Friday, October 05, 2007

Celebration of Discipline?

I need to muse aloud about the science and religion thing. Don't take it personally, and don't take it as me making my final definitive word. But I'm not kidding, either.

It seems to me that rule one of all learning and intellectual inquiry is, don't talk yourself out of what you already know for sure is true, since almost any notion can be rationalized and made to seem plausible. Just because something can be made to look possible or reasonable doesn't necessarily at all change what you know you know. The world is as it is, not as it could be.
So, for instance, if you already know that you're a person in relationships with others, including relationships of love and care, and that you are a self with the ability to make decisions, don't let any plausible theory talk you out of that, even if you have to modify it some.
For instance, it may be important to learn that humans do not exhaust the list of possible persons, or that it's possible for you to do harm to others. But neither of these insights, if true, make you no longer a person in relationship. They might indeed force you, even against your preferences, to acknowledge that Martians or androids or angels are people; or it might force you to acknowledge that something is not right just because you do it and think you have good reasons for it. But those acknowledgements still leave you a person, and a person in relationships.
What are ruled out of court are, for instance,
A. impersonalisms, ideas that say the self isn't real, or that you are chemicals and not a soul, and so forth. (I realize that there are religious impersonalisms, especially in advaita hinduism and theravada buddhism. I'm attacking naturalistic materialisms here, and would have to say a lot more about these others.)
B. solipsisms, ideas that say that all that matters is your perspective
C. idealisms and gnosticisms that say that the world is bad or doesn't matter, that bodies are evil, and so on (more to say here, too, of course).
D. determinisms, that say it's all nature or nurture, or that the will is an illusion or a formula, or that it's all brain chemistry or pheromones or whathaveyou. (Again, panentheisms and panpsychisms--the idea that everything that exists is alive and possibly also is either part of God or has a soul--are exceptions about which there's more to say.)

Rule two is, keep an open mind, and a strong sense of your own fallibility,
because the way you know it is probably not the only way it can be known;
because while I'm the privileged narrator of my own life (nobody better than me knows how it looks from the inside of me), I'm not at all the privileged interpreter of my own life (since on the one hand I'm fabulously accomplished at self-justification and evasion and making myself look good, and on the other, I'm finite, a creature of my time and place, with little perspective on myself), and
because you can't learn anything if you already (think you) know everything.

Rule three, I suppose, is that thoughtful living in a seamlessly integrated world benefits from specialized consideration. What do I mean?
I experience one world as one self. I don't live in an abstraction. I live in "the world" that has "us" and "them" and "me" in it. So I don't experience "economics," not even when I'm at work (most people talk about their coworkers at work, not about the money moving around), I experience "the work world." But that's not even right, because I don't have to go through a transporter to go from "work world" to "family / home world" or "fun place"--I can move from one to the other, and I'm consicous of being the same me as I move. Sometimes, the same people move with me from one world to the next, and I certainly can imagine that even if it's not true at the moment. So as Searle says, there is exactly one world. And I am exactly one person in it. And I am not an uninvolved observer of this world, but also inextricably a member of and participant in it.
And yet, it helps me in my work world (and elsewhere) to study and know economics. Inherently, a map is not the world it describes: it's smaller, less detailed, and less living (even in Harry Potter). So economics is one map of the world. Political science is another. Math is (so it would seem) another (although no one can figure out how or why). So all the academic disciplines develop because it is informative and useful to abstract the one, holistic world and my one, holistic life in it, in this way and in that way, in terms of art appreciation and in terms of biology, philosophy and engineering.
The disciplines are valuable, because they are informative (true) and useful (good) about the actual world (which is why they are also often beautiful). But no discipline is the world, nor are all disciplines together. A word is not a thing, so every thing cannot be said--at least, not by us. (God's creative and providential "Word" is important here.)
Moreover, disciplines can be developed to focus on anything real, anything that exists. As Husserl says, they are "regional ontologies"--maps of one state or province, in some cases, maps of one sort of feature in another.
For example, in an atlas there are maps of Texas and England and Zambia. There are also what are called physical maps, population maps, political maps, climate maps, vegetation zone maps, and so on. In this sense, cultural geography (well, cultural cartography) is a good metaphor for all knowledge.
We want to know certain things for certain purposes and given our appreciation for certain things. If we discipline this "wanting to know" we come out with a "discipline," a Wissenschaft as the Germans call it, that focuses on it, or which abstracts from all that is to see the world in this or that way. But the world is always just what it is, and is worth what in fact it is worth. Maps don't usually change that. So there is such a thing as reality checking: maps can be more or less accurate, both with respect to what is really there, and with respect to what what is there means or how much it matters.
This means that disciplines are in relationships to each other which should, over time, be governed by what the actual relationships are in the real world of their object domains--of the things they try to study or highlight. Aristotle comes in handy here, for

Rule four is, disciplines must conform to reality over the long run. This means several things.
You must study something in the way it itself "tells you" to study it. "How much does envy weigh in kilograms?" is grammatically correct, but nonsense: you can't develop a disciplined study of envy that way, even if a writer talks metaphorically about "the weight of envy burdening him." Similarly, "what is it genes want?" is very possibly nonsense, too--not a question you can systematically ask. Strands of DNA and RNA will draw nucleotides from about 5 angstroms away, according to my lab friend, but chemicals (very probably) do not "want" anything. Understand, the reason you can't study envy by weight is not because you're limited, or someone (God, the church, the government, the science establishment) won't let you. It's because envy is not a "weight-ish" sort of thing.
Of course, this does not mean to shy off from learning. Telling someone not to study the health benefits of prayer is ideological coercion and censorship from the science establishment, just as much as telling them not to study the history of animals ever would be from the church.
It is reality that imposes the ultimate limits on disciplines.
There are other limits, I think. One is our nature. We do not, as Thomas Nagel says, and cannot understand "what it is like to be a bat," because we cannot fly and do not have sonar as a sense. A bat "sees the shape" of sounds. We not only do not, we *cannot.* When we use sonar, we may see something like what the bat sees on the screen, but we don't experience it as a sense perception as the bat does. Similarly with the detection of magnetic fields in birds, of electrical fields in sharks, and of infrared heat in pit vipers. How much else might there be that we can't sense, even through instruments? Gee, I dunno, but the current estimates on dark energy and dark matter are that they account for something like 90% of the mass and energy we need to make our current best explanations for the way the cosmos works, work.
Another limit is mystery. This is a word with a specific Christian usage. It means something we did not, and could not, know were God not to tell us. These might be things about us, about our world, or about himself and whatever, if anything, there "is" beyond this world. So it seems to Christians very clear, and something we already know before getting into disciplined study of the world, that God is real, and knows things we don't, and is capable of communicating with us in ways we can (at least partially) get, and that he does in fact do so.

So, four rules of thoughtfulness:
1. don't talk yourself out of what you already know to be true
2. be open-minded and humble about your claims to know
3. disciplined focus on parts of reality is perfectly permissible and is helpful, but never can tell us everything
4. our nature and abilities as humans, God's discretion, and the nature of reality put limits on what we can know

So, initially, on evolution:
1. whatever stance I come to take, whatever I learn about evolution, it cannot be correct if it makes me think I'm not a person, that I'm not in interpersonal relationships of love and care, that there's no God encountering me, or that I'm not in a world of some sort. I already know these things, even if there are huge oceans of things I don't know about them. Off the top of my head, though, I see no a priori reason why evolution would require me to give up any of those things. If it does, to the extent that it does, it's wrong. But it might be mostly right, or a bit right, even if there are parts I must reject.
2. Historical knowledge does not have the same epistemic standing as experience: I do not experience the past. To the extent that evolutionary theory is a theory of biological history, as distinct from a description of existing biological phenomena, it's epistemologically compromised, just like any other theory about historical reality.
That is, there being no videotapes of the beginning of all things, I need to be very careful in asserting this or that about it. God has told me some things in the Bible about it; and there are fossils. But both records are slender, and neither comments very much on itself. So the interpretation tends to be ours, and about that we should be very modest. Like...
A. It seems that there have been humanoids around for a while--tens of thousands, if not millions, of years. It is clear that our bodies, at least, are quite similar to other primates, even if there are important differences.
B. It seems that all of us who are alive today are descended from a very small group (10,000 or less; maybe 1,000 or less, according to DNA studies) who came from (east-central?) Africa.
C. It seems that all human beings should be seen as one race, from a biblical point of view, and one species, from an anthropological point of view. So dehumanizations like racism and nationalism should find no support in religion or science. (Evolution's competitiveness is a weak point here, since it can support racism and who knows what other horrors. Evolutionists know or sense this weakness, which might be why there's all these hurried attempts to evolutionarily justify altruism and care.)
D. It is clear that human life, if not natural life also, is not the way it is supposed to be. This is true, even though it is also clear that human life, just as such, is inherently good and worthwhile. We are in the image of God, but also fallen into sin.
E. It is clear that God is responsible for all that exists, including us (and, for our purposes and from our point of view, especially for us). He is "creator."
F. It seems clear that we know very little about the deep past. Once we get beyond where dendrochronology takes us (about 6000 years before the present), we increasingly are making educated guesses that are not checkable by anything more reliable than other educated guesses. We have not much beyond the foggiest notion what God creating by his word means, nor do science or philosophy have even the first sentence of a theory on why there is something rather than nothing.
What this last point means for considerations of evolution is that the historical component, macroevolution, starts off on much shakier epistemic grounds than microevolution (which is observable to some extent). This is before we start applying statistics (Dembski) or biochemistry (Behe) to the data. So assertions about macroevolution's truth should be modest, even if right (which they might not be). As for me, I'm a fairly cheerful agnostic about macroevolution factually, interested to read current discoveries and theories, but not very persuaded by any of them. On the other hand, I am mostly opposed to most of its advocates, because they appear to me to advocate it mostly because they have metaphysical and ethical agendas opposed to Christianity which they think it will help. More about this next time.
G. As creatures ourselves, it seems clear that we cannot climb outside the universe to check on God and see if he really did what he said he did, or to acquire another, clearer, vocabulary in which to explain to ourselves what what he said he did "really" means or what "really" happened. So claims about what creation could and could not mean should also be hedged about with modesty, for we know it is true, but we are on much shakier grounds when we try to say what "it" entails, precisely.

So much for knowledge, for disciplined thoughtfulness about our lives in our world, especially as it pertains to evolutionary biology. More ideological issues next time.

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Blogger gaileygirl said...

Bravo for all this. Re: the bit about maps (as disciplines) and your emphasis on the primacy of personal experience: I always love the little disclaimer on Mapquest to check in real life to make sure there is actually a road where the map says there is (aka the "duh" factor).

1:14 PM  

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