Monday, 17 December 2007

Do we want to win?

I mentioned the Four Horsemen video in my last post. Well, now I've had a chance to actually watch it and think about what the people have to say. One of the most extraordinary parts is the bit where Hitchens claims that he doesn't want to win the argument with religious types because then there'd be no-one left to argue with. As they were all generally trying to be nice to each other, the others didn't really call him on this as much as I would have liked.

Now I can see why Hitchens doesn't want religion to die out - if it did, he'd quite literally have to find another job, as he seems to spend most of his time nowadays debating various religious types or condemning them in print. But apart from purely selfish reasons, surely he realises that what he's saying is, in essence, that he wants there to be other people out there who don't know the truth about the universe, because this makes for an interesting conversation. I imagine Ben Goldacre must feel approximately the same about quack scientists, if he ever actually won the debate, he'd be out of a job (at least with the paper), but this doesn't mean he wants the quackery to continue. I'm willing to live with the proposition that it's an intellectual battle that isn't going to be won (at least, isn't going to be won any time soon), but surely the idea that it's an intellectual battle that we don't want to win *because we enjoy the fight* is just plain wrong.

Taken as given that religious people are fundamentally wrong about the world we live in, surely it's morally reprehensible to ask that they continue to labour under their delusions purely so that you have someone to beat up on in a debate. In some ways, I sympathise with him. We all know that taking the p*ss out of people who believe really silly things is fun, and I can understand why Hitchens likes the idea that there are people out there who believe really silly things, but surely he realises that the world would be a better place if there weren't. Surely those people deserve to know the truth, even if it does make Hitchens intellectualy life a little less interesting.

As Dawkins said (approximately) there's enough debate to be had in the real world, without spending time arguing people out of their delusions.


Christian said...

This surprised me, too, and I was waiting for the argument that we should try to "preserve" religious types just as we try to preserve endangered species, Amazon tribes or historic buildings. That, however, would mean we wouldn't want to interact with them too much so as not to distort their historical value.

I suppose what Hitchens is getting at (apart from selfish reasons) is that you want to keep them around to remind you that you didn't just get here, but that rational discourse has been established through a struggle: "lest we forget", so to speak.

Furthermore, Hitchens mentions Brave New World at one point, and maybe he harbours a lingering doubt as to the utopian potential of a world completely rid of superstition.

The thing is, having an "enemy" often makes it much easier to maintain good fellowship amongst you and your peers; losing your enemy may lead to the disintegration of the group. Keeping your enemies around (though in check) is a bit like having a vaccine in that respect. By the way, have you ever seen the South Park episode on Dawkins?

John Faben said...

I think the point I was trying to make - although I didn't make it very well - is that even the "lest we forget" argument is inherently selfish. Wanting other people to believe things that aren't true is unsavoury, especially if you want it purely to gratify your own intellect.

I think that wanting to preserve primitive Amazon tribes is unsavoury for similar reasons - of course the people should be free to continue to live the way they've always lived if they want. But if they choose to modernise, and the historical evidence suggests they probably would, it's not up to us to stop them. (although that's probably another topic for another day)

As for "fellowship", I think this is the point that Sam Harris tries to make. There's no need for organisations which campaign against witchcraft any more because no-one believes in witches. Similarly, if there were no such thing as religious people, it would be impossible to define "atheist". Atheism is entirely a negatively defined concept. In a world free of religion, the word "atheist" would simply have no meaning (which is part of the reason the "United Atheist Alliance" is a funny concept).

You get rid of religion, and obviously you don't have any "atheist" groups any more. Just about any movement would have to disband if it were to win it's major battles (and historically, many have. In a world where women have the vote, there's no need for Suffragettes. In a world free of torture there'd be no need for Amnesty. In a world free of superstition there'd be no need for the JREF. This doesn't mean that any of these organisations don't want to win their fight.

Ok, in a superstition-free world Hitchens might not get to sit in a room with Dennet and Dawkins, but that's not a reason to want other people to believe in religion, that's a reason to encourage scientists to talk to literary types more, which is completely separate issue.

Christian said...

"Wanting other people to believe things that aren't true is unsavoury, especially if you want it purely to gratify your own intellect."

In the latter case, certainly, but aren't there many instances in which being left in the dark is definitely a "savoury" option? What about the doctor giving false hope? Isn't that a rather unselfish act of wanting someone to believe something that is not true?

Dawkins has been accused of being a fundamentalist -- a ridiculous claim, surely, but he does have a tendency to be somewhat of a "truth"-fundamentalist. Truth is the ultimate aim in all endeveaours to him. He probably wants doctors to tell their patients exactly what their condition is and what their chances of survival are; see also his case against homeopathy. Now, I'm not saying that doctors shouldn't tell patients the truth about their conditions, or that homeopathy ought to be financed by insurance companies, etc.; I'm merely suggesting that truth doesn't have an inherent claim to be the arbiter of all human actions and that, in some cases, half-truths are a valid option.

And similarly, the wish to have at least some people left in the dark can be a valid wish, and doesn't have to be a selfish one, either.

John Faben said...

Ok, there's certainly a debate to be had about whether or not allowing people to lie to themselves is good *for them* (although the sort of lies that homeopaths spread certainly are dangerous). Personally, I tend to be of the opinion that I'd rather what I believe about the world is true and , more specifically, that once the truth is known it's not possible for me to believe anything else, however comforting. But that's not the issue here. Hitchens specifically was not saying that he wants other people to be religious for their own sake, but for "ours". I think we can agree that this is wrong.