Dawkins and Instrumental Unreason
Instrumental unreason is when you say "I can't prove x, but I'm going to believe it anyway so that I can do y." The question of whether you actually need x to do y is a separate question, but it seems to me that this is an important concept to deal with in the great atheist debates of the late 2000s. Why? Well because Atheists use it just as religious people do and accordingly it's one of the few arguments that religious people make that Dawkins doesn't just demolish. As I always do when talking about this, let me say that I'm a secular atheist but not a militant atheist. I like Dawkins, am ambivalent toward Dennet (he gets credit by association from Hofstadter), and hate Hitchens and Harris with little restraint.
What is x for atheists? There are possibly a few examples, but it seems to me the most obvious one is something like the "problem of induction." That is to say, is there any principle by which we know that the floor will be there when we wake up tomorrow? Or that the Grue-Bleeners aren't right? There isn't. So why do we assume it, and why is the problem of induction really meaningless? I presume it's because we are willing to make the small leap (and it's important to stress "small") that in practice the problem of induction is only a problem of sample size and not theory. I fully embrace this, and in so doing I say "I can't prove that the floor will be there tomorrow when I get out of bed, but I'm going to believe it anyway so that I don't wake up every day scared, carefully prodding the whole floor for weak-spots using a stick." Everyone agree with this?
Well so let's take a look at a similar religious use: "If I didn't believe in God then I'd know I could never see my dead son again and I doubt I could go on living." If you say that Dawkins, he'll say two things:
1. Wanting it to be true doesn't make it true. Your desire doesn't prove anything.
2. Atheists deal with tragedies all of the time, and there is much meaning to be found in the beauty of rational life.
Did I miss anything? I think those are the two Dawkins responses, and I've listened to a lot of Dawkins. Always "that doesn't prove anything" and "There is meaning to life in a secular worldview." Well on the first point Dawkins is of course correct but he's either misunderstanding what's meant or just providing a caveat. That question doesn't say "I want to see my dead son therefore religion is true", it says "I'm willing to have an irrational belief to ease the pain from Life's tragedies." As for point 2, this is also true but the simply fact that you or I or Dawkins find consolation in secular rationalism doesn't mean that someone else will. Point two can only be an appeal to alternatives rather than some disproof. Suppose that our questioner doesn't find consolation in the secular worldview. What then?
It seems to me that we're dealing with two questions of the same type. One says "I'll believe in induction even though I can't prove it so I can continue building and admiring this tremendous edifice of science" and the other says "I'll believe in God even though I can't prove it because I want to have meaning in my life." They are both examples of Instrumental unreason. What distinguishes them then, aside from what I've already covered? It seems to me that the two major differencres are as follows:
1. Differences of goal: Is the ability to not spend 4 hours crossing 1 street because you can't be sure if you aren't stepping on illusory pavement this time superior to "finding meaning in one's life?" Possibly; I happen to think that "finding meaning" thing is rather overblown, though if not it's arguable.
2. Differences of reasonableness: This is the meat of it- is the jump from "it's EXTREMELY likely that the floor is there" to "it's true that the floor is there" much of a jump? No, especially when compared to the jump from "there probably isn't a bearded man in the sky who watches me and takes my soul to heaven" to "there is."
Okay, so it's a problem of reasonableness but... that's subjective and hard to pin down. So how do we make the distinction? I'd love to hear some thoughts. As for me, the best I have is "if possible one shouldn't have irrational beliefs." It seems to me that trying to eliminate induction from my life is not possible and yet finding meaning in my life without god is. Therefore I'm a secular atheist. However, I recognize that as a personal assessment that may be different for other people. That's why I'm tolerant of religious moderates. I'm not interested in defending religion from the militant atheist movement; I'm interested in defending pluralism.