The Human Delusion

delusionToday, there is growing concern about an apparent ascendancy of a fundamentalist worldview, which appears to require only an unquestioning faith in ancient scriptures, be it Christian or Islamic in origin. To counter this growing trend, Professor Richard Dawkins has argued, for many years, to what he would describe as the `rationalist case` for atheism, culminating in his latest book entitled `The God Delusion`. Between these two positions, there would appear to be little room for the agnostic, who Dawkins' book indirectly describes in terms of being `namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence sitters`.

Dawkins does go on to qualify his own view of agnosticism, but it is clear that he does not support an agnostic position, although by his own 1-7 scale, which ranges between strong theism (1) and strong atheism (7), he declares himself to be only a level-6, i.e. a `de facto` atheist. Without wishing to split hairs over semantics, the definition of the level-6 atheist seems to leave the door open to some doubt, no matter how small, which some might argue is all the agnostic position reflects. In fact, I would also put myself at level-6 on the Dawkins scale, but prefer to put a different interpretation on my own position. While I believe that the existence of God, at least in the theist sense, is very unlikely, the question as to whether the universe was created for/with some purpose appear to still an open question. This does not mean that I am advocating that a purpose exists, simply that I have no direct proof as to whether one exists or any understanding of how it could be proved. Of course, there is a danger that this position might be confused with the `intelligent design` school of theology, but this is not the case, and in my view it simply represents the agnostic position on an open question. Dawkins does qualify the agnostic position as being either a temporary or permanent state; however I cannot but help feel that such questions about any underlying purpose behind the universe will have to remain unanswerable, at least, in my lifetime. Of course, as an agnostic, I have to be open to the possibility that even this question might one day be answered.

To be honest, I am not sure that this type of academic debate is the real issue of concern to Dawkins or any rationalist. What disturbs them, and many other people irrespective of their philosophical label, is that many fundamentalists appear compelled to impose their beliefs on society as a whole; even though these theological beliefs can appear, at best, unsubstantiated and, at worst, a possible fabrication of history. If this is a valid concern, we have to examine why the rational worldview has not consigned the need for such conflicting worldviews to history, given all the apparent evidence amassed by modern science. In this context, I will argue that we need to scrutinize the certainty projected by the scientific worldview and consider the effects that human nature has had on the historical events that have led us to this point.

For is it not possible that a degree of human delusion has come to exist in all worldviews?

Behind Scientific Certainty

In truth, there is no worldview that is solely based on verifiable facts, even if it aspires to this goal. The way we have come to perceive the world and the wider universe is linked to the evolution of our physiological senses and intelligence, although a religious fundamentalist might even reject the notion of evolution. Even so, it will be argued that the biggest obstacle to greater understanding is often the degree to which we have become `indoctrinated` into any given communal worldview. For much of history, the worldview for most people was defined by the society into which they were born and lived.

While, as individuals, we might all think we are personally immune from such effects, we need to all ask ourselves whether we are so different from the people with whom we live and work?

When we compare ourselves with people from other cultures, do we spot any obvious differences that suggest conformity to our own culture?

Our path to adulthood requires us to assimilate a lot of information, most of which we must take on trust from the people around us. This is not a criticism, simply a necessity of life, but it can be a limitation if we allow our worldview to become entrenched in dogma. However, in this context, we have to accept that dogma is not the sole preserve of the religious fundamentalist. So let us start by defining the components that can underpin any given worldview:

  • Belief: A truth that can be accepted without logic or verification.
  • Logic: A truth based on deduction without implicit empirical verification.
  • Fact: A truth that requires verification.

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Surprisingly, in the context of science, it is the definition of a verified truth or fact, which can often become so problematic, since a concept prior to verification is only a logical hypothesis or theory. In part, it may seem that science should simply proceed by empirically verifying the truth of any logical idea. In principle, this approach is not unreasonable, while the ideas are constrained to the physical world that we can access with our natural senses, e.g. touch and see. However, as our scientific understanding has expanded beyond the physical constraint of the day-to-day universe, empirical verification not only became more difficult, but subject to interpretation. Even if we initially constrain our ideas to the physical world, the idea of atomic particles that are too small to be directly seen or touched was clearly going to be problematic without an ability to extend the scope of our empirical senses. In this context, modern science has had to wait until technology was capable of developing the instruments that allowed verification to be extended beyond the natural ability of our human senses. However, while scientists can now point to the technology that makes this possible, there is another growing danger that the complexity of the verification process itself has gone beyond the general understanding of mainstream society. If so, this also raises a problematic question:

Can society, as a whole, continue to judge the truth of scientific fact, if it does not understand the mechanisms by which those facts have been verified?

This question is forwarded in the spirit of genuine concern and in no way reflects an elitist agenda. The simple fact is that the process, by which science verifies and holds many facts to be true, may only be understood by a diminishing percentage of society. If science fails to recognize this issue, then maybe it will also be subject to delusion. For example, sometimes through the passage of time alone, science simply assumes an authority of an earlier assumption, as Einstein himself pointed out:

"Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things can easily attain an authority over us such that we forget their worldly origin and take them as immutable truths. They are then rubber-stamped as a "sine-qua-non of thinking" and an "a priori given". Such errors often make the road of scientific progress impassable for a long time."

Unfortunately, the problem only continued to grow as people started to forward ideas describing the nature of a metaphysical universe. In such cases, even the most advance verification process can be ineffective. As such, our worldview may simply be forced down one of two paths:

  • An acceptance of a metaphysical universe that can only be described by belief or logical argument, albeit empirically unproven.
     
  • An acceptance of science that, without empirical verification, must challenge or deny the existence of the metaphysical universe.

Today, in truth, there is much in both religion and science that has attained `authority`, which still needs to be challenged. In its widest context, science, like philosophy and theology, is searching for answers to questions, which are beyond our current knowledge, and possibly even our ability, to understand. However, this should not stop us defining principles by which we may separate fact from fiction or, at least, unsubstantiated belief. In support of this goal, William K. Clifford, a 19th century mathematician, wrote an essay, in 1877, entitled `The Ethics of Belief`. In this essay, Clifford argued that beliefs are not just private thoughts, because they will invariably find a way of public expression, either by design or by accident. As such, the personal beliefs of all individuals will have a collective consequence on public society and led Clifford to conclude that `it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence` based on three lines of arguments:

  • Duty of Inquiry
  • Weight of Authority
  • Limits of Inference

While Clifford's essay was written in the context of a theological debate of his day, there is no reason why these principles should not equally apply to science and philosophy. While these may seem rather lofty principles, without them we run the real risk of accepting scientific hypothesis as fact. Today, we might wish to translate Clifford's line of argument into the `Negative Evidence Principle`, which implies that there is sufficient reason to doubt a proposition, if the following conditions are true:

  • Expected evidence is missing.
  • Supporting evidence is shown to be unreliable.
  • Further assumptions would be based on unproven facts.

judgeWhile the teaching of science has to proceed from its classical foundations towards evermore-complex concepts, the danger is that if science only demands the rote acquisition of accepted facts, it may also depend on faith rather than true understanding. Of course, this concern must be extended to all branches of education; otherwise the fundamentalists will only teach what complies with their historical interpretation of a theological worldview. In practice, no search for `scientific truth` should ignore the mass of accumulated knowledge as, unfortunately, life is simply too short to re-discover everything from first principles. Even so, the question we still need to ask is:

Should any search start in the `belief` that all accepted wisdom is the` gospel` truth?

If you doubt that this can be a problem, it is worth reflecting that many of the foundation stones of our current scientific worldview were established in the early 20th century, i.e. over 100 years ago. As a consequence, many consider our current scientific models to be both mature and stable. Even if this were true, we still need to look back with hindsight at a similar situation, such as in the late 19th century, when confidence in the prevailing worldview of the day led Lord Kelvin to famously state:

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.
All that remains is more and more precise measurement."

However, within five years, Albert Einstein was to publish his radically new ideas on special relativity, which would immediately start to challenge Kelvin's worldview based on Newtonian mechanics. Within another 20 years, quantum theory would start to emerge and eventually overturn what had been the dominant and accepted scientific worldview for over 300 years.

So who is really qualified to say whether our current scientific worldview might not be based on more than a few unverified facts?

Of course, this line of argument is not implying that the accepted scientific worldview should be discarded without due process. However, it is important to understand how an established worldview, even a scientific one, can subvert the development of ideas by influencing:

  • What is to be observed and scrutinized,
  • The kind of questions that are asked,
  • How these questions are to be structured,
  • How the results are be interpreted.

History shows us that science, as an institution, is more than capable of being overly protective of its established ideas. As such, the rationalists also need to reflect on the fact that science has not and does not exist in a vacuum, it is a human endeavour and its development has always been intertwined with human imperfection and the evolution of socio-political structures that have come to underpin all societies. As a result, science has been, for most of its history, a subservient tool of the incumbent religious-political power of the day.

To prevent delusion we need to remind ourselves, from time to time, that science has never been and probably never will be a panacea for all the ills in the world. Equally, the institutions of science have never reflected, and probably never will reflect, the perfect pursuit of truth. Accepting these faults is not an admission of failure, simply an acceptance of the facts. With this said, science is still a noble endeavour that has lifted much of humanity out of the grinding drudgery of day-to-day survival. However, if the scientific worldview wishes to understand why so many still reject its worldview, we have to continue to examine its failures and look beyond logic to describe the human condition.

The Human Condition

In the widening context of this debate, we need to consider why the plethora of human worldviews appears to be so full of contradictions. For example, science tells us that the human genetic code has remained essentially unchanged from that of the first people to migrate out of Africa, some 140,000 years ago, and that only the superficial nature of society has changed beyond all recognition. Therefore, while many have come to embrace the benefits of science, we may still not be sufficiently different, on the inside, to our ancestors that we can entirely let go of our belief in the supernatural. For example:

How long would it take for supernatural superstition to begin to re-emerge if we were left alone in a `spooky` forest at night?

While this might seem to be a somewhat childish question, it has a serious point to make, as most of us have an emotional sense about the environment in which we find ourselves. Some places engender a sense of peace and calm, while other can imbue a sense of fear of a malevolent unseen presence. Of course, the evolutionist might be quick to explain the survival rationale behind these emotions, but this does not negate their reality to the people who experience them. What is being highlighted is that our emotions can affect what we come to believe and what we believe affects our overall worldview. As such, our worldview is seldom based solely on rational logic, as a kaleidoscope of emotional needs and influences are never far from the surface. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) described human motivation in terms of a hierarchy of needs, which might go some way to explain why some people may come to reject the rationalist worldview; although only the lower three levels are actual survival needs, i.e. things we strive for when we do not have them.

  • Physiological needs relate to such basic needs, such as warmth, shelter, food and sex.
  • Safety needs are linked to the additional needs for security and the suppression of fear.
  • Social needs can also be related to security, but have wider implications in that they not only include interaction with people in general, but also the benefits of close family and friends when raising children.

As we progress up the hierarchy, the needs become more abstracted and are possibly better described as goals:

  • Esteem is a need that satisfies the human desire to be well regarded and appreciated by other people.

  • Self-actualization is also somewhat different in scope, as it relates to the need to win and the associated sense of achievement.

Unlike the other needs, self-actualization can become stronger as this need is attained, provided the lower survival needs are still met. Possibly, it is this facet of human nature that makes great men susceptible to corruption by power, while esteem makes other men susceptible to the collective conformance of society. Clearly, both of these factors will have played a role throughout the development of human civilization, and hence contributed to our present worldview. Let us try to illustrate some of these points via a hypothetical case in which Professor Dawkins is assumed to have an identical twin who, by accident, gets lost in the jungle at an early age and adopted by a primitive superstitious tribe struggling for survival. The question we are asked to consider is:

dawkinsWill Dawkins' twin develop the same worldview given that he is essentially identical in physiology and intelligence?

You might immediately point out that Dawkins' twin will have been denied access to education, which will obviously affect his developing worldview. On further reflection, we might also conclude that Dawkins' twin may be affected by a preoccupation with Maslow's lower survival needs, which are then compounded by the tribe's traditional belief in supernatural happenings within the forest. Of course, even if the lower survival needs are overcome, the higher Maslow motivational needs might equally come to define the man. If so, as Dawkins' twin grows, he strives to gain the esteem of his tribal elders and peers against which he might then judge his achievements. However, when achievement is measured against esteem, it often depends on collective or communal approval, which in-turn normally demands some degree of conformance to the collective worldview. Let us now add another twist to our hypothetical case by assuming that Dawkins' twin is eventually found and returned to live with his family at the age of 18.

Will Dawkins' twin eventually come to appreciate and accept the atheist worldview of his identical twin?

It has been estimated that the human brain may contain 100 billion neurons in conjunction with billions of other supporting cells. However, the sheer complexity of the brain is only realized after appreciating that each neuron may support thousands of receptor branches called dendrites. Based on these numbers, it has been estimated that the brain may contain in excess of 100 trillion (1014) connections. How these connections form is not yet so well understood, but there is a growing belief in the adage `use it or lose it` in the sense that without stimulation, certain connections are lost. There is also evidence that the brain disconnects many neural pathways during puberty, which may go some way to explaining things like why rational adult do not have so many imaginary friends as children. However, the study of autistic savants may support the idea that some brains end up being wired in very unusual ways, which then can lead to an entirely different perception of the world. If there is any truth in any of these conjectures, it is possible that Dawkins' twin has ceased to be identical, at least in terms of the internal wiring of his brain. If so, Dawkins' twin may never appreciate or accept his brother's argument for atheism, no matter how rational.

What conclusions might we draw from this line of thought?

While only conjecture, supported by limited evidence, it is possible that some people develop a worldview that is reflected in a degree of `hardwiring` of their brains to the extent that even rational evidence, when conflicting with their worldview, is simply rejected. If this is the case, the number of adult converts to Dawkins worldview may be limited. However, the fictitious example of Dawkins' twin may reflect the importance of environment and education in the formation of a person's entrenched worldview. Possibly to underline a similar point within his book, Professor Dawkins cites the old Jesuit saying:

"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man"

Dawkins also goes on to cite the case of American geologist, Kurt Wise, who now directs a creationist research facility. Wise describes how he went through the Bible cutting out every word that would be declared false, if the scientific worldview were true. At the end of the exercise, he was unable to pick up his Bible in one piece. However, despite his education leading to a degree in geology, his fundamentalist religious upbringing led him to believe that the world had to be less than 10,000 years old. While the solution to this problem may appear obvious, it masks a very complex human rights issue:

Who decides what is true or false and what is taught to your children?

Possibly, in the wider context of this question, we begin to see why so many different and contradictory worldviews are in conflict. For it is possible that the definition of what is rational and true is subjective, based on a belief in a certain worldview and its accumulative effects on the 'wiring' of our brain. As an evolutionary scientist, Dawkins must know, better than most, the power behind the motivation that drives parents to teach their children the important lessons of life. Darwinism tells us that survival often depends on the offspring assimilating the knowledge of the parent. However, as cultural complexity grew, survival within a society also became dependent on the assimilation and conformance to social norms. Today, we are still painfully aware that, in many parts of the world, even a small transgression against the beliefs of a given society, be it political or religious, can invoke a death sentence. Even so, it is argued that religious belief is only an effect; we must still probably look to human nature for the cause.

And What of Tomorrow?

So far, we have reflected on some of the underlying factors that influence, if not, explain why human nature has given rise to so many different and conflicting worldviews. However, we now need to turn our attention to the key implications that these worldviews will undoubtedly have on future generations.

Today, some societies have an air of sophistication, which is built on the assumption that their survival needs are assured. The old adage that we are only `four meals away from anarchy` is forgotten. If this veneer of sophistication is lost, the brutality of our primitive human instincts will again revert to a lower form of rationalism, i.e. fight for survival. Therefore, the greater delusion of humanity may not be a belief in God, but the belief that we collectively act as wholly rational beings. In this respect, it is difficult to accept that any evolutionist, who believes that we are a product of our genes, expects these inherited survival instincts to just simply evaporate in the face of a philosophical argument, no matter how rational. This said, rational behaviour and beliefs are a noble goal and one that humanity should strive towards.

But can this goal ever be achieved?

Any review of history suggests that slow progress has been made, while attributing many of the setbacks to religious dogma. However, we have possibly been too quick to use religion as a scapegoat for what may just be human nature at work. For history also shows us the correlation between the spread of higher rationalism and the securing of basic survival needs by a wider percentage of the population. Of course, if we now expand the discussion to face up to the problem of today's global population of 6.6 billion, estimated to grow to 8.9 billion by 2045, we have a different story. On this scale, over 80% of the population may still be struggling to meet its basic survival needs and therefore, under these circumstances, rational philosophy is not a priority. For many of these people, religion may remain the only solace, irrespective of whether any evidence supports their beliefs.

So surely, the solution to this problem is also obvious - help people out of poverty?

Unfortunately, at the start of the 21st century, we are belatedly coming to the realization that planet Earth does not have unlimited resources and can no longer be considered as an infinite sinkhole for all our waste products. Our planet is becoming an increasingly fragile ecology, which even our present population may strain to breaking point. Just pulling people out of poverty to survive and proliferate the cycle of population growth was never a long-term solution and possibly no longer even a short-term option.

Isn't this line of thought straying into a completely different discussion?

Yes, but if some future collective worldview is destined to determine how such problems are to be addressed; then the two issues are entwined. If this is the case, then we must ask the next question:

How might the approach of fundamentalism and rationalism differ?

911While we can only generalize, it is difficult to see how even a benign fundamentalist worldview, mandated by scriptures to support the sanctity of life, to reject contraception and deny major scientific principles, will be effective in addressing some of the urgent problems now facing future generations. Of course, given the dependency of the current global population on technology, a growing rejection of science may only inadvertently lead to a collapse of this population through famines, exacerbated by an inability to control food production and its distribution, fight pandemics and address climate change. Some might cold-heartedly point out that this collapse would simply be nature's way, or possibly more accurately, human-nature's way of reducing the unsustainable pressure on the planet's ecology and to buy time for other solutions to emerge. However, if we are to face up to the truth, there is no guarantee that science and technology will be sufficiently advanced, or widespread, to offer any real alternative to all the 8.9 billion inhabitants of planet Earth projected by the year 2045. If so, we may have to accept that neither worldview, as currently understood, is capable of providing a complete solution and therefore our preference may come down to a more philosophical question:

What is the purpose of humanity?    

The fundamentalists appear to tell us that we need not worry about such questions as God has already defined a purpose for humanity and we are powerless to change his will. On the other hand, genetic science suggests that the mechanisms embedded in our genes have only one purpose, mindless survival. Personally, I prefer to `believe` that we can control our own destiny and that there is a path that evolves far beyond mindless survival without necessarily having to wait for our genes to talk to Darwin. However, while it may be argued that the path to this future is rational, it may also be very unpalatable to almost every present-day worldview. Although, future generations will have to make this choice for themselves, we still have one important point to consider:

Do we have the right to indoctrinate our children with the certainty of our own unproven, and possibly deluded, worldview?