So anyway, back to Robert Wright’s book Evolution of God. As I established in my previous post on the book, Wright’s argument for God from a ‘moral order’ standpoint founders fairly quickly, taken at face value. But I’m not entirely sure it was meant to be taken at face value. Perhaps there is another way to look at it. The argument between Wright and Jerry Coyne that I alluded to in the other post looks more like an argument between two competing ideas of truth, rather than an argument between religion and atheism. Perhaps one way of looking at the argument between them is that Wright believes in human truths whereas Coyne believes in scientific truth.
So, what’s scientific truth? It is no accident that many of the most influential atheists today are biologists – Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and PZ Myers. Even Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, has an intimate knowledge of biology (see his excellent Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). These are people who believe that science gets to the truth. They are certainly aware of debates within the philosophy of science about the nature of that truth, but I doubt that they are swayed by them, one way or another. Perhaps with good reason; a lot of philosophy of science is after the fact, describing how it seems to work, rather than prescribing what scientists should do. In a sense, science is basically about error correction. Sure, it’s got theories and observations, formulae and experiments, but the bit that makes it science is the elaborate lengths you go to to avoid errors when you do the experiments, the way you control the variables. Oh, and the assumption of materialism. In any case, the project of science has obviously been phenomenally successful. There’s something mathematically exact about science. The fact that you are probably reading this on a thin laptop LCD screen suggests this. So whether or not the current theory about the way evolution works is 100% true in the philosophical sense (it isn’t, but very little is true in the philosophical sense), it at least resembles reality very closely in important ways.
When it comes to human truths, we humans are bewilderingly complex. Those brains of ours, so essential to who we are, are mindbogglingly complex. There are a trillion neurons in my head, each of which is connected by synapses to tens of thousands of other neurons. We don’t have a complete, useful understanding of how the genetic code puts our brains together, of why it puts our brains together in such a way, or of how all that turns into somebody who is capable of typing into a laptop about religion, atheism, and scientific and human truths. The complexity is simply immense. And that’s before you point out that there are 7 billion different humans on this planet who interact with a surprising amount of other humans in all sort of ways that involve ethics, culture, society, and class (etc.). So far, so complex.
Science doesn’t cope well with that kind of complexity. Science works via the systematic control of variables. But here, in humanity, there are simply too many variables to control. There are too many errors to correct. When it comes to society, culture and humanity, we basically have to give up delineating and mathematicising as we do with nature; instead theories are at best, useful interpretations. The famous Sokal hoax (in a nutshell: physicist publishes deliberately nonsensical article in cultural studies journal to show that postmodernist cultural studies types can’t tell the difference between nonsense and sense) gets its sting from the implication that human truths are basically bollocks compared to scientific truths.
In a lot of ways the battleground between scientific and human truths is psychology. There’s no neat dividing line between scientific truth and human truth. Human behaviour is made of both science stuff (atoms, DNA, cells, etc) and human stuff (morals, culture, knowledge). Many psychologists – including psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud, behaviourists like BF Skinner, cognitive/evolutionary psychologists like Stephen Pinker, and cognitive neuroscientists like Victor Ramachandran – see psychology as a science; they think that we can know some scientific truth about human nature. Of course, other psychologists - e.g., Mihail Csikszentmihalyi, RD Laing, and Carl Rogers - are dubious about the worth of this scientific base in knowing about human behaviour and thought, and their theories are more like interpretations of behaviour than explanations of behaviour. It is for perhaps this reason that they are often called humanistic psychologists; they are fundamentally people from the humanities rather than the sciences.
Psychology as science ultimately has to be reduced to biology. Before Darwin, a scientific psychology was thought to be impossible – it is no coincidence that the first psychology labs were founded after Darwin published Origin, but within his lifetime. After all, if our behaviour happens because we have free will, because we have a soul, our behaviour is by definition not something science can look at – science looks at the material world, and souls are not part of the material world. But if our behaviour is derived from natural selection - if we behave in ways that re at least partially determined by evolution and biology - psychology is more than capable of being a science. We can limit the variables. That psychology as science has been so successful (e.g., see half the links I post on my link dumps) suggests that souls are either unimportant to behaviour or nonexistent. In some ways it is odd that it is biologists who get the bulk of the fundamentalist hate mail, because the bulk of mainstream academic psychology is much more dangerous to the religious worldview than the bulk of mainstream biology.
I am a scientific psychologist. I studied, broadly, the way that our brains process music in such a way that adds up to the way that we understand the music. What I did was ultimately based on the assumption that we are evolved creatures. My field has found many surprising and interesting things – Dan Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia books have been successful because these things are very interesting – but, oddly, the stuff we music psychologists are best at explaining is with music people don’t think about. We can explain fairly well how movie music functions – most people don’t think about the soundtrack, they just let it do its job. And we’re better at explaining why something might get stuck in your head than at explaining why you might like a particular song. That is, if complicated human truth things like culture, politics, and social pressures are major variables – which they undoubtedly are in music taste - scientific psychological explanations get less powerful. A Britney Spears song like “Womanizer” might be expertly pressing all our musical buttons from a music cognition point of view - it almost certainly is, otherwise it wouldn’t have been quite so big a hit. But whether that makes it a good song, as far as you’re concerned, depends on your musical politics, your relationship to culture, etc. This is not to say that scientific psychological explanations are unimportant – if they were, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade of my life studying them. But they are by nature only part of the equation, and the rest of the explanation is too complex for science to accurately delineate. This is what Stephen Pinker is saying when he says in How The Brain Works that his genes can go jump in the lake.
So human truths, as complex and problematic as they are, are still incredibly useful. You’re not going to understand why someone like “Womanizer” without first understanding where that song and that person fits culturally, politically. And the proponents of human truths would say that an incomplete, inexact theory of these human truths is better than no theory at all. We try to find out human truths because it is useful to know why people do the things they do, and useful to know why societies and groups of people tend to do the things they do. Very few, these days, would claim that the theories of Karl Marx are as true as, say, the evolutionary modern synthesis, or quantum physics. But his ideas have been powerful and influential because they are a way of interpreting human behaviour that has a grain of truth. The same goes for Slavoj Zizek or Noam Chomsky or Pierre Bourdieu or Edmund Burke; there are grains of truth in each. And, I suspect, the actual truth of the matter when it comes to, say, class, or the merits of change, are so dependent on so many variables, that we would be unable to understand it. Interpretation is the best we can do, but we must do it.
Taken from this angle, some of the things found in religion begins to look more appealing. It’s not true in the scientific sense, but, then, neither is Marx or Zizek. This doesn’t mean that Marx and Zizek aren’t worth reading, though. There are human truths in religion. Even those scourges of religion Dawkins and Hitchens are quite happy to extol the virtues of the writing in the King James Bible. Part of why they are happy to extol these virtues is their human truth. St. Paul’s passage about love that commonly gets recited at weddings, is simply wonderful. And there’s a hard core of truthiness in it. The Bible, after all, is the repository of the wisdom and history of the Jews and early Christians, and successful religions are successful religions partly because they do capture something about human nature. Some of that wisdom is still going to hit the mark, because people are basically still the same as they were in 30AD.