Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, January 21, 2005

Me? Defend religion?

I keep finding myself defending religion these days, occasionally from friends' attacks. I don't know why - I'm an apatheist. I don't really care about the atheist-theist debate. It seems to me that the question is unsettleable, and thus is not really a question. It's like asking if the grue is green after t. It has the form of a question, but it's just noise.

So why am I defending religion? It's because folk keep insisting that one cannot reconcile science and religious belief and still remain coherent, consistent and rational. I'm not going to name names - you know who you are. But why is this of interest to me?

It is largely because I am fascinated by all the conceptual manouevres undertaken by that naked ape, the human species. We have massively complicated semantic, conceptual and ideational structures, and they undergo a complex dance of cultural and social evolution, and it seems to me nothing is gained or learned if we overdraw categories and call each other names.

Is religion consistent with science? Well, it obviously is in one sense, as many scientists have religious commitments of various kinds. The question is, are scientists with religious convictions, or believers who accept science, rational in their views? Strong and strident atheists say no.

An article that was quoted on talk.origins, included this statement:
Was the world created exactly as it says in the book of Genesis, or is the theory of evolution a more accurate account? Not every faith that includes Genesis among its Scriptures feels compelled to debate the matter.

For the vast majority of Jews, any discrepancy between science and faith was pretty much settled 1,100 years ago, said Rabbi Steve Vale of Congregation Ha-Makom (The Jewish Community of Solano County).

Saadia Gaon, a Babylonian rabbi who helped codify Rabbinic Judaism, resolved the conflict, Vale said.

"Saaida Gaon said that if there is scientific evidence of something and it contradicts what Torah (Scripture) says, the Torah can't be wrong and science can't be wrong. I'm wrong. I'm interpreting it wrong," the rabbi explained.
Rabbi Gaon seems to me to represent here the rational reconciliation of a religion with a scientific claim that appears to contradict the foundation of the religion. It is a very rational approach to take. You have a community-supporting document that provides you with moral and cultural identity, which you don't want to lose (particularly if you are Jewish in an Islamic world, as the good Rabbi was); you have a commitment to learning about the world through investigation. The only way to rationally reconcile these is to assume that you are the source of the problem. Kuhn noted a similar issue in science - the failure of a cherished theory would be blamed on the tools and tool user, rather than the theory.

This has allowed most theist communities to adapt to information about the world, albeit slowly and reluctantly in many cases. This is why theists do not have to reject evolution - since truth cannot contradict truth on their approach (i.e., the world is coherent and rational... think of the impact of that on the western evolution of science), they must be making the wrong interpretations. Personally I think that's a very good way to deal with the incommensurability of the two "sources" of knowledge.

It is easier to have only the one source, though. Science is complex enough to be getting on with, but if others need more, that's fine by me. Cleverer and better informed people than I have held it to be necessary.

Now this declaration of mine stirred the ire of some members of the group. The rabbi's view was, I was told, hypocrisy. I can't see it. Hypocrisy is the assertion of something you know to be wrong, by word or deed. But the Rabbi is not being hypocritical, just doing what humans do. I'm intrigued to see some thinking that an act of rationalisation is, ipso facto, an act of hypocrisy in their estimation. We rationalise all the time the incoherencies between the world and our narrative reconstruction of it. Sometimes this involves revising our internal narrative (rationalising), since the world is under no obligation to make any sense whatsoever (lacking the essential element Narrativium). I don't call this hypocrisy. I call this "learning".

Another respondent, Dan Luke, saw it like double books kept by a tax evader:
It still sounds like an accountant keeping two sets of books: one for the tax collector (God) and another to know how much money the firm really has.
I would modify this a bit. If you are required by some prescriptive rule to do one audit, and by necessity of economics to do another, wouldn't it be a useful thing to do both? What Dan denies is that the prescription is authoritative, not that it is rational to undertake both kinds of record-keeping if it were.

Religious folk have authoritative rules they must follow if they are to remain religious. This seems fair. I have authoritative rules I must follow if I am to remain an Australian, and despite my mutterings about the sanity of some of those rules (must I really drink that much beer?) if I want to stay in good standing as a dinkum ocker (look it up), that's what I must do. We all make such tradeoffs by convention. It's a self-righteous mistake to assume that those without religion (such as me) are excused these decisions.

There are always competing exigencies in human life - it's not a sin only of the religious. I don't think the accountant needs to be cheating (that's Dan's Luke's claim ;-) - I have seen double entry bookkeeping done because the legal and statutory requirements in play simply did not give the institution a true and accurate picture of the state of the accounts. However, they also had a duty to maintain the accounts as required by the governing authorities.

The Bible believer (I'm not talking about literalists) has an authoritative source of moral and other claims, one around which the believer's community and traditions are organised. It is no more hypocritical of them to maintain those beliefs than it is me to maintain Australian drinking traditions and the so-called culture of mateship. Of course, it doesn't need to, and simply cannot rationally, contradict the science of the day, so the original Rabbinic idea is in fact a solid one - treat your scriptures as theological documents and your science as the source of natural knowledge and try to reconcile them as best you can. If you fail, it must be that you have made a mistake. Thus do religious traditions evolve.

I think that a rational Christian, or Jew, or Muslim, would only have troubles if the theological aspect of their scriptures are forgotten and the texts are treated as a source of natural knowledge; in short, if they ignore the revelatory aspect of their scripture. This is not a rational approach, since it must necessarily bring the community into conflict with reality. This can be a social evolutionary survival strategy, so I don't act surprised when I see it, but it isn't rational. The other approach is. Mutatis mutandis, this applies to other religious traditions.

The naked ape can be rational when it tries to be, and it serves nothing to deny this because we don't like the ideas they accept. The reality-challenged are irrational, but that is all...