Thursday, May 2, 2013

The value of clear thinking

National Day of Reason, May 2, 2013

The value of Clear Thinking can not be overstated. Though I am the first one to cut a person slack for believing what they want, bringing those beliefs out into the public arena and making claims about the truth of those beliefs is an entirely different matter. The personal belief argument comes from a position of, "I own myself and my thoughts and can believe as I wish". My starting position is, I feel strongly about ownership of my own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs therefor I must likewise accord others the same right.

It is my considered opinion that we all hold, at some level, two incompatible mental states about the world around us.  Which is a short hand way of saying that our internal belief system does not fully match up with what we could substantiate in a debate in which there was a high bar of logic/evidence. It seems to me that this is part of the human condition and it is unlikely to change. I base this on the axiom, "We are not essentially thinking beings who can feel, but feeling beings who can think." This is an idea which gains further traction everyday with our understanding of the human mind through advancements in neuroscience.

The important bit is, what we do with the innate discrepancy between our mushy/emotion/fantastical/imaginative inner selves and the need to solve problems and get-on-with-it in an external world where we depend on logic and reason to be our universal language? I am sure there is a longer answer and I wish I was knowledgeable enough to state it. I suggest the short answer is, we start with seeing ourselves as clearly as possible and humbly admitting that our default starting position is, "I don't know".

This brings us to the religionists. First the disclaimer. Most people in the world, currently, are religious. Therefore most of the people I know, care about, and deal with are religious. We can reasonably infer that, though I differ from them on this, I do not feel any need to be hurtful, overly judgmental, etc. In truth, the vast majority of us, from both sides of the "belief fence", have much more in common than we have difference. I have no doubt that my believer friends and family are mostly decent, loving, intelligent folks who care about their loved ones and are simply looking to prosper in their own way in this life. I feel connected to them and I hope they feel similarly.

With that said, there are things about the way believers look at the world which are troubling from a clear thinking perspective. Believers, by definition, start out from a place of, I know how and why the world works as it does. God did it. Maybe they see a God who made the whole enchilada then sits back on his/her throne watching the sublime and the heinous with equal relish. Or perhaps, they favor a more interventionist God. Do this and don't do that and I will answer your pleas and prayers (sometimes and with varying conditions). All of it is held together with a basic tenet. The believer knows at the outset that a certain set of things are true. It is the way it is. Period. From there they attempt to backfill with evidence. But how could we have confidence that evidence found in this way would not be tainted? The best scientists in the world, fully aware of the possible taint of their own beliefs and biases, are constantly questioning and tweaking their assumptions, methods, and results to insure their work stands on its merit.

Given the problem set currently facing humans on this planet, my contention is simply this- we need a century of reason. On the other hand, I am willing to start with a day.