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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Robert Pollack's The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith

(Republished from Talking Philosophy (2014).)

Some time ago now, I was sent a review copy of The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning, and Free Will in Modern Medical Science, by Robert Pollack (Columbia University Press, 2013 – first published 2000). Pollack is a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, and the main content of the book consists of three public lectures that he gave at Columbia in 1999 as that year’s Schoff Memorial Lectures. His main subject matter for the lectures was the relationship, as he saw it, between science (especially medical research and practice) and religious faith.
As one might hope, given that background, the book is thoughtful, well-written, and accessible. It provides an interesting case study of an eminent scientist’s attempt to reconcile his scientific understanding with his religious faith. It is not, however, philosophically sophisticated, and I doubt that it will persuade anybody who is not already committed to the idea that science and religion are in some way compatible. Indeed, I expect that I could deliver a better argument for their compatibility if called upon to do so.
Refreshingly, Pollack does not fall back on contrived theological arguments. Although his book contains a certain amount of theology, he bases his continued religious belief squarely on the emotional unacceptability of the alternative – all while conceding that science not only provides no good evidence for the existence of a divine intelligence, but actually provides evidence to suggest the opposite.
Strictly speaking, he may be correct that what he calls “matters of personal belief” (he means supernatural or otherworldly beliefs) “cannot finally be tested by science”; there are notoriously many ingenious moves available to protect “personal belief” from empirical refutation. The emphasis should, however, be on the word finally. Someone who is not emotionally committed to a religious worldview may see a great deal in the history and findings of science that at least makes religion (and particular religions) far less psychologically and intellectually attractive than would otherwise be so.
Pollack does not really deny this. On the contrary, he concedes that “[t]he molecular biology of evolution, in particular, has uncovered facts about me and the rest of us… that fit badly, if at all, into my religion’s [i.e. Judaism’s] revelation of meaning.” After some discussion of the detail, he concludes: “These facts from science tell us, in other words, that our species – with all our appreciation of ourselves as unique individuals – is not the creation of design but the result of accumulated errors.”
If he’s right that this is the implication of our scientific knowledge, why not accept it and build our self-understanding from there? Nothing in the evolutionary account contradicts other facts about the world, such as our responsiveness to each other, our status as social animals, our ability to communicate through language and other means, and our capacity to produce art and culture, and to create societies and civilisations. Even if we are “the result of accumulated errors”, I see no reason to deny the possibility of a rich humanistic understanding of ourselves and each other: one that need include nothing that fits badly with robust findings from the physical and biological sciences.
For Pollack, nothing like this would be good enough. For him, the idea that we live in a world without transcendent meaning is emotionally unbearable, so he relies on what he calls “the irrational certainty that there must be meaning and purpose to one’s life despite these data.” He is talking, in this passage, about meanings and purposes that transcend the natural world, including the world of socially constructed institutions.
Having come so far, Pollack then has much to say about how the emotional certainties offered by religious faith might shape biomedical research and medical practice. Some of his recommendations may be defensible on other grounds, while some may not be (for example, he adopts what strikes me as an unnecessarily negative attitude to reproductive cloning and other technologies of genetic choice). Most fundamentally, however, he offers nothing to suggest that religious faith does, after all, fit well with scientific knowledge. The irrational certainty that there must be transcendent meaning, emanating from an “unknowable” divine source, should cut no ice for anyone who approaches the question rationally. The fact, if it is one, that science cannot disprove the existence of such a source in a final, knock-down, logically demonstrative way is scarcely more impressive.
Pollack suggests that religious faith should inform scientific practice, even as scientific understandings inform religious doctrine. But there is nothing in The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith to make religious faith attractive to a rational, reasonable, scientifically informed person who currently lacks it. There is not even anything to stand against the claim that scientific information will tend to make religious faith less intellectually attractive to such a person.
The book may give permission to people with similar emotional responses to Pollack’s to continue their religious practice in the face of scientific evidence. It may offer them something of a template for thinking about science in the light of irrational, emotionally driven, faith. Perhaps The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith is a success in those terms. But its arguments tend to suggest that scientific findings are more a stumbling block than otherwise to a life of faith. Pollack continues to maintain religious beliefs more despite what he knows from science than because of it.
That’s okay, as long as he does not expect others to follow policy recommendations based on his faith position. Meanwhile, The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith does little, if anything, to support the accommodationist position that religion and science are fully compatible. A position that it is possible for someone sufficiently emotionally driven to maintain faith despite the scientific evidence is hardly one of full compatibility between religion and science.
Again, that’s okay – Pollack does not really argue otherwise. Still, his book can easily be read against its grain as an example of the contortions needed to maintain serious religious faith while also being well-informed about science. In that respect, it should give religion/science accommodationists pause.

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