Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Two links in as many days, Ross - I should send you flowers. Instead I'll just return the favor.
I'm very glad to read a clarification of Cardinal Schonborn's views. I intended to say something about all this apropos of the Gertrude Himmelfarb fracas in The Corner last week (and perhaps I still will . . . but not tonight I think) in which the difference between science and scientism featured prominently on her and her defenders' side of the argument.
And yet. Here are some nagging questions.
I usually take the postmodern pragmatist side of these kinds of debates, and argue that "truth" means different things in different contexts, which is why it is reasonable to be a religious believer and also accept modern science. The one speaks to the subjectively perceived human condition and the other to how physical reality works. But I'm going to take the other side of the argument for the sake of argument. God asks us to love Him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your means. "Heart" means intellect in this context. That does seem to force a choice, doesn't it? You can't love God with one part of your intellect and rule Him out with another, can you?
Pressing the point, natural selection does not sound like the kind of mechanism Jesus would use to create beings capable of participating in the incarnation of God. (Set aside for the moment that I'm not a Christian; this is easier to do using Christian tropes.) It's all well and good to say that this is a fallen world and the original design of creation was something rather different before our sin caused nature itself to fall. Darwinism doesn't support that narrative. We never had a nature prior to that which emerged from natural selection. Doesn't that have some implications for the Christian theodicy?
And now to the crux. The moral philosophers tell us that is cannot be construed to imply ought. The scientists rightly caution us that ought cannot be presumed to imply is - that is bounds ought. You cannot morally oblige someone to do the impossible. And yet the advance of science has steadily constricted the space within which ought is bound by is. Forget about Darwin; there are already people running around claiming that the self is an illusion, and that's a far greater threat to ethical monotheism of any stripe. I myself find the denial of the self logically problematic; illusions are perceived by selves - no self, no illusion. How then can the self itself be an illusion - who's doing the perceiving? But I recognize that while science has done essentially nothing to illuminate the deep abyss of consciousness itself; and while I can attest that consciousness feels like a kind of singularity - the kind of thing that cannot by its nature be penetrated; and while I have instinctive sympathy for scientists from Schroedinger to Penrose to Eccles who have bet the same way; nonetheless, it has not escaped me that this is but a variation on the "God of the gaps" that has lost so many bets through history. So what makes me think this time she'll come up seven? Even if consciousness turns out to be a singularity, it does not strike me as at all impossible that we'll unpack some very large chunks of what we currently attribute to that singularity and discover that they are in fact reducible to physical phenomena governed by law. I can imagine, for example, our discovering that what appears to be free will is, in fact, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves after the fact about how we came to decisions that were not consciously made at all. That's certainly the way my own mind feels to me some days. Would a discovery like that really have no implications for one's religious beliefs?
I want to go along with Schonborn. I don't think science teaches us the most important things about the human condition. But it does seem to me to be going too far to say that it teaches us nothing, or that religious teachings are immune to scientific discoveries. And if they are not immune, then the neo-Darwinians or the neuroscientists may in fact discover things that undermine religious dogma - may already have done so, in fact. It has not escaped me that most theists who accept evolution try to maintain that while evolution is a scientific fact, that doesn't rule out God "guiding" the process. To which one can only answer: if randomness is a sufficient explanation, then what does it add to say that it's God throwing the dice? And if randomness turns out to be an insufficient scientific explanation, then we're back to the God of the gaps.
I don't want to make it sound like this is just a Christian problem. There is a dictum from the Talmud: ein kochav l'yisrael - "there is no star for Israel." That is to say: the destiny of Israel is not determined by astrology, because the Holy One, Blessed Be He has taken our destiny directly into His hands. Now, this is not a denial of the validity of astrology; astrology was considered a legitimate science at the time, much as evolutionary biology is today, though with vastly less robust evidence to justify that status. Rather, it was an assertion that a religious dogma trumped the precepts of science. There are plenty of people today who assert, similarly, that God, touching them directly, changed their very natures; our President is one of these people. Science is trying to explain away what they know. I'm unpersuaded by Schonborn that science categorically cannot do any such explaining.
But, as I said before, I'm a theist of a sort. I believe in a God who created the heavens and the earth, and who is mindful of me, for reasons that I cannot fathom, because I cannot believe otherwise. So I'm open to further, more convincing arguments.