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, November 25, 2007
Speaking of Faith, the radio show
This past Saturday, for instance, Tippett had V.V. Raman, a Hindu scholar and theoretical physicist, an intellectually lethal combination as it turns out. Raman was all over the place, telling us about the intricacies of Hindu mythology (which was interesting, in a cultural anthropological kind of way) and about how his religion offers “trans-rational” insights beyond science (which is nonsense).
For instance, Raman has a nice and tidy solution for the problem of evil: karma. You see, all one needs to do in order to make sense of why a universe run by wise and benevolent gods is full of pain and death is to postulate a system of cosmic checks and balances based on the morality of one's actions, add the doctrine of reincarnation, and voila`, the problem of evil disappears!
Well, not really. First of all, there is of course not a shred of evidence that anything like either karma or reincarnation actually occurs (I guess that's why they call it faith). In other words, Raman uses an entirely made up story to counter the harsh realities of life. That's what every religion does, but I call it ir-rational, not trans-rational. Second, even if one were – for argument's sake – to consider the possibility of a cosmic karmic spreadsheet, one would still run into the problematic detail that according to Hindu doctrine, we don't have any recollection of our previous lives. If I don't remember what I did, how can I learn from my experience and work toward improving my karmic balance? More broadly, in what sense am I the same individual that I allegedly was in my previous lives? Memory is a necessary component of personality, as people who know Alzheimer's patients can testify. No memory, and you are a different person, which means that the reincarnation-karma game makes no sense.
Raman then went on to propose his own variation of Shakespeare, of all things. Adapting a famous line from Hamlet, Raman said that “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our sciences.” Seemingly deep, but in fact trivially true, as any scientist would readily agree. Since science is in the business of discovering new things about the universe, and keeps doing so at an accelerated pace, there must be “more things in heaven and earth” than scientists have so far discovered, or scientists would be out of business. The implication, of course, is the non sequitur that religion can therefore provide us with some alternative insight into things that science cannot grasp. If so, I have to still see a single example of such wonderful insights.
As she does every week, Ms. Tippett wonders at the mystery of it all. Nothing wrong with that, science and philosophers also constantly wonder at mysteries. The difference is that Tippett and most of her guests seem to relish mysteriousness for mysteriousness' sake, and appear to be impishly happy at the alleged inability of science to unravel the mysteries. Why? What is the point of asking questions if one then shies away from seeking the answers? Could it be that Tippett, Raman and company fear that the more we find real answers about how the universe works the less space there will be for Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Zeus, Jesus, Quetzalcoatl and all the other make-believe entities that we have invented over the eons to satisfy our ego and soothe our fear of permanent annihilation?
Let me make one suggestion to Ms. Tippett: if she really wants to have a conversation about faith and spirituality, how about including a permanent “skeptic's corner” into her show, to help her listeners counter the dose of nonsense they are exposed to every Saturday morning between seven and eight? I, for one, would enjoy my cappuccino far better.