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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Science, religion, and "framing"

I've posted a version of this on John Wilkins' blog (thanks to the commenter who pointed out to me that Wilkins had blogged thoughtfully on the issue). There is some discussion over there about whether there's really a tension between science and religion and about whether religion is really such a terrible thing. Let's address the latter point: what's so bad about religion - apart from its falsity? I'm assuming throughout this post that all known religions actually are false.

Well, (1) if you buy seriously and non-sceptically into a religious view of the world - I'm assuming here a fairly comprehensive one, not just a couple of key doctrines such as "the Abrahamic God exists" - then it's likely that your whole life will be lived in accordance with a worldview that is, ex hypothesi, fundamentally and pervasively false. In that sense, everything you do and say will be distorted and your life will be structured in accordance with an illusion. I actually think that that's a pretty bad fate, and I'd like to rescue people from it to the small extent that I can (while using nothing but liberal means, such as persuasion and example).

(2) Religions tend to preserve moral norms that may or may not have once been functional in the societies in which they originated, but are certainly not so functional now. The result is often a cruel disconnect between the way religion tells you how to live and the way of life that would actually be flourishing and pleasurable - and perhaps better for those around you as well as for you.

Perhaps this doesn't matter so much, because religious people can still feel happy, even if their happiness is based on the comforting illusion that they are living the most moral or correct way of life in the service of a deity or a supernatural principle. But, worse, the religious are often eager to impose their way of life on others by means of the coercive power of the state. They are always trying to ban something or other, whether it's abortion, alcohol, divorce, contraception, homosexual acts, stem cell research, rival belief systems, or whatever.

We have some choices here: we can insist on liberal tolerance, according to which the state does not impose contentious religious and moral beliefs - taking some proposals off the democratic agenda and limiting the powers of the state. I think we should do exactly that, but it's not a complete answer.

First, many religious leaders have no commitment to liberal tolerance; sometimes they merely pay it lip service, and at other times they are explictly opposed to it.

Second, oftentimes religious and moral beliefs that are not well-founded are nonetheless not actually all that controversial within a particular population, for historical reasons, even though they perhaps should be, since they have little evidence in their support. It can be difficult taking these off the political agenda.

Third, there are many grey areas, since most moral and political claims that are motivated by a religious worldview can be given some kind of secular translation, even if the translation seems implausible and contrived to sceptics. Weak secular arguments can thus obtain great popularity within an electorate if many people in the electorate have a visceral response that is based more on their religious instincts than on the merit of the arguments themselves.

For these reasons, it is often only the most blatantly sectarian claims (e.g. a claim for compulsory, state-enforced belief in transubstantiation) that end up being removed completely from the political agendas of modern liberal societies.

If we really do oppose popular religious moralities, or many aspects of them, we can't just trust that religious lobbies and the electorate will favour liberal tolerance across the board, while interpreting the idea of a liberal tolerance in a way that significantly narrows the scope of religious organisations to co-opt the coercive power of the state. We can argue for liberal tolerance, separation of church and state, and similar ideas, until we're blue in the face. But we also need at least some people to attack religion's moral pretensions more directly, and, since the morality may claim to be backed by revelation and authority, that can require attacks on the intellectual credibility of the religion itself.

I think it's healthy that modern societies continue to have a constant stream of high-powered people expressing scepticism about religion, and in many cases backing up their scepticism with arguments. I also think it's healthy when those arguments include arguments about the almost-inevitable tensions between religion and the findings of science.

This may not destroy religion, but that's not necessarily the aim. It can help create a social ethos in which there's widespread scepticism about religion's intellectual and moral authority. To me, that's healthy. It can also put pressure on religion(s) to adapt to social and intellectual change, and to mutate into something more benign. To me, that's also healthy. To a considerable extent, it's been happening. There are certainly Christian positions with which I don't have too much of a quarrel (although I see no reason why I should actually believe any of them).

As for framing ... There is some contradiction between the process that I described in the two paras immediately above and any masterplan for popularising science that includes reassuring existing religious demographics that science poses no threat to religion - and so should be more appealing to the religious. I'm afraid that I'm unlikely ever to accept that a masterplan such as Matt Nisbet's - which contains this element - should be allowed to override the great social benefit that comes from a stream of intellectually high-powered people in each generation (like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, and many others whom I could name, in ours) continually putting pressure on the truth claims made by religion.

But if I understood correctly what John Wilkins was saying in his post, I agree with him that all viewpoints on this ought to be put. Although I disagree with Nisbet, I won't try to shut him up. On the other hand, if he ever tells me to shut up he'll get the same sort of terse and hostile response that he got from PZ Myers recently.

Now, if someone tried to use the coercive power of the state to prevent Nisbet saying "Shut up," to Myers, I'd defend him (i.e., I'd defend Nisbet). In that sense, but only in that rather weak sense, he has the right to say it. I'm all for freedom of speech. But he doesn't have the right to say it without getting a rude reply.

Once it's said, Myers has the same right to reply, as he did, "Fuck you very much." Beyond that, I think that it's actually quite an appropriate response to "Shut up." When you are told to shut up, the conversation has moved to a meta-level where you need not follow it: no one need feel that they have to justify their actions in arguing for their views, as opposed to giving their arguments for the views themselves.


John Wilkins said...

You correctly interpret me, and we agree on this issue completely.

Russell Blackford said...

Cool, John. While I've got you, are you coming down for the AAP conference?

Blake Stacey said...

They are always trying to ban something or other, whether it's abortion, alcohol, divorce, contraception, homosexual acts, stem cell research, rival belief systems, or whatever.

This can really throw a monkey wrench in your plans when you're trying to host a drunken orgy of divorced people in a stem-cell laboratory without the risk of siring offspring. (Basic Ramsey theory indicates that in any orgy of three or more participants, at least two must share the same sex, neglecting such complications as biological intersexuals.)

Now, if someone tried to use the coercive power of the state to prevent Nisbet saying "Shut up," to Myers, I'd defend him (i.e., I'd defend Nisbet). In that sense, but only in that rather weak sense, he has the right to say it. I'm all for freedom of speech. But he doesn't have the right to say it without getting a rude reply.

Well said.

Russell Blackford said...

Those drunk, divorced orgiasts should also be gnostics or Zeus-worshippers, or perhaps devotees of Giordano Bruno.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your nicely reasoned comments on Pharyngula (currently my favorite blog). I tracked back to find yor website and I am duly impressed. You have been bookmarked and I look forward to your future posts.


Anonymous said...

Religion of Soul - Religion of All

Saint Tara Chand Ji Maharaj generally used to say in his discourses– Brahamana (a higher cast in Hindu cast system) is that man who has dissolved himself into Brahamic (cosmic) consciousness. He does not accept donation, but tries to give, whatsoever he has, to the needy, indigent and destitute. Power of Word, the Creator, reveals in his soul which fulfills all his desires. The Lord of imaginations (Kalpavriksha) accepts his offerings of Love and devotion and provides all the treasures of life to him. Saint Charan Das says-

Brahmana is that who identifies Brahman (God) in himself

Becomes introvert and seeks the vision of Lord

His senses cease to travel outward

He nurtures compassion for every creature

He becomes devoid of passions, anger, lust, greed and ego;

Brahmana is that who possesses these virtues.

We are devoid of internal treasures embedded in the deeper layers of our Self because we have not identified the hidden enrichment inside. The actual bliss lies inside but we are groping outside in the gloomy world of passions and grief. We are adopting lopsided approach which create imbalance in our life energies. The outer achievements are dominating over the spirit of rationale and wisdom which has created imbalance between the inner and the outer world. The result is tension, instability, selfishness, individuality, unhealthy competition, nepotism, communalism and terrorism.

The reason of this imbalance is that we have not awakened the spirit of Wisdom seated in the middle of eyes (Third eye); the Lord of which gives all the orders; all the actions originate from this sphere (Ajya Chakra) of actions. Ajya means command, Chakra means sphere. All commands emanate from this sanctioning authority. All the senses respond to the mandate of this housing spirit. But the inner Self of this sanctioning authority has been sleeping in his den for innumerable lives. We have not made efforts to awaken its power which is sleeping encoiled for many past lives. When it awakens, the life force starts dancing which is seen and enjoyed by the devotee, the yogi.

The Hindu scriptures have called this state as the ‘Awakening of Serpentine power’. It is called serpentine power as it opens its vistas of light like the expanding and contracting face of a snake. Sri Aurobindo has called it Psychic being who is the actual representative of Supermind and master of transformation in this phenomenal world of actions and reactions, and cause and effect. It is the immutable spirit which dwells in the mutable spectrum of physical consciousness. It is the glimmering spark of eternity amidst the fort of dark forces of relative existence. Bhagwat Gita has narrated this power as Kshara Purusha; the mutable Spirit of universe which goes on changing upto the time this cosmic play persists. This Kshara Purusha is the Lord of Works and Psychic being remains in its fold as the representative of Supreme Being, the Satpurusha. It coordinates and commands all the activities of this Ksaras Purusha in any individual existence. Upto when this psychic Being is not awakened, its spirit remains liable to mutability and perishability and remains the instrument of the changes of time, space and causation. It follows the principle of cause and effect. Its eternity does not manifest in its self. Its bliss does remain unveiled and disguised. The friability and fragility of its grounded nature becomes slave of lust and passions. Problems, sorrows and grief of the lower nature remain integrated part of its spirit. This state of helplessness and weakness of the spirit is called ‘Jiva’ in Hindu jurisprudence. When this spirit identifies its natal strength of Real nature, Para-prakriti, Para-shakti or Radha, it awakens and the higher nature of imperishable, intangible and immutable Purusha descends into the brittle regime of Ksara Purusha and dismantles the domain of illusion and hallucination. This immutable spirit has been called as Aksara Purusha, Aksara Brahman or Shabd Brahman; the eternal and imperishable power of Supreme Being which manifests through the melody of celestial Song (the Word Power) in the universe.

This Aksara Purusha or Brahman is the Lord of knowledge; the originator of all the streams of mental consciousness from where outflows all the gnosis of visible and invisible spheres of the existence. Discriminative power of mind and wisdom are the results of the outpouring of this Sun of luminous knowledge. Lord of Works draws its vitality from this Sun of gnosis. This Purusha has also been called Savitri-Surya or Gayatri-Surya. This sphere of consciousness is the golden womb, Hirnaygrabha; the womb of universe where lies all the seeds of this universe. The universe takes birth from this womb of Lord of knowledge; the Aksar Purusha.

There is third layer of consciousness which reconciles the opposition of Ksara and Aksara, mutable and immutable, God and non-God, thesis and anti-thesis. All the physical, vital, mental and spiritual forces become satiable in this stratum of consciousness. All works, all knowing and unknowing plunges into the ocean of Bliss of this Purusha (Soami), the Satpurusha or called Purushottama in Gita. Sri Aurobindo calls this state of bliss as the Supramentalisation of the being. This realization of the Self can come through self-giving as it is the inherited legacy of the Lord of love and devotion. The fortified spheres of Ksara and Aksar can only be surmounted and churned through the intense longing of love and devotion for Satpurusha. This realization goes beyond all the boundaries of abysmal lows and sublime highs. All the limitations and perceptions of life, mind, gods, and non-gods, virtues and non-virtues get vanished after taking a sip of the ambrosia, Amrit, of the sanctity of Satpurusha.

The path of self-realization starts with the awakening of sleeping power lying within ourselves. It is called opening of Third eye. Buddha says it Divya Chaksu, supernatural eye of brightness. Mahavir Swami says it Param Jyoti, the supreme Light. Hazrat Muhammad calls it Noor; Light as the embodiment of Allah. Jesus Christ calls this experience as the Light of the world. In this experience, supernatural powers of gods and goddesses of goodness and virtue shower their grace on the yogi. The endowed grandeur of cosmic energy starts flowing unobstructed through the yogi as through a vessel of Supreme Being. But this opening of third eye is the initiation of spiritual realization. It is the opening of consciousness of Ksara Purusha, the Lord of Works or Virat Purusha, from where all the physical and gross form of cosmos originates. It is the starting of celestial or heavenly experience.

Kapil, an Indian sage, calls this state of realization as the attainment of the power of discrimination, Vivekkhyatiprapti, and intuition. Patanjali Rishi narrates it the vision of cloud of Virtue, Dharammegha Samadhi. Sankaracharya, Sri Aurobindo and other seers of reality have called it the experience of Samprajyat Samadhi, a state of trance where all unknown becomes known. Vedic literature says when the Sun of Truth rises, the dark of ignorance vanishes; tat satyam suryam tamsi ksiyantam. This Sun of Gnosis remains refulgent for ever within the soul of yogi; adityavat prakashyati tat param. When this Sun shines inside the Soul of yogi, every kind of knowledge starts flowing towards him; yasmin vijyate sarvam vijyatam.

When yogi surpasses this experience of refulgence, he reveals the truth in the form of superconscient light; not visible even with the supernatural eye of the Being. The fervour and intensity of this light becomes so dense that it is not visible through the celestial eye of gods; the Third eye. This is the experience of Sahasrara; the seat of Param Purusha (Supreme Being). This experience has been known as the realization of Nirvikalpa (beyond all alternatives), Asamprajyat (beyond all knowledge) and Nirbeej (devoid of all the seeds of happiness and sorrows) Samadhi. Christian mystics have called this state as the ‘Dark night of Soul’ or ‘Dark Secret’; the experience of which was engrossed by Prophet Moses on Mount Sinai. In this experience he was enveloped by a cloud of darkness when he approached the abodes of God. It is a blissful experience where the spirits of God and non-God get immerged into the ocean of Bliss of transcendental Eternal. The experience of Sahasrara has been considered just a milestone in Radhasoami Yoga. It is the lower seat of Brahamic (Cosmic) consciousness.

Osho opines that upto when the Ajya Chakra, is not awakened, man cannot break the shackles of slavery. He always remains in bondage of physical, economical, social and religious slavery. A slave of many masters, inner slavery as well as outer; an instrument in the hands of whimsical and unflinching forces of lower nature. Once released from the clutches of one master, he is incarcerated in the prison of another. He can not give command; he is not capable of giving command. He can only accept the orders because his power of Command, Ajya Purusha, is sleeping.

Tantric philosophy says that senses are the food of third eye. This eye is hungry for many lives because it has undergone through the trance of deep sleep thereby losing its sense of intuitive discernment. The gate of its sensibility has been locked. Key is missing. Key which can awaken the serpentine power has been lost. The treasure can only be unearthed with the key of wisdom and the power of true discrimination. This enclosed bud can open its petals of wisdom only through the incense of psychic enlightenment. Once this psychic awakening is realized, the gates of benevolence and magnanimity will open. All the treasures of life and knowledge will become accessible. The adamant and obdurate walls of ego and ignorance will shatter and their consciousness will ultimately transform into the gnosis and bliss of superamental Power. The impressions of grief and hunger will vanish from the mantle of humanity. The sense of self-giving will dominate the sense of wit and the doors of ‘Heaven on Earth’ will be opened to the aspiring humanity.

The sign of true religion is that it makes a man independent and provides redemption. It does not imprison him through the temptation of heaven and fear of hell. God lives within and it can be revealed by self-giving as love and devotion is the soul of supreme Realization.

This realization is complete in all the respects. It fulfills a person in totality. The beauty and outpouring of enlightenment from the Self enriches the depleted consciousness of body, life, mind and psyche.

Darkness is nothing but the depletion of light. Sorrow is nothing but the depletion of joy and bliss. Poverty and hunger is nothing but the depletion of faculty of mind and physique. Anger is nothing but the depletion of love. Vanity is nothing but the depletion of compassion. Greediness is nothing but the depletion of the spirit of self-giving. Communalism is nothing but the depletion of vastness of religion. Terrorism is nothing but the depletion of spiritualism from the core of the heart. Soul, being integral part of bliss, eternal splendor and consciousness, love, compassion, sacrifice and grandeur of the Supreme Being, impregnates all these qualities. All the virtues flow exuberantly and dwell inherently in the religion of Soul and Self-realization.

God governs all because he exceeds all and dwells in all. Hence the religion of Soul is the religion of God and the religion of all. That is why the religion of Soul is capable to replenish all the depleted energies of an individual as well as the whole humanity and the whole existence. It is a converging and enlightened state of all the diverging and combating energies and vital forces of the universe.

THANKS FOR GIVEN TIME TO RAED & FOR MORE PLZ CONTACT ON hariomkvk@gmail.com & PLZ VISIT www.radhasoamitaradham.com ABOUT WEBSITE PLZ CONTACT jasdeep.sindhu@gmail.com


Laughin said...

Blake Stacey said...
This can really throw a monkey wrench in your plans when you're trying to host a drunken orgy of divorced people in a stem-cell laboratory without the risk of siring offspring. (Basic Ramsey theory indicates that in any orgy of three or more participants, at least two must share the same sex, neglecting such complications as biological intersexuals.)

That is the closest thing to a scientific statement that has ever come out of this poser.

Neil' said...

One of the sad screw ups is the constant framing as "science versus religion." No, false. Science is a more specialized branch of applied knowledge seeking and religion is properly defined as belief based on tradition, teachers regarded as special, etc. They left out "philosophy," which is the use of wide-ranging analysis and yes, speculative thought to get a handle on questions like "why does anything exist at all, and why is it like this and not otherwise?" Science alone can't really do that, since it is geared to finding natural regularities ("laws") and applying them to diverse phenomenae. It isn't really geared to explaining e.g. why the laws are like that to begin with, whether other universes exist (especially ones that aren't even extrapolations of current knowledge/theory). It certainly isn't best suited for foundational questions like whether we should accept modal realism (that "all possible worlds" exist since there is no way to justify selection out of the Platonic space of all descriptions/model universes, etc, e.g. per David Lewis, Max Tegmark.) Finally, so many scientism militants forget that the very arguments they use about what science is, what it can do versus religion, etc, positivism, meaningfulness of the unfalsifiable (note e.g. that probability claims aren't falsifiable due to no outcome being a disproof!) are themselves philosophy, not science proper. Yet the same stale face-offs between "a scientist" and "a religious leader/believer" are what we see put forth. We need to hear more from philosophical thinkers (like me, albeit not in professional life), some of whom have reasoned arguments for there being an ultimate being, etc.

Anonymous said...

oh Neil,Neil, Neil...what a sad little concern troll you are. If you can provide ANY empirical evidence for the existance of a deity/deities beyond anecdote or wishful thinking you might have an argument, but until then - STFU.

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, but I dont think I'm likely to convert to Hinduism just now.

Craig C Clarke said...

We need to hear more from philosophical thinkers (like me, albeit not in professional life), some of whom have reasoned arguments for there being an ultimate being, etc.

It's funny. Last October I was in the presence of a man, a friend of my brother-in-law, as he explained why he was flying down to Brazil to pay a faith healer to cure his cancer. He explained that not everyone believed he was doing the right thing, but they weren't spiritual and "philosophical thinkers, like him."

Who would have thought that philosopher was a synonym for dumbass.

Blake Stacey said...

Wow. In a single day, I've been called a "poser" and, implicitly, a "scientism militant". I win! To the latter charge, let me suggest that we only know about those spooky "questions science can't answer" because we've done a whole lot of science first. In the early 1940s, the question "why do all electrons have the same charge and the same mass?" might well have been shrugged off as a philosophical matter, one of those entries in the "we can't tell why the laws are the way they are" file. The suggestions on the table, like Wheeler's proposal that all the Cosmos was just one electron, zig-zagging back and forth in time, sound as absurd as modern "multiverse" proposals, if not more so. Surely any question which attracts such absurd proposals is beyond the grasp of science! But less than a decade later, we had quantum field theory, and we had an answer, the right answer: electrons are alike, because they are all quanta of the same field.

I pick this example from among countless other possibilities because you can still find theologians who haven't heard the news: Richard Swinburne, for example.

Sure, there's still a frontier of knowledge: why is Nature described by quantum field theory instead of some other mathematical construction? But to assert that the answer to these questions has anything to do with a misogynistic, filicidal, genocidal storm god from the Bronze Age Near East is, I think, to reveal a misplaced confidence in our ancestors.

The Unicow said...

They left out "philosophy," which is the use of wide-ranging analysis and yes, speculative thought to get a handle on questions like "why does anything exist at all, and why is it like this and not otherwise?"

I started out college as a philosophy major. It provided quite an insight into the world of philosophy.

Such as the fact that there's not a single question that's ever been asked that a philosopher is qualified to answer.

Really, all philosophical discourse is just a pseudo-intellectual circle jerk. I'd rather talk to a truck driver any day. At least they know something. The same can't be said of most philosophers.

The Flying Trilobite said...

An excellent post, Russell. As usual, you cut to the core.

Defending Nisbet is as important as the right to criticise. Escalations and use of expletives demonstrate the passion of the ideas, but don't diminish what the different parties tried to say.

How I've described situations like Myers' in the past is like this: if someone says, "No, 2+2=4 dumbass," their use of a pejorative in no way diminishes the fact that they are correct.

(Now, I'd better go. My chakra-sphere is rumbling and I have to eat.)

Russell Blackford said...

Given the philosopher bashing that's now going on, it's just as well my skin isn't especially thin today.

Brian said...

Hi Russell. Another good article. Keep 'em coming.

Is the AAP going to be of interest to non-philosophers like myself? Assuming that I could attend in the first place.

Russell Blackford said...

Could be, Brian. I guess it'll be a couple of months before the program is available. But you'll probably be as well equipped for the conference as most people.

Brian said...

But you'll probably be as well equipped for the conference as most people.
I didn't know the AAP was a conference for puerile narcissists. :)

Brian said...

Just in case that came off badly. The joke was at my expense. I'm not suggesting anything about anybody else. :)

Steve said...

Excellent post and overall blog here - the pz factor may soon send much more traffic your way.

Laughlin - calling Blake a poser is very odd given his thoughtful posts on his own blog, here, elsewhere and indeed this is why he gets blogrolled. Why the name-calling?