Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why and How to Live Well

The Wall Street Journal has a piece about some research that demonstrated that, contrary to what might be expected, atheists tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians. Of course one could quibble that a belief in many evangelical Christian tenets involves a belief in the paranormal and in pseudoscience, but you still get the drift nonetheless.

Prompted by this article, David Friedman suggests that high levels of irrationality amongst atheists may result from the fact that whilst science answers problems to do with explanations of reality, it nonetheless fails to offer any answers as to how to make sense of life or how to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why.

He wrote:

"People (non-believers) responded, I think, in one of two ways. One was to retain a serious belief in the religion and reject those parts of modern science that they found inconsistent with it—in its more extreme form, the fundamentalist option. The other was to give up serious belief in the religion and adopt some substitute: Environmentalism, Liberal politics, Marxism (as in "liberation theology"), Objectivism, New Age superstitions."

Of course (given the hero status that I normally accord to Dr. Friedman), this posing of two seemingly all-inclusive alternatives left me with a couple of restless nights as I tried to conduct a mental inventory for irrational beliefs, and naturally enough it is often hard to tell which of one's theories are blatantly irrational, (particularly at 3 o'clock in the morning), but I eventually decided (tentatively) that if you (tentatively) think that all ideas are potentially wrong and that you attempt to act only upon your seemingly most appropriate theory at the time, you don't fit either of the Friedman's alternatives precisely.

Yet where does such a position leave one with regard to deciding how to make sense of life, or how to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why?

Well, I think it wrong to think that science doesn't offer answers to these questions. Morality may be most accurately derived from explanations of reality with the use of reason and logic. For example, as far as science has shown so far, there is no evidence for life after death, and the most consistent explanations tend to point to the idea that "this is it", we have but one chance. But how could one derive answers as to how to live from with such knowledge? Well, either you can say "Ok, no point, I give up" and jump off a bridge asap, or "OK, I'll rattle along, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or "I will strive to live every moment well." Should one happen to commit to survival, then the last would seem to make the most sense and actually I'm extraordinarily lucky enough to see plenty of examples of human beings who strive to be as rational as possible and who manage this with superb skill.

Yet for those of us who are less adept, how is one to do this?

Actually, I'm not sure if the late Dr. Randy Pausch was a religious believer, but he nonetheless offered plenty of great suggestions as to how to live well for any practicing atheist in his Last Lecture and here.

(eg: he suggests ways of achieving a great attitude towards brick walls, he sensibly suggests "don't let tomorrow wreck today" and "I'm dying and I'm having fun", plus he has an eminently sensible theory that will be familiar to most home educators which he dubs the "head fake".)

19 comments:

Leo said...

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

Carlotta said...

Yep bits of it, but the faulty epistemology put me off!

Leo said...

I haven't read on her epistemology in detail, but she advocates reason. Her metaphysics and ethics are brilliant.

From the bits you have read, do you agree that Objectivism is a religion?

Carlotta said...

I am not sure how one might define religion, but I did think that her faults with regards to how one perceives reality were so important that it undermined almost everything else she wrote. She couldn't really advocate reason since her version of reason was inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be asking such a basic question but I can't remember much of Ayn Rand (except that I enjoyed her novels!), could you say briefly what her version of reason was (if you have the time and it isn't too long winded a think to look back into!)?

Thanks,

D

Ruth said...

I think that's one BIG quibble! All the survey really shows is that a lot of Americans believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience, some have it classified as Christianity and some not but that's just labels. I'm disappointed that David Friedman doesn't seem to have spotted this obvious flaw.

Personally I find a little Vipassana meditation helps to make sense of life without having to resort to belief in anything silly :-)

Carlotta said...

I think meditation in many forms has a great deal to be said for it...and backed by the science too. I don't know anything about Vipassana meditation though.

Carlotta said...

Hi D,

Try:

http://rebirthofreason.com/Articles/Younkins/Ayn_Rands_Ethics.shtml

for a quick rehash. My problem is that I don't think Rand's overarching principle of rational self-interest is demonstrably right, which she seems to think it is, although I would indeed agree that it is arguably sensible in most situations.

Leo said...

Can you deny your own existence?

Carlotta said...

Of course...though I don't *think* it is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that link - a nice, clear article!

Incidentally I agree with Ruth that the survey was flawed from what I read, a lot of rubbish to some how put atheists down with no good reasoning!!

d

Leo said...

Of course?

Anonymous said...

Lol! Well, over and above the normal level of 'lack of reasoning'!

D

Carlotta said...

I think quantum ontology (from what little I have understood of it) casts quite strong doubt about what I commonly assume to be the nature of my own existence.

Leo said...

You know you exist. You can't deny it to yourself or anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of you when listening to Anothony Grayling on R4 explaining why 'spirituality' in the sense of finding joy/comfort in the beautiful and sublime was not restricted to religious believers. I've tried to find a link but failed although there is a debate on you tube 'would we be better off without religion' from a radio 4 show titled 'Hitchens, dawkin,grayling vs Spivey,Neuburger,Scruton
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ivYoBJANsaM

sarah

Carlotta said...

Thanks S, I enjoyed that. I see the motion was carried!

Carlotta said...

Leo,

I really, really don't make that assumption. Perhaps I am wrong, but I nonetheless don't make it and feel happier not doing so, even though I generally act as if I have made that assumption.

Leo said...

I really, really don't make that assumption.

Sorry, I think I lost the thread. Which one you mean? You think you can't assume you exist, is that what you mean?