Friday, February 27, 2009

Reason is not enough

I just finished reading Chris Hedges' 2008 book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. The image on the left is from a YouTube video of an interview Hedges gave on CBC's The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, which gives a pretty good overview his argument. One side point: while the book is a great read, its title is oddly misleading, so pay that no heed.

Hedges argues that both poles of the debate about reason and religion are occupied by fundamentalists, but at one end they are religious while at the other they are atheist. He argues persuasively, but I have some doubts ...


Hedges, a distinguished foreign correspondent for various newspapers including the New York Times, wrote the book after debates he had in May 2007 with Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great). Hedges terms these two writers "New Atheists" along with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. But what particularly distinguishes Harris and Hitchens is that their political views with respect to the Islamic world are curiously compatible with those of the Christian right. Harris: "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death." (The End of Faith). Hitchens: "But the plain fact is that the believable threat of violence undergirds the Muslim demand for 'respect.'" (Slate)

Hedges' thesis is that the new atheists and religious fundamentalists make the same mistake. They have a utopian belief in the perfectibility of humanity. The difference between them is that atheists hitch their wagons to reason and science while religious fundamentalists rely on faith. But Hedges argues the key point is that they both externalize evil:
Evil, for the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists, is not something within them but an external force to be vanquished. It must be conquered and defeated. This may take violence, even massive acts of violence, but if it leads to a better world, this violence is justified. They have been anointed by reason or God to do battle with this terrible evil. But once evil is seen as being only external, once some human beings are proclaimed more moral than others, repression and murder becomes a regrettable necessity to improve the world. Those infected with the "vice" of evil have to be controlled or exterminated.
On the contrary, asserts Hedges, inside each of us lies what Joseph Conrad called the "heart of darkness":
Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. ... We are bound by our animal natures.
Finally, Hedges argues that "We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril.":
This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind's most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption.
Hence, "We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin."

Now, I'm well disposed towards a lot of what Hedges says. I find the islamophobia of Hitchens and Harris to be repugnant. The same goes for Hitchens' promotion of the Iraq war and Harris' equivocation on the legitimacy of torture. They have both helped to prop up the Orwellian "war on terror". I dislike their combative, insulting, condescending styles of debate. And they both seem to lack insight into the meaning of religious belief.

Hedges' thesis has a lot going for it, and for the most part he presents his argument in a cogent way. Above all, I agree with him that absolute certainty is extremely dangerous. But some of his arguments don't sit right with me.


Hedges writes that many atheists believe that
... reason and science, rather than religion, will regulate human conflicts and bring about a paradise. This vision draws its inspiration from the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that taught that reason and scientific method could be applied to all aspects of human life. This application would lead to progress, human enlightenment and a better world.
The human species, elevated above animals because it possessed the capacity to reason, could break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It could make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.
Hedges seems to agree with Enlightenment thinkers that our "animal nature" is a threat, but does not believe we can "break free" of it. We are "bound by our animal natures", "frequently irrational", and "governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive". He sides with Freud who "warned that our instinctual lusts were stronger than our reasonable interests." Thus reason can be overwhelmed by our animal urges.

Is instinct really so unreasonable?

Like fear, for example? Is it unreasonable to flee from danger? Is it irrational to go out of your way to pursue a romantic possibility? Our basic needs, many of which we share with animals, are not irrational per se, but are instead the starting point of reasoning. Given that I'd like to go on a date with this man or woman, what's my best strategy? If I smell a gas leak, what should I do? Sometimes our instincts lead us to do things which might be labeled irrational, like running into a burning building to save a child. But that hardly seems contemptible.

Reason can lead to many different conclusions, depending on where you start. Deep-seated psychological factors can colour a person's reasoning. For example, strong biases can blind one to contradictory evidence. Perhaps more problematically, even when the evidence one uses has not been selected in a biased fashion, one's moral premises may be distorted. In particular, most of us are constrained (to put it mildly) by personal history and cultural assumptions.

What most worries Hedges, is our aggressive instinct and its connection with war and barbarism. We can understand aggression in the animal world. For example, when a mother Bear feels her cub is threatened, her aggressive response makes sense to us. Human aggression is another matter. Hedges, who has seen the brutality of war first hand—in Central America, Palestine, Bosnia, and elsewhere—is not optimistic. He is again swayed by Freud's argument that, as Hedges understands it,
The lusts for death and destruction are not external. They lurk in all human beings. They cannot be eradicated.
This dark view leads Hedges to some remarkable conclusions:
Pacifists, although they do not fuel the lust for violence, keep alive the myth that the human species can attain a state of moral perfection. This myth feeds the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who demand the use of violence to cleanse the world, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, of "the evildoers." The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility, and the failure to accept our own sinfulness, our own limitations and moral corruption. This belief in our innate goodness becomes dangerous in a crisis, a moment when human beings feel threatened. It enlarges our capacity for aggression, violence and mass slaughter.
So pacifists do not "fuel the lust for violence", but they indirectly "feed the aggressiveness and cruelty" of others. Huh? And militarism isn't dangerous?

What I think this reveals is that Hedges is extremely pessimistic about attempts to address structural causes of the world's problems. I do not disagree with him that each of us is morally imperfect. And I share his distrust for utopian projects—though I would strongly argue that pacifism need not be construed as utopian. But I think he's been reading a bit too much Ecclesiastes.

Knowledge about wisdom / wisdom about knowledge

Hedges writes that "We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf." I agree that this naive faith in science is misplaced. Indeed I fully agree when Hedges writes:
Knowledge is not wisdom. Knowledge is the domain of scientific and intellectual inquiry. Wisdom goes beyond self-awareness. It permits us to interpret the rational and the nonrational. It is both intellectual and intuitive.
The equation of knowledge and virtue goes back at least to Socrates. And though I have long recognized it as an error, I have trouble shaking it—much to my chagrin. Perhaps it is because I think knowledge and virtue ought to be united. And perhaps it is just this sort of utopian thinking that Hedges is warning us about.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have logo at the bottom of the page also. Is that intentional ?

12:36 PM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Yes, it's intentional, and lazy too!

3:16 PM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

Very interesting book review Nick. I can understand some of Hedges. The (original) sin (read flaw if you like), as I understand it, is the ego or vanity -- the "I am right" delusion that always gets the better of me. And I think it afflicts everyone in varying proportions -- religious, secular or any other. Haven't we all felt it occasionally in our talks, and those of others around us? Something difficultly and rarely hidden from others, but easily from self.

In theory, at least, ego can be done away in theory, at least, there is optimism which Hedges doesn't appear to share. Whether this theoretical optimism will actually manifest remains to be seen.....for evolution is still underway and the universe has not come to the end of times.

11:07 PM, March 02, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Hedges clearly believes in Original Sin or—to use generic terminology—"innate human corruptibility". Further, he identifies utopianism as an arrogant denial of this. I tend to think that both positions are overstated. Humans make imperfect moral choices, but they do so in the context of imperfect social structures. Focusing exclusively on the former risks pessimism, while focusing exclusively on the latter risks utopianism. Perhaps humility is the ultimate challenge.

10:18 AM, March 03, 2009  

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