Day by day my journey of discovery as Alice (the professor of the humanities) in the blogosphere Wonderland continues. I am reading more and more of the conversations going on at physics weblogs, and more and more about the arguments against theism in Dawkins, Harris, Johnson, Dennett, et cetera. And my bewilderment is crystalizing into one diamond-hard point of incomprehension (which I will proceed to state as a question for scientists in a moment).
I am at length recoveringfrom my initial shock and disillusionment at the knee-jerk glibness of the anti-theistic reasoning. Poor benighted me, the postmodern lit theorist, who thought she was in a different time period! There I used to be, surrounded (in my Episcopal parish and at my university) with physicists who were also theists, and participating with them ( and with a clatch of Greek Orthodox physicists who travel to India to teach monks Western science every year) in wonderfully integrative conversations that have enriched my life immeasurably.
There I was, innocently (and tragically) ignoring along with them the misguided “creation science” and Intelligent Design movements of my own co-religionists, never realizing that the warfare was heating up in such an ugly manner, and that by worshipping God I was held by so many to be responsible for grave sins against the life of the mind.
Our priest, who’s a great teacher and who shows us slides of the star factories in deep space (with tears in his eyes), says that postmodernity — by which he means the critique of scientism, or the critique of hard rationalism as a belief-system — is an advance in human understanding that will be very, very hard for the fundamentalist wing of the Christian church to absorb, in this new century. But I didn’t know that so many scientists would find it equally disconcerting! I didn’t know that the lines had hardened so drastically, against all the epistemological enigmas raised by quantum mechanics, for example.
I thought we were all, you see, card-carrying members of the “pluralistic thoughtfulness will win out in the long run” school of thought. (And if it doesn’t win out in the long run, we are all doomed.) The physicists, I imagined, based on the ones I knew and on the ones I had read in the heyday of relativity and quantum mechanics, were just like the sacramental Christians (or let’s broaden this non-Cartesian, pro-science set of denominations to include all of the “confessional” Christians, so as to get in the Presbyterians too, for Bethany, as I’ve learned through the fascinating links at http://www.landofunlikeness.blogspot.com/) — the two groups were alike, I had imagined, in that they were thinking integratively in this less dogmatic post-modern world of ours… So I had thought. Well, guess again, at least on the physicists’ side. (This is a blatant over-generalization about contemporary physicists, of course, but the weblog conversations convey such a lot of animus…)
So, you see, I fell from innocence, into the rabbit hole where science and faith are currently talking (no, screaming) right past one another. I entered the blogosphere and was scorched and disillusioned by the hot flames of scientific rancor against theism, and their evident desire “to stamp the other side out of existence,” an attitude Jennifer Ouelette mentioned in her comment awhile back.
On physics blogs I listened to those for whom belief in God is exactly like believing in the tooth fairy, or better, like believing in “the great (but ineffable) Cosmic Muffin.” (I love this quip!) Gradually, as I listened, I became clear and focused on this one diamond-hard point of my incomprehension.
So here is my question for scientists of the Dawkins and Dennett-type anti-theistic persuasion. Why does it seem to you that showing, for example, exactly how the brain produces our richly human subjective experiences would equate to showing that “soul” or the “mind’s I” does not “exist”? Or for another example, how does finding an evolutionary mechanism that completely explains the acheivement of something as complex as the eye equate to an argument against the existence of God? (I think everyone should read Dennett and I have a post reporting on him, in progress.)
I just cannot understand this equasion. Why should the human mind NOT be “reducible” to physical processes in the brain, if there is a God? Why shouldn’t the universe have a mechanism (natural selection) for producing high-order complexity through random variation, if there is a God? A divine ground of all existence wouldn’t dream of sponsoring a cosmological process, unless it had “gaps” in it requiring flamboyant personal interventions from time to time?
This kind of thinking is so very Cartesian, separating nature-as-machine from “mind” as though it has to be a “ghost” in the machine or else it is not “mind.” But in sharp contrast to this kind of dualism, historically Christians and Jews have been in a philosophical, theological tradition of “thinking immanence.” Aquinas, for instance, theorized the mind as the life of the body — i.e. as inseparable from its physical actuality, except in purely formal terms. And Aquinas (and everyone else) agreed with Augustine that if the life of my mind is (equivalent to or defined as) the life of my body, then “God is the life of the life of my mind…” (Confessions).
This immanentist thought is a very different kind of thinking from the later Cartesian dualism that has placed a chasm between matter and spirit, and that still does in the outlook of many scientists today, apparently. And in the minds of many analytical philosophers, like Dennett, even though the analytic tradition claims not to be technically Cartesian today, or even foundationalist.
For me and for many other theists, our immanentism leads us to pure fascination and rejoicing as the beautiful formalisms of science work out more and more of the intricate structures within the physical world. For us, it’s just that Stephen Hawking’s (mere) metaphor of “knowing the mind of God” has a deeper resonance. (A Real Presence, if you will.)
Now up to this point, you’ve actually been reading a post I wrote several weeks ago, when I was engaging mostly with the physicists in the blogosphere, and when I was drawing on my knowledge of the history of physics, as it was up until about 10-15 years or so. So much has changed; so much has been discovered in these years! But the old Cartesian paradigm of Newtonianism has only regrouped and solidified, from what I’m reading. There’s a new triumphalism in physics that I wasn’t expecting, growing out of an embattled mentality in reaction to creationism (which is a reaction to scientific arrogance, which is a reaction to…) So I still empathize entirely with the scientific mind’s distaste for the monolithic worldview of religious literalists. But scientific hard rationalism is also strikingly literalistic and monolithic, too, and seems newly unaware of any epistemological complexities in its own methodologies.
Okay, so now here comes Alice’s next surprise, and it’s a huge one. Hurray for the Darwinians! In evolutionary science and Darwinian philosophy of science, a huge advance on Cartesian rationalism is being made. Wonderfully better paradigms of language and consciousness are emerging right now, breaking down completely the dualism between mind and matter. The funny thing (but it isn’t very funny) is that this movement, for whom Dennett is the outstanding thinker and spokesman imho, is being framed by these writers as combating religious belief, which is seen as identical with an outdated Cartesianism that was actually invented, in fact, by science.
As Lesslie Newbigin so beautifully pointed out in all his writings, the branch of Christianity producing the biblical literalists has bought entirely into (outdated) Newtonian scientific paradigms of “fact” and “truth.” They have not been able to distinguish the Gospel from their Modern Western culture, because they have not engaged on an equal footing with the non-Cartesian Christians, in other denominations, in other times, or in other contemporary cultures, none of whom feel a need to defend Genesis by making it a science textbook. Only in monolingual, English-speaking North America…. (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture, where Newbigin says that no branch of the Church “arrives at the foot of the Cross” without humble, respectful interaction with the larger church… )
Returning to the scientists, though…. What the anti-theistic scientific writers don’t seem to realize is that the Cartesian mind-body and mind/nature dualisms they are deconstructing were innovations of scientific modernity and were not historically associated with Judaeo-Christian thought in the West prior to Descartes. (Yes, I know, there’s the tradition from Plato, but he was not a mind/nature dualist and he was never adopted simplistically in the Greco-European Christian tradition. This is treated in my own work in the sessions.)
Cartesianism is similar to what used to be called gnosticism, in its mind-body dualism, and even though many modern Christians are gnostics without knowing it, nonetheless, it’s not the historical faith. (And historically, so very importantly, faith has always been a way of knowing, not a certain mind-state opposed to evidential learning, as it has become today in many modernly-religious minds.)
So right now, the physicists and the Darwinians are not on the same page, in terms of the sophistication of their understandings of the nature of human knowing and the complexities of the search for understanding. But a Darwinian such as Dennett is introducing all the complexities and richness of what we in cultural and religious studies deal with, not to mention in philosophy and theology, while the physicists by and large are retreating to reductive knee-jerk positivism. Gone is the profound humanistic thoughtfulness of an Einstein, a Bohr, or a Brownoski, and the scientific communties which surrounded them. Yet the two current camps of scientific apologists think they are all alike, simply because both camps claim to be reducing mind or design to “purely physical” mechanisms or descriptions. (But for the Darwinians, these physical mechanisms accomplish “design work,” and they do so “for reasons”!)
Enough for today. More on Dennett’s paradoxy soon. And whatever you do, don’t miss the New Yorker story on the Amazonian tribe that is challenging the dogmatic dualism of Chomskian linguistics. As you read this, remember that Dennett is on the anti-Chomskian side of this fascinating intellectual contretemps!