Monday, June 21, 2010

Throwing Out The Bible With the Bathwater

On the question of whether there should or shouldn't have been evangelical atheists (those who prefer conversion to conversation) on the recent "science and faith" panel at the World Science Festival, I take the attitude, sure, why not. It may be true that, as Josh Rosenau writes that "someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold." But that's a risk worth taking. It's difficult to remain rhetorically pure when engaged in dialogue with other people. Whether or not it's fair to call the New Atheists "strident" or "uncivil," one sure way to moot the question is to get them--and everybody else in the room--off script, and maybe even listening to each other.

Josh makes a good point, however, in a follow up to that piece that the reason there were no Dawkinses on that panel was not that evangelical atheism was an excluded viewpoint, but that the panel was comprised of academics specializing in the boundary between science and religion. None of those who fly the flag of New Atheism are especially active in this academic field (though Dennett has dabbled in it), and most show outright hostility to its very existence (in the form of "The Courtier's Reply").

This is a point that anthropologist Scott Atran has repeatedly made, most notably in his exchanges with Sam Harris a few years ago: most New Atheists know very little (and care to know very little) about religion apart form a general sense that it is stupid and dangerous. Where it veers away from stereotype, they tune it out in the interest of doctrinal purity. They consistently choose personal anecdote over rigorous argument, but when pressed to take the matter seriously, and check their folk psychology about it at the door, they protest it's a non-subject after all, like "fairyology."

Here, for example is the blogger ArithmoQuine [via John Wilkins], responding to a Guardian article on this subject by Mary Midgley
The larger question is whether a naturalistic, atheistic worldview can provide as hopeful and happy life as a religious one, and whether that hope and happiness are more rational than the hope and happiness one gets from religion. Although we could not hope for a future afterlife in heaven, we could still hope for human progress here on earth. Theism may, and often does, focus people's attention on that false hope and takes the focus away from the value of life on earth. Not all theists have done this, but I don't think it's a strawman to say that atheism and naturalism more properly focus our attempts at happiness for ourselves and others solely on earth. (my emphasis)
This is now a standard move in this debate, and I'm convinced it is an unconscious one, since it lacks the rational stamp one would otherwise expect from professional philosophers. Establish, for fairness' sake, that "not all" religion prioritizes the happiness of the afterlife over earthly life, while at the same time claiming that such a prioritization is the meaningful essence of the thing we call religion. The only way to maintain the legitimacy of the resulting split is to rig the game by defining "the value of life on earth" in a way that only a naturalist metaphysics can satisfy it. (Note especially the attempt to classify one form of happiness as "more rational" than another. Is our happiness now supposed to be instrumental to some other end?) If we're going to assume, for example, that utilitarianism will be our prevailing ethical scheme, then anything but the strictest naturalistic view becomes instantly obviated. But this is hardly the only metaphysical option available to those who would reject the establishment of a world better than the one we now live in--a category that includes most humans, religious or not, who have ever lived.

ArithmoQuine's attitude that religion is reducible to what-bugs-me-about-religion is, let's admit, an understandable one. We humans readily generalize out of our discomfort and disappointment, hoping to find easy patterns that we can evade in the future. While this has obvious survival value, done carelessly it isn't much more than a form of bigotry, which is to say, when our skin is on the line we are not at our most thoughtful. Our politics is currently saturated with this mode of thinking, pointing to a collective sense of insecurity. At such times we count on the contemplative disciplines (like philosophy) to challenge our biases and see the truth of the world in a more complex aspect--which, fortuitously, can often help us out of the binds that seemed to pin down our earlier thinking in such stark and basic terms.

Science, when it is not engaged as merely the technocratic instrument of Capital, has the capacity to be one such contemplative discipline. And indeed, every single one of the New Atheists holds extremely high standards for truth value in the sciences, as they should. We can see this standard being maintained in real time in their present efforts to defend evolutionary theory against proponents of ID and creationism. One reason it is so difficult to wage such a campaign is that evolutionary biology is extremely counterintuitive. Misconceptions abound, are seized upon by ideologues, and become very hard to discredit. Advocacy for the more complex and more nuanced view of life takes a patient and diligent effort.

Physics, too, has for several centuries now been describing a world very different from the one that appears before our untutored eye. Even something so basic as the fact that larger objects do not fall to earth any faster than smaller ones must be taught anew to each generation, since our folk wisdom would apparently have it otherwise.

What happens to this patience and rigor when the subject is changed to religion? Suddenly dilletantism becomes respectable again, and personal anecdote is allowed to pass for substantiation. Sean Carroll writes in his blog Cosmic Variance that "It’s somewhat insulting to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others." I don't think anyone has characterized Sean, whose intellect is prodigious, as being "incapable" of anything, but his unwillingness to be thoughtful on this subject can be seen, for example, in statements like this:
Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.”
This meets the ear of anyone who has studied religion even on an amateur basis with the same clattering sound made by a stereotype like "science typically encourages overdevelopment of the intellect at the price of emotional and spiritual atrophy." Even if such a statement were true, it is "unproductive" in its implication that science is out of balance with human needs, and should be mitigated before it cripples us entirely.

The fallacy, then, is this: religion and superstition frequently coexist, therefore they are inseparable. This is the logic of the sandcastle against the tide.


Here one often encounters the objection that where religion does not invoke superstition--such as with the religion of mystics, of theologians, Jungians, Kabbalists, Sufis, and Zen Buddhists--it is inauthentic, "watered down," in Jerry Coyne's phrase, its truth claims no longer pertaining to the events of the world. A religion that offers only stories, instead of facts, objects the objection, is like the proverbial knife brought to the gun fight.

I've written before that the boundary between facts and stories is not quite as impermeable as we like to think. This blog has always cleaved to the aphorism of Muriel Rukeyser that "the world is made of stories, not atoms," expressed in slightly more unpacked form by philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch:
We are ... moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in life must be discussed in words. This is why it is and always will be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist and if there is a Shakespeare of science, his name is Aristotle.
One must gird one's loins with such quotations when there are blog posts like this one, by Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking, reminding us that rationalism is prone to superstition of its own, namely that Reason (logos) can divine "truths about the world" on its own, without inter-reliance on a poetic, mythic, or metaphysical function. Like Dawkins with theology, Galef doesn't seem to think that literary theory is a subject worth engaging with, and as a result, her post has kind of a marshmallow quality to it. But she nevertheless manages to strenuously challenge the idea that literature provides "a good source of knowledge about the world."

Galef's argumentum against literature is largely based on a failure of realism, answering the assertion by Harold Bloom and James Wood that literature informs us with this line of thought:
But why would we expect literature to be a reliable source of knowledge about "the way things are"? After all, the narratives which are the most gripping and satisfying to read are not the most representative of how the world actually works. They have dramatic resolutions, foreshadowing, conflict, climax, and surprise. People tend to get their comeuppance after they misbehave. People who pursue their dream passionately tend to succeed. Disaster tends to strike when you least expect it. These narratives are over-represented in literature because they're more gratifying to read; why would we expect to learn from them about "the way things are"?
Just as we saw in the reluctance of the New Atheists to actually study the subject of their dismissal, Galef's analysis here suffers from a lack of intimacy with her target, confusing literature, in the sense that Bloom and Wood mean it, and popular fiction. The latter, seen most often in the form of television drama, but also in genre fiction, serves mostly as a kind of wish fulfillment, where, in Galef's phrase "People tend to get their comeuppance after they misbehave. People who pursue their dream passionately tend to succeed." Whether these things happen in real life (they often do) is immaterial. What matters is that we want them to happen, and by experiencing such narratives we gratify our own fantasy-based needs.

Actual literature, by contrast, shuns such simple gratification. What we want (at first) is not by any means what we get* in Lear, Oedipus, End Game, or The Metamorphoses, but through the author's dedication in painting as truthful a picture as humanly possible, we come to align ourselves with that truth despite our initial distaste for it. If we're sensitive enough (a word Galef treats in this post as a slur) we come to see ourselves and the people in our lives better for having known these stories. If there is a higher aspiration for truth I cannot think offhand what it would be.


Which raises the question of whether a religion that is made up "only" of stories is really all that watered down, and whether these stories would be any more full-strength delivered as facts. Stories are (among other things) the vehicles that connect facts to our experience, which is why Plato considered learning as a form of remembering (anamnesis). We know what we have observed and felt and seen, but this knowledge only takes on meaning when it is formalized, ordered, or re-membered. Logic is the rarefied form of this reassembly, abstract and generalized, but without incarnation in story it is sterile and without life, and because the truth is a living thing, a logical fact can never be really true. To become true, a fact needs depiction.

And yet such depictions are not themselves irrational. A story well told has nothing extraneous in it, and neither does a piece of music well played or a dance well choreographed. It takes a bit of training to see why Lear, or Endgame, or the "Moonlight Sonata" are "true" (or, to return to an earlier dispute with John Wilkins, why the Parable of the Talents is true.) Just as it takes training to see why Einstein's field equations or Fermat's last theorum are true (so I hear.) There is no shame in pointing out that to deny the truth value of great art is to deny reason itself, but such is the tenor of the age, that prefers the flat certainties of objectivity, to any real shot at depth.

* Even in the comedies of Shakespeare, where in the end the good prosper and the wicked suffer, it is not cosmic justice that balances the scales, but the relative rectitude of the characters' behavior throughout the play. As in fairy tales, the weddings and riches and  restored social standing found in Act Five symbolize inner states of well-being, not material prosperity, and by these signs is a psychological truth expressed.