Friday, February 03, 2006

I'm a Natural

After putting the previous post together, I came across a great article arguing that humanity generally divides into two camps: Naturals, "people who consider material evidence paramount", and Unnaturals, a.k.a. "those who think inspiration and intuition and all the internal imagery of their minds define their external reality; that what they wish to be so will be so if only they can articulate it and select and distort evidence for the purposes of persuasion". Like our nation's Glorious Leader, for example. When unnaturals run the show, things can get difficult for the natural world, like this recent Charles Darwin exhibit put on by the Natural History museum in NYC. When naturals run the show, the worst that unnaturals have to put up with is the occasional mean hillbilly joke.

Now, it wouldn't be accurate to say that the natural vs. unnatural, rational vs. antirational divide is precisely the liberal vs. conservative divide. At least in this part of the world, it's very common for liberal-minded people to adopt (or at least affect) a sort of hip pseudo-Eastern or pseudo-pagan belief system. I don't know if this is a holdover from the 60's, or a reaction against Christian fundamentalism, or what, exactly, but it's very common. Certainly more common than people openly "admitting" to being secular rationalists. I'm not equating the religious mindsets, since they are very different. The Buddha-by-way-of-John-Lennon thing may be an improvement over the stuff spewed by Pat Robertson & co., in the sense that it's mostly harmless, but that doesn't make it any more real. And New Age people do seem to give fundies the willies. Another example.

Infinite self-absorption and New Age solipsism certainly have fewer directly negative effects than the fundies' obsession with war and the imminent, ultra-gory end of the world. I think it does foster a mindset where being liberal and "enlightened" no longer requires an element of compassion towards other people. The key to being a good person is drinking soy lattes and attending upscale yoga classes, not doing icky stuff like helping poor people, or even thinking about poor people. After all, if people somehow create their own reality, poverty is entirely the fault of the poor, and the only solution is for them to realize it's all in their imagination. I'm not exaggerating. I've seen this precise argument presented repeatedly. And owls really are more important than loggers. I won't go off on a full owl vs. logger rant today, but it's worth noting that at one time in this state, timber jobs once were considered good, honest work, paying family wages, with strong unions that looked out for their members. And then, nearly in the blink of an eye, certain parts of society started seeing timber workers as objects of utter scorn and hatred, people whose basic needs could be comfortably disregarded with nary a thought. For doing exactly the same thing they'd been doing for a hundred years. You can imagine how bewildering and upsetting that must have been. The party of FDR and Harry Truman would've never pulled a stunt like that. I guess I'd call that a clear negative effect, although I'm not sure it can be entirely blamed on religious beliefs.

Where fundie unnaturals reject science and scientific thinking, new-agey unnaturals try to appropriate it for their own ends. Over the years we've gotten pop-philosophy interpretations of relativity, quantum mechanics, Godel's incompleteness theorems, chaos theory, and probably others that aren't occurring to me at the moment. The common thread is that people try to shape a scientific or mathematical notion about a very specific subject into a general philosophy of life, and the resulting philosophy goes something like "you can't know everything" or "it's all relative, dude", basically an antirational, anti-intellectual viewpoint. I expect the originators of each theory would find the whole thing rather appalling. Unless you're a physicist, you aren't likely to encounter relativistic or quantum mechanical effects on an everyday basis. The classical, deeply unfashionable, mechanistic physics of Isaac Newton explains the everyday world rather well, which may be why that theory was developed so much earlier. And as this Slate article notes, even most mathematicians don't need to know or care about Godel on a daily basis.

I really don't see how this is different from the misreading of Darwin in the 19th century, when Herbert Spencer (not Darwin) coined the term "survival of the fittest", when applying a purely biological idea to advocate a fairly vicious form of laissez-faire economics and social policies. Or the naive and almost touching faith displayed by allegedly-rational Libertarians, when they explain that global warming is impossible because the Invisible Hand is benevolent and wouldn't permit such things to happen to us. Or fundies arguing that the reason we can't predict the weather, or earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, with total accuracy is that they're manifestations of divine wrath, and attempts to understand them in scientific terms are pure heresy. I've actually seen this argument too.

I think my occasional math geekiness (which Gentle Reader(s) may have noticed in previous posts) is partly because "infinity" is an inherently compelling topic (well, to me, anyway), and one that it's possible to consider and discuss in a rational, entirely non-mystical way. Sort of like how astrophysics means you can talk about the beginning of the universe without arguing over theology. I suppose it's nice that neither the fundies nor the crystal-gazers have really seized on math so far, although that might be an entertaining spectacle. Really, there are quite a few things out there that would make the fundies angry if only they were a little better educated. And lots of things the New Age types would surely think were really deep and meaningful, if they'd ever heard of 'em. Maybe in a future post I'll try coming up with a list, or the start of a list, anyway. That should be entertaining.

1 comment :

Raw Carrot said...

Or the naive and almost touching faith displayed by allegedly-rational Libertarians, when they explain that global warming is impossible because the Invisible Hand is benevolent and wouldn't permit such things to happen to us.

None of the libertarians I know would go along with that; of course, it oculd be that the ones i know are actually-rational, rather than just allegedly-rational.