A tiresome level of certainty
“Belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.” – Robert Anton Wilson
The on-going debate between a number of atheist intellectuals and their religious equivalents fills me with a large amount of disinterest. I haven’t gone so far as to read any of the books, whether by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or any of the long list of respondents [there’s a good list here, but the page is a mess]. Life’s too short.
It’s not that I don’t regularly read about ideas, whether religious, philosophical or political, but the thing that’s bothered me about this whole debate is the tiresome level of certainty. Religious people have always been like that, but atheists sometimes have a tendency to become as bad in their own way. Atheism becomes less an absence of belief in God and more a belief in the absence of God.
“If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit.” – Robert Anton Wilson.
The late Bob had it right – believe nothing, think about everything. We all exist inside reality tunnels made up of our beliefs and prejudices. The less we investigate and challenge the borders of our own reality tunnel, the more trapped by them we are.
“The Cosmic Schmuck law holds that  the more often you suspect you may be thinking or acting like a Cosmic Schmuck, the less of a Cosmic Schmuck you will become, year by year, and  if you never suspect you might think or act like a Cosmic Schmuck, you will remain a Cosmic Schmuck for life.” – Robert Anton Wilson.
It’s easy to attack the irrational, non-scientific beliefs of religious people, but that’s because they’re not supposed to make sense. Faith, belief, they’re all about taking a step beyond what is rational and scientific. Their certainty is rooted in doctrine, history and culture.
But what do the likes of Dawkins or Hitchens offer in return? Certainty that what we know now about the development life is true and that we already have all the answers. Given the pace of change in what we think about the university and reality, what are the odds that Darwin got everything right?
Moving from biology to physics, it appears very unlikely. Once you start thinking about theories of 10 or 11-dimension reality in particle physics, the idea that we can be certain of anything while we’re trapped in our perception of a 3-dimensional world is ludicrous.
The idea of intelligent design is one worth thinking about, if you dump all of the pseudo-religious nonsense that underlies it – an agnostic theory of intelligent design, if you want to be provocative. This would be a theory that there are things, possibly intelligent, beyond our immediate perception that might have influenced the development of life on earth.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a god, goddess or pantheon; it could be a form of collective intelligence; it could be aliens – whether extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional – it could be something else entirely that’s beyond our ability to conceive or imagine with the current limitations on our perceptions.
There are problems with the current theory of evolution. An example I like is that of an egg – or, more specifically, the diversity of an egg when cooked. You can fry it, boil it, poach it, scramble it or you can use it as part of probably millions of other dishes. In fact, eggs are more nearly twice as digestible when cooked than raw.
Of course, it could be a fluke result of evolution – that a common form of animal reproduction could have an important characteristic apparently unrelated to the development of the various species that produce eggs (not just birds, but also fish and, according to some, snakes and lizards). But it’s very hard to see how “producing zygotes that taste good and are nutritious when cooked in various ways” has any connection to natural selection. Something else could be going on.
Of course, that could well be completely fallacious, but the role of science is to ask questions and seek answers, not to come to conclusions. All swans are not white.