05.03.08

Medieval Impulses

Posted in Philosophy &c, Science & Religion at 6:28 pm by steve

In the day it was written the King James Bible stood as a symbol of the Reformation, a realization of Renaissance and Enlightenment principles. Today it stands as a symbol of the past, a day where witches were burned at the stake and religious practice was prescribe by the state. Are we turning today in that direction? It’s a much bigger question than we have time to answer; but we hope that this little piece succeeds in framing the question.

What is Medieval?
Renaissance artists gave the middle ages a bad reputation. Mostly, the middle ages deserved it. It was a superstiious age. An age governed by a greedy and corrupt church and peopled by men who were almost all illiterate and provincial. The medieval ideas of self-sufficiency, superstition, continuity, cyclicality, religious bias, and stasis that governed medieval thought were overthrown by the opening up of the New World and the establishment of reliable trading routes to the far east. The enlightenment was a response to new possibilities, new frontiers, new ideas, new ways of doing things.

Since the end of the Apollo program, however, the world in general and Americans in particular have been turning inward and looking backward. The impulses that ruled medieval life are gaining momentum. Not all of these are necessarily bad. Self-sufficiency is a useful goal for any society when it comes to issues of food and energy, for example. When these are in ample supply, most other things might possibly follow. When not, the others don’t matter very much. But most of the medieval principles run in opposition to a happy, prosperous, egalitarian existence rich in art and culture.

The great objections to the medieval lie in its mental attitudes. Medieval thought is bound by superstition. It denies or ignores science. It preys on ignorance. It closes peoples’ minds. It exploits and magnifies minor power differences creating a highly stratified society. It magnifies and exploits cultural differences, creating Balkanized areas. All of these things combine to make it hostile to arts and sciences.

The same hostility is one that blossomed during the Reagan revolution in America. That same revolution brought an appeal to “deregulation” and “free trade” that is in opposition to medieval principles. But it created a “trickle down economics” and a class divide of hyper-rich set in opposition to lower classes. And it began reserving for that class special priviledges that would allow it to propagate its power advantages over the middle and lower classes. If this class divide proves durable it will be the start of a kind of feudal power system that resembles those that preceded the French revolution. And this divide will pose more difficulties to the lives of Americans than the modest gains of free trade ever could. The Reagan revolution promises to return Americans to a life of servitude of the sort their acestors left Europe to escape.

Changes in culture such as the enlightenment, the French revolution, and the rise of democracy do not happen all at once. They happen by accretion. More than four hundred years elapsed between Marco Polo’s trip to China and the writings of enlightenment authors such as Rousseau, Montesquiieu, Voltaire, Hume, and Jefferson. Similarly the retrograde motion from a happy, liberal democracy to a world of feudal lords and serfs cannot happen in a generation. One would expect that the trend would take some time to develop.

Looking back we will see the elimination of the study of civics from the high school cirriculum to be one such event. We will see Reaganomics and the culture of greed to be another. We might compare the thinking of Rawls and Nozyck and decide that at the point in time when society chose the assertion of rights in the first person over an attempt to deal with property in a way that recognized a kind of joint stake humans share by virtue of being social creatures, we turned our backs on liberal ideas and doomed democracy to failure. Judge Stevens suggested we were doing just this in his dissent in the landmark decision of Nordlinger v. Hahn. And Kevin Phillips comes at the worry from another angle in American Dynasty.

It’s hard to know where this arc of descent will take u;s but when we get there we might look back and see many markers of the descent. One is a kind of nostalgia for the past, an impulse to connect with it in a way that turns its back on things easily judged to be better. One example is an impulse all humans have to be attracted to things they held most dearly in their youth. It’s a natural impulse. It’s one that accounts for such things as the durability of pair-bonding and the fact that music we listened to in our youth casts a spell on us from which we cannot easily escape. No matter what I might think of these songs today, “Colour My World” and “Stairway to Heaven” will always have an effect on me.

But sometimes our yearning for the past seems to be unrelated to actual experience. We imagine simpler times to be stripped of the stresses of modern times. But they were not. The stresses were simply different. Today they are more abstract; then they were more related to the physical environment, perhaps. It may be that we are better equipped to deal with the stresses of simpler times than the ones of today. And if that is true, then we have arguably created a way of living that is out of balance with our nature. But it’s not clear that medieval times offered the kinds of primitive satisfactions that our romantic imaginations attach to them. Social structures were rigid and material shortages prevailed. In a sense, it was the worst of all possible conditions.

Attention, Shoppers
It seems odd at first, but this argument was provoked by reflection on the following, a passage quoted from the writer’s almanac and sent to me by a friend:

It was on this day in 1611 that the first edition of the King James Bible was published in England. 

It was a chaotic time in England, and King James I thought that a new translation of the Bible might help hold the country together. There had been several English translations of the Bible already, and each English version of the Bible had different proponents. King James wanted a Bible that would become the definitive version, a Bible that all English people could read together.

King James appointed a committee of 54 linguists for the project. For the first few years, the scholars worked privately on the translation, and starting in 1607, the collaborative work was assembled. It went to press in 1610, and the first finished King James Bibles appeared in 1611.   

Many of the turns of phrase in the King James Bible came from previous translations, but it was the King James Version that set them all in stone. Several of its phrases have become enduring English expressions, such as “the land of the living,” “sour grapes,” “like a lamb to slaughter,” “the salt of the earth,” “the apple of his eye,” “to give up the ghost, and “the valley of the shadow of death.”   

And I wondered out loud what the current fascination with the KJV comes from:

I am really intrigued by the recent fascination with the story of the KJV. This is the second blip I’ve seen about it recently. One was in a major news publication. I have never seen one before, in all my life. I wonder where the interest comes from?

The KJV is a kind of iconic expression of the durability of the Reformation. There had been for centuries before an effort to commit the scriptures to the vulgate. The people who were behind this were essentially the same ones who backed Protestantism, if I am not mistaken. James, as a Catholic king ruling a land that not long before had been overrun by Cromwell and his Protestant roundheads, probably viewed the project in part as an investment in the continuity of his neck.

The KJV is quite an achievement, though. It is sometimes brilliant in the turn of phrase, but it is rarely too difficult to understand. College sophomores today may have some difficulty following substantial bits of Shakespeare read aloud; but they will rarely have so much difficulty following the KJV.

The KJV is dated, however. A significant portion of the words it uses simply have different meanings today. In contemporary usage “suffer,” \, almost never takes the sense of “allow” or “permit” as in “suffer the children.” And “day” which was then used to denote any period of time, short or long, twenty four hours or twenty four million years, today generally refers to just twenty four hours. My guess is that one could identify a thousand words, perhaps ten times that many whose usage is so materially different today that reading the KJV would give the wrong impression of the author’s original sense. (or of the sense in conveyed in the documents used by the KJV translators )

Whatever one might choose to believe about religion, one must view the KJV is a cultural icon. It was a material expression of the notion of empowering the common man, an idea that seems deeply ingrained in Germanic culture. One might even argue that it did more to standardize English usage than any single document in history. It was one book that could be found in almost any household that had readers. And it was one document from which all the faithful read for almost four centuries. It’s hard to find a document in the English language with broader and longer exposure.

The Magical Mystery Tour
Again, why should we suddenly care about the KJV translation? Since WWII there have been two or three new renderings of biblical writings into modern English. Some worked very hard to preserve the sense but sacrificed beauty; others worked very hard to preserve the artistic and mystical qualities of the writings while yielding a bit of ground on the sense. By comparison to any of these, however, the KJV fails quite compellingly to deliver sense and clarity without the reader doing more work than most readers of the KJV typically do. So why this interest in the KJV? It cannot have to do with the question of how to understand scripture better.

My own guess is that one of the attractions of religion is its mystical attraction. And part of that mystical attraction lies in the very difficulty one encounters in decoding “sacred” messages. It is a vestigal impulse borne of the infantile need to make the leap into a lingual world. We are drawn to the puzzles that occupied our minds before we mastered language. A Bible that has its own “language” that is different from our own yet somehow comprehensible satisfies this need better than a Bible that is clear and plain. A bible with a hard to decipher message moves us into a time when “the world lay at our feet.” We could get what we wanted, if only we knew how to ask for it. Or so we thought. Religious practice sometimes restores us to this happy state.

What we see happening is a re-engagement with the mystical. Since humans get much satisfaction from mystical entanglements, this, by itself, is not a big problem. Humans rightly ought to engage with the mystical in order to live meaningful lives. Science cannot provide this.

But reengagement with the mystical sometimes means denying science, and if this behavior is taken as part of a pattern of denying all other enlightenment principles, one might begin to wonder how close we may be coming to a new age of stasis and the kinds of inward-looking impulses that accompany it. Power concentrates in high places. In high places, science, for its failure to enthrall, has been overthrown. There too, ethical reasoning for its inabiltiy to deliver excess profit has been overthrown. All that is left is power and mystical impulses.

We await the rack. Or worse.

06.24.07

Science vs. Religion

Posted in Science & Religion at 6:43 am by steve

Science. Religion. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

Both questions are of vital importance in framing public policy debate; and that is why we take them on here. We intend to argue the second issue in a different essay; but we provide a quick sketch. In a practical sense, the difference between two things matters if one gets best results treating them differently. For instance; a rattlesnake and an apple. Both are live objects. And both are edible. But if one approaches and treats a rattlesnake precisely as one would an apple the outcome would not necessarily be the same. In one case one could expect to have a tasty snack in the other case one might expect to be dead.

That the confusion between science and religion can have similar ramafications is not always quite so intuitively obvious, but there are actually cases in which they either must or could. And on a large scale. There are actually a number of hazards that public policy will treat differently depending upon whether public policy decision criteria are based on scientific understanding or to some other modality*

One of the many hopes for this site is that it might illuminate how public policy is debated: how it is framed, how it is discussed. And so we take on the question of the difference between science and religion.

Because this is such a broad topic our dicussion must necessarily take on a sketch-like quality. We will not be developing points in painstaking, connected manner, but rather we will be making them in a way that is a little more desultory. Readers who are used to good academic writing might find this disorienting, but it is a necessity of the breadth of the topic. In a sense this is a kind of an exploratory essay or a kind of annotated outline to simply begin to collect and organize the topics that would reasonabaly need to be discussed.

Some readers may be disappointed that we neither support or deny any religious point of view. There are two reasons for this. One is that in the spirit of the essay it is not only unnecessary; rather such an assertion would run counter to the purpose. the purpose is to help people with different beliefs talk and listen more openly about these issues in public policy forums. Another reason is that as a scientific proposition, the exsistence of God is simply not meaningful. Neither philosophy nor science has anything conclusive to say about the subject. Aquinas proofs of God pretty clearly define God as being immaterial. And science has found altnernative explanations for pretty much everything attributed to God. But neither of these is proof one way or the other.

Finally, it is not the existence of God that atheists rightly find repugnant, but the conceptions of him. Since the conceptions are protected as holy by a body of theological thought, they attack at the vulnerable position. We intend to argue elsewhere that this cheats everyone. It cheats the people both inside and outside the religion who are negatively affected by dysfunctional conceptions of God. The most helpful approach is to attack the bad conceptions and trust that good people will respond. Kind of like what Martin Luther did.

Common Roots

Before we get to the differences it is useful to understand in what senses religion and science are similar. Good science is driven by wonderment. It is driven by asking questions. It is driven by a sense of puzzlement. It is propelled by mystery. Fail to be inquisitive and you cannot actually do science. Fail to be adequately playful and you will become a scientific drudge. All of the great scientific sea changes have been driven by asking the right questions, new questions, questions previously unasked. It is not information alone that drives science but the human craving for puzzlement, the desire for more powerful, more precise, more general explanations of how the natural universe works.

Similarly, it is mysticism and attraction to puzzlement that explains some part of the religious experience. There is a strangeness to the mythology and to the theology that sometimes people find attractive precisely because it doesn’t make sense. It is a kind of mixture of common daily images with uncommon and strange ones, annd a struggle to find some different way of framing their existing reality that attracts some people to religious practice. We talk about this idea a little more in our essay on Mysticism and Language

Religious icons: spirits and gods have been used by people in cultures all over the world to explain observed natural phenomenon. Even today in modern, scientific America “Acts of God” refer to phenomena with natural origins such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, mudlsides, and perhaps wildfires. This idea of superstitious notions and practices is described in great detail by Sir James George Frazer in the Golden Bough. It is a kind of anthropological tour-de-force, an overview of rites, superstitions, and taboos that live in cultures that antedate organized religious practice. The work suggests that many of these had sound empirical bases that can be more precisely treated with science. And it suggests that many were of more mystical nature and were absorbed into religious practice simply because they existed and people found some symbolic meaning in them.

So in two ways relgion and science arise from the same historical roots. One is an appreciation of the mystical. Another is as a means of explication. Common history and common psychological origin work together to confuse people.

The Difference Criteria

There are a number of ways in which science and religion are categorically different. They have different purposes. They deal with different subjects. Their modes of authority are different. Their claims are different. Their methods are different. Their practitioners are different. And their universes of discourse are different. One could, presumably, enumerate other areas of difference. We choose to talk about three: subject, authority, and purpose.

Subject

The subject is thing of interest, the thing being studied, the thing being observed, the thing being talked about, the thing to which we refer. In science that subject is matter and energy. Or it is matter and what reliably and predictably interacts with it. Since there is a mathematical equivalence between matter and energy, and since all forms of energy either are manifestations of particular states of matter or they are capable of interacting with matter or they have material origins, when we use the word matter here, we will generally mean it inclusively to include energy.

Matter, as we encounter it is made of atoms. The atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And all of the physical properties of matter derive from ways in which these combine into larger molecules and from how all of these particles interact together. Matter is real. It is durable. It is exhaustively studied. It is well understood.

Physics is interested in learning fundamental rules about matter on the smallest and largest of scales. And in understanding the interactions of matter and energy in great detail. Chemistry is interested in how matter organizes in chemical compounds and how it can be transformed in chemical reactions from one compound to another. Biology is interested in describing flora and fauna whose existence is both made possible by and bounded by physical and chemical constraints. In all of these cases the subject of study is matter.

Matter matters, as a matter of fact. Assuming we accept the philosophical idea that it actually exists, is durable, and behaves in fixed ways, then science is capable of helping us understand all physical phenomena. It helps us make sense of the real world. This is the world from which we derive our air, our food, our shelter. And while we have exercised great control over our environment, we are still subject to fundamental physical constraints. When we forget these or when we deny them we make bad public policy. That is where we started this discussion.

In religion the subject is immaterial. That is, it is not made of matter. Some might argue that the subject of religion is God; but God is not the subject of all religions. And even in monotheistic religions it is more useful to imagine that the subject is one’s relationship with that God. It is that relationship that characterizes religious practice. That relationship is primarily experiential. And it is the experiential aspect that is common to all religions. Religious practice cultivates a certain kind of experience.

The kind of experience is a mystical one. It is difficult for me to describe these mystical elements in any great detail since I have reason to believe that some of kinds experienced by others are not among my own body of experience; but I am told that there exist special states of consciousness that have special qualities. And that these qualities are described in terms of religious experience. The chemical psilocybin, for instance, reproduces these same senses and does so more effectively than natural methods normally do. That this is true suggests that the experiences are very real. Sadly, it is not of great help in determining the source of the experiences under other conditions.

There are, of course, other forms of mystical experience. It is widely held that Newton was “the last great mystic.” This seems like a remarkable thing to say about a man who is considered a giant among a host of giants of the scientific field. But if one looks at his body of work there is a kind of relentless search for explanations. He was compulsive about solving puzzles, and took on many difficult projects. Fortunately motion was one of those. And that led to gravitation and calculus.

I happen to believe that this search for explanations and the sense of puzzlement that accompanies it is a fundamental quality of mystical experience. This, I believe, has some connection with the experience described above: Either it is the same in type but different in magnitude, or it depends upon at least one common mechanism or causal phenomenon. As I explained in my essay on Language and Mysticism, I believe that it is this quality that motivates the acquisition of language in pre-lingual children. I think it makes just about every child ask questions like “Why is the sky blue?” And I hypothesize that were it totally absent, our interest in learning anything at all would be similarly absent. We might learn facts, but our knowledge would be rote knowledge. We would not develop methods of abstraction and synthesis.

I think, too, that a sense of mysticism is a sense of openness to change, to new ideas, to active adaptation to the world. This idea is reinforced by fact that “consciousness altering” techniques are frequently used to help people change behaviors. Hypnotism has been used with some success in smoking cessation, I am told by a reputable hypnotist. And I have read articles about the use of psilocybin in the treatment of opiate addictions. All of these things point to a connection between mystical sensibilities and learning - its motivating forces and its “sticking power.”

Religious practice in many religions involves some invocation of a spirit world: Gods, angels, spirits of the dead, and so on. Whether these entities actually exist as a scientific proposition is irrelevant. The fact is that the practices that invoke them change a person’s state of consciousness in some subtle and usually meritorious way. In any case, the person practicing the religion finds it so. So there is a kind of “endogenous” reality to the experience. The acts of reverence, of worship, of supplication, or whatever, actually change a person’s state of being. This relates directly to the discussion about the mystical. Christ, perhaps, summarizes this part of the religious experience thus: “Love the lord God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all you might..”

The second subject of religion is relationships between people. All the major religions define proper social relationships between people. They define interactions in a way that demonstrates fundamental caring and good judgment in balancing interests between conflicting parties. This body of religious knowledge is sometimes known as morality. Christ summarizes morality in two ways that, I believe, are identical “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Treat others as you would be treated.” This is the “Golden Rule” and I think it is a necessary part of religious practice. Some version is found in more than twenty religions including all the major monotheistic ones, Buddhism and Hinduism.

So the subject of religion a particlular kind of experience. Experience is a little difficult to define. But it has to do with our internal attitudes, emotions, reactions, and predisposition to action in the physical and social world. It embodies satisfactions, and dissatisfactions, elation, and sadness, joy and sorrow. At the center of religion is a body of “right feeling”

A famous Jewish comedian said “Right and wrong: yes, I believe in right and wrong. What’s the difference? When I do wrong I feel terrible.” There is a way in which religion derives from, codifies, and accentuates that sensibility. Studious and careful religious practice can frequently illuminate the path and help people avoid doing things that make us feel terrible.

Cognitive scientists will explain to us the actual physiological processes that are taking place, perhaps invoking “mirror neurons” or “dopamine release.” And evolutionary biologists who are acquainted with Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation will demonstrate why these physiological responses predispose cooperative individual and therefore societies composed primarily of cooperative individuals to be more successful than less cooperative ones. In other words, moral thinking is informed by and is a reflection of a physiological adaptation that allows humans to form low-friction societies.

Moses, or or whoever it actually was who wrote the first half dozen or so of the books of the Old Testament, understood this idea better than almost anyone alive today. If one reads Hammurabi’s code and Moses’ body of law the number of parallels is incredible. They deal with the same general ideas - which is completely unsurprising. They make essentially the same distinctions - which could be explained by similarities in culture and social structure. They both have extremely strong appeals to authority. They strike similar postures on similar things, But their tone, style, and presentation are almost identical. It is impossible to imagine that Moses did not have a written copy of the code before him as he wrote the body of law. Moses also understood that Hammurabi’s code was temporally challenged. Because it derived authority from a person, its own authority expired with the person. Moses had to base his law on a more durable authority. He invoked God. And he either invented a mythology to support that idea or he co-opted one. That is the purpose of earlier parts of Genesis.

Authority

This brings us to the second category of distinctions between religion and science, authority. One of the sources of authority in religious practice must be an innate sense of rightness. We have already discussed a little about what this is and how it can be explained in terms of evolutionary fitness. Any person who has used the word “conscience” has referred to this sensibility of “rightness” in a social context.

In religious parlance, a sense of rightness might be something that moves us toward God or it might be an actual experience of God’s grace. We can judge these propositions in many terms. As an empiricist, I would argue that so long as these explanations aid us in behaving cooperatively and fairly inside society, so long as they increase our personal levels of satisfaction without materially diminishing those of others who might believe differently, they are favorable ways of looking at the world. And I would hope that a religious person, using the moral ideas that normally pervade religious thought, would afford me a complementary point of view.

We might not think of ourselves as sources of authority. But we are creatures imbued with some capacity of knowledge and judgment. Each of us must necessarily have some innate authority. Fundamentally, we have the authority to judge how ideas in society affect our own lives. And we have some obligation to voice our concerns when those ideas are hurtful; for hurtful ideas generally degrade the lives of all touched by them. Aristotle develops the idea of moral character. And we talked about conscience above. In all of these senses moral authority is derived internally. And it arises from a complex interaction of our capacity for empathy and our ability to make situational judgments.

Authority, more traditionally, is assumed to flow from older to younger. Or from higher rank to lower. Here, again, we can find an evolutionary reason. And it is as old as mammals. Offspring learn behavior from parents. Successful behaviors tend to spawn success. So copying behaviors found in older members of society is a proven means of evolutionary success. This is the evolutionary basis of the idea of exogenous authority. It is the basis of equating authority with age. It is certainly not foolproof; but it can be quite a useful counterbalance to youthful intemperance and impetuousness.

Gods are conceived by abstraction of human authorities. To a young person, an old person is almost inconceiveable. It’s not much of a leap from there to an imaginary being. At first they might take on physical forms in our imaginations. All the Greek gods had physical descriptions, if I am not mistaken. But as we create their images in our minds, and as we gain more experience with our gods through a combination of shared experience and mythology, they become defined less by physical qualities and ever more by behavioral attributes described in terms of human analogy. Gods, since they have lived an especially long time, and since they have superhuman powers must also have extraordinary powers of authority for the same reasons that old people have authority. In fact, as we have just explained in the case of Moses that is one powerful reason one might invent a God.

Once again, even if a God did not exist, the conception of a God and the attribution to her of ideas, arguments, reasoning, and mythology tends to accrete authority to that God. Religions have authority that individuals do not have, precisely because they are institutions and their body of practice, experience, and mythology is deeper than that of any one, or ten, or one hundred individuals. This body of stuff has proven helpful in keeping societies peaceful and well organized. And it has proven helpful in allowing humans to find meaning within those societies. Thus the authority granted to Gods can be warranted, even if it is based upon a myth.

Holiness in this construction is a special attitude we hold toward ideas, objects, or practices. It is an attitude with a mystical component, veneration. And the object of the attitude generally is deserving of some veneration for its institutional significance. An attitude of holiness helps hold together institutions. I suppose reverence might be an alternative term. For example, in the US, there exist a group of people who revere the US constitution. Not the document, but the ideas it embodies. And that reverence elevates the document to a position almost of holiness. It means that its ideas and ideals are energetically defended, and its precepts are kept at the center of legal practice in the US. Were we to live in an age where the reproduction of documents was extremely painstaking and expensive, then the copies of the document would be held just as dear, as the Koran to moslems.

The authority of science, by comparison is consensus. And that consensus is arrived at by experimentation. Well designed exeperiments with clear results create consensus about hypotheses whose truth was previously unknown. It is a well defined process.

It is not quite so simple as that, however, because experiments are not used to prove just the observation of the experiment itself; they are designed to test theories. This raises all sorts of correspondence problems. If we start with a poor enough understanding of the relevant categorical relationships we can design experiments that tell us nothing. Or that mislead us.

A perfect example of this is a an old joke about a scientist and a frog. He places the frog on the floor and instructs the frog to jump. The frog jumps 16 inches. He writes in his lab journal “Frog with four legs jumps 16 inches.” He cuts off one of the legs. He tells the frog “Frog jump.” The frog jumps 12 inches. He writes in his lab journal “Frog with three legs jumps 12 inches.” He does the same experiment with two legs, and measure 8 inches. And again with one leg and measures 4 inches. Finally, he cuts off the fourth leg, places the legless frog on the floor and demands “Frog jump.” But the frog doesn’t jump. He raises his voice. Frog just sit there motionless. Then he yells at the top of his lungs. “Frog jump.” And he gets no reaction at all. He writes in his lab book “Frog with no legs is deaf.”

Sometimes this is the way we approach science. And when we do we get back nonsense. One of the problems in science, then, is that scientists do not always ask the right questions. That creates all kinds of problems. When a field has asked the wrong questions for long enough it becomes marginalized.

One of the terrific problems in science, however, is that the level of abstraction in a number of sciences is such that only a fraction of a percent of the population can understand what’s going on. And sometimes only a fraction of the practitioners really have sensible things to say about the field. When this happens, sometimes the field gets ossified and the people who practice stop being real scientists but become more like protectors of a kind of faith about a body of knowledge. The word orthodoxy comes to mind. In this case authority is credentials. When fields become characterized by this practice, the field is dead. It may serve as a repository of knowledge, like a musty library, but science is not being done there. Authority in such cases derives from work described in old, classic papers. And the “scientists” come to resemble medieval scholastics defending an ancient orthodoxy.

Purpose

It is impossible to make sense of the distinction between religion and science without discussing purpose. The purpose of science is explication. Specifically, it is explication of fact. Explication of events. Explication of all things that involve matter. I define explication here to mean systematically searching for, finding, testing, and propagating robust models that explain and predict behavior of matter and of collections of matter. My essays On Knowledge deal a little more with the issue of knowing. Explication is fundamentally about knowing, about how we come to know.

The purpose of religion is a matter open to debate. But I see that it has two fundamental purposes. One is one’s own satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment, motivation, and so on. If one believes in an afterlife, it is concerned with the same issues in that case. Some Christians talk of salvation; that is a term of their particular practice that corresponds to what I am saying. The other purpose is the promotion of smooth-running society. I believe that religions are successful because there is a general tendency for them to actually succeed in promoting both of these public goods. Were they to fail profoundly in either area they would fail profoundly in real life. Failure in the first area would cause people to stop practicing. Failure in the second would cause societal collapse.

I have no questions about the legitimacy of either of these purposes. But I do object to exclusive claims that religions have to them. I am doubtful of the idea that people might not find personal fulfillment in the absence of either a particular religious practice or religious practice in general. I do believe that the ubiquity of religious practice suggests that it is easier to find such fulfillment within the context of a a supportive religious community; but I think the operative terms here are supportive and community more than they are religious.

I will certainly grant that religious practice and religious authority create a shortcut to ethical reasoning. I might even be convinced that religious authority is necessary if one is to create a society that reflexively practices sound ethical reasoning. But, I am afraid, I shall never come close to imagining that religious institutions have some perfect authority over moral thought.

The Catholic Church proves that one either clings to dogmatic ideas that grow anachronistic and begin to look downright evil, or one updates moral ideas and ideals to reflect the extremely slowly evolving ideas of fair and sound ethical practice. And when one does make a change it produces the appearance that the previous practice was in some way wrong.

But in reality, it’s not like that. It is not necessarily true that there is some real, durable, everlasting right point of view to every ethical or theological question ever posed. At any point in time there are good arguments for maintaining the status quo point of view and there are arguments for change. When a change occurs it is not because there is something inherently right or wrong about a disputed position. Salman Akhtar suggests in his discussion of fundamentalism, only murder is categorically wrong. Of every other action, rational and caring people in different cultures might disagree. Cultural contexts can change the points of view. They are profoundly influenced by issues of geography, definitions of property rights, mating rituals, and a host of other issues.

For example, in almost every culture in which marriage is an institution, marital fidelity is considered a kind of a norm. In some cultures this norm is taken very seriously; and in others it is seen, perhaps, more as a suggestion. But long ago some of the Inuit had a different custom; male visitors would sleep with a host’s wife. This may be seen as an extreme measure of hospitality. But in a culture in which population was extremely sparse and tiny families were very isolated, it turned out to be a way of reducing the hazards of inbreeding. In an evolutionary sense it could benefit everyone involved. It was a cultural practice that had utility. To argue that it was morally wrong is actually to inflict harm on the culture.

If we view religious practice and religious tradition in a cultural context as being an accretion of useful thought and action, we can imagine such tradition to be a kind of nucleation site for agreement, a point of cohesion. Religious practice, after all, gained much of its political power from its ability to cause neighboring cultures, tribes, and states to find points of commonality.

Religion has social utility. But if we cling too tightly to its provisions while remaining blind to its power to unite us, we might actually risk trading away any personal and societal transformative power it might offer.**

Claims

I think it is very important to understand what religion properly ought to claim. What it reasonably might claim, and what it properly ought not to claim.

Claims of Religion
First: Religion is not a system of explication. Explication plays almost no role in its purpose. Explication plays almost no role in its authority. And explication has nothing to do with the subject involved. The confusion arises because of one of the first errors of man was to explain things in terms of gods. Gods were invented as explanations. And this really tells us a lot more about ourselves and our psychological makeup than it does about the gods themselves or the things that the gods were invoked to explain. Science is about explication. Religion is not. This really matters.

Take the issue of ID. ID posits that it is not natural selection that drives evolution but divine selection. Let us suppose that were true. Now let us consider the issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria. (ARB) We know that cases of deaths from antibiotic resistant bacteria have been rising over the last decades. They are responsible for a significant and growing portion of the hospital deaths due to infection. And this is among the more common causes of death in the nation.

Now, if we imagined that natural selection were responsible for the problem we would take certain steps to slow the speed at which antibiotic resistant strains would survive. This might include changing antibiotics chosen, changing dosing regimens and so on. But if we attribute selection to God, then God is the cause and all of these changes in regimens will make no difference whatsoever. In actual fact, though, changing regimens does change outcomes. So either God doesn’t intervene in the selection of bacteria. Or he only does it when we aren’t looking.
If we develop health policy about ARB assuming ID, we will not be looking. And a lot more people will die. Explaining all of this with ID either defies science and observation and risks killing a lot of people or it requires a really knotty theology that describes when God intervenes in selection and when he doesn’t.

ARB outbreaks have enormously huge potential for widespread fatalities. Before the advent of antibiotics outbreaks of cholera, plague, or tuberculosis could decimate cities. So if we respond incorrectly to ARB by assuming ID, millions could die who might otherwise not die in such an outbreak. And, it seems to me, that proponents of ID could reasonably be held legally liable for creating a body of thought they knew was false. Even if they were not, they would be thought of as supporting health policies that led to millions of unnecesary deaths. It matters what we believe about God. It matters whether religion is invoked to explain things that it is unprepared to explain.

Second: Religion, so long as it remains exclusively a body of ideas that illuminate life in the first person, is generally helpful and rarely harmful. To the extent that a person’s religious experience is primarily with his God, and to the extent that the secondary experience is good social adaptation: treatment of others with kindness and respect, it is good. Any person whose religion produces precisely these effects must be respected not just for their inherent value as a person, but also for their dedication to a kind of shared human existence.

But where religion is always wrong is in its third person claims. Religion certainly has first person claims. That is a definition of its nature. Religion might possibly have second person claims. That is, there may be contexts in which a religious person is warranted in discussing his beliefs and their merits with a second person. Religion has absolutely no third person claims. It cannot make “them” do anything. When it does it always errs. When it does it is always evil.

Claims of Science
First: Science claims explication. This it owns in toto. Explication is extremely powerful. And yet, when it comes to the complexities that govern interactions between all sorts of physical entities - whether they be atoms, molecules, cells, organs, bodies, institutions, or societies, science has only illuminated a tiny fraction of what we need to know.

This suggests that we must have bridging strategies - ways of dealing with things that are unknown. The first part of any such strategy is to understand what is known and what isn’t. The second is to understand the consequences of making various choices, particularly the consequences of being wrong. The purpose of public policy discussion is to do this very thing. Sadly, that sort of thing disappeared from public discourse in the mid 1970’s and has only begun to be part of political reality in the last several years thanks to the Web. But hardly anyone has any practice at it and only a tiny bit of what we are doing in the area is very good. Still, there is hope.

Second: Science’s claims beyond explication are tenuous. Science might be able to describe what constitutes meaningful existence but it cannot bring meaning. Science might be able to create antibiotics, but it cannot bring them into people’s lives when they need them. Science might enable us to travel to the moon, but it is not science that actually gets us there. We must depend completely upon science for things it can tellus. And we must learn to use scientific ideas and techniques to help us gain some loose and tenuous grasp on what we do not. Then we must used bridging techniques. Finally, we must try things. We must fail. We must acknowledge failure. We must learn from it. And we must try again.

Universe of Discourse

The universe of discourse of science is fact. If there is a fact, it is connected to matter. It either is descriptive of some embodiment of matter or it is descriptive of an event, a change in state or an interaction between bodies of matter.

The universe of discourse of religion is inner life. It is about how a person experiences his or her existence in ( or out of) time.

When external facts have bearing on this experience there can be an interaction between science and religion. When they do not, there is none. The fact that morality is relegated to religious study is because it is a body of thought that describes how we are affected by our behavior.

For example, moral thought is a kind of explication of how we experience our existence. Moral thought has traditionally been associated with religion, but it need not be so. Kant’s categorical imperative which might reasonably be viewed as a kind of philosophical method one might use to derive moral truth systematically. It really is a kind of mathematical formalization of the Golden Rule.

Gauthier in his Morals by Agreement takes another approach of defining the Golden Rule in terms of rational choice and market theory. The fact that the Golden Rule idea is part of almost every form of religious thought and practice suggests that in some measurable way - in a way that relates directly to how humans experience the world - it is more important than the God of monotheistic religions. Or else it defines the experience of God in terms of a moral code.

Our moral codes are product of six thousand years of thought, debate, and practice enshrined in religious practice. It is likely that this process got some things right. It is right that we should approach the tradition with some reverence. But it is not helpful to imagine that some hypothetical holiness puts all specific tenets of religious thought beyond further evaluation or critique, for there are cultural differences between our own time and Biblical times. Nor is it helpful to assume that any single religious moral code is axiomatically right or holy.

What we need to do is live our own lives with reverence to any religious and moral ideas that give our lives meaning and help us live rich and cooperative social lives. We need to respect the religious and moral ideas that other people find to enrich their own lives. We intend to argue that ethical training be part of schooling; and that it not be religious. I have been told that “civics” is the technical term for what I mean by that, though I am not old enough to know it from experience. When people live well together voluntarily, the law needs little scope or force. And that is an ideal society to inhabit.

Conclusion

I am afraid this is but the most cursory sketch of my conception of the difference between science and religion. There are many vast bodies of explanation missing. Still, I hope that for all its shortcomings, this provides some basis for a discussion on the difference between science and religion and why it matters.

I hope, too, that by searching for some common ground and developing a body of things upon which we can agree it allows us to begin bridging the gap between fundamentalist reactionaries to mid-twentieth century liberalism - “moral majority and their ilk” - and the anti-fundamentalist atheistic reactionaries of today - Hitchens, et al. We cannot afford an amoral society Nor can we afford a scientifically ignorant one. The first sort will be the end of democracy and of liberty; the second sort could lead to the collapse of civilization.

TABLE 1
Religion Science
Purpose mystical and moral development explication
Subject relationships and mystical experiences matter and energy
Authority innate sense of rightness, tradition consesus, observation of fact

I used this table to write the work, but I fear that there is still some lack of correspondence between the two. As I meant to say, this is a work in progress.


*Frequently at this sight we use the words religious and orthodox to refer to ideas that are held primarily by faith and promulgated primarily by force of authority. For the purposes of this particular article we will be referring to religions in a slightly more traditional way. We think of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and a handful of other institutions with defined rituals, beliefs, forms, communities. By modality we mean religious faith or faith in any unwarranted method of arriving at a policy decision. We have in mind a kind of blind faith in laissez affaire capitalism as a means to achieve every humann good as an exemple of one such modality.

** Our argument is that religion can illuminate a society’s necessary debate about ethics, but it cannot usurp it. Similarly, we are not arguing for situational ethics, we are arguing for a dialogue that struggles to gain a general agreement on a wide range of ethical issues, not by teaching people what to think about ethical issues, but by teaching them how to think about them.

06.15.07

The Importance of Empathy

Posted in Uncategorized, Science & Religion at 4:01 am by steve

The neurobiological basis of empathy and the centrality of empathy in the derivation of rules for ethical behavior are both of major importance when it comes to figuring out how a society made up of people from different religions can hope of getting along. This article addresses the first half of that equation. Eventually we intend to weigh in on these topics with our own ideas. Stay tuned.

02.28.07

On Knowledge - Part I

Posted in Science & Religion at 1:01 am by steve

Sensation, Perception, & Interpretation

Introduction

Decisions about what to believe and how to act are informed by knowledge. The quality of these decisions impacts our lives as individuals and as a society. Bad decisions about beliefs and actions create unhappy societies. Good decisions about beliefs and actions help create happy societies. Knowledge informs good decisions. But almost all decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete knowledge. A blind person who understands the limitations associated with blindness is equipped to act more wisely than a blind person who, used to seeing, keeps on pretending that he can see when he really cannot. It is not knowledge alone that we need, but an understanding of where our blindspots are. We need to understand what we do know, what we do not, what we can and cannot know. And we need to understand how to act accordingly.

What do we know? How do we know it? Wherein lies our certainty? What we propose to argue here is that when we say “know” we mean “presume to know” or “know on the basis of certain assumptions that we trust.” And that many of the assumptions that we trust are not necessarily trustworthy. Yet we trust them because the alternative requires more investigatory and reasoning power than most of us have the time or energy to employ. To make matters worse, we have come to understand that certain things are ultimately unknowable. We have to make do on partial knowledge, no matter how smart or well-informed we might be. So we make decisions with what we have. This is often the most suitable course of action, but it presumes that we are open to change; we do not simply keep on making the same bad mistakes over and over in the face of compelling evidence that we are doing just that. Not if there is a better alternative.

Our goal here is to develop a framework about knowledge. We wil work first develop the ideas on which our definition of knowledge rests. We will define knowledge. We will talk about what we can know with some certainty. Then we will look at a brief history of knowledge. In it we will discover that there are a number of things we know we cannot know. Finally, we will touch on the issue of making decisions in the absence of adequate knowledge. It’s a topic that could not be completely treated in a huge encyclopedic volume of work; but we will give it a few meager paragraphs.

Real vs Ideal - Two Banks of the River Unknown

Plato firmly fixed the notion of two parallel universes within our culture: the real, material universe; and the ethereal, ideal universe. There was much merit in the idea because it suggested a mental representation of the real and it suggested that this representation is not identical to the real. Furthermore, it suggested that when a man created a thing, he was inspired by some ideal for that thing. Today we might call that a design. Plato’s idea had problems though. He imagined an ideal bed. In his model, all beds were failed approximatons of some singular ideal bed. All beds in Plato’s take on things fall short of ideal bedness. It may be true that all beds are less than ideal, but not for the reason Plato assumed. His notion is rendered nonsense if one imagines that each sleeper has subtly different needs. Ideal comfort derives from different needs in sleeping surface. Ideal decoration qualtiies derive from different tastes and decorating environments. The idea of a single ideal bed is nonsense. A similar sort of argument goes for blue as an instantiation of blueness.

Hume understood both the strengths and the weaknesses of Plato’s two notions. He proposed two similar categories. One he called fact. Fact deals with matter. Consider a golden dubloon. It has mass, and size, and shape. These things are facts about this material object, he suggested. They are independently verifiable. Distinct from matters of fact are “relationahips of ideas.” A triangle is defined as planar closed figure with three straight edges. The triangle is a relationship of ideas. It relates the ideas of line and plane to the figure triangle. Go look in nature, and you will find no real triangles. You might find representations of triangles, but the triangle is an idealization, an idea.

The triangle is a figure from geometry, and geometry is one of the ideal examples of a pursuit that exists entirely in the “relationship of ideas.” There are applications of geometry to navigation, design, surveying, and so on; but geometry itself lives in the world of “relationships of ideas.” Geometry is an abstraction. And when it is applied to other problems involving real, factual things, it can be seen as being representational of those things. If one has a plot plan for a lot upon which one is to build a house, one employs a surveyor to make sure that an expensive construction project is not compromised by virtue of having some part of the construction be on another’s property. Geometry is an abstract tool brought to bear on this very concrete, factual problem.

Geometry is but one of a large number of tools in the relationship of ideas. All of logic lives there. So, too does algebra, trigonometry, calculus, set theory, group theory, topology, and a vast array of other things that start with “why” and end in “y.”

We can look at this world of relationships and imagine that another yet another way of looking at it is by thinking about what happens inside our brains. The processes in our brains are all carried out by creating relationships. There is not a single neuron for “car.” There is an area of the brain that represents the word car. And an area of the brain that represents some visual ideas about car. And there may be some bits of the brain that connect these ideas to car-related ideas; color, horsepower, gas mileage, fast, fun ride, or outta gas, broken. The brain uses a sprawling relational system to represent the ideas that are integral to and closely associated with car. In other words, with our own brains, the car is expressed as a relationship of ideas. It is a different sort from a mathematical function, perhaps, but it is definitely a relationship.

One of the reasons Hume’s notions seem strange and foreign to us is that we rarely are called upon to make the distinctions he makes. But it is a necessary starting point in considering knowledge. The reason is that our mental images and abstractions of the physical world depend at least in part upon sensation, perception, and interpretation. Our ideas about the world depend upon interaction with the world through sensation. The way the ideas organize in our minds may be mediated by language, culture, education, and other factors. But fundamentally, knowledge is a kind of mental representation of fact. It is a kind of bridge that spans the gap between the ideal and the real. And the better the knowledge, the more robust and durable is that bridge.

Sensation

Plunge your hands in a basin of icewater. What happens? Your hands feel cold. Why? The technical reason has to do with the low temperature of the water and with water’s superior ability to carry heat from the surface of your skin. It transports heat energy through the skin, via conduction, and this loss of heat lowers the temperature of the hands. Before long, the hands feel cold, uncomfortable.

The sensation of cold is a “pure” sensation. That is, there is very little mental moderation or abstraction of the sense. There are two good reasons for this. One is that it is evidently not difficult to accomplish, the sensation of cold. All sorts of reactions change speed with temperature, so making good thermal sensation is not a difficult trick for biology to accomplish. The second reason is that it is quite useful to eliminate interpretation of cold because interpretation is subject to mistake, and thermal challenges are frequently mortal challenges in nature. Thus the sensation of heat and cold are unmoderated sensations.

Two people may sit in the same room. One may be hot, the other cold. This demonstrates that the sensation of being hot or cold is a kind of relationship between the person sensing the environment and the environment itself. The perception of being warm or cold is a subjective one. It is based on one’s own perceptions. These, in turn will be determined by one’s metabolic state, one’s clothing, the sort of environment to which one is accustomed. People who live in northern climates and spend time outdoors may frequently find an environment warm that people used to tropical climates will find cold, because of adaptations to their respective environments.

The feeling of thermal comfort is a judgment about the thermal environment. It is subjective, but never wrong. Propositions such as “this room is cold” do not evaluate to “true” in any meaningful sense. I might know that I feel cold in this room. You might know that you feel warm in this room. Is the room too warm? Is the room too cold? Is this a meaningful way to think of it? Or is the question “what is the best means of making everyone comfortable?” That question has nothing to do with the truth of any propositions about the room’s temperature. We introduce this question because when making propositions about real world facts, the notions of “true” and ‘false” are frequently unhelpful. True and false are notions of logic that belong to “relationships of ideas” not to fact. It is a discussion taken up later.

Taste behaves much like the sensation of warmth and coldness. We have four simple tastes and most of the chemical substances that stimulate taste sensation stimulate only one of the four sensory receptors. And it is so in everyone. Some people taste things more intensely than others, owing to the fact that they have more taste buds. But sensations of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness are directly wired into our brains. And because there is no overlap in their sensory range, there is no conceptualizing required to report one of these sensations.

There are compelling reasons for this; the four fundamental flavors serve four fundamentally different functions. Sweet informs the body of digestibility of vegetable matter, available energy. Salt informs the body of a vital compound whose balance in body chemistry is of paramount importance and whose availability in some environments is low. Sour seems to be associated with certain special nutrients such as vitamine C. Bitter’s function is to prevent us from eating the wrong plant matter; most poisonous plant alkaloids have bitter flavors. The argument for bitter, then, is much like the argument for cold sensation. It is a sense that requires little interpretation and is linked closely to avoiding hazards that threaten survival.

The fundamental flavors in taste are simple, but taste involves smell. And smell is highly complex. There are evidently at least sixteen or twenty five fundamental smells, with the whole language of odor built upon that. So when one eats food one experiences all the odors, all the tastes, and the textures as well. The fact that we have food experts suggests that this system is complex and can create highly nuanced effects. It may not take a great deal of interpretation to detect the single valued inputs, but it might take a considerable amount of attention to grasp all of the interrelationships between the inputs. That can require a goodly bit of interpretation.

Perception

Almost all of our sensation requires some interpretation. This interpretation is sometimes performed automatically by the nervous system as an integral part of sensation, and it is sometimes performed at some higher conceptual level.

Color sensation provides some very interesting insights into the interactions between sensation, perception, and interpretation. Lignt is made up of pnotons, and each photon has a characteristic wavelength. Photons that we perceive as red have wavelengths close to 600 nm. Those we percieve as green have wavelengths close to 540 nm. Those we perceive as blue have wavelengths close to 450 nm. Surfaces that reflect or emit photons soley in these wavelengths will appear to be that color.

Our eyes have specialized color receptors tuned to each of these three primary colors. Red light stimulates red receptors, but it does not stimulate green or blue ones, for instance. Yellow light stimulates both green and red receptors. Aqua light stimulates both blue and green receptors.

It is no great surprise, then, that every known culture has words for colors. But it is a surprise that the words vary from culture to culture. Some cultures have no word for yellow. Most have no word for orange. In some cultures blue and green have the same word. In others aqua is identified either as blue or green. And even many native English speakers will be hard pressed to distinguish puce from fuchsia or ochre from sienna.

At first blush, it seems simple. We all sense the same colors; but we categorize them differently. Our language establishes the categorical tags. Our cultural practices establish the categorical definitions and boundaries of those definitions. A language that fails to distinguish blue from green, for instance, is unlikely to have a special word for aqua. People who have no reason to distinguish between twenty eight earthtones will never bother distinguishing sienna from ocher, not because they are physically incapable of making the distinction, but because it is not required.

I remember as a schoolboy standing on a promontory at the Cape of Good Hope, overlooking the point at which the Atlantic Ocean touched the Indian Ocean. I was certain that the deep blue of the Atlantic was blue. But I remember thinking that the Indian Ocean was green. I distinctly remember that it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other, so if the Indian Ocean actually was a different color, it was a subtle aqua tint of blue. By green standards, it had nothing to do with green.

Some recent articles in Science News suggest that how we physically perceive color depends to some degree on our acculturation. There is some interaction between what we learn about color categorization and what our apparent capacities are at distinguishing colors, even when the factor of language has been removed. Probably we are required to make careful distinctions the boundaries of color categories, but make less careful distinctions near the center of color regions. Once we have a lifetime of practice doing this, our brains may simply be trained to ignore certain information to the point that we cannot perceive it anymore.

This is quite telling. It suggests a profoundly deep interaction between what we are capable of perceiving and how we are acculturated. This is a topic we will take up one or two more times.

A topic we have already mentioned is the distinction between asserting that a thing is a certain way, and asserting what is perceived. Imagine a stone. It is shiny and it is orangy brown. In some languages it might be called rust colored. In others, orange. In still others, brown. Languages that only have primary colors and black might call it black. Now, imagine we illuminate the stone under ultraviolet light. Under this light, it emits an eerie green glow. What color is the stone? One can set up careful measurements and define precisely the spectral intensity of the photons emitted and reflected from the surface under any sort of illumination. In a scientific sense we can define the color of the stone with incredible accuracy. But the act of summarizing all of this information as a single color risks losing most of the information. The only reason this would be acceptable is if most decisions people make are not critically dependent upon color.

The same cannot be said about other sorts of visual data. A visual scene may be composed of tens or hundreds of megabytes of data, but the visual system has already begun abstracting that data by the time the visual signal has reached the visual cortex. The signal has already been processed to supply information about edges and lines, regions of high contrast, regions of order, and of confusion. In digital photography terms, it has been compressed. But in the terms of our discussion, it has been abstracted. And the abstraction rules will typically be to identify objects and place abstract tokens for them at various places in the visual field. If we are highly artistic sorts, the tokens might reasonably well represent the actual objects. If we are intuitive sorts, the tokens might not represent many of the salient visual features of the object.

This is a salient point. The visual system, unless it is hard pressed by its user, does not represent very much of a visual field literally. It identifies areas in the field and fills them in with rule-based representations. The lollypop tree is not what a child literally sees. But it may be a fair representation of what she perceives. No child who looks at a lollypop tree and a real one would confuse the two, it is just that the child’s mind represents the tree as an abstract and simple object, not as a complex three dimensional one with gazillions of limbs and leaves. The depiction is a depiction not of what the child sees but of how that visual perception is represented in the mind.

The visual system is constantly called upon to take hugely massive amounts of data and reduce what is seen to what is meaningful. And the only was to do that is to throw out most of what is there, to decide what is of interest, and to represent that as parsimoniously as possible.

That this happens is clear from stories of people who were born without vision, lived for roughly two decades blind, but then had sight restored. There have been only a few such cases, but what happens is not what one might first assumes would happen. The assumption is that once a person is equipped with all the requisite organs, sight becomes normal and vision becomes normal. What actually happens is slightly different. At first the visual world seems rich, colorful interesting. And this impression is extremely attractive and entertaining. But people who have been blind all their lives have committed much of the regions of the brain that is usually used to interpret visual data over to other tasks. So images, for all their powerful attractions are overwhelming. They present too much information. The brain tries to process it all. And the person becomes weary. In the end, vision becomes an interesting curiousity, but it does not become a dependable sense. And the reason is that the information is not being appropriately abstracted and ignored.

Because it is called upon to process so much information so quickly, the visual system takes a lot of shortcuts. Each of these is subject to some mode of trickery. Michael Bach has spent a good deal of time cataloguing tricks that exploit deficiencies in visual perception and he presents his findings in this catalogue of optical illusions.

Sound data is inherently smaller than visual data, by two or so orders of magnitude. Yet it still constitutes a challenge to the perceptive mind. Again, the methods that the aural system uses resemble some of those of the visual system. Sounds are automatically filtered and recognized noises are frequently replaced with representative tokens. A trained musician might have a highly refined sense of sound and may have very robust ways of hearing and representing sounds within her mind. A person who has never heard a violin, however, may have difficulty distinguishing the sound of one from another; they would be represented in his mind the same way.

Because speech is so important, humans have single neurons that fire when a particular phoneme is heard. All the filtering and processing that takes place before this point may then be discarded and ignored, provided other aural clues such as pitch and tone and clues about emphasis have been registered as well. In short, language processing discards most of the sonic signal. It replaces that with reconstructive rules, rules that capture all that the listener perceives. If that person is a trained actor, the nuances of accent and stress may be accurately registered. If the person is a counsellor, nuances about emotional condition may also be registered. But in all of these cases, it is an abstraction of the signal that is stored in the mind.

Interpretation

Interpretation is a mental act that takes perceptions and organizes them in ways that are potentially useful to some purpose. An interpretive process in the mind may assemble a collection of perceived edges in a visual field and produce the output “snake” or “lion” or “pizza” or “homework.” What happens next may depend upon other interpretations lurking in the mind. If hunger is one of them, then pizza may have special meaning. If an important social engagement is pressing, then homework may have special meaning. If one is at a zoo, then lion may have a different meaning than if one is walking alone on a narrow path across the grassy African plain.

Interpretation is a difficult subject because it occurs in so many contexts. And it crosses perceptive bounds. For example; an infant when given a plastic cube the size of an orange may look at it, feel all of its sides, put it in his mouth and taste it, and so on. The cube is represented in his mind by sensations of sight and touch. And the mind corellates those sensations. Correlated sensations have special powers on the mind. When we see and hear something, we remember much more effectively than when we only see or only hear. Some factor about simultaneity of sensation impresses the mind in a distinct way.

There is reason to believe that language enables the process of making sense of correlated sensory input. Helen Keller noted that the world seemed an impenetrable tangle of sensations until she learned her first word, water. Then she suddenly had an insatiable thirst for language, because it untangled that sensory jumble. Language allows us to create simple tokens that represent complex things. And this is precisely what we are equipped to do in visual and aural processing.

Language, however, allows us to tokenize things that are not purely sensory. It allows us to tokenize ideas, relationships, actions, and so on. It is reasonable to assume that language we learn first is most closely related to objects and sensations. My own informal study of French suggests that all I can remember of the language is stuff that strikes me as being really important. “Je suis fatigue,” translates idiomatically to “Oh, I’m feeling kinda tired.” And “Il peu,” translates literally to “It stinks” or idomatically to “Eeew!” Thirty or fifty hours of sitting in front of “French in Action” and that’s what I can remember. But in both cases it is because the action of the actors in saying these things perfectly matched the sense of the language. The lingual tokens attached to my memory because the communicated in French what I already percieved.

Perhaps most amazing to me is the ability of animals to sense, perceive, and interpret three dimensional data in real time. Consider the housefly. It has a brain that is probably too tiny to skewer with a sewing needle, yet in real time it percieves a threat, readies, and flies at the very last minute along a trajectory that frequently saves its life. It does not learn this behavior from thousands of hours of flight training. It is born with all of these capacities, it lives for some days, and it dies. How is it that the common housefly is so able to perceive the three dimensional world and motions that threaten it?

There is, of course, the evolutionary answer. Animals, almost all of them, either eat other animals or are eaten by them. Every animal, or one of its close evolutionary ancestors, was predator or prey. And every animal that spends much time above the ground relies to some extent on visual acuity to survive. Site and the ability to sense motion are survival necessities for animals.

Another part of the answer might be found in a paper by Smith et al. in Gazzaniga’s Neurosciences (1990.) They did research on young children. They sat them in front of computer screens and they showed them images of things moving. The moving objects were simple objects, triangles or circles or squares, perhaps. They purposefully did not resemble animals or people. When the objects were stationary the children attributed to them the qualities of inanimate objects. When the objects moved in simple oscillitor motion like that of a pendulum or a tree waving in the wind, the children also imagined that the objects were inanimate. But when the objects moved in other ways, the children attributed to them qualities of animate objects.

If we think about the snake-charmer whose charm to the snake has less to do with his clever music than it does to his carefully choreographed harmonic oscillaion, we imagine that the snake interprets motion as does the fly. And we also imagine that if nature has solved the problem of motion so effectively and compactly in the fly there is hardly any reason why the same problem may not be solved as compactly in other animals. The response of young children to motion, in fact, suggests this very thing.

If we imagine that humans carry a tiny knot of neurons that interpret the three dimensional world and the motions in it using approximately the same information as the fly, then much can be explained. A person is walking in the woods. His visual system detects a motion. The little flyspeck of an interpretive system interprets the motion as that of an animal and sends out a big, loud alarm. But the visual signal is interpreted in other parts of the brain in other ways. And on the basis of their analysis, there is nothing there; no recognizable animal to account for the motion.

What happens next? The brain has produced conflicting interpretations of a sensory event. One interpretation is that there is an animate motion, cause for alarm. Another interpretation is that there is no animal to account for it. One conclusion would be that the motion was caused by an invisible animate force. What is the term we use for invisible animate forces? A spirit. Another possibility, is for one to construct a fictitious animal to account for the motion. A third possiblity is, lacking an explanation for the sensation, one ignores the data.

Interestingly, all of these responses seem to have history in human interpretation. It is also interesting that, as the practice of monotheistic religion spread and as the ideas of the enlightenement became engrained in European culture, sightings of spirits and mythical animals became ever less frequent. The seventeenth century witch trials dealt a kind of death blow to the whole notion.

It would seem that ever since then, we see differently. Our culture prevents us from inventing the same sorts of mythical figures that our mind once served up. To some degree this is what knowledge does. Proper knowledge of the world around us changes our perceptions and it changes our intepretations of our perceptions. This is the purpose of knowledge, to help us interpret our perceptions in the most useful ways possible. It starts with making the most useful categorical assignments, proceeds by noticing useful relationships among categories, and by making useful distinctions within categories. And it is sometimes refined by application of carefully crafted mathematical models, diagrams, or other sorts of descriptive models.

At this point we have discussed how the mind is engaged in sensing the external world and how it organizes the sensory information in compact and robust ways. The details of the process are not all well known, but what is important to understand is that a great deal of abstraction takes place. And, as a result, most of what we see and hear, taste, touch, and smell, is lost forever. We have only a vague impression that captures some tiny fraction of the original information.

What is Knowledge

The river of the unknown is bounded on two banks. On one bank is fact. It is solid and discoverable, but unknown. On the opposite bank is is the mind, the relationships of ideas within it. Connecting these extremes is a bridge. Its main structure is sensation and perception. But these are narrow and slippery, hazardous for foot traffic. Intepretation is the road deck and railing. It allows enough traffic between both sides that the facts may be ascertained correctly, and that they are appropriate to the need at hand. The completed bridge, including both terminals and the traffic it carries constitutes knowledge.

The mind is a representational machine. It represents the world in an abstract form using relationships. Some representations of the world are more accurate than others. Artists, for instance, may be much more skilled at abstracting overall shapes and relevant details about the world, they are trained to make distinctions about what we see that most people do not. Physicists look at falling objects differently than people who have not studied physics. Expert mechanics understand the nuances of automobile design, the sorts of things that fail, and the symptoms of failure very well. They have detailed mental models. Our representations of the world reflect our level of knowledge in a particular area of expertise.

In a very real sense, then, knowledge about the real world is a proper correspondence between the actual way the world is and our mental models of it. Similarly, knowledge about the abstract world is a proper correspondence between the way we manipulate objects and relationships in an abstract world, and the way the abstract world is constructed.

In chess, for instance, nothing about the game is about the pieces. Everything is about the relationships of position. Set up a chess board with a position from an actual chess game. Show it quickly to a novice and to an expert. Then have each reconstruct the positions of the pieces. The novice will get much of it wrong. The chess master will get most of it right. Now, try the same thing by putting the pieces on the board in a random way. The novice will get much of it wrong. So, too will the chess master. Why? because in the first case his experience of the game allows him to percieve the relationships between the pieces. He remember these relationships and uses them to reconstruct the position of the board. But when there is not real game, the relationships are nonsensical. He must remember in a different way, the same way as the novice. So, in the practice of chess, knowledge or expertise involves a detailed understanding of the positional relationships. This is what good players learn.

Knowledge is
1) A useful representation within the mind of a fact.
2) Represetational and relational models for abstracting, intepreting, and responding to sensory data.

These are not exclusive; the first item is a kind of simplified subset of the second.

There are a lot of interesting observations that can be made about knowledge defined in this way. One observation is that the notions of true and false are not very helpful. Knowledge is better understood in terms of how useful it is. Take, for example, the notion that the earth is spherical. This knowledge would have proven of some use to astronomers and cartographers long before it was generally known, but it really became of great relevance once there was interest and motivation to promote trade between Europe and Asia in the absence of secure land routes. The idea that the earth is spherical, at that point, became highly relevant in a way it had not previously been. It was useful knowledge. But to the average land owner, a person or a household, the inaccuracies of representing land boundaries on a flat piece of paper present no problems whatsoever.

Cast into the terms that Hume used, knowledge of the fact, factual knowledge is a proper or useful correspondence between fact and our mental representation of it - the relationships of ideas that represent it in our minds. If we represent fact badly in our minds, we act on it badly. If we interpret a lion as a pizza or mistake our wife for a hat, ill consequences can ensue. Our minds must be capable of making these distinctions clearly. Much of learning is, therefore, about making useful distinctions.

Some kinds of problems are solved by means other than distinctions. Some are solved by generalization or synthesis. Such methods can be powerful because they can unify a vast number of seemingly disparate phenomena into a single line of analysis and study. We will talk about the work Newton did on gravitation a little later. His work is among the world’s most shining examples of synthesis.

So far we have introduced the two extremes that are connected by the bridge of knowledge and we have shed some small amount of light on the way these extremes are connected by sensation, perception, and interpretation. In the next segment we will take a whirlwind tour of knowledge with the hope of seeing some examples of things that work and of things that do not.

09.18.06

Aquinas Proofs of God

Posted in Science & Religion at 6:38 pm by steve

A good academic might have examined Aquinas five proofs of God in light of a long history of criticism or in light of some trend in philosophy, theology, or religious studies; but we are not a good academic. At the risk of muddling through old ground and making a real hash of it, we toffer a very unconventional a look at these proofs in light of the two or three things that we know. We were a little surprised by our conclusions.

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09.13.06

Reframing Sociobiology

Posted in Science & Religion, Cooperation at 12:41 pm by steve

Biology is, or rightly ought to be, more science than religion. This article suggests a possible shift in point-of-view within a particular part of the practice that might help to achieve this goal.

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07.19.06

Religious Essence

Posted in Science & Religion at 9:36 am by steve

“Participants .. ranked [it] as either the best or in the top five best experiences of their lives - on par with the birth of a first child. They described feelings of peace, intense happiness, and a sense of the unity of all things.

“The participants were no strangers to spiritual highs. Almost all engaged at least monthly in religious or spiritual activities such as prayer or attending religious services and were selected for participation .. on this basis.” In some participants, the experience produced halo effects, changing the way they interacted with the world in favorable ways for weeks and months thereafter.(Economist JY 15 2006, p 78)

What sort of activity would cause one to feel so profoundly peaceful and spiritually connected with the greater world? In a word, psilocybin, a material extracted from mushrooms with psychotropic effects. These same mushrooms have been used in mesoamerica since pre-columbian times in religious rituals. The mushrooms had no presence in the US until early in the twentieth century. Nor had the subjects participating in the study experienced them before. They were given one of two substances, not knowing the identity or effects of either.

The Economist. although titling the article “The God Pill,” shows less interest in its theological implications. It is interested in its therapeutic effects. The chemical shows promise for treatment of a number of addictive behaviors such as alcohol and opiate abuse. And there is some belief that because of its chemical similarity to serotonin it may have some use in the treatment of depression. The ‘halo’ effects also suggest this. Since some SRI’s are used already in the treatment of alcoholism, it is not a big stretch to imagine that if it is effective in one area it might show promise in another.

If a chemical can have this exact kind of profound effects on a person’s consciousness - a feeling of religiousness - we must ask “What is going on?” A kind of mystical pre-scientific answer is “God is in the mushrooms. And when you eat the mushrooms, God becomes part of your consciousness.” But in a scientific world we understand that we are using the word God and psilocybin interchangeably. Thus we have implicitly defined God - at least in one face or manifestation - as being exactly the same as the chemical. If one stops here, either God is a chemical or God is a collection of effects, one of which is a particular chemical. This poses a great number of difficulties. For instance, one has to ask “would that put the pre-Columbian Aztecs who ate these mushrooms on the same footing with God as, say, the eighth century Christians?” Furthermore, sometimes when one takes other chemicals one gets a similar sort of peaceful happy effect, though to a much lesser extent. Maybe even to a tiny extent with alcohol or coffee or cheesecake. Is God then in these substances? And if so, is it to a greater or lesser degree? And does it mean that if I eat a second helping of cheesecake I can be more holy than if I stop with one? This sort of equivalence between God and the chemical poses all sorts of knotty problems.

Another tack is to say ” the chemical potentiates communion with God.” It sort of breaks down some barrier in the brain that keeps us apart from God. This idea seems to have some promise. After all, it explains the fact that we commune with God only with some difficulty in the absence of chemical supplementation. And it explains how it is that we communicate with Him with chemical supplementation. God is not the chemical itself. The chemical is sort of like a hot-line - a direct line to God. But there remain some difficult questions. One is, “if this is true, shouldn’t we all rush out and get some of this chemical?” Countercultural types did exacltly this in the 1950’s and ’60’s. And in fact magic mushrooms have been part of the countercultural practice for decades. Yet not everyone would agree that those who have availed themselves of the effect are necessarily much more Godly than those who have not.

Then there is the knotty problem of why God decided to hide the hotline to his throne in some corner of the new world. Surely there were enough people in the old world who could have benefitted from talking to Him? Maybe the Aztecs because of their huge, massive bloody mass sacrifices of human lives were the only group of people on the planet worthy of talking to God? Maybe God became more interested in talking to Americans after we built the atom bomb or the interstate road system or invented consumer credit. This line of thinking creates a number of difficulties when we compare it to the role we believe religion ought to play in the lives of civilized people.

A third interpretation is that the sense people get from the chemical has nothing whatsoever to do with God. The chemical just gives the same effect as other religious practices, though more effectively. This point of view assumes a clear distinction between the causes of the state, but it may fail to fully give credence to the idea that, just possibly, the induced states are qualitatively equivalent. The chemically-induced one is more intense, more profound, has more of a lasting ‘halo,’ but in both cases the same mental processes are being activated. If this were the case it would mean a few things:
1) Certain religious practices induce chemical changes of state in the brain.
2) The pleasant sense one has as a result of a religious ritual is chemical.
And that gets us back to ‘is God the chemical or does He somehow intervene and cause the chemical to be made in the brain. Or does God have nothing at all to do with the chemical?Does God have nothing at all to do with the sense of a religious state?

This sort of idea has the benefit of prying God away from the Aztecs. And so it is more in line with the traditional view that God crossed from Europe to the new world aboard the ships of European Christians. But it further tempts us to entertain the notion that the Aztecs deserved to be slaughtered at the hands of the Christian Conquistadores in the name of God. The view that God has nothing at all to do with a religious sense of peace and connection, however, places the fundamental reason for all religious practice on shaky footing; it separates all spiritualism from God. If it is the good feeling that comes from religious worship experiences that is primarily responsible for people’s practice of religion, this point of view “throws the baby out with the bathwater.”  It eliminates a theological problem with religion by eliminating one fundamental reason for its existence.
Any way we look at it, there exists a particular chemical state of the brain that corresponds to a religious sense. Maybe God and mushrooms both communicate to us using the same chemical. Maybe this makes the chemical evil incarnate because it perfectly mimics God’s own method of communication with us. The feeling of being connected to one’s fellow man and all of God’s creation is good if we come to it by self-manufacturing the chemical in our own brains but it is evil if we get help from one of God’s own creations. It is a perverse way of viewing things, but it has some theological attraction because it defines orthodoxy and religious experience in a way that requires the church: God does not live in humans or in his creation, only through the church. Religions always reach a point where they make exclusive claims to God for it makes the institutions indispensible. Christ himself railed at this notion. And it was fodder for the Reforamation. Still, in the way people expience it, religion is primarily meaningful in some social context, so there are practical advantages that accrue to its practitioners from buying into this corporate point of view.
Interestingly, there appears to be a parallel culture around certain hallucinogens: that one ought to be in a warm and supportive social situation when one takes them, else the experience can be a bad one. This parallels “where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I shall be also.” Even alchohol has the “never drink alone” rule. In all of these cases the brain is making certain happiness chemicals and the happiness is more impactful if it is shared. If we believe that humans are fundamentally social beings then the practices of all these groups would be conistent with a solid understanding of the physiology and psychology of empathy, of being and feeling connected.

There is, of course, another thing going on in all of these cases. Consider that all groups formed as voluntary associations are held together by expectation of benefits.  And that groups have their own self-interests that transcend those of the individuals that constitute them.  The benefits realized by a group’s constitutive members are ultimately expressed in terms of some sense of pleasure those benefits produce either directly or indirectly. A being experiencing pleasure in a group setting associates pleasure with the group itself and its members. Thus the experience is a bonding one. This realization has the curious effect of binding marriage, neighborhood saloons, rock and roll fanaticism, and religious ritual together as effects of a common social cause. All are institutions that benefit from or exploit the exact same physiological pleasure-seeking apparatus in order to create and sustain their institutional existence. They have an interest in providing pleasure in return for support of the institution. To the extent they can be successful in reserving all means or modes of pleasure to their own spheres they own all the exclusive interests of their members. Group membership addiction, if you will. This was the way the medieval Christian church operated - all forms of art and culture were part of the institution.
If, however, one can successfully argue that religion and spiritualism are disjoint both in theory and in practice: That religion is nothing but a body of moral thought built upon the assumption that there is a God; That the purpose of religion is not to give people a sense of peace or a sense of connection to the greater world and society at large, or to give a sense of purpose or meaning or fulfilment or pleasure; That peace, pleasure, joy, happiness have no connection with religious practice but rather, religious practice is a steady and just barely endurable string of insults to body, mind, and spirit - then all of these pesky questions disappear. If God and religious practice have no connection to a person’s feeling satisfied with the world or connected to other people, or calm or peaceful, or happy, then of course the curious ‘God chemical’ phenomenon poses no theological problems.

If, however, religion is nothing but a body of ethical thought then it is ethics, not religion. Religion without a strong spiritual element is a dead corpse, not a resurrected one. It is inanimate and soulless. Religion must be animated by spirit if it is to live in the daily lives and activities of people. Religion informs ethics. But ethics and religion are two separate human endeavors.

The fact that a chemical produces an effect indistinguishable in quality from that of religious worship poses questions we need to grapple with. These questions ought not keep us from doing good science, but rather should prompt us to do so. For in understanding what religion is not we might come closer to understanding what it really is.

There is some hope that psilocybin will have a number of therapeutic uses. It ought to be given a chance to fulfil these. In the mean time, I will continue to imagine that maybe the religious sense some talk about but not all of us share - due to variations in brain chemistry wrought by our creator - is simply an artifact of brain chemistry. This doesn’t necessarily mean one should stop praying. Or behaving as if there is a God. For it may be that only by behaving as if there is a God will we treat others the way we need to in order to have a durable and bearable society. And maybe only when we treat others in such a way will our serotonin levels reach what is required for that great feeling of well being.