DECEMBER 1st 2019 First Monthly Service on "Myths We Live By"

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DECEMBER 1st 2019 First Monthly Service on "Myths We Live By"

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Our December 1st service began with comment about how Freethought relates to and fits with “The Evolution of Theology,” also the title of a wonderful essay by Thomas Henry Huxley which is available online for free here: . Huxley presents evidence for and argues that religion grew out of a belief in ghosts. And we know today that an important part of human sociality is our ability to simulate others – their appearance and behaviors – in our heads. That ability does not die when the people we can simulate in this way die. But facts and reason allow us to make sense of this in nonsupernatiralisic ways. Discarding supernaturalism, in turn, allows us to focus more single-mindedly on the moral principle of reciprocity, “The Golden Rule” instead of having to “serve two masters,” what is right and what “God” says which includes hurting others.

We noted that our own religious stance, Freethought, entails a different kind of intolerance, not of other people but of impostures, dishonesty, hypocrisy and, in a word, lies. We considered how Thomas Henry Huxley expressed this attitude in another of his writings when he said:

“Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvelousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man's life is to say and to feel, 'I believe such and such to be true.' All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unraveling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.”

We then listened to a selection of music brought by David Troiano, organizer of the Atheist Community of Dallas group. This ranged from what can only be described as “atheist rap” to more melodious work including Susan Werner's “Why is Your Heaven So Small?” It was fantastic to hear these in the company of other Freethinkers but you can see/watch it on your own here:

The service was rounded out with a consideration and discussion of “Myths We Live By” based on the work by the same name by British philosopher Mary Midgeley. What Midgeley means by “myth,” though, is not lies, misconceptions or even persistent nonsense as much as, as she puts it, “interpretive frameworks” that form an inevitable part of our understanding, even our scientific understanding, of ourselves and the world. She focuses on:

“three current myths: the social-contract myth, the progress myth and the myth of omnicompetent science. These three myths are connected, not just because they are all overdramatic and need rethinking, but because the last of them impedes our efforts to deal with the first two, and with many other problems as well.”

The “myth of omnicompetent science” has special relevance for Freethought and the ideological outlook of Freethinkers. This is the idea that science is capable of answering any question and of doing so in the most rational/objective and “value free” way. Midgely cites a number of writers that more or less make this claim. But then she calls attention to how, while science is thought of as being dispassionate and “value free,” that it does, in fact, have its own values. She quotes the 20th Century French biochemist and Nobelist Jacques Monod:

“Science attacks values. Not directly, since science is no judge of them and must ignore them; but it subverts every one of the mythical ontogenies upon which the animist tradition, from the Australian aborigines to the dialectical materialists, has based morality: values, duties, rights, prohibitions ... True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it has to be grounded on a value judgment, or rather on an axiomatic value ... In order to establish the norm for knowledge, the objectivity principle defines a value; that value is objective knowledge itself ... The ethic of knowledge that created the modern world is the only ethic compatible with it, the only one capable, once understood and accepted, of guiding its evolution.”

That's from Monod's famous book Chance and Necessity, which is itself well-worth reading. Clearly, the passage from TH Huxley we considered earlier shows an even more passionate expression of “the ethic of knowledge” from the standpoint of a scientist. And yet another instance of this is found in W.K. Clifford's essay 1877 “The Ethics of Belief” (Was Huxley familiar with this? He certainly may have been!) with its famous passage:

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

What could be more value-laden than that? And notice: it is an absolute repudiation of the religious principle of “faith.”

Midgely's further observations and analysis of science as “just one way of understanding the world” are interesting, insightful and worth thinking about. Especially interesting are her observations about how science borrows symbols and perspectives from everyday life – “the only place they could come from” she points out – and then those ides and metaphors eventually come back into everyday life where they often serve new and difference purposes. This is, in fact, one of the points of our recurring “Moment of Science” features, that we draw inspiration from science. But it should not be overlooked that science gets its inspiration from the everyday lives of those who “do science.”

That science is “omnicompetent,” capable of addressing and answering every sort of question we may care to ask, is certainly false. Science can do a lot. But it can't do everything and should not be expected to. And this fact bears on one of the other “myths” that Midgeley discusses, namely “the social contract myth” which has to do with the role of individuals in society. For because science cannot answer questions having to do with qualia, with what is the best way of thinking and the best course of action for individuals within their own subjective experience, it follows that a large measure of individual freedom is necessary for each person to answer those questions and act on them. Midgeley seems not to appreciate this and, in fact, refers to “a one-sided romantic exaltation of individual freedom which badly distorts public life.”

On the other hand, although “religious questions” are not science they can still be discussed openly and subjected to critical analysis. This means that any errors of reasoning or of omitting significant facts and ideas that ought to be included for consideration can be pointed out and discussed. In this way the understanding of “religious questions” can be improved. But, of course, it requires that dogmatism be abandoned.
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