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Areligious Religion
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Via David Moles' blog is a good, lengthy discussion about science and religion, mostly between Benjamin Rosenbaum and Ted Chiang.

It was kicked off, with some poking and prodding by Benjamin following this assertion:

There's also the issue Spinrad's talking about, which I think is essentially the issue of SF as the popular art of a particular religious group -- materialist-rationalists who believe (for what I think are, at bottom, theological reasons) that the world is a beautiful, coherent machine, with an absolute, inviolable reality existing beyond any particular consciousness, following simple, regular rules which can be discovered through experiment. Scientists, to do science, have to make at least an *operational* commitment to this worldview, but I'm not talking about an *operational* commitment -- I'm talking about people who make the personal leap of faith to commit themselves emotionally to the proposition that nothing exists beyond the elegant machine (including their own selves), and that everything about the machine can in principle be discovered.

It's a beautiful, moving faith, in its purest form, like most religious worldviews.

A lot of good stuff follows, so go have a read, though it should be fairly clear to anyone that knows me that I'm gonna mostly side with Chiang on this one, when he points out the lack of usefulness in referring to this worldview as a "religion" and when he differentiates skepticism from deep skepticism:

You're talking about deep skepticism, which cannot be practiced in a meaningful way. How do you know that fire will be hot the next time you touch it? You don't. Even the evidence of thousands of tests doesn't guarantee that the fire will be hot; it might be cold next time. Yet you still avoid fire.

Is this religious belief? I assert it is not, at least not if we want "religious" to remain a useful term.

Right. If believing that fire is hot is a religious belief, then everything is a religious belief, and there is really no distinction to be made between rational and irrational beliefs, (e.g., believing that a rabbit's foot will bring you luck is just as much faith-based as believing that fire is hot).

I think Ted is right that there it is worthwhile to draw this distinction.

I've been accused of holding to the dogmatic "materialist-rationalist" worldview, and it has been suggested that this view is just as religious and faith-based as apparently every other world religion. I think Chiang does a good job of pointing out that yes, everything is based on faith, every truth is provisional, but not all beliefs are equal.

Take for example the belief that snapping my fingers three times before I get behind the wheel of my car will protect me from all accidents. This is an article of faith based on faulty causality, right? You wouldn't say, oh, well someone who believes that attentive driving and a well-maintained vehicle are good precursors to safe driving is just using faith too. Or if you would say that, would you make any distinction between the two beliefs?

Anyway, as for the assertion that SF is the popular art for all people who believe a particular worldview, I think that's pretty well debunked by the discussion itself. There are some psychological commonalities among fans of SF and Fantasy, but there is quite a lot of divergence in views on religion, politics, and philosophy. These people tend to be smarter (and geekier) than the average population, and enamored with fiction that is otherworldly and allows for deep immersion and escapism from everyday reality, but there is where the similarities of the fan base end.

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