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Ars Cogitans
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We Think We Think

20 September 2013, 11:29

The pervasive theme on this platform, which I will call Religious vs Scientism, has some very interesting characteristics.

Firstly, the two positions claim for themselves the names of Christian and Atheist. Invariably, the non-Religious – the Atheist – camp avail themselves of physics and logic when attacking the Religious. Exactly why not believing in (any) God necessarily situates you in the Scientism camp is not clear to me. This quick substitution of Atheism with Scientism has a severe impact on the nature of the discussions on this forum: it makes it an either/or.

Some general points can be made about this either/or divide, firstly on the content of both camps and secondly on the manner of dialogue employed by both (the manner of dialogue depends upon the content of your position). Regarding content, both of these positions believe that this entire world and everything in it, the universe as such, art, culture, atoms, life, that everything can be explained through a single principle. This means that both sides see the world and all therein as ordered around a single ordering principle, both sides think this principle can be known to us humans, and that we have this knowledge. In short, both camps think the world, in all its rich complications, is solvable and has been solved. Inherent in both positions is the addition that their solution is a total solution.

Regarding the manner of the dialogue, when an either/or position has been taken, both of these camps believe their position has a monopoly on the manner in which to get to truth. In the language of this forum, Christians believe and Scientists test (or, technically, they prove, but the methodology of the sciences seek to prove null-hypotheses, not to prove hypotheses). What is the point of contention between the two is the manner in which truth is uncovered – they both fight about the correct way of getting to the truth: either the Bible or Physics. This means that for Scientism, evidence is required, and employing their own (true, exclusively) method of uncovering truth, they seek to disprove (any) God. The Religious employ faith as their methodology.

But, of course, if you do not believe that the Scientism method is the true method, then any argument posed by Scientism is not an argument that is valid for you, because the way in which this concept – ‘proof’ – is being used belongs to Scientism and not to the Religious.

However, because it is an either/or framework, all you really have to do is to show why your position is correct. As there are only two options, and only one correct option; if you make a case for your position then the other is necessarily wrong. So the Scientists speak scientifically about science and prove (scientifically) that science is true, and the Religious believe (faith) in their faith (belief) and have faith that their beliefs are true. 

To generalise from this manner of dialogue is warranted, because of what is at stake – and everything is at stake: our world, our values, our purpose on this earth, why we are here in the first place, why there is anything at all. One generalised reason why this type of discussion is always a contentious issue is because of its implications. Whatever you believe this world to be, the product of God or scientific, will inform the attitude you take towards life.

So, what do I know about the contributors of this discussion so far? All of them (both camps) are happy to reduce this immensely complicated world to a single ordering principle (never mind that both camps and their methodologies have deep paradoxes, paradoxes that seem insurmountable: how does the Christian explain the overwhelming amount of suffering in this world; how does the scientist explain the existence of science in the first place?). All of them think that with our little minds, that us humans have found the true answer (that there is one answer, and that this answer can be found), and that whichever of the two possible answers they have found is the complete answer.

Deeply embedded in both these positions is the assumption that humans and the human mind is truly spectacular, that the human mind is the best thing in this universe (for it would take no less than the very best thing in the whole universe to find the one completely true answer about everything). And even further, once an individual is in a camp the arrogance grows, for not only is such an individual in the best category (human), but within this category is in the best sub-category (either Religious or Scientism, depending). All of those, in whichever camp they situate themselves, think they are the best of the best.

This smells to me of extreme arrogance. And anyone whose thought displays such arrogance when talking about the most important aspect of life, must surely have an arrogant way of going through life. How much of what is out there, how much of what is going on in this universe do we have to know in order to make our Final Decision about the Absolute Truth about the whole world? Apparently, bitterly little. Everything that we could still experience, everything this world may still hold for us, has already been explained (in principle, at least).
Tourists who go to Europe for five days and see three cities, and who upon their return proceed to speak about Europe (in its entirety) as it really is must think themselves the most astute and brilliant thinkers the world has ever seen. 

"I've only spent a little time in a few cities in Europe, and only in small parts of those cities, and I don't even speak the language, and based on my very partial experience there, I have made the following tentative observations" seems a much more responsible manner of dialogue. How many South Africans who have lived here their whole lives can claim to know the complete truth that is completely true about the whole country in its entirety? "But you haven't even been to Pofadder!" "I don't need to go there or to have been there in order to know (true) Pofadder." "You don't need to know anything about Pofadder, in order to know that it is not important to know anything about Pofadder?!" "No, I don't." "I think you do, and I think that if you do go to Pofadder, the fact that you are there will change Pofadder's normal rhythm, so I think you can never know Pofadder, really." "I know that I am right when I know things. Because I am right. And I know that."

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