Sunday, July 11, 2010

Is Consensus Reality A War Of Ideas And Concepts? Or How The Religious/Scientific Dogfight Is Perpetuating A False Dichotomy

What is consensus reality? Historically it has been the attempt by humanity, especially philosophers, to answer the question “what is real?”. Materialism is a philosophy that contends that the only thing that exists is matter, or more precisely the material world. Materialism had developed, seemingly simultaneously, in several geographical regions of Eurasia during the Axial Age (800B.C.E. – 200 B.C.E.). First, in India by philosophers such as Ajita Kesakambali and later in Greece with Democritus' theory of Atomism. Materialism began to gain ground in Greece amongst philosophers such as Thales, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras, but hit a wall when it was thoroughly rejected by the more esoteric ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Subsequently, 300 years later, materialism would seemingly be conquered by a Jewish rabbi in the Middle East who, “triumphed over death and had risen after three days in the tomb.” As a result of this “momentous occasion”, materialism would flutter during the Common Era, only popping up sporadically in places like Jayaraashi Bhatta's work Tattvopaplavasimha ("The Upsetting of All Principles"), or in the Middle East with Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus. It wouldn't be until much later, say 1500 years to be exact, that materialism would finally be resurrected during the Renaissance. Fueled by the cultural and educational reforms of Humanism, and the scientific world's ability to combine Plato's deductive reasoning with the the empiricism of Aristotle, to give us the Scientific Method.

Since the subsequent Age of Reason, materialism has dominated science and the western idea of what we call “Consensus Reality”. Science has tirelessly tried to extrapolate every bit of empirical data out of the material world in order to provide humanity with a tidy and logical interpretation of reality. Most scientists are materialists who believe in the existence and the exploration of an “objective reality”. To achieve this, scientists follow the scientific method in order to be as objective as possible. More importantly one must also accept that there is an objective world, a world that exists in the absence of subjective experience and which is measurable and explainable. Anything that cannot be measured or explained empirically, for example: language, emotions, virtue, philosophy, faith or art, are not worthy of scientific exploration and should be left to the humanities department. This presents us with a metaphysical problem. First of all, even if there was an objective reality that exists independent of the mind which perceives it, we could never truly know of it. This is due to the fact that pure objectivity does not exist because all scientific methods and measurements are based on human tools and ideas. Scientific knowledge, according to Emanuel Kant, is systematic knowledge of the nature of things as they appear to us subjects rather than as they are in and of themselves. In other words, we could never experience pure objectivity because all human observation is subject to subjective prejudices. So inevitably what we are left with can be more accurately described as a collective subjectivity, or a consensus reality.

The rationalism of science seems to be obsessed with disproving or dismissing what they see as the irrationality of religion. Scientists make claims regarding the irrational impossibilities of religious texts. For instance that Noah's flood has never presented itself in any geological record, the immaculate conception is biologically unsound, and talking animals are just crazy. I agree that those who believe the bible to be the literal word of God fail to recognize not only the scientific inaccuracies, but also the contradictions within the texts which suggest that it is not the product of an infallible entity. These two extreme ways of thinking both overlook the real benefit of the allegories within all religious text. I have always firmly believed that it is not important whether a story is true or fictional, what is important is the quality of the message within the story. But I guess the reason science has such a problem with religious text is that some people, mainly fundamentalists, try to present them as nonfictional. You never hear of scientists pointing out the impossibilities within traditional fictional literature. That is why I also find it odd that you would find religious books like the Torah, New Testament and the Qur'an in the non fiction section of any public library.

Some scientists, such as Sam Harris, believe that religion serves no useful purpose to humanity. Overlooking the charitable good that religious organizations do for their community and focusing on how religious ideologies have impended the exploration of areas such as stem cell research, Harris also seems to overlook the discoveries in the fields of anthropology and sociology which indicate that without religion, and more importantly without cults, we would not have culture. Russell Kirk pointed this out in his essay “Civilization Without Religion?”, when he stated, “From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship-that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows. This basic truth has been expounded in recent decades by such eminent historians as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Arnold Toynbee.”
Science and Religion are both products of the human mind. They are expressions of how the two hemispheres of the brain differ in perceiving the world around us. And as a result they are also subjected to the limitations of humanity. This means that neither on their own, no matter how hard they try, can explain how the world or how the universe works. By demanding that we dwell in one side or the other, science and religion, are doing a great disservice to humanity. Science can examine and try to understand the nature of the external material world, but inevitably will offer no insight about how the external world influences our inner experiences. In other words, it has yet to offer us insight into how matter and consciousness interact. I think that Terence Mckenna's idea that the world is made of language is very profound and gives us more insight into how the consciousness of human beings differs in complexity from other animals in nature. On that line, one could posit that the development of language was the fueling factor in the development of culture and cultural organization, which inevitably began to express these two cultures of thought, the humanities and science, outwardly from the two hemispheres of the brain.

Scientists such as Harris lament that the religious proclamation of faith is dogmatic and irrational, but fail to see that areas of scientific inquiry, such as sub atomic particles and antimatter, to also be faith based since they cannot be measured or observed. It is much like when the pious exclaim that there is a god, in essence both parties are saying the same thing, “it's there. Take our word for it.”

In a debate on ABC, Harris told Deepak Chopra to “show more humility in what he may not understand.” I think this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Chopra went on to say that there are three ways of attaining knowledge. “One way is through empirical observation, what we call through the eyes of the flesh. Then, there is a deeper knowing, coming from the eye of the mind, for example, when I want to understand the theorem of Pythagoras, and then there is a deeper knowing, the eyes of the soul.” Deepak went on to quote William Blake by saying,

“We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light”.

Chopra then indicated that this quote called for people to combine these three ways of attaining knowledge into what he called “a synthesis of knowing”. To which Harris responded, “That's why William Blake wasn't a great scientist.” Obviously, Harris was aware that William Blake, being a Romantic, was a poet known for his rebellion against the accepted norms by the Age of Enlightenment, and that the Romantics where a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. Chopra was actually making the point that historically speaking, as soon as science thinks they have, through empiricism and classification, explained the nature of the world, no sooner will nature present us with a scientific anomaly like the UFO, out of body experiences or the duck-billed Platypus. It's almost as if the cosmos was keeping humanity in check by doing what it could to throw a monkey wrench into the theory that science, on it's own, can explain the nature of the world. This is obviously flame throwing on Harris's part, but this time, it caused a great debater to go down in flames. Chopra ostensibly made the better argument by displaying humility (whether Harris believes it or not), and not being dismissive of what the other side was saying. Chopra made a concession earlier in the debate when Harris made a good point, but Harris was quick to be dismissive of anything Chopra had to say. Especially the idea that we could, and probably should have, a synthesis of knowledge. The Blake quote sealed the deal, because it was an open plea for humility in the scientific world. Chopra was looking for a understanding, or consensus, between the two schools of thought, while Harris seemed like all he was looking for another notch in his debate belt.

I agree that religion should not be held off the table of rational criticism, but I think we also owe it to our species to examine the possibility that religion could be an evolutionary adaptation. Or perhaps, as Carl Jung did so often, we could examine the universal reoccurring parables throughout the religious world. This approach may provide us with a deeper understanding of religious symbolism, the evolution of culture, of metaphor (especially within religious text) and the anthropomorphism of nature with deities. I myself find it quite easy to view the idea of God as a personification synonymous with nature. One will definitely make a better argument against a secular scientist by defining the term god to be synonymous with nature. I also think that within this debate that the individuals who take a more moderate stance, such as Chopra, stand to make the most progress for humanity by promoting a unification of thought, and thus transforming the debate into a more civilized discussion, rather then the my side vs. your side debate.

Noted Neurologist V.S Ramaschanran who has made leaps and bounds in the field neuroscience. Gave a presentation on mirror neurons at a TED talk, which had just been recently discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in Italy. Ramachandran explained that the biological development of a sophisticated mirror neuron system in humans gave us the ability to empathize, imitate and emulate complex social behaviors and may have laid the foundation for human civilization as we know it. Ramachandran concluded that “For the longest time people have regarded science and humanities as being distinct. C.P. Snow spoke of the two cultures: science on the one hand, humanities on the other; never the twain shall meet. What I'm saying is the mirror neuron system underlies the interface.”, which could possibly help in uniting both cultures. Ramachandran also is know for his research of split brain patients. In one study he asked each hemisphere the same question, “Do you believe in god?” the left hemisphere said no, while the right hemisphere said yes.

This scientific finding is mind boggling and presents us with a whole new set of religious and scientific inquiries. I think that it also suggests that science and religion should work together to dissolve this false dichotomy that has been erected between these two schools of thought and, hopefully, help in assisting the world as a whole to stop dismissing the claims of religion or science, and encourage people to hold the dogmatic doctrines within both fields up to scrutiny in an attempt to promote tolerance, understanding and further development. If modern atheists continue to perpetuate a crusade against religion under the flag of science, especially when religious figures like Chopra extend an olive branch, then we will inevitably be left with this shrill and interminable debate that will continue to get us nowhere.

-The Dead Guy

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