In the first post of the series, we stressed the fact that religious thought is engendered by feeling alone, and thus isn’t vulnerable to logical detractors. In the second, we concluded that religion, though produced by feeling, can be interpreted and communicated by reason. Here, we make the claim that religious thought can actually be produced by reason alone.
Religion frequently emphasizes the importance of a positive, faithful mindset as a means for attaining happiness. It doesn’t matter whether or not the contents of this mindset are particularly logical or accurate. The important part is that the mindset leads to the welfare of whoever adopts it. From the Dhammapada:
Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them. [Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65] (1)
Gautama Buddha suggests that members of the Kalamas clan should not necessarily act based on the results of reports or logical conjecture. Instead, they ought to determine empirically which qualities lead to happiness, and they ought to adopt these qualities.
Happy people aren’t necessarily accurate, claims Buddha. In fact, it seems that, often, they’re inaccurate.
The inverse certainly seems to be true: unhappy people are accurate. In a landmark 1979 paper, Abramson and Alloy showed that depressed participants were able to complete a simple task with considerably more accuracy than non-depressed participants. From the abstract:
In 4 experiments, 144 depressed and 144 non-depressed undergraduates (Beck Depression Inventory) were presented with one of a series of problems varying in the degree of contingency. In each problem, subjects estimated the degree of contingency between their responses (pressing or not pressing a button) and an environmental outcome (onset of a green light). Depressed subjects’ judgments of contingency were surprisingly accurate in all 4 experiments. Non-depressed subjects overestimated the degree of contingency between their responses and outcomes when noncontingent outcomes were frequent and/or desired and underestimated the degree of contingency when contingent outcomes were undesired. (2)
We’re presented with two rival values: accuracy and happiness. And our evidence shows that they may be, at least to some degree, mutually exclusive. Accuracy seems to impair happiness, and vice versa.
So which value should a scientist choose to uphold?
The answer, according to the previous posts in the series, would seem to be accuracy. A scientist ought to think within the confines of reason, and reason acts to produce accuracy alone. He might certainly experience happiness at times, if his feelings allow it. But he should never seek to gain happiness artificially, that is, at the expense of accuracy.
Today, though, I argue otherwise. We’ve always held that one should strive to think in a reasoned manner. My argument, though, is that accuracy isn’t the only way to act reasonable. Acting in such a way that happiness is achieved is also reasonable, even if accuracy is not achieved.
Accuracy and happiness, our two competing values, can both be said to be reasonable. And so a scientist has no compelling reason to choose to uphold one over the other.
This finding that accuracy and happiness are on equal footing can be used for far-reaching purposes. For example, it could be used as a proof of God. Belief in God can’t be definitively described as accurate. But it could certainly provide the believer happiness. And both accuracy and happiness are reasonable. Thus one could believe in God and still claim that his belief is a reasoned one.
Logical detractors, by now, must be rolling their eyes—or pulling out their hair. They should have plenty to say.
Logical detractor: But accuracy is the keystone of science! An account of one’s happiness could never be published in Nature.
Scientist theist: Some texts pursue accuracy, and others pursue the attainment of happiness, like the Dhammapada. What makes one pursuit more valuable than the other, in an absolute sense? What makes one pursuit more scientific?
Logical detractor: How could you put accuracy and happiness on equal footing, and still even consider calling yourself a scientist? Pursuit of happiness at the expense of accuracy is by no means scientific, no matter how you choose to define science.
Scientist theist: But who selected you as the decider of science’s definition? You choose to define science as the reasoned pursuit of accuracy. But why can’t I define it as the reasoned pursuit of happiness and welfare?
Logical detractor: Are you suggesting that you can define any word however you want? Why not call science the reasoned pursuit of the unreasonable, or the false? Why not call it the reasoned pursuit of unhappiness? Why not define up as down?
Scientist theist: I agree—why not? If I define up as down, but I’m happier for it, then who’s the real winner?
Once we accept that there are multiple ways one might act reasonably, we’re tossed into a strange world where up is down, faith is science, and clocks hang from the branches like wet rags.
For now, though, we can end our series with the claim that feelings produce the religious impulse; and that reason can make sense of this impulse; and that reason, perhaps, can produce its own impulse. And whether it can or not isn’t just a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of theology.
- Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65
- Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?