2001 : WHAT NOW?

marvin_minsky's picture
Mathematician; computer scientist; Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT; cofounder, MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; author, The Emotion Machine
Mathematician and computer scientist

Richard Dawkins, as usual, talked sense, and made several true and timely points. ... . But in one important respect, his remarks did not seem to me to reach the heart of the issue. He blames religion, and our convention of "respecting" it. Now, I am no advocate of religion, but religious belief is surely not central to the present disaster. There are plenty of terrorists at large who are not pursuing any religious agenda. There are notorious sponsors of terrorism who are driven by nationalist or socialist ideologies, not religious dogma. And there are plenty of religious zealots who are no danger to anybody (except themselves and their unfortunate wives and children).

There are exceptions to every rule.

That is not to deny that mainstream Islamic culture has exhibited a major moral failure. It seems to struggle even to find the language and the conceptual framework genuinely to oppose the crimes that are committed in its name. Large numbers of peaceful Muslims find themselves in effect condoning mass murder, and painfully few can bring themselves to side with the victims now exercising their right of self defence. Nevertheless it is not the tenets of Islam that have caused the present violence. This is a political evil we are facing, not a religious one. And it is a modern evil, not an ancient one.

Yes, but Dawkins is not blaming Islam; he is blaming religion. Whereas Deutsch seems to be blaming something else:

Moreover, mainstream Western culture has also exhibited a major moral failure: a refusal to distinguish between right and wrong. The unique glories of our civilisation - self-criticism, tolerance, openness to change and to ideas from other cultures - have in many people's minds decayed, under this moral failure, into self-hatred, appeasement, and moral relativism.

Well, many of us are not so sure that we (does Deutsch?) can always distinguish between right and wrong, — as do most adherents of religions. (Yes, this has exceptions, too.) Because most religions teach that Faith is a virtue, and teach that morality comes not from reason but from sacred texts that one must be trained to believe. The result, I think that Dawkins agrees, is that religions do not teach those Western Virtues of tolerance, openness to ideas, and — above all — the virtues of critical thinking. This, in my view is what leads many people into following leaders that we/I see as "evil".

I agree with much of the rest of what David Deutsch says — but I feel that he has missed Dawkins' point: that one way that we can defend ourselves is by finding ways to reduce the huge numbers of people who have been trained to follow charismatic leaders by suspending their critical thinking and commonsense.

Now that especially applies to religious people, especially from the more orthodox sects. And of course, again, there are exceptions — but a very large proportion of people on this planet do grow up in "faith-based" sects.

I did indeed wince at Deutsch's discussion of Mr. Bush, who,

... speaking to an audience of children, addressed the question that everyone has asked: "Why would somebody hate so badly"? And he replied: "my answer is, there's evil in the world. But we can overcome evil. We're good." This is the simple truth - a truth on which all our futures depend - yet the moment Mr Bush uttered it, all the intellectuals in the Western world winced.

This is not "the simple truth." In fact, it's the answer that every trained terrorist gives.

How many non-believers would have been capable of giving the right answer to that question? President Bush was able to answer it, and to articulate the explanation, and to use it as an essential element of national policy, not especially because he knows it intellectually but because he understands it in his gut. And the process by which it got into his gut was intimately connected with his religion.

A bit of critical thinking would suggest that perhaps the speechwriter knew that the public is against Evil, knew that it make a fine impression on most of the public, and that speechwriter probably also knew that this is a dangerous basis for national policy — but that writer has a job to do. The "right" basis is, in a democracy, a far more complex matter. Yes, religion is good at getting such clichés into people's "guts" — where gut means to believe something "deeply" without much understanding what one is believing in. And it is all too easy to convert such stuff into whatever you local tyrant wants.