Fri 16 Jul, 2010 02:36 am
Here is an essay I've wrote, the result of a lot of pondering on the subject. Would be happy to hear your honest opinions!
Western Civilization – A Model[less] Society?
Much has been written about the relations of religion and science, especially in this age where many believe that science is replacing religion, which is a dying relic of the past. In this essay I would like to discuss what I see as the logic behind religion, and the dangers of dismissing it.
My understanding is that human perception and understanding of the world around us are based on models and points of reference.
A model is defined as “a simplified representation of a system or phenomenon, as in the sciences or economics, with any hypotheses required to describe the system or explain the phenomenon, often mathematically.”
In my experience, practically all substantial matters in life are too complex to be comprehended completely by our own unaided faculties. And so, we resort to simplifying or representing them by models. We use models in all branches of science as well in arts, history, economy and other realms of thought. For example, to explain a phenomenon such as an apple falling from a tree, we need a physical model based on Newton’s theory of gravity. This model doesn’t describe reality perfectly, but it does a good enough job for most cases that we can safely put it to use in our everyday lives.
In my opinion, man’s moral codes are in effect governed by models as well. The reason for this is that there are a number of fundamental questions for which we lack adequate answers: Why are we here? Who are all these other people and how do I relate to them? How should I relate with the environment- animal and plant life? We don’t have an innate understanding of “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” in Douglas Adam’s words.
And so, most individuals and societies develop answers to these questions, answers that are in effect models. They can be based on science, religion, philosophy or non-existent. Most of us can agree that some form of model is necessary to prevent the reign of total chaos.
The key question, therefore, is which model is the best. That immediately leads to the difficult question of how to define what is “best”. I would argue that the aim of such a model would be security, quality of living and freedom for the individual, and promotion of development and sustainability for society.
To achieve those goals it is necessary to have a system of laws and values governing relations of man with himself and between fellow men.
I believe that those goals are best achieved by a model based on belief in a higher power- i.e, religion-based. Moreover, I would even go further to say that a system lacking such a belief is incapable of supporting society, and is resigned to gradual decay.
By belief in a higher power, I mean belief in a superior force responsible for creation whose interest is that we follow divine law. The definition and existence of a divine entity is a complex matter, and I deal with some of the issues pertaining to it further on.
As I see, the greatest flaw in secular models is omission of the divine. As a result, they lack mechanisms critical for the prevention of chaos, namely:
1. A single point of reference in relation to mankind by which men and our actions can be judged.
2. A notion of holiness.
Single point of reference- Since the divine is by definition immeasurably superior to man, through belief in the divine the playing field is leveled- we are all given an equal start. Also, in this way true humility is achieved, since though men differ in many respects, this is negated by the immeasurable distance between all mankind and the divine. In secular models, in effect, every person works according to his own point of reference, and it becomes quite possible for some to believe themselves superior to others, having better genetic tendencies. From here it isn’t far to degradation of others based solely upon their perceived racial attributes.
I find it appropriate to draw parallels between the religious model and physical models. To answer a physical question it is necessary to define a point of reference. For example, consider time- it’s undoubtedly a central concept for describing processes and change in our world. But it can be argued that time itself does not exist independently, but rather is a tool, a way to measure change or pace, thus making the world easier to describe. In this sense, time is a construct of man, and a very powerful one, the ultimate point of reference, allowing us coordination and measurement methods that would be unattainable otherwise. Let us look further at the example of time and the requirements of it as a point of reference. Without a global, common clock, time would hardly be as useful, and coordination impossible. And so, a Universal Time is in use (based on precise astronomical measurements and atomic clocks), and followed worldwide. There is no problem using it as the standard, since the benefits for adopting it are great, and there aren’t any clear benefits for not adopting it. Such is not the case for a universal point of reference in a moral system. There are a multitude of reasons for wishing to use other points of reference, and the benefits of ignoring a universal one often outweigh the advantages, when judging from a purely personal perspective. Thus, to secure this universal point of reference, an extra mechanism is needed- holiness.
Holiness- By definition meaning sacred, secure from violation or profanation. Such a notion cannot exist in a secular model, which cannot support absolutes. By the very premise that humans devised them, so they will be seen as alterable. What’s holy to me may not be to others. But without the ability to define “red lines”, anything goes. Based on my knowledge of human history and nature, incomplete though it is, our sense of proportion isn’t such to prevent us from “going” too far; by which I mean irreversibly damaging human civilization or the Earth itself. I’ll be more explicit with examples, since such terms can be subjectively interpreted in many ways. “Classic” NBC warfare, or the less destructive but no less disturbing Brave New World style “utopia” where everything has been so magnificently engineered for optimal pleasure and comfort that we aren’t really human anymore. To sum up the point; when anything goes, it will ,inevitably, eventually go too far.
As mentioned earlier, notions of perceived superiority are one problem that plagues secular models. At the other end of the spectrum are nihilists who claim life to be without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Nihilists seem to be widely condemned, since it isn’t hard to see that a nihilist society would rapidly reduce to “nil”. I think that also more moderate secular models are in essence nihilist as well. They can be likened to a structure on inferior foundations- the structure may be grand, you may add on to it, but in the end it will cave in upon itself. Why?
In a secular model there is can be nothing intrinsically special about mankind as opposed to various other life forms- yes, we are obviously in a different league in terms of intelligence, but in the end we’re all just various assortments of molecules.
Such a world is a cruel, arbitrary place. Everything is subjective, “right” and “wrong” are obsolete, so why shouldn’t we just try to have as much fun as possible before shuffling out of our mortal coils?
I fail to see how such a model prevents a society from any variety of horrors. Yes, this model can quite easily deal with the more obvious transgressions- theft, murder, etc should be condemned since, if practiced widely, they would prevent a majority of society from having fun. But a system without absolutes shows its weakness when dealing with more complex cases. Pardon the examples, but I’m looking for the less obvious-
• Suicide- Why not kill myself? Life is cruel and hopeless.
• Why have children? Aside from the rather powerful animalistic instinct, they’re expensive and there are too many humans anyway.
• Why make a sacrifice (for example, on a battlefield)- what good is victory if I’m dead?
• Why do anything that will not benefit me in my lifetime?
• Various other “wrong” behavior, like eating human corpses - what’s wrong with that?
Without religion, I can’t find any satisfactory answer to these questions. Science alone cannot deal with them. Can society afford to leave them unanswered?
Challenges to religion-based models:
- Many wars and other cruel acts have been carried out in the course of history in the name of religions.
o This article deals mainly with the consequences of the lack of religion i.e, rather than argue in favor of belief in a divine force, I will instead focus on the inherent problems of non-belief (secular models)- a “proof by negation,” if you will.
o There are innumerable examples of systems and technologies being exploited by humans in ways far from their intended use (socialism). Religion is another victim. Enough atrocities were committed on firmly irreligious grounds (Holocaust, Stalinist USSR) that I feel that we cannot draw conclusions specifically regarding religion, but only about the propensity to evil of mankind in general.
o Also, not all religions are equally effective. How they differ should be the subject of a sequel to this essay.
- Religious models are old, outdated, and devised to explain the world when mankind lacked the understanding we have today.
o Some models are so powerful and useful, there isn’t any need in the foreseeable future to change them. For example, time, as discussed previously.
o Euclidean geometry is ancient as well, and yet contains eternal truths.
- One may then argue that in that case, why not take the “eternal truths”, and do away with the rest?
o This can be akin to playing a sort of double game by dismissing the foundations of religion (belief in the divine), and yet upholding its core values formed on that foundation. By doing this we end up with the “rotten structures” I’ve mentioned before.
- Proving existence of a divine being is impossible.
o Proving non-existence is just as impossible. If they’re both equally improbable, why not go with what works better?
o I identify with the saying that “religion begins where science ends.” I’m far from being a scholar of science, but my intuition and knowledge to date support this. For the foreseeable future it’s safe to say that science won’t find the answers to everything. Even more, we can practically prove that we’re unable to prove everything by a given mathematical system (Gödel's incompleteness theorems).
- How can the model be devised by man but contain divine elements?
o I cannot claim to know the answer to this question, but feel it’s related to the issue above- by the very fact that we cannot explain everything within scientific models, some models will be based on foundations not completely in scientific boundries. I think that to reach beyond the realm of the effable requires great faith, clarity of vision and understanding of human nature, which precious few individuals seem to have been blessed with throughout the ages.
- It is quite possible to live a moral, fulfilling life using a completely secular model.
o Yes, it probably is, and I know more than a few atheists who fit that bill. The real test though, in my opinion, is over time. Education is the key that can bring the lasting change. Over a few generations, will a society mostly following non-religious models be as moral as a those following religion-based models? It’s not an easy question to answer, not the least due to the fact that looking out at the world today doesn’t offer a clear-cut picture at first glance. We can see largely atheist countries with better moral standards than religious countries, and vice versa. A closer look (but still rather general), though, would reveal that the Western, atheist, and supposedly most advanced civilization on Earth, is in a state of moral decline which is beginning to affect other spheres of Western life (economy, population, etc) as well. To predict the future of such a civilization, I look back to the Roman Empire, which the West proudly mimics, following their footsteps to the same nature of demise. I cannot claim to know of any religion-based nation currently setting a shining example for humanity, but I also cannot neglect to mention the Jewish people and the state of Israel, whom I am a proud member of, who have over the generations contributed to the progress of mankind in many realms of thought, utterly disproportionate to the population of the Jewish nation. While Jews are far from perfect, I feel that these contributions and the success of modern-day Israel speak volumes in favor of a religion based society. One cannot argue with results.
One final thought- our understanding of the physical world demands use of elaborate and powerful models, I cannot see why we don’t see them as necessary in the realm of morality. Law in itself is insufficient, as it doesn’t answer the “Why?” Like Newton’s laws, they explain the what and how, but not the underpinning reasons for it all. Just following laws will not advance us in our quest for a more complete understanding of the physical world, and likewise in the moral world. In both worlds, we will reach better laws only by asking “Why?” Today it seems that the hot issue in academia is replacement of religion by science. I feel that more attention should be devoted to honest inquiry to establish religion’s place in the modern world, where it belongs, as ever, where science ends.
I will conclude with the almost 3000 year-old question of one our wise men, Micah, a simple but powerful message in the spirit of religion, which I still find very relevant today:”…What does the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d?”
Welcome to a2k !
As an "old-timer" allow me to give you a bit of advice. Most of us have a problem with "essays", because as you raise each point
our "urge to comment immediately
" is triggered. Instant electronic communication lies at the root of that. So if you carry on, whether you answer a point yourself or ignore it. our interest tends to dry up.
Why not split your thoughts into concise issues each of which can be debated separately ?