Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sunday secularism blogging: picking up the meme

Picking up a meme from the estimable PZ Myers:

I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am an atheist and a secularist, "trained" in the philosophy of science, and I have strong feelings about the subject of this set of questions.

1.) Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

It's always been a bit unclear to me what "spiritual" is supposed to mean when it isn't coupled with any particular form of spiritualism or religious expression. If spirituality requires belief in the supernatural, I certainly am not spiritual. People often treat the concept of spirituality as if it were even more vague than this, though: as if it required only some sort of belief in the totally abstract "holiness" of life and the universe. If "holiness" just means extra-super specialness, then perhaps I'm spiritual in this sense. (Although I'm not sure that it really makes sense to think of life and the universe as "special"--special in comparison to what, exactly?)

I suspect that nonreligious people often take refuge of a kind in the claim that they are, nonetheless, "spiritual" people, because it differentiates them from people they find distasteful: nihilists and the mostly mythical hard-headed scientific rationalists who think they can explain everything. But this differentiation shouldn't even seem to be necessary. The idea that everything in life is meaningless without some supernatural explanatory framework is simply absurd on its face. (How is belief in the incomprehensible and inexplicable supposed to make life more meaningful, anyway?) The mythological arrogant scientific rationalist is objectionable not because she has a wrongheaded metaphysical picture of the world, but because she is simply wrong on the merits: we don't actually have all the answers, and in fact we can't. But not having an explanation for everything is no reason to start accepting fuzzy "spiritual" explanations. You don't have to be "spiritual" to accept that there are many things we don't and can't know.

2.) We hear time and time again of the disputes between the scientific and religious communities, what is your response to the phenomenon of scientists exploring their own spirituality?

In their private lives, they can obviously do whatever they like; I have no stronger feelings about their spiritual/religious beliefs than I do about their sex lives. If scientists privately decide to worship Jesus, Zeus or Baal, or to believe in the healing power of crystals, or in the existence of djinn, I would find that somewhat silly and distasteful, but not any more than if they decided to be fanatically devoted to the musical stylings of Kevin Federline.

If their "spiritual" beliefs begin affecting the content of their work, though, that's a problem. If medical researchers begin appealing to the healing powers of crystals in their explanations of things, that's a problem. (Unless, I suppose, they could prove that these powers actually exist, which seems unlikely.) If you abandon empiricism in science by appealing to things that can't be tested, you are no longer doing science, by definition. This is not to say that people shouldn't be allowed to do this, in the sense that they should actually be coerced, but they shouldn't be taken seriously as scientists.

(I should note that I don't think it's necessarily an entirely bad thing to have spiritual motives for one's scientific endeavors, as long as those motives don't affect one's methods. It's fine, if silly, to be moved to study the sun because you believe it to be the divine source of all truth and life. It's only problematic if you appeal to those beliefs as evidence for your theories.)

3.) Dr. Charles T. Tart established an online journal dedicated to scientists who wish to share their own personal transcendent experiences in confidence, known as TASTE. Many feel that they would be shunned by the scientific community if they shared their experiences with their colleagues, are you surprised by this?

I am not surprised. Nor do I particularly care whether they would be shunned or not. Scientists, like all groups of people, are free to shun whoever they want on whatever basis they want. This would only pose a problem if the ostracism led to the passing over of good and important science, which I think is unlikely: if the science itself were infused with spiritualism, it wouldn't be good science, and if it weren't, I have little doubt that it would have a full hearing.

4.) Do you feel that a scientist can be spiritual? Why is this?

As a private person, absolutely, although I think, for at least most senses of "spiritual", it would be better if they weren't. As a scientist, no. The activity of science cannot involve direct appeal to spirituality any more than the activity of, say, ditch-digging can. You can pray for the gods to help you in digging a ditch as much as you like, but to really get anything done, you've got to actually get down there in the dirt. Similarly, you can think about the world "spiritually" as much as you like, but you won't be doing science unless you appeal to direct observation of the material world to support your hypotheses.

5.) What do you say to some scientists who claim that a strong sense of spirituality and morality are essential in your line of work?

To the former, I say that the very idea is absurd, for reasons I think I've already belabored enough.

To the latter, I say: the question is unclear. Morality is obviously essential to being a "good scientist" in the sense of a scientist who is a good person, and of course it's important for society that our scientists be good in this way. I don't think, however, that morality has anything whatsoever to do with being a "good scientist" in the sense of a scientist who does meaningful, solid research and constructs good theories. Appealing to generally-accepted morality as evidence for a scientific conclusion is obviously poor science. (Although using generally-accepted morality as a starting point is fine: it can be valid and interesting to think scientifically about why certain mores are generally accepted.) Terrible, terrible people can (and have) contributed enormously to the progress of scientific knowledge, if not to the progress of society more generally.

(Also: I find the assumption here, that spirituality and morality are linked in some way, to be stupid and offensive. You don't have to believe in a Sky Fairy to believe in right and wrong.)

6.) Do you think that this phenomenon could pose a threat to the scientific community, when one considers the current religious climate in the U.S?

Absolutely it could. If spiritual appeals became commonplace in scientific practice--which, luckily, seems very unlikely at present--that would have the potential to set back science and the scientific community in this country for generations. If the religious and "spiritual" communities in the US were less intellectually backward and anti-intellectual, this would be less of a problem. But even without any direct influence on the practices and methods of science in this country, religious groups have had some successes fighting science. Certainly, having an Executive Branch that carries water for their bizarre ideology doesn't hurt.

Right now might be the worst possible time in American history for scientists to undergo some kind of faux-"spiritual" awakening. There's a war being fought over the place of reason itself in the public sphere, and if scientists aren't leading the charge on behalf of reason--if it's left to philosophers and militant atheists--we'll surely lose. It's unfortunate that science, which ought to be normatively neutral to the extent possible, has to engage in partisan battles, but the blame for that lies entirely with the religious right.

7.) Finally, have you ever had an experience that you could not scientifically explain? If so, what was it?

I cannot scientifically explain any of my experiences, personally. I'm not a scientist. I can't explain, in scientific terms, why I am blogging right now about scientifically explaining why I am blogging right now about scientifically explaining... (Gah! Feedback loop!) I know perfectly well why I am doing it--because I want to make some points about science and spirituality--but I don't know how to translate this into a proper naturalistic explanation. And, for that matter, neither does anybody else.

But this isn't really the question, I assume. The question is whether I've ever had something like a mystical experience, perhaps an experience that I couldn't in principle explain scientifically. I've had all kinds of weird experiences, of course--mostly under the influence of something or other. But how could I, or anyone else, ever know definitively that they had had an experience that couldn't in principle be explained scientifically? This is a very strange way of approaching the issue, and a very strange way of thinking about the nature of spirituality and science. Having an experience that you can't explain is, or at least ought to be, an invitation to try to explain it--an invitation to do science, not to abandon it. ("Philosophy begins with wonder", as Aristotle said.) Even if no explanation immediately suggests itself for a particular experience, that is no reason to suppose that the "explanation" must be spooky and spiritual (which really amounts to abandoning the search for an explanation): that is reason to continue looking, and to suspend judgment until you find something.

1 comment:

Geaghan said...

The Christian right dismisses scientific paradigms like evolution and the Big Bang as simply another set of beliefs--although of course they're seen as quite erroneous because they conflict with the Genesis model. It intrigues me that the Catholic church, going way back to Pius XII, embraced the idea of creation ex nihilo even before the Big Bang theory was fully articulated. So do some versions of the Kabbalah, and the model of the oscillating universe has roots in Hinduism.

The difference, of course, is that the theists look at creation ex nihilo and magically discover the Uncaused Cause--or the Sky Fairy (to use Ellis' quaint term)--lurking behind it. By contrast, cosmologists consider the singularity at the moment before the Big Bang, look for what might have preceded (or caused) it, find no evidence and conclude, for now, that it's a mystery.