Wednesday, August 8, 2012

When it becomes rational to believe in God

Let us continue with the mental experiment: suppose you are a pure rationalist (e.g., a Mīmāṃsaka) and are thus well-aware of the fact that the introduction of a god in your ontology creates many problems, perhaps even more than problems than it can actually solve. Why would you then be a theist? Let us leave personal reasons (such as your parents' belief) out of the picture. Pure rationalists like the Mīmāṃsakas would also mistrust direct experience of God, which is another good candidate for one's belief. In fact, they would argue that many people believe they have seen supernatural things (phantoms, Santa Claus, witches, scary beasts in the dark…) and the almost totality of them was wrong. Thus, why should one's own perception of a supernatural entity be more trustworthy? It is more likely that it is just one's projection or the like.

What remains? If ontology, i.e. the realm of what there is, is excluded, what remains is the realm of what ought to be, i.e., ethics and deontics. Some contemporary thinkers have tried to prove that the latter can be explained away through the former (e.g., that morality is just a result of evolution), but:
1. the same theory (e.g., evolution) can explain contradictory behaviours, i.e., it is not a proper explanation. One can for instance claim that cheating is morally wrong, because non-cheating leads to strengthen one's relation with a partner, with consequent advantages for one's children. Conversely, cheating could be said to be morally right, because it leads to more children.
2. Whatever the origin of ethics, it is hardly the case that this origin can explain away the actual difference between a state of affairs and a deontic prescription. In other words, "a man is dying" is not tantamount to "Thou shall not kill", even if one could somehow prove that the former led to the latter.

In this realm, perception is of no use. Nor is inference which, according to the Indian schools, ultimately elaborates on data which are of perceptual origin. Nor can one just say that one does not care. Paradoxically enough, what we ought to do makes the essential part of our life, the one which is really our own and which differentiates us from robots or (perhaps) insects. Thus, one needs another independent access to the realm of what one ought to do. This cannot be one's intuition (unreliable, see above). Only a suitable Linguistic Communication is, hence, left. At this point, our rationalist needs to sort out among Sacred Texts and teachers the one she thinks to be the more reliable. It can be a rational process, if one tries to evaluate evidences in a critical way. One can end up thinking that believing in a certain theistic text is the most rational solution.

To put it short: perception is not enough to understand realms different than ontology, since it only regards what exists. One needs linguistic communication to know about morality. It is not irrational to rely on a linguistic communication, if one has examined it. On the contrary, one could argue that it is irrational to believe that perception is enough. One could end up believing in god, if this is what is indicated in the instance of Linguistic Communication one is following.

This post is a continuation of this one.


ombhurbhuva said...

The mimamsakas have the problem of justifying their adherence to the Vedas. From what does the power of the mantras arise? Further to that is the question: What are the Vedas for? Failure to ask if they do in fact fail to ask these questions gives rise to doubt about the rational completeness of their world view. The Jews of the OT had no proofs of the existence of God. The book had a pragmatic validity because it worked to create the basis of good order and social cohesion which was important in a tribal cosmos. They could say like the Vedic sages, there it is, it works and that’s reason enough.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, this is the crucial point. Mīmāṃsakas were not trying to establish the validity of the Vedas from an epistemological vacuum. They thought that the Vedas were already revered by everyone and that they could easily defeat any assault to them, whereas "newcomers", such as the Buddhists could be proved to be wrong (basically because of the arguments against "exceptions" discussed in the post). Thus, the Vedas work, there is no other way to know about morality and there is no rational argument to show that the Vedas are not trustworthy.

windwheel said...

Surely the Mimamsaka isn't a rationalist but a 'bounded rationalist'. Furthermore all astika schools only remain so over time to the extent that they are in symbiosis with high fidelity conservation of Veda and karma kanda. One way to ensure fidelity of Vedic reproduction is to say it is meaningless- that reduces the incentive to tamper with it. Another is to say it is infinitely meaningful- stuff we don't like actually means something we will like once it's been properly explained. God can be a threat to Vedic conservation because you can go off and be bhakti Saint- so an Atheistic Mimamsa is going to coexist with an (Occassionalist) Theism. Essentially the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy mix is to have a lot of different darshanas because the fitness landscapes keeps changing. In other words, we can't say anything about what Brahmin Philosophy was because all we have access to in the historical record is fluctuations in meme replication strategies.

elisa freschi said...

What is the difference between a rationalist and a bounded rationalist? Is there anything as a completely boundfree rationalism?
I agree with the two strategies you mention (one can preserve the Vedas by saying that they are meaningless or that they are endlessly meaningful). But, in this view, why should God be a threat? And why should not we be able to infer something from the fluctuations we have recorded in philosophical texts?

windwheel said...

A bounded rationalist is only evaluating search procedures or decision rules/heuristics whereas an unbounded rationalist is seeking global optima on the basis of a substantive rather than procedural Rationalism. If we look at Habermas 'ideal speech situation' or Rawls choice situation behind the veil of ignorance, or Dworkin's Judge Hercules, or Chomskian i-language- then these are based on unbounded, substantive rationality. It's like they are saying there is a Computer which could find the absolutely best optimum within finite time. Back in the Sixties many people really believed there would be 'Artificial Intelligences' like that by 2001. Now we tend to think that finding 'Global optima' can't be done by even the best possible computer within the life time of the Universe. So I agree with you that we are all now 'bounded rationalists'. In the case of Mimamsa, some people were believed to have 'kevalya gyan'- i.e. they were 'unbounded rationalists'- but the Mimamsakas did not have it themselves so they developed heuristic hermeneutic rules which were also useful in other areas. Former Chief Justice Katju, now revealed to be a bit of a clown, gained fame for quoting Mimamsa rules in his judgements.
God is a threat to the preservation of Veda because of the problem of abrogation. This is a big issue in contemporary Islam with everyone accusing each other of secretly holding to this view. More importantly, young Brahmins hate ritualism- the way young people hate any boring job which merely pays the bills- and would fain run away and become a Bhakta or Sadhu or (if they're lucky) a Professor.
The reason, fluctuations in Mimamsa doxography aren't going to tell us about Philosophy is because since it is heuristic rather than pure logic based we would expect it to have a sort of Brownian motion around an attractor- i.e. since the whole thing is an approximation (or 'jugaad' as the Indians call it)its always overshooting or undershooting. In any case, just to continue in existence and get 'air-time' it's going to have to pretend to be changing.
I personally think there is a sort of 'Adi Mimamsa'which was in the keeping of hereditary castes responsble for the creation and dissemination of Itihasas and so on and that this was based on some really simple rules- a bit like double entry book-keeping- so keeping that in mind, everything in Hinduism becomes easy and clear. But the problem is this short circuits the (especially German) Romantic conception of Indology which, after all, has a sort of 'adhbhuta' quality which many Indians find attractive.
Many thanks once again for this wonderful treasure house of a blog you are maintaining from which even ordinary people like myself can benefit.

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