About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Another scientist getting silly about religion
Kauffman’s latest book is entitled Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. It is a view that is bound to fail on a variety of levels, but I think it is instructive to see why. Let’s start with the good news: Kauffman, unlike, say, authors like Paul Davies (author of questionably ambiguous stuff like Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life) or -- worse -- Frank Tipler (author of the downright nonsensical The Physics of Christianity) -- is pretty clear that there is no way to recover any classical version of god, not even the deist one. For Kauffman, for instance, morality emerged out of the biological and cultural evolution of humanity. Still, Kauffman seeks to “find common ground between science and religion so that we might collectively reinvent the sacred.”
Now why would any rational individual wish to propagate the whole idea of “the sacred” to begin with? For something to be sacred, according to the Merriam-Webster, means to be “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity,” or alternatively to be “worthy of religious veneration.” This is not what Kauffman means by the term, but the whole idea of “sacredness” seems to me to be the sort of baggage that humanity ought to do without by now.
At any rate, Kauffman wants to “use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature.” Wow. First off, the concept of “honorably stealing” is something that is rather questionable, especially when what one is attempting to steal is nothing less than god’s aura. Second, nature is not creative, it just is. Creativity is something that conscious beings do, and to use the term in association with nature is misleading to say the least, and invites of course precisely the sort of quasi-mystical thinking that science is supposed to discourage. Third, there is nothing sacred about nature, either. Again, nature is what it is, and while Kauffman is tapping into the sense of awe shared by so many scientists when we approach the natural world, there is nothing to be worshipped, as worshipping is antithetical to understanding and appreciating, which is what science is about.
Kauffman’s reinvention of the sacred is nothing new, as what he is proposing is very much akin to non-religious Buddhism, or to what a number of other scientists, from Einstein to Sagan, have written about before. Such a project is bound to fail in a cultural environment dominated by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, where people stubbornly refuse to give up the childish but apparently comforting idea of a personal god that actually cares about how they have sex and with whom. Thinking of god as the sacred in nature (including, one presumes, tsunamis, earthquakes, cancer, planetary impacts, black holes and dying stars) just isn’t going to cut it for most people. Way too esoteric, and very much unsatisfactory in terms of providing reward and punishment for people’s actions, and especially the promise of an afterlife.
Moreover, Kauffman’s project, like that of so many other scientists before him, smells terribly of being intellectually disingenuous. I don’t know if Kauffman is after the hefty Templeton Prize “for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities” (whatever that means). Scientists like John Barrow (who wrote about the so-called “anthropic principle”), Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies and others had no trouble accepting the prize, despite the fact that it is based on a fundamental betrayal of the ideal of science as a rational inquiry into the natural world. Regardless, Kauffman is not doing science or humanity any favor by joining a questionable tradition of artificial “reconciliation” between science and religion.
Perhaps people will always need what Marx famously referred to as the opium of the masses, too bad for humanity. But scientists are supposed to hold themselves and the public to higher standards of rationality, and attempting to reinvent the sacred is clearly a step in the wrong direction. As Richard Feynman once aptly put it: “I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion ... the spirit or attitude toward the facts is different in religion from what it is in science. The uncertainty that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith” (from: The Meaning of It All). Amen.