Friday, April 15, 2005

Captured by the Bamboozle

Our Daily Philosophical Quotation service recently forwarded this one from The Fine Art of Baloney Detection by astronomer Carl Sagan:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge - even to ourselves - that we've been so credulous.

If anyone is qualified to speak on bamboozling an audience it is the author of the astonishingly hubristic claim that "the universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be." Why Sagan ever thought that a scientist, speaking as a scientist, should make such a blatantly unscientific assertion he never to our knowledge said. His insistence that reality consists, and has always consisted, solely of matter and energy has the ring of a religious affirmation to it, and it is fair to suppose that Sagan believed it, not on the basis of evidence, but because he wanted it to be true. He was a metaphysical naturalist, an outspoken atheist, who promoted his worldview with unrestrained gusto and who reveled in his vision of a world purged of the supernatural.

He's right, though, that people reach a point in their lives when they're captured by the bamboozle. We each acquire so much psychological inertia in our believings, we invest so heavily of ourselves in our convictions, that we ultimately reach a point of no return after which it is nearly impossible for us to change our minds. We become so enamored of an idea, so comfortable with it, that we don't want it not to be true. Indeed, we sometimes cannot conceive of it not being true. At this stage we have probably already passed the point where it became too painful to acknowledge that we've been taken in.

In the passage quoted above, Sagan probably has in mind, inter alia, religious believers, but one wonders if he could not as easily be talking about himself. Was Carl Sagan himself beguiled, captured, by a naturalistic account of reality that is inherently fraudulent? As an astronomer, he of all people should have been aware of the burgeoning body of evidence being compiled by his colleagues which indicated that the universe is almost unbelievably fine-tuned. He must have known that many scientists in his field were remarking with awe upon the numerous signs of intentionality and foresight that filled the cosmos. There are, it turns out, literally hundreds of facts about the universe discovered in the last several decades which, had they been otherwise than they are by nearly infinitesimally small amounts, the universe either would not have existed at all or it would have been utterly unsuited for living things.

Of course, astonishing precision and enormously high improbabilities are not conclusive proofs that naturalism is a mistake, but it certainly must count as evidence that should provoke doubt in the mind of an honest skeptic. Those who doubt, however, don't make the sort of claim quoted above, a claim which requires a level of dogmatic certainty found only in the staunchest of true believers. Sagan didn't seem to have any doubts whatsoever that man is a purely material being in a purely material universe which is ontologically solitary and unique. If he did have doubts, they were evidently too painful for him to acknowledge. It probably would have dismayed him beyond endurance to think that he might have been so incredibly credulous.

Carl Sagan died in 1996 at the age of 62. The irony is that if he was wrong, perhaps he's now realized it. If he was right, though, he'll never have had the satisfaction of knowing it.

The Center For Naturalism, Pt. II

On April 10th we posted commentary on claims the Center For Naturalism (CFN) present on their web site where they seek to clarify and promote the fundamental tenets of naturalism and to tease out their implications for modern man.

CFN embraces a deterministic view of human volition, a view that all of our behavior is caused by our strongest motives, and that free will is an illusion. They state, for instance, that:

Since on a naturalistic understanding, persons are not self-made, but owe their successes and failures to the conditions into which they were born and developed, major social and economic inequalities cannot be justified on the basis that individuals strongly deserve their status.

Nor, however, can these inequalities be condemned. On the naturalist view, they are neither right nor wrong. They just are. Social inequalities, like everything else, are simply the product of the conditions in which society has emerged.

But if it is true that all our choices are determined, if indeed all of our successes and failures are the result of factors over which we have no real control, why does CFN assert the following:

Because naturalism shows our deep connection to the world, lessening ego-driven acquisitiveness and self-preoccupation, it prompts concern for others and for those who will succeed us on the planet.

Naturalists like those at (CFN) assume that everyone will agree with them that acquisitiveness and self-preoccupation are bad, and that concern for others is good. Yet why, if naturalism is true, should anyone assign value to these things at all? Concern for others, especially those who haven't been born yet, is neither good nor bad. In a Godless universe it's simply a personal preference, an expression of one's taste. CFN suggests that there is some sort of moral meaning in their claim that naturalism prompts concern for others, but in a world without God there is no moral meaning. There's no morality at all. Neither good nor evil have any existence.

They also write that:

Seeing our deep connection to nature in every respect can supply the basis for a mature, fulfilling, and cognitively consistent quest for personal growth and meaning.

The problem here is that if death is the end of all personal existence there really can be no ultimate meaning in our lives. On the assumption of atheism, meaning is at best ephemeral and at worst illusory. Everything man does is doomed to perish, all that he seeks to build are just so many sand castles at the edge of the surf, fated to be washed away at the next tide. We're born, we suffer, and we're annihilated. It's all pointless. There's no more meaning in our individual lives than there is in the life of a solitary fly, nor can there be unless physical death is not really the end of our existence.

Naturalism as a guiding philosophy can help create a better world by illuminating more precisely the conditions under which individuals and societies flourish.

Naturalism does not have the sort of record that engenders confidence in its claims to possess the key to human flourishing. Almost all of what is great in Western culture - its music, art, and much of its literature; its charitable and educational institutions; its hospitals and orphanages; its democratic forms of government; its concern for the oppressed and for human rights; even the work of its seminal scientists, was inspired directly or indirectly by Christian theism.

What cultural achievements, on the other hand, have been specifically contributed by atheistic men and women inspired by their naturalistic worldview? What cultural achievements can atheism point to as unambiguous contributions to "human flourishing"? Totalitarian communism? Darwinian survival of the fittest? Post-modern nihilism? The drug culture of the sixties? Gangster rap and punk rock? The art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano?

The unfortunate fact is that naturalism, so far from assisting human flourishing, actually stifles it. Its fruits are the Gulag, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Tiananmen Square, and the Holocaust. What's more, such fruits are inevitable when man is reduced to a mere flesh and bone machine with no soul nor anything about him that participates in the divine. The naturalist worldview affords meager support for the concept of human dignity and thus no solid basis for human rights. Rights, without transcendent sanction, are arbitrary and transient. They do not inhere in persons, they are mere words on paper which endure only so long as it pleases those who have the power to rescind them.

To paraphrase George Orwell, if you wish to picture the future in a world in thrall to naturalistic materialism imagine a boot smashing a human face, forever.