Monday, September 11, 2006


Coyne, Dawkins, and religion

Telic Thoughts is predictably unenthusiastic about Jerry Coyne's review of Frederick Crews' Follies of the Wise. Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels is as predictably excited, as is PZ Meyers.

I'll set out my own, all-too-predictable, stance on the review below. Mind you, the review, not the book, which I have not read. Were I too read it, I suppose I would nod along with mirth at Crews' takedown of the poststructuralist theorists, read the sections on Freud with great interest, and the sections on religion with vehement disagreement. Here, I'll deal with the latter.

The first problem which I have with Coyne's review is, well, empiricism. Coyne quotes Crews as below:

The human race has produced only one successfully validated epistemology, characterizing all scrupulous inquiry into the real world, from quarks to poems. It is, simply, empiricism, or the submitting of propositions to the arbitration of evidence that is acknowledged to be such by all of the contending parties. Ideas that claim immunity from such review, whether because of mystical faith or privileged “clinical insight” or the say-so of eminent authorities, are not to be countenanced until they can pass the same skeptical ordeal to which all other contenders are subjected.

But this surely is untrue. Taken as such, it would invalidate more than half of academic disciplines, including mathematics - to which modern-day physics owes quite a bit. The devil's in the word "evidence". Mathematical truth is established without any recourse to empirical evidence, and the role of empirical evidence in philosophy and metaphysics would be, I would deem, quite problematic. In the hermeneutic, humanistic disciplines, including my own (historical linguistics), empirical evidence plays a very different role than it does in physics. Of course, the correspondence of propositions with empirical evidence is only one way in which they are measured. Their logical coherence, parsimonity, and other internal criteria are other ways to measure scientific propositions, and they grow more important the less experimental and empirical a discipline is.

And this is where Coyne (at least) goes wrong in as far as religion is concerned:

Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world. Supernatural forces and events, essential aspects of most religions, play no role in science, not because we exclude them deliberately, but because they have never been a useful way to understand nature. Scientific “truths” are empirically supported observations agreed on by different observers. Religious “truths,” on the other hand, are personal, unverifiable and contested by those of different faiths. Science is nonsectarian: those who disagree on scientific issues do not blow each other up. Science encourages doubt; most religions quash it.

But religion is not completely separable from science. Virtually all religions make improbable claims that are in principle empirically testable, and thus within the domain of science: Mary, in Catholic teaching, was bodily taken to heaven, while Muhammad rode up on a white horse; and Jesus (born of a virgin) came back from the dead. None of these claims has been corroborated, and while science would never accept them as true without evidence, religion does. A mind that accepts both science and religion is thus a mind in conflict.

There is much to criticize in these passages. Basically:

1) Supernatural events are excluded deliberately in science. This is basically what methodological naturalism is about. Originally the principle may well have been adopted (in ancient Greece) because it was a much more fruitful way to understand the world than supernaturalism. I do not deny it is. But it does have the status of a principle, rather than a pragmatic decision.

This does not mean that supernatural events may not be investigated as science. But science cannot but investigate them as natural, albeit anomalous and perhaps inexplicable, events.

Essentially, the scientific enterprise assumes that the universe is governed by a small set of natural laws. Its success is testimony to the likelihood that this assumption is correct. Of course, it remains a metaphysical assumption, which cannot be ultimately proved by science. I should crankily remark here that this is quite a different thing from saying that "science is just another religion".

"Supernatural" events can be either subsumed under those ultimate laws, or science cannot be fruitfully applied to them at all.

Now, let's come to miracles. I would venture that a putative miracle may be observed but may never be scientifically explained except in a naturalistic fashion. Miracles, as acts of Gods that, for a moment, break the regularities and order of nature that science is concerned with, affirm those regularities as much as they break them. Otherwise, they would not be miracles. It follows that a scientist who understand this can quite well combine a belief in miracles with a scientifically responsible approach to the regularities he is concerned with as a scientist. There is no conflict here.

Mind you, I do not believe in miracles. But my problem with them is theological rather than scientific: I regard the order of the universe, the regularities and lawlikeness of the natural world, as a manifestation of God, rather than as something She has created and She can break at will. I am uncomfortable with the idea of God as a cosmic trickster who needs to prove Her existence by making people walk on water or making statues cry. My agreement with some key religious propositions (notably, the existence of a Deity) does not mean I agree with all manifestations of religiosity, or that I would regard religious narrative as anything else but metaphors - some more apt than others - made by men.

Of course, the above probably means that I am, at bottom, a rationalist rather than an empiricist. Guilty as charged.

2) Religious truths are not necessarily personal, unverifiable, or inadmissable to inspection by others. They may not be empirically verifiable - but neither are the claims of most of theoretical linguistics, or indeed philosophy. That does not mean they are not verifiable. Coyne seems to rely far too much on mystical, personal revelatory experiences, which are not by themselves representative of religion as a whole. There is a whole tradition of Christian apologetics in which arguments not reliant on personal experience are relayed. One can accept or reject the validity of Anselm's ontological argument - but exactly the fact that one can accept or reject it means that it is open to intersubjective inspection, and measurable by the same standards of parsimony, logical coherence, etc. that can be applied to mathematics, philosophy, and other non-empirical disciplines.

And here's the matter in a nutshell. Uncharitably, one could say that Coyne pits a caricature of religion (mystical, revelatory, personal experience) against a caricature of science (empirical, hard-nosed scientists in lab coats testing their propositions against observable nature). What this removes is the middle field of metaphysics, philosophy, etc. in which religious claims as well as scientific claims can be measured, and can inform each other, without either being able to disprove the other.

It is possible to do worse than Coyne, though. Much, much worse:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?

Take a guess. Who wrote this?. Bingo. Richard Dawkins. Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Let that sink in for a while.

I should start off here that I highly respect Dawkins' witty and appropriate attacks against Creationism, ID, Postmodernist poststructuralist nuclear physics, and similar pseudoscientific field. I must also say that I appreciate Dawkins' combativeness more than Gould's 'seperate magisteria' viewpoint on science and religion. I disagree with his opinions on religion, but I can still respect his intellectual honesty. That, however, does not make the article I quoted the above from anything but an unbelievably Philistine exercise in ignorance.

I have an unpleasant feeling that the reasoning behind Dawkins' diatribe is something like: "Theology studies God. But God doesn't exist. Ergo, theology is nonsense." It should be quite obvious that the proposition "God exists" does not have to be true for theology to be an academically respectable field (with, may I say, about ten times as long a tradition of rigorous and intellectually respectable work than Dawkins' field, or indeed my own). Denying this would be akin to denying the validity of Greek philology because Ulysses didn't exist, and the Trojan war didn't go quite like that. Regardless of the existence of God, the Bible surely does exist, and has had a cultural impact beyond compare. Biblical studies, with its combination of philology, history and literary criticism, is quite an essential part of the theological enterprise.

I can go farther. The subject-matter of theology is, as I understand it, not so much God by itself and for itself, but the relationship between God and the Universe, in particularly, God and Man. And even this is an important field of research regardless of the existence of God. Because many people do seem to believe that God exists, and modify their behaviour accordingly. The relationship does exist, and can be studied with all the methodological rigor of other humanistic disciplines, even if God does not.

Some time ago I read C.P. Snows The Two Cultures which contains a valid criticism of the smug ignorance of science among the literate and art-loving classes - one that has lead directly to the abuses of physics and mathematics in modern-day poststructuralist logorrhea which Sokal and Bricmont so effectively lampooned in their Intellectual Impostures.

My reason for agreeing with Snow, Sokal and Bricmont is not a result of any disdain for the humanistic disciplines - rather, it is the result of my love for them, including my own field. For that reason, I do not believe they are served by vain claims to authority based on abused of mathematical and hard-sciences vocabulary, or indeed the "permanent revolution" and disdain for tradition of Kuhn's second-rate academic epigones. And hence, I would shudder what the Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science would have to say about such disciplines as linguistics, history, philosophy, and the like. As we have indeed no airplanes, computers, whaling sonars or indeed bombs to point to as our achievements.

Lately I more and more begin to feel that the smug, Philistine and ignorant attitude towards the humanities exhibited by some public scientists such as Dawkins has so far escaped a very timely and justified criticism. Perhaps Dylan Evans could step up again?

Grand Inquisitor Merlijn, Witch-Priest of the Forces of Darkness

Thursday, September 07, 2006


The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind

Currently reading Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It's a fascinating and radical book. According to Jaynes, consciousness - what he regards as an "analog space" in our minds in which we can imagine ourselves doing different things than we actually do, weigh probabilities and alternatives, etc. - is a quite recent development. Recent being as recent as 1200 BC. Before that, according to Jaynes, part of what is now our consciousness was "externalized" as hallucinated voices and apparitions (Gods) telling us what course of action to take in times of stress. Schizophrenia would be an atavism - a return to this previous stage, which Jaynes dubs "bicameral" - essentially the right hemisphere of our brain "tells" the left what to do, which is subjectively experienced as hallucinations of voices, of spirits, or gods.

Jaynes builds his case on, among others, examining epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssei, pinpointing the former's lack of "mental" vocabulary such as 'to think, to contemplate' and contrasting the actions of the protagonists of the Iliad with those of the much more individualized Odysseus of the latter poem. Without going into whether his case is compelling (it does seem so to me, but I lack the expertise to really evaluate it), a problem does seem to be the fact that human beings essentially spread all around the world tens of millenia before Homer. The ancestors of the Australian aboriginals entered Australia as early as 50,000 BC. Briefly, if consciousness is much the same around the world, the most parsimonious hypothesis would be that it arose while ancestral humans were still living in a restricted area in East Africa, not much later than 100.000 BC. If modern consciousness is as recent an innovation as Jaynes says it is, we would have to find remnant populations with the earlier "bicameral" consciousness somewhere on the planet.

But perhaps now there is anthropological support for something not quite Jaynes' bicameralism, then at least something broadly similar.

A year or so ago, a linguist called Daniel Everett caused an enormous stir by publishing a paper in Current Anthropology called Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the
Design Features of Human Language.
. Everett claims that, in many ways, the language of the Pirahã, a small indigenous tribe of the Amazon region, differs from anything else. Notably, Pirahã has no numbers, and no ways of denoting quantity: "one" may be the same word as "small" or "a small pile", "two" the same as "big", "big pile", and that's it. Also, the Pirahã language has one of the simplest phonemic inventories in the world - though the verb system of the language appears to be highly complex. Finally, the language appears to do without colour terms and without syntactic recursion (i.e. "I know that you know that he knows that..." constructions).

So briefly, the Pirahã language would force us to throw out a lot of things that were once thought universal to human languages. For this reason, Everett's research was met with incredulity among linguists - a sample of which may be found here.
Everett defends himself against charges of either being hoodwinked or perpetrating a linguistic hoax here.

I find it hard to believe that Everett was either conned by mischievous natives, or indeed is hoaxing. He lived among the Pirahã for all in all seven years. Quite some investment of time in a hoax. Rather, the incredulity with which his research was met reflects the radical nature of it.

Back to the point: some of the claims Everett makes about the Pirahã culture are even more amazing, in my opinion, than the linguistic claims. The one that gained most media attention was the apparent inability to count: being well aware of the possibility that they were cheated by Brazilian traders, the Pirahã asked fieldworkers to teach them to count - an effort which appears to have been totally unsuccessful. More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind - or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering - and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the "smoking gun" for Jaynes' hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the "bicameral" mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett's account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes' thesis.

The controversy that Daniel Everett caused makes it pretty sure that the Pirahã will receive visits from linguists and anthropologists trying to verify his claims. If indeed they are verified, perhaps Jaynes' thesis on the origin of consciousness, or parts of it at least, might receive new attention as well.

Merlijn de Smit

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