Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Big Questions

Fascinating show on Talk of the Nation the other day about "Tackling 'The Big Questions' of Life" featuring Steven Landsburg's book The Big Questions and his blog,

Referring to the radio segment, I find fascinating Landsburg's proposition that most debates occur between people who don't really know what they're talking about and center on belief claims that people don't necessarily hold very strongly (with strength of belief defined as to the extent that the belief guides all aspects of their lives). From this proposition, Landsberg then argues that if debaters held more allegiance to truth value and less allegiance to the primacy of their egos there would be much less conflict and much more agreement in the world. All of this sounds plausible to me.

However, in reviewing some of the entries and discussions on Landburg's blog, his goal is to reduce all things to expressions of mathematics & logic. This can be a fun game to play for people equipped with sufficient education & privilege, but it seems to me that such things quickly get to the "how many angels on the head of a pin?" kind of discussion (see the comment thread on this post, for example).

Undoubtedly, I don't grasp fully the scope and repercussions of complex mathematical theorizing, so I'm likely missing something. However, it's fun to give myself these kinds of intellectual cerebral electroshocks from time to time!

On another note, what about the comment Landsburg made toward the end of the radio segment about it being fallacious for someone to assert an allegiance to a religion and at the same time admit any kind of truth value in any other aspect of any other religion? He says that belief in a religion by definition means the belief that all other religions are false. On one level this seems like a plausible conclusion to me, because the Judeaochristlamic religions, in particular, refer quite explicitly to the kinds of deaths that will befall unbelievers in the present world and the hereafter. But what about B'hai, Buddhists, and Unitarians? These religions seem to approach the issue differently. Maybe Landsburg doesn't see these latter three spiritual practices as "religions" in the same sense?

The deeper issue for me in this example is the notion that one can't simultaneously hold two mutually exclusive beliefs in one's head. I'll write about this some more some time in the future, because it seems to me that people do, in fact, do so, but I don't have time to write about this now.


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