While reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, I came across something I hadn’t heard of before – the “city hermits” that lived in medieval London. The concept struck me as odd – hermits (at least the non-crab variety) were something that I had always thought of as a purely wilderness phenomenon. A life of solitude? In a city? Really?
As I read on, I became less confused:
The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city throughout the centuries have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms.
That, I can relate to.
I’ve spent time out in wilderness areas by myself, but all of the times when I’ve felt the most alone, the most isolated from the rest of humanity, have come when I’ve been in the city. The bigger and busier the city, the more likely it is that I’ll find myself feeling like the only man alive. Wandering through masses of anonymous people makes me see the appeal of solipsism like nothing else can.
At the same time, I’ve also found myself feeling more connected to humanity in the city than anywhere else – even when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know at all. Some of those times have produced memories I treasure. Some of those times have happened in the same cities, on the same days, as moments when I’ve felt at my most solipsisist.
As I was thinking of all this, I chanced upon the latest iteration of the unholy wars. This one – like many of the others – is pitting nonbelievers who think that science is necessarily incompatible with all religion against anyone who thinks otherwise. At the moment, the most detailed presentation of the anti-accomodationist position can be found in a post over at Larry Moran’s blog.
For reasons which I hope will become clear as I respond to some of Larry’s points, I think there’s a decent connection between my occasional feelings of urban solipsism and my semi-accomodationist views on the relationship between science and religion.
Good, let’s discuss. We begin by defining terms. I claim that science is a way of knowing based on rational thought, skepticism, and evidence.
I’m at least tentatively willing to accept some of that definition. I know it’s a widely used phrase, but I’m not overly fond of “ways of knowing”, particularly in this context. I’m not entirely sure that knowledge – particularly in the sure and certain sense that it’s used when we’re talking about our understanding of the physical world – is the most appropriate term to use for what quite a few religious traditions attempt to accomplish. Unfortunately, I’m also not sure I’ve got a better term to use. “Way of learning” doesn’t quite do it, and “way of questioning” doesn’t either, though I think it comes closer.
I think what I’m trying to clumsily get at is this: for many religious traditions, describing and understanding the universe itself is far less important than trying to explain how we fit into the universe, and how we should relate to each other.
My acceptance of the rest of the definition simply depends on how one is defining “rational thought” and “skepticism”.
I claim that when that way of knowing is applied to religious claims, those claims can be shown to be false or, at the very least, unsupported. Thus, if you are committed to science as a valid way of knowing, it follows that, when you stick to that commitment, the vast majority of religious beliefs are not compatible with science.
I have no problem with the idea that religious claims that can be shown to be empirically false are not compatible with the idea that science is a valid way of knowing. I am not at all comfortable with the idea that religious claims that are not supported by empirical evidence are incompatible with a commitment to science as a valid way of knowing. They certainly may not be compatible with the idea of science as the valid way of knowing, but in this particular case the article used makes quite a bit of difference.
…my anti-accomodationist argument is that once you accept that science is a valid way of knowing, then it follows that most religious claims are not compatible with that approach to knowledge. I have yet to see a valid accommodationist argument that addresses this important point. True, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway-Morris have made the attempt but in the end their arguments boil down to a rejection of science as the only way of obtaining valid knowledge. In other words, they limit science to just those areas where it can’t conflict with religion and then lay claim to other ways of knowing that rule in the religion magisterium. Presumably, John thinks that is a scientific way of reasoning.
[here's a link to the John Wilkins' post that Larry is referring to]
Looking at this paragraph, Larry seems to be claiming that unless you accept science as “the only way of obtaining valid knowledge”, you do not accept that science is a valid way of knowing. He is conflating science and scientism, but without providing justification for the merger of the two. I’m also not sure that the phrase “limit science to just those areas where it can’t conflict with religion” is the best description of what’s going on. I think that it’s more reasonable to say that they’re arguing for a restriction of religion to the areas where it cannot conflict with science.
And here, I think, we get to the heart of the argument, because I’m not at all sure that anti-accomodationists are willing to accept that there are areas where science simply cannot go. So let’s start with an example.
Under the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, there is absolutely no discernible physical difference between a piece of bread before it becomes the body of Christ and after it has become the body of Christ. I would argue that this means that a belief in transubstantiation quite simply cannot be incompatible with science, because it is a fundamentally non-scientific claim.
Please note that I did not in fact just say that I thought that transubstantiation is compatible with science.
I think that referring to transubstantiation in terms of compatibility with science is every bit as silly as atheists find the doctrine itself. It’s a claim that has absolutely nothing to do with science one way or the other. If there is no physical difference, there can be no scientific test of the principle, and science can do nothing to prove or disprove the claim. Holding a belief in transubstantiation does not conflict with the idea that science is a valid way of knowing, and it doesn’t even conflict with the idea that science is the only valid way of learning about the physical world. The only way that it could be considered incompatible is if there is some sort of requirement that we accept that the physical world that science can examine is all that there is – and that’s more scientism than science.
I should probably note at this point that I did not pick out transubstantiation because I think that every aspect of Roman Catholic theology is compatible with science. That’s something that I have no intention of defending. I simply picked that particular example because it seems to me to be a clear case of a religious view that cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny, and I think that the question of how to deal with those sort of views is at the heart of the whole anti-accomodationist conflict.
My argument is that views that cannot possibly be subjected to scientific scrutiny are, necessarily, not incompatible with accepting science as the valid way of knowing about anything that can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Larry and other anti-accomodationists seem (at least as far as I can tell) to hold the opposite view – if a belief cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny, then it cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, so holding that belief is incompatible with accepting science as a valid way of knowing. Like John, and like the other John, I think that scientism is a position that can’t be justified by science alone.
It’s also one that I cannot personally accept, at least in part because accepting it requires a definition of science that is so broad that it becomes far less useful. Others have talked about love in this context; I think that’s a good example, but far from the only one.
And that brings us back to where I started this post, a lone solipsist walking the crowded streets of Midtown Manhattan.
It is possible to approach my feelings from a scientific perspective. We can even, at least in theory, connect what I am thinking and feeling at that time to specific patterns of brain activity. We might – someday, if not today – even be able to identify specific differences in brain chemistry that would lead to different people experiencing different reactions to the same sets of circumstances.
And that’s entirely legitimate, it’s extremely valuable, and, on its own, a completely impoverished way of looking at things.
I can also approach my feelings by thinking about them, and looking for relationships between circumstances and reactions. That time I felt really, really isolated on the crowded streets happened when it was cold, rainy, and dark, and nobody was making eye contact; that time when I felt more connected with humanity happened on a warm, sunny day, when I exchanged eye contact and laughter with a total stranger in a foreign country. The first time, Leonard Cohen was playing on my walkman (it was a long time ago); the second time we were all standing listening to a street performer doing a really good version of “Three Little Birds”.
That’s also a legitimate way to look at things (I think, anyway), and one that can be valuable. And there’s enough critical thinking in there that if I wiggle things around, push it hard enough, stand back, turn my head to the side and squint at it, I can more or less convince myself that this way of looking at things fits into the “scientific” box.
But I still don’t think that captures everything, and I’m not even sure it catches the most important things.
There is no evidence that I can present to you that would support my saying that I had feelings of whatever at such and such a time. You can believe me – or not. You can connect my account of my experiences with things you’ve felt yourself. We can discuss, dissect, diagnose, and debate the concepts I’ve discussed. But we’ll be doing all of this from a foundation unsupported by empirical evidence, we’re not conducting experiments, and we are not actually currently experiencing what we’re discussing. I simply can’t see a useful definition of “science” that captures all of this.
To be explicit, I do not think that equating “scientific scrutiny” with “critical, rational examination” (as PZ does) is a good idea – much less a requirement. More than anything, that feels like an ex post facto re-definition of the term that attempts to broaden it to encompass all of human knowledge. When everything becomes science, science becomes a uselessly broad term.
That doesn’t mean that I reject PZ’s belief that “no decent human being should live an unexamined life”. Far from it. That’s something that I’ve believed, and tried to live my life by, for a long time. Since high school, in fact, when I was first taught that basic principle. By the Jesuits. In theology class.
Postscript: I don’t like having to say this, but given how frequently the debate over rationality becomes irrationally acrimonious I think I should: if I have misrepresented Larry’s position, or anyone else’s, or assembled something that someone thinks was a straw man, it was not intentional. I’ve tried my best to capture positions as I think they’ve been presented.