Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On disbelief

This week I am an Eighth Day Agnostic, as recent reformers in my irreligion have decided that we also don't know what a week is. My sermon for today begins with a question: When did it become possible to be an atheist?

On Friday I attended an interesting PhD confirmation seminar on the Marquis de Sade. Apart from a nice dirty graphic used as the backdrop, rather distractingly, for the PowerPoint presentation, there was little or no actual sex or sadism. Mostly the discussion centred on what it was that de Sade intended to be doing with his libertine ways. The suggestion the candidate is following up is that he intended to be seen as an Enlightenment thinker like Diderot or Voltaire, and as a public atheist.

Over a number of beers, the discussion turned to the question when it became possible to be an atheist. De Sade lived at a time when public atheism was just beginning its run. Prior to that, it was hard, if not impossible, to be an atheist, largely because the very idea of denying all gods hadn't yet come up. This set me thinking. Well, that and the beer.

Previously, to be an atheist was to deny a particular theology; that of the ruling establishment. Socrates, for example, in Plato's Apology is tried and convicted for atheism, despite his denials that he does accept the existence of gods, and The God, only not the pantheon of Athens. In the middle ages, when Christian theology was taken aback by the Islamic philosophers, debates began on how to prove the existence of [the Christian] God, and so a tradition began. Over time, these arguments were seen to be weaker and weaker, until Kant delivered the final coup de grace for the Ontological Argument after the time of the Enlightenment. But Kant was still a theist. The Enlightenment atheists were a new phenomenon.

These arguments and their failure led to the raising of the possibility of there being no God. Hume famously was known as a skeptic, and called an atheist, but it's hard to tell if he was. Nevertheless, the possibility had been raised. Why? One answer is given by Foucault - there is an episteme defined by the social structure and so on of the time. What Foucault, so I understand, doesn't address is how the episteme changes over time. I want to suggest that there is an evolutionary account for this.

Not a biological evolutionary account, although biology clearly influences and possibly sets the limitations for conceptual change, but a cultural evolutionary account. I take as my text, Forms of Explanation by Alan Garfinkel (1981), in which the following account of explanation in the social sciences is offered (although similar accounts have been given by Bas van Fraassen, Frederick Suppe, and Peter Gärdenfors most recently; I read Garfinkel first and his is the most vivid).

Garfinkel tells this story (which is apocryphal): A priest goes to visit the bank robber Willie Sutton in prison. "Why do you rob banks, Willie" asks the cleric. "Because that's where the money is," replies Willie. Garfinkel notes that the priest had a particular contrast in mind, perhaps as opposed to living virtuously. Willie, more pragmatically (because he was interested in the cash value, see?) contrasts it with other places to rob, like liquor stores or service stations (if they had them back then). His answer explains why, of a set of contrasts, it was banks he robbed. That is the explanation offered, albeit unsatisfactory to the priest.

An explanation reduces the contrast space down to a particular state. In science, one explains why the outcome observed was that one, and not some other outcome permitted by the laws in operation. One does this by offering a deductive or probabilistic argument from those laws and the initial states. In short, it makes likely the outcome. So, too, are commitments of belief or propositional attitudes. Not that one is explaining, though if asked for reasons that is what one tries to do, but the assertion of one out of a number of possible concepts as being true or the best thing to commit to.

So we might say that the episteme is the set of all the active contrasts in a social or cultural locale. How does it change? Social functionalists think that we are determined in our beliefs by the economic or social structures of our time. This is probably often true, but they usually overlook the fact that an individual can exceed or even change the contrasts accepted as the basis for social discourse. But it seems very likely that one cannot exceed it too far. There has to be a kind of "reach" so that one can communicate to the rest and even convince them.

It is very like the accumulation of mutations in a population, and the effect they have on the mean fitness of the population. A few mutations don't make it impossible to interbreed with the rest of the population, and a novel mutation might even increase the mean fitness by being fitter. But if you have too many mutations, the structure of the genome will mean that no sharing is possible, because the genome of the mutant is not a good "fit" with that of the ordinary member of the species. In short, it can't spread.

Conceptual change is very like this. Too many novelties mean the innovator is incomprehensible, or worse, taken to be a heretic. So some views are either ignored or punished, like Socrates', until the milieu is suitable for it to be accepted. Science fiction often deals with this in time travel - the "advanced" time traveller can't make himself understood, and lacks the prior technologies to introduce their own ideas. I might be able to tell Edison how to make a light bulb. I'm fairly sure I couldn't tell Babbage how to make an electronic computer.

Now, I'm not saying that some new ideas aren't revolutionary. Einstein's rejection of absolute frames of reference made a whole new advance in physics possible, even if he didn't like some of them. But the change in contrasts was not, in itself, all that great (and Mach had made that before him). At some point it became conceivable that space and time might not be absolute. And at some time it became possible to be an atheist, and not merely a critic of the prevailing religion.

Even today there are folk who canot conceive of someone not being of their religion unless they are atheists, no matter whether they are religious in another tradition. Conceptual change occurs unevenly between places, times, and cultures. And traditions have a particular role to play in stabilising conceptual change. For example (and sorry if I bother anyone here), the idea that God is triune in the orthodox Christian tradition, despite the conceptual tangle it causes, is unlikely to change over the bulk of the tradition because it is a "solution" to the divinity of Jesus and the unity of God (the one against the idea that Jesus was just a man, or even a spirit using the form of a man, and the other against the polytheism of Roman, Greek and pagan religions). No matter what problems the Trinitarian view causes, it is so core a belief that it is beyond a likely revision. Unitarians seem to lack the fire that defending a faintly absurd doctrine causes. [And it's likely that holding something a disinterested observer can't fathom is a way to strengthen community bonds, for if they think you are mad, then you only have fellow believers to talk to; which may explain people believing Mormonism and Scientology.]

So to summarise today's sermon, let us wonder what we might think in the future, and not be too cocky about our own views, for they may just be the best we can come up with before a new contrast is added to our conceptual field. Except for mine, of course. I am right on everything of import...