this argument shows that at least some of the new atheists are not only liars, but hypocrites as well. They condemn others for living by standards that they think are perfectly reason for themselves to adopt.

We see a long list of lies on House Resolution 888. Regardless of whether this Resolution passes or not, the 31 people who co-sponsored the resolution are lying through their teeth about some of the claims made on the resolution. By putting their names on this resolution they are saying that they are people who care nothing about truth. Their only interest is in political manipulation, and they are going to stand up as role models for those who want to grow up to adopt a life of deceiving others for personal gain.

Third, the new Ben Stein movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” in which the producers and crew lied through their teeth to get statements from the like of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, then transfer those words to a context that was entirely different from the context in which they were made.

These are the cases that make sense of Dennett’s claim that many theists are reacting to the New Atheism by ‘lying through their teeth’.

Disagreement 3: The Diversity of Communities

Shermer is a libertarian, and argued in his presentation that the best way to promote peace would be to universally adopt a set of rules that promote free trade, which will then promote interdependence and good will, which will promote peace. Though this recipe has not always worked, there is reason to believe that much of the prosperity generated over the past 250 years in North America and Europe (and now in China and India) are the result of these types of changes.

Haidt argues for more diversity among communities – that Shermer’s type of community might be good for some people but simply not work for others. There is a wide variety of individual differences, and those individual differences suit different individuals for different types of communities. In order to promote human flourishing, we need to allow people to create the types of communities in which they are most comfortable.

Haidt does not get an opportunity to refine his proposal much further. He calls North Korea and abomination (though he does not say why). He does not address, at all, whether he would include in his set of diverse communities ones where homosexuals are killed outright, ones where women are stoned for adultery and whipped for being caught out with a male unescorted, ones where teachers who allow young children to name a teddy bear ‘Muhammad’ are executed, or ones where journalists who download information critical of Islam from the internet and those who convert away from Islam are sentenced to death. He does not say whether his tolerance for different people living under different rules argues in favor of one society enslaving all the blacks, another executing all of the Jews, or a third exterminating all of the native inhabitants of a land that they want (and that they believe God has given them the right) to occupy.

We do get some indication that Haidt would favor a system in which homosexuals may need to move out of communities unfriendly towards homosexuals (for religious reasons) into communities such as New York or San Francisco. We do not get any specific comment as to whether Haidt would allow communities to exclude (expel) Blacks, for example, or what one should do if there is no community for the expelled individual to go to. For example, many Jews tried to leave Europe before the Holocaust, only to be forced to remain by policies that did not allow their immigration into safer societies. The Native Americans also had nowhere to go as the Europeans drove them into smaller and smaller communities.

Ultimately, if we were going to get into the details of his proposal with Haidt, even if we accept his call for diversity, we do not know how that set of rules would differ from those that Shermer proposed.


Andrew said...

"<>" was VS Ramachandran.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Why shouldn't the communities all be similar. There is one best way to run an economy and government, one best way to cooperate and one best way to build a city. If you seperated people out by temperments you might get different customs and attitudes, but I can't imagine totally different communities.