Veronica Abbass has very kindly referred me, via her comment at the Canadian Atheist site, to the “religion experts” of the Ottawa Citizen where, this week, they address the question: “What is the greatest obstacle to faith? ” Kevin Flynn, an Anglican priest and director of the Anglican Studies programme at St. Paul University — a Catholic school which, according to its website offers “degrees in Philosophy, Theology, Human Sciences and Canon Law” — in other words, not a university at all — suggests that science itself is not an obstacle to faith; rather, he says,
the greatest obstacle to faith in our culture is the notion — widely held but little examined — that science has made religious faith absurd and untenable. This is not science, but “scientism.”
Now, I have gone of record as suggesting that scientism is, in fact, a misunderstanding of the status and scope of science. The belief that all that we know can, in the end, be reduced to the statements of science is, I believe, an imperialist gesture by some scientists who cannot conceive of knowing what is not, at base, scientific. This is very clearly stated by Jerry Coyne in a recent piece about Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, where, countering Nagel’s claims about reductionism, he says this (he is referring to this review of Nagel’s book, by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, in The Nation):
Here all three academics (Weisberg is a philosopher; Leiter a professor of law) make a mistake: the view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics, which is materialism, is not identical to an attempt to reduce all sciences to physics. The former must be true unless you’re religious, while the latter is a tactical problem that will be solved to some degree as we understand more about physics and biology, but is unlikely in our lifetime to give a complete explanation for higher-level phenomena. Remember, though, that “emergent phenomena” must be consistent with the laws of physics, even those laws may not be useful for explaining things like natural selection.
And then, a bit later, he simply denies that there are moral truths, for this would contradict his claim that all that we can know can be reduced to the propositions of science. Now, I haven’t made a study of reductionism, and what it is possible to say regarding the reduction of one science to another, but it strikes me that saying, as Coyne does, that “‘emergent phenomena’ must be consistent with the laws of physics” does not, in fact, contradict the claim, made by Nagel, Weisberg and Leiter, that such reductions are or at least may not be possible. Whether it is or is not possible to carry out successive reductions of science that do in fact account for higher level phenomena, so that science is truly unified, is not something that can be based on the claim, which is obviously correct, that higher level phenomena must be consistent with the laws of physics. The question is — and it has not so far been answered, all attempts at producing a unified science to the contrary — whether the laws of physics can explain higher level phenomena. In other words, doubts about the in principle reduction of all sciences to the laws of physics is not clearly only an option for a religious believer, because there is no inconsistency in the belief that higher level phenomena may be only explicable at that higher level, even though such phenomena are consistent with the laws of physics. That seems to me almost trivially true, although I acknowledge that I have not studied the logical conundrums at the heart of concepts of reduction, emergent phenomena, and so on.
Not having read Nagel’s book — and it seems clear to me that he is simply wrong when he states, in the very subtitle of his book, “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — I cannot comment fairly on its content, but I simply cannot, for the life of me, see why so many “senior” philosophers have begun to make this claim. I think I have an inkling of Nagel’s reasons for doing so, since Nagel has, for some time, been deeply concerned with the epistemological problem of what he calls the “view from nowhere.” His book by that title expresses the deep conflict that arises when we compare the individual, perspectival view of reality with a view of reality which is, essentially, a view from nowhere. Using Dawkins’ language when he speaks of bats — and it is good to remember that one of Nagel’s central papers was called “What is it like to be a bat?” — the percipient individual constructs, in the brain, a model, as it were, of the external world, which enables it to navigate and explore and survive within that world. Bats do it by means of sound impulses, which allows their “image” of the world to be updated at varying rates from 10 times per second, up to a high of about 200 times per second when locating and homing in on a prey animal, such as a mosquito (see The Blind Watchmaker, 25).
Nagel’s problem is how we take that view from somewhere and translate it into a view from nowhere, so that we end up with a model of the world which is, as it were, independent of percipient individuals altogether. Now, I don’t want to pursue this particular issue here, though I think it probably stands at the centre of Nagel’s doubts about science, and I think he is wrong to see this as a problem. I can’t give my reasons for thinking this, aside from the fact that making the kinds of assumptions that scientists make about what the world is like, viewed from nowhere, works, and increases our ability to control our environment, which is what percipient modelling of the world is all about, after all.
And this brings me back to Kevin Flynn, and his idea that the obstacle to faith in today’s world is not science but scientism. Again, as I say, I think there is an important distinction here, and I also think that some scientists tend blur the lines between the two, but I think Flynn is simply wrong to suggest that science poses no problem for faith. It obviously does, and that is evident on the page on which his suggestion appears. The problem is simply this. The religious experts who comment are six, plus a humanist. There is an Anglican, a Muslim, a Bahá’í, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Humanist and a Buddhist. The Bahà’i says that egotism is the main obstacle to faith, the Roman Catholic mentions fear, the Buddhist nominates our unwillingness to recognise the limitations of human reason, the Jew, being the most original, says that religion is the biggest obstacle to faith, the Anglican thinks it is scientism, and the Muslim obfuscates a bit, takes the opportunity to point out the fundamentals of Muslim faith, and then says that the greatest obstacle is the weakness of faith, which misses the point, and then, finally, the humanist, Kevin Smith, thinks that the biggest obstacle to faith is knowledge. In other words, once you know, you don’t have to have faith, and so religions place a lot of effort on denying knowledge and banning the paths to it.
Of course, one of the chief obstacles to religious faith is scientific knowledge. The religious experts all disagree. Indeed, they don’t seem to notice that the very fact that they disagree, and hold different beliefs to be true, is itself an obstacle, because there is no way to resolve the differences between them. The three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are really incestuous, particularly the last two. Judaism has the advantage of having been first in the field, Christianity built upon Judaism, basically by saying that the Jews misunderstood their own scriptures, and missed the Messiah when he came, and then Islam came along and basically dismissed the first two, saying that Muhammad came with a final revelation. Trouble is, of course, that Jews and Christians make essentially the same claim. For Christians, Jesus is the final revelation of God, and made a sacrifice sufficient for all. Islam, having been heir to a strange syncretic mass of teachings from Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, which rejects all three, substitutes the supposed revelation to Muhammad as the final one, and Muslims to this day proclaim Islam as the final revelation, and the society based on Islam as the perfect society. Judaism, of course, at the heart of its own understanding of faith, think of Jews as specially chosen by God to carry out his mission in the world. In one sense, this belief is least contradictory with other faiths, because there is no reason why Jews should not hold this belief, while still holding that not all people are therefore bound to be part of the chosen people, that being a choice that can be freely made, as is made clear when Joshua (if I recall correctly) challenges the people to choose to be on the Lord’s side.
Why science presents an obstacle to all such undignified and useless bickering should be obvious. There is a decision procedure in science for coming to conclusions which are known to be true simply because they work. This doesn’t mean that the truth value of some apparently known conclusions will never shift, for this has already happened a number of times, but the whole complex of the methods and conclusions of science is additive. It builds on itself, revealing in ever-increasing detail a rich understanding of how the world works, how it got to be this way, and how we can control it for our benefit. None of the religions can do that, and, in comparison with the successes of science, the often petty conflicts between believers, and the obfuscating work of theologians, devising workarounds so that their beliefs can seem consistent with the scientific world view — and each religion, of course, in its own way – make the religions look, not only like human creations, for science is also a human creation, but also like arbitrary human creations. Even though religious traditions can be incredibly complex structures, they look like they have been made up during their journeys through the centuries, to deal with this or that contingency, without any clear sense of what should be abandoned, and what should be held on to. The result is a cacophony of different voices, all shouting at the same time. There are no clear paradigm shifts in religion, as there are in science, and so paradigms accumulate and exist side-by-side, without distinction, unlike science, where paradigms may shift, but when they do, the old paradigms are no longer useful for guiding scientific research and discovery.
Some of the religious voices, of course, pretend to be the only ones, but no religion has yet shown a reason why one set of religious beliefs and practices should be preferred over another, and, interestingly, religious believers themselves have been best at providing reasons not to believe. Doubt is a part of faith. Read some of the Psalms, or Job, or Ecclesiastes, to find out how compelling unbelief can be. The problem, however, though it may not be obvious to believers, is that this doubt, once a firm part of faith, now leads naturally out of faith. Myths only work if you don’t know that they are myths. I don’t know why this fact is not clear to some religious apologists. Paul Tillich thought that myths had to be broken before they could be religiously useful, but that was just another workaround, trying to justify faith in an increasingly disbelieving world. For a time it seemed to work, but eventually, believers realised that if it is not real belief, it is not real faith either.
A lot of apologists try to diminish the role of belief in religion, and, when religions were all-encompassing, so that in effect everyone belonged to the community of faith, the question of belief didn’t really arise. But once faiths started to butt up against each other, and with the phenomenon of unbelief, the whole scene changes. It is possible, in these circumstances, to preserve faith merely by assertion, as some fundamentalist Christians and Muslims try to do. But this is only a temporary solution, as the bleeding of the young from the ranks of fundamentalists in the US seems to indicate. Assertion, no matter how fervent, and no matter how loud, simply cannot stand up against the known facts. And this is the point that Kevin Smith makes in the Ottawa Citizen’s Ask the Religious Experts on obstacles to faith. As he says (and it’s worthwhile quoting this at length):
Some faiths are more obsessive about knocking knowledge back into the Dark Ages, and it’s quite spellbinding in its irony. They refuse to allow their kids to read stories based in fantasy such as the Harry Potter novels. This is the same flock that home schools, so they can instil in young minds that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, but not more than 6,000 years ago, of course.
It was so much easier in the good old days when the Magisterium, who were in the know, and in control, read and wrote Latin, unlike the great unwashed and uneducated. For those with inquiring minds, there was always the threat of a trip to the fire pit or an off with your head — depending on cultural preferences.
But that was before the era of the world-wide-web, which like the spider, is weaving a net where it’s said religion comes to die. For those who experience doubt, there are megabytes of information to feed their curiosity. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins have replaced Matthew, Luke and John as disciples of the new age of reason.
Nietzsche said, “faith is not wanting to know what is true.” It might provide comfort, security and an escape from fear, but you’ll have to leave knowledge at the door.
I had never heard (or at least I do not remember) Nietzsche’s saying, “Faith is not wanting to know what is true.” That’s very powerful, for it indicates that, at the root of faith, is a deliberate turning away from the facts. In the world today this is virtually impossible for many millions of people. You can’t fail to learn the truth. And this is going to make having faith much more difficult. Only when cultures were (as it were) hermetically sealed world-view units, isolated from each other, was it possible not to want to know the truth, and be left alone in that ignorance. Now, knowledge and reason are pounding at the door. It takes an enormous effort simply to ignore knowledge in a knowledge based society. Despite the religious impulse to have faith, faith itself cannot stand up for long in a storm of facts. What will take religion’s place is anyone’s guess, because we do, after all, need to have some common understanding of ourselves and society. Being social atoms will not hold societies together, so something will come to take religion’s place, but religion, I suggest, is bound to be superseded by something that does not require beliefs that lead us away from what we know to be true. Those of us who are championing unbelief and freedom of thought are perhaps preparing the way.