Friday, February 12, 2010

Religious belief and intelligence

At the behest of a certain internet friend, I'm starting a thread on this topic to sort of tie together conversations surround religion and intelligence (HAHA, get it? Thread? Tie? Ok, I'm done).

Here's an irony. Intelligent people "get" the questionable nature of citing a correlation as if it were a cause. But that doesn't take away the seductive nature of correlations for anyone (intelligent or otherwise). This is certainly true of the alleged correlation between intelligence and unbelief.

Richard Dawkins goes to great lengths in "The God Delusion" to suggest powerfully that theistic belief is in fact a function of IQ. Specifically, a low one.

And yet Neil deGrasse Tyson, another atheist, points out that the really interesting thing is not the correlation, but the fact that intelligent theists exist at all (even at the highest echelons of academia).

Of course, the existence of intelligent believers isn't really a novelty to me. Please note that the "Academia <--> Unbelief" correlation typically cite hierarchies within scientific academia--never the professors of faculties in fields of philosophy or theology. Not that I have numerical evidence that those heirarchies are any different. But if powerful, believing brains are hard to find among the physicists, they don't appear to be nearly so much among the metaphysicians.

Nor are brilliant theists hard to find within history. History is a sticky issue to bring into this discussion, since the retort will arise: well of course 17th century geniuses still believed in God. Virtually everybody did. Our knowledge of the universe wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Yet this leads me to ask if atheism was really so intellectually inaccessible to academics of 100, 200, or 300 years ago. Perhaps it was easier (for the general populace) to believe in God in a world without Darwin. But among academics, Darwin's ideas were hardly new when they arrived on the scene. What was new was the compelling nature of the evidence he provided and the radicality of his conclusions. Yet it would have been as possible to be a 17th century atheist as it was to be a modern believer.

I still haven't gotten to my main point. Right now I'm just collecting sub-issues to deal with. And I have more.

For example, there's a basic fact that so many distinctions must be made before we can even discuss these issues accurately: Belief (propositional content) vs. religion (practice, ritual, song, storytelling, community). Philosophically informed belief vs. simple belief (vs. culpably stupid belief).

IQ vs. intelligence vs. academic accomplishment vs. field of expertise.

And let's not forget the factor of objective truth. Is it possible for the simpleton to be objectively correct in spite of himself?

But let me conclude on a simple opinion. Being a theist who, I'll flatter myself, isn't stupid, I not only believe in God but I believe that my belief in God is rational and that my premises can stand up to any of the apologetics of, for example, the authors of

So, being faced with the facts on the ground--the correlation between IQ and unbelief, or between scientific academic accomplishment and unbelief--it behooves me to offer my own explanation. I have one: Culture.

Unbelief in western acadamia is as self-perpetuating as superstition among backwater rubes--and its memes use much the same mechanisms of defense and self-propagation as the silliest of religion. I'm gravely pessimistic of anyone's claim, implied or otherwise, to be above the subtle machinations of cultural influence, which are a-rational (while not necessarily ir-rational), powerful, and invisible even to geniuses.

And I have a complementary explanation of why such correlations bother me even less: basically, I think I'm right... and I would be no less right if I were impossibly stupid.

Forgive my bias, but I imagine that good old Benedict XVI could go toe-to-toe with Richard Dawkins without breaking an intellectual sweat. And that's the point. This is one case where it only takes a single counter-example--a single smart believer (or even a single stupid believer who happens to be correct) to make the whole alleged correlation between unbelief and intelligence completely irrelevent. And not only irrelevant, but perilous to put too much stock in.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Redemption and Buddhism

Father Cory Sticha posted a video of a mutual favorite professor of ours, Fr. Robert Barron, defending the remarks of Brit Hume regarding Christianity's superior tradition of redemption relative to Buddhism.

There are two issues involved, really. The first is the question: ought mainstream media figures to make such statements at all? (Here is where Fr. Barron's remarks are right on the dot). The second: does Brit Hume have a point as regards Christianity and Buddhism?

Some of the source of left-wing anger at Hume's comments might be that they interpreted his words to mean: "Christians are more forgiving than Buddhists." I seriously doubt it was his intention to say any such thing, but then, it is difficult to be accurately understood when one must shoehorn important words into brief moments.

One problem is that, if people do not know much about Buddhism, they might walk away from Brit Hume's words with a vision of the eastern philosophy in which people blame each other and are blamed for sins without any religious or metaphysical framework of overcoming it. I could think of no greater misery! But that is a gross distortion of the reality--and again, I contend, not what Brit Hume had in mind.

The difficulty is that neither forgiveness NOR blame are much on the radar of Buddhist philosophy. Seeking and granting redemption, while of course possible, are not ends in themselves.

The very concept of redemption entails a dialogue between the self and the other. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to eliminate that very distinction. When the "self", the "other" and the "all" are all One (and in some sense 'naught'), there is no redemption because there is no distinction between the redeemer and the redeemed.

Fellow Christians and I can interpret our entire faith-worldview as a dialogue of redemption. For Buddhists, that image would be far too "anthropomorphic" to serve as a model for their religious primary concern.

But that doesn't mean redemption is absent from Buddhist philosophy. Think of it this way. Christians might say, "forgive and forget"; I think Buddhists would focus mostly on the "forget" part. In other words, the only way for the sinner and the sinned-against to move closer to peace would be for each independently to "let go" of the drama that seizes their psyche. Neither person depends upon an action taken by the other to achieve this (no "Please forgive mes" or "I forgive yous" required).

Redemption can find itself in Buddhism in another way, via the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a means to an end--not an end in itself. But its dictates do involve more of what we would consider traditional "Christian" morality. To grant forgiveness, or to seek forgiveness, would fall under the dictates of "Right Speech"--but again, the overriding aim here is not to effect any objective state of "being redeemed", but to ensure that our words pave over the rocks and potholes of relationships. Words should extinguish passions, not enflame them. The word "nirvana" means, literally, to extinguish, as in the passions and attachments that anchor us to an illusory prison. That is the overriding concern in Buddhist philosophy.

If my understanding here is correct (and I hope people will check my thinking), there might be some truth in Brit Hume's comments--without implying that Bhuddists are in any way stingier with their forgiveness than Christians.

Tiger Woods' redemptive dillema is, I think, two-fold.

First, by being a celebrity, he is caught up in a firestorm of secular modernity's exaggerated condemnations. The media has a penchant for shrill, judgmental, despair-laced soul poison that makes Jonathan Edwards' famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" look like a pep talk by comparison. The reputational death-sentence, to be held up by the modern media for public scorn, is one of the ironies of our allegedly 'permissive' contemporary culture.

Regardless of religion or philosophy, any of us walking in Tiger's shoes (Nikes, presumably) could probably imagine wanting a finger dipped in water to cool our tormented tongues.

And yet it feels difficult, in such a situation, to glean satisfactory counsel from a tradition that does not recognize the reality of sin ('Original' or otherwise), or the objective spiritual damage caused by sin. Isn't that like the coach who tells his broken-legged quarterback to "walk it off"?

If I misunderstand, I hope to be corrected and educated about this issue.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Designing the robot secretary, pt 3

Thus, it's not enough to focus simply on one's ultimate goals and how they are fulfilled--one must also see that for every "ultimate" goal there is an "immediate" correlate. To write that book (someday) I need to educate myself (now). To love my grandchildren (someday) I need to eat healthy (now). To go to heaven (someday) I need to go to Mass (now)*.

*-No, one does not earn Heaven by going to Mass. Mass is not the price of Heaven. Going to Mass is merely the prescribed way of saying "yes" to God's free gift. Mass and Heaven are virtually one and the same.

And so the ultimate concerns need to be counter-balanced with immediate needs. And those immediate needs are governed by balance.

Balance is a tricky concept and it's one that needs to be broken down into concrete concepts if it's going to serve a function in a computer application.

I believe the definition of balance in this case exists somewhere between two concerns: (1) That I make sufficient immediate daily progress towards the milestones on the way to my ultimate goals so that they can be achieved without undue strain, and (2) that I serve the health and capability of my body and mind by enriching daily activity and avoiding excess.

One may add, as an appendix, (3) that I permit as much flexibility as necessary to live life in its unpredictability.

I believe that a computer program can reasonably factor all three of these in to a more or less satisfactory daily agenda. In the case of #1, it would be up to the user to outline "ultimate goals" and "milestones", as well as to estimate how much time certain milestones would take to achieve. For example, how many hours will it take me to become ready to take the Network + certification exam? When should I have taken that exam?

Designing the robot secretary, pt 2

Although people's planning processes are more or less systematic (in my case, much less), everybody has a complex interworking of values that, after some mental wrangling, spell out how they spend their time.

I think a goal for all of us is for our schedules to represent what we truly value, rather than our values be changed by our schedules.

The system I am toying with now, drafting as a simple database, takes the answers to simple questions and attempts to turn them into a balanced schedule that adapts to new input similar to the way we do. Normally, we have to do the high-level thinking ourselves; Apps like Microsoft Outlook take care of the low-level minutiae of recording our plans. Glorified sticky notes. I want an app that intelligently structures time according to the common sense which is not so common.

In principle this shouldn't be hard to implement. The only appointments that one would hard-schedule would be ones that were already set--work schedules, doctors' appointments, etc. Though the app itself could remind you when it was time to sit down and put these in!

And even the work schedule would not be inviolable. Tell the program you're sick, and it'll give you the contact information for work and your doctor, query your sick days, and adjust the schedule appropriately.

Something this program should respect is that life is not divided into atomistic "appointments". Life is a self-gift. The unexamined life is not worth living--and so far as I understand, the quintessential examination is to ask: To what, or to whom are you giving yourself?

Put differently, as Stephen Covey advises: how do you want to be remembered at your funeral?

These questions, a computer program can't answer for you. But if these are the what and the why, then at least a program can help with the how. Which, I imagine, most of us struggle with at least sometimes.

Thus, the various top priorities of life--say, "Family," "Dreams," "Faith," "Work," etc., are not separate, disembodied "values" competing with each other for our attention. They are absolutely linked to each other. I work so that I can support my family and fulfill my dreams, all in the service of my faith.

But this, by itself, is not enough. Forgive my referencing an Adam Sandler movie, but "Click" is a perfect example. Michael Newman ostensibly works to support his family, but in reality, work has devoured his connection to the family.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Designing the robot secretary, pt 1

I have an idea which is both grandiose and simple.

Why couldn't a computer program take a lot of the legwork out of managing my time?

There are countless applications for scheduling, but these are scarcely more than planners wrought pixelated. I'm thinking of something more useful.

Think about the process that goes into our decisions about how we spend our time (if we're not run completely by impulse). The more perspicuous of us are skilled at striking a balance--ensuring that some minimum amount of time each day is spent in activities most beneficially performed as routines, while allotting the remainder of the day to work and rest so that duties are done and the self is not too taxed.