Friday, October 1, 2010

On separating religion and science

I've long tried to put my finger on exactly why I dislike philosophy. One reason is a certain amount of rectally disseminated speech on the subjects of how science works or the meanings of particular theories (especially quantum mechanics). I was reading this piece by atheist/philosopher Tim Crane and realized philosophers tend to do this exact same thing in fields outside the natural sciences (here, political science and history).

I am wondering if this falls under a higher heuristic that motivates philosophers I will call the preeminence of human thought. Included under this heuristic are claims that humans engage in rational thought divorced from evolutionary pressures (biological or cultural) and a lack of knowledge of -- or desire to perform -- empirical studies.

Crane states:
Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail.

There is no evidence for this. In fact, from political science, there is evidence against it. People have this weird tendency to discount empirical data from their political opinions. I know this from a great deal of firsthand experience talking to my dad. We feel like we're thinking about our political opinions, but facts never seem to trump political party affiliation. And there is no reason why this behavior should not extend to religious beliefs.

Crane's actual intent behind that statement was to differentiate religious claims from scientific claims: the former do not fail (in the eyes of believers) under rational scrutiny because they contain mysteries. However, switch the argument from religious to political claims, and this sounds ridiculous. Political positions do not contain mysteries in the religious sense of the word, yet political positions unsupported by evidence also do not fail (again, in the eyes of believers) under rational scrutiny.

This is where we come to history. Crane narrowly focuses on the Christian concept of mystery, and how it is a fundamental aspect of religion that allows it to "avoid" the rigors of rationalism almost as a side effect. Actually, mysterium fidei arose as a counter to the reintroduction of logic and the decline of Christian mysticism (to which mystery originally referred, not in our modern sense of unexplainable) around the time of the Christian conquest of Arab Spain. Arab translations of ancient Greek texts on logic and science began to be reintroduced to "dark ages" Europe. Peter Abelard was one of the key figures that introduced logic to the Roman Catholic church in the 12th century -- coinciding with things like the explanation that the priest may have transformed wine into the blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist but it still tastes like wine (which only happened because that was around the time they started getting the masses involved in the Eucharist). The mystery of the Trinity actually originates in the split of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. The (almost) modern mass standardizes much of the mystery in the church in the late 16th century, right at the birth of modern science (the council of Trent was primarily concerned with Protestantism, but was generally concerned with questioning church dogma). The modern mysteries in Christianity follow from these and later scientific developments -- the seven days/6000 years didn't become a problem until geology got its start in the late 18th century.

Mysterium fidei is a protective response to rationalism by Christianity, not a fundamental aspect of religion. In fact, the concept of religion itself, as opposed to a collection of undifferentiated beliefs, may just be a modern Christian concept.

I personally tend to subscribe to that last view in some sense. There is just human thought, composed of heuristics and methods of de-conflicting those heuristics. The heuristics are things like the method of steepest descent, the Earth is 6000 years old, or What is Buddha? Three pounds of flax. De-conflicting methods range from ignoring particular data to giving up a heuristic to keeping both in unanalyzed conflict. These heuristics then signal particular group loyalties or abilities. Science and religion are not exactly separable concepts, but part of a continuum of belief systems. Science tends to put more emphasis on signalling curiosity, open-mindedness, and a particular form of group loyalty (e.g. citing papers) as well as its almost total dedication to de-conflicting all heuristics dealing with concepts that can be tested empirically. Scientists particularly feel like they are thinking when they do this. Fundamentalist Christians in the US signal group loyalty by "not believing in evolution". I don't mean that they are not believing it on purpose (implying a certain kind of rationalism), or they are somehow dumb (implying a certain kind of "irrationalism"). I mean that they feel like they are thinking as much as scientists do, but are signalling different abilities and group loyalties. Human thought is not preeminent, but subordinate to mating and resource strategies. Inasmuch as we are convincing do we succeed, so there is some tendency for an accurate representation of reality to eke out an existence.

And that includes this.