Sunday, 23 December 2007

Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0

[Update: This introduction has been replaced by a revised more user friendly one BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction new reviews will only be posted there]

The Second Coming of the Enlightenment

Once upon a time I had a blog called "The Second Coming of the Enlightenment". I was new to the blogging world, not sure of what I was trying to achieve and "it fell deadborn from the press". This eventually led to this incarnation - "No Double Standards" - which is really an applied and more pragmatic version of that vision. However I have noticed I have wondered somewhat - not from from my enlightenment worldview - but certainly over emphasis and from this blog's central theme of "One standard for All" - such as looking at naturalism versus supernaturalism, struggling to avoid moral theory whilst still creating a moral view and so on. In particular, examining my blog's tag cloud, I seem to have dwelt, as have many others since September 11th 2001, over the destructive, unproductive, diverting noise created by religious leaders, groups and communities, distracting us from many more real world and unavoidable issues that we need to deal with sooner rather than later.

The Science Network's Beyond Belief Conferences

I am reminded of all this by the online release of all the unedited video from The Science Network's second Beyond Belief conference - Enlightenment 2.0. The first conference, last year, Science, Religion and Survival epitomizes why this blog has ended up having the focus it has displayed to date. That conference, as an online phenomenon, was spectacularly successful with three million hits to the website and over half a million downloads of the lectures it contained. It triggered much analysis, review and comment in the blog world. I hope this conference is no different. It is very interesting how the focus has changed to this broader topic of the Enlightenment and is, I think, both a logical consequence and an opportune one. Indeed I think the focus chosen has a better emphasis - taking us away from the battleground that religion has and is trying to assert is where debate should occurring - to the more neutral territory of the debate over worldviews. To do this, one first has to get one's own house in order and there is, indeed, great unclarity over what the Enlightenment has achieved in three hundred years, what has worked and what has not and how to proceed from now. I hope and expect that this is what the speakers here will help unravel.

Reviewing Enlightenment 2.0

In this spirit and, I hope, as a useful contribution to Enlightenment 2.0 I want to watch and review the whole series in this blog. Apart from this being a great way to catch up with the latest academic thinking in this important area, this exercise should serve not just to educate me but also clarify my own thinking here. This is a holiday project and I do not know whether I will have the time to complete this now or not. If not, then I will continue at a slower pace next year. Now, if I am going to review this, it is preferable to have a position to review this from. I could just take a relevantly skeptical one and I hope others will certainly do that - we don't want any double standards here when it comes to views similar to our own! However I want to do more than that. As you might have gathered, I have indeed thought about this very topic and now is a good a time as any to state my case. I can only give a gloss on my argument in a single post here but hope to both expand and modify it, as I review this lecture series. The benefit is that it will serve both as a critical framework or foil from which I can see if the speakers at least recognize the questions I think are important and whether they give similar, equivalent or, hopefully better answers, as well as to show me aspects that I might have missed, been mistaken about or not sought enough emphasis on.

The Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism

Before I state my position I must first acknowledge a debt to a book in Duckworth's "Intelligent Person's Guide" series - "The intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism" by Daniel Harbour. This, being published in 2001 in hardback, preceded the "New Atheism" books by Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens and Grayling et al. and has, alas, I fear been missed by too many. I like it because it reflects my views, for which I claim no originality and so do not know how original Harbour's ideas are. I can add that my thinking here is also partly inspired by Peirce's pragmaticism. Nevertheless his key approach involved not directly tackling the atheism versus theism debate with the usual to and fro of "Arguments" for and against, nor to directly tackle the science versus religion debate and the various sub-species of this, let alone engaging in polemics to any significant degree. Instead he approached the issue by examining two prototypical and opposed worldviews - the Spartan meritocracy and the Baroque monarchy. The Spartan meritocracy being an Enlightenment approach, such as the method of rational inquiry and science and the Baroque monarchy being typically represented by both old fashioned religion and new age spirituality. He argues that atheism is superior to theism as the consequence of finding the demonstrably more successful and comprehensive worldview is that of the Spartan meritocracy coupled with the fact that atheism can been shown empirically and rationally parsimonious with this worldview. If one prefers the Spartan meritocracy, then one should chose atheism. This is not a review of his book but certainly one I can recommend, especially if one is interested in Enlightenment 2.0. I will develop some similar ideas in what follows but will make them my own, if only to avoid placing strawman arguments in Harbour's mouth and to create arguments I am both willing to defend and revise in the light of reviewing the talks in Enlightenment 2.0. I will not explain further what Harbour means by the Spartan meritocracy and the Baroque monarchy but anyone who is familiar with his book should be able to see the connection with the following framework. I have to add I was disappointed to see that Daniel Harbour was not on the speaker list at this conference but it seems he has moved onto other topics...

The EQuaTe Cube

If one could forget everything one knows then one would return to a state of ignorance. Lets assume that everyone does not like to be ignorant and so they go about dealing with this ignorance, finding out ways to alleviate this ignorance and to know the world they live in. It is how they go about alleviating this ignorance that is their worldview, at least this is what is meant by this term here. Even though a worldview is the lens though one knows the world, it could be sensible to consider the worldview qua worldview. Which type of worldview should one select to maximize success at knowing one's world? If one is ignorant, one needs to make stabs in the dark - assumptions - to get going. Lets look at these assumptions themselves, before we even get to what they might contain.

First how many assumptions should one make? Bearing in mind that these are initially just guesses and many are likely to be plain wrong, surely it is better to start with a minimal rather than maximal set, reducing the chances of overall error? On the other hand, fewer assumptions might, individually and collectively, have a larger scope than many assumptions but then this larger scope provides more feedback - to update these assumptions in the light of application to knowing the world. So it does seem better to start with fewer assumptions, even if they have larger scope, if one is concerned with quickly finding those in error and so fixing, adding and changing them.

Secondly what type of assumptions should one make? This is a question of emphasis. Should one prefer assumptions of method over metaphysics? Epistemic over ontological ones? Methodological assumptions can, and indeed have to, be repeatedly applied and each time they are also tested and can be reviewed and revised. On the other hand metaphysical assumptions may indicate no way of testing them and either they must be accepted or means of testing and evaluating them through other additional assumptions must be provided too. Given the preference for fewer assumptions and the desire to obtain feedback sooner rather than later - to alleviate ignorance now - it seems better to start with assumptions of method over metaphysics.

Finally how should one evaluate these assumptions as one investigates the world? It has already been implied that they are all open to review, revision, replacement and rejection. This is not the only choice (if not it would not be a choice!). One could instead assert that these assumptions are to be unquestioned and untested, instead if the world does not conform to these assumptions, then - somehow - change the world.As mysterious as this it has been a very popular approach in worldviews, sadly not just historically but still today. Some key assumptions are indeed dogmatically held rather than there on merit. We will examine this aspect, since it is so important, in a following section.

Now we can, with this analysis of worldviews, create three dimensions to place any particular worldview - regardless of the content of its assumptions. Note there are interdependencies, so they are not exactly orthogonal, however it is a useful device to imagine they are. We can then posit these as the Quantity dimension (of the amount of assumptions from Minimised to maximiSed, the Evaluative dimension (from pure Merit through a mix to pure Dogmatic assumptions) and the Type dimension ( from pure Methodological through a mix to pure Ontological assumptions). So if one imagines a cube then if one vertex is the minimal, epistemic (methodical) and meritocratic one, then it's diametric opposite is the maximal, ontological (metaphysical) and dogmatic vertex. The terminology used here maybe contains too much philosophical jargon but helps identify different vertexes by the capitalized letters used. The first is the MMM vertex and the second opposite is the SOD vertex. The cube itself taking the name EQuaTe from its three dimensions, this cube enables us to compare and equate differing worldviews and to emphasize, in spite of my obvious bias in generating this framework, that the result has no a priori preference of one over the other. Now MMM is the prototype vertex for the Enlightenment worldview and SOD is the prototype vertex for old age and new age religious worldviews.Of course this is quite a simplification and in reality (sic!) a
specific worldview, even one within the enlightenment project would not or may not sit exactly at the MMM vertex, ditto for the SOD vertex and anywhere else in between. This is a classification and identification without a specific preference. It is an application of external preference when, say, using Enlightenment thought, or other methods, to evaluating these worldviews once they are located in the EQuaTe cube. Theoretically a religious approach could create difference preference protocol operating over the EQuaTe Cube but that is not my job here.

Of course, the above is the briefest outline of the EQuaTe Cube framework. There are many questions and objections that could be asked and dealt with here (at least I confidently claim!) but I will tackle here only the absolutely essential ones to make the briefest of cases for this approach. I expect and, indeed hope, that all the other questions and objections will be made explicit as I review the talks from the various speakers and disciplines represented in Enlightenment 2.0. After that review process, if I have not dropped this framework due to finding something better, I will then revisit this framework itself with whatever insights and improvements have been discovered and make a more complete argument.

Why Three Dimensions?

A case could be made for adding scope as a separate dimension, but four are more difficult to visualize than three and I am unsure of any benefit that would result. Given this visualization point, maybe two is again easier than three to deal with? Indeed Harbour utilizes a two dimensional model although the third is implicit in his, I have just made it explicit. Certainly either is better than one as there is too much loss of information and you end up with the tiresome dichotomies of atheism versus theism, science versus religion etc. (For another approach compare the traditional Left-Right wing one dimensional model of politics with, say, the two dimensional political compass). I want a framework that can accommodate all these and more. It is better at this stage to have a three dimensional model and, in the light of the review of the various speakers' topics, it may turn out that Harbour's or another two dimensional model will suffice. This can be considered after my survey and will make any argument for such a two dimensional framework clearer.

Is there a Presupposition over Dealing with Errors?

One key objection to this approach is there appears to be a presupposition regarding error and this is a bias that reflects the framework and in preferring MMM over SOD worldviews. Well this is not a presupposition but an intrinsic and constitutive part of the framework, without which it could not have been considered let alone constructed and the EQuaTe Cube is designed to identify and classify worldviews not pass judgment on them. Granted the desire to be free of ignorance and knowing nothing abut the content of any assumption, we know before anything happens that an assumption can be in error. It is for that reason that we can be consider the issue of assumptions per se and end up deriving the EQuaTe cube. Still if one desires to be free of ignorance, just making an assumption and not considering whether it is in error or not does not alleviate ignorance, rather it is more likely to make it hidden and entrenched. So why would anyone want to do this? It is a question, I argue, of a psychological concern and one, at least, of anxiety, comfort and justice.To deal with the anxiety based on not knowing how the world is and the apparent injustices that befall us all, one invents lots of beliefs about the way the world is. They provide comfort through removing the anxiety of not knowing and a means of ascertaining some form of justice. Now when something otherwise inexplicable happens, say an accident to a friend or loved one, one at least has something to work with rather than just say it was down to blind chance or they just don't know. However this only works if they think their beliefs about the world are actually true. It is not sufficient to say these are useful fictions when dealing with the many challenges of life including personal tragedy. To both assert a belief as true and that is not (really) true (a useful fiction) is to invite dissonance. We know this is untenable to most people and so they prefer to assert the correctness of their untested and sometimes untestable assumptions of the world. We are still operating with the EQuaTe Cube but have introduced a psychological aspect, a method for identifying, however briefly stated here, a motivation for preferring one worldview over another within this framework. Given that the EQuate Cube is specifically designed not to provide an internal preference schedule, it would not make sense to add this as a fourth dimension. Still it is derivable and informative, in various ways, particularly from the Evaluative dimension.

A Dynamical Model of Worldviews

When one considers one's own worldview it may not have a single location in the EQuaTe Cube. This is because we are able and often compartmentalize and so have differing worldviews with differing values to these dimensions depending on a variety of contexts. These can include contexts such as vocation, career, skills, abilities, education, opportunities, interests, relationships,status, work, home, school, hobbies and passions. This can also apply within and between a tribe, community, class, state, economy and so on. This framework can still capture these compartmentalized aspects as differing points within the EQuaTe Cube. More significantly is that worldviews can change over time, either gradually or discontinuously, and so the point that summarizes them, still regardless of content, can be captured by a new location in the cube with either a smooth transition or a jump from one point to another. It is also possible that the content changes but the location within the EQuaTe cube remains the same - keeping roughly constant the evaluation, quantity (more or less) and types dimensions. This again very brief but is enough for now, let us move on to the main course.

The Pseudo-Enlightenment, the Quasi-Enlightenment and the Anti-Enlightenment

You will note that we have not yet considered the content of assumptions and, most importantly, it does not automatically follow that all MMM type worldviews are atheistic or secular and that all SOD type worldviews are theistic and religious. Far from it. As an example of a theistic MMM type worldview consider Descartes' methodological doubt with his "proof" of god. Well the world did not turn out that way Descartes believed, but it as still an MMM type worldview and it could have - and this is what happens when worldviews are honestly tested against the world. Then consider certain religions such as Zen, Theravada Buddhism, some forms of Taoism and others, such as Advaita Vedanta. These are all far closer to MMM type worldviews than SOD worldviews when placed in the EQuaTe Cube. So again, it is not the case that MMM type worldviews cannot be religious, whether or not they include god (as, in fact, these religions do not). Bearing in mind that over the course of history a few billion people have held these or similar views it is also not the case the people have to use the psychological motivation to support dogmatism, let alone a deity. And we can also go the other way, it is not the case that all SOD worldviews are theistic - if nothing else other non-theistic versions of Buddhism certainly exist far closer to this vertex. So you can have religious SOD-type worldviews without theism. And finally you can have atheistic and secular worldviews that are close the SOD vertex. The most obvious example would be communism but there are quite a few others! Fascism and nazism are also often thought of in the same light but whilst it is highly dubious if any were actually atheistic, it is still significant that they do exist close to the SOD vertex. Indeed what all these political ideologies have in common is not a disputed atheism (either in fact or in importance) but rather that they are based on an alternate primary idea - that either replaces god or, more likely, makes it subservient - such as a race or people, a nation or a class - all this whilst retaining much if not most of the persuasion, power and protection practices of other SOD type worldviews namely that of most theistic religions - old and new!

Now we come to the nub of the argument, the reason I constructed this framework in the first place. We need to understand what has and has not worked over the last 300 odd years due to the Enlightenment project in order to review, revise, replace and reject various principles and applications in the light of emipircal data. So we need a way of identifying if the subject under consideration is, in fact, the outcome of the Enlightenment. We have here a means of identifying projects, whether explicitly or implicitly proclaimed by its proponents, users or critics as part of the Enlightenment as actually being so or, if not, to classify them as part of the Pseudo-Enlightenment. Communism, Fascism and Nazism are obvious examples that, in this briefest of essays, I can only assert would be classified according to their actual worldviews as a part of the Pseudo-Enlightenment. Now religious institutions and other organizations can be seen to be part of the Anti-Enlightenment (those that make no pretensions, tacit or otherwise, to be otherwise). We can also add that some systems might attribute their success to other than Enlightenment principles but do, in fact, have a worldview that is close to Enlightenment views, these could be classified as Quasi-Enlightenment. This method can be applied not only to religions and political movements but their various interactions on a local, nation and international level and also in other vertical domains including scientific, academic, commercial and economic institutions and so on. One can also examine the dynamics of a system and see how an instance of an Enlightenment worldview could change to a Pseudo-Enlightenment view and vice versa (The French Revolution and the following Terrors springs to mind).

The Plan

Well that is it for now. I have provided the briefest skeleton of my critical foil to apply to the speaker's topics in the Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 lecture series. There is much here to expand and clarify and I hope all the obvious and not so obvious issues will be touched upon by the various speakers and so give me the opportunity to explore them and fill in the details to this framework - or find something better. Certainly something like this is what I think needs to be proposed and discussed, amongst many other issues in this series of talks. We shall see.

As and when I review the talks I will post them separately and update this post in this section with links to each post. (I have also created a facebook group The Science Network to track all reviews and analysis of this series, if you are on facebook please join).

[Update: This introduction has been replaced by a revised more user friendly one BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction new reviews will only be posted there]

The reviews

Talk 1, Session 1 of 2, First Day
BB2:Does the Enlightenment need an upgrade? Darrin McMahon
He focuses on the social tyranny associated, certainly by its critics, with the Enlightenment and concludes, without good reason, that it does not need an upgrade.

Blogged with Flock