Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Armstrong on Robinson's Absent Mindedness

Via PZ Myers, I ran across a review by Karen Armstrong in the Guardian of what appears to be a startingly unpromising book on religion and the flaws of atheism. The review itself appears to consist of little more than strawmen, serious exaggerations or distortions of the atheist position. In reality, atheism is not the highly flawed, limited view she considers it to be.

Here's the subtitle of the review:
Karen Armstrong hails a profound and timely argument against the positivist world view.

I suppose this is only funny to philosophers since no one has been a positivist in philosophy for about 1/2 a century. This makes the headline somewhat like, "A Timely Argument against Geocentrism" or "A Timely Refutation of Spontaneous Generation of Life".

Still, other people use "positivism" in a broader sense. Apparently in this context it is the view that science is the only means to discover truth. (I'll assume she means this only about the physical world, not about logic or mathematics.)

Here's the first paragraph.

At the same time as the western scientific revolution empowered human beings, opened new worlds and broadened their horizons, it progressively punctured their self-esteem. Increasingly, luminaries of modern thought have told us that our minds are not to be trusted: that even though we thought we were standing on a static Earth, our planet was moving very fast indeed; that we could never be sure that our ideas corresponded to objective reality outside our own heads; that some of our noblest ideals were simply the product of repressed sexuality; and that, finally, we are deluded if we imagine that we "think", "reason," "learn" or "choose". Our minds are simply a passive conduit for an unknown, indifferent force.

What is the reviewer going to argue for here? Apparently, given the opening sentence, the problem with science is that it undermines our self-esteem. So, is she suggesting we should reject or limit belief in science in order to maintain that self-esteem? If so, she doesn't seem committed to learning anything about reality. In any case, the description of what modern history has shown is baffling. Enlightenment science relies on trusting human reason and observation above our religious authorities, but here we are to suppose that science is undermining some intuitive knowledge. Some of this surely needs to be undermined, but science has not shown that "we could never be sure that our ideas corresponded to objective reality outside our own heads." That's the philosopher's job. Depending on the emphasis you put on "sure", this is true and trivial, or it is probably not true and not shown to be so by science. If Armstrong simply means that we can never be absolutely certain that our perceptions are accurate, this is true. On the other hand, if she means that we cannot be reasonably sure that our perceptions are accurate given the proper conditions and hence should suspend judgment with respect to them, then her claim is not supported by science and probably is not true (although many philosophers struggled with this view or even believed it).

Are "our noblest ideals . . . simply the product of repressed sexuality"? I don't suppose so. I assume she is referring to Freud here, but it's quite a stretch to consider Freud's views to be part of our modern scientific worldview.

Is it true that:
finally, we are deluded if we imagine that we "think", "reason," "learn" or "choose". Our minds are simply a passive conduit for an unknown, indifferent force.

I have no idea what she's talking about here. Some philosophers/scientists are determinists, but that would not undermine the idea that we think, reason or learn although it might undermine freedom of choice. But the next sentence is just bizarre: What unknown, indifferent force is she talking about? Does she think science postulates a mysterious, unknowable force that creates and maintains in existence everything around us and is the ultimate source and ground of reality? If so, I think she has science confused with religion. If she is claiming that the modern scientific worldview entails natural, causal laws that govern everything including human thoughts and behavior, then she's probably right, but that doesn't mean there is an unknown force that controls us or for which we are passive conduits. In fact, the purpose of science is to know these laws and ultimately to use them to control (or adapt to and improve) our world.

Continuing, she argues that the view that science is the only reliable means to discover truths entails certain problems with altruism:

Since Huxley, for example, Darwinians have found altruism problematic, as evolution would necessarily select against benevolence to another at cost to oneself. Altruism can only occur because of the "selfishness" of a gene. Thus for EO Wilson, a "soft-core altruist" expects reciprocation from either society or family; his byzantine calculations are characterised by "lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real". Every apparently compassionate action is, therefore, simply a matter of quid pro quo.

Invoking Huxley is clever, since Huxley did see empathy and altruism as something that needed to be explained away as not fitting evolutionary theory. However, Darwin did not see it that way, and, as with many others, saw the benefits of altruism for everyone in the group. The short solution to this problem is that genuine altruists tend to do better than people who try to cheat others, to act compassionately only when it will benefit them. The main point is that those of us who act altruistically do not need to make the calculation ourselves; the behavior (or the genes) came about because of the benefits to ourselves not because we were aware of those benefits. To say we are governed by selfish genes is not to say that we are selfish.

Again, continuing directly, she finds language use to be intrinsically altruistic and, hence, in conflict with science unless it can adequately be explained away.

In the same way, because it transfers useful information to somebody else and requires an expenditure of time and energy, language seems essentially altruistic. But, says the evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller, "evolution cannot favour altruistic information-sharing", so the complexities of language probably evolved simply for verbal courtship, "providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female".

I almost think this is a joke. Has she ever asked for directions? Has she ever ordered a latte? Language use is clearly beneficial to those who speak and understand the language. There is no need to invent convoluted explanations for sexual benefits of language, it's obvious to everyone who speaks how we benefit from exchanging information with others. The puzzle, I suppose, is whether there is any reason to be honest with other people given that we would benefit by gaining information from them, and they might out-compete us, if we give them accurate information in exchange. There's a huge amount of research on social cooperation and cheating that I am too lazy to link to, but the answer is that mutually beneficial exchanges of information occur all the time (including when we are not in competition for survival), and someone who lied often enough to others would be caught and would not be able to continue exchanging information with others.

Following up her misunderstanding of language is her misunderstanding of art:

In the same way, art may appear to be "an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand," but according to some neo-Darwinians, it too is simply a means of attracting sexual partners. "Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better."

Scientific explanations do not eliminate the phenomenon to be explained but vindicate it. If I can explain human consciousness as (suppose) neural activity of a certain sort in physical human brains, I have not gotten rid of consciousness, I have not shown that consciousness does not exist or that we are all deceived in thinking that consciousness is something fascinating and wonderful since it is only some neurons firing. Scientific explanations help us understand why a phenomenon exists, but they do not eliminate it. Leonardo and Rembrandt are competent inquirers into perception, experience, and representation of beauty. The wonder is that such complex and insightful human behaviors can arise from simple organisms whose only needs are to survive and reproduce. Yet we evolved an ability to create and understand art, literature, music, science, and philosophy. This does not mean that Leonardo and Rembrandt are wrong or that they are not creating beautiful works of art. The point of the scientific explanation of production of art is to see how humans evolved this capacity. Armstrong and Robinson's characterization here is another strawman, and I wonder why she will not let current scientists do the kind of scientific, explanatory work she praises in Leonardo and others.

Again, she continues:
This disdainful "hermeneutics of condescension" cannot function outside of a narrow definition of relative data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the positivist critique of religion. Daniel Dennett, for example, defines religion as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". He deliberately avoids the contemplative side of faith explored by William James, as if, Robinson says, "religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". Bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates, Dennett, Dawkins and others are free to reduce the multifarious religious experience of humanity "to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death".

Before examining this paragraph, stop for a moment and appreciate the irony of someone accusing a philosopher of believing that the only way to achieve reliable knowledge is through science.

Back to the topic: I have no idea what the first sentence means. She's describing secular, scientific explanations in insulting terms, but it's not clear what the complaint is. Perhaps that it narrows its focus so much in attempting to explain something that it leaves out the essential phenomena to be explained. One might make this argument about Daniel Dennett's view of consciousness, but it is inappropriate in this context. Dennett, she argues, gives a definition of religion that is too narrow in that it leaves out, "the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". I'm not exactly sure why a deeply pensive solitude would lead an individual into a congregation, but the point that his definition of religion does not include mystical experience is completely misguided. Not everyone who joins or adopts a religion has had mystical experiences, and so, had he defined religion in the proposed way, he would have given a definition that was too narrow, excluding these believers from religion. Mystical experience is not the essential feature of religion in need of explanation.

The real complaint cannot be with the definition of religion but with the credence Dennett, presumably, does not give to the mystical experiences themselves. Unfortunately, mystical experiences cannot be treated as authoritative; there is no way to prove (or even make likely) that one particular religion (or even any religion at all) is true because of the experiences of some of its practitioners. Religious and mystical experiences are common among distinct religious groups. Each group interprets the experience as cohering with or supporting its own religion. Since these interpretations, necessarily, are inconsistent, mystical experiences cannot support the truth of one particular religion or religions in general.

We can still appreciate the beauty of the works created by Donne or Bach (but give me Marvell or Beethoven any day) without thinking that mystical experience is epistemically reliable. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote poetry under the influence of opium (or after being under its influence). Does that mean that in order for me to appreciate The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I have to think that Coleridge was in touch with a transcendent reality forever hidden from me in my naturalistic world? We can appreciate the beauty without endorsing its source as veridical.

Perhaps religious experiences are valuable in themselves, they are enjoyable or help people feel that their lives are more meaningful or connected to others. If mystical experiences are the only way to achieve these results, and there are no corresponding harms from such beliefs, then one might encourage such experience. But probably we're all just better off encouraging people to use LSD or magic mushrooms or go to rock concerts. That's a lot less work than constructing these complex religions based on ancient folk traditions, and it would result in a lot less potential for harm. The passionate Dio vs. Ozzy debates among the Black Sabbath faithful led to relatively few deaths, after all. [Yes, I'm comparing Black Sabbath to religions, and I think some of their music can be fairly sublime as well.]

I'm running out of enthusiasm for this, but I'll look at one more paragraph. Armstrong writes,

More significant than this jejune attack on faith, she argues, is the disturbing fact that "the mind, as felt experience, has been excluded from important fields of modern thought" and as a result "our conception of humanity has shrunk". Robinson's argument is prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely. It is not an easy read, but one of her objectives is to help readers appreciate the complexity of these issues. To adopt such a "closed ontology", she insists, is to ignore "the beauty and the strangeness" of the individual mind as it exists in time. Subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method."

I don't see any necessary connection between consciousness or subjectivity and religion. But if this is her critique of science, it is not particularly prophetic but rather dated. Consciousness has, in the past, been excluded from scientific study, largely because scientists did not know how to study such subjective phenomena. It's odd that Robinson would take now to be the time for critiquing contemporary science for overlooking consciousness and subjectivity since it is now more than ever that science is attempting to study it. Of course, it's appropriate to exclude consciousness from most fields of modern thought--it should be excluded from many such fields. It wouldn't do any good to include understanding consciousness as part of the field of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology (most of it), some of psychology, and economics. But consciousness is now being studied by psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers.

Her critique may be the old Nagelian line that whenever we study something scientifically, we must exclude its subjective aspect. I was never very convinced by this line of thought. But if it's her view, then I'm not sure how other fields, besides science, are supposed to provide us with an objective account of subjectivity without falling into the same trap. Perhaps the critique is that we must acknowledge the existence of consciousness and subjectivity in our lives and simply not study it. But, again, we can still appreciate consciousness even if we understand it. Only time will tell whether the secrets of consciousness yield to scientific inquiry, but you don't get any closer to understanding those secrets by appeal to religion.

One of the things I find most frustrating about this kind of critique of science, atheism, naturalism or the rest is the idea that the group in question somehow destroys or undermines the sense of beauty, enjoyment or wonder. I don't know why they think this because it really makes no sense. Scientists, atheists, positivists and the rest enjoy poetry, music, a beautiful sunset, sex, and the music of the spheres (actually, scratch that last one) just as much as anyone else. Explaining phenomena does not mean you have to destroy it; we do not lose appreciation for Handel, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo, or any natural beauty by understanding it. Film critics continue to enjoy movies even when they understand how they achieve the effects they do. Some of them even enjoy the movies more when they understand the visual allusions (for example) they make.

Furthermore, we would not lose beautiful works even if we ban religion (which no atheist would do anyway); people could still create beauty (or transcendent ugliness) without the additional layer of theism or religion. God, religion, or supernatural beliefs are not necessary for this creative process. Perhaps all this reveals is Robinson and Armstrong's inability to understand or enjoy science "has evolved into principle and method."

1 comment:

  1. Nice dissection of a very incoherent review. (I wonder if the book itself might be worth a look in spite of Armstrong's silliness.)

    "In the past, the voices that say "there is something more" have always been right."

    I guess she's thinking of all those ancient religions whose gods have now been proven definitively to exist....