Monday, March 13, 2006

"The Data of Me"

Those of you who have known me a long time must be getting a real kick out of my current obsession with religion and science in this space. If you remember that I'm almost completely unschooled in the hard sciences and often unyielding and fevered in my atheistic declarations, well, memory serves.

The reasons for my renewed interest in the subject, vague as they may be, will hopefully find their way into a longer post some day. For now, I'll just say that the future of the species, to my mind, would seem to depend on the fairly serious cultivation of a Clintonian "third way" between the fundamentalist religious lunacy that would send us back to the caves and the stubborn scientism that fruitlessly aims to snuff out what is clearly a deep-seated (and often beautiful) human need to connect the unreachable lights of the night sky into compelling shapes.

Over the weekend, Slate posted an interview between Robert Wright (a brilliant writer; read Nonzero) and Robert Pollack, a Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia who's quite the believer in God.

There's a brief film clip of the interview here, and a complete transcript here. But the clip is very brief, and the transcript is faithfully rendered with all kinds of repetitions and other speech inefficiencies, and just having read it, I have a blazing headache. So, I've pulled out three excerpts that I find thought-provoking so that you can skip the longer version unless you feel the need to delve deeper. You owe me two aspirin.

First, Pollack discusses the palpable sensation he has of being cared for by an entity greater than himself:
It's not science, but it's not fake so it's data. It's data of me. I'm confronted with the data of me and I don't know what else to do about it but first to describe and second to try and understand it.
Then, he discusses the difference between scientific and religious experience:
And then you say to yourself, well let's go back and see how this works. Ok. Now in science you go back and see how this works by designing testable models, testable experiments, seeking the best model for the test...and that's where scientific aesthetics and scientific pace come in finding the simplest, cleanest way to test something bravely so that if you're wrong you know it fast instead of going through the motions of experimentation but never really pushing yourself. In the case of a religious experience a similar bravery is just the opposite, it's to give up the need for proving it and see how it feels to live inside the experience of not understanding, which for a scientist is very radical. But I accept the burden of not understanding something.
And finally, he discusses the idea of competing schools of religious truth: say that there is a religion which is better than another is as data-free as to say there is one language which is better than the other. There are more or less complicated and more or less sibilant languages and there are more or less complicated and sibilant religions, but I do not...I'm not bothered by the existence of a multiplicity of religions. And I believe that it the obligation of a serious religious person to, having accepted the mystery of his or her own religion, to seek to understand what is the mystery of another religion, to seek to find the commonality in what is irrationally held to and to respect it...

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Blogger Dezmond said...

I have greatly enjoyed your recent interest in things spiritual vs. scientific. I do recall some discussions over the years with you, and you were staunchly athiest. Having come across many of your ilk (or, your former ilk), I find staunch athiests who are as certain about the nonexistence of anything unexplainable (often just because: I can't explain it, therefore it can't be) to be as guilty of assuming more than they should as staunchly religious folk. I've got a friend here who is that way, but I think he often mistakes what people have done in the name of religion for the possible faults of the religions themselves. Different things. He likes to bring up wars and atrocities committed throughout history in the name of Christ. So what? Is that Christ's fault? Does that dilute the power of His original message? No, it just means that these people who tried to harness Christ and his messages to their selfish cause or ambitions are assholes, that's all.

I have long traveled that middle road of the agnostic, or the slightly believing agnostic. I have come to a point where I feel comfortable believing in forces mysterious and greater than I that I cannot understand. I am even comfortable believing in some sort of "creative" force or beginning. But that is as far as I've gotten as far as feeling comfortable with my beliefs. The rest is up in the air.

But I still feel uncomfortable with the "I'm OK, you're OK" approach as well. It seems to be the easy way out, the cop-out: My beliefs are just as valid as Hashmood's or Aaron's or Babootongakonga's beliefs. That makes, to me, all of our beliefs basically meaningless. I still have a problem with Cafeteria-Faith. You know, where you pick and choose things that sit well with you and then say that is what you believe now because it fits in with your plans. You need to get an abortion, so you decide to believe that abortion is OK to make you feel better.

I am still bothered with the problem that there may be a truth and right path out there, but I just haven't been righteous enough to figure out what that path is. I guess I am suspicious of any religious beliefs that make things more convenient for people, when the convenience, deep down inside, is the real attraction to it in the first place.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous lfw said...

I'm not sure how many women decide that abortion is "OK" in order to "feel better" about having one. But then, I don't make ridiculous, reductive claims like that in the middle of discussing something entirely unrelated. But I digress.

An atheist, dezmond, is someone who does not believe in the existence of a deity, including, but not limited to, God, Allah, gods, goddesses, or a supreme being. To believe that something can’t exist because it can’t be explained doesn’t make sense. Something actually has to exist in order to be unexplainable. Atheists don’t say, “Well, since we can’t explain God, he must not exist.” They say, “God doesn’t exist.” Nothing to explain, is there?

The longevity of religion, and the preponderance of theists in the world, seem to lend faith a validity, and so the burden of disproof has fallen on the atheists. This, of course, is an impossible task. How does one disprove a belief? And what person of faith wishes she could prove the existence of her god(s)? Wouldn’t that destroy the whole notion of faith?

Your discomfort with the live-and-let-live model is troublesome. What else do you suggest? That the group that professes the right brand of theism please step forward and fight everyone else to the death to defend it? That’s what’s happening now, and it’s not going so well. (Funny how people can disagree passionately about something as definable and reasonable as blind faith.)

1:14 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Good stuff here. On a couple of your points...

I don't have a problem with a "live and let live" model as far as how I would like to treat others. If I prescribe to any political philosophy at all, it is a libertarian view. Live as you choose, as long as you do not unreasonably tread on others to do so. I guess that can transfer over to how I view various religious beliefs. Put another way, I am concerned about the "live and let live", pick what you like model for ME because it seems too easy and BS, I don't care so much about what others believe. I would like to find an ultimate true faith, if there is one, so my soul finds peace. Others can burn in hell-fire for being the unbelieving heathens they are, that is fine. =) They are not my concern, I am my concern.

I would never want to impose religious beliefs on others, for the simple fact that it can't work by force anyway. Most major religions require an inner and freely given committment to the faith, so forcing someone to "believe" something does not make them a believer anyway, so it is pointless.

I do "make ridiculous, reductive claims like that in the middle of discussing something entirely unrelated." In my odd mind, all of the things I say within a conversation are related, but I perfectly understand how it does not come across that way to others. Fair enough. That is just a topic that was recently discussed here and serves as a good, hot buttom topic that very much has a religious component to it. Peoples' religious beliefs often are crucial in informing them how they stand on the issue, therefore I was saying that when confronted with that or other difficult life issues, the easy way out to reconcile them is to decide how they want to proceed with their decision, and then conform their beliefs to make them feel more comfortable with their decision. It seems to me that the right way to do it is the other way around if you have a faith that really stands on its own. I I was using that as an obvious moral, faith-related decision many people are confronted with. But, now I digress.

I know what an atheist is. But some atheists I have come across use that precise line of argument I discussed. They will not believe or give credence to anything that cannot be explained scientifically or with relative certainty. They approach it as: "God exists? Show me". When it can't be shown like a scientific formula, then that is enough for many people to dismiss the notion right there. I am not saying all atheists use that line of reasoning, but it is common enough amongst atheists I have discussed this with.

3:40 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Well, dezmond, the reason I know I'm still more an atheist than not is simple: I can still be staunchly atheist at the drop of a hat, if faced with a staunchly religious person. Faced with a really, really staunch atheist, I try to keep them grounded but don't exactly become religiously devout in my argumentation.

And lfw, I understand the impulse to say "god doesn't exist" in the face of someone who thinks he or she can pick Him out of a police lineup, but where I'm softer now is with people who believe in god but are much less adamant about the details -- not the buffet that Ray describes, but someone who understands that even their chosen religion is mainly a way to put a useful face to something they otherwise might feel more vaguely. It's late. I'm babbling. Bedtime.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous dfox3 said...

Wonderful stuff. Lively banter. I’m days behind but I’ll throw in anyway. A renewed interest in this tangled aspect of human behavior seems like a proper response to the increasing tension religion is adding to life on this planet, so I’m excited! I want to stay as brief as possible, which is tough because I tend to want to bury a point like a fence post. Religion needs re-examination as it continues to dominate headlines and influence our leaders and their policy-making capabilities. I guess that’s the impulse for the increase in talk and books and opinion making. Not a bad thing at all.

The burden of not understanding. Nice. Mr. Pollack acknowledges an acceptance of ‘Mystery’ as part of a healthy world view. What is important to note is that this stance in no way opens the door for religion (or science or Andrew Sullivan) to explain that mystery. What confuses me is that Mr. Pollack seems to embrace mystery while at the same time clothing himself in his religion (which tends to want to explain away mystery). I think that’s one quality that we need to test for as we look at religions and science and other human endeavors. Which ones are most comfortable with mystery? Those will be the healthiest for humanity.

I wish I could let religions off the hook like Mr. Pollack does by equating them to languages, but alas, it’s time we rid ourselves of the comfortable notion that religions are benign and it’s only the users who can become infected. Religions are ideas people. Pure and simple, and we’re all comfortable with the notion of good ideas and bad ideas. Religion is most certainly not just a series of inert symbols, language is. The minute letters and sounds are combined to form ideas they leave the neutral territory Mr. Pollack seeks to describe and become vicious or beautiful or ordinary or boring or good or bad. Religion must be held accountable for the set of ideas that it espouses, and an investigation of the benefit those ideas have, or the harm they cause is long overdue. What’s good or bad: Facing the west when you pray; separating meat from dairy; sacrificing a virgin; fasting; separating men from women; praying out loud; praying in silence; believing in one God; believing in many Gods; and on and on and on.

And if you haven’t guessed it by now—no, religions are not equal. Some are better for human beings than others, some are worse. Finding commonality in religion is perfectly wonderful and relatively easy. But commonly held ideas can turn out to be bad. An important distinction; Good vs. Bad, not Right vs. Wrong! I don’t think we should care if belief in one God is right or wrong (that’s where believers get tripped up. They want to be right![even if they’re not good]) rather, we should look to see if that belief is good or bad. Meaning helpful, healthy, beneficial, calming, nurturing. Does it cause people to act certain ways? Are those ways good or bad? Meaning addictive, mean spirited, bigoted, cautious, paranoid.

Were the crusades Christ’s fault? Was the civil war Democracy’s fault? Because human beings operate imperfectly good ideas can be twisted, so can bad ones. That doesn’t stop us from being able to consider whether there is anything in Christianity that contributes to those episodes of misuse. Perhaps a belief in One God sets up a system where human beings feel superior to those who don’t pray to the “right” God? Perhaps that slowly translates into or reinforces a natural sense of “otherness” in our neighbors? Perhaps that sense of ‘otherness’ allows us to de-humanize them in order to make them easier to kill? Or perhaps other forces are at work. The point is, the investigation is legitimate and an even-handed reading of the findings (if that could ever happen) would indicate which ideas in which religions were the best and which were the worst. Which idea that Christ preached contributed to the crusades (if any) and which idea worked against them (if any). Which democratic ideas contribute to world domination? Which Islamic ideas contribute to martyrdom? Which Hindu ideas contribute to world hunger? Which Buddhist ideas contribute to territorial strife?

There is a right path out there. There is a set of pristine ideas that are nothing but beneficial. That causes mankind to act humanely towards all with boundless compassion. That generates real happiness and acceptance of the human condition and the mystery that surrounds it. That allows one to live each moment, aware and alive. That eradicates the fear of death and comforts us as we remember all those who shared with us the mystery of living.

Why should we settle for less?

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't make a practice of quoting Slavoj Zizek, but this is somewhat applicable here. From his op ed "Defenders of the Faith" in NYT Sunday March 12: "A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence."

11:11 PM  

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