Thinking as a Hobby

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SVS: Introduction
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Introduction: Thinking as a Hobby

By far my favorite essay is "Thinking as a Hobby" by William Golding, in which he categorizes thinking into three levels. Grade-three thinking is the lowest form and is really hardly thinking at all. Grade-three thinking is reliance on emotion and prejudice. It is to believe uncritically whatever you have been taught or told. It is the herd mentality. To be a grade-three thinker is to live the unexamined life.

Grade-two thinking, Golding says, is the detection of contradictions. One step up from grade-three thinking, it allows the wielder to find logical inconsistencies in political systems and religions. Grade-two thinking allows for the detection of hypocrisy. However, grade-two thinking is destructive by nature. It is excellent for shredding ideologies, but not for building them. As Golding puts it:

Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content. To find out the deficiencies of our elders bolsters the young ego but does not make for personal security. I found that grade two was not only the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth. I decided that Pontius Pilate was a typical grade-two thinker. "What is truth?" he said, a very common grade two thought, but one that is used always as the end of an argument instead of the beginning. There is still a higher grade of thought which says, "What is truth?" and sets out to find it.

And that brings us to grade-one thinking, which takes the burned-out remains of a landscape ravaged by grade-two thought and begins to try to erect a new edifice. This is hard work. Creation and construction always require more effort and energy than destruction, and I’ll talk more at length on that topic later in the book. But the explanation of value system from the perspective of atheism is my primary motivation.

Historically, a great deal of work has been done demonstrating why religion and general belief in supernatural causes is rationally groundless and in many ways harmful. Recent works such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens are all fine examples of keen-edged grade-two evisceration of supernatural faith. This book will not be a retread of such ideas.

To a greater or lesser degree these authors put forth alternatives for the belief systems they are mostly busy plowing into the ground, but for the most part they seem content wrestling away the security blanket of religion, burning it, and leaving nothing in its place. Dawkins and Harris go the furthest in suggesting how we might be moral without religion, but these parts seem more like asides to the central thrusts of these books, which is to tear down the scaffolding of religious belief. Don’t get me wrong; they’re in fine company and all do a splendid job.

But let’s assume that I’m persuaded. You sold me. Now what? How am I to live? What am I supposed to believe in? What is my source of meaning and morals in a godless universe? Science is a wonderfully powerful tool for investigating the natural world, but it is a feeble replacement for a moral code or value system.

As Ronald Aronson recently wrote in an article in The Nation discussing the books and authors mentioned above:

Where does the work of the New Atheists leave us? I hope they have roused a significant portion of America from its timidity. But to what end? Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions. Enlightenment optimism once supplied unbelievers with hope for a better world, whether this was based on Marxism, science, education or democracy. After Progress, after Marxism, is it any wonder atheism fell on hard times? Restoring secular confidence will take much positive work as well as the fierce attacks on religion by our atheist champions.

So how do we put in place a positive framework to replace the old? The short answer is: reason. We use our reasoning faculties to decide those things which are best to value. Our sense of meaning derives from our values, as do our decisions.

Whether you like it or not, or acknowledge it or not, you are an organism whose implicit purpose is to insure the persistence of as much of your genetic material as possible into the future. We are all vehicles for replicators. However, while we are merely another tiny branch on the tree of life, a particular evolutionary strategy to propagate genes, we are also the owners of highly flexible central nervous systems, capable of abstract reasoning. As such we are in a unique position to not only realize what we truly are and how we got here, but to redefine our goals and values. As Richard Dawkins puts it in The Selfish Gene:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

We have implicit values based on implicit goals, whether we are aware of them or acknowledge them. Many of our implicit goals are shared with all the organisms on this planet are evident in traditional religious teachings: to prosper, reproduce, and propagate. Even if you’re not the most devout individual, your values are most likely an outgrowth of these implicit imperatives: desire for wealth, power, and an attractive, faithful mate. These are the implicit values of the replicating molecules nested in every cell in your body, but do they necessarily need to be yours?

Well, no. As a thinking, reasoning individual, you can become aware of your implicit values, and you may decide that your explicit values (ones you are aware of and are able to articulate) are perfectly in line with the goals of your genes. Or, you may decide, through the application of reason, to choose different values, which may actually be in conflict with those of your genes.

I often hear religious believers asking incredulously "Without religion, where do you get your values?" I would reply with questions such as: Where did we get the ideas in the Bill of Rights? Where did we get the scientific method? Reason, that’s where. Your typical religious follower is aghast at the idea of reasoning out what to value. The very idea is heresy, blasphemy, and hubris all rolled into one. But if you’ve made the logical conclusion that there are no supernatural entities dictating how to behave, then the construction of a value system becomes a bottom-up phenomenon. It is up to us, and not some celestial despot or the spiraling molecules in our bodies, to decide what is best and how to live the good life.

For the value system contained in this work, the focus is on three core values. This does not mean that these are the only things worth valuing. However, they are considered the most important, and are broad and comprehensive enough to articulate a well-formed, consistent value system.

These core values are: Truth, Freedom, and Structure.

The next three sections will attempt to describe more specifically what is meant by these concepts and what it means in terms of personal and collective behavior to strongly value each.

My motivations in writing this tract are both public and intensely private. A non-believer longs for a sense of belonging and community as much as any other human being. One hope is that a declaration of positive core values could possibly lead to public meetings, forums, and organizations in which non-believers who have common, shared, positive beliefs can come together and work toward common goals and interests from the local to the global level.

On the personal level, this work is derived out of a desire to formulate my own ideas about what I believe, what I value, and why. If I cannot articulate my values and the basis for my actions, I’m no better than an unquestioning religious fundamentalist.

This work is an attempt at grade-one thinking. It is an attempt to explicate a value system, one achieved by tearing down existing belief structures, sifting through the rubble, and building up something new. I may fall flat on my face. I may do a horrible job. But I’ve tried. If you’re in a similar situation, having discarded the antiquated belief structures that dominate and have always dominated human culture, and you feel you can do better, go for it. I’d be surprised if any intelligent reader didn’t find at least a handful of points to challenge. In anticipation of this, and in the interest of battle-hardening some of these ideas, I’ve included a section of objections along with replies.

My hope is that this book will be a beginning. That it will fuel discussion and dialogue through ever-widening channels of communication. This is a book of ideals, and in an ideal world, the secular minority would begin to organize. Atheism is not a positive, constructive value system. It is a negative position statement. I believe what has held us back primarily has been a lack of a solid positive value core. If that core is not centered around the ideas in this book, I hope it will at least inspire others to work to construct and articulate one.

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