I’m realizing that perhaps in yesterday’s post I took everyone’s love and understanding of postmodern feminist theory for granted so I’m going to start a little series of posts that I think will slowly introduce some of the issues that I spend a lot of time thinking about and hope that other people will too. Today I’m going to jump right into it by posting the essay I wrote for a horrible class I took about science and religion called Belief Options for a Practicing Scientist. The assignment was to write a five page essay on what the best belief option for a scientist is and why. I think that through my barely disguised disdain for the course and for the silliness of the assignment I end up hitting on the beginnings of some of the issues that I’m interested in (and will hopefully get into in more depth later)–why focusing only on abstract ideas of perfect truth and rationality and not acknowledging how emotional and social prejudices can be embedded in and unjustly perpetuated through scientific work (and even rejecting the call to be aware of such prejudices as “woo”) can be problematic and counterproductive for scientists and for society. Rational, critical thinking done by emotional, social beings has gotten us the tremendously beautiful and powerful knowledge of the world around us that is celebrated on blogs like this one. Let’s keep that open-minded, questioning rationality when we think about the limits of our personal rationality and social issues in science.
Science began during the enlightenment, the “age of reason” beginning in Europe in the 17th century. Science as the rational, empirical, logical analysis of the natural world was constructed in opposition to the irrational, emotional world of human affairs. The ideal of the perfectly rational, emotionally detached, completely objective scientist has dominated the scientific discourse since then. Today, scientists use this kind of “objective” analysis in order to justify their personal religious beliefs, whether they believe in God(s) or not. However, recent evidence from cognitive psychology and neurology has indicated that the ideal of emotionally detached rationality is an unattainable fantasy, for scientists and everyone else. Science and scientists would be well served by understanding and accepting the emotional and the irrational in human constructions and interactions, including scientific and religious discourse. This argument leads to only one conclusion in the search for the “best” belief option for a practicing scientist: scientists can believe whatever they want.
Scientists and public intellectuals with deeply held religious convictions like Francis Collins or C.S. Lewis have used an appeal to reason, to a rational weighing of the evidence found in the natural world, in order to justify their religious beliefs to an increasingly antagonistic scientific establishment. These thinkers see the existence of God as a rational extension of the beauty and power of nature and the existence of cooperation and altruism in human societies, and reject as irrational the counterarguments that invoke evolutionary or cosmological arguments such as the multiverse theory or group selection. In cases where religious dogma actively conflict with empirical data, primarily in the form of miracles described in the Bible, this “rational” argument for religion often appeals to a different set of natural laws, or to the notion that natural laws as defined by human science are incapable of explaining a God, who must exist outside of nature as he created everything that exists in the first place. In many cases, the literal interpretation of events described in the Bible have given way to a looser reading that incorporates scientific data and theories, primarily in the case of evolution by natural selection, which is currently supported by several high ranking religious officials as well as the vast majority of scientists with strong religious beliefs (although not necessarily by the vast majority of religious people in general, which raises many issues for education and the progress of science but which are beyond the scope of this essay).
On the other hand, rational arguments are also used by those who challenge religion and advocate atheism as a belief system for scientists and non-scientists alike. Scientists and pop-science (and/or anti-religion) authors like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins use reason to deny the existence of God. They make probabilistic arguments as to the origin of life and the evolution of complex traits and social arrangements, including the sense of ethics or morality, and they argue that religion is in fact anti-rational. They cite cases where religious convictions have led to irrational and extremely destructive actions by groups of people: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and Islamic Jihad to name a few well-known and extreme examples, often saying that any religious belief at all is an approval of such atrocities. These writers equate rationality with science, further claiming that scientific approaches are the only ways to discern the truth of our natural world, and that science proceeds with rationality that cannot and should not be sullied by the interference of irrational adherence to non-scientific superstition and religion.
How can rational arguments be used to both support and oppose religion? If reason is the infallible way to eliminate human biases and emotional baggage and ascertain the complete truth, how can rational arguments lead to two entirely opposite conclusions? While some would argue that one group or the other is not using a “true” rational argument to support their beliefs, I would like to instead call attention to the impossibility of “true” rationality in the first place, how personal decisions about what to believe, whether you agree with certain theories, even how a scientist will decide to interpret data, cannot be isolated from an emotional, irrational, human component.
A clear example is given to us from a recent case in clinical neurology, where a brain tumor patient lost a substantial portion of his orbital prefrontal cortex after undergoing surgery to remove malignant tissue (This story is highlighted in the November 17, 2008 episode of WNYC’s RadioLab entitled “Choice”). While by all measurable tests of motor skills, intelligence, and reasoning ability he had survived the surgery with no lasting effects, his emotional responses were clearly disrupted, in that he was unable to respond emotionally to any stimulus, never becoming angry, sad, or happy as he once had, in a way that many use as the definition of “humanness.” While this numb existence has many obvious drawbacks, one striking result of this emotionlessness was a striking inability to make even simple decisions. Everyday decisions, what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, which pen to use, became an endless struggle in his mind between all the rational arguments for one way or another. Without the push from his emotions, the patient was never again able to come to any decision.
What this means for rationality in general and science and religion in particular, is that while reasoned arguments can be used to better understand and convince others about truths in the natural world, the actual decisions that all of us make in response to these rational arguments in the end is in large part emotional. When emotion is set up as the opposite of reason in scientific culture, then this becomes deeply threatening. If all reasonable arguments for a scientific theory eventually come down to the personal, emotional, “irrational” decision of each individual scientist, how can science progress as the objective description of Nature? Objectivity is a valiant goal in such pursuits, but science and scientists have justified many dangerous and irrational beliefs in the guise of “objective truth”, including but not limited to the assertion that women are ill-equipped for learning and must be kept from education and that members of any number of minority groups are “racially inferior.” By accepting that scientists are subject to the same irrational, emotional, cultural forces as everyone else, we can better interpret scientific claims that pertain to social issues (including religion), and we as scientists can better understand our own decisions and the evolution of scientific theories. Even what we think are our most rational arguments are mixed with a little bit of human irrationality, and by accepting and embracing the differences in each person’s individual irrationality, we can hopefully escape some of the discrimination subtly or not-so-subtly perpetuated by scientists and religious people alike, and work together for a more complete understanding of the world around us.
What this means for religious beliefs is that each person (and scientist) must decide for themselves, using their experiences, their knowledge, and their unique cultural and personal perspective as a guide. With such a system for belief in place we must also respect the decisions of others, knowing that beliefs can change and that they cannot always be rationally explained in a way that anyone else will necessarily understand. My hope is that such sensitivity and acceptance could prevent both the wars and violence based on religious doctrines, as well as the counterproductive name-calling by scientists and thinkers on either side.