Tuesday, October 26, 2010

touching on the coherence of perfection

As I've often said, I'm one of those who has yet to hear a convincing argument for the compatibility of religious belief and scientific endeavour [which, after all, is an endeavour to uncover the truth about how our world works, and a pretty damn successful endeavour at that]. Attempts to mesh the two have invariably watered down both, often to homeopathic proportions. Ophelia Benson here reports on an attempt to describe the 'conflict model' as impoverished - that's to say, we should - what? Play down the obvious incompatibilities? Refrain from criticizing the often silly attempts to either unite the two or show that they operate in mutually exclusive spheres?
I do agree though that we should maybe spend less time pointing out the absurdities of religious pseudo-scientific claims, and more time being scientific about religious belief. That's a way of avoiding direct conflict while strengthening the scientific position.
Here's a view I have about religious belief, though it may not be all that scientific. I was reading an exchange of comments on a philosophy blog, and one person made the fairly commonplace assertion that the usual attributes of a monotheistic deity - omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness - must be ruled out because they are logically incoherent. This may or may not be true, but what is definitely true is that these attributes are very easily imaginable, especially to a child - and therein lies the power of all religion. In fact, not only are these attributes easily imaginable but we can't help but imagine them. Logical coherence is no obstacle to the child's imagination.
Religion is all about power, punishment and perfection [okay, maybe I'm putting wordplay above truth here, but bear with me]. For children the struggle for power, and against power, is very real and very everyday. The same goes for the struggle to avoid punishment and, as a corollary, to gain rewards and kudos. And the best way to avoid punishment and gain rewards is to be perfect - in the eyes of the powers that be [the parents]. Even as adults, when we make mistakes, we wish we hadn't and we try to learn from those mistakes, so as to be more perfect [we might say, so as to be better at such and such, but it amounts to the same thing - the ultimate end of self-improvement is perfection]. But our adult, wiseacre selves know that such perfection can never be achieved. We know it largely through experience. Not so the child, and this is why super-heroes, witches and wizards - and gods, it must be added - are so appealing to the child in us. The child might not think through what perfection means, or any of the other attributes of gods, but she knows that if she had done otherwise she might not have gotten into trouble, that if she had done something else, or refrained from doing something, she would have been dubbed a good child instead of a bad one, and if she'd kept on making the right decisions, she might have been dubbed even more than good, even perfect. Though it wouldn't have taken long to realize that, no matter how 'good' she was, she wouldn't have gotten the same glowing response from her parents. She would notice an inconsistency, an occasional unfairness in parental judgement. If only she could make her parents as perfect in their judgement as she was in her behaviour.

It's pretty clear where all this is going. Ideas about perfection, though perhaps logically incoherent to a trained philosopher or logician, are perfectly coherent to a child, and quite probably they are among the first Big Ideas we have to grapple with. There's something about this, it seems to me, that connects intimately with the basic appeal of religion. Ultimate, perfect judgement, ultimate, perfect example, total control and more than a whiff of magic. They're all a kid's delight, and if we bring all our adult ritualism and sophistication to bear on these fantasies, we can flesh them out almost to our satisfaction, and live in a child's dream for many lifetimes.

1 comment:

  1. one of the most 'perfect' articles you've written,it sums up my childhood in a nutshell. It also helps explain how, no matter the intellect, a person may persist in hanging on to religious ideas which defy all logic. They tooth fairy is Mum and Dad, Santa is a commercial construct, but hey, we still can have almighty god.