Religion on Bloggingheads TV

June 18, 2009

Bob Wright and Tyler Cowen have a very interesting bloggingheads discussion on religion. Here are two highlights:

[from 27:30]

Tyler Cowen: Do you believe in God?

Bob Wright: [..] Not in the sense that people mean the term “God.” [..]

I do, as I guess you know, think there’s evidence of something you could call purpose unfolding through the history of life on earth. [..]

I guess one thing I wind up saying is that, um, well I draw this extended comparison with believing in electrons, you know? … Electrons may not exist, some scientists think they don’t, one thing we know from quantum mechanics is that they’re inconceivable, you can’t accurately think of an electron. And yet, conceiving of them in an an undoubtedly simplistic way, in a way that surely falls short of the true picture, is useful and it allows us to build computers and so on, and we consider that a kind of intellectual validation of, kind of, believing in electrons.

I wrestle with the question of wh- and this kind of goes back to William James and his pragmatism. [..]

If you believe as I do that there’s a kind of a moral order manifest in the unfolding of life, and if you say “Well, I want to align myself with the, kind of, axis of that order.” And I don’t know what the source of that order is, but thinking the source of that order as being a divinity or something, or even thinking of it as an anthropomorphic thing, that’s helping guide you. If think th- if conceptualizing the source of that order in a way that is surely unsatisfactory, surely not accurate, helps you more closely align yourself with that moral axis, and live a better life, I say well maybe that’s a kind of intellectual validation of God.


Bob Wright: What is a definition of religion that defines you as religious?

Tyler Cowen: I think all people hold on to some set of propositions, which they do not subject to rational scrutiny in the same way that they subject their other propositions to rational scrutiny. Furthermore, I think people use those propositions to socially bond with other people, and they tell themselves self-deceiving stories about how the whole picture fits together. In that sense of religious, I think all human beings, including myself, are religious.

There is a lot of stuff in this talk that I would have liked to have been smart enough and clear-thinking enough to formulate for myself.

The two excerpts I chose correspond roughly to two things that I believe:

1. Working backward through why you believe what you believe, you will reach a dead-end faster than you think. Put another way, your axioms start at a higher level than you think they do. When we’re talking on the level of “the search for truth,” atheists don’t distinguish themselves from theists by strict adherance to logic and provable propositions.

2. Belief in God and religion can be viewed as a strategy for getting what you want out of life if what you want is to act in a way that you think of as “right.” I have no objection to the claim that some people are basically satisfied with themselves in this regard and don’t suffer from akrasia (weak-willedness). But, for myself, I think you would have a very hard time convincing me that I would not be better off, in the sense of becoming a happier and more satisfied person, by moving more towards religion and away from atheism, regardless of whether atheism is true.


3 Responses to “Religion on Bloggingheads TV”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    This is one of the better articulations I’ve seen and I’m right there with you. I’ve found, via experiment, that my life is better when I live with a belief in and pursuit of the will of a deity, no matter how imperfect my understanding of that will (and the mechanisms by which it works) may be. So when we’re talking about relevance to my life, the actual truth of a deity (or its coherence to my formulation of same) is immaterial. When it comes to things that have value for me, it’s clearly rational for me to believe in a God, regardless of the objective truth.

    Note that this is particularly true in an actually godless universe, where objective truth carries no inherent value.

  2. poppies Says:

    Fantastic point regarding level of axioms, well said.

  3. Tracy W Says:

    I was Christian for a while and it was very painful emotionally. To believe that my grandfather and grandpa were suffering the torments of hell simply because they didn’t worship the right God, and that most of my family was going the same way does not make for a happy life.

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