Wednesday, December 14, 2011

God & Science

In an article in The New York Times (Wednesday, 14 December 2011, Arts section, page one), “A Philosopher’s Book Sticks Up for God,” philosopher Alvin Plantinga is quoted as saying, “’It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism . . .’” More likely, scientists (or philosophers who do not limit their study to proving the existence of God) have started out with religion (apathetic, indifferent, or otherwise) and then, through study and research, have altered their beliefs (in accordance with their findings). Scientists are not born as atheists who then spend their career-oriented energies in disproving the existence of God. Scientists steer clear of abstractions and focus on empirical matters. One side (of this imaginary debate) need not be privileged over the other. When philosophers and scientists publicize such (imagined) distinctions, meaningful dialogue breaks down into accusations and turf wars. The need to defend one’s turf is a natural part of our ancestral, hominid history.
The article strongly hints at the age-old distinction between what is rational and what is not. Current brain science demonstrates that to make such a distinction is erroneous: while we are capable of reason, there are many areas of the brain firing simultaneously, many areas of which are primal and emotive and contribute, ultimately (or not), to a reasoned response. In fact, the rational parts of our brain (and to say “parts” is something of a misnomer) are dependent upon the so-called irrational parts. Emotions power reason. (Reason is incapable of self-activation). Simply, this is because part of our brain is an old structure (animalistic) that fires up first. So when the Times reporter says that the philosopher offers a “densely reasoned argument against . . .” – there is anger by using a part of the brain to launch an attack that only, in the (polished) end product, appears (wholly) reasoned. (Certainly Prof. Plantinga’s initial responses to Dawkins and Dennett were not reasonable but emotional: we do not reason back into emotion.) We need our highly-charged emotions in order to be rational. We are not, first, rational; we are, first, emotional, and subsequently capable of being rational. Rationality is a slow, deliberative process dependent upon emotion (an energized, quick response).
The article goes on to say how Theism has a God of order, a universe of order, and the creation of rational beings such as us. More likely, those products of nature that were not ordered did not survive; so what we see as order is really what has endured because it works in the natural order of things. This is not merely survival of the fittest (originally Herbert Spencer’s phrase), which means (as literary Darwinist Joseph Carroll has pointed out), survivors survive. Rather, while we can marvel at the beauty of the natural world, the facts prove that our wonder (an emotion) sees only the end result of millions of years of process and change. We behold the polished stone, not the rough cut.
At one time, there were as many as ten hominid species along with our ancestors roaming the earth. What happened to them but demise, so our survival exemplifies order but does not eliminate the fact that less ordered species lived with us side-by-side. Darwin takes pains addressing this notion of an orderly universe in The Origin of Species, to explain (reasonably) how the imperfection of the geologic record has not left us enough information to develop definitive answers about order (who and what came from where and why they ended up there). Darwin summons and marshals many other scientists (who preceded him) with support to make his points; he does not wave a magic wand or point to a hazy cloud – he rests his case on what appeals to the rational mind, evidence.
How could we be rational creatures when brain science of the past generation has demonstrated that emotions – what our hominid ancestors relied upon almost exclusively – play an important role in reasoning? The article quotes Prof. Plantinga as saying, “’You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true . . .” Evolutionary psychologists would agree and say that we need (since it is built into our human mind) to have (emotional) belief in something greater (to help us rationally explain the universe) – so theistic belief is true to both (which are really one) the emotional and rational aspects of being human. Importantly, many truths need not be rational – love, for example. But love is true (to life), nevertheless.
The article notes that Prof. Plantinga is a Calvinist. There were key preachers in England in the seventeenth century (Calvinists such as Benjamin Whichcote and Ralph Cudworth) who questioned what they had been taught, and it was people such as these who helped nourish the burgeoning scientific (and empirical) thinking and the philosophical revolution (away from religious abstraction) that began with Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and led up to Hume. Are we to take a step back into the (pre-Newtonian) thinking of the seventeenth century? Did not Newton rationally explain the order of the universe? As the Times articles says: “. . . even philosophers who reject . . . theism say . . . arguments for the basic rationality of belief . . .” are important. The brain is one massive unit of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, and there is nothing that is wholly rational – everything interacts together simultaneously in a very small space. One might believe belief is rational, but essentially it is emotional. One can make rational explanations for many emotions – love, for instance.
The larger picture is how do philosophy and science cooperate? Many philosophers and scientists have worked together (Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker), and many scientists (such as E.O. Wilson who was raised on the Bible) have asked for a consilience (recalling the word of the nineteenth-century philosopher of science William Whewell). Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith (from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries) worked out elaborate delineations of human sympathy, and those findings have been borne out by research (in empirical studies, such as done by Marc Hauser and Frans de Waal). Before Darwin (and hence before an empirical gene science) Schopenhauer (a strong reader of Hume) built his entire moral philosophy on compassion. Emotions rule us, whether we like it or not. (Even Aristotle, as Martha Nussbaum has taken pains to point out, discusses the power of human emotion.)
In fact, recent thinking (Leda Cosmides and John Tooby come to mind) suggests (picking up from Darwin), that rationality is an emotion, and emotions are part of our (naturally selected) evolution. We need to be rational as much as we need other emotions, so it is no wonder we pride our human reason. We can be reasonable about emotions, but can we be emotional about reason? At any rate, all of these past thinkers, clearly, were not confined to one discipline, or to one corner of any discipline, but were concerned with engaging conversations among disciplines. What has happened to that great conversation (to employ the metaphor of Mortimer Adler)?
We have an animal nature (believe it or not), but such a nature does not hinder us: it keeps us going, physically, intellectually, and morally. Perhaps with some irony on the part of the Times reporter, the article ends by quoting Prof. Plantinga as saying, “’To call a philosopher irrational, those are fighting words . . .’” But is not fighting irrational – an emotional (and much needed), programmed response?
[Disclaimer: this post was written only in response to a NY Times article; the writer of the post has not read any books by Prof. Alvin Plantinga and is, simply, addressing the issues and concerns raised in the article.]
- Gregory F. Tague