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“Not So ‘Bright'”

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Title of Dinesh D’Souza’s editorial page essay in today’s Wall St. Journal on the growing trend of considering religious people dumber than atheists or agnostics, because they are clearly not being rational. More:

    It seems that in our own day some prominent atheists are agitating for greater political and social influence. In this connection, leading atheist thinkers have been writing articles declaring that they should no longer be called ‘atheists.’ Rather, they want to be called ‘brights.'”

    Philosopher Daniel Dennett defined a bright as a ‘person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view.’ Mr. Dennett added that ‘we brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny or God.’ His implication was clear: Brights are smart people who don’t fall for silly superstitions.”

    Mr. Dennett, like many atheists, is confident that atheists are simply brighter – more rational – than religious believers. Their assumption is: We nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith.”

    Mr. Dennett and his fellow brights, for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy, first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality. In his ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ Kant showed that this premise is false. Why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, one that simply cannot be appreciated by our five senses?”

    Kant isn’t arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. Notice that Kant’s argument is entirely secular. It does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant’s philosophy ‘opens the door to faith,’ as the philosopher himself noted.”

    The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

To me, Kant was truly a quantum thinker, centuries ahead of the science that now undergirds his revolutionary thesis. The fundamentally random, statistical/Bayesian structure of quantum reality, which, after all, undergirds our daily existence and all of our world, is a testament to the ultimately unknowable.

Besides, don’t you have just the tiniest little doubt in your mind that some little fish wiggled out onto the prehistoric mud and was, therefore, your and my oldest earth-bound ancestor? I mean, next time you’re in a pet shop, wander over to the aquarium section and have a look at our great-great-etc.-grandparents’ other descendants. Cousin, anyone?

Oh, and don’t forget the Big Bang: 13 billion or so years ago, nothing exploded, producing our universe. Oh, OK. D’oh!

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  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    D’Souza cheats in his arguement, mis-representing rationalist world-view. We can’t know everything, but we can know what ain’t so.

    That at the core, is what rationality is about, being able to show your work. Solve and equation? Make a statement? Have a theory?

    Prove it! Have other people get the same results. Show your work.

    Otherwise D’Souza is just using the Wizard of Oz as his standard (ignore the man behind the curtain).

    You can’t pass off opinion as fact. His article is nothing more than three-card monte down at pseuds’ corner.

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting Joe, thanks. It always seems shockingly arrogant to me when people think that they are capable of knowing all there is to know. It turns out even the most rational of human endeavors – mathematics – is unknowable at its edges. It seems wholly logical that the world would be this way as well, and the more we find out about the existence, the more we realize how indeterminate much of it is.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    The problem I have with the “bright” movement as I’ve read about it before is that it stifles debate. In philosophy or religion or life in general, there are certain arguments that are show-stoppers, that halt all further discussion of a topic. I consider that rude beyond belief, not a valid part of philosophical or theological debate.

    I believe that dimissing your opponents by inferring that they are “not-so-bright” is exactly one of those stop-energy arguments, like arguing that thought isn’t real or that no answers can ever be known for any length of time.

    If any of those things were true, it wouldn’t matter for the purpose of the debate, since they render the debate inconsequential or invalid.

    It is the same frustration I run into when I deal with hard-core partisan ideologues who are just convinced that they are right beyond a shadow of any doubt and refuse to even debate the edges of their assertion, as often happens here.

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    Dawkins specifically intends the word to be used as a noun.

    And, although “gay” is used as an adjective, “bright” is a similar term–“gay” doesn’t mean “happy,” necessarily, and “a bright” doesn’t mean “a smart person,” necessarily.

    Of course, that’s Dawkins. Personally, I think people who believe that the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the voice in my head, Darth Vader, Zeus, Allah or God controls events in reality are at least a bit disturbed.

    A delusion believed by a shitload of people is still a delusion.

    Every day, the Raving Atheist, one of the best blogs on the Web, offers excellent commentary on “how religious devotion trivializes American law and politics.” From his entry today on the Wall Street Journal piece:

    Dinesh D’Souza trots out a variant of the argumentum ad ignorantiam against atheism in today’s Wall Street Journal. We’re limited beings with a paltry five senses, he argues — and since we can’t know everything, any completely made-up shit about what supernatural forces lay beyond our perception is as intellectually respectable as non-belief. Moreover, even while functioning within the world we do know, it’s perfectly acceptable to act on our completely made-up shit beliefs no matter how they conflict with apparent “reality.” Faith healing, child-sacrifice, suicide bombing — bring it on!

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Your Honor, in the case of “The People vs. Those Who Arrogantly Assume Omniscience,” I present exhibit A.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Oh, and don’t forget the Big Bang: 13 billion or so years ago, nothing exploded, producing our universe. Oh, OK. D’oh!

    Actually, it’s not “nothing” but everything. The universe right now is expanding, but it will at some point reverse and begin to collapse on itself, culminating at a point where it can no longer collapse any further. The energy within the tiny little ball of everything could no longer be contained and unleashes itself upon the universe once again. The Big Bang happens over and over again – not just once.

    Physics/astonomy lesson over.

  • JR

    “The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is…”

    No, the atheist simply doesn’t believe in a creator. The assertion that atheists don’t believe in the unknowable is a foolish generalization.

    Tom: That’s one model. But I was under the impression that the open-ended model, wherein the universe keeps expanding forever, is currently in favor.

  • Paul

    “Besides, don’t you have just the tiniest little doubt in your mind that some little fish wiggled out onto the prehistoric mud and was, therefore, your and my oldest earth-bound ancestor? I mean, next time you’re in a pet shop, wander over to the aquarium section and have a look at our great-great-etc.-grandparents’ other descendants. Cousin, anyone?”

    Considering that an enormous amount of our DNA is identical to most other living creatures on this planet, it’s not that much of a stretch. If you look at the genetic make-up of all creatures on this planet, it’s fairly clear that we’re all inter-related and share a prime ancestor.

    I’m a fairly religious guy, but I consider ignorance just as much an enemy of Faith as doubt. If God created all this and gave us reasoning minds to explore His creation, it would seem sacriligious to shun an examination of it. How else are we able to truly appreciate His creation, if not by exploring it?

  • Paul

    “Actually, it’s not “nothing” but everything. The universe right now is expanding, but it will at some point reverse and begin to collapse on itself, culminating at a point where it can no longer collapse any further.”

    Actually, the Universe is expanding at what appears to be an ever-quickening pace. It’ll just keep expanding until all the heat and energy available within the system dissipates into virtually nothing. I remember a few years ago, people were going on about the Cosomological Constant and how if the number were X, we would begin to collapse, and if the number were Y, we would expand forever. Recent observations seem to indicate that the number is in the Y neighborhood.

  • http://www.well.com/~srhodes Steve Rhodes

    Just because science (which is evolving constantly by definition) doesn’t have an explantion for everything does’t mean that those of us who haven’t accepted Jesus as our savior are going to hell.

    I think Dawkins is usually full of shit (his social Darwinism is reactionary and reinforces patriarchal conservative views) and bright is a stupid term. But there is an underlying assumption in American life that people are religious and believe in a god.

    There are ethical systems that don’t rely on religion or science and many non-believers who are better people than believers (but ofcourse they are still going to hell).

  • Eric Olsen

    I think the essence of this particular matter is theism vs. atheism, not any particular deity or set of religious doctrine. The question is, is rejection of the supernatural more logical, a superior way of thinking, to acceptance of the supernatural. D’Souza says it isn’t for the resons he states.

    I don’t think Joe, who is a doctor, is questioning evolution here (please correct me if I’m wrong), but giving an example of the seeming irrationality of science.

    And from what I’ve read, the current thought is with an ever-expanding universe, based upon the fairly recent discovery that the expansion is not only not slowing down, but is speeding up.

    I see no conflict with science, discovery, questioning, being fully human, and a belief in a higher being or whatever you want to call it – for me it is simply a different kind of knowledge.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    the universe is definitely expanding….’cuz every time i look for my jar of dave’s insanity pickles in the fridge…it has moved to a new location: and everyone else in the house proclaims loudly that they have not touched it.

    as for the existence of a supreme being (or not)….i have no idea which side makes you more logical (or more ‘moral’, for that matter)

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Steve (#10), that is the sort of argument that I appreciate hearing. I disagree, but at least we can still discuss it.

    Mark (#12), the same.

    As soon as someone fails to address the topic at hand and starts to delve off into meta-argument about whether holding such-and-such a view is more or less logical or moral or intelligent or whatever, that person has stopped all reasonable discourse.

    If ‘A’ believes in the historical reality of the Easter bunny, ‘A’ can present his case. If ‘B’ doesn’t, ‘B’ presents his. During the course of the clash, many other factors may come into play, such as a discussion of whether the historical reality of any figure can ever be proven or disproven, whether we are confining our inquiry to this universe or allowing for the existence of parallel universes, and what would consititute proof. But as soon as ‘A’ says ‘B’ is just plain old stupid because ‘B’ can’t or won’t accept a certain argument from ‘A’ as a proof, I believe that ‘A’ has lost the debate. Unable to deal with ‘B’ on the agreed-upon terms, ‘A’ has struck out into meta-argument, conceding his failure.

    That is how I feel about anyone who advocates labels such as ‘bright,’ or for that matter anyone who claims that no evidence or reason of any sort is needed because “a voice in my head told me so.” It’s stop-energy, and it is useless.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    how the heck can you disagree about the fact that i have made no decision about the morality/logical attributes about either sides’ arguments?

    man, this is weird. i was just having a conversation about this very topic last night with a friend of mine….

    (…ooooh, it must be a sign!)

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Mark (#14), obviously I meant that I disagree with your assertion that everybody in the house loudly proclaims anything. I suggest that at least one resident of the house is not actually loud during the proclamation phase of the pickle-locating project. That you didn’t understand that is clearly a reflection of your existence as a “dim,” or “one who does not believe as I do.”

    Or, I could have meant “the same” about the “we can still discuss it” bit.

    Nah, it was the first one.