Monday, May 28, 2007

Readings II

Accidentally On Purpose

Some days I’m not sure which I find more amazing – the lengths to which some religionists will go to disclaim science, or the lengths that some atheists will go to disclaim religion in the name of science. It seems like the one thing they can agree on is that the “supernatural” is at the heart of their differences. One believes that God is, by definition and essence, supernatural, and any other understanding or profession of belief in he, she, or it, is non-religion; the other believes that science leaves no reasonable possibility that the supernatural exists and that only science can disclose the truth about both humans and the physical world they live in and of which they are inextricably a part.

Despite this kind of talk, a great many people go happily on with their lives finding truth and meaning in both science and religion, with little or no concern about what some view as the contradiction. One does not need to trash science to not only believe in but to know, feel, and experience God. Nor does one need to repudiate religion to fully engage in scientific thoughts and endeavors.

Some might chalk this all up to what has been called, in a different context, Bioconceptualism:

Biconceptualism makes sense from the perspective of the brain and the mechanism of neural computation. The progressive and conservative worldviews are mutually exclusive. But in a human brain, both can exist side by side, each neurally inhibiting the other and structuring different areas of experience. It is hardly unnatural — or unusual — to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive, or to support a liberal domestic policy and a conservative foreign policy, or to have a conservative view of the market and a progressive view of civil liberties.
[from Thinking Points – Chapter 2 - Biconceptualism].

Well, as with politics, one can dispute whether any particular views, even those usually characterized as polar opposites are, in fact, mutually exclusive and can only peacefully coexist if we neurally inhibit the supposed contradictions.

When it comes to science and faith, both are human constructs, both ways in which humans seek freedom from want and fear (and conceive of “freedom,” “want,” “fear,” and the need to be “free” from “want” and “fear”). Both are based on mental constructs, concepts, words, images, and memories, all founded in human experience, our own or that attested to by others. Understanding and observing, as best we can, what we humans in the name of both science and faith does not “prove” the existence or non-existence of God. Those who claim to know God – whether they can adequately describe, explain, or prove who or what he is, how he works, where he is in empirical terms to those who do not know him (as if the basic categories of “who,” “what,” “how,” “where” have any meaning or application as far as “he” is concerned) – sometimes resort to the notion of the “supernatural” as something over and beyond what we normally see and know rather than entertain the possibility that God permeates all (arguably is all – sort the heretical out of that, however you please) through and within human and non-human nature, whether we can see any kind of mechanical explanation of his presence (think Oz behind the curtain) or not.

What atheists don’t seem to get is that the concept of “supernatural” does not necessarily entail any kind of assertion of scientific fact or theory (although the Creationists do their best to claim that it does). The Divine is ultimately Mystery to us humans. No matter how hard we try, now matter how sophisticated our reason, no matter how hard we stretch our minds to encompass eternity freed of our rudimentary, Newtonian notions of time and space, we are never going to know it all because what we know and who we are are inextricably intertwined. We may be in God’s image, we may have God coursing through our blood and infused in our heards and minds, but we are not him and never will be.

Yet, science has given and continues to give us fascinating glimpses of the great Logos, the divine order, even through the lenses of human neurons. Modern physics, mathematics, and even chaos theory bring us into realms heretofore unimaginable. And, in the more lowly, earthly, biological realm, we have new studies suggesting that there not only are their positive, biological benefits from religious belief (better health, longer lives, etc.), we may also have the idea of God imprinted into our biological makeup.

In this regard, I find most fascinating Paul Bloom’s article ”Is God an Accident” in the December 2005 edition of Atlantic Monthly. The article begins with this preface:

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question ...

By way of background, Bloom is a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale who has written a number of thought-provoking articles for the general reading public about body/mind dualism, its biological origins, and the dangers it poses when embraced uncritically by religionists. (For a list of publications, see Selected Articles for a General Audience. He also serves on the board of The Center for Naturalism, an organization which “promotes science-based naturalism as a comprehensive worldview - a rational and fulfilling alternative to faith-based religions and other varieties of supernaturalism.”)

Bloom’s perspective is clearly that of a non-believer who thinks that the supernatural has no physical reality and therefore none worth talking about other than in the way the idea influences human behavior and culture. Although I don’t share that point of view, I very much respect it and the positive things he is trying to achieve with his vision. And he doesn’t strike me as a militant atheist – rather a good scientist full of curiosity, creativity, and concern and compassion for his fellow humans.

Nevertheless, what amazes me (though it hardly surprises) is his supposition that our predisposition to believe in so-called supernatural phenomena cannot possibly reflect an in-born capacity to know, feel, and experience a real-world Divine. Why is our tendency to look for causation everywhere (which apparently can cause us to “over-read” or misconstrue things as evidencing an intent even where there is none) not a biological means of directing us to look for and see God just as we, as infants, are programmed to search the faces of humans and to know our mothers?

What strikes me as ironic is that so many atheists fall into simplistic thinking about religion and/or God being nothing more than a “crutch” - a purely human-made tool designed to give the immature, ignorant, and week false comfort in terms of a promised afterlife, forgiveness, and, at the very least, a divine purpose to both our individual lives and the march of human history. They say that the evidence of science is that there is nothing but what is physical, what can be empirically proven by conventional scientific inquiry and testing. This tends to be a cold, hard, cynical view of the role religion plays in the lives of even those who do not any demonstrable harm in the name of their religion, such as wage war or discriminate against or persecute non-believers or non-conformists.

Bloom and those who embrace a spiritual and ethical “Naturalism” (i.e. spirituality and ethics without the supernatural), tread more gently and exhibit more compassion towards those of religious faith. Yet it seems that he falls into the same dualtistic trap he claims religion sets – just at the other end. For him, empirically proven physical reality must be all there is, that although our bodies “trick” us into thinking of both our mind and the Divine as being somewhere outside, separate, and apart from physical reality, nevertheless we must “know” for a fact that just because what we know and experience as our minds (our selves our souls) may well operate solely as the function of physical processes within the human body. While if that’s all there is, we can keep on dancing, nevertheless, but who is to say it is? Does the fact that we can discern physical causes within the human body, just as we discern physical causes of evolution, exhaust all real possibilities?

Finally, what strikes me as most odd is that the Creationists and other Biblical literalists are in the forefront of those most forcefully advocating the view that science in incompatible with religion. For them the “supernatural” cannot possibly act through the physical processes and patterns discerned by science, and humans cannot possibly know or experience God without embracing the supernatural as the sum and substance of what God is – defined not by the miracle of his love but by his capacity to perform what, from a human perspective, is the miraculous. For others, who consider themselves orthodox Christians but not necessarily opposed to science, the same kind of fear and paranoia arises when people begin to talk about whether Jesus “really” was the Son of God, was fully human and divine, was born of the Virgin Mary, was bodily resurrected, etc. What is “real” and “true” must be revealed as scientific, physical terms because otherwise one must concede to the atheists that it is all “just” what humans know and believe in their “hearts,” “minds,” and “souls.”

Call me a biconceptualist, if you will, but I do not see why the physical and spirtual understandings of human and extra-human reality must be mutually exclusive. Evidence that belief in God is part of our biological makeup, not merely or solely a cultural phenomenon, would seem to help bridge the gap. Maybe God is not an accident but only appears to be so – indeed, is known to us all, accidentally on purpose!

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