Friday, June 27, 2008

Zen and the Church of Reason

I've been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's a good book. One that I was ready to read, which is odd, because the first time I picked it up I was actively searching for something to satisfy my "spiritual side" while I gave up on faith, and religion, and god, and I put it down because I wasn't that interested.

But maybe I had to forsake the idea that the "spiritual" me ever existed before I could begin to understand that it does, in fact, exist, but is not "spiritual" in the way that the religious or woo-practitioners mean.

I've done no research into the book, but it's fairly famous, so I'm sure that when I'm done, if I want to find out more, there'll be plenty of information lying around. It's ostensibly about a man, a genius, whose mind drove him mad with the search for "truth", trying to carry on with the new life "therapy" gave him, while trying to reconnect with the man he used to be. There's a great deal of discussion about objective reality, subjective perceptions, the relationship between the two, the mind-matter duality, and a thing he calls Quality, which is shaping up to be something like God (or rather a god, or the god, but not a traditional god).

There's more to it, but I didn't want to spend my 100th post on a book review. This is a little bigger, and the book was a spark.

It got me thinking about reason, and rationality, and the way we treat it, especially as atheists. Our most devastating criticisms of god and of religion are born of logic and reason. Our sureness of lack of faith comes from rational discourse. Our reason, rather than faith, guides us in our ethical considerations, our political choices, and we hope, in our lives.

Skeptics of a buch of things, including religion and woo, use reason to debunk the garbage that pollute our culture. We do what we can to get god out of the schools, woo out of the white coat, and bigotry out of society. Reason is our best tool, our greatest weapon, and has laid waste to wingnuts of all stripes. People persist in fallacious beliefs, they cling to faith, and they still see psychics, but reason is gaining on them. In fact, they now try to adopt the methods of rational thinking to irrational beliefs, hoping, I guess, that it'l work this time.

It's stupid, as I've said before, to prop up your faith with proof. If you can prove it, you've negated the need for faith anyway. But they keep trying, because reason kicks ass.

But reason isn't the only thing. In fact, I don't think it's the most important thing. Reason has its limits, and most of those are posed by human nature.

Ethics are more complicated than reason would have us believe. Rationally, we ought to execute repeat offenders. It would be the ultimate "three strikes" rule. They're not contributing, so get them out of society. Enforced sterilization of people carrying genetic defects makes logical sense, too, to breed true. And based on how far humans have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, we ought to be encouraging homosexual behaviour. However, basing your ethical code on something completely unreasonable is much, much worse. Reason coupled with compassion seems to be the answer.

Logic guides us through difficult scenarios, but it can't do everything. Human rights logically apply to everyone. But it's anger or sorrow or empathy that get us off our rational asses and into courtrooms, marches, or onto blogs with pithy remarks. Anger draw placards, anger writes protest songs, and anger makes unarmed kids take on the National Guard. That's clearly not reasonable.

Reason taught the North American GLBT movement to emulate the suffrage and civil rights movements, but anger is what motivated them to seek action.

Without reason, Medecins sans frontieres would be travelling witch doctors and Engineers Without Borders would be young people digging ditches, but it was empathy that founded those organizations.

Reason gave us the structure of the UN, but it was hope that brought it into being. It is fear and selfishness that cripple it now.

Fear kept millions of Americans shopping, checking their mail for fucking anthrax, allowing their government to strip them of their rights, and sent them into a war they should have known they wouldn't, couldn't win. Reason had nothing to do with that (except perhaps the logic of the propagandists).

Inertia prevents action on climate change, or perhaps fear. But reason should cause us to act. The same with resource depletion.

Imagination draws heavily on reason, but the spark of creativity is irrational. Reason allows us to predict the future, but imagination allows us to change it. And intuition, while probably a function of reason, happens when you aren't looking, so it's not logical.

In personal relationships, emotion is a lot more influencial than reason. I didn't marry my wife for any logical reason. Logically, I should protect and care for my daughter, because she carries my genetic material. But my feelings for her have nothing to do with reason. My feelings about my dog aren't rational, either. About the only thing she does for me is clean up when I drop something in the kitchen.

Obviously, logic has a great deal to offer. You can tell because inherently irrational worldviews try to coopt it all the time. It's methodical, predictable, and clearly beneficial. It gives us godless ethics, science, medicine and technology. It gives us human and animal rights, and democracy. But it is, at its essence, a tool. A tool for spreading our compassion, for building our hope, and for eradicating our fear.

Clearly there's more to life than rationality. I have a lot more to offer than my reason. Clearly, we must not forsake or ignore it, not in any part of our lives, and not for anything as nebulous as our soul, our spirit, or our salvation. I believe that we have a "spiritual side", and while it doesn't actually have a spirit in it, it's where we keep our intuition, our imagination, our fear, our anger, our empathy, our hope, our love and our joy.

It might be useful to find a system, like Taoism or Buddhism, that can help you codify all that stuff without god, but I'm undecided yet. That stuff comes from within us, not from a teacher, or a preacher, or from god. Instead, we must use reason to temper all those other things. But I'm not ready to subject them to reason. A world of cold logic would be worse, I think, than one of woo or god.

But I did not give up on religion so I could worship at the altar of Reason.

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