Friday, February 15, 2008

Is Atheism Just a Religion In Disguise?

David Sloan Wilson, an atheist evolutionary biologist, argues in a four part series (I, II, III, IV with more to come) about the "New Atheists" that the ideology of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens is really just a stealth religion. In doing so, Wilson distinguishes between factual and practical realism. Factual realism is about what really is; it is epistemic reason with the goal of finding the truth. Practical realism is instrumental; it leads to beliefs that are not necessarily factually true, but will serve a utilitarian purpose.

For example, imagine someone is diagnosed with a likely fatal form of cancer. That person will probably die within 6 months. However, clinical studies have shown that people who believe they have a shot of survival tend to survive more often than those who resign to their fate. Factual and practical realism would conflict insofar that the patient believing falsehood is beneficial to her future odds of surviving the illness.

Wilson is an evolutionalist, so he provides a biological basis for the distinction. If our minds are a result of natural selection, they are likely programmed to lean toward practical realism because an accurate representation of the world is less likely to help an organism survive than a belief that serves a specific purpose. Wilson gives us an example:

Consider Hans and Igor, who are mortal enemies. Hans understands that Igor is much like himself, even to the point of competing for the same square of ground. Igor regards Hans as an inhuman monster, completely unlike himself. If Igor's belief makes him fight with greater determination, then it counts as practically realistic, even if it is factually incorrect.

Igor is more likely to fight for that piece of land because he feels that Hans is a monster. But Hans knows the truth, which is that Igor and Hans aren't very different. But that epistemically accurate belief will do him no good in a fight like this. Igor's practical realism will win out in the end.

As a certain popular JBlogger used to say, religion is a necessary part of the human psyche. Wilson would probably disagree with that point, but he would probably agree that believing in some false concepts is hardwired into our brain. But that is only the description of how the human mind works. It doesn't mean that we should resign ourselves to the fact that it ought to work that way. Should humans work to actively eradicate any traces of practical realism when it conflicts with factual realism?

In a statement reminiscent of another blogger, Wilson talks about how truth is only one value:

Since most atheists are self-described truth lovers, it is easy to conclude that we have a moral obligation to favor factual over practical realism, whenever the two conflict. However, most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place all of us in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility that we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to, rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.

Wilson basically argues that there is no clear moral duty to only have true beliefs. If a false belief will have a positive benefit, it is not so obvious that we must purge it from our set of beliefs. Wilson is not making a clear normative statement about whether we must have epistemically true beliefs.

This takes us back to an old debate between William James and William J. Clifford whether we have a duty to hold only true beliefs. Some scholars believe that the argument was taking place on the normative, rather than just the epistemic, level. We have a moral duty to only believe true things. But that argument is problematic because sometimes practical realism will assist us in fulfilling our other moral duties. I might be more willing to help a person in need if I believe that person is generally good, rather than a criminal.

I hope to write more about this over the next week or so.

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