Saturday, April 21, 2007

D'Souza vs. Atheists, the Human Brain vs. Reality

Able webmaster Michel Evanchik forwarded me a link to an essay on the DailyKos blog by an atheist professor at Virginia Tech who objects to (the decreasingly intelligent?) Dinesh D’Souza saying atheists have nothing to offer in the way of solace after Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech. The professor responds with an eloquent description of the perfectly human way that atheists react to such events.

But then, no one should ever promise that the truth will be comforting. People insist that it should be, though, and I think it’s important to note how that warps their perceptions of reality.

I am increasingly convinced that humanity has not evolved to care about the truth (nor have media markets, I should add) — sure, having some extremely vague idea about some basic truths has survival value: where the big rocks are, who likes you, who’s trying to eat you, that sort of thing. Get even a smidgen past those bare survival needs, though, and I think the human brain quickly loses interest in an accurate picture of reality and starts focusing instead on entertainment and wishful thinking. Further, I think most people’s brains tend to alight naturally upon the beliefs most comforting to them in the short run — not necessarily because they are the ideas that promise the happiest ending or depict the happiest world but because they “sit well,” in an almost aesthetic sense, in the believer’s brain, providing a sort of intellectual equilibrium — often precisely because the beliefs oversimplify the universe and exaggerate its fundamental harmony. This may be the source of most political ideology, religion, excessive use of simple algebraic constructs in economics, and many taboos and social generalizations, not to mention many people’s groundless sense of optimism.

The truth about the world, I think, is both dark and complex (surely I’m not the only person aside from a couple assassins who read Catcher in the Rye as a teen, not knowing how dark it was meant to be, and thought “This Holden Caulfield fellow is doing a fine job of exposing all the phonies in the world — we could use a few more fellows like him in this world”) and, crucially, much of social bonding depends upon respecting the tacit agreement not to mention this fact. Whether it’s a “community of faith,” a “shared political vision,” the pretense that most countries in the U.N. are not authoritarian and savage, or a willingness to listen without giggling while old Uncle Ed finishes telling his UFO abduction story, the human project devotes an immense portion of its intellectual energy to shoring up the bullshit by which we pretend to have to a really good thing going here (even when we don’t).

D’Souza’s specific attack on atheists at this most tasteless of times reminds me, in its cold-bloodedness, of a religious friend of a former co-worker of mine who not only condemned two of their acquaintances for engaging in premarital sex — a standard enough religious posture, and not entirely unreasonable — but went on to say, in an e-mail, that the two acquaintances must feel they are “in love,” with scare quotes. The two acquaintances are now happily married, by the way, and I would have thought it was the Stalinists who look icily down their noses at romance, dismissing it as a bourgeois illusion if it gets in the way of ideological purity. But religious fanatics are capable of that sort of inhuman lack of empathy too, and I suspect D’Souza (whose most recent book suggests that American conservatives should make common cause with traditional Muslims overseas instead of Western liberals) comes closer to this sort of sociopathic inability to recognize emotions in others than do the atheists he criticizes.

I always used to think that the common leftist complaint that the religiously devout are closed-minded jerks was beside the point — the (much less heated) question is merely whether they are philosophically mistaken, not whether they have nasty motives. But I’m starting to wonder. Indeed, this outburst from D’Souza almost alleviates the guilt I (an atheist) have long felt over accidentally stiffing him and some of his entourage for drinks once.


Brain said...

When did you stiff D’Souza for drinks?

Todd Seavey said...

In the mid-90s, after a few of D’Souza’s well-wishers, myself included, heard him speak (Or had we just heard the late Reed Irvine? Memory fades), we had a drink nearby, possibly at the Plaza, after which and (since absorbed by ISIL and, respectively) founder Chris Whitten and I, the two libertarians present, politely said our goodbyes but coincidentally both forgot to chip in toward the tab, obviously in ironic contradiction to our strongly-held pro-property rights philosophy. Chris is a multimillionaire now and so could repay the group, but our portion was apparently picked up by failed NY lieutenant-governor candidate and all around swell guy Dan Mahony, who says he prefers continuing to hold it over my head. And now you know.

P.S. I also once saw D’Souza — much of whose work, I should confess, I still like — debate Christopher Hitchens about affirmative action, and moderator Ed Koch did one of the few non-ironic doubletakes I’ve ever seen when Hitchens made the un-p.c. argument that regulations mandating larger bathroom stalls for the handicapped might also have unintended benefits for the homosexual community. That was also the night that I discovered that my fellow NYPress writer Daniel Radosh (of, sent to cover the event from a left-wing angle while I was sent by the Press to cover it from a right-wing angle, shared my frustration that we weren’t instead both at our homes watching the Doctor Who TV-movie that aired on ABC that night. It was a reminder there are priorities that transcend politics.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] And speaking of cherry-picking (no pun intended), I mentioned in a couple recent posts the tendency of people to believe what they want to believe, and that I think thorough examination of empirical evidence is the antidote. Context-dropping can make even the most accurate data worse than useless, though, so it’s important to keep in mind points like one made recently by Dawn Eden, hardly an arch-materialist but in this case doing empiricists a favor, when she notes that in the rush by many critics to point out the failure of abstinence-only sex education to keep kids from losing their virginity at a young age or practicing safe sex with greater frequency (something the website I edit at work has itself repeatedly noted), often omitted is the fact that all forms of sex education seem to be pretty ineffectual at altering the rates of these phenomena. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of abstinence-only classes but reason to wonder how much difference sex ed makes in general. (Of course, if you took the time to listen to both traditional and abstinence-only classes, you might discover a vas deferens — thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. For similarly sophisticated laughs, by the way, I recommend the Wikipedia entry on flatulence.) [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter is the antidote to the sort of reductionist anti-reductionist arguments that say that meat and molecules can’t lead to self-awareness, laughter, and joy (such as Dinesh D’Souza’s vicious, vile, petty, and obscenely-timed argument that atheists can’t meaningfully respond to horrors such as the massacre at Virginia Tech [where, as it happens, my girlfriend Koli was an undergrad two decades ago]). While most of the human race has for millennia envisioned mind and body as two completely different substances (able thereby to intuitively grasp the otherwise unsettling fact that a person is gone even when a dead body remains), Hofstadter, quite reasonably I think, suggests that minds are better thought of as complex patterns — self-reflexive (thus looplike) ones — in the atoms of our brains, much as a traffic jam is a higher-order phenomenon composed of cars or Hamlet is a complex pattern made up of what would seem like mundane words taken individually. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] By contrast, both Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens have said some pretty nasty things about atheists and religious believers, respectively — even though D’Souza has worked with enough libertarians that he, too, must know and like some atheists, while Hitchens has spoken admiringly of George W. Bush in the past and clearly understands that Bush is motivated partly by a sense of religious mission.  It should be interesting to see, then, how negative their claims about “the enemy” get at the debate they’re doing tomorrow night (Monday, Oct. 22, 2007) under the auspices of King’s College, for free at the Ethical Culture Society at West 64th and Central Park West on the question “Is Christianity the Problem?” [...]