Epistemological Thought of the Day

October 18, 2006

Hmm, that could be the title of a great, fascinating series of posts. Or not..

I saw a sign the other day that says “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” At first glance, it’s cute. At second thought, it’s interesting from an anthropological perspective. I believe a good word for this is syncretism- an incorporation of beliefs or systems of thought from various sources, often without acknowledgement of an apparent inconsistency (because in the eyes of those who subscribe to the syncretistic beliefs, there is no contradiction). The statement can be looked at from two perspectives:

First, we (speaking of relatively modern American Christians, who accept that science is a valid way to explore the physical world) have incorporated a scientific epistemology pretty thoroughly into our worldview. In a truly biblical world view a flood covered the entire earth, the earth ain’t billions of years old, humanity originated in a Mesopotamian Eden, the sky is a vault over the flat earth (where the sun can simply be stopped in its path), the number pi is exactly 3 (I Kings 7:23ff), and disease is caused by demonic possession. Over time we’ve discovered through science that there was no world-wide flood, the earth is billions of years old, humanity descended from primate ancestors in Africa, the earth orbits the sun, pi is 3.14 (etc., ad nauseam), and disease (both physical and mental) is caused by genetics, bacteria, and viruses.

Fortunately, at least for those who want to maintain Christian belief at any cost, the Bible is sufficiently vague on many points, and has such a large volume of statements that can be applied to any given subject, that as scientific knowledge changes, believers rejoice that they have finally gotten it right each time something that was previously “misunderstood” (because of an obvious meaning) is replaced by a less literalistic view. Some writers- Sam Harris is a good example- think that religious belief will simply vanish as people become more educated. While being highly educated in the U.S. is correlated with not holding fundamentalist belief, Harris underestimates the ability of faith systems- even those entirely reliant on ancient texts- to evolve in unexpected ways to survive faith crises.

Alternately, it’s impressive that individuals (and I’m assuming whoever posted this sign has a Ph.D. in science) can hold separate epistemological standards for separate realms of knowledge. If you’re really going to take the position that anyone who wants to convince you of something needs to bring data, why is God exempt? Are you afraid He (or she) wouldn’t live up to the same standards? Is it a respect thing? Or is it a tacit acknowledgement that God is ultimately unknowable by scientific means because He’s completely metaphysical and therefore outside the realm of data? Of course, if that’s case, He’s not really the God the Bible says he is in the first place.

Enough for random epistemological musings, I’m off to something more concrete- physics.


The Unity of Knowledge

October 18, 2006

I had a discussion with a friend (who probably reads this blog at least occasionally) about what my town needs more of. The discussion probably represents our views on what the nation and/or churches need more of too. She thought the town (which is Southern/conservative sometimes masquerading as academic) would be better with more charismatic influence- more spirit. I thought the town would be better with a heavier dose of rationality and thought. The last book I read- and how much I liked it- is really a testament to my way of thinking.

Edward O. Wilson is one of those scientists who probably will (or at least should) get a Nobel Prize in the next few years. He gained his fame as an entomologist (he studies ants) by largely inventing the fields of population biology and sociobiology, and making great contributions to biodiversity, ethology, evolutionary biology, and lots of other -ologies. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is an intellectual tour de force in which Wilson attempts to show the ways in which all fields of human knowledge are related and interdependent.

His argument is largely for synthesis- fields should recognize that they are all based in physical reality and should therefore be grounded in the physical sciences in some fashion. All chemistry is based on physics, all biology is based on chemistry, all psychology on biology, all anthropology on psychology, all politics and economics and history on anthropology, and all the arts are grounded in the realities of human experience.

Freudian psychology, for example, is not consilient (or reconcilable) with the rest of reality because it is based on speculation, which though it freed man from previous theological understandings of human psychic reality, was no more based on the chemical nature of thought processes than astrology. The only limitation in making connections between our mental experiences and the billions of neurons from which they emerge is time.

For instance, a thousand years ago, mind-body duality made perfect sense; consciousness was seen as separate from physical existence, and likely to continue even after the destruction of the physical body. A hundred years ago depression and schizophrenia were blamed on sin, or demon possession. Today we understand that these disorders emerge due to physical and chemical imbalances. I call that progress! Wilson also gives striking summaries of current scientific research on the physical bases of dreams, consciousness, and spirituality. Future research can only serve to further elucidate the physical reality in which all thought and spirit is grounded.

In Consilience, Wilson has rediscovered the Enlightenment spirit, eloquently researching and glorifying the ways in which man continues to liberate himself from ignorance through the pursuit of knowledge. Man is in a sense the first truly free species, developing consciousness to the point where humanity first realized its own existence (with consciousness), its own transcendence (with spirituality), and its own origin (with evolution). Finally, and continually, humanity has learned to overcome its own limitations. Our narrow biological achievements will continue to be enhanced through technology, and our narrow perceptive faculties will continue to be enhanced by science and its instruments.

Strong vs. Weak Intelligent Design

October 18, 2006

I read an article on another blog (by D.C. Toedt) recently that to me really highlighted part of the “Intelligent Design” controversy. There has been and probably will continue to be a strong movement, especially in the South and Midwest, of Christians trying to get any alternative to Darwinian evolution taught in science classes. Because teaching a literalist or day/epoch version of the Genesis story and the closely connected “Creation Science” movement of the 80’s has been ruled either illegal or unconstitutional, conservative Christians have come up with Intelligent Design, a movement conveniently emasculated of Christian theology but still doing what is desired most by the creationist movement- denying that human life came about by evolution.

As I continue to study evolution, I’m convinced more and more that it is an extremely robust scientific theory that will likely never be overthrown. Evolution is continuously reinforced by new fossil discoveries (see the Smithsonian’s Human Origins project), molecular biology, and other fields. For example, scientists assembled phylogenetic trees trying to piece together the origins of various species long before DNA was understood. As scientists get more information from DNA, the phylogenetic trees have been confirmed with very little adaptation- for example, chimpanzees were thought to be the closest primate to humans before DNA was understood, and DNA studies have confirmed that they share 95-99% of their genes.

Toedt’s piece is illuminating in that it makes a distinction between arguments for ‘weak’ intelligent design and ‘strong’ Intelligent Design. The difference, in shorthand, is thus;

Strong Intelligent Design says evolution can not happen by physical means alone and therefore necessitates divine intervention. For example, Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, asserts that evolution has been well proven by the fossil record and phylogenetics, enough so that he believes in universal common descent (that all mammals have a common ancestor, etc.), but that if one wants to argue against evolution, they should stick to areas of biochemistry that haven’t been thoroughly explained yet. This sort of ‘God of the Gaps’ argument is irrationally, and (this is key) not a scientifically testable hypothesis.

Weak intelligent design says the overall complexity of the universe, and the fact that there is something instead of nothing, seems to intuitively point toward an ultimate cause. For obvious reasons, physical means (science) can’t be used to research the metaphysical (that which is outside the physical world), so assuming a metaphysical reason for a physical process gets in the way of understanding the physical process. I think I lean toward this one, just a bit.

Trying to keep evolution from being taught in schools is a holdover from fundamentalism that only makes Christians look ignorant (because the arguments largely play off the public’s ignorance of science), and ultimately interferes with trying to get people to follow the Christian ethic.

Reverence for Life

October 18, 2006

I just finished reading James Brabazon’s definitive biography of Albert Schweitzer. I had heard of Schweitzer before, but had never known much beyond his wikipedia entry. All in all I find reading about extraordinary people such as Schweitzer to be both encouraging and thought-provoking.

Schweitzer was a German who lived from 1875 to 1965. He had doctorates in theology, music, and medicine. He learned Hebrew and Greek and subsequently wrote the Quest for the Historical Jesus (his most famous work), and the actually more theologically significant Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Schweitzer refuted the ‘liberal German theological school’ that had painted a picture of Jesus as a modern liberal, preaching universal love and killed by some mistake or enmity of the Jews. Instead, Schweitzer read the original texts and contemporary Jewish thought to paint a picture of Jesus as an eschatological zealot- convinced that the end of the world was near and that through his own actions he could bring about the Kingdom of God. As the kingdom failed to show up year after year, Paul and Jesus’ other early followers reinterpreted the ‘Kingdom of God’ into a spiritual force in the here and now, and created the doctrine of atonement. (Doctrines such as the Trinitarian concept of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as being a coequal divinity, came much later.) It’s probably one of the most convincing historical pictures of Jesus out there.

I particular enjoyed Brabazon distillation of Schweitzer because it addresses both the shortcoming of the traditional ‘liberal theology’ view of Jesus as a modern liberal saint. I studied the phrase ‘Son of Man,’ which is Jesus’ almost exclusive self-reference in the early gospels. The vagueness of this phrase, with its eschatological overtones from Daniel and contemporary Jewish thought, make it heavily debated among theologians. Schweitzer’s framework takes this and the historical context and wraps it into a coherent view.

Along with his world-reknown in Biblical scholarship, Schweitzer literally wrote the book on playing Bach and building organs in Europe. And then at the age of 30 he chose to train to be a doctor so he could act out his religious and ethical principles. Schweitzer moved to Gabon, West Africa and established a hospital at Lambarene, where he worked more or less constantly until his death at age 90. In the meantime, Schweitzer was detained by the French colony for his Germany citizenship during both World Wars (despite his outspoken early denouncements of both nationalism and the Nazis!), and funded his hospital by organ recital and speaking tours in Europe and America.

He then proceeded to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Africa, and to use his subsequent popularity to jump-start Linus Pauling’s (ultimately successful) campaign to ban testing of nuclear weapons. Along the way he was smeared by the U.S. government and Western press as a commy stooge and a racist. (Certainly he had some paternalistic attitudes that in the 60’s seemed anachronistic, but like all men Schweitzer should be judged partially against the times in which he lived, and by those standards he was both enlightened and an incredible humanitarian).

But possibly Schweitzer’s greatest contribution was his philosophy which culminated in his ethic of “Reverence for Life.” Out of the realization that he was alive and longed to live, and was surrounded by other life that longed likewise, Schweitzer believed that all creatures should be valued and life, existence, and health should be affirmed. Schweitzer was ahead of his time in recognizing the value of environmentalism and ecological balance (without the absurdity of putting animal life on the same plane as human) and a universal ethic of service for individuals in their relationships as social creatures. Refusing to codify his ethic in a list of rules or priorities, Schweitzer set about making his life his argument. I think he proved his point.