Reason is what we need now

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In this special moment in history, I don’t need to tell you that what we need now is reason, not blind faith. We have our POTUS opening advising using disinfectants as treatment for the Coronavirus. If this does not sound an alarm, I don’t know what will. Clearly, this is not the time for blind beliefs or anti-intellectualism.

The Buddha is about reason, not faith (i.e. belief without evidence). In this position, he went against tradition. The Buddha himself discouraged any appeal to authority, such as appeal to the authority of scripture, tradition or authoritative figures. Buddha even told his disciples that they should not blindly accept his words. In this sense, Buddha was a rebel and a freethinker early in 500 BCE. I recently posted something about this on Facebook. It shocked one of my religious friends. He shared a Twitter post from Foz Meadows. It reads:

The most dangerously emotional people in the world are men so obsessed with being rational that they constantly mistake their own feelings for objective logic, on the basis that believing in rationality makes their feelings guided by rationality and thus infallible.

I have never heard of this author. I went on Twitter and looked up how she described herself. Her self-description reads: “Author, fanwriter, trash bandit, queer geek feminist, dork. Jack of all pronouns, master of none. Yells about hockey. Aussie in the US.”

Obsessed with reason? Excuse me, there is no such thing. Certainly, rational people can come up with different opinions and conclusions. Scholars and scientists can disagree. But the answer to such disagreement is to scrutinize the evidence and collect additional data. We should also scrutinize our own line of reasoning to see where an unjustified assumption has been made, or where a fallacious argument is used. The answer is never to substitute reason with unjustified beliefs or emotions. “Obsession with reason” is a red herring. But there is such thing as wrong reasoning. There is also such thing as letting one’s emotions and cognitive biases to mislead one’s reasoning.

Apparently, Fos Meadow’s Twitter post impressed my friend. He posted to me the following: “This speaks to my experiences of men that are overconfident in their rational capacities. The people of faith I look up to use that faith to recognize their emotional limitations, and how those limitations can distort what they perceive as rational, allowing them to use humility to grow in perspective through time, rather than get caught in the trap of endlessly rationalizing ideas that have their fundamental basis in their own irrational emotions.”

I often get such criticism from religious people. They have little understanding of science or philosophy. I have no problem seeing the limitations of reason. In fact, reason can help us see the limitations of reason. But I have much problem with people of “faith.” There is no way to reason with someone who declares that God has spoken to him and all other people have to honor such message from God, even though they have not heard such message themselves. In modern times, people who claim to have heard from God are often considered as having mental illness. So, why don’t we regard those who made the same claim in biblical times the same way?

It is so typical for religious people to call those who reject their belief system as arrogant, overconfident or dangerous. In premodern days, the non-believers were often oppressed or tortured. Some were burned at stake. Thus, we have made some progress. But the reason for such progress is reason and humanism, not faith.

First, let me respond to Foz Meadows’s remark. I am not sure that she is a religious person. Someone who describes herself as a “queer geek feminist” probably won’t be welcome by the Religious Right. But her words can easily be used to justify anti-intellectualism. Let me rephrase her saying and see how it could apply to the religious, anti-reason crowd. I can say the following:

The most dangerously emotional people in the world are those so obsessed with being godly that they constantly mistake their own fantasies for God’s message, on the basis that believing in God makes their understanding guided by God and thus infallible.

I like this version better. For I can cite historical examples to back it up. Plenty of atrocities can be found during the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials. How the Christian missionaries treated the Native Americans is another good example. The history of religion is stained with blood and sorrow. Foz Meadow’s version, on the other hand, is not backed up by evidence. Can we find historical examples of scientists torturing or murdering people for not believing in science? If you can find such examples, I would love to hear it.

Next, let me address my friend’s comments about overconfidence and the need for humility. I have been in academia and education fields for about two decades. My areas of focus are science, mathematics and philosophy. In general, it is very difficult for a genuine intellectual/scholar to be arrogant or overly confident. Just take the study of Buddhism. There is an immense ocean of literature. Even if one has spent one’s life studying the subject, one’s knowledge is still very limited compared to what is out there. The more one studies, the more one finds out that there is so much more to learn. There is no end to knowledge. The scholar will constantly have this feeling of drowning, since the knowledge and information out there are so immense. Now, about science. Science is very different from religion. Science, by its very nature, is provisional. Any scientific theory is only good until a better theory comes along. Scientific knowledge is a dynamic process, it is constantly being revised and improved upon. It is not static. Religious knowledge, on the other hand, tends to be static. How often do you see the Bible being revised and expanded upon?

Finally, the rational and scientific approach is, by its very nature, civil and democratic. A scientist’s position is valued, not because of his or her social position. Everything is contingent on the presentation of evidence and the strength thereof. The settlement of a religious dispute often leads to bloodshed, as the study of history shows. The settlement of a scientific dispute has no such problem. This, I believe is the strongest case for the scientific approach to life. The teaching of Buddha conforms to this scientific spirit — it is civil, democratic and liberal in terms of allowing freedom of thought.

In this moment in history, let us remember that it is “faith” which elects our current president into office. It is faith that gets us into this pickle. What we need now is science and reason, not faith!

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