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.

Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/science/neanderthals-cave-paintings-europe.html.

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.

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That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

the doxa, orthodoxy and thinking we are right

I have been reflecting on the Boudrieu’s lessons about the doxa (see post 9/6/17) as any bona fide skeptic must. Remember that the doxa is the field of discourse that composed of two levels: the words and concepts we use to talk about the world, i.e., our culture or habitus, and the world, i.e., objective reality. Most of the time we casually assume that our cultural concepts match the world, i.e., they are isomorphic with each other. When intellectual rigor is important (and when is it not if we humans are to survive), we must carefully disabuse ourselves of that notion and so understand that what and how we think and talk bears only some indirect relation to reality (for most of us; for some politicians and their supporters the two seem never to be related at all).

This is analogous in physics to operating everyday according to Newtonian physics, e.g., we sent Cassini-Huygens to Saturn using Newtonian calculations, but physicists will tell you that Einsteinian and quantum mechanics are actually more accurate (but much more involved so Newton’s way of figuring wins out because it is adequate and much simpler). Now the important perspective here is that we have two or more symbolic systems that both correspond to the world reality and that we choose between them based upon utility, accuracy and their aesthetics. We do not assume that a particular cultural conception captures reality in a singular manner because we operate from the scientific axiom that our knowledge only approximates an ultimately unknowable world. The scientific method institutionalizes the disjuncture between our cultural conceptions and the world that compose the doxa and this leads to Monod’s important proposal towards an ethic of knowledge. We must seek to know in order to understand our conceptions, our world, and the relation between them.

Imagine yourself as an early Hominid maybe some 250,000 years ago as our kind embarked on symbolic thought and communication. An easy and relatively safe assumption is that we assumed that our culture and the world were one; the doxa was undifferentiated and so we had little capacity to see that our conceptions were arbitrary constructions about the world with many alternatives abounding. This would render our mentation magical: we think it and it is real. Oh boy! Over time with continued evolution, both genetic and cultural, Homo sapiens came to realize that the doxa was not undifferentiated, i.e., that our cultural conceptions were just and only that—they reflect the world but are not isomorphic with it, i.e., our concepts are at their base arbitrary. Plato’s parable of the cave is an astounding statement of that understanding. And I have to wonder about the role of writing in this evolution where the earliest examples are lists of things, then laws and then narratives before philosophy began to address the partition of the doxa into orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Our Greek forbears were especially important for the skepticism of their thought about our knowledge.

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“Make it rain? Why, yes, I can, and for only $100” said the priest.

And now we come to religion, which does assume their conceptions are divinely privileged renditions of reality, and my recent encounter with the wonder that is St. Augustine. What a guy. Read his biography and you will see a good example of how mania fuels productivity along with some pretty maladaptive personal behaviors and relationships. That I have known for awhile; then I read last week this quote of his from the 4th century and knew wherein religion and science differed in critical detail: “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” Our skeptical, scientific, and modern ethic of knowledge stipulates that we understand before we assemble our beliefs (theories, etc.) while religion ala Augustine (and much of Christian thought follows his lead) stipulates that we must first believe the religious tenets because all knowledge follows therefrom and must be judged accordingly. This is what kept the Copernican solar system at bay for many years, what kept the earth flat, what put Galileo in house arrest, what promoted the inquisitorial methods, what sustains climate change denial, etc. And abandoning this has made modern medicine and science/technology possible.

I use ‘religion’ as a stand-in for all rigid orthodoxy and ideology, i.e., for all systems of thought that presume to know the facts beforehand and that assume that their cultural conceptions bear some special, even divine, relationship to some sort of truth, i.e., their facts cannot be invalidated. That is why religion can be dangerous, why heterodoxy and skepticism are critical to our intellectual integrity, and why the ethic of knowledge is now very, very important. This also why our political discourse suggests our culture is doomed. Travel on now and enjoy a respite visit to some noumenal realms of reality.

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A skeptic’s guidepost, but follow or turn away, that is the heterodoxical question

 

Thanks, Cassini, for the data

and thanks to your team who worked so assiduously and intelligently for this most successful mission.

On September 15, 2017 our Cassini spacecraft with its energy almost out will crash into Saturn, sending data back until the very end. Here is a link to an EarthSky post that gives a good timeline for the event: http://earthsky.org/space/cassinis-saturn-plunge-september15-mission-milestone.  Here is composite photo from Cassini images.

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Saturn from Cassini

More than a decade in design and construction, Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled millions of miles flying by Venus and Jupiter on the way, indeed using Jupiter’s gravity to sling around and pick up speed, before arriving at Saturn in 2004. In December 2004 Cassini released a probe, name of Huygens, that landed on the moon, Titan. Huygens sent back data to Cassini that relayed it back to earth. Since that time Cassini has been assaying Saturnian phenomena and now its nuclear fuel is running out so the last data will be collected on a suicide mission. Over 13 years of data gathering! That is truly remarkable ingenuity. Consider one more detail. Huygens landed on Titan within a kilometer of its planned site 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth after a 7 year trip. Some people with excellent math skills worked together very hard to accomplish something incredible.

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Surface of Titan photographed by Huygen probe

An astounding number of beautiful photographs have been sent back and enough data, I am sure, to keep scientists busy for awhile. I try to imagine how the Cassini team feels as their long term endeavor comes to an end, a remarkably successful project that shows the power of math, engineering and science, not to mention human cooperation. I don’t think ‘bittersweet’ would be the apt term but I am sure they will miss the work of tending their craft way out in space even as they celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of their mission. I hope NASA televises the control room on 9/15—I will watch in the early morn if they do.  Here is a photo Cassini took this year of our home planet.

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Bright dots are Gaia and moon photographed by Cassini from just below and behind Saturn and its rings. Beautiful photo and beautiful work to take it.

 

An interesting study and my quibble

So researchers have demonstrated through an experiment that apes understand when another has a ‘false belief’, i.e., someone believes something that is not true. This seems to be applied to the concrete here and now more than to tax policy but more on that later. The researchers made a video and showed it to apes of a man holding a rock, then a man in a gorilla suit takes it from him and puts it under a box. The man leaves and the gorilla puts the rock under a second box and then takes it away altogether. When the first man returns, the apes watching are found to anticipate that he will go to the first and now empty box through eye tracking technology (they look at the man and first box repeatedly), thereby showing that they understand another’s perspective and that it can be wrong. One link is the Duke Chronicle: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/10/duke-study-shows-apes-have-a-cognitive-ability-thought-to-be-unique-to-humans

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So you can’t find your rock? Did you look under the other box? In your closet?

This is an interesting albeit limited finding. I like the effort to show a more sophisticated side to animal minds, but here’s my quibble. Why call this a ‘false belief’ rather than a ‘false assumption’? If linguists were studying humans in this regard, we would talk about contextual knowledge and pragmatic processes. That apes (and many other animals for that matter) understand another’s false assumption is no real surprise, so this study provides another confirming detail. Frans de Waal has documented many instances of apes using such perspective taking and knowledge to their advantage in his books, especially the latest one, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?  Consider his account when one chimp lower in the pecking order was allowed to see through a window where bananas were hidden and then when he and the whole group were released to find the food ran somewhere else and then later returned by himself to enjoy the bananas. If he had gone straight to them, an alpha male would have taken them. He promoted the assumption that he did not know where the bananas were. Did the other apes ‘believe’ he was as ignorant as they were? Mimicking false beliefs is strategically a ‘feint’ that dogs do all the time in play, going one way to trick the other in assuming one intent and then quickly changing course, as do humans playing a sport. Manipulation through hiding intent or understanding another’s false assumption/belief is, I think, common in the animal kingdom, including humans pushing a fraudulent sales deal. Our more powerful symbolic and cultural capabilities make this even more apparent and problematic.

Back to false beliefs and tax policy. I am aware of the false belief that reducing taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs; that this tax reduction does not increase jobs has been demonstrated repeatedly at the state and national level; the data are clear. This is no rock under the box situation though, so understanding another’s false belief is not so helpful because of the persistence of the false belief in the face of evidence. Surely the human or ape looking under the box to find nothing would abandon that assumption. For tax policy though, some continue to insist the rock is under the box even though it is clearly not there. This marks a difference between an assumption and a belief wherein the persistence is due to faulty reality testing by ignoring data so as to find an advantage in other ways.

I recently saw a study that showed climate change deniers were associated more with the Republican party than the Democratic one. Why? A friend’s family of origin teaches their younger children that evolution is wrong. Why? At least in part to be consistent with their religious beliefs, but they still use all the medical tools evolutionary science bestows upon us. I recognize these as false beliefs more than false assumptions because they persist in the bright light of empiricism. Yes, each of us has a powerful world view that shapes our interpretation and assembly of data, but empirical thinking, from cooking, early tools and agriculture through the scientific revolution in the 16th century to now, is our most powerful perspective. Remember a few years back when a group of young, disrespectful, stupidly self-involved American tourists climbed a sacred mountain in, I think, Indonesia, and stripped naked for their selfies? Then they were arrested for desecrating a sacred place (ok so far) and causing an earthquake (oops, slipped over the positivistic border there). I had a conversation with a friend who contradicted me when I said they did not cause the earthquake saying that maybe the indigenous people there were on to something, maybe the mountain god was angry and that we do not understand all that goes on in this world (now there’s a safe assumption I can endorse). Is there no such thing as superstition then? I knock on wood toward off bad events but I know that is a superstition. We do not understand everything but we do understand somethings very well. I am prepared to believe in magic and miracles and apprehension of unknown things by special talents but I can also reject false assumptions and beliefs. Let me not begin a discussion of religious beliefs, because we humans with our fecund symbolic capabilities not only make up the weirdest stuff (remember the Atargatis?) but we lose track of our creations and mistake them for objective truth. Many religious minded people ‘recognize’ the false beliefs of other religions. Really? Better travel on from there.

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I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should study the matter empirically.

dialectical path 2.1: alpha & omega: error recognition and response

My dialectical path wanders between mysticism and positivism in a noumenal sort of way and between religion and science in a phenomenal one. The latter pair both are systems with different levels, e.g., social in their churches and labs & epistemological in their seeking true knowledge. Errors are important in both. Consider this comparison of error recognition and response between the two systems: within science errors are inadequacies in experimental design and control or if the data has been gathered with utmost rigor, errors lie in our theoretical understanding. Scientific response, then, comprises reworking the experiment for greater reliability and validity or challenging and changing the abiding theoretical understanding of the ultimate state of nature. Science, like Hegel’s history, is a paragon of dialectic. Within religion errors are deviations from some god’s law or the laws of a karmic universe. The socially approved responses include individual repentance or congregants’ compassionate prayer for that individual should he or she persist in their un-repentance, or should an individual assiduously rail against the orthodox, the authorities, acting again at the behest of their god, categorize them as in the outgroup, the consequences of which range from mildly predicting their eternity in hell to their torture/murder as apostates. No dialectic exists here within their system, because errors are not ever considered as signals that the standards, e.g., god’s laws, need revision, i.e., that something is amiss with the law itself. Where is the alpha and omega here? Science is always an alpha approaching asymptotically at best the omega of understanding nature. Religion is always an omega as the alpha was already set in stone, so to speak; it may be an omega waiting to happen with the end of days, or an omega of transcendence whereby one leaves off the attachment to this dreary world, but there is no dialectic of religious thought, only evolution of church functioning.

Or consider another frame. I have recently had consideration of the phrase, “coming to my senses,” brought up again. When does someone say this? When realizing that continued effort in the same way would be futile, i.e., senseless, like when someone realizes that a relationship will never be good or healthy or that a plan of action being implemented is untenable or that some belief or assumption is rather unquestionably wrong. “Coming to my senses,” then, is when an omega moment occurs and transforms to an alpha, e.g., Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ or (dare I say this) Saul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus. I use these examples to emphasize that coming to our senses is no sure road to epistemological truth; our senses are famously quite constructive and rather vulnerable to perturbation and error. Still, “coming to my senses” usually connotes a positive and adaptive change of mind. I don’t know if I have ever heard the inverse phrase, “leaving my senses;” I think we tend to say instead, “I am losing my mind.” Curious metaphor that, where the disregard of data engenders mindlessness. And that brings us up to an ever growing facet modern American culture, our fundamentalist religion and divisive politics. Better travel on now rather quickly.

Good science needs imagination

We are very happy here that the much anticipated reincarnation of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has arrived and that Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the writers, and crew look to have done a wonderful job.  One of the themes Dr Tyson touches upon several times in the first episode is the importance of imagination to the hard work of the empirical method.

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I recently finished Sean Allen’s book, Brave Genius, about Albert Camus and Jacques Monod. (Let me add to what I said below.  The book is excellent, well-written, well researched, and well worth anybody’s and everybody’s time).  Monod won the Nobel Prize in medicine along with two colleagues, Andre Lwoff and Francois Jacob.  During their work when Monod (and maybe Lwoff) were on vacation from the Paris summer, Jacob stayed behind, working in the lab and trying to figure out what if any role our genes had in governing the enzyme adaptations they were trying to understand.  

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He was very frustrated (and no doubt hot), gave up the day’s effort and went to a movie with his wife.  Shortly into the film he ‘imagined’ a solution and became so excited his wife suggested they leave the movie so he could work on it.  (Can’t you see that?)  When Monod returned from his holiday a few days later, he was very skeptical about Jacob’s idea but they explored it empirically in the lab and Jacob’s imaginative flash of insight led to the discovery of messenger RNA, the go-between by which DNA governs all cellular activity. Voila!

Also, remember the story of August Kekule, the chemist who discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule around 1885.  He described  having a dream about an ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake grasping its own tail, and awakening to realize that the benzene molecule was a ring of 6 carbon atoms.  And don’t forget Einstein daydreaming on the trolley to and from his job at the patent office.  We’re talking about the scientific power of dreaming here.