Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Separation of unrelated questions

By Mathew Goldstein

The question of whether or not gods are all fictions, and more generally whether or not disembodied minds and disembodied willful agents, or super- capable willful agents operating on our universe from outside our universe, and attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. are all fictions, can only be confronted properly if it is divorced from unrelated questions. Although this concept of addressing unrelated questions separately is easy to grasp, in practice some people insist on bundling unrelated questions. This is particularly true in contexts such as this where, even though the questions are unrelated, the preferred answers conflict.

A good illustration of this mistaken mixing of unrelated questions having conflicting answers can be found in the Discovery Institute, which asserts "The mission of Discovery Institute is to advance a culture of purpose, creativity and innovation." By focusing on trying to change, or deny, the conclusions of scientific inquiry, especially biological evolution, to support their vision of propagandizing for positive cultural values with religion, they are insisting on bundling questions about how the universe works together with unrelated questions of how to perpetuate and promote the religious beliefs that claim to provide people with their life's proper purpose. Since the latter goal is to some extent based on presuppositions that conflict with the former goal they are, in effect, working to square a circle.

Logically, answers to questions about how the world works must take priority over questions dealing with human purposes, motives, and the like when we are justifying our beliefs. The reason is simple. Our beliefs are our understandings of how the world works. When our beliefs are built instead for the different purpose of justifying our own motivations we undermine the integrity of our beliefs. Our beliefs cannot simultaneously serve this other function without sacrificing their primary function. The Discovery Institute is making exactly this basic logical mistake by giving equal or higher priority to human centered goals of religious beliefs, a.k.a. "purpose" or "culture", in the unrelated context of the different goal of understanding how the world works.

The question of atheism versus theism addresses this broader issue of how the world works and as such is distinct from the narrower and different questions about human emotions, incentives, purpose, morality, popularity, politics, and the like. Few theists seem to recognize or acknowledge this. For many theists, these unrelated questions addressing different domains merge and become confused and entangled with each other. It is wrong to justify a belief about how the world works by measuring that belief's conformance to pre-existing stories intended to provide individuals with particular sets of motivations and incentives, no matter how desirable those motivations or incentives may be. Our universe isn't about human motives and incentives, let alone about the contents of any particular sectarian books or myths. Questions about human motives and incentives are important questions about us. But questions about how the world works, including the question of atheism versus theism, are not questions about us, and are unlikely to be answered correctly when the focus is misdirected to us.

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