Monday, February 27, 2006


Warning: long post about religion.

I've had a long-standing interest in the wars between science and religion. I'm not sure why, it's doesn't really seem like a very fruitful debate, producing more heat than light. Nonetheless it pulls me in; I keep trying to rearrange my own thoughts about it in the hopes that a brilliant essay will emerge, but they remain confused. This being a blog I feel free to burble on about it anyway.

I'm on the side of science of course, if one must pick sides, but unlike some of the more rabidly atheistic people involved in this debate I am more interested in finding someway to reconcile the spiritual with scientific reality, rather than bash it over its immaterial head. I'm for reconciliation, peacemaking, and trying to find a stance that is fully consistent with science, yet gives some authentic space for people's relgious and spiritual experience. The hardcore anti-religious, village atheist sort of stance just doesn't appeal to me any more. I've started sniping in the comments over at Pharyngula in the hope of getting in some good fights.

Here's another entry point: Leon Wieseltier trashes Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell in the NYT BR. The blogosphere has joined battle as well with most of my favorite scientific and political blogs lining up to take bashes at Wieseltier for bad arguments (poor understanding of Hume, misreading Dennett, using personal attacks, and just being a jerk -- "a digraceful and disrespectful hack job"). I mostly agree, but I have got some mysterious desire to find some value in LW's words, so I thought I'd try to tease out why.

Intellectual conflict is still conflict, and as such seems even more grounded in evolution than religion. So from a lofty perspective I see the whole thing as a war between science-apes and religion-apes, with constant border skirmishes. Science has reason on its side, but even this heavy weaponry doesn't seem to produce a victory over the other side. Steven Jay Gould proposed a sort of peace treaty, his idea of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria), which would separate the two sides with a sort of intellectual border fence, but that proposal hasn't get very far. Neither side is willing to yield ownership of the foundations of truth.

I'm a science-ape by nature and training, but I can no longer join enthusiastically with the hardcore warriors for the science side like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. They tend to portray the other side as merely stupid and deluded. There's no shortage of stupidity for them to attack, but religion seems to be more than that, and needs to be understood more sympathetically. Dennett seems to at least be somewhat sympathetic to the thought processes of the other side, at least willing to explore them. He's holding out the olive branch of understanding, and acknowledging that religion might (indeed, given his evolutionary stance, must) have beneficial effects, even if its beliefs are not true. On the other hand, he wants to "break the spell", so he's clearly not a neutral observer. From what I gather (I haven't read the book yet, just excerpts), his book is sort of a handshake with a joy buzzer in it. I have read the book that a lot of his ideas seem to come from, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, which I thought was brilliant. I have no quarrel with the general attempt to find biological or other roots of religious thought, but I'm not sure if that really undermines it.

Wieseltier, on the other hand, is mostly just sniping. His intellectual schtick seems to taking up the mantle of the prophets, and making grand moral pronouncements rather than reasoned arguments. That sounds more negative than I meant -- I'm in favor of grand moral pronouncements! Where would our discourse be without them? Look at Martin Luther King, for an example of the best of this genre in the modern era. Still, LW's supercilious tone has pissed off many readers -- he may not really be up to bearing the mantle.

So to be contrarian, despite my and the blogosphere's generally negative view of Wieseltier, I'm going to try to extract the stuff from his review that I find worthwhile:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance.
I like that, it's direct -- religion has a substance, and it's not to be explained away by functionalist explations. Whether it's fair to Dennett I don't know.
Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
This is a mostly-bogus argument (and an old one), but there's a kernel there that I like. The human ability to reason has certainly evolved, but reason itself lies, in some sense, beyond material evolution. For much the same reasons that we hope if we meet an alien intelligence, we can communicate with them, sharing (the in classic SF motif) the Pythagorean theorem, and other modes of reasoning. Reason, we hope, is universal even if the hardware it runs on is biological.

So LW is wrong to think that evolution "destroys" the power of reason, but right to invoke reason's independence.

(I'm not sure Dennett would disagree with my restatement of LW's argument, so perhaps this is another misplaced attack).

To connect the dots here, God may best be understood as something like the Pythagorean theorem -- not a material thing, but an inescapable conclusion of certain mental processes. And if it's inescapable, then we shouldn't be trying to escape it (as the materialist fundamentalist athiest does) but rather figuring out how to reconcile it with the rest of our mental state, including the advancing knowledge of science.
Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us different."

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.
Here may lie the crux of the biscuit. Dennet, LW, and I all agree for the first paragraph. Then LW diverges. I'm with Dennett (again!), at least 95%. Creeds are a natural fact (biological or otherwise) and thus capable of being studied and hopefully explained by science. The nature of the link between levels (biological to cognitive) is the proper subject of science and of Dennett's brand of philosophy, whether you label it "reductionism" or not. Finding such links oughtn't diminish the value of higher levels, spirituality included.

Still, the idea that there is something in creeds, or in reason, that "transcends" biology is interesting. There's no doubt in my mind that our thinking starts in biology, but it may finish somewhere else.
the excesses of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism. Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The move "away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts," or the increasing philosophical sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as "strategic belief-maintenance." He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer...Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion.
LW's point here is one I like, a bit. The materialists who battle religion tend to battle with the crudest forms of fundamentalism (ie, young-earth creationism). But there are more thoughtful forms of religious belief, or so I'm told. I'd like to see science engage with those. Of course, LW is positioned as a leading religious intellectual, and if this review is an example of his thought then maybe there isn't that much to engage with. Still, I somehow have this hope that there are intelligent spirtitually-oriented intellectuals out there who can engage fruitfully with science. Anyone there?
But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?
This is LW's closing sally at Dennett, but I doubt Dennet would disagree with the sentiment. No scientist, not the most hardcore materiealist, would object to religion as a metaphor or allegory. The problem is that both the religionists and scientists insist on hewing to fundamentalist literal interpretation of what religion means, creating a battle over a narrowly conceived factual reality. But if both sides back down from their respective crude fundamentalisms, maybe there will be room in the human memepool for both systems of thought to coexist.

Well, as an exercise this didn't really find that much of value in LW's review, but it did give me a chance to get some semi-cracked ideas out of my brain, and into yours.

Update: I see I've addressed this topic before, although I'd forgotten about it. I really have to get a blog with tags or categories or something, which would help impose some order on the randomness.

Update 2: Sifu Tweety at The Poor Man was animated by the same spirits I was:
For the past few weeks I’ve been composing in my head an e-mail to PZ Myers on the subject of religion.
Yes, all us moderates would like to witness to the villiage atheists and get them to mellow out a little bit. It probably just annoys them.


Anonymous said...

I just listened to Sam Harris's presentation at Long Now and find his take on it to be much like yours: the spiritual or mystical impulse is a basic human need, and we need a 21st-century, scientific way of exploring, enjoying, and fulfilling it.

We don't even know if such a thing is possible. Indeed, Harris specifically blames religious belief for this: religion (and its constant battle against anti-religious village atheists) sucks all the air out of the debate and turns it into a meaningless stalemate of non-negotiable, non-falsifiable assertions, much like the tribes of feces-flinging apes you describe.

I think the essential component of such a 21st-century scientific spirituality must be falsifiabity, or at least a "maybe" quality. It can't be Belief as we know it now, but rather Theory-- a scientific-like workable hypothesis. Both Korzybski and the god of Avram had the same good idea: forbid the utterance of the verb "is"... and instead talk about spirituality as purely subjective experience. Fewer nouns, more verbs; less identity, more process.

Harris drew for me a very clear and unavoidable causal connection between religious belief and violence. Religious belief doesn't respond to debate or evidence (or lack thereof), and for that reason will always lead to violence. The UN, for example, is a "debating society" because that is its intention: talking instead of killing. We tell our kids to "use your words", again, because talking is *the* only alternative to violence in situations of conflict. But religous "belief" is non-negotiable, and therefore there is no possibility for dialogue; it'll always end in stalemate at best, killing at worst.

I think the way out of this trap is to embrace a spirituality which is purely *subjective*, thus robbing it of its toxic absoluteness.

I'd predict that a 21st-century, science-friendly spirituality would resemble the way of the mystic: a personal spirituality which is purely subjective and thus doesn't conflict with scientific "consensus reality". Replace "I believe" with "I suspect this to be true" or "I will act as if this is true for as long as it works for me". Anyway, this is my own personal path, and it suits me fine..

Many people do this all the time in various situations, mostly without being aware of it. Variations of this "workable maybe" or purely subjective belief provide a basis for shamanic magick, science, and lots of other activities. "I will act as if this is true because it makes me happy" works great for personal fulfillment. "I will act as if this is true and test it to see if I can prove it" is a rough approximation of the scientific method, as is "I will act as if this is true because testing it may lead me to interesting discoveries". Finally, "I will act as if this is true and see if I can thus change consensus reality around me by sheer force of will and enthusiasm" is the basis of invention, creativity, sales, political movements, entrepreneurship, music, acting, and other activities which I consider shamanic; this ability to conditionally lie to yourself for purposes of motivating yourself and others, while constantly testing consensus reality against it and without really believing your own B.S. works well as the active ingredient in "personal charisma".

Wilson's books in particular are practically manuals for 21st-Century shamanism; I re-read his stuff every few years and always get something useful from them. I don't necessarily "believe" them, but I find them useful. And that's the model I think would work best for a 21st-century spirituality: the science of subjective experience.

mtraven said...

Amen (if you excuse the expression) to what you said, except that part about falsifiability. If spirituality is subjective, which I think is right, then it isn't falsifiable in the sense of a scientific theory.

Science is really good at talking about objective things; but fails pretty miserably at the subjective. That's one reason I think people intuit a personal threat when science appears to be attacking their faith -- it implicitly attacks their own personal subjectivity and selfhood, which religion for all its flaws knows how to support.

Anonymous said...

Then, of course, there is this: