Friday, February 20, 2009

Gods, UFOs, Zen, epistemology, autonomy

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another."

"Seeing and Believing" by Jerry A. Coyne
The New Republic, Wednesday, February 04,2009

The Edge commentaries are all over the place.

As for the original article, it effectively establishes the incompatibility between faith and science, and more generally between religion and science. From a cursory reading, I'd say it gets a little weird in sections III & IV. For example, the proposals as to what would constitute a test of religious beliefs are not convincing to me and require a deeper logical analysis. Curiously, I last thought about this about 30 years ago, when I read a most unusual book by UFOlogist Jacques Vallee.

Some of Coyne's concluding statements are most interesting:
So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow"book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

I have my doubts about Buddhism, which I doubt could pass the compatibility test. Coyne proceeds, in an abbreviated fashion, down the same path as Victor Stenger, who has written one of the best recent books I've seen on the incompatibility of science and theism. That is, they proceed by examining all the incompatibilities and then see what is left. For Stenger, some vague, toothless deism survives his tests; for Coyne, pantheism. I'll add that there are some lesser known variations on this theme, such as panentheism (I think you will find this and other variations in Wikipedia). But discounting these variations, we basically have pantheism and deism to deal with. Pantheism I would imagine to be more popular, but this could be my experiences of the counterculture in the '70s talking.

The question would then be, do what extent are these positions intelligible? If God is not immanent in the universe--which I think is the implication of deism (somebody correct me)--then what practical sense could be made out of the concept? As for pantheism, there are a couple ways of approaching the subject. What sense does it make to say that the universe is divine or transcendental? What specific qualities are posited other than a psychological or ideational disposition on our part? Does this mean that the universe as a whole possesses intelligence, or at least sentience, or functions as some sort of organism? If so, what is the evidence, and how does this notion concretely make sense? Perhaps the universe possesses a vital impulse or life-property without being divine per se, such as in the vitalism of Henri Bergson, George Bernard Shaw, or Hans Driesch? In my view, little would survive intensive conceptual investigation and our current knowledge of the universe except for some psychological / ideational disposition on our part regarding sacredness.

Coyne mentions the spineless position of the National Academy of Science on the compatibility of religion and science. The AAAS is just as bad if not worse. Coyne lets the cat out of the bag suggesting that scientists want to avoid losing funding and institutional support. Yet I think their cowardice goes too far. These organizations need not declare an official position against religion or theism, but it is entirely intellectually illegitimate and anti-scientific for them to declare officially a non-incompatibility between religion and science. If organized science can claim a compartmentalized mission in the totality of social life, then it should defend a compartmentalized role and refuse to take any position outside of defending the integrity of scientific research, publication, and education. Paradoxically, these organizations overreach their own sphere of competence by declaring the conceptual compatibility of religion and science rather than simply asking for a modus vivendi in social life.

Jacques Vallée is a strange man. I think I may have seen him in person once discussing information science & technology. But I first heard of him as a UFOlogist as a child. Here's the basic poop:

Jacques Vallée - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Well, about 30 years ago I read one or both of these books, most likely the latter:

Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1969.

Another edition came out a quarter century later. An excerpt can be found on

Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1993.

The Invisible College: What a Group of Scientists Has Discovered About UFO Influences on the Human Race. New York: Dutton, 1975.

Vallee had a novel hypothesis, linking UFO sightings to accounts of alien, supernatural, or divine visitations throughout human history in diverse cultures. I never took seriously any theory he had about all of this, but at the time I found his approach epistemologically fascinating, with a possible ethical implication I will attempt to clarify below.

I was reminded of this while reading the Coyne article, which cited the criteria offered by Bertrand Russell and/or others for accepting the existence of God, Christ, etc., criteria which I never found compelling. Yeah. I'd be freaked out if a burning bush started talking to me, or if the clouds opened up and Mother Mary cried out to her Jewish Son of God, "How come you never call?", but in the final analysis, what does this change? The human impulse to bow down and submit is precisely the ethical problem. But more on that later. The epistemological issue is interesting, because a phenomenon has not only to be experienced, but interpreted. One cannot simply assume that some vision or visitation is congruent with one's religious mythology or supposition about origins in outer space; rather, sensory experience is one link in a chain of investigative evidence to yield a plausible and fully generalized explanation. Vallee's book interested me at the time because his bizarro hypothesis revealed, perhaps unwittingly, what is epistemologically at stake.

Now back to the ethical dimension. Around the same time I was reading another book; it may have been D.T. Suzuki's contribution to Erich Fromm's Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Suzuki was the original and foremost propagator of Zen in the western world. I didn't know his actual history back then, or how dishonest and irresponsible New Age panderers are in erasing history, in this case, how Suzuki was really positioned among the Japanese intelligentsia and Zen's link with Japanese nationalism, militarism, and fascism. Nevertheless, I'm guessing I was reading Suzuki at the time. Whoever it was, I was impressed by this characterization: Zen makes you confront who you are; it's not ultimately about what you believe and what you've committed yourself to, but who is the one who is believing, thinking, acting? In other words, there's an irreducible personal responsibility involved, which is foregrounded while religious justifications are relegated to secondary status.

Now I think Suzuki was lying, because Zen Buddhist practice is as institutionalized, ritualized, and historico-culturally specific as all get-out. As I say, New-Agers are historically ignorant or liars or both. Nevertheless, this concept impressed me at the time, and I'm pretty sure I made a connection with Vallee's book(s).

We love to submit to overwhelming power, to bow, scrape, and genuflect, in hopes we will get something out of our self-abasement. From totemism to American Idol, some things never change. "I was only following orders"--the mantra of Adolph Eichmann and Jerry Falwell. It's even worse when the issuer of those orders is entirely fictitious. But guess what, since the Nuremburg Trials that excuse doesn't fly anymore. The proper response is: fuck you, buddy, you're responsible, and you're going to hang for this.

1 comment:

Aganippe Oracle said...

Well done. Any discussion of religion and science without including the secular outlook and actions is pretty much preaching to the choir on both sides; however, adding secular thought to the argument changes it entirely.