Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science and the Realm of Values

The major issue I have with current philosophy is the presumption that the methods of the objective sciences can be applied to questions of value and meaning with regard to human life.

This was the subject of a contentious essay from late 2013 by Steve Pinker, called Science is Not your Enemy (linked at right, together with some critical responses.) Pinker says in his essay that 


the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.

One issue is that 'spiritual values' do not necessarily rely on 'ecclesiastical authorities'. This blog, and most of my spare time, is devoted to consideration of the questions of moral and spiritual values, about which I have consulted neither scientists nor priests. From a Buddhist point of view, the Buddha points out the source of values, which are oriented around what steers you towards nirvana, but nirvana is not reliant on 'ecclesiastical authority' and in fact Buddhism arose as a reaction against that very thing.

But then, Pinker also relies on a 'straw God' definition of religion:


There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.

The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Now I would take strong exception to the peremptory dismissal of 'karma', which in its most basic form, is simply the observation that moral choices inevitably entail consequences. The difference between acknowledging that and dismissing it, itself has great consequences, which again are not dependent on 'ecclesiastical authority'. 

And who does really promote 'human sacrifice, witch hunts, trial by ordeal and the persecution of heretics?' What would be the point in 'scientifically refuting' such archaic practices in this day and age, and why would such refutation constitute a general argument against religion? It implies a pretty jaundiced view of what religions mean.  How many of those advocating religious arguments endorse any such thing? 

That is what I mean by a 'straw God' argument: it is an argument based on a notion of 'religion' that hardly anyone actually entertains.  If one were to argued against science on the basis of the failure of phrenology or eugenics then surely one would be taken to task for misrepresenting science.

Anyway, at issue in all of this is the question of 'the meaning of being human' - the domain of values and meaning. I maintain this is categorically different to the kinds of questions which the scientific method is intended to address on its own term, as it is by definition a qualitative matter.  

On the one hand, the advocates of the scientific approach frequently state that the Universe itself is natively 'devoid of reason, purpose or value', which are, in their view, wholly and solely subjective (or inter-subjective, i.e. social). Then, having dismissed the possibility of 'real values' we are told to look to science, which claims to have dismantled any basis for values outside the utilitarian. 

One can fully and completely accept the utility of science, and even the ability of science to ongoingly reveal profoundly important facts within its domain of applicability, without however agreeing that it is a source of values as such.

I think the basic problem is a very deep confusion about the nature of knowledge with regards to questions of meaning and value. Religious ideas are clearly often couched in terms of mythology and symbolism; but I think both religious fundamentalists, and scientific atheists, somehow loose sight of the meaning of that. The fundamentalists insist that the symbolical and mythical accounts are actual or literal (''mistaking the finger for the moon" in Buddhist parlance); on the other side, scientific atheists take them to be simply mistaken scientific hypotheses, i.e. claims about actual entities which are to be understood in by the same means as the kinds of things which can be examined scientifically. In this way, atheists and fundamentalists are strangely alike (a point which has often been noted.)

So why do myths and symbolic forms have such a prominent role in religious ideas? It is because they are attempting to depict intuitive understandings and visions which really are of things that are 'over our cognitive horizon', as it were; among other things, they provide a way of relating to the unknowable. But the unknowable is actually something real in the midst of human affairs; the domain of knowledge shades into that of the unknowable on all sides; this has become abundantly clear even from physics with the appearance of dark matter~energy and the notions of parallel or multiple universes. 

Religions, however, have a tacit understanding of the unconscious and unknowable dimensions of human experience; which is something which not only does science not have, but can't be expected to have.   The domain of values and meanings plumbs the depth of the psyche and the predicament of 'the human condition'1; in doing so, religious thought charts things completely out of range for quantitative judgement and analysis.  

But what this is in service to, is the disclosure of a different way of being.  However neither its advocates nor its proponents seem very clear about that (with some notable, and noble, exceptions.) This type of understanding of the meaning of religions, is far more characteristic of comparitive religion and depth psychology (think Jung, Eliade, Hillman) than mainstream religious thinking (although again there are exceptions).



1. From Gloria Orrigi's review


Philosophers and humanists are interested in what has been called, in  20th-century continental philosophy, the human condition, that is, a sense of uneasiness that human beings may feel about their own existence and the reality that confronts them (as in the case of modernity with all its changes in the proximate environment of humans and corresponding changes in their modes of existence). Scientists are more interested in human nature. If they discover that human nature doesn’t exist and human beings are, like cells, merely parts of a bigger aggregate, to whose survival they contribute, and all they feel and think is just a matter of illusion (a sort of Matrix scenario), then, as far as science is concerned, that’s it, and science should go on investigating humans by considering this new fact about their nature.

1 comment:

Don said...

Never heard the "Straw God" phrase before. Wonderful!