Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  Travel on.

The difference between rational and irrational?

What the pros call folk psychology has been taking a beating for quite awhile when it comes to our decision-making, the integrity or lack thereof in conscious processes, and the will. I will cite some Nietzsche in a minute to show that but I have been thinking about a couple of more modern ideas. Remember that my favorite philosopher, Susanne Langer, elucidated how symbolic thought is by nature only loosely connected to reality or some version of truth conceived as such. Thus, we think crazy thoughts all the time, from the Atargatis religious perversion (see my post on that) to the Mayan culture which sacrificed so many humans that it contributed to their decline to the anti-science unbelievably extant today here and around the world. Oh, and our political discourse currently at an all time low though still nothing really new about that when you look back at our history.

So two recent books have contributed some important specifics to this ongoing examination of ourselves and our minds. The most recent is Michael Lewis’s (what a great writer) The Undoing Project about the friendship and collaboration of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The research of these two showed fairly clearly that our usual intuitive decision making (and yes, that would include when we consider all the options, pros and cons) is fraught with mostly unconscious biases, fears, wishful-thinking, etc. and errs quite often in all but humdrum affairs. The most reliable way of improving this is to rely more on algorithms and to stay close to data based considerations.

The other book is a few years old now, Blink: The power of thinking without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he discusses research also showing that our considered decisions, counter to what most people think, are really shallow intuitive considerations that deserve little faith in their adequacy. He does, though, discuss, some who are better thinkers than most who do so by selecting key data points and organizing them into a coherent pattern. Now some expert opinions are expert and some just flash in the pan. I am reminded of research showing that experienced well-regarded therapists can detect lying no better than the general public, which is at a chance level. The only group who were good at lie detection was specially trained FBI agents and they did so better than chance but not approaching certainty. I am also reminded of micro-emotions, emotional expressions that flit rapidly across our faces, imperceptible to all but a few talented individuals who can note and read them, integrate them into decision making and so have more accurate empathic intuition of others’ intentions. This last is actually a very specific keen instance of data based thinking.

So now when I remember medical tales of patients who have lost sensation and control of a limb through a stroke or other neurological insult who maintain that they are not impaired and explain that the inert arm is not theirs but someone else’s like the doctor interviewing them, I think that is actually standard operating procedure for us rational creatures. Consider as well that in subjects undergoing functional brain imaging like EEG, researchers can see a decision to move a hand made in the premotor cortex before the subject is conscious of that decision and moves. And one more, consider Jonathan Haidt’s findings that we develop a rational for our moral and political stances after we arrive at them.

So back to Friedrich Nietzsche. What a cranky guy. Reading Beyond Good and Evil published in 1886 at the time Freud and William James were just starting out (and shortly before Friedrich himself went crazy, to use a colloquialism) forces me to consider what he was arguing against and for, because our understanding of psychology was so very different than now. Still, Nietzsche saw the human will very differently from most others back then (& now), including other philosophers. Consider these quotes:

-Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name

-the will is not only a complex of sensations and thinking, but it is above all an emotion

-Freedom of will is the expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition [my note: a wayward two year old comes to mind]

-we act once more as we have always acted—mythologically.

These perspectives put human behavior in a different light than that in which most people view it. It seems that resistance to this understanding, which after all counsels us to be more careful, considerate, data based, and democratic in the sense of scientific consensus, is rock solid, ongoing and blindly so. For example, look at who we elect, at how the media covers news (my favorite analogy is of a dog yapping at every leaf fall), and at our failures to address problems effectively.  Drawing rationality from irrationality continues to be a challenge.

So if you see any Mayan priests with bloody knives or Atargatis initiates holding their testes looking for a good dress to wear, tell them we will probably be joining them sooner than later in the halls of the failed ideas. And if you see Friedrich Nietzsche wandering the asylum, tell him that some in the future heard him loud and clear but to little avail so far. Travel on now to firmer ground.


Young Friedrich