The Cult of the Gaps

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

There is much I disagree with in his article, but New Humanist writer Michael Bywater asks a very interesting question about what he calls "the last really successful religion ... since Islam:" How did its science-fiction-writing founder pull it off?

[The] first [book] hits the perfect pitch of laying out mumbo-jumbo in just clear enough terms for people who think they're terribly significant but who aren't that bright (there are a lot of movie stars in the lists, wouldn't you say?) to think that they're grasping something terribly important which actually makes sense. And, secondly, it doesn't pose a Creator. Just a bunch of clever aliens. Whom we can turn back into if we have enough money.
Among the things I strongly disagree with about this article is Bywater's eagerness to dismiss many of the followers of this religion as simply stupid. Hard-working is not a synonym of smart, nor is a lack of philosophical sophistication the same thing as a lack of intellectual ability. The full use of one's intellect requires effort guided by proper philosophical guidance. Omit either and even a genius can look (and might as well be) stupid.

But Bywater does have a point, however obscure he makes it, and it is related to the notion of the "God of the Gaps," which Wikipedia describes as, "a view of God as existing in the 'gaps' or aspects of reality that are currently unexplained by scientific knowledge, or that otherwise lack a plausible natural explanation." (In addition, our culture's philosophical chaos makes many philosophical matters (especially normative abstractions) look to many people like they fall into such a "gap.")

Bywater has a tenuous grasp on how, referring to, "Apotheosis without the Theos," but there's more to his point than that. Earlier in his article, he notes that:
We may think that supersymmetry or, even more scarily, M-theory are somehow truer or more real but that's because most of us can't see that mathematics is another language for telling stories in -- indeed, stories in which the most important thing, just as in Athenian tragedy, is not that they are necessarily true but that they are internally coherent.
Bywater precedes this by nihilistically (and wrongly) calling basically everything (including, for example, gravity!) "bollocks," but yet he manages to come close to identifying a strand in the culture that predisposes otherwise intelligent adults to accept the quasi-scientific religion he describes. To the extent that many people respect science more than religion, and yet don't really grasp science, they will be susceptible to, shall we say, "cargo cult science ... cults."

In addition to holding a proper respect for science, most people have enough common sense to demand "internal coherence" of new ideas that they examine. That speaks well of our culture compared to more primitive times, but it is adherence to reality, not just internal coherence, that is the standard by which a belief system ought to be judged.

And so, we have an implicitly rational culture where science is revered, but which is also rife with confusion about philosophical issues. In such a culture, it is no longer enough to tell people that a message has come from on high. It has to look logical and scientific, at least up to a certain point even to fool people with poor training in science.

And so, into a gap perhaps being vacated by God, move other assertions whose quasi-scientific and coherent character manage, in today's culture at least, to mask their arbitrariness just enough to fool some of the people all of the time.

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

The author's claim that Scientology is "the last really successful religion" since Islam isn't even close to being true, and many of the commenters have called him out on this. Mormonism is the obvious example that comes to mind.

C. August said...

"And so, we have an implicitly rational culture where science is revered, but which is also rife with confusion about philosophical issues."

This line of argument brings up two thoughts:

1) I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's "third law", "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." He was talking about writing speculative fiction, but it applies here as well. As science becomes both incredibly advanced and incredibly specialized, much of it seems, to the average layman, like magic or a black box from which wonders emanate.

I agree with you that the core of the issue is philosophical, but I think the lack of proper education in even basic science and basic reasoning predisposes many to accept science -- and especially bad science that confirms their existing ideas -- on faith.

2) With all of what you wrote and what I wrote above in mind, I'm struck by the parallels between Scientology and environmentalism. They are two pseudo-scientific religions.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for mentioning that. I didn't look at the comments myself, but should have caught that.


Excellent point about the similarity of magic with more advanced and specialized science. I would hope that an improvement to the culture's "philosophic literacy" and the better general education that would come with it would help offset much of that.

As things stand now, though, some scientists (and even technological specialists) might as well be priests, and the charlatans among them will always take time to expose, as the example of global warming demonstrates in some respects.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, ugh: "Scientology’s “belief system” – it’s the “system” bit that bothers me, not the “belief”..." That sentence is the essence of why Bywater's article really got up my nose.

It's worth noting that this article shows the malign side of the "models aren't reality" fallacy that Monmonier's book used as a fairly benign hook--though Bywater bastardizes even that from "models" into "stories."

"Mormonism is the obvious example that comes to mind."

And the Sikhs (15th century) and Baha'is (19th century) are almost as obvious. (Neat bit of trivia: Dizzy Gillespie was Baha'i.) Not obvious to anyone outside Korea is Cheondoism (late 19th-20th century):

Despite barely raising a blip on the radar screen outside Korea, it has about 8 million adherents--as many as Scientology claims for itself.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed. That single sentence encapsulates why philosophical moderns are exactly the kind of "opponents" I'd wish for if I were a proponent of religion.

Also, while we're trading trivia about jazz musicians, I learned at a party this weekend that Charles Mingus wrote a short "program" for training a cat to use a toilet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Myrhaf at New Clarion has a post on a related subject; how conformity dictates and perpetuates belief.

Madmax makes a comment there as well as one at "Incinerating Presuppositionalism" - -
about default values. His is close to the bottom, dated December 13th at 3:19. (I can't find a coment number so this, hopefully will save trolling through all the previous comments.) Among other things he says, "I'll even go so far as to say that I'm close to believing that humanity's default psychology is social metaphysics which is why its so damn hard to be an individualist. "

I find Dawson Bethrick's writing to be exhaustively detailed while remaining fascinating to read if you have the time.

Another commenter (Yog) on that same thread is a self-professed nietzschean. While he compliments
Dawson Bethrick on his incineration of Geoffrey James' "Top 10 Reasons why Ayn Rand was Dead Wrong" he takes issue with Rand's answer to the Is/Ought problem and uses that to disagree with Rand's ethics and politics. But what I found of interest was that although Yog is not a religionist his refutation of the notion of rights was a kind of flip side to the theistic idea of a moral enforcer.

"As I understand it, to say that a man has a "right" to something, is to say that something "ought" to be a certain way.

"I honestly don't see how the idea "right" can be interpreted in any other way. If "right" was just an objective statement of actual reality, then there would be no need for the idea of a "right". That is, in a world where human beings could not steal from each other, there would be no need to say that humans have a right to property. To say humans have a "right" to property is to say that "people/the government should not be able to take things from other humans without their permission".

So for rights to be real, they have to be of the same order as, say, gravity, which is impossible to violate. He's positing some metaphysical barrier that would stop rights' violations as a pre-requisite for the objective existence of rights. And absent that enforcer, well, there are no such things as rights. This sounds a little bit like the inverse of the God given rights of the conservatives though they defer His enforcement proceedings to the next world.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


I saw that, and would only add what is implied here -- since few are actually raised in the religion I discuss: I have observed the same mechanism at work even when people question what they were raised with, or are exposed to by default from the culture.

Part of the problem, and it is related to why people seem to default to social metaphysics, is that we can't all know everything, and in areas not that familiar end up having to rely on experts.

So, let's say someone questions the conventional wisdom on something like the (scientific question on whether there is man-made) global warming, and many people he knows and respects advocate some sloppy rebuttal, like Ian Plimer's Heaven and Earth (parts of which manage to make sense, other parts of which are wrong, and other parts of which are simply nuts). He may read the book part-way (It's very long and scholarly-looking, and can easily overwhelm.) or even all the way (but without catching the nuttiness due to lack of background). Which side of the (scientific) global warming question will he say he comes down on? He should say, "I don't know."

But what if his associates, for whatever reason, insist that Plimer has refuted the warmists? He may feel comfortable saying that he leans against the warmists based on having no major reason to doubt the judgment of these other people.

I am hardly the only person to consider this difficult problem. (I seem to recall Ilya Somin raising such an issue some months ago.)

On to the notion of rights "needing" an enforcer. There IS an enforcer, but one can't apprehend it without a long conceptual chain: Without recognition of individual rights, one's life is in constant danger of diminishment at the hands of others, if one lives in a society.

Off the cuff -- I'm playing a few minutes' worth of hooky from Christmas shopping here -- this commenter seems to demand that abstractions "work" effortlessly, like perception.


Inspector said...

"(and might as well be) stupid."

See, the way I look at it, that's enough for me to call a person stupid. The way I see it, a lot of "smart" people don't deserve that label.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a little like a curse word, though: Sometimes good for emotional release, but poor for communicating anything beyond the emotional level, if that.

Inspector said...

Oh, it's an evaluation I hold internally, to be sure - not one I go trumpeting about. But as far as I'm concerned, a person's raw ability to process data or input doesn't mean squat if they fall prey to simple philosophical bugbears, such as those that constitute, say, Leftism.

I'm aware that a distinction exists (and is sometimes essential) between that sort and someone that is simply very slow, but I guess what I mean is that distinction really isn't all that important in the vast majority of cases that I deal with, at least for the purposes of my personal evaluations of people.

Thus, no matter how "smart" some people are, in my mind, they will be classified as idiots.* Because for me, the term "smart" is a title which a person doesn't earn if their thinking or behavior is in fact indistinguishable from an actual idiot.

*Only with the added contempt that they are self-made idiots.