an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘science v religion

on religion and explanation

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it’s true

Jacinta: I’ve been thinking about religion as the earliest form of explanation for a while, and about when we – our species, or our ancestors – began to feel the need for explanations, about everyday regularities and irregularities, such as why the blinding white disc travels across the sky, disappears, plunging the world into darkness, then reappears on the opposite side and retraverses the sky again. And again and again. Or why these periods of light are sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler. Or why water pours from the sky from time to time. Or why, in the darkness, there are patterns of tiny white lights in the sky, together with a much larger pale white disc that seems to be slowly eaten away to nothing then replenished over a period of many ‘days’ and ‘nights’. What were these things, and why did the ‘air’ around us whizz by, sometimes with such force as to blow the trees down and blow our children off their feet and make them cry.

Canto: Hmm. Dogs and cats certainly don’t seem to wonder about such things. What about bonobos? They certainly display curiosity. I’ve seen monkeys crowd around an exotic animal, poking and prodding and jumping away when they get a reaction, just as I’ve seen the forest people of the Congo crowding around a white man, something completely new in their lives.

Jacinta: Yes isn’t the internet a grand thing for the armchair-bound. That sort of curiosity, as you say, is for new things, and it is on display in cats and dogs. And the questions for them are – can I eat it? Is it dangerous? But the queer regularities that have been with all these creatures from the beginning – night and day, warmth and cold, rain and shine, earth and sky – it seems unlikely that any dog or cat has felt curious about such things. Bonobos I’m not so sure about, but I’m doubtful. At some stage in our ancestry, and it would be obviously linked to neural development, we started asking ourselves – why is this happening?

Canto: Language. To ask these questions, even of ourselves, wouldn’t we need language?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Maybe. But imagine some highly irregular natural event, like a solar eclipse, being experienced by our pre-lingual ancestors, whether Homo erectus or an Australopithecine. They’d be shocked, scared, and they’d be hanging together, maybe huddling together, communicating their fear, and maybe their wonder.

Canto: Thinking mostly, is it dangerous? Should we hide? And even with language, with a singular event like that, they wouldn’t have an explanation.

Jacinta: Well, they might have a go at an explanation – okay, maybe you’re right, maybe some kind of language would be necessary, which is kind of the same thing as neural development. I mean, language clearly didn’t just come about, it evolved, over who knows how long. And we still don’t know if Neanderthals had it, or some rudimentary version of it, like us, 100,000 years ago or whatever. Think of fire. Once someone learned how to create and control it, and utilise it for warmth and to ward off predators, and, presumably later, to transform our food, they needed to communicate these skills. And from there, or somewhere, they might go on to communicate other things, like navigating by the stars, or how those stars crossed the sky, like human travellers crossing the land in search of food. Stories, of a kind.

Canto: So, I’ve been investigating a bit more, and there’s been some observed behaviours in chimps – and clearly they don’t have language, unless you define language very widely – that some have described as proto-ritual, such as slow-dancing in the face of fires. Fires caused by thunderstorms would be a highly irregular feature of life for chimps, living half in savannah grasslands, half in forests. And ‘dancing’, or ritual movements, might be a way of trying to placate or somehow communicate with this apparently living, dangerous force. And they’ve also been observed performing such ‘dances’ when the rain pours down.

Jacinta: Hmmm, and those movements might be meant to convey something to the fire or rain, or some other phenomenon, but also to other chimps. Something about communicating to others that there’s maybe a way to deal with these phenomena. This might hardly be in the realm of proto-proto religion, but surely the first religions were animistic – according significance and even some kind of intention to the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, lakes and streams, hills and valleys, specific trees and so on.

Canto: Yes, much fuss has been made of a tree hollow in which chimps were found placing stones, for no non-ritualistic purpose human observers could think of. If nothing else, it indicates that the more we observe other species, the more complex and multi-faceted they tend to become. Remember when we used to talk about bird-brains?

Jacinta: I also saw, on a video, that during a firestorm one of the chimps, apparently a king-pin, appeared to be raging at the fire, seeming to suggest that he – it would surely be a male, given chimp society – could, or thought he could, tame the beast, like old George slaying the dragon. Intimations of future shamanism?

Canto: Yes, or maybe he was just pissed off after a fight with the missus. Jane Goodall, on noting chimpanzees sitting for a long time staring ‘dreamily’ at a waterfall, used the term spirituality, which she roughly described as ‘the experience of appreciating magnificent, unknowable powers at work in the world beyond ourselves’. I believe Franz de Waal has used the term, in a different context, for bonobos too, but I’m not so comfortable with the term, it’s way too vague, and it drags religion behind it too emphatically. A feeling of awe, or wonder, of being overwhelmed, etc, can be described as just that.

Jacinta: And yet. A noisy, crushing, powerful waterfall, a raging, dangerous, painful fire – attributing something like intention to these things seems like a step forward. And also the desire for mastery of these forces, by somehow understanding and manipulating their intentions, that might seem an advance. But it’s hard to tell, with our smug hindsight.

Canto: And talking about hindsight, many of us consider, from the pinnacles of science, that religion is just a hangover from the days of pre-scientific explanations. Why are we here? Because the god called God created us to have dominion over the birds and bees and beasts of the field, and after a female was built from a male rib (which must’ve contained some pretty impressive pluripotent cells), and after some snakey female behaviour, we were sent forth out of Eden to multiply, and the god left us to our own devices, but when he came back from wheeling and dealing in foreign parts, he found we were wrecking everything – female trouble again, doubtless. And so he decided to drown us all, so as to Make his Arcadia Great Again, but, presumably feeling a bit tired of the creation process, he chose a human family and unspecified number of species to float about in a boat for a while, watching their friends and neighbours drowning, so as to begin it all again, but definitely for the last time, because, having discovered golf, he’d really lost interest.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s one variant, perhaps not the orthodox one, but as Mary Midgley used to say, these sorts of stories provide a far richer account of our origins than anything scientism has to offer. I mean, life from non-life in a warm puddle? Boring. 

Canto: But seriously, these creation stories, and ancilllary stories of the fruitful, deadly forests and the deserts and their oases, and the wind and the rain and storms and fevers and the patterned, watching stars and the smiling, burning sun, and the cool steadfast moon, these were as rich and comprehensive as they could possibly be, and those who remembered and told these stories best, and had the most intimate relations with all these insidious, ineluctable forces, would be precious persons indeed.

Jacinta: Mmmm. It’s a beginning.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/

 

creation stories – a critique and an appreciation

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2021 at 8:06 pm

the strange concept of faith and the basic concept of morality

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when did Jesus become so Western European?

The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory.

Sam Harris, The end of faith

Canto: Writing about religion and atheism, belief and unbelief, appears to have become unfashionable recently, after a spate of atheist tomes in the early-mid 2000s, which certainly had an impact. Christianity continues to decline, and we try to ignore the other religions as best we can. But with the current kerfuffle about Amy Coney Barrett, a woman described as being ‘of deep faith’ possibly being raised to the US Supreme Court, it seems to me that religion still has the power to shape the law in some countries that we would hope should know better.

Jacinta: Yes, we’ve long expressed the view that this term ‘faith’ has a strange cachet about it that doesn’t really stand up well to scrutiny – to put it mildly. Just considering the judeo-christian version, the claims, as Sam Harris wrote, are extravagant indeed. That the world – rarely very clearly defined  – was made by a single god, of whose essence and world-creating abilities we can have no understanding. We can only speculate, haplessly and hopelessly, as to why he created this world (he isn’t really male but we have to use some pronoun after all), and what his purpose is for us, though there are supposedly clues in a collection of writings over many centuries, which are said to have been inspired by him. Apparently, though, we are his special creation, ordered to go forth, multiply and subdue the earth and all that crawls upon it, presumably for our needs and purposes (Genesis 1:28). This set of beliefs, and of course there are many more, though they may vary between individuals, doesn’t fit well with what we know about the formation of this planet, its relation to the universe, and the story of human evolution, so thoroughly verified by genetics, which we learned about as a result of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection from random variation. 

Canto: Yes, the story of this creator-god and the creation story supposedly written by the god’s human agents some 2,600 years ago or so, is in no way compatible with what we’ve learned about the 3 billion-plus years of life on this planet and the few hundred thousand years of existence of our Homo sapiens ancestors. And yet belief in the existence of this creator-god still persists in the minds of otherwise highly intelligent people, including many of our primary makers and interpreters of law.

Jacinta: Especially in the USA – exceptional, as we’ve often complained, only in its religiosity and its jingoism. Which brings us back to Amy Coney Barrett, who is a ‘devout Catholic’. I think the word ‘devout’, like ‘faith’ and ‘sacred’, deserves scrutiny. An article in The Nation about her carries this sub-heading: ‘Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.’ This raises my ire. I know nothing of this fringe right-wing sect but I know plenty about Catholicism. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church is, in its hierarchy, the most profoundly patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic organisation in the ‘western world’ – the world outside Islam and Hinduism. 

Canto: Well this fringe sect might be even worse, but granted the Catholic church has far greater reach. And Barrett will be the fifth Catholic on the court if promoted. Catholics represent about 22% of the US population. Interestingly, according to recent Pew Research, some 65% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, down from 77% only ten years ago, so we’re seeing big changes in our lifetime, though the political and judicial powers are at least a generation behind the trend. 

Jacinta: So let’s talk about faith and its untouchable nature. In some respects it’s like loyalty, as in keeping faith with the church, or our ancestors. The first type of religion was undoubtedly a form of animism – the wind, the sun, the rain, the ocean, these were moving, changeable elements which moved in mysterious ways, sometimes destructively, sometimes beneficially for humans. In our need to control our world we decided we needed to be on the side of these forces, to be loyal to them, bestowing gifts, sacrifices, bowing down. And when the sun shone mildly upon us, when the rain nourished our crops, it was because we were keeping faith with these godlike forces. But perhaps other less visible forces were operating, spreading sicknesses, killing our newborns – and so we created more abstract deities or forces, perhaps associated with places of danger or disease – the forest, the mountains, perhaps a particular lake or swamp. 

Canto: Yes, you’re talking about a pre-scientific era. Gods or supernatural entities – sprites or goblins – a thousand different terms used in a thousand different languages – these were explanations for unforeseen and unexpected events. And so you had to keep in with them, keep faith with them, through obeisance, sacrifices and the like. 

Jacinta: Gods and spirits as explanations – bad explanations. I believe that was what David Deutsch was on about in The beginning of infinity. I also like the idea of gods as memes. For example, I was sent to Sunday School at about 7 or 8 where I learned about the judeo-christian god from a guy in a Salvation Army uniform. He stood out the front and passed this story, this version of a god – a meme, essentially – to me and others. I was hearing it for the first time, and of course it passed, like any other meme, though my ‘interpretive apparatus’, my 7-year-old brain, and that’s how religion spreads, it seems to me. A universal message of sorts, individually interpreted, like many memes. But when this meme of a single god who made the world specially for us, etc etc, starts to fall apart as an explanation of anything – and this has been happening since the spread of far better explanations from at least the 17th century’s scientific enlightenment – the importance of faith has been emphasised to keep it all together. I think you’ll find that ‘faith’ was a very rare term in the millenium or so of medieval Christendom. It wasn’t faith, then, it was just the truth. Faith is like an enfeebled offspring of that truth. 

Canto: And what about ‘deep faith’, is that just more enfeebled? 

Jacinta: Stubbornly enfeebled perhaps. Actually, it’s probably more recent than the 17th or 18th centuries – it’s more of a 20th century concept, and it has gathered around it a kind of sacred aura, almost as a bulwark against the scientific age – which of course is ‘spiritually empty’. 

Canto: Thank god. But I think that even believers are cognisant that ‘faith’ has a dodginess about it. I recall years ago John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, expressing uneasiness with the word, and suggesting maybe ‘hope’ should be substituted. I suspect he regretted saying that – it surely weakens the religious position quite a bit. Then again, it seems more honest. 

Jacinta: Yes, and somehow more human. Many of us have hoped that this earthly existence isn’t all there is – this brief candle. And some, like the late George Harrison, have been entirely matter-of-fact about death being part of the eternal journey, though whether this was bravado or not we’ll never know.

Canto: We can also put our faith in the multiverse – an infinite series of universes in which we live longer, have better sex, make far more money…

Jacinta: Or die of an excruciatingly painful wasting disease… I’m not convinced by that one, whatever the maths says. Though it certainly is fascinating where current problems in physical theory can lead us. But to return to faith – it is what religion is about. The faith, or hope, that human life is special, that we are being looked after, watched over, judged. Gods are, I believe, integral to religion. It could be one, or many. They could be omnipotent, or fallible. They could be benevolent, or vindictive. But they must be interested, even obsessed, by us. That’s why I don’t think ancient philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism are religions, however ‘spiritual’ their teachings seem to be. Religions are unthinkable without gods. 

Canto: Yes, and religion doesn’t deal with the moral sphere, as Stephen Jay Gould used to think. Or rather, it might be moral, but it’s really about the morality of the god, or gods, and trying to second-guess it. Why have we been punished by bad weather? Because the god disapproves of something we’ve done. We need to change our behaviour as well as heaping praise upon the god for telling us about our wrong-doing and trying to correct us. So we obsess over the gods’ obsession with us, and round and round it goes, never getting to an answer about these inscrutable beings. Meanwhile real morality is about how we can thrive as the most socially complex, socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and we’ve been engaging in that quest and that process since our beginnings. Trying to shed these imaginary gods and our notion of our specialness in their eyes is an important part of the process, I think. Science has discovered, really quite recently, our relatedness to every other species on the planet – and even more recently, how our behaviour is threatening so many of those species, as well as the less lucky members of our own species. That’s where we should be focussing our moral lens.  

Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2020 at 9:15 pm

revisiting that old chestnut, the separate spheres of science and religion

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In any case, a most excellent book

In any case, a most excellent book

It always surprises me when I hear scientists who are otherwise extremely stimulating and admirable taking up the old S J Gouldian position on religion. I have in mind here V S Ramachandran, in his recent book The tell-tale brain:

When I make remarks of this nature about God… I do not wish to imply that God doesn’t exist; the fact that some patients develop such delusions doesn’t disprove God – certainly not the abstract God of Spinoza or Shankara [an Indian mystic philosopher of the eighth century]. Science has to remain silent on such matters. I would argue, like Erwin Schrodinger and Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion (in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense) belong to different realms of discourse and one cannot negate the other.

Mmmm. Always a bit of a problem when science is told what it ‘has to’ do. Or is it just me that doesn’t like being told that? I do, though, take Ramachandran’s point that science has nothing directly to say about the supernatural, the realm of the ‘non-evidential’. To say that there’s no evidence for the non-evidential seems rather beside the point. And yet…

The whole point of religion is supernatural agency, and this, it seems to me, involves these other-worldly agents acting in this world; answering prayers, performing miracles and so forth. After all, a god who does nothing is, arguably, not worth worshipping. Worshipping a god is, it seems to me, a quid pro quo sort of thing, though this is rarely made explicit. We expect something from these gods, they made us for a purpose, hence their obsession with us, their fatal flaw, it might seem. I’m talking about monotheistic gods of course, the ones without siblings or goddy communities to distract them from being our eternal lords and masters.

How these issues can be claimed to belong to different orders of discourse is beyond me. To me, as I’ve written, science is born of relentless questioning, with two aspects, curiosity and scepticism. And one of the biggest questions, obviously, is – how did we come to be here? It’s a question that science relentlessly explores – the origin of life, the origin of matter, the origin of universal laws and forces. It’s also a question that religion, particularly monotheistic religion, purports to answer. The answer being, a deity is responsible. A deity far too complex and ineffable for us to be capable of understanding or even beginning to explore.

I don’t see any difficulty in treating this as a theory, or more accurately a hypothesis, like any other, to be treated with the same sceptico-curious questioning as any other claim about our world and our experience.

I note that Ramachandran isolates religion ‘in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense’ as the only religious ‘type’ that’s beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. Or perhaps he means beyond scientific proof, as I’m sure he agrees that the areas and pathways of the brain associated with religious or spiritual feeling are well worth probing. In fact, quite a bit of headway has been made in recent years in neurophysiology and in experimental psychology, in teasing out the forces contributing to religious belief. So such belief does fall within the scientific ‘realm of discourse’ or purview. When I first encountered the concept of a god in Sunday School as a seven or eight year old, the first thing that came to me was a whole heap of questions. Questions in which, as always, you can’t disentangle curiosity from scepticism. Who? What? Where? Says who? Can you really be serious? What are you getting out of this? How can this idea be possible? Where did it come from? Why is he male? What do you mean that he’s our father – isn’t one more than enough?

I believe these to be scientific questions, but then maybe I have a broader definition of science than most. I certainly hope so. And maybe these questions can’t negate gods, or belief in them, but they can certainly make it hot for this whole bizarro world of ‘faith’.

The other side of Ramachandran’s argument, though, I certainly agree with. Whatever religious discourse is, it has no hope of negating science.

Written by stewart henderson

January 31, 2013 at 6:08 pm