2011-08-12

From the Agora

I quite unexpectedly found myself engaged in a refreshing theory and method conversation the other day on the Google+ of all places. My interlocutor was Charlie Peirson, the first person I met during my orientation at Reed College in days of yore, incidentally a fellow student of my teacher Professor Brashier, and a jolly good fellow. Charlie's own blog may be found here.

Our exchange, reproduced below, was spurred by this little talk from Sam Harris.

My initial response:
I like "infatuations and practices".

His choice of Islam as an example of a violent religion may not be strictly incorrect, but considering the current climate is rather insensitive.

That aside, his characterization of religions as "failed sciences" is well considered. The notion that religion represents early and often less-than-empirical attempts to understand and explain the world is an old one, and in recent years much bolstered in persuasive and nuanced ways by psychological and neurological insights especially.

However, such accounts of religion and religious behavior tend to overlook questions of what religion does to us. It isn't just a pursuit of understanding, but very often an active endeavor to establish, maintain, and participate in an ordered world, a cosmos, and even to become a better, higher, or otherwise transformed entity. Religion not only attempts to make sense of the world (and on that front tends to lose the argument, as Harris puts it, with scientific empiricism), but seeks to create for us a place therein and provide guidance for how to operate.

I suppose there's room for argument that science can or does do much the same thing in its way, but the fundamental objectives are different. More importantly, the structure is different. Science is about inquiry, investigation, and accepting changing understandings as new information comes to light. Religion adapts to preserve itself as a memetic organism, and in that regard can and does change, but it doesn't actively pursue change through broadening understanding, and indeed religious institutions have lamentably stifled inquiry to prevent change all too often.

To which, Charlie thus:
Well met! To respond (in a fairly arbitrary order):

1. As I understand him, Harris is saying (without being quite so glib) that anything religion can do that's worth doing, science can do better. While it's generally OK to bring up that thesis in public when talking about medicine, as he says, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty stuff like moral decision-making, controversy arises. I suspect that Harris would (or eventually will) argue that science can tell us everything about ourselves that is true, which had really better be good enough.

2. That gets us to the sort of traditional debate over where religion, as a memetic species, comes from. It seems like the prevailing argument (which Harris seems to accept) is that Iron Age mankind had lots o' splainin' to do, and at best very poor tools for the task. Our species being well adapted to finding patterns (even where there are none, or where we misdiagnose them), we just sort of made up plausible stuff. This probably happened a lot, over and over before writing got to be hip, but even then the standard pressures were in place. The more plausible the set of explanations, the more cohesive the community, the better the singing or dancing or ritual sacrifice, the better a religion's chances of making it to the next generation of followers. However...

3. That seems like it might lead into a really interesting Blind Alley retort to Harris: "What if the factual, demonstrable, scientific truth is insufficient to maximize the well-being of conscious
creatures?" What if we'd all be better off if we all took the blue pill?

To which, I thus:
1. Harris wouldn't be the first to argue that science can tell us everything (Freud prominently said so in Future of an Illusion, though as I recall the way he put it wasn't particularly convincing), and indeed I'm quite certain that it will if we survive long enough to get good enough at figuring stuff out to get that far. If we do get that far, I'm betting we'll learn a lot of really surprising stuff we can't even begin to imagine.

Of course, the problem with saying science will explain everything is that it's difficult to imagine what that explanation will be like, and people tend to anticipate a 'cold,' 'soulless,' 'lifeless,' or otherwise glum-sounding characterization of that really unimaginable future explanation. I'm betting on the contrary that the more we learn empirically, the less glum the outlook we get from that understanding will be, but it's tough to sell that when science still gets pinned as that thing what kills everybody's warm fuzzy notions of the big man in the sky who makes sure justice is done and all those other nice things that don't really seem to happen.

2. That's pretty much the explanation for the origins of religion that I've found most convincing. Ask Wayne Proudfoot (Religious Experience) about seeing a log and thinking it's a bear. It's been awhile since I read Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), but I believe he also offers some psychological explanations for how that all works.

3. That is a very interesting question. There's only one way to find out.

To which, Charlie thus:
1. I'll dock one point from Ravenclaw for that reference to Freud, but your point is well taken — however much flak Harris takes for his arguments, they aren't strictly new, so much as they are based on better science. Woah, meta-point.

2. For all the questions we harbor about the importance of the ineffability of transcendental experience, I expect you're right that when the time finally comes humankind is curious enough (and our science will be robust enough) to eff the transcendent pretty thoroughly. I like to think that as we develop the science of the Good we'll all come to realize that it's just another frontier, another place to explore. The difficulty is that, like early astronomy, we're contemplating peering into a space that our forebears could only speculate about, and old systems of explaining that space will face a tremendous new pressure.

3. We've seen that these settled traditions can take a long time to come to grips with new facts. The classic example may be the period of time that the Catholic church spent suppressing heretical claims relating to various heliocentric theories. We're seeing the same resistance continuing to play out with evolution and the origins of life, the universe, and everything, as well as climate change (though this last is less frequently stated in explicitly religious terms). The question, I think, is how many of these upheavals religious traditions can withstand, especially when we get down to the basics. Right now we're arguing publicly over the veracity of religious claims about how we got here, which the Catholics seem to understand they have to roll with, if slowly. But we've already lost a sizable slice of American evangelicals to the idea that because science sometimes disagrees with religion, which has to be inerrant, science must be bad. Obviously their religion is sufficiently exclusive to withstand repeated contact with facts, but doesn't that effect the transmission rate and stickiness of their meme? And, for gods' sake, can religion really give up on its monopoly on understanding how we ought to live? What's left after that but the hats?

To which, I thus:
2. Well said. I only wonder if we'll survive ourselves long enough to make with the effing.

3. Your question about the effect of stubbornness on the memetic survivability of a religion is key. Adaptively speaking, inflexibility is death. We might expand on Harris' analogy of 'losing the argument' and say what that actually means is that religions are facing increasingly strong adaptive pressures from our gradually improving empirical understanding of things. It's important to remember (if only to ward off despair) that while the relatively large number and vociferous prominence of hardcore science-must-be-bad Christians in America is disturbing, people of that mind are nevertheless minorities. It takes a lot of work to forcibly maintain an idea system against adaptive pressure, and spreading those maladaptive memes is hard. Their numbers will dwindle because they're making it too difficult to transmit their own ideas in most environments. The thing to watch out for is that they don't gain the influence to create an environment in which those idea systems can gain momentum (by say, continuing to undermine American science education and civil rights).

As for giving up the monopoly on telling people how they ought to live, religion has already lost it. However, adapting is always still an option. I found (and shared) a piece last week about Christian churches in Holland that are adapting to preserve certain critical parts of the Christian idea system (Roy Rappaport, anyone?) and dropping a lot of the stuff that tends to lead to friction when compared with the real world.

It is a little sad to think that we might come to a point at which there's nothing left but the hats, where only the cultural trappings of various traditions remain as artifacts. However, it's also uplifting to think that the core ideas that have made religious idea systems good for helping us figure out how to live (inasmuch as they bear good fruits, as William James might've put it) could evolve beyond those traditions, exist as parts of our own direct understanding of the world and ourselves, and continue to inform a human life of truth.

To which, Charlie thus:
You've reached the two big winning points here:

A. The scariest bit about fundamentalist religion is its tendency to react to environmental pressures (like new facts) by working to aggressively alter the environment, sort of like lions killing other lions' cubs. Except the fundamentalist goal of clearing the field of competition goes a step further than that by, like in Bachmann's case, turning that parallel drive into a primary motivation. It's like the lions have started hunting hyenas for prey.

B) Whatever happens, the science of morality leads us eventually to some kind of soft (that is, non-carbon-based) transhumanism, and while the idea that who we are as a species is going to be hugely different in a couple generations might give some folks the creeping willies, I can't wait.

To which, I finally thus:
A. That is a scary tendency indeed, but we have to remember to see it as the desperate behavior that it is: a necessity for a small constellation of maladapted idea systems struggling to survive against mounting and ultimately insurmountable environmental pressures. It's a doomed fight if left at that, and having backed themselves into this corner where adaptation would mean extinction, trying to take control of and manipulate the environment to relieve the pressure to adapt makes plenty of sense, though absurd, misguided, and to the harm of all as it nevertheless may be.

I can only hope the maladapted Christian minority isn't able to maintain what leverage they have now, nor seize any more. I worry, though, that it may be a rough ride.

B. I tend to share your excitement, though mixed with apprehension, at the prospect of that unimaginable future. However, at least for me, the choice of pursuing that future is primarily a matter of a sort of necessity. It is always preferable to know, to seek the truth, to beat back ignorance even at the cost of bliss. That imperative seems undeniable to me, and I believe part of humankind's ongoing maturation is embracing that drive and accepting the responsibility of seeking always to better understand what is actually the case instead of uncritically defending our notions of what we'd like to be true.

In that regard, there is perhaps still a place for some of the trappings of religious traditions as equipment to frame that maturation and encapsulate the true principles (such as that it is always preferable to know than to be ignorant) that drive us. It is all still Odin hanging himself upon the tree of life, making a sacrifice of himself to himself to obtain the runes.

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