Monday, October 21, 2013

Breaking the Spell II

Chapter 2 of Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (see previous post, Sept. 2013), “Some Questions About Science,” basically continues the argument that science should study religion, something that most readers of the book probably don’t need to be persuaded of, including me.

I was struck, though, that, having defined the object of his study, religion, in chapter 1, Dennett never defines his methodology, science.  Considering that the act of definition necessarily restricts the meaning of a term and that Dennett’s definition of religion is so narrow (see Sept. 2013 post), his scientific methodology is given rather free range.  The underlying assumption is that, science is the only reliable means to truth and understanding.  It is not subjected to the critical questioning that Dennett applies to religion.

As stated in the previous post (Sept. 2013), I welcome a scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon.  However, I would also welcome a critical study of science.  Does it have any limitations when it comes to the pursuit of truth?

Merriam-Webster defines “science” as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through observation and experimentation (  In human history this method has, indeed, proved to be very reliable, enabling us to make predictions about the natural world, the truth of which can then be tested.  It’s a fascinating field of study with many areas of specialization, and I am personally grateful to be living in a world in which science enjoys such broad acceptance and support.  Not only has it made our world more comfortable and convenient, not to mention extending our life spans, it has opened our eyes to ever more wondrous aspects of the natural world. 

One could argue that science has also given us a lot of headaches in, for example, the proliferation of powerful weapons of mass destruction and ever more environmentally destructive machinery, technology, and chemicals.  However, it also offers the means by which we can understand, anticipate, and mitigate the destructive effects of its own application.

I deplore the ignorance of and rejection of science popular among Creationists, global warming deniers, and Bible thumpers.  I do question, however, whether science is the only reliable source of human knowledge.  Is there a distinction between the “natural world” and the human world, that is, between the natural sciences and the human sciences?  Is one more “exact” and reliable than the other?  Is it just “facts” that constitute knowledge or do facts require interpretation in order to be meaningful?  What are the rules of interpretation?  What interpretive methods are used to make sense of the facts, and how reliable are they?  Are all scientific hypotheses testable?  If, by definition, science restricts itself to observable phenomena in the natural, material world, how much can it tell us about non-material phenomena, for example, love, virtue, courage, or, let’s say, consciousness? 

When it comes to non-material phenomena, science can only theorize about it as an epiphenomenon having a material basis and cause.  The origin and function of consciousness in the human brain, for example, may well be true, but science has no way to investigate other non-scientific theories on their own terms.  In other words, science, by definition, rests on the assumption that ultimate reality is material and has no way to evaluate theories that assume a non-material reality is possible.  Though it can answer many practical questions and solve many practical problems, it cannot answer the “big” questions of purpose and meaning in human existence or, for that matter, in the universe.  All it can do in that realm is either deny the existence of meaning and purpose (without being able to prove such non-existence) or say “We don’t know.”  We don’t know because we cannot observe it, measure it, quantify, or test it.  If independently existing non-material reality exists, science can tell us nothing about it.

If the human sciences are less exact and reliable than the so-called “hard” natural sciences, it would seem there is a huge dimension of human experience that is well beyond the scientific method, for example, the mysteries of identity and consciousness, meaning, purpose, values, how we should live, morals and ethics.

In addition, science itself has undermines its own certainty.  Quantum physics has shown how the observer alters the reality being observed, raising the question if we can know reality as it exists independent of our own observation.    Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests that what we observe is the result of the conditions of the experiment we set up, again raising the question of whether we can know reality as it exists independent of our own method of study. 

One would think these demonstrable limitations of science would instill some measure of humility in the scientifically minded when it comes to making claims about non-material reality, but they are often as dogmatic and self-righteous as religious fundamentalists when it comes to insisting on the ultimate truth of their own world view.

Chapter 3 of Breaking the Spell, "Why Good Things Happen," begins the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, as we might expect, by making the case that everything humans value can be explained by evolutionary theory and evidence.  Presumably our yearning for meaning, purpose, and validation as creatures of worth in ultimate terms is the result of our evolutionary history. 

Keep in mind that I believe in evolutionary theory.  It has a great deal more evidence to support it than does Creationism.  However, the step from biological evolution to cultural evolution is a step into greater uncertainty.  As Dennett goes on to “explain” religion in evolutionary terms, it remains to be seen whether he can do so without running up against the limits of his own methodology.  For example, even if he persuasively explains the evolutionary origins of our values, will he be able to explain how we determine the relative “worth” of those values?  Can science help us decide what we “ought” to do as well as help us understand “why” we act in certain ways.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"The Bishop and the Candlesticks" (and more on "Bartleby")

Whatever else it may be “Bartleby the Scrivener” (see previous post) raises the ethical question of our responsibility to our fellow human beings.  Are we our brother’s keeper?  And, if so, what does that mean? How far do we take it?

I suspect most contemporary readers would say that the lawyer goes way beyond the call of duty by allowing Bartleby to get away with refusing to work and taking up residence at his workplace.  At one point, the lawyer even offers to take him into his home, but Bartleby “prefers not to.”

Our culture puts a high value on self-reliance and individual responsibility.   If Bartleby refuses to work for a living and provide for himself, then he deserves the consequences.  Even a reader who believes in charity and humane treatment of the undeserving might lose all sympathy when Bartleby refuses the lawyer’s offer of taking him home.

At one point the lawyer recalls the scripture of John 13:34:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.”  If the story constitutes a test of how well the lawyer treats the “least of these” as if they were Christ himself, does it also suggest that such a high standard of brotherly love is completely unrealistic?  Are Christian ethics, taken literally, completely unrealistic in the human realm?  Just how far are we expected to take them?  Does that make the story a critique of Christianity as an impossibly ideal code that is doomed to failure?  Or is it a critique of society and its failure to organize itself in a way that is compatible with and supportive of such a high standard of behavior?  Or both?

Another story that raises these questions is “The Bishop and the Candlesticks,” found at the beginning of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. 

Jean Valjean has been released from prison (actually as a rower, chained to his seat in a sailing ship).  He had initially been sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, but his repeated attempts to escape had added 14 more years.  Imprisonment has hardened him, and, upon his release, he is treated cruelly by the local townspeople until one of them finally sends him to the door of the bishop.

Unlike Bartleby’s lawyer, the bishop immediately takes the homeless stranger into his home, gives him a hot meal, and prepares him a bed to sleep in.  In the middle of the night Jean Valjean awakes and, after some indecision, steals the bishop’s silver plates and disappears into the night.  The next day he is captured with the “goods” and brought to the bishop, who tells the gendarmes that he had freely given the man the silver.  When the gendarmes leave, the bishop gives Jean Valjean his two silver candlesticks stating, “It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and give it to God.”  As we know (Les Miserables having entered into popular culture), Jean Valjean goes on to use this gift to make a new start, live an honest life, care for a dying prostitute, raise her orphaned child as his own, save his adopted daughter's lover from death, and, having been redeemed by the kindly bishop, die a man of goodness and faith.

Is the bishop a type of Christ who saves Jean Valjean?  Is he a saint?  Or is he a foolish idealist who is fortunate Jean Valjean did not murder him in his sleep before stealing the silver?  (All this rather overlooks the bishop’s lie to the gendarmes.)

Read realistically, the bishop is a less than credible character who is almost laughably virtuous.  Is that to say that his ethics are too good for this world?  That in real life he would have been quickly exploited by evildoers and sent to his death?  That such goodness could not realistically survive?

Similarly, how realistic is it that a convict mistreated as badly as Jean Valjean would truly reform as a result of the bishop’s one act of compassion and faith?

When we say the story is unrealistic, are we saying that the Christian ethic, when taken literally, is an impossible ideal?  Or are we saying that reality inevitably fails to live up to such a high standard of virtue?

But, of course, neither story is meant to be read realistically.  Both make more sense read as Christian allegory, challenging its (Christian) readers to a higher, more virtuous life, however far that may end up being from the ideal.

In the case of “Bartleby,” however, I do think a valid case could be made, based on other works by Melville (the novel Pierre for example) that the story critiques Christianity for its impractical, if not impossible, expectations for human virtue.  At the same time, its focus on Wall Street and American capitalism suggests that it may be the hypocrisy of a so-called Christian nation that is Melville’s other, equally important, target.