Wednesday depends on us.

by byrnema3 min read29th Apr 200943 comments


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In response to Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted

It is a theist cliché: you need religion to define morality. The argument doesn't have to be as simplistic as “you need God to impose it”, but at the least it is the belief that your community needs to agree on what is ethical. When a community starts talking about what is ethical, they quickly depart from anything strictly fact-based. As a community, they need to figure out what the morality is (e.g., love your neighbor), construct a narrative using symbols that make sense to everyone (there’s this external entity God, someone like your father, who wants it this way) and enforce it (if you don’t go along, you go to Hell.) This is probably 40% of what religion is.

While the development of a religion is a community effort to some extent (communities choose among competing religions and religions evolve), the main work is done by the priests. The priest is usually an exceptionally good thinker/reasoner/philosopher – maybe 4-7 3-5 standard deviations from the mean. [Correction]

There are a few things that are very confusing to Wednesday when you try to convert her. First of all, she understands on at least a subconscious level that religion is her community’s ethical system. When you say you don’t believe in God, she thinks you’re saying, ‘it’s OK to torture babies’. What’s scary is that she’s somewhat justified here: without an externally applied ethical belief system, individual ethics can vary widely from what she accepts as ethical (and what you accept as ethical).

 If morality is something that humanity protects, can we blame Wednesday for that?

Fortunately, Eliezer assures us: Anyone worried that reductionism drains the meaning from existence can stop worrying.

This brings us to the second problem for Wednesday. While I believe Eliezer about rationality not denying morality and meaning, I believe him in the same way Wednesday believes her priest: because he’s been right before and I figure I probably have something to learn.

 Rational arguments sound just as good to Wednesday as her Bishop’s theological arguments. What is she to do? Wednesday’s priest has warned her of this with some well-chosen examples appropriate for her level of sophistication and he explains: when you get confused, just trust your intuition: Is it really OK to torture babies?

I think the average person needs some help to defend from wanton intellectual argument. Here's the handy heuristic: Choose to preserve a meta-truth (i.e., the truth you are committed to protect) over a fact-based truth that has proven, again and again, to not be reliable when you factor in that you're not a great thinker and thus can be easily mislead by “facts”.

 On some level Wednesday is aware her religion contradicts facts (God is a mystery, etc) but she is comfortable with the idea that there may be a hierarchy of truths: truths about whether it is OK to torture babies is more important to her than knowing how many years old the Earth is.

Don’t you agree with Wednesday? If Eliezer had not already ascertained that there’s still morality after rationality, would you be willing to go there? I wouldn’t, personally. (If that makes me irrational, that is also what makes me human. Typical sci fi theme – but science fiction, like religion, has many symbols that ring true tones.) 

But among two presented belief systems, an intellectually unsophisticated Wednesday is just choosing the belief system that has falseness AND “meaningful” truth over a belief system that (certainly, historically) has no falseness (in theory) BUT no meaningful truth. So you should accept Wednesday as rational: she values the value of truth, which is better than valuing valueless truth at whatever cost.

 Maybe you’re surprised (or skeptical) that Wednesday values truth. But I’m not. I have evidence that valuing truth is a pretty universal human quality. Alas, often second to valuing security and power … But still: another reason to accept Wednesday. She is typical humanity. Some of you have a lot of anger towards religion, with good reason, but it would be a mistake to define ourselves antagonistically against 99.99% of humanity. Even if we are right and they’re wrong, whose side are we on?

 I think we’re on their side. Religion – defined now as the set of ways the community defines our relationship with each other and with the world – is supposed to evolve with our understanding of those relationships. Wednesday is stuck in a religion and a moral code that hasn’t really changed in 2000 years! (35% true, but point left for dramatic effect) She depends upon us to figure out how to draft a new belief system based on science that is also human: an ethical science. Don’t leave her with the choice of having to choose between either rejecting science or rejecting the meaning and value of being human.

 Instead of complaining about how idiotic humanity is, we have some work to do:

 (1)            decide whether meaning exists, if it important, and if it can be brought into a scientific view of the world without making stuff up

(2)            develop a scientific view of the world that accommodates the meta-truth, if it exists

(3)            explain it to Wednesday in a way that makes sense to her (symbols and analogies are OK, but they must be honest ones)    

I think we should debate about whether meaning exists, whether a scientific view of the world accommodates meaning, and whether it is our responsibility to help Wednesday. But if yes to all three, we should define ourselves in service to her, and bring her along.


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