Friday, November 4, 2011

Are Science and Religion Compatible: The Debate

Haught pwns self with uncontrollable hand-waving
A couple days ago, I posed on Jerry Coyne's debate with Georgetown theologian John Haught on the question -"Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?"  After watching the video of the debate, I would say it is quite clear that Coyne absolutely demolished Haught.

I don't just say this as a fellow atheist (though I acknowledge my bias), rather I say this more as a commentary on the ability to aptly communicate their respective ideas.  Haught's arguments, on one hand, were muddled, incoherent, tortured, and opaque: typical accomodationist rhetoric that is really all just a bunch of bullshit.

I've had these kinds of professors in some of my business courses.  A good tip-off is when you see powerpoint slides with some elaborate or contrived schematic that really has no inherrent meaning.  But confused academics seem to gravitate toward these aggrandized diagrams perhaps to 'baffle with bullshit'.  Here are a couple slides from Haught's presentation (click the link for the .ppt):

See what I mean?  Its like there's a pathological need to over-complicate his thoughts (or perhaps a deliberate attempt to show how ostensibly complex his ideas are).
Anyway, compare that to Coyne's slides.  The distinction is quite representative of their ability to express themselves.

But presentation style aside, what did they have to say?  Getting through Haught's presentation was brutal, but there were a couple times where all I could do is face-palm.

Here are some of Haught's all-star moments:

We're so tied up with the universe, as we know today from science, that if we judge it to be pointless, doesn't that say something about the meaning, the significance of our own lives?
NO!  The universe does not require importance handed from above.  The universe owes us nothing.  And that meaninglessness of the universe does not have anything to do with the meaning of our own lives.  Our lives don't have any cosmic meaning; there is no grand plan.  But our lives do have meaning to us.  We give our lives meaning through our interests, goals, and aspirations.
The Hierarchical Principle maintains that a higher level in this heirarchy can encompass and comprehend the lower, but the lower cannot encompass, or get itself around, the higher.  That's the way the universe works in the classical theological schemes. [JLB: I find it annoying that he doesn't just come out and say 'this is the principle that I find most valid'.  Instead, it is simply presented as an academic exercise. Take a stand, Haught!] And that would mean, therefore, that understanding a lower level or gaining cognitional competence at one of the lower levels, does not qualify you to talk about the higher levels or to say anything deep about them...If there is an ultimate meaning or purpose to things, it would by definition, lie beyond human comprehension.
Doesn't this invalidate the entire enterprise of theology?  Or at least make it unnecessary, at least with respect to its efforts to "explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition"?

This also seems so typical of religious thinking - don't even try to critically examine 'the higher'.  Listen to your elders, they know better than you.

Winnowing down the bullshit is tough since it just keeps coming:
However, the traditional theological schemes allowed that it is possible to have an awareness of being grasped by the higher level.  And the name that theologians give to that awareness of being grasped by the higher level, by ultimate reality is faith.  So there is a kind of evidence for faith, but its not a controlling scientific sort of evidence.  Its the evidence from the experience of being carried away by something very large, very important, of ultimate value.
 More BS.  A simpler, and more plausible, explanation than one that people who experience being 'grasped by a higher level' is that the experience is a product of their brain's psychology in response to their environment and personal life.  Just because someone has strong feelings about transcendence doesn't mean that any metaphysical transcendence is actually occurring.  But Haught openly acknowledges that he isn't interested in actually determining if there is something non-natural [read: supernatural] going on as he said in the quote above, "It is the evidence from the experience".  That's it!  You have an experience, ergo it must be just as you interpret it.  I wonder what he has to say about out-of-body-experiences, especially since we know they are caused by the suppression of certain parts of the brain (and can be artificially induced in the lab): your eyes/mind/whatever don't actually leave your body and report back on stuff they saw.  You mind makes it up.

Before science came a long, and after religions became literate, they often used the metaphor of a book to talk about the universe.  But just as a regular book can be read at many different levels of meaning, so also can the universe be read at many different levels of meaning.  ...Take an adolescent who looks into a great classic and usually remains content, at least for a while, with the literal meaning of it and doesn't see what lies beneath the surface.  Is the adolescent wrong? No, there is a plain sense to literature.  And then take an adult, somebody whose been seasoned by life whose undergone a transformation process simply by the process of living and looks into the same book, I'm sure many of you have had the same experience, and will see it in a whole new way as an expression of timeless wisdom.
If the word of god is so damned important, why would it not make it accessible to everyone instead of those who have undergone this 'personal transformation' (of becoming self-deluded)?

If they were here today, representatives of these traditions, these pre-scientific traditions, wold be skeptical whether science, what we call modern scientific method, is wired to detect any deeper meaning, such as cosmic purpose, as they perceived in things.
The operative word is perceivedOf course, Haught glosses over the premise of whether there is any purpose to be detected.  And who f-ing cares what the pre-scientific 'representatives' of religion have to say about reality in the first place?  In what way are they qualified, especially given how much we have learned about the world, through the very process that Haught is denigrating (science), to comment on the nature of the wold?  The answer is easy: they aren't.  But Haught prefers to wear his rosy-colored glasses when speaking about the founders of religion as if they had some deep insights.  They didn't, and religion was their way of controlling others for political and monetary gain.

Don't talk about some designer or some magician who performs design tricks or intervenes magically into the process.  Start with a Christian understanding of God and what is that.
So he rejects intelligent design, which is good.  But I fail to understand how one can identify as a "Christian" while rejecting the notion that there is any intervention into the natural world.  So he rejects the literal creation story of Adam and Eve.  But what about the virgin birth and the resurrection?  Those are key tenets of the Christian faith.  And doesn't the belief that Jesus was the actual Son of God (while also being God) require that God intervenes in the natural world?

Like I said, theologians obfuscate to the point of incoherence.

Here's a quote that exemplifies this incoherence.  I would love to know what the hell he is talking about:

Revelation is not primarily Biblical texts or doctrinal propositions.  Revelation is primarily the self communication of the infinite to the finite world.  And by anybody's mathematics, since the finite world cannot contain the fullness of the infinite in any instant, but has to undergo a restless process, if you want to use a Darwinian term, adapting to its ultimate environment of this infinite self-giving love, then it would not be surprising that the finite world undergo a process of self-transcendence.  Matter would transcend itself into the coming of life; life would transcend itself into consciousness; consciousness into ethical and religious aspirations, and so forth.
 So if I have this straight revelation = evolution?
Just adjust the religious furniture in your mind a little bit.  Think of God, not so much as pushing creation from behind, but as inviting the universe into a new future.
And he ends with this doozie:
 Faith is the way in which we can guarantee that the evolution of the cosmos will continue into the indefinite future.
What can you say to that except, 'the emperor has no clothes'? [Of course: The Courtiers Reply]

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