Sunday, August 03, 2014

uncertainty is a participation ribbon

Without a doubt, I knew beforehand that I wouldn't agree with every point in Frank Schaeffer's mishmash, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. And my expectations were met. My reactions are as inconsistent as the ideas expressed. Like Schaeffer, I dismissed my faith-beliefs without considering them totally worthless. We're in agreement that the Bible is packed with factual inaccuracies and antiquated moralities. We accept the statements of scientific consensus. We reject the claim that contemporary society should regress to the cultural mores advocated in the Bible. We may have similar political views, but his blogging is obviously much more politically focused.

Thereafter the philosophical, or perhaps psychological, differences start to pile up. I dismissed my faith-belief's activities some time after dismissing the corresponding faith-beliefs. Such activities would now clash with my innermost thoughts. I don't have the same old need or desire to continue them. In fact, almost any other category of activity seems more valuable and enjoyable to me. But Schaeffer matter-of-factly confesses that he prays and attends religious services, due to both ingrained compulsion and ongoing appreciation for the experiences' flavor and good intentions. In one section he lightheartedly compares them to bowling regularly.

That's fine with me. He can spend his personal time in whatever frivolous ways he likes, assuming of course he isn't harming anyone else. Likewise, one's chosen identity isn't thrown into actual contradiction by singing Christmas carols, or LARPing, or reenacting Civil War battles, or reciting the dialogue of Puck. The problems only start when someone fails to isolate these fanciful roles within a sharply delimited context...

I might even be glad that he routinely performs religious activities, if the simple effect is encouraging kindness and the contemplation of life through greater perspective. His book more or less portrays "Christ" not as a man or god but as a kind of storied avatar of concepts such as broad inclusiveness, equality, rejection of biblical literalism, compassion, and anything else Schaeffer approves. Hence he suggests that Scandinavian countries merit the label of "Christian", and the Enlightenment qualifies as an implicit "heresy of Christianity".

I suppose that I can see his point. However, the semantic gymnastics strike me as fruitless. Sure, someone certainly could "take back" the myth of Christ from traditional churches, and refashion it in order to link it to new things. But what does that gain? Who cares about ensuring that link? Why not allow an upstart to be good without "christening" it, so to speak? Must this be another case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"?

Still, the gap between our differing approaches to religious activities is less extensive than the chasm between our differing emphases on uncertainty—or "mystery" if the speaker wishes to sound wise and impressive. My inclination is to compare uncertainty to a participation ribbon. When I was a young child, participation ribbons were part of Field Day: an annual school event held outdoors. Field Day included quick individual competitions in which the top three received a designated (cheap) ribbon. Nevertheless, everyone in the class who was present received at least one ribbon for their participation in Field Day. Participation itself was an achievement.

To a similar degree, acknowledging the uncertainty of one's current knowledge is the achievement of successfully showing up for the honest struggle to obtain accurate ideas. The recognition of possible uncertainty is akin to the steps before the first step of the Field Day's dash competition (a race so short that it was almost absurd). It indicates the participant's willingness to seriously judge the boundaries of their knowledge.

The opposite isn't confidence but thin-skinned arrogance: "My knowledge is so infallible that absolutely no pragmatic action needs to be taken, whether to 'verify' its implications or to seek out superior alternatives to it." Someone with exactly zero uncertainty is someone who cannot imagine improving their knowledge, so they don't participate meaningfully in the struggle to obtain accurate ideas. They're not lining up at the starting line for the dash. Rather, they sit on the side and brag that they would circle the school building five times if they would demean themselves to testing their speed in the dash. This is the state of mind which knows the answer with certainty before expending any mundane effort. It's generally called "fundamentalist" by the irreligious, although it surely isn't confined to self-identified Fundamentalists.

The comparison underlines several aspects. First, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty isn't a pursued prize. It's not an aim. It's utterly normal and unremarkable. It's more like a periodically performed measurement that constantly fluctuates according to specific justifications. Uncertainty is why statistical analysis matters and why verifications should be repeatable; otherwise, one or two checks could be flukes. It's why someone concedes that their knowledge is possibly revisable. It's why a credible experimenter attempts to discern and publicly disclose the weaknesses in their own experimental studies. Once someone pinpoints their sources of uncertainty, they can speculate about circumstances that could reduce uncertainty and enforce revisions to knowledge. Nobody needs to be proud of being uncertain. Nobody needs to speak as if the existence of uncertainty produces definite conclusions in response. While it's an essential prerequisite to placing knowledge in realistic context, uncertainty isn't precious by itself.

Second, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty isn't an endpoint. It's not a destination. It's not the finish line of the dash. It's not a signal that someone should immediately give up expanding their knowledge. It's a clue to what someone should do next. They can't eliminate it all at once but they can gnaw at it bit by bit. On the other hand, one of the hallmarks of realistic answers is the tendency to lead to all-new sets of questions. The work to reduce uncertainty might result in further uncertainties which are different and surprising. That's still progress. Now the searcher has better reasons to be more sure about the prior idea. Novel uncertainty doesn't cause frustration at not capturing "the final truth". It's an invigorating invitation to keep moving.

Third, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty doesn't demolish the notion of winners and losers. Everyone's participation in the dash doesn't imply that they will complete it simultaneously. As I keep reiterating, uncertainty isn't absolute. It's not a poison. The smallest speck of it doesn't ruin trustworthiness or erase past advances. Its proper use isn't to shut down debate. It doesn't grant equal legitimacy to every half-baked conjecture. It's not a rationale for saying, "I'm uncertain and you're uncertain, so we're both total fools who shouldn't ask each other how we defend our positions."

To the contrary, uncertainty is yet another distinguishing mark. It's directly tied to how the position was verified. If one participant's beliefs seemingly derive from their moods, then they would say that uncertainty springs from the wild oscillations between their moods. That variety of uncertainty is hardly equivalent to the ever-popular variety of mathematically precise and limited uncertainty within quantum mechanics, for instance. Wave-particle duality and Planck's constant don't somehow support the dangerous proposition that all human beliefs have been proven identically useless. Nor does it support the bizarre fantasy that human souls can remake realities by intentionally collapsing wave functions into a desired quantity.

Therefore, uncertainty of a belief isn't tied to the particular way that someone personally encountered the belief. Uncertainty is gauged by the belief's underlying chain or web of positive verifications. For example, I readily declare that I was never personally taught to believe in a Cosmic Turtle. Regardless, I don't dismiss it for the sole reason that I was never personally taught it. I dismiss it because I'm not convinced by a chain or web of positive verifications underlying it. My disbelief isn't wholly dependent on the "narratives" of my upbringing or anyone else's. Am I "uncertain" about the Cosmic Turtle to the extent that I cannot say that its absence of detection thus far forbids its (hidden) existence? Well, yes. And its current status is not too dissimilar from indetectable contemporary "mystery" versions of gods. In short, if folks like Schaeffer claim that I qualify as a "fundamentalist atheist" because my deep uncertainty about Great Theological Off-stage Mysteries leads me to dismiss them, then by their standard they qualify as "fundamentalist Cosmic Turtle deniers". Nobody should care whether someone was personally acclimated to this or that set of ideas. In any case, the more relevant question is how one's ideas are distinctively supported, not how they heard about them. Familiarity or unfamiliarity is not enough to either verify or falsify any specific belief.

Ultimately, disagreements about uncertainty aside, I don't have serious objections to much of the book. I can imagine far worse fates than vast populations acting like "atheists who believe in a god"...a god that does nothing more than embody carefully selected ethical ideals.

No comments:

Post a Comment