Saturday, March 12, 2011

Incuriosity made double

Early in 2011, Bill O'Reilly told his atheist guest that science could not explain tides, ergo God.

The thing that most interests and depresses me about that is not O'Reilly's obvious ignorance, or his god-of-the-gaps argument. It's the lack of curiosity betrayed by that statement. And not just curiosity about the cause of tides, but curiosity about what scientists think causes tides. I'm talking about Bill O'Reilly's mental model of the scientists' mental model of tides. Did he have one? I doubt it. He wasn't remotely interested in contemplating the scientists as full human beings.

A real human being whose work deals with tides might naturally become curious about their cause. Yet not O'Reilly's model of a geophysicist, who is instead interested in nothing but furthering The Atheist Agenda. When an O'Reilly-geophysicist sees a mystery, she sees nothing more than a gap to keep God out of. Or, perhaps, she worriedly sees a gap God could fill, and does her best to ignore it altogether, denying the elephant in the ocean.

Yes, I'm accusing God-of-the-Gaps O'Reilly of a kind of inverse projection. I think there's an extent to which he sees people whose gut answer is not God as having a gut answer (and a sole answer) of "Not God!" (Heck, I may myself be projecting, given that I'm stereotyping O'Reilly's stereotype, but I won't let that stop me.)

Now I'll use myself as the Gallant to Bill's Goofus. Many times in my life, I've encountered (or re-considered) a seemingly strange idea in Christianity — the Trinity, the eucharist, prayer. In each case, I've experienced an impulse of curiosity about just how Christians conceptualize these things. What is it like to be a Christian looking at yet another double-blind study that prayer failed to pass? What's it like to be a young Catholic receiving first Communion — are you worried you'll taste flesh and blood and spit it out? And though I may instinctively consider the trinity nonsense, I don't assume that Christians fail to think about it at all. In fact, I know that they debate its nature almost as vociferously today as did the attendees of the first Council of Nicaea.

Of course, in some cases, I may be projecting my own curiosity. So far as I can tell, there's a wide range of attitudes, while some theists wrestle with this stuff, others don't really bother pondering their faith's tenets or examining its puzzles, so much as associating positive feelings with them ("All I know is that the trinity is a blessed mystery."). However, for every organized religion, there is a tradition of theology, because that's the sort of thing people like to do; we just didn't use that impulse of ours to full effect until developing science.

To phrase all this in a straight-up moral, it's this: Don't assume that because an idea is (seemingly) baloney, it's an actual black box in the mind of its adherents. Your model of the raw details of some idea, like evolution or communism or libertarianism, is likely rather different from that of its adherents (or opponents). Just as it can be good to assume good faith despite that not being a human universal, so too should we assume curiosity if the person's name isn't Bill O'Reilly.

Anyway, when he was told via Internet that the main cause of tides is the moon, he asked "How'd the moon get there? What put it there?" A pretty straightforward admission that his initial question was purely rhetorical (not that it wasn't already obvious); he doesn't give a damn about the ocean or the moon, the poor soul.

This is another hazard of incuriosity — sometimes your "rhetorical" questions turn out to have answers which you didn't bother to look up because you assumed they didn't exist. (Like if I were to assume that Christians have no answer to the Problem of Evil. Turns out they do, just not good ones.) What he really meant was to pose the First Cause argument; he just screwed up on his placement of the Inexplicability Boundary, about as much as if he'd asked if scientists can possibly explain the origin of Fox News. Every time he said scientists "couldn't explain" the origins of the sun or stars, it was another knife in my gut. He doesn't care! He doesn't care about the truth of anything! Was he ever even a child?

Now, O'Reilly's ignorance may be an extreme example, because just about everyone knows the moon causes tides (though people often confuse tides with waves, but that's another story). It makes my point for precisely that reason, though — so that just about everyone can understand.

A much more common instance of what I'm talking about would be many a creationist's take on evolution. The question "Why are there still monkeys?" is asked by people who actually want to know the answer even less often than is the question "How are you?" Again, the assumption on their part is that scientists flinch from the hard stuff instead of wrestling it to the ground. By extension, most of evolutionary science must be about inventing plausible- (or implausible-) sounding stories for the primary purpose of keeping God out of the picture.

But if I were a creationist, then in addition to yelling "Contradiction! Contradiction!", I would wonder how in the world scientists resolved the contradictions in their own minds. Such as it is, I can't help but wonder if the creationists project an inversion of their own way of thinking onto scientists, so that Origin of Species = Holy Bible, etc. (Except they know that scientists know of all the things that have since modified our view from Darwin's but they figure that not getting it all right the first time is a flaw in the system.)

The most common assumption here, and one that bugs the heck out of me, is that the only possible alternative to a given Holy Book is a complete postmodern free-for-all. I've seen theists and postmodernists argue the same thing! "Oh, you're just another religion, because you believe that X is definitely true. So there." Or: "Without going by the Bible, you must be using human reason, which means just making it up as you go along." Give me a break.

I must echo my favorite atheist blogger, Greta Christina: Why does no one tell a version of the blind-men-and-elephant-story whereby the men compare notes to learn what a real elephant actually is?

It seems there's something counter-intuitive about the idea of assembling a worldview derived from direct (or indirect) observation of reality, instead of the acceptance of authority or acceptance of your own whims. Is learning really that scary? I hope not.

Oh, and since I posted the video, I feel obligated to comment on the atheist guy. I thought he did a decent job, but what he should have said to recover ground from O'Reilly's attacks is that even the world's most intelligent person can be taken by the scam of religion (so calling religion a scam is therefore not an insult to anyone's intelligence, not that that makes the argument false, of course). Plus, of course, he could have emphasized the fact that the threat of Hell is outright bullying, never mind insulting, although he did only have a few minutes. Is there a phrase for l'esprit d'escalier felt for someone else?

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