Posts Tagged ‘Ken Miller’

defining “religion”

March 18, 2010

Well, there’s William James’s very broad and inviting definition: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Of this expansive definition it may be said that religion is vastly more pervasive than even we Bible Belt residents imagined.

Or you could go with Ambrose Bierce, again: RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable. [Companion to FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel]

And then there’s Dan Dennett’s counter-definition, “profoundly at odds with that of William James,” according to which religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” By this definition, “a religion without God(s) is like a vertebrate without a backbone.

So why does it matter, this question of nomenclature?

Our course is “Atheism and Spirituality,” not “Atheism and Religion.” My observation is that most atheists have deliberately opted out of religion, and typically resent being lumped with the faith-based. (John Dewey tried to reclaim religious experience as a generic and non-sectarian quality of life in A Common Faith, with limited success.)

Most atheists also think of themselves as something more and other than crass materialists who find nothing real but “matter and the void.” So it matters because we want to know what “spiritual” residue might remain for atheists, humanists, naturalists, Brights (etc.) to claim, after they’ve renounced “religion .” But first we need to know what religion means, so we’ll know if atheists (et al) can safely renounce it.

Also of interest in today’s A&S reading: Billy Graham’s pal Charles Templeton‘s “Farewell to God” and to Billy’s rigid faith. “You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. It’s intellectual suicide.” Templeton poses many questions. “Is it not likely that you are a Christian [Muslim, Jew, Hindu…] because your parents were before you?” is a good one.

And Dawkins. Giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow, especially a tenured teacher. Perhaps immodestly, but understandably, he quotes his great late fan Douglas Adams: evolution, as explicated by Dawkins, was to Adams “a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise to all the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made religious experience seem silly beside it.” And he quotes Dennett: “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing [God] to make a lesser thing [humanity] is the trickle-down theory of creation. It’s no more impressive than its economic counterpart, when you really look at it.

Dawkins doesn’t simply disagree with theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins, he is “astonished” by their willingness to depict a lazy do-nothing under-achieving God (“deus otiosus”) whose work is all executed by natural selection.  Nice work if you can get it. (But Dawkins has still got kind words for Ken Miller, who so impressed the Judge in Dover, who claims to have found “Darwin’s God,” and who was one of the featured talking heads in the acclaimed PBS “Evolution” docu-drama.)

Dawkins doesn’t get the appeal of mystery for its own sake. As noted last time, he’s not got a “talent” for religion. “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” He also cites Michael Shermer’s rejection of “gap” criticism. Every time you discover a new fossil you also create another gap? Sounds a lot like Zeno, not really so  paradoxical after all.

But more to the point, “we could easily have no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution… would be overwhelmingly strong.” Irreducible complexity in its inanity, as Judge Jones ruled, pales by comparison.

Victor Stenger says there’s “something rather than nothing” just because the laws of nature decreed it, so we may as well stop asking about the pre-Big Bang universe. Does that answer that? I’m not yet convinced.

So, back to the question we started with. Not for the first time I find myself leaning against William James on this topic. It would be a tremendous aid to clarity if we could agree to mean by religion a God-centered worldview (there could still be a range of views about what that meant exactly), and let the “merely” spiritual go Godless. What do you think? [NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: That’s our question of the day, or one of them. Remind me to pass the sheet around.]

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.