One of the ways we are taught to develop ideas in the modern world is through a process that is at heart combative. The concept is that of putting up an argument and inviting others to critique it, by way of peer review, criticism or counter-case. There is much to commend this approach: poor ideas are identified and weeded out, and strong ideas are made stronger through the identification of their flaws. At its best the process is fair-minded and dispassionate.
There are however, obvious weaknesses with the approach. By pushing people in opposing camps, each intent on belittling the other, differences are amplified whilst similarities are often overlooked. The opportunity for a community of minds to collectively construct the best case they can is missed. Speed of reaction is also favoured over depth of reflection. By the time a deeper, slower answer is developed, the faster dismissal has already taken hold and the damage has been done. What’s more, the testing ground for an idea ultimately becomes its wider reception, and in a competitive model the quality of rhetoric becomes favoured over the quality of ideas. Perhaps most important of all, in the name of speed the task of carefully establishing and agreeing upon definitions is frequently overlooked. So we end up with two sides passionately engaged and implacably opposed, nevertheless making what is essentially the same case. Pseudo-disagreements abound.
This might be nowhere more apparent than in the field of religion, and its relationship to science. I write this in part prompted by the recent release of Richard Dawkins’ latest collection of essays, Science of the Soul. Dawkins has become something of the poster boy for the modern atheist movement, and at the risk of trivialising his case, it amounts to something close to the idea that the success of the sciences in explaining the physical world, or at least providing a model by which such explanations can be advanced, has done away with the need for religion, whose descriptions of the world are now out of date and/or demonstrably wrong.
In his latest work, he describes those who argue that we construct our own truth as being guilty of ‘fashionable prattlings’ and continues to depict religion in general as the preserve of those who haven’t got their thoughts straight. Not being a part of any religion myself, my disquiet is not so much a personal response to the unnecessarily combative tone, as it is a sense of disappointment that someone of such intellectual standing now persists with what is in many ways a form of anti-intellectualism. Because it seems to me the only way you can properly sustain a Dawkins style attack is by dismissing the great bulk of current academic philosophy, and I wonder what is wrong with instead engaging with it? My guess is that a serious attempt to engage would find far less disagreement than the headlines suggest.
Here are just two examples of the sorts of thinkers we need to at the very least consider, before getting too self-satisfied in our own fashionable prattlings. Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, says this about the danger of overenthusiastically applying science’s capacity for explanation:
‘The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away – a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology – deprives us of our consolation. Philosophy is important, therefore, as an exercise in conceptual ecology. It is a last ditch attempt to ‘save the appearances’.
The last memorable phrase here is Plato’s, for philosophers have long understood that we are forced to deal not just with reality, but with the way reality appears to us, and that we live not just in a world of physical reality, but also one of constructed reality. Reduce our view of the world merely to that aspect best described by science and we yield far too much, and unnecessarily so.
Take, for example, the picture of children in summer, playing in a river, splashing and laughing and squealing with delight. What are to make of the scene? There are a great many illuminating and useful scientific models which can partially describe and explain what we see. Why is the water cooler than the air, and why is being cooled by water so particularly refreshing? Science can help with this. So too it can help with the fluid dynamics in play as the churning water compresses into a narrow channel beneath the swimming hole. We can discover how the light and heat from the sun has travelled here, to an extent, and even how far it has travelled to warm us, or for how long the sun has shone. At a stretch evolutionary theory might even have a little to say about the nature of the children’s play, although here we are in more dubious territory. But none of this touches the heart of the scene for you, the onlooker. The sheer delight of the children, the vibrancy of the colours, the melting away of worries under the simplicity of play, even for the adults looking on, the social significance of the moment in which the shy child asserts herself, the proud joy of the child whose joke got them all laughing, the feel of that laughter in the stomach, the reason one child has moved to the side, to silently throw stones at his own reflection. And the deep resonance of the wholesome and the proper in this moment of an impromptu summer time community. All of this can be understood only within the context of the narratives we spin about our lives, within the context of agency, consciousness and purpose. There is nothing about being human that makes proper sense without this framework, and it would seem, there is nothing science can tell us about it. This is Scruton’s thin topsoil – call is spirit, call it soul, scrape together a secular equivalent if you must, but there is no escaping the fact that for those not suffering from severe social deficits, this is the stuff of living, of being human.
A second thinker worth dwelling upon is the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, who in the 1950s coined the term ‘manifest image’ to make the same sort of point. Sellars was a naturalist, who was not attempting to defend any sort of religious world view. He was simply, like Scruton, trying to warn us of the dangers of ignoring that which can not be quantified, or dismissing it as an illusion. Sellars used the term manifest image to describe the world seen through the eyes of the conscious agent, the constructer of meaning, the maker of decisions, the arbiter of values. That is to say, we the human beings, who through living strive to make not just logical, but also emotional sense of our worlds. To do this we see ourselves and others as masters of our own fate, and as possessors of the potential to live not just long but well. In the world of the manifest, the term to live well is a meaningful one. Indeed, it is only in the world of the manifest that the concept of meaningful resides.
The manifest image is contrasted with the scientific image, and this is the world viewed through the lens of the physical model. Here people are described in terms of their physicality, their medical realities, their genetic make-up, their interactions with the physical world, their evolutionary pasts, the constraints of physics and so forth. There is no sense in which Sellars is criticizing this image, and nor should we. Such explanations give us modern medicine and much of the technology upon which we rely, and are also wonderful purely as satisfiers of our collective curiosity. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene remains a masterwork, so too The Ancestor’s Tale. Neuroscience has fascinating and important things to tell us about our nature, so too evolutionary science, medical science and so forth. Sellars’ point was just to make clear (and in understanding this was necessary he showed some prescience) that when we see the world only through the scientific filter, we lose the ability to speak of things which exist at the manifest level. For these two frameworks are speaking of quite different things, and there is no sense in which they can be translated. The danger of the scientific excess is that it at times gets far too enthusiastic for this type of reduction. Yes, you can attempt to describe love in terms of hormones, of evolutionary urges, or neural pathways, but at this point it is no longer love you are describing. It is a set of observable physical behaviours untethered from their greater narrative and so cast adrift, a different thing altogether.
We see often this in the use of the word ‘really’. It feels like you’re making decisions, but ‘really’ you are just experiencing the inevitable physical processing of your biological history up until this point in time. It looks like he is composing a song, but ‘really’ he is driven by his biological urge to establish his reproductive fitness. That looks like an act of pure generosity, but ‘really’ this is a conditioned response designed to ensure social cohesion. You think there is a detective show on your computer screen, but ‘really’ it’s just pixels. The implication that either one of these things is true, or the other, when Sellars reminded us it can be both. Neither the manifest or the scientific has any sort of ontological priority. They both describe their aspect of reality, whatever the hell you take that to mean (I tend towards pragmatism in my philosophical interpretation) as best they can, and as such do not contradict one another. To see only one is to miss the bigger picture completely. It is an act of willful ignorance.
Which brings me back to the so-often tortuous religion debate. Some, although not all, of the gleeful atheists appear to be putting an awful lot of store in the scientific, and assuming that this does away with the need for the manifest. And yet none of them, none of us, live as if this is true. We all live in the world of the manifest, making decisions, cleaving to value systems, acting with purpose and decoding the world according to our constructed network of meaning. We treat others as having inherent value, and we take seriously our subjective, conscious experience of the world. Which makes me think the arguments between the nominally spiritual and non-spiritual is a pseudo-argument, for we all act as if our meta-beliefs are largely consistent. So rather than a genuine schism of belief, there seems to be rather a difference in the way we use language to describe our beliefs. We’re talking about the same thing, but in rather different ways. If only our culture had allowed us the time, grace and attentiveness to come to our definitions peacefully before rushing off to take up arms. Then, instead of wasting so much time on the trivial exercise of ego driven competition, we could join together to spend far more of our precious resources on consolidating and enacting our shared values and visions.