Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mystical, Philosophical Babble

One of the more interesting courses I took last year was a philosophy of religion course. One of the big facts I learned indirectly about philosophy was that philosophy is about as useless as it is fascinating. Don't misunderstand, I like philosophy. It's a good way to get ideas flowing, to learn how to conduct logical discussions, to learn how to think in different ways. However, I can't help but notice that when it comes to accurately describing, explaining or conveying reality, pure philosophy almost inevitably fails. Certainly, many of the ideas we hold true today began as mere philosophical treatises (political ideology and the like). However, there are also a good many philosophical ideas that we hold to be false. How do we choose which are true and which are false? It all comes back to whether or not that idea or concept is demonstrably true. I'll give you an example. How many times have we heard the phrase "communism looks good on paper, but it doesn't work in real life"? Now we could debate all day as to whether or not this is actually true, but the fact still stands that many citizens of the modern world believe this statement to be somewhat true. After all, there are many still alive today who were able to witness just how corrupt Lenin's conceptualization of communism became. Yes, yes, I understand that there are different types of communism, etc. My point is simply that soviet style per Lenin was once a viable idea, philosophically for large numbers of people. Reality told a different story. Lenin turned out to be dead wrong in many ways, despite being philosophically sound.

Back to philosophy of religion.

There are those within many (if not most) religious and spiritual traditions who assert that there are parts of "truth" that science cannot touch. Some would say that there are elements both inside and outside the universe that defy empirical and rational explanations. Therefore, we must turn to faith and philosophy in order to understand them. Whenever I hear someone make this assertion, I find it hard not to exclaim how ridiculous the assertion is. Without any sort of evidential support for its premises, a philosophical argument is indistinguishable from an opinion pulled out of thin air. I like to use the following example that I heard on non-prohpets once to illustrate this point:
I start by asserting that 2+2=5. This means that 4=5. By subtracting 3 from both sides, we find that 1=2. The pope and I are 2 people. Therefore, the pope and I are 1 person. Therefore, I am the pope.
Obviously, this is ludicrous. However, my logic was perfectly sound. My fatal error was in starting with a very bad, unverifiable premise. This is problem with pure reason and philosophy. There is no guarantee that such arguments will lead us to anything that's real. They may give us pause or make us think for a second, but they are useless for all practical purposes.

Unfortunately, every argument for the existence of any supernatural quality or entity is almost directly comparable to the 2+2=5 argument. This is because all of them start with a premise that no person or group of people can possibly justify: the premise that there MUST necessarily be something other worldly, supernatural or spiritual about the universe. Something beyond the material that explains or controls forces that humans simply cannot. Heartbreaking as it may sound to the already convinced, there is absolutely no practical reason to believe that this premise is true.

Sure, we may WANT there to be something other. We may HOPE that there is something other. And yet, being as we are, the universe owes us absolutely nothing. Our wants and hopes have no effect on physical reality. Some might point out that I'm attempting to use logic and evidence to approach something that is not logical. Fine. The problem with this point is that, if you wish to argue for the existence of anything in particular within this supernatural realm, you shoot yourself in the foot. Once you assert that something is beyond logic or evidence, you have placed it in the realm of the unknowable and have no business asserting anything specific about it. Anything specific you do choose to assert about it is, again, indistinguishable from ideas pulled out of thin air.

What I truly fail to understand time and time again is why people become so disheartened by the idea that there may very well be nothing beyond the material realm. Why do we feel the need to tack on mysticism to a universe that is wondrously intricate without it. It seems to me like tacking random lace patterns onto this dress:

Sure the dress is simple, but it's lovely the way it is. There's no reason to believe that there needs to be any lace on it at all. Sure, it's not extravagant, but why does it need to be in order for us to appreciate it? The way in which my dress analogy fails is in that the universe IS extravagant, even speaking in purely materialistic terms. There is even less need to add mysticism to the universe than there is to add accessories to this dress. There are plenty of mysteries and complexities in the universe as is. We don't need to pull new ones out of our butts that only distract us from the real "spiritual" nature of the universe.  Philosophical conceptions of reality are often fun and interesting, but, in the end, they might as well be no more than mystical babble. I say we stop babbling and start discovering. Or, at least, don't let our babble get in the way of our discovery. Let's stop pretending that there's something "deep" about concepts such as the "unmoved mover" or the "eternal watchmaker" when the real depth in the universe is deeper than any God or spirit we mortals could ever imagine. 

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