A popular observation these days quotes G. K. Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.” This is meant to explain the late 20th century’s outpouring of devotion to mysticism, witchcraft, satanism, communism, and space aliens living among us, which seems to be in direct proportion to a fading of belief in the teachings of the little church on the corner.
With all respect to Chesterton, that puts a low value on the power of the human intellect and the human heart.
As someone who has professed atheism since my teenage years, I don’t feel myself attracted to nothing, nihilism, negativity, and anarchy. Neither am I about to go into flights of gullible acceptance over the teachings of wicca, homeopathy, herbal medicine, or redemption through space invaders.1
Although I was never formally trained as a scientist, most of my life has involved interaction with scientists and engineers, and I greatly respect their viewpoint. A scientist does not—or tries not to—“believe” in anything, because belief is generally taken to mean acceptance of an idea, fact, or system without testing and proof. A scientist instead works by observation: first, perceive and study a series of facts, situations, or conditions; second, from these observations, draw one or more generalizations, hypotheses, or rules about what is happening and why; third, develop a strategy for testing and proving that these generalizations may be wrong; finally, if the most rigorous tests cannot disprove the rule, accept it as a working premise.
Limits of Knowledge and Proof
The scientist accepts that what he or she can “know” is limited to the situations that can be directly observed and recorded. These include the results of any testing, where the condition or process to be tested is formally stated; the limits of applicability to other, similar conditions are firmly established; the inputs and outputs are observed and recorded; and the apparent proof or disproof is precisely stated. It’s a pretty limited form of knowledge.
On this basis, a scientist attending the Wedding in Cana would have tasted the water first, tasted the wine after, kept an eye on the jugs all the time—and then only have acknowledged that water had become wine. A scientist would not have concluded from this observation that anyone was a god, the son of a god, or especially gifted in any capacity other than time-independent fermentation. It’s a limited form of knowing.
This is why evolution has remained only a theory for more than 150 years, despite huge amounts of confirming evidence from the geological record, genetic analysis, and observations of physical structure. Evolution is an idea, a statement of how individually separate circumstances—the genotypes and phenotypes of individual animals and plants—are related. While no serious biologist doubts their relationship, while no instance has ever been observed of a living organism on Earth that was not chemically related to the organisms around it and preceding it, while evolution has never been formally disproved—the evolutionary process itself can still only be inferred, not directly observed. And so evolution remains a theory.
It’s on this basis that I’m prepared to deal with the physical universe. But I grant that the severe limitations of scientific knowledge break down when they encounter the human realm of relationships, emotions, preferences, antipathies, morals, and personal honor. These are the products not only of observation but also of cultural influence and familial upbringing.
As a scientist, I might infer and test the social proposition: “I have no special place in society that lets me act, and be perceived as acting, any differently from other people.” From this, it’s a short and testable step to: “If I find it possible to lie, cheat, steal, and murder to my advantage, it is also possible that others around me might lie, cheat, steal, and murder to my disadvantage.” And from this observation, one might also infer and test a moral principle: “Society functions better—that is, with less injury, hurt, and distrust—when I and those about be are instructed and act in a way that refrains from lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering.”
From this and similar propositions, I can draw a set of—not necessarily beliefs—but working principles, subject to review and revision.
People Aren’t Good or Bad
The world isn’t divided into “good” people and “bad” people. Human thought and activity are far too varied to make such simple distinctions. Even a Hitler thought he was doing something good for the German people, and a Lenin or a Pol Pot thought he was working for the benefit of future humanity.
Hitler was short-sighted in believing that what was good for the German people mattered more than the lives of people of other nations and races, and that what was good in the short run—expanding the borders, winning the battles, clearing the streets of undesirables—would suffice for the long run and survive the dispassionate judgment of disinterested observers (i.e., historians and their readers), who would take all sides into account. Lenin, Pol Pot, and others who would make a sacrifice—sometimes even a bonfire—of people, traditions, and relationships today in pursuit of a vision of what might be beneficial tomorrow, or in the distant future, or for some hypothetical and possibly fantasized “humanity,” are also guilty of extreme short-sightedness.2
But that said, while people as a general rule may not be “bad,” they may still be adhering to bad data and false assumptions, confused about the ultimate effects of their plans and goals, or mistaken about their own situation and their right to impose their planning on others. These are all cases of imperfect knowledge.
People are also capable of self-delusion. They may be acting selfishly or greedily in their relations with others, but see themselves as simply taking responsibility for their own lives and futures. Some people may even be cruel—sometimes with the thought that it’s the only appropriate way to be kind—but they don’t see themselves as monsters, merely as principled and unbending.
The world is more clearly divided into those who know themselves, take time for introspection, think through their actions, and view themselves with honesty and no special favoritism—and those who don’t. The latter figure the world is theirs for the taking, and their needs and priorities will always come first.3 This is more a matter of honesty and enlightenment, than moral virtue and impairment.
World Is Not Good or Bad, Either
By extension, the world—by which I mean the situation in which we as individuals, and collectively as humanity, find ourselves—is neither favorable nor unfavorable, neither good nor bad for us. The world simply exists and we must deal with it as we find it.
The world is “good” for humans and for all life on Earth only to the extent that evolution has shaped us. Our lungs adapted over time to breathe an atmosphere with the current percentages of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases. These percentages have not remained fixed over time, and the environment of the early Earth would have been deadly to us. In the same way, we are well—if not perfectly—adapted to the environment’s atmospheric pressure and ambient radiation, to sunshine’s visible wavelengths, and to the Earth’s seasonal variations, day-night cycles, Moon-Sun tidal phases, and other physical characteristics.
If we lived in an environment with no ionizing radiation at all, for example, there might not be enough genetic mutation and variation to drive our adaptability to other changing conditions. In the same way, if the environment did not change through sunspot cycles, ice ages, and ephemeral challenges like drought, floods, volcanoes, asteroid impacts, and other natural and sometimes human-caused disasters, then life on this planet would have remained static.4 We humans might not have evolved at all.
There have been good times and bad, in terms of both physical and socioeconomic conditions. The good times encourage human industry and development; the bad times challenge human survival. There has never been an Eden, where life was in perfect balance, all the apples were sweet, and humans could relax at their ease.
The world may not always be what we might wish it. We might dream of Eden. But getting everything we want—either at an individual or a societal level—would be bad for us. No animal on this planet was designed to relax in idleness, except perhaps the three-toed sloth. Fighting, scrambling, and surviving are the nature of living: they keep us sharp; they keep us lean and healthy.
On this basis, it’s useless to bewail fate. When the tornado knocks down your house, it makes no sense to ask “why me?”5 Our brains and bodies were designed instead to pick up the sticks and rebuild—or go under in despair.
I only hope I can maintain this optimistic belief when the next big earthquake comes.
1. But I have a long-standing appreciation for Buddhism, Zen, and eastern psychology and spiritual practice in general. This goes back to my university days, when I studied karate and picked up a bit of its philosophical side, then took some courses covering eastern religions, and ended up at the university press editing Garma C. C. Chang’s The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism (University Park: Penn State Press, 1971). Hwa Yen is one of the Chinese traditions of Buddhism and one of the roots of Japanese Zen.
2. As a general rule, anyone who would compel others to do his bidding or subscribe to his vision should be distrusted. When dealing with individual human beings, who remain the ultimate components and units of action in any group, it is better to invite and persuade than to coerce and compel. The results of persuasion and agreement are longer lasting, and you end up with fewer hurt feelings.
3. In the old Transactional Analysis, this is the position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK”—also sometimes known as the “criminal position.”
4. Probably at the level of blue-green algae, bacteria, and other microbes.
5. By choice or chance, you ended up living in a part of the country subject to tornadoes. Others live with floods, earthquakes, fire danger, and other hazards. There is no Eden.