Saturday, May 30, 2009

Against Bigotry: My Last Words Here on the Subject by Anthony McCarthy

In all of the stuff I’ve read about the alleged war between religion and science, both sides seem to forget one of the clearest features of both their side and the other. Both science and religion are activities engaged in by humans and, as far as we know now, only by humans. There is not a single word or idea about either one that isn’t the product of a human mind, mouth or hand. There is no unmitigated expression of either the natural universe or the supernatural, no expression of them is more than symbolic or a substitute for the direct experience of the thing itself. All expressions in all topics, true, false, undecided, etc. are a completely human interpretation of their experience.

Religion is the expression of peoples’ interpretation of what they have every right to believe is their personal experience of the supernatural, in whatever form that takes. How much of their experience is covered under “religion” varies with personal interpretation. Religion is not a formally limited word. Being personal, it is wildly variable. Being an attempt to understand what is a profound and difficult experience, the symbolic expression of it is bound to be not much more than metaphorical. When mistaken as science or history, the vital essence of the metaphor is destroyed. And its not only religious fundamentalists who do that. Absent actions that harm others, religious belief is the property of the believer.

Science is the expression of a small part of peoples’ experience of matter and energy as it appears to their perceptions. Science exists as the result of a formal adoption of fairly definite procedures and methods. It is strictly limited. Or should be. Since science deals with what is a relatively simple part of reality, its symbolism frequently achieves something fairly accurate and useful. Often all too useful. Science is meant to be a source of universal instead of personal truth and as such is the property of everyone.

The expression of religious experience is not filtered through a relatively fixed series of universally adopted methodical refinements, it can’t be because it’s purposes and subject matter are too varied and are not in any way sufficiently limited to permit that. The realities and relationships it deals with are far too complex for that.

Science, which exists only in order to obtain an enhanced degree of reliability in understanding and manipulation of the material universe, can’t be practiced without passing its raw materials through those kinds of formal filters. Science without those filters is unreliable. That large parts of even the material universe are not able to be refined with science makes it a far more limited activity even within the material universe. Science, being an attempt to gain an enhanced level of reliability, doesn’t deliver that when it abandons or neglects the stringent practice of its methods. When it does follow those strictly, it is the source of our most reliable information about some of the material universe. When it doesn’t follow them strictly, its reliability is liable to break down, in the worst cases, catastrophically. For that reason what can be and has been treated by science and what hasn’t been is a vitally important consideration, would that it was more often considered.

You might have noticed that this discussion has, so far, left out the extremely important issue of good and bad, morality. Morality deals with interactions between living beings, the observation of rights and practicing justice and kindness. It is commonly thought that morality seems to be the proper concern of religion and has nothing to do with science. That idea is possible only if you ignore that as human activities and human concerns, there is no way to completely isolate them from having an impact on the rest of life. Interestingly, it is on the field of morality, of the struggle for the true, the good, the noble and the right, that the epic smack down between religion vs. science, for the minds of humanity is waged. Considering the frequently dishonest and dirty part of that, it’s not the reasoning mind that is being engaged. I will point out in passing that it is a grudge match waged by those who purport to represent the rest of us, whether or not we want to be associated with them.

Science doesn’t exist in a disembodied perfection, in a pure and chaste form, any more than religion does. The activities of both impinge on the lives of people and the lives of the countless other beings we are related to on this planet and, perhaps someday, beyond it. Religion frequently descends from its higher intentions of delivering justice and kindness and becomes as sordid as any other human activity. No less than religion, in its popular form and even in some who should know better, the romantic view of science rivals the worst of disingenuous depictions of religion.

Science has intentionally provided us with the means to kill millions in a single day. We know its deliberately made products have killed hundreds of thousands in two events, and many tens of thousands in others. The bombs that did that were intended to do just that. As a tool of commerce, it is one of the strongest forces with which we are destroying our planet. As with religion, only those who have done this in science are to blame for that, though the rest of us withholding the condemnation of those who do implicates us all in their crimes against life.

Both religion and science are useful to the acquisition and concentration of wealth, both, as wealth enhancement for its authorities, are liable to become potent tools of evil*. Both frequently have been and are entirely willing tools of evil today. Both, for example, have been used to justify racism and sexism, economic inequality and the murders of millions. Real life impinges on both to an extent and in ways neither is generally willing to admit.

Science should be held to its methods of achieving its enhanced reliability, though it often isn’t. What gets called by the honored title “science” often depends on the status of the person pushing it far more than what they’re pushing. While this is especially true in that part of science which depends on faith, popular science, it is often true even at levels above that. As others have also pointed out, scientists can’t read everything, they can’t even analyze everything they might need for their own work, much of what they use is taken on faith.

At times the eye rolling of scientists aware that something habitually regarded as being science is garbage, is suppressed because they don’t want to have to put up with the fussing by colleagues in other departments at faculty meetings. But if you get someone in the hard sciences to talk candidly, they can be quite expressive on the topic of the fraudulence of much that is called and popularly regarded to be orthodox science. They can be especially, and often quite publicly, verbal about the scientific deficiencies of rivals in their own field, with equally prestigious positions, or those even higher. Sometimes this can be reminiscent of the squabbling between two, closely related, religious sects. So the reliability of the entire field of “science” is not rock solid. It doesn’t deliver perfect reliability, it very often doesn’t serve the truth or improve the lives of people or other living beings. It’s conclusions are fully liable to being suppressed and its forgeries uncorrected for reasons entirely unrelated to diligent analysis and review. The trope that all the evil that science does is due to its corruption by “engineers” engaged in the applied corruption of altruistic, pure research, is bull feathers. You could make a sizeable list of truly evil practitioners of science who were never excommunicated from its rolls anymore than some of the most evil figures in our history weren’t from their religions. .

Religion too has its many failures and, at times, of horrible consequences. Due to the dramatic exposures of its hypocrisies and crimes against justice, religion is hardly lacking in bad press these days. Nor should it. Lacking formal procedures, it is harder to hold all of religion to standards of service and consistency but it should at the very least not be hypocritical. But that is as true for politics, trade, professions and any other collective effort to effectively do something in the world. Faulting them for not having methods and procedures which are certain to deliver the goods makes no sense. The insistence that one of these non-scientific, collective, attempts produce results as reliable as the best products of the physical sciences - dealing with much simpler phenomena - is clearly pointless. You may as well condemn all of science because scientists act sometime act with all the imperfections of people engaged in religion.

The idea that science and religion comprise two, non-overlapping magisteria of human activity is a good but limited view of the situation. I think that Stephen Jay Gould, the most famous proponent of the idea, was trying to define the two areas in conflict in a way that would separate them along a clear demilitarized zone. I think he really wanted to get back to his work and not get side tracked into a side show career, as some of his colleagues have been. Trying to get the fighting sides apart so more important things could happen was a noble effort at a limited peace. I also think he was being realistic about how we live our lives.

Among the legitimate goals of NOMA, as it’s often called, is to restrict the formal literature of science and the teaching of science in the public schools to their only legitimate subject matter. Science can’t be informed by anything outside of its subject matter and the methods developed to understand it. As mentioned, when science is extended past those, it’s not science anymore.

Religion-as-science doesn’t give reliable results because it can’t limit itself in that way, its subject matter is infinitely broader, it can’t restrict itself to a single methodology of collecting information. The results of even the best of religion, won’t be the results of science. It is news to many when they hear it but this fact is not news to many thoroughly religious people.

But among those other area of life mentioned above, religion can be and frequently is, informed by the most rigorous and reliable product of science. Religion, as politics, commerce, the arts, etc. do not require an exclusive wall against science. Being manifested in the material universe, inhabiting it, they could hardly avoid it. They can still exist and are often improved by consulting the specialized and limited product of science. There are even common areas of activity among them, sometimes, though, when those don’t serve any good end, they should be abandoned.

Politically, going past the struggle to keep religion from being imposed on formal science and science from stupidly trying to do what it can’t in the area of the supernatural, is a waste of time and a big mistake. The war on religion and the war on science does not need to define what we think and do, we don’t even have to be neutral in it. We can ignore the entire thing.

The life of a scientist or a religious believer is never honestly defined only in terms of one or the other. Both science and religion exist within individual people, within the same mind. It, more often than not, does. A person puts into effect the methods of science and delivers results, valid or invalid, to a positive, negative or inconclusive result. The same person participates in politics and, more often than not, other, non-scientific experience which they draw conclusions from for themselves. The person doesn’t contain non-overlapping anything, though they can compartmentalize when they have to perform a specific task. They don’t generally consult their political ideas when they make their bed or sweep their floor or balance an equation. They don’t consult their feeling of the necessity to give to the poor when they are observing the action of energy on a body in order to measure it as part of an experiment. The same person can do different things. They can have a life outside of and inside of work.

The public, political, problems that can come from and be solved with science, religion or any number of other human endeavor, generally concern avoiding doing harm to ourselves and our environment and to use resources more effectively in order to enhance the general good without causing worse problems. A large part of that is the effort to prevent those with enhanced power from abusing those with less or no power. Animals and plants, having no political power and demonstrating little in the way of effective planning for their protection, are the most vulnerable of all. Many people have almost as little ability to withstand the onslaught of the powerful armed with science, religion, the law and other tools.

As with the law, the potency of science and religion can be turned either way. The prestige of much of religion frequently has nothing to do with its justice or goodness. Much of the prestige of science has nothing to do with the search for truth, it has to do with its utility to those who have wealth and power and the large salaries that can result from serving the powerful. That money making potential and utility to those who want to use them are some of the few things it shares in full with religion. Pretending that either has a good track record in selfless service is one of the crueler jokes on the rest of us. The service to the common good has been spotty, both as intended effect and in its stated virtues being made real and effective. Lying about those records is another thing both science and religion have in common.

So, there we have it in all it’s marred, mixed, muddled and weathered reality. The works of human minds, mouths and hands, both science and religion. Both publicly aspiring to the highest truth and good, both thoroughly a part of human life in all its limited imperfection. Both should stop pretending and lying, neither should be allowed to lie about the other. And both of these exalted magisteria are fully a part of life, they are no purer in the reality of life than politics.

We, The People are saps when we fall for the cover stories and PR of all of them. They’re all of use to the greater good, but only when they serve it. Keeping them honest, making them serve the common good is the real problem. Not refereeing their eternal bickering.

* I think the relegation of the concept of evil to the status of a quaint and slightly embarrassing concern of a more credulous past should be abandoned. Evil, as anyone with a brain can see, is flourishing. Far from being a neurotic fixation keeping us from a happiness we have as a right, real guilt is preventative. People who don’t feel guilty about doing evil things, unsurprisingly, don’t have any hesitation to do them when they can get away with it. People can’t be monitored continually, they have to have internal limits on doing the rotten stuff they want to do. A lot of obsessive guilt is over things that hurt no one, people feeling that kind of guilt should stop indulging themselves and concentrate on what they do that hurts other people.

A Personal Note: I have had my fill of this stupid cultural squabble and especially the undifferentiated bigotry generated on the blogs of the left from the self-selected “science” side of it against all of religion. I did not live through the progress of the civil rights era to silently watch a rebirth of bigotry flourish on the nominal left. The “religion” side of the squabble is on the right and, at least, I can ignore that while pursuing my own side of the infinitely more important political fight. That, friends, is what I’m in this for, to fix our politics. I would invite bigots on both sides to go soak their heads and step out of the way because there is serious work for serious people to do and they’re being obstructive jack asses.

If “science” wants to shoot itself in the leg with stupid attacks on the vast majority of the population who are religious, including the majority of people who accept evolution, I can’t stop them. I will ask other people on the left to consider if that fight is worth more than the fight against global warming, for universal health insurance, to stop nuclear proliferation, against patriarchal sexism, racism, and a discouragingly huge agenda of absolutely necessary change. Scientists should ask themselves as well if they really want to get involved with the psycho-drama of the two warring camps of fundamentalists who have inflicted this distraction on us. But that’s their choice to make.

Quite frankly, and I’m sure most controversially, the most that the “pro science” side has a right to demand is that the formal literature of science and public school classrooms be restricted to the legitimate subject matter of science. Those are the only two legitimate areas in this that are of general public concern. Those people who have grabbed onto this dispute to promote a war on religion are a liability to those who really want to prevent religion being inserted where it shouldn’t be.

And in so far as public school biology classes are concerned, evolution has to take its place in a curriculum that deals with matters of more pressing concern to most public school students and the adults they will become. Most of them will need to protect an environment that will sustain their lives, sustain themselves with adequate food and clean water, avoid diseases, prevent pregnancies and venereal diseases through science-based contraceptive education, than will need to be familiar with the concept of natural selection.

And even within the section on evolution other topics such as genetic drift will have to become part of the subject as they gain more prominence. Topics vitally important to preventing racial, national and gender bigotry are of more pressing need than a familiarity with the history of classical evolution. It would be absurd to think that the fight over evolution is responsible for any of the problems exacerbated by ignorance of biology, the conventional American school schedule is probably more responsible for that. But there is no way that the anti-religious PR that has muckled on to the science of biology will help fix that. No more than their fundamentalist opponents program will.

Except in so far as it is useful to a student, evolution is of only cultural interest. Not everyone requires an extensive understanding of evolution in their work. We are talking about the one and only biology course many of these students will ever take in their entire lives. Not everyone receives a graduate level degree in any of the life sciences.

Trying to insert God into science is a supremely anti-religious act, as far as I’m concerned. It is to make God subject to the restrictions of the material universe. Personally, it confirms my suspicions about the religious defects of biblical fundamentalism, but that’s a personal observation only.

I am going to stop blogging on this issue except as it has the potential to damage the left’s chances in politics. Other than that it has wasted time better spent on important things. The warring sides are idiots, even the smartest of them. As noted here last week, it’s something I finally figured out. I don’t have any more time to waste on idiots who don’t care about fixing anything. We should tell them all to leave us out of it and ignore them when they attempt to divide us and to distract us from getting something done.