pz ii

Anyway, what I really want to comment on is this post from today on chance versus design.PZ quotes Michael Behe to the effect that science can not answer questions about ultimate purpose. Behe’s comment in response to a new book by (Roman Catholic) Cardinal Schonborn.

Myers on Behe:

Why should science be incapable of addressing the questions of an ultimate purpose? I hear this all the time: science can’t give us meaning, science can’t explain love, science can’t do this or that. It’s usually said by some clueless git who has his own ideological axe to grind, and wants everyone to line up in support of his or her own dictated decrees about the truth, which are usually obtained by revelation (i.e., whim) or dogma, and which are challenged by a process that actually tries to examine reality in search of a truth. And those ideologies, such as Catholicism, have no legitimate claim for better understanding than any other traditional nonsense.

I say otherwise. We have no other, better tool. If we’re going to discover an ultimate purpose, it will be through the process of studying our universe — through science. The only thing these putative other ways of knowing affect our reach is by impeding us.

I’ll pass on revelation as whim–though have to admit that’s tempting.
But anyway, to the heart of his confusion.

There’s science and the data collected therein. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. XX chromosome means you’re having a baby girl; XY a boy. Homo sapiens are members of the primate family. The Theories that are generally accepted as material causal explanations of those data. The Theory of General Relativity. The Theory of Natural Selection. Great. Fantastic.
One could imagine I suppose “explaining love” along the lines of neural responses, heart rate changes, or more commonly sexual selection. No doubt those are all part of the story. But is explaining understanding? Or more importantly, feeling?

Maybe not all of the people who make such arguments to the contrary are clueless doctrinaire gits–maybe some of them would be I don’t know….artists, say poets, who’ve been trying to express and meditate upon love, to embody love, to feel love, to even praise love, for millenia rather than explain it. Presumably they somehow felt “explaining” love is insufficient to the reality itself.

But egads I’ve gone all squishy and subjective with all this talk about feelings and expressions.

Ok, so if you don’t like that one, another criticism about science as answer to ultimate purpose questions would come from the great atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

The point is not that love (or fill in the blank) can’t be explained by science. It’s that explanation is not enough. Explanation involves a certain mode of being-in-the-world. A certain stand in life. Observational. 3rd person. Buffered. Leaning heavily towards the cognitive. Skeptical. Which is necessary for the purposes of the scientific endeavor.

But not altogether clear the best way to relate to other aspects of existence. A stand in which everything else becomes OBJECTS of experience to be explained. It is not that this way of being is wrong, it is that it is profoundly limited. Explanation by itself is flat.

And its worse it tends to turn everything and everyone else into ITS (objects) making it easier to fall into habits of exploitation, manipulation, and control over those objects. Objects can be trashed. To manipulate flesh and blood real beings whom one loves is much harder.

He and I can agree (and I’m sure do) on the scientific data: e.g. that the universe is approximately 14 billion years, grew from an initial Big Bang (on-going), how old the earth is, the record of evolutionary descent (or is it ascent?), etc. etc. But that science does not tell me what I should do with that knowledge or how then should I approach the universe.

Should I approach it as a random accident? As a wonder? As even, (yikes here it comes) a revelation? Very intelligent people who accept the same scientific data have come to those very different interpretations which guide their thinking and their lives over time.

Science as such, that is the collection of data, the creation and testing of hypothesis as to the material causation of events, would be better to be agnostic on questions of “ultimate purpose”.

On the other hand, Myers says there’s the examination of reality (so-called) in search of a truth. Which normally goes by the name of rationality, reasoned argument, or some such description. I agree that reason is a very good thing. Good to base economics policy on modern economic theory and data collection rather than ideology.

For the record, examining data, proposing a theory as to its cause, creating an experiment/injunction to repeat the data, and checking that data with a group of recognized experts is the way of mysticism in the world’s great religions. It just is dealing in the data of consciousness and subjectivity, which is outlawed by a materialist metaphysics as Myers holds. For all his denunciation of the irrationalities of religion, Myers can never make this simple distinction between the best and the average or the horribly evil and destructive in religion(s). Not the poster child of rationality in my book.

Back to the main point: rationality is not identical with science. Particularly the so-called hard and biological sciences. [And certainly not with fundamentalist anti-theism. Just as its not with fundamentalist theism as well].

Are Mozart’s symphonies rational? Does that even make sense to ask? Does the science of how musical instruments and the human ear work–which are true explanations of the event and its causality no doubt–express the meaning of his symphony? Doesn’t such an explanation sound well, tone deaf?

Or take discussing moral and political issues. Who’s the rational choice for the US Presidency? Depends on the meaning of rational doesn’t it? Intelligent people will have legitimate difference of thought on the matter. No scientific formula for that question, I’m gonna bet.

In other words the issue as always at play is interpretation. And interpretation requires discussion, debate, and open-endedness. Humility in thought; good faith to the other. Something sorely lacking from Mr. Myers.

Atheism can (and does) certainly afford meaning, have principles for ethics, for daily life. But that’s not the same thing as science.

Catholicism (which he never defines by the way–memo to Myers Christoph Schonborn’s views on biology and philosophy are not universally accepted by all Catholics, much less all Christians, and are not doctrines of the Church) certainly does not automatically have some monopoly on value language and is not intrinsically the best way of wisdom.

[Never mind that what is traditional might not necessarily be nonsense. That damn Dante and all his nonsense].

But how is this decision going to be determined? By appeals to science?

In a public discussion of values what does an appeal to science give us other than some basic guidelines, which you could get from a basic understanding of rational discourse: cite facts, offer multiple possibilities as to why those facts are, explain which facts (out of the trillions) you are highlighting as most important and which you are putting more on the back burner, ask someone what they understand their beliefs to be and why they believe something instead of assuming you already know the answer, etc. etc.

There’s nothing especially rational about anti-theism. It would be rational to see that this is a debate that has been had for a long long long time with no clear cut obvious answer, with many intelligent humans on all sides, suggesting rationally I would propose that we allow some space around the question and different answers. Not that everything goes or some milquetoast lowest common denominator type thing, just admit that you could be wrong.

Atheism is not the one and only logical explanation for scientifically inclined human beings. And even if it were, qua the earlier point explanation alone is lacking.

As the great existentialist Marcel said: “Existence is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” I think that statement expresses a great deal of truth. That would be something to have a discussion about–how do we actually make the decisions we make. How do we determine our values? Instead of just this adolescent flame-war nonsense.

It’s an open-question whether the best view is Marcel’s. It might be true in some situations and not so much in others. Maybe existence is a problem to be solved. Ok, great, then make an argument for that point of view.

As someone who actually has to deal with (as opposed to lampoon electronically from the ivory tower of the academy) religious fundamentalists, I can say that Myers’ view, structurally, is that of a fundamentalist. The only different is the content of their beliefs. Each is as un-open to being proven wrong as the other.

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Published in: on January 5, 2008 at 11:57 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. PZ Myers said: “I say otherwise. We have no other, better tool. If we’re going to discover an ultimate purpose, it will be through the process of studying our universe — through science. The only thing these putative other ways of knowing affect our reach is by impeding us.”

    i agree with Myers, but i’m afraid Myers definition of “science” is questionable and limited by his own bias on rational thought and hard sciences.

    you said: “As someone who actually has to deal with (as opposed to lampoon electronically from the ivory tower of the academy) religious fundamentalists, I can say that Myers’ view, structurally, is that of a fundamentalist. The only different is the content of their beliefs. Each is as un-open to being proven wrong as the other.”

    after reading this Myers critique of Michael Dowd’s book, i think you made a good point 🙂

    ~C

  2. P.S. i’ve posted this comment on PZ Myers blog. let’s see how he responds.

    ——

    “If we’re going to discover an ultimate purpose, it will be through the process of studying our universe — through science.” i agree. but your view would be limited only by your definition of “science.” does your science include soft sciences or just the hard sciences? what are your views on “mysticism” as a form of soft science? (e.g. as Sam Harris proposes Contemplative Science) but for the record, i agree with your critique of Behe. ~C


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