“Scientists — wont to look down….”

My “thought for today” comes from Michael Polanyi, world-class physical chemist and philosopher of science, whose wry comment continues:

“…scientists — wont to look down from the pinnacle of their humility upon the dogmatic rest of mankind….” (Personal Knowledge, p. 13)

Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins has made some waves recently ( from the pinnacle of his own humilty) in The God Delusion, a book arguing that belief in God is irrational — and harmful to humanity — and we ought to give it up. (He notes in a recent interview that Americans may be “readier” for such a book “after seven years of President Bush.” How true.)

Over on the lively physics blogsite called Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll memorably introduced his review of Dawkins ( go to The God Conundrum in the November Archives at www.cosmicvariance.com) in this way:

Some of you may be wondering: “Does God exist?” Fortunately, Richard Dawkins has written a new book…that addresses precisely this question. As it turns out, the answer is: “No, God does not exist.” (Admittedly, Dawkins reached his conclusion before the Cards won the World Series.)

“Nevertheless, there remains a spot of controversy — it would appear that Dawkins’ rhetorical force is insufficient to persuade some theists. …”

My post today is not a response to Dawkins’s book, but rather a meditation of the difficult possibility of conversation between science and faith. It will revolve around two of Sean Carroll’s witty and provocative posts and also some recent posts from the students over at Soulforce, who are traveling to Christian campuses around the nation “to affirm the full humanity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students” on those campuses.

Their posts, describing visits last week to my campus (SPU before I retired) and to another Christian campus in Seattle, are truly transformative commentaries. I found them also to be pieces of philosophically and existentially profound applied thought-work. (Go to www.soulforce.org/blogs/.)

For a long time I’ve been planning to go on-line with session-transcripts of my course in the history of literary theory, but I never expected my first real post would be something like this….

But then Jennifer Ouelette, a former student (from more years back than I care to remember — but she’s young — she’s young, young, young, and I alone am old…) published her marvelously entertaining and informative books Black Bodies and Quantum Cats and The Physics of the Buffyverse, and I discovered for myself that she has turned into a really jazzy and high-level popular interpreter of physics at her Cocktail Party Physics blog, over at www.twistedphysics.typepad.com

Now Jennifer got me into reading other popular phys blogs like Cosmic Variance and 3 Quarks Daily, which offers a scintillating collection of links to thought pieces of all kinds. How did I ever live without it?

But reading Sean Carroll’s thoughtful post “The God Conundrum” and many of the responses from his regular readers got me all anxious and concerned about the way the rhetoric has heated up on the scientific side of the current conflict between science and religion (provoked by “creation science” and Intelligent Design).

I must admit I am not surprised at blanket denunciations, when it comes from some on the religious side, but I naively persist in expecting that scientists will display the benefits of a liberal education and not engage in a militant dismissal of an entire group, on the basis of the slogan “Reason is on our side.”

How is this, I asked myself, any different from condemning entire groups of people for being “immoral” or “unpatriotic” or “you-fill-in-the-blank,” because “God is on our side”?

I think both of these tactics are rationally indefensible (based on myown branch of philosophy) and also destructively harmful responses for entering the public discussions in the civic arena, without which democracies haven’t much hope.

Dawkins is ironically enough Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Hmmm. He promotes “public understanding” of science by — to borrow a thought from Soulforce — “denying the full humanity” of an entire huge portion of humanity?

If scientists are currently interested in “framing” their contributions to a wider public in order to promote understanding of science, perhaps Dawkins’ way isn’t the best way to go about it….

So okay now, Sean Carroll, on the other hand, does a great job of separating out three different issues Dawkins is trying to deal with all confused together, and Sean points out that the struggles in Northern Ireland cannot be simplistically reduced simply to religion as a cause. I couldn’t agree more. (Again, based on my discipline.)

Then Sean ventures an interesting account of the opposition or incompatibility between the Hebraic “anthropomorphic” God and the Greek “god of the philsophers,” something I deal with at various points in my course in Western theory.

I always love to see it, whenever thinkers in one field — and take a look at Sean’s truly impressive post about how science really works in What I Believe But Cannot Prove  — seek to acquire genuine understanding in fields other than their own. (I do it myself and I am seeking more of it on this weblog.)

Still, I do think that persons who have been exercised and humbled by the complexity and depth of their own disciplines and who have come to be proficient in them through decades of experience, ought to recognize that others have probably acheived an equivalent sense of the depth and complexity of their fields and an equivalent proficiency as appropriate to the dimensions of reality they seek to explore, and rigorously.

In other words, if you’re out of your field, Dude, then you gotta offer your comments with a due diffidence.

It wounds me as a thinker and educator to see scientists act as though an “outsider” can make short work of an entire field or of a complex tradition, or of the historical interplay between two complex traditions (Hebraic and Greek), based on an implicit assumption that by virtue of one’s own intellect and training, one is simply more rational than those who work in those other fields or are formed within those traditions.

Is that a fair response, I hope? Several comments by Sean’s readers highlight the problem I’m pondering. One said for example, of Sean’s dismissive summary of the Judaeo-Christian God (supported with some textual criticism — well, good luck with that to anyone, even the best informed), words to the effect of “that’s a good one, I can use that.” In other words, it’s useful for polemic.

Another reader wondered why Terry Eagleton would claim that Dawkins wasn’t qualified as a scholar, countering, What scholarship would be necessary here? All that’s needed (to dismiss belief in God as unthoughtful) is the simple ability to think and draw reasonable conclusions. Anyone (who’s reasonable) can do that, can’t they?

If that were all that was needed to arrive at defensible conclusions, we wouldn’t need science, and physics would come to a halt. Humans need methodologies, and they need methods that are suited to the subject matter. Humans are also formed (shaped) by their methodologies, in ways they can remain in blissful innocence about if they choose.

But if you want the insights of my branch of philosophy on the humbling recognition of how deeply we are always-already conditioned (and these insights require their own methods to get at them), then start reading my Session One page on this website.

Sean asked me, by the way, to give “one clear example” of a “way of knowing” conditioning its interpretive community, so that he could respond to it. Fair enough, I thought.

(I had been trying to suggest that what scientists take for granted as reasonable thinking probably often reflects the axioms and discovery procedures and validity-testing they have absorbed and become deeply conditioned by in becoming scientists.)

So I thought about how to explain this in one Cartesian “clear and simple idea” and gave up. I can’t do it. My discipline isn’t like that.

You would have to let me teach you a truly other way of thinking and then step back with me and theorize about it, and that takes time and a number of strategies similar to teaching someone to speak (and think) in a foreign language.

But doing so makes Descartes’s notion of a clear idea dissolve, in much the same way that the old model of the atom dissolved and was thereafter reconstituted in the 1910s and 20s and after. (See Session One, under “The Sphere of Language” and “The Irreducible Paradox of Later Twentieth-Century Thought.”)

In the meantime, though, I recommend readers go over to Soulforce and contemplate the posts there, reflecting on the personal experiences of Christian students confronting other Christians about “denying the full humanity” of the GLBT students among them. You will see, I think, some existential wisdom, the kind that can come sometimes from standing alone and being persecuted. But it is also wisdom that comes from some informed disciplinary studies.

The posts from Soulforce resurrect my hope for wisdom and deep respect in conversational confrontations between groups of persons who hold very different beliefs and outlooks — or have very different disciplinary training.

For many theists, this is the essential nature of spirituality, allowing oneself to be shaken to the very foundations about what one thinks one knows, over and over again. Within each of the arts and sciences, this must also happen, and so it is one of the marks of the real life of the mind, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle envisioned it when they invented liberal education.

That’s coming up in my Session Two, a transcript dealing with “The Classical Greek Thought-world.” So I hope perhaps you’ll read a bit in Session One, make some comments, and stay tuned.

4 thoughts on ““Scientists — wont to look down….”

  1. I would be interested to learn about Plato’s world of Ideas. Is this in any way similar to a mathematical multiverse, see e.g. here ? Here the idea is that physical existence is mathematical existence and hence all possible mathematically describable worlds exist.

  2. deepgraceoftheory

    Plato very much preferred mathematical and geometrical ways of knowing to the others. Have you looked at his famous “divided line” in *The Republic*, where he gives a special status to numbers as an intermediate reality? But as I will show in discussing Plato in Sessions Two and Three at http://www.deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com, there is so much Platonic irony that it’s fascinating to try to figure out what he “really” believes.
    I do think you’d enjoy Roland Omnes’ Quantum Philosophy, though, if you haven’t seen it already. He believes that the development of logic, mathematics, and physics indicates that there is a mathematical reality he calls the Logos that is ultimate form, from which physical reality receives its form, as near as I can tell. That’s sounds like Platonism (as it is usually received) to me.

  3. deepgraceoftheory

    Count Iblis — I can say, btw, that Omnes knows his history and really breathes the spirit of the Greeks. (That’s my expertise.) I don’t know how good his physics is, though he has great credentials. And that site is http://www.deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com
    I’m still learning how to weblog! I talk about Omnes a little in Session ONe, btw.

  4. “For many theists, this is the essential nature of spirituality, allowing oneself to be shaken to the very foundations about what one thinks one knows, over and over again.”

    Beautifully put. It is (or should be) also the essential nature of any human search for meaning. Far too often, what passes for faith is merely an inherited or learned framework. Real faith — in anything, really — takes a hell of a lot of work…

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