Friday, February 23, 2007

Scientheology

A week or two before Christmas I was hanging out at the airport waiting for my wife to fly in from Chicago, and picked up a couple of science mags at the newsstand, Discover and Scientific American. I needed to catch up on the latest developments, if you can call this a development:

"The God Experiments: five scientists try to zero in on the source of religious experience"

That's from the cover of Discover. And here's what the five are doing:

"Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University in New York, is in the explain-it-away camp of researchers. Noting the plethora of gods that populate the world's religions...Guthrie argues that the belief in supernatural beings is a result of an illusion that arises from our tendency to project human qualities onto the world. Religion 'may be best understood as systematic anthropomorphism.'"

I guess it's the God-is-my-teddy bear theory.

"...a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania...uses a technique called single-photon-emission-computed tomography, or SPECT" to scan the brain and "has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure." [I wonder if this explains the 77 virgin theory.] "...both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures."

Thus does science forge ahead. Another fellow, "Dean Hamer, head of gene structure and regulation at the National Cancer Institute, is endeavoring to link religion to a specific gene," The God Gene. And "a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT."

The article sensibly asserts that "Science cannot tell us if God exists only in our imaginations or as an entity beyond our comprehension. So why do some scientists continue the search for the roots of religious experience?" Actually, the better question is why someone would pay them to do it. Nevertheless, "Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist,... is marketing the 'Shakti headset,' a stripped-down version of Persinger's God machine, for 'consciousness exploration'...Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power?...in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine...could be the ultimate mind-control device. 'Just think of the practical impact,' [Persinger] says. 'People will die for this.'"

And others might go to hell for making it.

I also found out in their article on The 25 Greatest Science Books Ever Written that E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (for The Selfish Gene, a book that made Zippy laugh) get to take their places alongside such folks as Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Aristotle.

But I think my favorite was "Jaron's World: Frozen in Time", in which the author asks, "Is this any way to run a species?" He's particularly bothered by the positioning "of human male genitalia. The site of human testicles seems a bizarre anomaly from an evolutionary point of view, like positioning the driver of an armored vehicle in a sack strapped to the bumper." He moves on later to, shall we say, bigger and better things, but I think it was mostly just an excuse to write sentences that begin like this: "These old ideas about balls were bouncing around in my head a week ago..." Yes, poor pouch placement provides a plethora of wordplay.

The cover of the Scientific American was a genuine eye-catcher, with its picture of a skull and a screaming yellow 3,300,000 Year-Old Baby - what she means for human evolution. "Don't touch it," I thought initially, "it's poison," since the subtitle assumed the truth of the thing in doubt. I also wondered how the dates for these finds always end in such a neat series of zeroes. They must have really good calendars. It seems the skull was related matrilineally to the famous Lucy, and what she meant for evolution was a renewed debate over the 'evolution' of walking upright. The prospect of knowing which monkey stood up first excites a certain kind of mind, but since my daughter's dog can walk upright whenever he smells food, I lost interest. Besides, I saw a bear doing it on TV the other night, and it seemed pretty effortless. If things had developed differently, we'd be seeing articles debating when man began going about on all fours, or what it was that caused him to wisely return to the trees, or why a great ape's small brain is the inevitable result of his apposable thumb.

While willing to admit that I'm waiting for the cover story announcing that "Ancient Find Leaves Evolutionary Theory in Ruins", I actually like science (as long as I don't have to do any), and I've always subscribed to the common trope that the scientists have their legitimate domain and we religionists have ours. They deal with things measureable and we don't. But after perusing these two magazines, I have concluded that a significant number of scientists are in fact religious fanatics, though in the course of discovering this I was forced to inadvertantly OD on Darwinism. They are not fanatics in the sense that they actually believe in a recognized religion, but in their inability to leave the subject alone. Some of them do believe, like Francis Collins, but you may also have noticed that the more egregious violators of the 'rule of domain', like Richard Dawkins, consider religious belief such an inferior way of occupying the mind that he can't stop talking about it. The disdain turns to a hatred that must, like a wild beast, be fed daily. It has all the diagnostic marks of a genuine neurotic obsession. Only time will tell whether, as a selective adaptation, nature will approve.

Among Mr. Dawkins' fellow-travelers, not all the scientheologists (as I like to awkwardly call them) are quite so confrontational, but they do seem to possess in equal degree his sense of dogmatic certitude. For example, attracted at first by an article about "Cracking the Neural Code," which asks how "a stream of electrical impulses in the brain translate[s] into information," I got distracted by a book review: "Darwin at the Zoo". Some guy named Frans de Waal has written a thing entitled Primates and Philosphers: How morality Evolved, (I'm getting to hate subtitles) in which we are told of the time Charles Darwin first came face to face with an orangutan named Jenny who, when its handler would not make her an immediate gift of an apple, "threw herself," Darwin wrote, "on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child." Precisely. Leaving us to conclude that man is made, not in the image of God, but in that of an orangutan.

Naturally, I was incensed. This de Waal fellow obviously hadn't heard of the agreement, to be breaking it so flagrantly by encroaching on the religionist's territory. It will never work if both sides don't observe the rules. "Dogs," de Waal reminds us,

"are social, wolves are social, chimps and macaques are social, and we ourselves are 'social to the core'...When our ancestors began writing down the first codes of conduct, precepts, laws and commandments, they were elaborating on feelings that evolved thousands or even millions of years before they were born."

It reminded me of an Andrew Sullivan piece several years ago in which he took note of the fact that some male fruit flies, after being subjected to unusual laboratory variables, began seeking to perpetuate the species on the backs of their fellow males. I was at first amused, thinking that they were, after all, 'fruit' flies, when I should have been leaping with Sullivan to the obvious and serious conclusion that homosexuality is biologically determined, and that we should get off his back about it. Morally speaking, I mean.

The reviewer of de Waal's book, a Jonathan Weiner, who seems not to have taken much convincing, sums it all up:

By the end... it seems clear that we can no longer look at morality as a sort of civilized veneer on a cold and selfish animal, even though that view goes back long before Darwin went to the zoo. Its origin lies in the Western concept of original sin--when Adam and Eve ate their first apple.

See? They can't help themselves. They've just got to wander over. They can't have a friendly chat over the fence; they have to climb over and trespass on Christian teaching. They don't even check with Fr. Neuhaus or somebody to make sure they've got it right. They get to say what they want about religion, but we don't get to say what we want about science. Mr. de Waal is allowed to see the shadow of human sociability in the animal world and promptly conclude that your uncle was a monkey, while you're reduced to the vituperative hope that he’s a monkey's uncle.

There's much more within that single issue, like the article that asks: "Is Religion Good for Society?" (Their answer: it depends.) But perhaps the best example is one by the same guy explaining "Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution." Here are his reasons:

1. Evolution fits well with good theology. Christians believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God. What difference does it make when God created the universe--10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago?...And what difference does it make how God created life--spoken word or natural forces? The grandeur of life's complexity elicits awe regardless of what creative processes were employed. Christians (indeed, all faiths) should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divine in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts.

Questions abound. 1.) Did he just admit the existence of the divine? A yes or no answer is required, because Darwin didn't and Dawkins and Dennett don't. 2.) Did he just say that it doesn't matter whether life arose via spoken word or natural process? Because one sounds miraculous to me and the other doesn't. And does he really think there exists a single scientist, wishing to remain in the employ of the academy, who would confess to the former over the latter?

2. Creationism is bad theology. The watchmaker God of intelligent-design creationism is delimited to being a garage tinkerer piecing together life out of available parts. This God is just a genetic engineer slightly more advanced than we are. An omniscient and omnipotent God must be above such humanlike constraints... Calling God a watchmaker is belittling.

Yes, but...you just said a second ago that it didn't matter whether he used spoken word or natural process. If he used spoken word, then some kind of creationism is very good theology indeed. If he used natural forces, do I get to keep my immortal soul? Because it's not clear to me how a natural force can give rise to an immaterial substance.

3. Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature. As a social primate, we evolved within-group amity and between-group enmity. By nature, then, we are cooperative and competitive, altruistic and selfish, greedy and generous, peaceful and bellicose; in short, good and evil. Moral codes and a society based on the rule of law are necessary to accentuate the positive and attenuate the negative sides of our evolved nature.

Yes, but...that's not quite what the doctrine of original sin actually says. It says that we are hostile, competitive, selfish, greedy and bellicose not by nature, but by willful departure from the state of innocence in which we were originally created. So do we get to keep the Fall of man? And, "as a social primate," do I get to keep my primordial parents, Adam and Eve, so that we remain one family, or are we required to get hypersocial about it and admit to multiple progenitors? In other words, are your assertions just code for reinterpreting the religious doctrine to fit the natural scheme?

4. Evolution explains family values. [I'm beginning to think it explains everything.] The following characteristics are the foundation of families and societies and are shared by humans and other social mammals: attachment and bonding, cooperation and reciprocity, sympathy and empathy, conflict resolution, community concern and reputation anxiety, and response to group social norms. As a social primate species [didn't you already say that?], we evolved morality to enhance the survival of both family and community. Subsequently, religions designed moral codes based on our evolved moral natures.

Yes, but...if the moral codes were already in our nature, why did we need a religion to "design" what we already know? Or could it be that that's not what religion does at all, that it had its origin in some other initial and not entirely natural impulse, as an expression of gratitude and propitiation, perhaps, to an immaterial Maker of all things? And if the codes are in our nature, why do the codes seem to vary, sometimes radically, from one society to the next, one religion to the other? Does evolution tell us which code is the right code, which religion the one, true and only? I really need your answer.

5. Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts. Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, [no shit?] most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin.

And we're a "social primate species." You're repeating yourself.

6. Evolution explains conservative free-market economics.

Booorrring.

The article concludes with: "The senseless conflict between science and religion must end now, or else, as the Book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: 'He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.'"

Whoa, chapter and verse. I’m impressed. And so, like a doomsday prophet, the scientist concludes by quoting, not Darwin, but the Bible, putting it to the only use for which it seems suited: the trumpeting of threats.

I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a field of scientific query in which so many of its practitioners feel driven to pronounce upon the science of God. Every man has his beliefs and is entitled to hold them, but when listening to Dawkins and Dennet one gets the sense that Darwinism came into being for the sole purpose of destroying dogma, of (to paraphrase Dawkins) making the world safe for "intellectually fulfilled atheists." Its necessity to us was not simply to serve as a natural explanation for the advancement of species, but was itself the next great advance in human development; in other words, it does not merely explain evolution, but is in itself the paradigm of what it attempts to explain - its own best exemplar.

Now that it’s accomplished, there seems nothing more to be done but to sit back and see what becomes of us, what nature will wash out in the end, if indeed there could be an end. The problem with the word ‘evolution’ is that there never is. Yet in spite of this, we’ve reached a dead end. No further ‘advancements’ of any substance are possible. We may indeed discover on what day of the week in what month of what year so many ancient epochs ago the first monkey stood upright, or what chemical is responsible for female intuition, or what hormonal confusion caused ex-geniuses like Augustine and Aquinas to go for God, but the advance of truth will have come to an end since there is no Truth to be found. There are only facts, and only one matters: biology is me.

Prior to the Darwinian revelation, the greatest single event in evolutionary history had to have been the appearance of human sentience. With it, nature had produced a thing of a suddenly striking capacity: the ability to inquire into the nature of its own origin, and to examine its own workings, a creature aware of its own awareness. We call it ‘mind.’ But a creature thus cognizant of its own faculties is going to be equally cognizant of the possibility of other ‘awarenesses’, for one of the first facts he is forced to admit is that he did not make himself. It’s a troublesome quality, this keen interest in how things come to be. (It may even account for Darwin’s own curiosity.) And so perhaps he attributes this causative agency to a number of other, superior, awarenesses – or perhaps to one. Whichever he chooses, there seems little evidence that he ever looked out into a world teeming with fellow creatures in order to conclude that, "I am simply another one of those." He always seems to have considered himself somehow different and, if he’s particularly deluded, special.

But now we know the truth, and the truth has put us in prison. There is less in heaven and earth, and your philosophy is a dream. My brain is a box in which the selective threshing machine sifts my thoughts, separating the wheat from the chaff. A thought that embraces the selective process itself is wheat; a thought that doubts it - or dares to postulate an alternative, or even a world beyond the present one in which the process doesn’t operate - is chaff, to be tossed into the fire of extinction. ( You’ve got to love a theory so narcissistically modern that it’s always affirming itself.) Some of my thoughts are even the product of an ability we call reason. The theory itself was arrived at through the use of this ability. Thus it is by the rules of reason that the theory’s validity ought to be judged. But if one should claim that his use of the ability leads him to believe that this purely natural process was in fact supernaturally intended, he shall be at once informed that this is an unreasonable use of reason. And why? Because the theory says so. Thus does the defendant become the judge, the child devour its mother; thus does the thing to be illuminated snuff out the only light by which it may be known.

It will be maintained, of course, that nature indeed “selected” for reason. It is, most assuredly, reason’s mother. It is the maker of all things and the judge of all mentalities. The only difficulty with this judge is that it doesn’t share its secrets. You are still thrown back on your own pathetic powers of reason to determine which mental states correspond to selective success. That’s another way of saying that you are condemned to a lifetime of guesswork, since the happy state of knowing anything for certain (except for one thing) will forever elude you. You’ll probably muddle through all right as long as you leave religion out of it.

Someday perhaps one of you will write an article - "Why evolutionists should accept Christianity" – and submit it to Scientific American. It will not be published, whatever your credentials. I was somewhat heartened to see, however, an article at the New Scientist – an overview of evolution – in which we are informed at the end that, in our time, evolutionists have devolved into two basic camps: the pure selectionists, represented by Dawkins, Dennett, et al.; and the "others", like the late Stephen J. Gould, who thought that selection was an insufficient explanation as the driving force behind evolution, that "something big" was being missed.

I don’t know what big thing they were, or are, hoping to find, but my only response to their even thinking it is: bless you my sons.

8 comments:

Lydia McGrew said...

Hey, Bill, you'll like this little video, called "The Dawkins Delusion."

http://blog.johndepoe.com/?p=226#comments

My husband and I were laughing our heads off. Actually, the arguments are _very_ like Dawkins's own. As one of the commentators says, it's hard to caricature the guy.

William Luse said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by. Didn't expect to see anyone on the weekend. I'll check it out.

Paul Cella said...

Nice work, Bill.

These evolutionists are something else, aren't they? As Chesterton put it, Christians posit an unthinkable God who turned nothing into everything; the evolutionists reply inearnest, almost as scolds: no, in fact nothing turned itself into everything: a never-ending flood of water pouring out of an empty pitcher. This, they tell us, is the result of careful reason.

Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al., increasingly appear openly menacing to me. Dawkins, for instance, has stated plainly that the teaching of religion to children should be regarded as child abuse. The atheists are coming for your children, seriously.

Them's fightin' words, Dick.

William Luse said...

Yeah, I think one of the links goes to the essay where he said that.

Perhaps his zeal is motivated by the fact that he'll never be able to say 'I told you so.' He has to do his work while he's still in the light.

Steven said...

Dear Bill,

Two things--

"The Atheists are coming for your children" and in the true German tradition, we find that the state is behind them 100%, as news about the beleaguered Bavarian family whose daughter was expelled from school because they were tutoring her at home comes out. After the expulsion they had no choice but to school her. The state ordered 15 armed policemen to remove the child by force from the household for this crime against humanity. Yes, the atheists are coming for them and don't be surprised to tune into it at a station near you.

As a matter of filling in the details--the numbers used in dating all end in zeroes precisely because of the lack of precision of dating. When the zeroes start you know that the data has ended. They mean in effect--we can place this in an order of magnitude and in a general range within that order of magnitude--but more than that we do not know. The error on these dates is also interesting. And the way many of them come about.

I am with Francis Collins on this question, but there are some real difficulties in things put before the public. Difficulties the public won't generally find out about because there are not enough savvy science journalists out there to interpret the facts and the real difficulties and the scientists don't much care if the public understands at all.

shalom,

Steven

Steven said...

Dear Bill,

Sorry, one last point. The "Big" thing Stephen Jay Gould felt was missing was something called "The Paradox of the Third Tier" in which evolutionary mechanisms are driven by cataclysms that completely reset the refractory period of species generation and result in new evolutionary radiations after mass extinctions. Hence, macroevolutionary processes that generate in one evolutionary moment new classes and families of organisms as new organisms rush in to fill empty morphospace and ecospace.

Unfortunately, they are often searching for the "Big" that has nothing to do with the real Big. So prayers are in order.

shalom,

Steven

William Luse said...

Thanks, Steven. I confess to having a little fun with the zeroes in the dates.

and the scientists don't much care if the public understands at all. I think this is true. They want us to understand enough that we feel knowledgable, but not enough to question their authority. It also helps when they have a political class in power to ram the more unpalatable tenets down our throats.

I was not aware of that Bavarian story, and if you have a link I'd sure like to read about it.

TSO said...

"Hey, you got your science in my theology!"

"Hey you got your theology in my science!"