Julian Baggini Again
I don’t want to be hard on Julian Baggini, since he’s one of the good guys after all; and, as I pointed out some time ago, he’s much more like a new atheist than he sometimes claims to be. Today, in the Guardian, he has put up the fourth in his series on the New Heathenism. It consists mainly in a warning to humanists not to put too much stock in science, because it could yet turn round and stab humanism in the back.
One of his points has to do with freedom and autonomy:
If the science of humanity has shown anything at all over recent decades it is that human beings are far less autonomous, rational and free than we usually suppose. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of these challenges defeats what really matters about the humanist view of ourselves. But to argue this would be difficult and I’m not sure I could successfully do so as yet. What’s more, it remains possible that progress in science really will shatter a few atheist shibboleths in time. These are reasons enough to think that by embracing science so closely, atheists are only making it easier for it to stab them in back.
Since a great number of atheists argue the case for determinism quite strongly, subverting freedom and autonomy wouldn’t really trouble them greatly, though I continue to argue that we do, as Dennett puts it, have all ”the varieties of freedom worth wanting” that we need. But even if science showed that we do not have this amount of freedom, and that this is the truth about us, would that amount to a stab in the back? If being a humanist is to a large extent wanting to live a life that is based on the truth about the world as well as about ourselves, and science can achieve knowledge of this truth, how is this being stabbed in the back?
Of course, I agree wholeheartedly with Baggini when he suggests that:
Atheism does not own the scientific method, and nor does good, secular thinking reduce to scientific reasoning. What is too often forgotten is that modern atheism was born in a humanistic way of thinking that drew as much on arts and humanities as it did natural science, if not more so.
I think that scientism is a blind alley, and it would be wise for disbelievers to remember that. I think Baggini is right to point out the dangers of supposing that whereof science cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent. And when he says that we “might find the odd … person standing in front of a painting, only interested in knowing what their brain is doing in response to the visual stimulus, but [that] such a person would be just that: odd,” I agree. While it is true that brain chemicals are responsible for many of the things that we feel, and may, as Patricia Churchland claims, explain why some people find faithfulness in marriage rewarding, whilst others, like the prairie voles, feel the need for varieties of stimulation, these facts would not necessarily change the moral climate around faithfulness and unfaithfulness. What might be required is more openness and honesty about what our psychological needs are before making promises we know we can’t or won’t keep. The moral situation, however, does not, or need not, change, though we come to understand that for some people marriage and family are simply not an option. It’s better to know that beforehand.
That’s a pretty simple example, and no doubt as neuroscience develops, there will be more complex examples of the way in which brain chemistry determines behaviour. Since having already become innured to the belief that childhood experiences lay down structures of behaviour that may last a lifetime, and may make relationships difficult to achieve, or promises close to impossible to honour, such discoveries will not come as a great surprise. We will just have to take these new understandings of the human organism into consideration when making decisions, forming relationships, and so on. There’s no obvious reason why new discoveries about the nature of being human need subvert the whole process of rational thinking and decision making. If it does, where would that leave science?
On a couple occasions in this new article Baggini mentions the “philosophy” of John Gray. Since I’m not familiar enough with Gray’s thought to go into detail, I’ll just stick to what Baggini says about it. The suggestion is that science is a vehicle for myths. Indeed, Gray suggests that thinking that we can use science to remake the world is even more ridiculous than believing that someone rose from the dead:
Because it’s a human invention, science — just like religion — will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad. Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.
This comes from a BBC Point of View article written by Gray: Can religion tell us more than science? Gray’s suggestion seems to be that, since we are just animals, there’s really no reason to think that what science tells us about the world is any more reliable than religion. It sounds a bit like Alvin Plantinga’s argument which purports to show that naturalism is self-defeating, though, being Gray, he doesn’t put it quite so clearly.
Plantinga’s argument seems plainly wrong, but Gray’s is more confused. He says things like this, for example:
Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.
But surely he’s just comparing apples and oranges. I don’t need to know how my computer works in order to use it. In fact, I’m doing just that right now. But it would be strange to suggest that, in the process of designing a computer, and programming its operating system, I don’t need to believe that the theory behind it is true. Gray can only suggest this because you can in a sense live out a religious story without considering its truth conditions; but you wouldn’t even begin to build a computer unless you thought that it was going to work, that is, that the scientific theory behind computing is true. It also needs to be said that, in the present state of play regarding religious belief and practice, living out a religious story without any regard to its truth conditions seems a particularly careless and possibly wasteful way to live one’s life.
And that’s my problem with Baggini. He wants to get off as cheaply as Gray, and I don’t think he can do that. He seems to be taking Gray’s point about the parallel between science and religion seriously, as though each is really a story that we can simply use. He remarks on the silly view that science is only just another myth, and that sometimes Gray seems to be be proposing precisely this view. This, however, he suggests, is a misunderstanding:
John Gray often sounds as though he [accepts the silly "sicence is only another myth" idea], but what he actually says is that science “has become a vehicle for myths”, such as that of inevitable progress, not that science itself is no better way of understanding the world than folk beliefs about sun gods or earth spirits.
I wonder, though, whether in John Gray’s mind there is really any great difference here. For example, in the BBC article that Baggini refers to, Gray says this:
Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.
The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There’s nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind.
And then he goes on, in a Plantinga like way, to say:
If Darwin’s theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren’t built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.
And this suggests something more than just that science may sometimes be used as a vehicle for myths. This suggests that science itself just is another myth. Notice how he has to dance a little jig around Darwin’s theory – in supposing that it ”is even roughly right” — for he needs the theory to make his argument, just as Plantinga does. But needing the theory really makes the argument self-defeating. For if Darwin’s theory of evolution is even roughly right, then it is something that can be further and further refined until it is more and more precisely right, and this seems to be something that Gray wants to deny.
So what does Baggini’s warning to humanists amount to? I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not altogether sure why he felt the need to go down this particular road. Is there more to life and the world than science can ever reveal? Of course, I take it that this goes without saying, although I suspect that science will be more and more able to tell us why this is true. Science is the paradigm case of seeking and finding the truth, and forms of inquiry which depend upon claims to truth which do not provide room for the kinds of communal checking and rechecking of the data that science demands can no longer be creditably claimed to be able to discern what is true.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t all sorts of room for the humanities. Last night I was reading one of Christopher Hitchens’ essays in his latest collection, Arguably. It’s about the historical novel Wolf Hall, by the novelist Hilary Mantel. Aside from the mild criticism that Mantel sometimes intrudes American expressions into the dialogue, like “cutting a deal”, “stuff it”, and “downturn”, amongst others, the heart of the novel is a sensitive exploration, according to Hitchens, of two very different characters, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, the first of whom has now been beatified, the latter being still a by-word in English for a time-serving, self-serving sycophant and bureaucrat. Yet Mantel sees through the disguise of More’s piety, to the inhuman religious puritan who was not above slaughter in order to purify the kingdom, and through Cromwell’s hard-nosed pursuit of self-interest to a man who could not see the point of killing people for the sake of beliefs in whose truth there is little reason to be so confident as to be worth a life. It takes an emotional sensitivity to discern distinctions like this, and science is really of no use in trying to achieve it. Much of human life is involved in making this kind of sensitive discernment and acting on it, and this, as such, is not the job of science.
Yet the mistake often made here is that there is no relationship between this kind of emotional and moral discernment and the methods of science, and here, I think, Baggini goes astray. For such discernment can be right or wrong, and critical assessment of this discernment is of the essence of understanding what it is that the novelist contributes to the enrichment of life. Some just don’t. President Roosevelt, in his relationship with Stalin, for example, thought he understood Stalin much more acutely than Churchill, but he did not. Roosevelt did not see, as Churchill did, that Stalin’s apparent openness and friendship was a ruse to hide diabolical political machinations. And while the difference between Churchill and Roosevelt would not, in the situation, have been usefully explored by scientific methods as such, it would have repaid Roosevelt a thousandfold to have been a bit more sceptical of Stalin’s good will, and to have explored some alternative explanations for his apparent — and it really was only apparent — friendly willingness to play along with Roosevelt’s homely conviction that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
So, what shall we conclude about Baggini’s warnings about science and its relationship to atheism and humanism? I think he simply misunderstands, largely because he has not clarified for himself what he is trying to do. When he says the following, in the penultimate paragraph, I think we need to say that his position is deeply confused:
Science is indeed one of our highest human achievements and we should respect it, admire it and draw on its findings to inform our world view. But it cannot provide the entirety of such a view and nor can we blithely assume that it will always support our most fundamental beliefs. [my italics]
First of all, I don’t really know of anyone who claims that science alone can provide the entirety of a world view. Sam Harris, in my view, mistakenly, thinks that there can be a science of morals, but when he goes on to say, as he now has in a brace of articles (here and here), that consciousness itself is deeply mysterious, and concludes that “it is difficult to imagine what experimental findings could render the emergence of consciousness comprehensible,” he really has (whether he recognises this or not) placed morality outside the realm of science (where of course it belongs).
That’s one side of the issue raised in the Baggini quote. The other is this. When Baggini suggests that the entirety of such a view (that is, science seen as providing a comprehensive world view) cannot be blithely assumed always “to support our most fundamental beliefs,” it has to be remarked at once that a scientistic view of the world is not widely held to be possible – despite some exaggerated claims to the contrary which are based, I am convinced, on a misunderstanding of what a scientistic view of the world would look like — but that, even if it were, and scientific findings did not support our fundamental beliefs, we would have first, to ask what kind of beliefs Baggini has in mind, and then, second, whether, if shown not to be true, we should refuse to believe this. In short, we are dealing with a number of unknowns here, where confidence is unwarranted — Baggini’s as well as those who seem to be comfortable with scientism — without a critical exploration of the implications.
If what Baggini is asking for is more caution, since complex matters are at issue here, then he should make his point more clearly. If, however, he is suggesting that there is still a role for religion to play in settling any of these matters, then I think he simply misunderstands the point the human conversation has reached at this time. I can find nothing in the religious project which could contribute meaningfully to the conversation that we need to have about the future of the planet, for example, or the role of the human beings who live on it. Religion is tied too irrevocably to the past, and to beliefs which can have no purchase in a world governed by critical reason. And even if much of religion is experiential and not propositional, as we are constantly reminded, this would still be true, for at the point at which religion comes to expression in propositions (even those religions in which propositional belief is held not to be relevant to faith), there is no obvious basis upon which its propositional claims can be thought to be true. The Biologos assumption that religions can have such a purchase, as Jerry Coyne points out, has already spelled the doom of the Biologos mission “to explore, promote and celebrate the integration of science and Christian faith.” It has, instead, reverted to replaying the old myths, and trying to make them somehow consilient with science. But this was a failed program from the start, because religion has nothing to contribute to science, and the more religion insists on putting itself beyond scientific criticism by the expedient of supposing that it is not propositional, or that unbelievers cannot understand religion without participating fully in religious practices, the more this is shown to be true.
And what all this implies, I think, is that Baggini is not thinking through the project that he is undertaking here, and that, in order to do what he purports to be doing, he must have much greater clarity about what he means by religion, as well as what he means by science. Indeed, the whole contemporary science-religion debate could do with a lot more philosophical clarity, and it is a bit disappointing to find that Baggini, a philosopher, has not bothered to attempt to provide this.