Friday, August 20, 2010

Some In Between Thoughts

As we are "in between" in our reading . . .  finishing the Haught book when we meet next September 11th, and then starting a new book after that, I thought I'd post some thoughts, to keep the gray (or is it grey?) matter moving.  
     Sam Harris pulled no punches in his unrelenting assault on not just some religion, but all of it, from the most extreme forms to the most gentle.  The world would be able to be a far better place if we could all disavow our myths, legends and stories about the gods, and instead rely on reason and our innate longings to be kind to each other.  That some of the most horrific deeds in history, including misdeeds happening at this moment, were done in the name of this religion or that cannot be denied.  It is a sad history we have, we Christians.  We haven't done ONLY bad things -- hospitals, schools, food distribution centers etc etc etc literally around the world have been started by people of great faith -- people willing to give up their lives for the sake of obeying their God.  But our misunderstanding of our own sacred stories has sometimes fed our fears, and we have sinned, to say the least.
     There have been a number of very popular books on atheism the last few years, Sam Harris' being just one of many.  Like Harris, they are not shy to call us religionists out, and like Harris (so I gather from what I have read about them) they have nothing good to say about religion in the world.  I recently read about a fellow named Greg M. Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Epstein has a new book, Good Without God:  What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.  In it he says, "The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and nonbelievers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree.  When our goal is erasing religion, rather than embracing human beings, we all lose."
     Epstein apparently is looking for a third way, a way between militant religion on the one hand, and militant atheism on the other.  That sounds to me like a good way to go.   We should, and could, learn a thing or two from those who most radically disagree with us.  No?

Friday, August 13, 2010

A lively argument emerges, with the purpose of seeing more than meets the eye

Haught’s argument with the hardcore scientific naturalists continues first by asking how “life” with its intricacies and complexities, especially life that exhibits “critical intelligence” (I would add life with the intellectual capacity to follow all of this – a capacity I do not have on every page!) got started.   How did such complexity and order – life – emerge from lifelessness, from chaos?  He does acknowledge that religion might wonder why, if there is a purposive, directing God-force enlivening the process, why it took so long, with so much trial-and-error, not to mention suffering, to get us to this point.

Naturalism says that given blind chance, impersonal selection, and enough time – cosmic time – the earth and us and the universe can be explained.  But Haught cites the boatloads of "information" found in each and every DNA molecule and asks where all that information came from.   Again, he uses an illustration – this time a pot of boiling water – to say that what is real must be described not in physical terms alone, but personal, internal, spiritual terms too – layers of reality.

The idea of “emergence” is important to him as a clue to there being something outside, beyond the physical world accessible to the scientific method.  He posits that there must be some “beckoning” from outside the system - a god perhaps that invites creation to become more, to become more and more complex.  The “most dazzling” example of emergence is our own critical intelligence.

Then too “purpose” is another clue that there is more than the merely material world around us.  Our brains (remember Barrett) seem to be hard-wired to seek purpose.  It is “natural,” he says, for us to look for, long for, seek out purpose, meaning in our lives.  Naturalists seem to assume that their lives, thinking, writing, and their pursuit of truth (which Haught commends) has purpose, and s worth pursuing.  But where does that “belief” come from?  Why believe that there is any purpose for life?  Haught says we are “purpose-driven, meaning-seeking, truth-telling” beings and wonders how that can be explained using exclusively materialistic evidence.

Then there is the chapter on “Seeing.”  By “seeing” he means “perceiving,” noticing the world, understanding what is real and important.  And he returns to his central thesis, that there are multiple “layers” of understanding – including the scientific layer.  Scientific naturalists, he argues, have for no demonstrable reason chosen to deny other means of seeing – other layers of perceiving what is real.  He cites several philosophers, including Whitehead and de Chardin who argue that “intuition” (Harris liked this word too) is a valid, maybe more valid, means of perceiving the world.  It is the primary perception, while empiricism is secondary.  

Haught does not wish to denigrate science – he in fact lauds its work. But he faults, as does Harris, I believe, the “physicalists” who would denigrate other ways of knowing and being in the world.  He notes that they by their starting assumptions (which they cannot "prove" empirically) preclude seeing more deeply – and they never ask the questions that most people in most places and times have said are the most important questions – purpose, meaning, ethics.

It is in this area – the intuitive, primary perception – that religious language can be used – metaphor, symbol, story that seeks to understand not what is on the surface, the physical world, but what is below, inside, in the spirit.

As Emily Dickinson said . . . (emphasis mine)

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant – 
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually.