Recently, I posted this on my Facebook page:
“Does God exist?” is a bad question.
“Do people who believe in God behave better or worse than those who don’t?” is a far more useful question, isn’t it?
This was a relatively shallow take on a much deeper article I’d read a few days earlier. Very quickly, my friends started poking and prodding at it in the comments, which made me realize that I wasn’t going to get away with a shallow take, and I would have to dive deeper to support the point I wanted to make (which was basically my take-away from the article).
The article itself is a bit heavy for me; I don’t have the appropriate Liberal Arts background, and I was unfamiliar with many of the terms used there (hermeneutics, intersubjectivity). But, I think I got the overall gist of the argument, which I’m reproducing here. (Knowledgeable people, if you find places where I’m mistaken, please post corrections in the comments below.)
I see this as a rationalist atheist’s guide to thinking about God/Religion/Spirituality. The basic idea, I think, is this:
Let us assume that science is right and the universe is fully driven by the principles of science, and with enough knowledge of all the universal laws and enough computation power, we could predict the results of all actions and behaviors. However, we don’t know all the universal laws, and even if we did, we certainly don’t, and will not have enough computational power to do the computations.
Human beings are very complex. And human societies are even more complex. In the absence of our ability to perfectly model either of those, what kinds of rules of behavior should a “scientific” or “rational” person formulate? Specifically, if we formulate certain rules of behavior for a person in society, can we predict the effect of those rules across long time-frames—over generations? (Spoiler: No, we can’t.)
Let’s approach this from a different angle.
There’s a survival-of-the-fittest evolution happening at tribal/societal level. Tribes/groups/societies that have certain beliefs and hence follow certain rules of behavior survive and thrive, and those that follow other rules die out. This process has all the key characteristics required for evolution: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene migration due to genetic admixture. Repeat this over long-enough time frames, and you can start thinking along these lines:
Old traditions that have survived long enough have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today
This is true, even if you, as a rationalist thinker do not see the connection. Because, the connection is beyond your computation capabilities.
We can follow up that thought with this one:
Beliefs drive behavior. So, traditional beliefs, even if they’re objectively untrue, even if they’re provably false, have value in terms of the behaviors (rules) they’re driving, which can have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today.
And thus, we reach
If a belief has survived in various different societies for thousands of years, it has value (in as much as it results in society as it exists today), even if the belief is provably false
Does this mean that we should uncritically accept all traditional beliefs and rules? Certainly not. There are things wrong with society as it exists today, which are driven by traditional beliefs and rules. But, these problems cannot be fixed by purely rational thought processes, because purely rational thought processes are not powerful enough to even model the problems, forget fix them.
There are lots of things wrong with lots of traditional beliefs. Also, many of them were responses to situations and problems that just don’t exist today because of modern science, medicine and technology. But I want us to acknowledge that there is a lot right with many of them in ways that are not obvious, and we need to re-view them with this new lens. For example, this thought process has helped me better appreciate the reason for homeopathy’s existence.
Anyway, here’s the original article that inspired this thought process. Good food for thought, if nothing else.