Know Thy Enemy: Fundamentalism

(Nathaniel writes:)

There is a powerful and dangerous idea among the ‘elite’, scientific intellectuals. It is by no means a new idea, having been around for quite a long while, and it is this: That most (or all) of the problems in the world have been caused by religion – or superstitious beliefs – in one form or another.

That’s the great thing about prejudice, isn’t it? You can form great judgments without first getting all of the facts. As we shall soon discover, getting all the facts is a very difficult process – some might say impossible – and that’s why certain individuals find prejudiced ideas so useful.

We know of countless wars that have been waged in the name of one religion or another. According to history – which is not in itself completely infallible – these wars happen all the time. According to the news, these wars are happening right now. You can be sure they’ll continue to happen in the future.

Now, here’s the problem as it affects our society. Religion and philosophy, despite making great advances in our time, cannot possibly keep up with the scientific revelations that occur every decade. They are simply no longer fashionable – in our culture, the things that move the fastest survive, and science most certainly moves the fastest.

Science is valuable. There are tangible benefits to supporting science. My enmity is not reserved for science, though – in and of itself I have no problems with science or its advancements. I’m weary of science, I’m paranoid of science, but I bear it no immediate ill will.

I bear fundamentalism ill will. Alas, most scientists these days are also powerful fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is, as I define it, the holding on to ideas until it serves to actually hamper intellectual growth. When a new, better idea is developed, the fundamentalist spits on it and cries heresy.

As most people around here know, I’m a self-professed magician. Not a stage magician, mind you, but someone who believer’s an individual’s will can strongly affect reality. This is, to most, crazy-talk; it’s up there with UFOlogy and ESP-research to most men of science. It simply does not warrant investigation.

That’s a problem. Not the fact that they don’t believe I’m right – that’s a normal, expected reaction – but that they’re not prepared to test that theory out. “It’s impossible!” they cry, when I talk to them of witchcraft and the latent psychic abilities within the individual human being.

Science does not work that way. Science understands that the laws it establishes are not really eternal, unbreakable laws: they cannot be absolute ideas, in a Platonic sense, because certain absolute ideas since that time have already been broken. We do not accumulate scientific theories until we have collected them all and reach enlightenment about everything in the universe; we collect and revise, add the good and subtract the bad.

To claim something is impossible is a powerful statement to make. In order to make it, you have to show that you know everything that is and is not possible. This is illogical. In a time where our understanding of the world is being shaken every decade, to say that we know everything is a monumentally stupid thing to say. If science, our dear friend, has proven anything, it is this: that nothing can be considered entirely impossible.

“Ah,” but some men of science will reply, “But magic and ESP and UFOlogy and paranormal events defy common sense!”

It’s often said that common sense is not all that common. There is a damn good reason for this. It is detrimental to the evolution of mankind as a whole. Still, common sense is a little too common among the intellectual elite for my liking.

Common sense is not what we need: what we need is a healthy agnosticism towards everything in this world. A weary, sceptical approach is prime – not the immediate shutting-down of all new ideas, not this common sense. Einstein’s theories attacked the common sense of physicists at that time; Galileo’s astronomical findings attacked the common sense of those who knew that the Earth wasn’t moving; Darwin’s theories of evolution attacked the common sense of those who knew they weren’t primates.

As it has also been pointed out numerous times before, common sense and logic are not purely objective things. How could they be? There is no ‘true’ objectivism; at least, not as true as we would like to think. While there may be objective truths, the problem is that when they are deciphered by an individual the individual’s subjective thoughts get in the way.

This is called a reality-tunnel; our sphere of beliefs. Reality-tunnels, in and of themselves, are fine – but we have to understand that there will always be more to the world than to what our reality tunnel tells us. Our paradigms should be used until they are useless, in which case a better model should be found.

Ultimately, every individual’s reality-tunnel is flawed. Our beliefs are always going to be influenced by (a) the beliefs of those around us and (b) our previous beliefs. Let’s look at a typical Marxist socialist, for example. A typical Marxist shows typical rage towards those who do not agree with their ideals – capitalists, in other words. Any who do not support their cause are evil scum, and should be destroyed.

However, a Marxist also has to somehow come to terms with the belief, eschewed by Marx himself, of economic determinism; that capitalism will fall, communism (or socialism) will rise, and we will enter a utopia world. Every man and woman has his place – either as a capitalist or a revolutionary – but it ultimately doesn’t matter, because socialism will win in the end.

Ultimately: it’s not the fault of the capitalists. It is their place to fall – someone has to do it! The two ideas would clash within the reality-tunnel of an established Marxist more than they would realise, I should think, at least subconsciously. The Marxist sphere of belief is flawed.

There’s a reason we do not talk about truth in things such as mathematics, the ‘pure’ science: we talk about validity. How valid is this idea, now? It may not be true, but it can most certainly be valid for our purposes, and in this case mathematics got things right.

After all, there’s more than one type of self-consistent algebra and more than one type of geometry. We use the different types as we need to. One type is only better than the other in that it is more useful – not, as some would believe, because it is more right. All of them are wrong.

We’re quite honestly working with dodgy models of thought that only work in certain situations, and we have the nerve to cheerfully proclaim what ‘is’ and what ‘is not’? They’re useful, yes, but the idea that they are right is a powerful misconception. There are no eternal truths that we know of – there is no pure reason.

We see something occur, some event in space-time, and some (but not all) of that energy hits us. We process the energy, and then the neurological processes subtract and add things to what we ‘saw’. The important thing is that we could not possibly have experienced the entire event, so how can we fully judge it?

“This is an apple” then equals the much more correct “this seems like an apple to me”. Now, if we all had reasoning like that – if we all had the gall to admit that our spheres of thought may be incorrect – how many atrocities would have occurred this century?

Hitler: “The Jews are evil filth” sounds a lot worse than “the Jewish people seem like evil filth to me”. Bush: “The war in Iraq is fully justified” would be much better as “the war in Iraq seems fully justified to me”.

Religion doesn’t cause all the wars and terror in this world – neither does science. A greater, darker force – a force that encompasses the two of them – is the problem humanity needs to overcome before things get better. Sheer-minded fundamentalism is the enemy. Since we cannot possibly get all of the facts, we must admit that we’re all prejudiced in one way or another; but come on, can’t we just admit that?

Thoughts?

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8 Responses to Know Thy Enemy: Fundamentalism

  1. Reuben says:

    Nat, I think you mixed some seven different posts into the one, but I’ll try to attack your views anyway 😉

    That most (or all) of the problems in the world have been caused by religion – or superstitious beliefs – in one form or another.

    I don’t believe that. I think religion plays a major role though…the correlation between a lack of education and religiosity is certainly speculative food for thought – though I don’t consider it to be valid since there is no causal link.
    Do you think that if Israelis and Palestinians (tritely discussed in the context of religious warfare) were of the same religious identity (ie Sunni Muslim), they would be fighting equally viciously? I somehow doubt that.

    I bear fundamentalism ill will. Alas, most scientists these days are also powerful fundamentalists.

    My data tells me that most magicians these days tend to make powerful generalizations.
    Fundamentalism is critically defined as a fixed, unwavering belief that (alongside with your definition which strikes me as quite decent) remains steadfast despite any contradictory evidence – no matter how obvious and/or strong. A flat Earther is a fundamentalist. Fred Niles is a fundamentalist (and a hateful bigot whose inability to garner electoral support – let alone intelligent debate – is second only to his inability to place his pious preachings behind actual sense). The pope is too.
    Scientists as fundamentalists? I don’t think so. Scientists like Dawkins – who I’m sure you think is fundamentalist – are very emotional and passionate; they also tend to revel in the ‘celebrity spotlight’ and, in Dawkins case, want attention.

    Ultimately, every individual’s reality-tunnel is flawed. Our beliefs are always going to be influenced by (a) the beliefs of those around us and (b) our previous beliefs.

    I would agree with you there…though I think the degree to which we are influenced by either a) or b) is debatable…but not measurable. In this sense, I think your paradigm put forth is a little bit too prescriptive.

    There are no eternal truths that we know of – there is no pure reason.

    That is correct…but there are some ideas/thoughts/subjects that are clearly more reasonable than others. I would think Mathematics would be the ultimate form of reason.

    We use the different types as we need to. One type is only better than the other in that it is more useful – not, as some would believe, because it is more right. All of them are wrong.

    No arguments from me…though I think you should know the “different uses” are mainly talked about in the context of engineering. However, the different uses don’t lower or raise their truth value. A continuous probability density function is no more ‘true’ than an inverse equation.

    From what I’ve read generally, Nat, you have a mildly decent – if a little conflated – understanding of science (though I’m sure Oskar will come in, guns blazing, to tell me that I’m about as scientific as the St. Kilda Flat Earth Society 2003 AGM). But fear not, I have a post in the oven that will be published soon – pending my employment status – that delves into this very issue.

    Am I prejudiced? Probably.

  2. Brian says:

    “Science understands that the laws it establishes are not really eternal, unbreakable laws: they cannot be absolute ideas, in a Platonic sense, because certain absolute ideas since that time have already been broken.”

    I’m sorry. I read that fifteen times and it still didn’t make any sense. After that my brain shut down. Too much whisky, too little sleep.

  3. nlthinking says:

    Reuben.

    Brian…it’s hard, even for a young, impressionable mind like mine.

  4. Brian says:

    “Know Thy Enemy: Fundamentalism”

    Incidentally Nat, just to be pedantic, shouldn’t that be “know ‘THINE’ enemy”, ‘THY’ being non-possessive. It’s probably not relevent to the post, I know, but where would fundamentalists be without fun? (Answers on a postcard please.)

  5. Reuben says:

    If we didn’t have fundamentalists, we probably wouldn’t be able to laugh very much, no.

  6. Sanders says:

    Religion isn’t solely responsible for the many problems in the world.

  7. Brian says:

    “Religion isn’t solely responsible for the many problems in the world.”

    No…it’s ‘souly’ responsible for the many problems in the world. (I’m going to put down this Giles Brandreth book now and go back to bed.

  8. Oskar says:

    “most (or all) of the problems in the world have been caused by religion – or superstitious beliefs”
    I think that this is true, only because religion and superstition are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Humans are fairly barbaric animals and , like most anilmals, will kill or injure each other to gain an upper hand in life. As a species we have been able to take this to an extreme because science has empowered us. In this way I guess it would be reasonable to say that while religion and superstition are the cause of so many of our problems, science and technology are the means by which we have generated them.

    “Alas, most scientists these days are also powerful fundamentalists.”
    I completely dissagree with this. I would agree with you if you had said that the most political of scientists these days tend to be fundamentalists. In fact these make up a tiny minority of scientists. Even Dawkins says that any atheist who’s thought things through should have some agnosticismin them. I would also say that you are grouping scientists and atheists together rather irrationally. I am sure that the percentage of atheists who are fundamentalists is greater than the percentage of scientists.
    I know of very few institutions other than science where experts will give up on existing opinions so easily. I have personally witnessed a university lecturer thank a student for proving him wrong on a section of his research during a public lecture on mathematics. Of course I am talking about fundamentalism within science here, not any other beliefs scientists might have, but I don’t see why they should be held to higher standards outside of their feild than a randomly selected population sample.

    “but that they’re not prepared to test that theory out.“It’s impossible!” they cry”
    I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Reuben isn’t a scientist.
    In all seriousness, I’ve read two papers on scientific testing of astrology and telepathy. Niether convinced me that either practice worked. I have (as you know) volunteered to run some kind of tests on your brand of magic. Although, if I know you like I think I do, then you’re probably overdramatising about this one.

    ““But magic and ESP and UFOlogy and paranormal events defy common sense!””
    I don’t think any real scientists think this, Where are you getting these quotes?

    “the ‘pure’ science: we talk about validity. How valid is this idea, now?”
    “proclaim what ‘is’ and what ‘is not’?”
    I’ll tackle these two together. I think you are making the all too common mistake of confusing sounds with meanings. When someone says something is ‘true’ in relation to science they do not (unless they are an idiot) mean fundamentally true. There is no reason that the sound that we make to say ‘valid’ is any better for the purpose of conveying a meaning of “consistent with current thinking/temporarily assumed to be correct” than the sounds we make to say the word ‘true’. We could go around making any sound, an as long as those who were listening understood the meaning then it would be a valid/true statement (or would not be made not so by the use of the sound).
    This kind of misunderstanding is common when fields with specific jargon transfer themselves to those not ‘in the know’. The case is similar with the ‘is and ‘is not’.

    ““This is an apple” then equals the much more correct “this seems like an apple to me””
    As an empiricist I do not see a need to differentiate (unless you want to find the gradient at a specific point on a curve). The objective reality is the only reality that I can ever know and that is my own. In any case, it is assumed that people talk from their own perspective, so it is unnecessary and time consuming to state that everyone might not experience the same as un every time we talk.

    I will illustrate this point with what seems like a humerous conversation to me right now.

    Oskar: Excuse me what apears to me at 2:30pm tuesday the thirteenth of january (to the best of my knowledge) to be Nat. Could you please pass me what I will experience as one (indescribable concept, we’ve hit a road block) of those apparently plentiful things that seem to me at the moment to be apples (assuming we have the same meaning asociated with the sound ‘apple)?
    Nat:Ok.

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