Thursday, 17 January 2008

Does reason matter?

In view of the fascinating ongoing debate over at Stephen Law's blog with Ibrahim Lawson, headmaster of an Islamic school, on the nature of education and the conflict between faith and reason, I am reprinting an earlier post of mine which bears on the issues:

Reason, we believe – it’s a matter of faith, of course – is what distinguishes the human species from all others. Or, rather, articulate reason: it’s quite clear from observation that some animals possess and use intelligence, and work things out for themselves by a process if reasoning, but they cannot exchange thoughts with each other or with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way, as adult human beings can do.


For centuries there has been an ongoing battle between reason and faith. Religious faith, being grounded in the supernatural – itself a speculative concept – claims human reason as its handmaiden, and always seeks to trump it in any argument. One sometimes feels, in arguing with religious people, that they are convinced they know all the answers: they know them right or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Their faith is invincible, so why bother to argue? Does it really matter whether the Earth is flat or globular, or whether prayer actually works? Yes it does; because if people base their actions on false assumptions, awkward consequences are bound to follow - not only for the perpetrators, but also for millions of others who don’t share their beliefs.


Logical reasoning, which is the basis of scientific method, proceeds by testing the probability of various hypotheses against the available evidence to obtain the best ‘fit’. Reasonable people are prepared to abandon even a cherished hypothesis if this is overtaken by a more convincing one. The upholders of faith are not; they know what they know because they BELIEVE it, sometimes against all the evidence. Evidence is not important to them - only faith is. The faith of many believers is grounded in a Holy Book which they are convinced was written by, or at any rate dictated by, a God. The trouble is, there are many Holy Books to choose from, and how do you know which is the “right” one? Jews have the Torah; Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Koran; Mormons have the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists have Mrs Eddy’s outpourings, and Scientologists have the works of L Ron Hubbard. A rich smorgasbord of faith! But according to each, theirs is the only “true” Word of God and the others are all fakes. A good beginning for harmonious inter-faith relations!


The irony of it is that, while denigrating reason, the religious use ingenious displays of it to bolster their irrational creeds. Their persistent casuistry is quite remarkable. The Pope, for instance, loses no opportunity to denounce the insolent hubris of the Enlightenment, an intellectual project which forms the foundation-stone of Western democracy and technological progress.


And of course, religious people are the first to avail themselves of the wondrous creations of modern science such as the internet, the jet airliner, and life-saving medical drugs. With few exceptions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not refuse to benefit from the very thought-process which they are constantly denouncing as impious. But where would we be, I wonder, if religion had succeeded in stifling independent scientific thought? Still convinced that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe? [There was, and maybe still is, a Flat Earth Society presided over, I believe - ah, there we go again…- by a Mr Huttle-Glank.] Still travelling by foot, or on horse, camel or mule? [“That person who invented the wheel, impious they were, knew better than God, they did; good thing we put a stop to that by crucifying them. If God had meant us to travel on wheels, He would have built them into the human frame.”] Still relying on witch-doctors and herbal remedies to treat cancer, tuberculosis and malaria? Still burning harmless old women as witches?


Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of the tale about the hell-fire preacher haranguing his subdued audience about the dismal prospects awaiting them in the nether regions. “And there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” he yelled. A little old lady in the front row quaveringly piped up: ”But I haven’t got any teeth.” “Make no mistake, Madam”, the preacher retorted, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”


Creationism is now the religionists’ favourite wheeze for attacking scientific method. It is a hypothesis based entirely upon faith, not evidence, but they want it to be taught in schools as a possible alternative to evolution – a hypothesis with a great deal of evidence to support it which has stood up for 150 years. I have no objection to Creationism being taught in schools, but not as “science”. It should be taught, if at all, as part of religious studies, or to illustrate the crucial differences between faith-based and scientific thinking.


The more religionists succeed in their attack on reason and its proper use, the more the world will descend into a chaotic, strife-ridden mess. It’s time to call a halt to the religious revolt against reason.

3 comments:

Ron Murphy said...

I have a minor disagreement: "but they cannot exchange thoughts with each other or with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way" - Tell this to my cat who is currently sat on my mouse lead, chin on my keyboard, nipping at my hand as I type. 8:15am and he hasn't been fed. A human couldn't sit with any more meaning. Try this link.

anticant said...

I entirely agree - our much-loved cat makes his wishes very plain - usually when he wants doors opening for him. What I meant was, without a common verbal language you can't DISCUSS things with animals. He submits, surprisingly graciously, to the various things we do for his own good, like cleaning his teeth and syringing has ears out, because he trusts us; but he obviously doesn't like these procedures much, and we wish we could explain to him WHY we are doing them.

Ron Murphy said...

If there is a God I suspect that cats were made in his image, not humans. They appear to have a true grasp on what matters in this world.