Monday, September 17, 2007

Let's Be Reasonable

I’m watching Bill Moyers (sitting in for Charlie Rose) interviewing the Bright philosopher Daniel Dennett. The controversy they commit themselves to, the seemingly interminable science-religion debate, seems beside the point, even obsolete, philosophically. Politically, the debate demands attention, but to commit oneself to one partisan end or the other is to function as a useful idiot for people who might not share your interests. After all, careers and fortunes are at stake. Not everyone with an argument to make is honest and altruistic, whether he brandishes a cross or an equation.

The debate implodes philosophically because it rests on a false dichotomy: science or religion. Like other polarized debates, the truth in this one likely lies somewhere in the middle. The task is to synthesize a syncretism—to jettison the superstitions and think creatively.

First, let’s unpack the two extremes and see what's inside. Cracking open religion, we sift through doctrines and dogmas, ritual practices, canonical writings, secured sanctums, reverence toward founders and exemplars, and tools for neutralizing heretics. Inside science we also find doctrines and dogmas, ritual practices, canonical writings, and so on. You get the picture. So let's figure out what to keep and what to toss.

First off, let’s dump the doctrines and dogmas. The rituals serve a purpose—cultural in the case of religious faith and, in the case of laboratory methodologies, as processes that generate empirical data. The canonical writings we can’t take exactly literally. Even the received history of science is interpreted variously by historians.

But the writings have literary and other cultural and academic value. The scriptural and apocryphal stories, the grand narratives, of a religious or secular culture help the tribe cohere, even if its citizens don’t take the stories literally. The myths and mythologies of the tribe serve as a map its collective psyche; they narrate the broad themes of experience—perhaps only within the culture, perhaps more broadly. The stories, we keep, for the depth they add to experience.

(Hardboiled rationalists might object, finding depth psychology too airy-fairy. In that case, we can scientize myth by supposing that the myth-making propensity travels with the genes, not an unnatural supposition given the role of genes in guiding brain formation. So the myths function in the realm of psychobiology concomitantly as the genes in the realm of sociobiology. Religion minus doctrine and superstition becomes ethics and mythology, with the legitimacy of the guiding myths limited to the allegorical. And in a slightly different but corresponding way the same is true for the grand narratives of science.)

Back to the unpacking. The sanctums serve to mystify, and we might want to demystify what goes on there through education, but the priestly chambers and the laboratories and technical meetings do no overt harm. Reverence toward founders and exemplars can deteriorate into cults of personality, so that’s something to watch. And the notion of heretic would seem to vanish if we eliminate doctrines and dogmas.

So, let’s drop the baggage of doctrine and dogma and stop literalizing the written canons. That much would open the debate to creative resolution (and redeem the heretics).

And let’s be clear that superstition and doctrine are not exclusive to religion and that rejecting religious doctrines doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism and fealty to the proclamations of scientists. The plotless history and future promised by the philosophy of science doesn’t seem any more inviting than do the rigid doctrines and superstitions of religion. Science says we need to reject meaning per se, because it is nothing more than a byproduct of brain metabolism. Our experiences, as epiphenomena of neural metabolism, have no intrinsic value, in the philosophy of science. Nothing can matter, scientifically speaking, because nothing actually exists but spacetime, physical particles, and physical energies. Value, meaning, and purpose exist only derivatively, as subjective noise.

We have to reject the weird nihilism of science as being as doctrinal as religious doctrine. Despite the insistences of scientists, we don’t know whether conscious experience is epiphenomenal or phenomenal. The felt free will of our experience has always been a monkey wrench in the deterministic machinery of science. Descartes tried to meet the challenge by positing two kinds of matter: physical and mental. This dualism continues to unsettle science, because the laws of physics as formulated by scientists do not allow nonphysical causes, such as mind, to affect physical objects. But I can make my arm move by willing that it happen. The path back from the moving arm through the muscular contractions and the nerve impulses to the origin of the signal in my brain leads back to my original intent to raise my arm, and not to anything else.

I make decisions that are not predetermined by the laws of science, and this fly in the ointment of science maps neatly onto the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Scientists generally are not keen to connect these dots—free will and quantum indeterminacy—and wooly New Age philosophers have rushed in to fill the void, but the dots, through it all, remain, waiting to be connected. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff present a model of consciousness based on a specific neural process that leverages quantum indeterminacies in the brain. Their work, even if incomplete in its details, points the way toward a nondeterministic scientific phenomenology—an empirical ontology of consciousness.

Can God be far behind?