Thursday, July 29, 2010

Scientific Naturalism Beware. Haught is coming.

We have thought about thinking (Barrett), heard from a fellow (Harris) who thinks all religion (all) is a crock (he would say it better, but I think that's a good one-word summary), and now comes a Georgetown professor, and a Catholic at that: John Haught.    Barrett and Harris both have got us thinking about just what this religious impulse in humankind is, and how our brains seem to deal with it.  Harris raised many valid objections to the atrocities of religion, and made us liberals wonder about our role in the ongoing horrors committed in God's name.  But what he proposes to replace religion -- where pure reason is the arbiter of ethics, and transcendental/spiritual experience can be had, if we only knew enough, by following a manual -- to me seemed inadequate, and unsatisfying.  Not all of you agree with me, of course!  But let's keep him in mind as we continue the journey.

Haught, in his book Is Nature Enough? takes aim at “scientific naturalism” which he defines as the belief (there’s that favorite word of ours!) that nature is all there is, and that science alone can make sense of it.  By “nature” he means matter – what can be seen, touched, measured, experienced by the physical senses.  The scientific naturalist denies that any realities exist distinct from the natural world.

Harris, if I understand him, called these folks “physicalists.”  You will remember that Harris didn’t agree with them either.

Haught will argue that there is no good reason to believe that nature is all there is.  Throughout the book he will seek to show logical inconsistencies on the part of people who limit reality to the physical world, and he will call them to explain human experience strictly within the natural world.  Scientific naturalism, he will say, cannot be justified experientially, logically, or scientifically.

The two large questions he wants to raise are:   Is nature all there is?  And, if nature IS all there is, is there any point to the universe?

Chapter I.  Is Nature Enough?
Carl Sagan is one of these scientific naturalists who say that the universe is the only reality, and therefore belief in God a fictitious distraction.  Richared Dawkins is mentioned as well.  Sagan and Dawkins argue that the world as we experience it came about through natural evolution, and a lot of time - “deep cosmic time.”

In Haught’s view, there are varying shades, flavors, (my word) of Scientific Naturalism:
  Hard - there is empirical reality only, with no room for ambiguity, spirit.  It’s matter, stupid, and that's all.
   Soft - a less rigid understanding, but still nature is all that is real.
   Religious Naturalism: These folk use some religious language like "sacred" and "mystery" in reference to nature as deserving reverence, but in the end nature is all for them too.

Haught lists what he understands to be the major tenets of naturalism in the subsection "Is Naturalism Spiritually Adequate?  These are important to grasp, as these are what Haught is going to argue to be unreasonable.

Further, there are "Sunny" naturalists who find meaning simply in being part of nature - discovering, beauty, evolutionary advancement.  And then there are the "Sober" ones who are not so pleasant – Albert Camus is the candidate here.  Haught thinks that these, as depressing as they are, are the most honest of the naturalists.

Haught then advances his view of what he calls “layered reality,” intermediary explanations that are not complete, but are nevertheless true, using an illustration, or analogy of a wood fire. "Reasonable theology" - “progressive” is the term I have been using - allows for layered reality, while  Fundamentalism be it religious or scientific does not.

2.  Religion
Here Haught gives us a definition of religion, saying that it's not so much knowing as being known, not grasping but being grasped.  Surrender, worship, prayer, frustration – this is the religious experience.  This should raise some interesting questions for us as we through this year struggle to define just what OUR religion, our faith is all about.  Religion as Haught uses our word is "a conscious appreciation of and response to the mystery that grounds, embraces and transcends both nature and ourselves.”

An important concept of Haught’s mentioned in this section is the word “anticipation.”  This is related to the religious word, “hope.”  He will argue that “anticipation” is an important clue to what is “beyond nature.” Naturalists, he will argue, need to be able to explain on purely scientific terms where and how that sense of anticipation rises in us.  And they need to explain as well how we have a sense of morality.  Naturalists, he says, demand “evidence” but they will accept only “scientific” evidence.  They don’t demand that God be made visible, but that at least there be some “visible and unambiguous tracks of divine reality in the natural world.”

“Critical intelligence” cannot be fully accounted for by nature alone.  The “mind” (Barrett’s discussion come to mind here) for the naturalist to be consistent must be accounted for by our mind, by thought, by reason.  And this, says Haught, is the challenge that the naturalists have not met.  “Critical intelligence” is the first of nine “natural phenomena” Haught will challenge the naturalist to explain on purely scientific terms.  He thinks they can’t do it.  And so, he thinks, these are acceptable pieces of “evidence” for the reality of the spiritual realm, and ultimately, of God.

Chapter two concludes with Haught giving us the outline of his religious beliefs – a God who is not above, but in; distinct from nature, but deeply involved with it; a God who makes and keeps promises, who calls us into a new and unprecedented future.

3.  Intelligence
In some ways we return here to our original topic of how our brains/minds work as Haught talks about “three distinct acts of cognition: experience, understanding, judgment.”  Humans, he says, instinctively, naturally, compulsively think in three steps: be attentive (experience the world), be intelligent (understand the world), and be critical (make a judgment about the world).  Notice, inquire, judge.  The fourth – be responsible by making a decision – comes up under his discussion of morality.

We necessarily go through these steps, seeking what is real, what is true. The steps can be corrupted, side-tracked into accepting as “true” something that is not.  But the impulse to find what is real, what is true in its most pure form, he says, is what makes us human.

“Truth” is “the object or goal of the pure desire to know.”  And knowing the truth requires courage – on the part of non-believers and believers alike. Courage to come to a truth that contradicts previous conclusions.  Truth is not what we prefer, or hope to be true; nor is it what serves a purpose.

Then Haught talks about five “fields of meaning” – types of knowing that critical intelligence may/must traverse in its search for the truth: Affectivity (feeling, emotion), Intersubjectivity (personal relationships), narrativity (story telling, myth, sacred tradition), beauty (aesthetic) and lastly, theory.   The first four are “primal” means of accessing the truth – these have been the primary religious paths), and the fourth, theory, has been the path of the scientific method.

Haught’s main argument against scientific naturalism is that it elevates theory over, and in fact denies any validity of, the first four, primal paths.  By doing so it arbitrarily rules out a vast realm of true knowing, valid experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We Really Do Finish the Harris Book

But we will be referring back to him, I'm sure.   We are addressing huge questions in a very short time -- we could spend a decade reading books that spring from any of our books.  But time is short.  So I encourage you to read further on your own on any of the topics we raise.  The next book continues the general, foundational issue of just how we think, how we use "reason" in faith, how we view reality, including the possibility of religious reality.

Here are some reflections on this morning's discussion, and an assignment for what comes next:

The summer goes on, and so do we . . . a good discussion this morning finishing up the Harris book.   A number of us faulted Harris primarily because of his narrow (to us) use of the word "faith."   When he speaks of "faith" he means -- and this is a reasonable, historical use of the word -- the acceptance of and commitment to traditional articles of faith, including accepting the sacred books (Bible, Koran) as literal, inerrant revelations from God.   We moderates, on the other hand, have for some time (liberal theology took root in the 19th century) understand the Bible to be a human document, do not take in literally, and in fact reject large tracts of it as being decidedly not "the Word of God."

Still Harris' question is a good one -- if we don't have a sacred, inerrant book from which we can derive our morality, how can we know what is right and wrong?  He maintains that morality can be found through reason, and surely there are plenty of people in the world who profess no faith (certainly not in Harris' sense of that word) but who without the benefit of Church or Imam are able to live lives at least as morally as religionists, sometimes more so.  Religion is not necessary for some -- many? -- people to know what is the morally right thing to do -- they just know it inside.   St Paul, no less, acknowledges that in Romans 1 and 2.  The doing the right thing, living ethically, may be another thing, and for many people in history religious faith has helped that, either by threatening Judgment or by affirming that the other person is a "child of God" just like me and therefore deserving right treatment.  But such statements of faith are not necessary motivators, and Harris may be right that there are other -- better? -- ones to be found.

We seem to agree that the kind of faith Harris describes in such detail is NOT the faith we would profess.  The ongoing question will be:  what IS the faith I am comfortable professing -- to what am I willing to commitment myself as being of ultimate importance . . . what expression of faith seems reasonable to me?  If God's "revelation" is ongoing, how can I spot it?

We finished with a poem about the ongoing search for ultimate meaning, "the secret" of life:  See what you think:

The next book is Is Nature Enough? You can get it at Haught is going to argue that "naturalism" is not reasonable, and that there are other ways in addition to empirical "scientism" to know reality.

Let's read Chapters 1, 2, and 3 -- that's 23% of the book, says my IKindle.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harris, Part Two -- Chapters 4 and 5, and a Peek at the Rest

In the first three chapters Harris has made a forceful and colorful case that ideas have consequences . . . and bad ideas have bad consequences.  A good many religious ideas by his account are indeed bad ones, leading to horrible consequences for those who hold other religious ideas, or none: the Inquisition, Crusades, the Holocaust, witch hunts, and sadly enough so on and on and on.

He is using “faith” in what he understands to be the “biblical” sense defined in Hebrews – the intellectual acceptance, embrace, of stories and concepts about God and morality based in no empirical evidence at all, but merely on dogma of the past and hope for a fantasy future.

Anticipating objections that people need religion to establish morality/ethics – to know how to live in the world morally – Harris argues that people really don’t need religion to be “compassionate,” to have sympathy for others, to wish their happiness and to alleviate their suffering.  “Our common humanity is reason enough,” he says at the end of Chapter 3.  He repeats this later – noting that everyone we know will suffer loss, sorrow, will die – “Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”

A question I want to raise with him is his optimism about human behavior, reflected above.  Folks have for a very long time found reasons to be lots of things but kind to each other – and their religions have not spurred that on alone.  When the guy next door steals my cow, or my wife, I just may respond in kind, but not kindly.  Harris seems, despite his vast, detaled, and gruesome knowledge of the horrendous acts humankind has and continues to inflict on each other, to envision a time when people will find utopia by being reasonable.

It seems to me that people act most unreasonably, more often than not.  

This is linked in my feeble thinking to his assertion that beliefs drive behavior.   Suicide bombers use their religious belief to steel their nerve – urged on by family, friends, leaders – but a whole bunch of other things, I am guessing, is also going on inside them.

My religious beliefs in a general way guide and motivate my living, but not exclusively.  I am more often motivated by fear, by ambition, by pleasure, anger, jealousy.  

Chapter 4 – Harris understands that there are some good religious beliefs out there, and bad ones – and some really bad ones.  Islam, he says, has more than its share of the latter.  The chapter will not win any converts to Islam.

Christians, at least the moderate ones, are free to keep reading the Sermon on the Mount while ignoring the violence of Revelation (I do – what a nutty book!).  But, he says, Islam will not openly allow that – even though many moderate Muslims do.  

Chapter 5 – Harris argues that laws that condemn certain drugs (marijuana, for example) while allowing others (alcohol) is patently unreasonable.  That does make sense to me - the “war on drugs” is a failure, and will continue to be so – although I don’t blame such silly laws on a God spying on people.  I really don’t think God is “watching” me – He/she has much larger concerns I should think.

Chapter 6 – “A Science of Good and Evil”

IF religion in its best form provides a people a code of ethics (say, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount), and IF religion at its best offers a person meaning beyond him or herself, even a transcendental experience of God, being “one” with the unseen but real spiritual reality – a spiritual or mystical real-life experience that Christians have called communing with God . . . 

And if one, like Harris, rejects all religion . . . where does one – or a society without religion – get its “ethics,” is sense of morality, or right and wrong?  AND Harris would want to add also the experience of “mysticism” and “spirituality” apart from (dreaded) faith.

That seems to me to be the questions he is trying to answer in this chapter.  “Ethics” – “right and wrong” – he says are really questions of “happiness and suffering.”  What brings happiness – to me, and to others – is right; what hinders happiness for me or others – certainly what causes suffering, is wrong.   Again he asserts that humanity doesn’t need anything but reason and self-interest to motivate people to do the right, to not do the wrong: “We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives.”

Harris rejects both Relativism and Pragmatism as sufficient bases for making ethical decisions.  His reason: both deny that there are real, (absolute?) ethical values. Relativism includes tolerance for even wrong behavior (religion-based bad behavior) and Pragmatism says that what is useful is therefore true, at least for the moment.

It is of interest to me that Harris here is on the side of the Evangelical/Orthodox Christians who reject Relativism and Pragmatism too – insisting that there are absolute ethical truths – ideas that are always right (more often always wrong).  They want to find those absolutes in written revelation (the Bible); Harris seeks them through scientific experimentation . . . and/or “intuition” – another term I was surprised to find him using approvingly.

Intuition – that “irreducible leap” necessary from that last bit of factual and experiential reality to another level of deeper or higher reality?    Barrett talked about “intuitve” knowledge, and so will the next book, Is Nature Enough?  

Chapter 7 – “Experiments in Consciousness”

Religious folk – from Christian mystics to the “whirling dervishes” of Sufi Islam to, I suppose, peyote smokers of Native American religion – have always talked about experiencing God directly – communing with God, feeling God’s presence, “knowing” God within, “talking” to and with God, being one with God.   Harris wants that experience, minus the religious language.

“There is a form of well-being that supercedes all others, that transcends the vagaries of experience itself.”    . . .  “Investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.” 
This “spiritual” experience – sought after for millennia by religionists, often in vain (one thinks of Mother Teresa whose letters revealed that she spent most of her life seeking but never finding an experience of God!) – this same experience, says Harris, is simple – or at least teachable: “Mysticism, to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.”

Really?   This brings up an overall objection of mine to Harris – that he would reduce spiritual experience – even he says, I think, that this is the highest experience available to humankind – to mere methodology, technique, practice.  It sounds so very artificial to me . . . 

Bottom line on the book for me:  

YES people use their religions to do awful things. Christian have burned witches, subjugated women, allowed slavery, promoted wars . . .   Islam, if Harris is even half correct in his description, is worse.  

Christianity at least has the last 200 years allowed, even promoted at times, thoughtful challenge to its most cherished articles of faith – and have sought to let growing knowledge inform it, and change it.  Progressive Christians – like FCC – have turned away from dogmas in light of new information – we say that God is “still speaking” and that’s why we as a church are “open and affirming” of GLBT people.  We have far to go, but our faith allows it – insists on an openness to the future, to God in the future.

Ideas have consequence.  But most of us are ruled more by other, less clear things – fears, hatred not related to religion, tribalism, etc etc.  

A sense of our morality coming from someplace “beyond” us – say, from God’s Spirit within and speaking over the aeon through many prophets, for us as Christians pre-eminently through Jesus as we understand him – is a higher motivator toward not mere ethical behavior but virtues like self-sacrifice, love for even the enemy than rationality.

If one seeks a mystical experience like Harris describes, when one loses the self – and not everyone wants that, do they? – but if I want such an experience beyond the unspeakable beauty of a sunrise, a flower, a Bach Intermezzo, then I would not want one that could be produced by following a prescribed routine.  That seems so predictable, so merely human.   God, I expect, is far more interested in me loving my neighbor than me being caught up in ecstasy, especially an ecstasy I produced myself.