Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Need for a Design

It's not just religion that's guilty of this. We humans have a tendency for top-down thinking - a predisposition to confirmation bias that often turns into worldview-mania. In this manner, religious people behave just like conspiracy theorists. And while we're drawing the fine distinction between these two psychological phenomena, let's be clear that there are far more harmful conspiracy theories than your neighbor who mumbles about the Faked Moon Landings or semiliterate online discussion groups about Illuminati and Bilderburgers. There are, for example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century Czarist forgery written to justify pogroms and which is cited in Article 32 of the covenant of the governing party of Palestine. There are also the 9/11 inside-job people, who haven't relented although even Chomsky thinks they're idiots.

I once knew a divorced woman to whom the separation had been so shocking that every conversation she entered was somehow connected to her divorce within minutes. For people who have suffered severe trauma, it's understandable that their wiring would be recruited and rerouted through experiences that their central nervous systems are anxious to avoid next time. But this isn't always, or even usually, the explanation, for conspiracy theorists and religionists. Why such a need to see a purpose and a plan behind everything, even if it's a sinister one?

The answer can only be that for many people, a sinister master plan is still less frightening than reality, since reality is a careening, barely comprehensible, noisy, chaotic mess of self-interest and inertia, and we barely know what's happening twenty feet away or twenty minutes from now, let alone is it clear that there's a plan for it all. The religious need for the world's design to extend to living things presents more than a few hoops believers have to jump through. Traditionally we hear whining about evolution, but (as an aside to religious readers) you theists should spend your time combating some of the other insults to your faiths besides Darwin - for example, Lyell, Freud, Woehler, Wegener, Gibbon, Galileo, Copernicus, and Pasteur, to name just a few. (For many of these, your faiths oddly enough stopped claiming they were threats by the time everyone but Middle Eastern nutcases accepted them as true.) The focus on any nonreligious account for the living world may derive from the basic human tendency to divide the world into categories of animate and inanimate, often coded explicitly right into the morphosyntax of our languages. When human ideas are allowed to wander, untethered from evidence, these "thoughts" typically sediment out in a way that, rather than revealing the way the world works, only outlines the joints between our own cognitive domains, like iron filings revealing field lines. There's nothing special or truly separate about these categories in the real world; what we call living things are really just a set of complicated chemical reactions, as Woehler and Watson and Crick and thousands of other people have shown. But our brains evolved with certain biases and categories that probably helped us survive, and only now are we recognizing these biases and categories by using recently developed tricks like reason.

The problem I'm writing about here is old enough that it has a name: theodicy, or the problem (to religion) of the existence of evil. If G/god(s) is/are good, and G/god(s) is/are omnipotent, then how can evil exist? It's a kind of ultraviolet catastrophe for religion, except that in this case there have been individual Plancks laboring in the moral laboratory of life for twenty-four centuries or so, rediscovering the problem again and again. (Another difference is that in the case of physics, there was a solution to the problem that did not involve throwing out all of physics.) More often than not theodicy is examined in terms of human suffering, but when considered in terms of a designed nature the problem gets worse. Or, it becomes more obvious what the solution must be.

Let's take three examples of organisms that have likely come within ten miles of my home in the last week: great white sharks, mountain lions, and human immunodeficiency virus. All three are designed with admirable grace to do what they do - respectively, sneak up on seals and tear them horribly to pieces, with no hope of escape or relief or justice; jump on deer and tear them to pieces, with no hope either; or get into your T-cells, and tear them to pieces, so far with no hope of a cure - all in order to make more of themselves, and do it again. All of these three, in order to survive, must cause untold misery and fear. In contrast, if their unwilling victims come to consistently escape them, they will themselves perish. (Of course, by using HIV I'm baiting creationists. Christians in general often claim that HIV was created by humans. So, evolution can happen, or it can't? You have to pick one.)

Puzzlingly, the religious often assume that atheists are dark and depressed people. What a self-serving misapprehension this is. Atheists see suffering as resulting from the inexorable, pitiless and indifferent grind of mechanical natural law, and therefore, ultimately unnecessary. There's no justification needed for the existence of suffering, though there is justification needed for allowing it to continue, where it's within our power to eliminate. Should this be so hard to grasp? We each have just one life, here, and so do the other living things around us, and that's why it's so critical to eliminate suffering when we can. We know there's no moral reason for it to exist.

On the contrary, it is the religious whose every waking moment must be a depressing nightmare, who would rather believe in the sinister master plan of the celestial dictator. Try if you will to imagine without pity a person who truly believes we live in a world controlled by a celestial dictator who is willing to release into it organisms like sharks and mountain lions and HIV that can only survive by inflicting massive suffering and death on other living things; things that, if they do not inflict such suffering, will themselves soon perish. Atheists are free to enjoy without obstruction the pleasures that life affords, without having to twist ourselves into knots to explain the suffering that clearly exists. We just do what we can to eliminate it.

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