A couple of weeks ago a post on the Friendly Atheist blog told of Representative Mike Honda's (D-CA) formal resolution in support of The National Day of Reason as an alternative to the National Day of Prayer.
I think comic-ironic is an appropriate adjective here. Mr. Honda is reminiscent of Nacho Libre’s tag team partner who “only believes in science.” His resolution makes for one of those situations where your initial laughter is curbed by a surge of pity for the other person’s ignorance—like when an instinctual smile is choked by the realization, “Oh, wait a minute. He’s really serious.”
The resolution, “encourages all citizens, residents, and visitors to join in observing this day and focusing upon the employment of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to the resolution of human problems and for the welfare of human kind.”
Representative Honda explains: “The National Day of Reason celebrates the positive impact the application of reason has had on humanity. The evolution of my Silicon Valley district into the world’s center of innovation came about through the use of scientific method and the application of reason. These are fundamental pillars that scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley and around the country depend on to develop new technologies and cures for diseases.” He goes on to say that the application of reason “has proven to improve the conditions in which people live, offer hope of human survival on Earth, and cultivated intelligent, moral, and ethical behaviors and interactions among people.”
The gist is that these are the types of things the cosmopolitan, enlightened folks in Silicon Valley will be contemplating on May 5 when all the knuckle-dragging Christians are huddled around flag poles and in front of municipal buildings for The National Day of Prayer.
What he means by reason is purely mathematical or scientific reason, as in the kind sufficient for making computers and cell phones. But the problem in Mr. Honda’s noble resolution is that he fails to realize that scientific reasoning is only a tool. The idea of “pure” reason is reason untainted by any influence from personal tastes and preferences, traditions and prejudices, and above all from superstitions and religion. Apparently Mr. Honda believes this kind of pure, unadulterated, enlightened reason is the only tool we need to improve the world and make it a better, “moral” place.
This is like intellectual Muzak. You thoughtlessly accept it as a part of your environment, but then at some point you actually give it your attention and realize how utterly dull it is.
The question Mr. Honda has apparently never thought of is how a sheer tool can determine what defines improvement, or how it can make the world a “better” place by cultivating "moral and ethical behaviors.” Words like “improve" and “better" (let alone “moral” and “ethical”) describe a gradient ascent toward an ideal. You improve something to make it more like…what? A “better” world is a world that is more like it’s supposed to be. But how is it supposed to be? Most sane human beings have a general sense of how the world is supposed to be, but that ideal of the perfect world does’t come from the tools we use to achieve it.
Like other tools, scientific reasoning by itself doesn’t have motives. It doesn’t direct and operate itself.
If someone were to murder another person with a hammer, it wouldn’t go over well to scold the police for their unenlightened superstitions about motive and intent, and set them straight by explaining that the whole thing is a matter of the hammer. Likewise, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to dismiss someone’s admiration of a carpenter who builds an orphanage by smirking at the person’s naivete as you explain that there’s nothing to admire; it’s only a matter of the hammer.
Scientific reason is a tool, and it cannot be used without a heart and mind to direct it. Trying to separate reason from the spiritual forces that direct it is like trying to study the direction of a mountain stream by separating it from the slope that lies underneath it. Mr. Honda needs to know that the forces that determine whether Silicon Valley technology is used to cure diseases or slaughter nations will be engaged with on May 5th through that activity for which his facile concept of reason is supposed to be an alternative.