Will the Sacred Save Us from our own Reason?

I came across an article on the blog Science on Religion a little bit ago, and it made the argument about how powerfully destructive human reasoning can be. With our brains we humans have figured out great ways to ravage the land with ever-increasing efficiency and has pushed us to the environmental limits. Unmitigated, self-serving rationality can be destructive.

The solution? The need for certain cultural axioms, assumed without or beyond reason, in particular the notion of the sacred. If it is taboo to say or do a certain thing, then your create an automatic cultural brake towards all sorts of potentially detrimental behaviors. Without these cultural axioms, all sorts of doom can be expected.

While thoughtfully written, with a few swipes at New Atheists and IFLS that seemed more obligatory than insightful, it left us to beg the question: which axioms or sacred beliefs? Because it seems that the author (a PhD candidate at Boston University) already has a set of goals in mind, which means he wants there to be some particular sacred beliefs in place. Not just any. Which is very much the case because some sacred beliefs would count exactly contrary to his own goals of planetary preservation.

There has been a fair bit of opposition to environmentalism by American Protestants, and that has been the case for quite some time. That seems to be in part because of the belief among some that it is the sacred duty to use all of the resources of the earth, that they were placed here for a purpose. The notion of “subduing the earth” is supposed to be derived from Genesis, and that this was in part a reason for a lack of Christian support for the environmental movement was argued by L.J. White (1967) “The historical roots of our ecological crisis”, Science 155:1203-7. Much research has gone into this question, and it is still generally the case that some of the loudest opponents to combating climate change invoke biblical reasoning. So it seems that the cultural axiom of “subduing the earth” for its natural treasures is leading to exactly the sorts of doom that pure reason was supposed to have done.

So how are we supposed to get the right cultural axioms? If reason is off the table, we are left with what, religious authorities? Straight-up priestcraft? This sounds more like snobbish elitism trying to control the (reasonable?) masses.

Moreover, since all cultural groups, religious or otherwise, are going to have their own notions of the sacred or what constitute their cultural axioms, how do they figure out what to do when those cultures interact? How does the environmental/hippie culture deal with the slash-and-burn earth-subduers? Another holy war or two? Because if reasoning cannot decide, then what is left besides violence (a point made in part by Hector Avalos in Fighting Words)?

All of this is premised on what seems to be an absurd position, that pure reason has only one goal and cares not for the consequences. It also fails to understand that reason is motivated by what we already value, and we can have conflicting values. Obviously we want to have nice things, but we also notice the negative side effects. I want chocolate cake, but I want to lose weight. I want to have a car, but I don’t want to contribute to eventual sea level rise. How do we find the right path? Well, shouldn’t we be reflecting on it and seeing what appears to be the best way forward? Shouldn’t we be using … reason?

Moreover, reasoning is the common currency we can use across cultures. It’s about finding common beliefs and goals and then using logic and evidence to get the globally desired result. Cultural axioms fail to do that for the very defining fact that they are culturally relative and not cross-cultural. That isn’t to say the process gets us to where we want in a timely or efficient manner. Humans tend to stink at the process, and our own tribalism gets in the way. We tend to use our reasoning all too often as rationalization for our sectarian beliefs or goals. That is rather apparent in the news with the Kim Davis court battles and her specious arguments for religious freedom to not do her constitutional duties. Her supposedly sacred beliefs and bad reasons are getting in the way. (And remember, the marriage debate only moved forward because we said the current definition of marriage wasn’t uncompromisingly sacred but was relative and malleable as it historically has been.)

The solution isn’t more balkinization of beliefs, it’s being better reasoners and defrocking bad arguments and political stances. It doesn’t matter what is the sacred belief because of the consequences of her actions. Making the marriage debate a taboo is simply to undermine justice and freedom.

Now, it is true that pure reason cannot tell us what our values ought to be. Reasoning needs premises. We might find out we have stored up in our heads inconsistent premises (which is almost certainly the case for all of us), but it is from there we winnow out a more consistent position. From this we do our meta-ethics. Not from fist-pounding at some alter of the sacred, bestowed with power by mere say-so.

The Climate Change Encyclical: The Pope, The Warming, And the Ugly

As has been first leaked and then officially released, the vicar of Christ published an encyclical about taking action on climate change, in particular making it a moral issue. Reading the long document from the Vatican, it tries to lay out a response in showing a growing precedent in papal concerns about the environment as well as the morality of the use of natural resources to destructive ends for short-term gains. Some of the most interesting quotes on that point came from Pope John Paul II, such as the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (italics in original).

The production of this statement hasn’t been a surprise, and conservative voices in America had already been making statements about how the Pope should keep out of this debate. As well stated by The Onion: Frustrated Republicans Argue Pope Should Leave Science To Scientists Who Deny Climate Change. The irony is also very strong because Pope Francis has training in the natural sciences, namely as a chemical technician (but not a Masters in chemistry as has been reported, as noted by Forbes).

However, because of the nature of the response by the Vatican to take up the challenge of combating climate change, it may do more to polarize than the advance the conversation. The biggest issue with the acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is a political and psychological one, in that the acceptance of man-made climate change goes against the moral feelings of deniers. It suggests that standard free enterprise and industrial work is a negative force and requires something like government regulation or communal forces to undermine free trade. So no wonder Fox News voices are calling the Pope “dangerous” among other things. Then again, I have to imagine that so long as millions of people feel that someone like the Pope has the moral high ground it will be hard to put all of that cognitive dissonance aside. What the future will hold when it comes to public opinion on the reality of climate change and how to respond to it we will have to wait and see.

As for how to respond to it, things like carbon taxes and other market-based approaches certainly appear to be viable ways to go forward without abandoning basic capitalism–and really, it doesn’t undermine capitalism at all since it is forcing polluters to actually pay for the damage they cause and have prices reflect it (see externalities). However, other ways to combat the problem appear to have run against some points of Catholic dogma. As Lawrence Krauss notes, the encyclical doesn’t allow for dealing with population growth (see paragraph 50 of the encyclical). While it is certainly true that even without population growth the fact that poorer people want to have and will access more technology that produces carbon dioxide (be that cars or machines that have to be built and thus contributed to global warming, or the greater demand for meat) obviously having still more people wanting the same can only accelerate this issue. Also, demanding that we be less of consumers (paragraph 206) and it seems to be a part of a larger woe about technology and commerce. It is then less surprising that the encyclical saying nothing about discovering new energy sources and instead a call for less demand and more efficiency (192) and even some poo-pooing nuclear power (184), which may be one of the avenues we must take to reduce carbon emissions and still keep the lights on.

On the other hand, are the particulars for how the Pope wants to combat climate change really going to have an effect? The real point of the coverage of this story is the fact that the faith leader of over 1 billion people is calling for action on this serious issue, and it is that soundbite that will have any chance of resonating. The worst that I can expect is what will happen with Protestant response and how that could get into battles of biblical exegesis. Plenty of Christians have tried to say that the Bible tells them to subdue the world and make it work for humankind. Others want to highlight the aspect of environmental stewardship. I will be curious to see how that debate goes.

Bottom line: the papal call for environmental action is more likely to help in the long run, but I can expect to see a lot of push-back from the powers that be who want to maintain the status quo. For me, I’m onboard the Francis train.

Ethical Chocolate: Science Deceptions and Solutions

The big news last week was that a study touted around the world for showing the supposed health benefits of eating chocolate was as a hoax. As revealed at io9, the study was done in order to show how bad things are in science journalism and what can get published and noticed today in diet and medical journals using specious statistical tools.

The way it worked is this: the author, John Bohannon, collected a rather small number of subjects to do an experiment with three groups changing or keeping their normal diets. Then data was collected from all groups and a later battery of tests were done to find any differences. The problem with a study like this is that with the small sample size and the very many different tests, the chances of finding any variable change that is “statistically significant” is rather high. Note that “statistical significance” is not the same as having a result that is large and noticeable but instead is a measure of how unlikely to get that result if there were no correlation between input and output (i.e., diet with chocolate and weight). With most papers, a result is statistically significant if the chances of getting a correlation when there is none is less that 5% (p < 0.05); but that also means that if you do twenty tests you can expect one to be statistically significant just by chance. With so many tests and so few subjects to average out any statistical fluctuations, then any positive results -are at best specious since chance cannot be ruled out. Roll the die enough and you will get snake-eyes. Heck, it’s expected, and that should have been noticed by any journal reviewer or trained science journalist.

So the fact that the study even got published, let alone got wide attention, shows there is something wrong in how things are working.

Interestingly, this has been causing not simply a reflection on issues in science and journalism, but there is a question on the very ethics of doing a fake study like this one. Continue reading

Biblical Slavery as Explained by Dr. J. Harrill

Last night at the Convergence meeting I go to with Christians and atheists such as myself, there was a talk by one of the few New Testament scholars at the university, Dr. J. Albert Harrill, about how interpreters of the Bible in 19th century America tried to argue for or against the institution of slavery based on their preferred hermeneutic. Dr. Harrill has done a lot of research on the topic of slavery and its connections with the Bible and how the Good Book was used when it came to the topic. His talk was primarily taken from his paper about the American experiments in interpreting the Bible and getting either to the anti-slavery position or (in response) the pro-slavery position.

This was a great presentation, showing how the evangelical movement of the time moved away from literalism and more towards a moral intuition approach to avoid taking the Bible to endorse slavery. Of course, he also revealed the flip-side to the use of these hermeneutics and how they could be used with just as much justification against the user or otherwise claim the position is heretical. It was all-around enlightening, seeing how both sides made arguments that everyone could see were major boners (the Golden Rule justifies your father beating you? oh, please!).

I also had a chance to chat with Dr. Harrill for a bit, and I had brought up the book by Hector Avalos on the subject of slavery published last year or so. It looks like a review of that book will be published some time this year from Harrill, so that will be useful considering how much he has been researching this topic. I also chatted with him for a bit about my own interests in biblical studies, and he seemed knowledgeable about the tiny area I looked at, all the more amazing considering he is a scholar of Paul rather than Jesus (because there’s no evidence to work with for the latter he said; I suspect he means no good evidence to work with). Hopefully I get the chance to interact with him more.

If you can, I recommend you read the article I linked to above or his book on the subject. It is a great revelation about how the Bible has been used on the moral issue we think we know the answer to so obviously now yet the holy word just wan’t making that easy a mere 150 years ago. It also helps elucidate some American history. Check it out. And if you are a believer, do use this history to ponder your own approach to scripture; you may find things are not as rosy as you like. Do it, and obey your master (Ephesians 6:5)! 😉