Wednesday, May 08, 2013

I'm terribly late!

Thanks to TC I get a look at this old review of one of Carl Sagan's books I ignored back when it came out; and I get to enjoy Sagan's loopy "reasoning" on the Bible:

The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.
But of course, I might be wrong.
Where to begin?  With the idea that only "the findings of modern science" provide truth about the world, and all other works, literary or religious, are bunk insofar as they don't "prefigure" those findings?  And I presume "prefigure" is just a way of saying "Think like Carl Sagan thinks," because if you don't, you're primitive and backwards and benighted and "demon-haunted."

It's a howler that only a supremely self-important person could make.

But no, that isn't enough.  What is the purpose of Scripture?  According to the late Mr. Sagan, apparently its purpose was to explain the world, the universe, and everything.  Except it wasn't; it never was.  That's a presumption of the Enlightenment, much as the Renaissance gave us the loopy notion that medieval thinkers were only worried about angels dancing on pin heads.  They weren't; that was the Renaissance idea of a joke, of a wild exaggeration meant to illuminate a deeper truth.  And it does illuminate a truth; it illuminates the arrogance and rank ignorance of the Renaissance, which for all its virtues never produced a thinker as profound as Aquinas, a human being as notable and admirable as Francis of Assisi, a vision of reality as compassionate as that of Julian of Norwich.  It was the Enlightenment that put us onto the path that all knowledge which was not utilitarian, was knowledge barely worth of the name.

In other words it is not just that, as Mr. Lewontin puts it:
Most of the chapters of The Demon-Haunted World are taken up with exhortations to the reader to cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world.
It is the presumption that this knowledge is the only kind of knowledge that matters, and therefore the Bible presents such knowledge, but gets it all wrong, therefore it is entirely discardable.  It may be the Bible is entirely discardable (I don't think so, but I"m open to the discussion), but it is not for the reasons Mr. Sagan presents.  Indeed, Mr. Sagan's argument was, and the argument still is, that of a man with a hammer, to whom the whole world resembles a nail.  The Bible is no more meant to be the answer to all things (i.e., truly cosmological) than science is; but once you make that mistake, as many do on either side of the question, then you tumble down the rabbit hole into arguments with Mr. Sagan, which oddly enough bear no more relation to reality than rabbits with pocket watches.

It might be entertaining, but it ain't science; and it's certainly not serious.

Lewontin tosses off a fascinating observation, one that prompted more than one letter in response to his "defense" or affection, at least, for Orthodox Judaism:

If Sagan really wants to hear serious disputation about the nature of the universe, he should leave the academic precincts in Ithaca and spend a few minutes in an Orthodox study house in Brooklyn.  
That isn't a defense of a certain way of understanding the cosmos; it is, rather, an assertion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Sagan's philosophy, and many of them have as legitimate a claim to our attention and appreciation as Sagan's old essays for Parade Magazine and Reader's Digest.  But what Lewontin is also saying, althoug he shies away from it somewhat, is that science is not the only source of truth, and that there are preconceptions and prior commitments in every field of discourse:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
But, of course, we do believe in anything.  As Lewontin says a bit earlier in the review:
 What seems absurd depends on one's prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity "in deep trouble." Two's company, but three's a crowd.
What is truly absurd is not believing in anything; it's believing in everything.  As Descartes noted when he started modern European culture down this road, if we deny the truth of everything, we are left with nothing; so we have to start with something.  Descartes chose to start with self-awareness, with "I think, therefore I am."  It's not entirely a provable assertion, of course; but to seriously gainsay it is to get nowhere.  Still, to seriously assert it is an empirical truth, is to distort the meaning of "empirical truth" until it is meaningless.  So we all do believe, at least, in our own existence; and some of us believe in the claims of empiricism.  But none of us believe in everything; that is an absurdity too far.

Lewontin, ultimately, doesn't understand the import of his own argument.  He makes this point (it has to be read in full to be appreciated):

 The struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world is one aspect of the history of the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture. Without that history we cannot understand what was going on in the Little Rock Auditorium in 1964. The debate in Arkansas between a teacher from a Texas fundamentalist college and a Harvard astronomer and University of Chicago biologist was a stage play recapitulating the history of American rural populism. In the first decades of this century there was an immensely active populism among poor southwestern dirt farmers and miners.7 The most widely circulated American socialist journal of the time (The Appeal to Reason!) was published not in New York, but in Girard, Kansas, and in the presidential election of 1912 Eugene Debs got more votes in the poorest rural counties of Texas and Oklahoma than he did in the industrial wards of northern cities. Sentiment was extremely strong against the banks and corporations that held the mortgages and sweated the labor of the rural poor, who felt their lives to be in the power of a distant eastern elite. The only spheres of control that seemed to remain to them were family life, a fundamentalist religion, and local education.

This sense of an embattled culture was carried from the southwest to California by the migrations of the Okies and Arkies dispossessed from their ruined farms in the 1930s. There was no serious public threat to their religious and family values until well after the Second World War. Evolution, for example, was not part of the regular biology curriculum when I was a student in 1946 in the New York City high schools, nor was it discussed in school textbooks. In consequence there was no organized creationist movement. Then, in the late 1950s, a national project was begun to bring school science curricula up to date. A group of biologists from elite universities together with science teachers from urban schools produced a new uniform set of biology textbooks, whose publication and dissemination were underwritten by the National Science Foundation. An extensive and successful public relations campaign was undertaken to have these books adopted, and suddenly Darwinian evolution was being taught to children everywhere. The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children.

The result was a fundamentalist revolt, the invention of "Creation Science," and successful popular pressure on local school boards and state textbook purchasing agencies to revise subversive curricula and boycott blasphemous textbooks. In their parochial hubris, intellectuals call the struggle between cultural relativists and traditionalists in the universities and small circulation journals "The Culture Wars." The real war is between the traditional culture of those who think of themselves as powerless and the rationalizing materialism of the modern Leviathan. There are indeed Two Cultures at Cambridge. One is in the Senior Common Room, and the other is in the Porter's Lodge. 
 Which I think is a very astute reading of the situation.  However, he concludes here:
 Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
 He's not as far from Sagan as he thinks, because the dilemma is not that we must give possession of the power to discover the truth to the benighted.  Our dilemma is that we cannot take away from "them" the power to define the "truth."  Sagan has one definition; Lewontin has another.  And the denizens of the "embattled culture" Lewontin identifies, have their own, which they will not give up any more than Sagan would give up his.

As long as we don't recognize that irreconcilable and irreducible truth, we'll continue to go 'round and 'round this mulberry bush; or down nonsensical rabbit holes.


  1. Lewontin is, after all, a materialist. He is one who admits the motives of scientists in being materialists, because to admit to any exception to their materialism will upset their world view. He is extremely honest about the practical and ultimate limits of that view and his bias is not a matter of class snobbery, which it is in just about every other materialist I've ever read, heard or met.

    He is a master of the essay-book review, the only other reviews I've ever read that are as worth reading are by Orwell. I forget if it's here or in another essay where he admits his materialism was the product of his upbringing. In all he's far more reasonable and fair about it than others I might respect as a writer, like Barbara Ehrenreich whose inherited atheism turns her into a jerk whenever something impinging, even tangentially on the area of religion, is possibly implied.

    His critique of evo-psy and Dawkins' scientific speculation is brilliant. I suspect it has played a big part in Dawkins abandonning "science" for the common retirement career of quasi-scientists, trying to kill God.

  2. I think the problem I identified is less with Lewontin's materialism than with his limitation on the idea of what "truth" is (which may be a function of his materialism, but it's not a necessary condition of materialism).

    More and more I realize Pilate's famous question is more trenchant than is credited: "What is truth?" Each group has its own, and insists its truth is paramount. Protestants reject Catholicism because the latter insists truth resides in the teachings of the church, and insists that truth is quite different from what the fundamentalist Protestants say it is.

    It's little different from the claims of atheists like Dawkins. But if there can be but one truth, is it your truth, or mine?

    I am interested, in a schadenfreude sort of way, in Lewontin's critiques of Dawkins. I've been assured the popular conception of the "selfish gene" didn't come from the Professor; reading this review, I'm not so sure that's true.

    Which is really interesting, because frankly, if Dawkins is such a weak thinker on matters of religious belief (he has no data and poorer reasoning), why should I respect his ideas in his field of expertise? I've known many an expert who really doesn't know very much at all. And you have to be an expert, or pay very careful attention, to get the critiques of Dawkins' religious critiques, and realize how very wrong he is.

    So, maybe.....

  3. Indeed, Mr. Sagan's argument was, and the argument still is, that of a man with a hammer, to whom the whole world resembles a nail. The Bible is no more meant to be the answer to all things (i.e., truly cosmological) than science is; but once you make that mistake, as many do on either side of the question, then you tumble down the rabbit hole into arguments with Mr. Sagan

    Indeed. That is at the root of my problems with Intelligent Design (well besides my refusal to believe that an organism with waste pipelines running through a recreational area, to reference an old joke, is intelligently designed): it's just another version of Scientism that insists scientific explanations are the only possible kind. I know I tend to lean to far toward Gould and non-overlapping magisteria to your tastes, but obviously (given your making of this statement) you have to agree 100% with Gould to agree with the position stated above.

    It's interesting that Sagan is falling victim here to Scientism, btw, given that, although AFAIK a non-believer, Sagan tended not to fall into the same traps as Dawkins, et al., in matters of faith and understanding of faith. Indeed, I think part of what got Sagan in trouble with certain scientists who take themselves too seriously as well as tend toward Scientism was not only his popularizations (which didn't help him with elitist types, to bring things toward the second half of your post) but also his take on the role of faith as a part of science.

    Anyway, as to the second part of your post, it's interesting that people let their resentments toward a cultural elite change their world-view so much, and in such a way as to benefit the very real economic elite that for so long has oppressed them ... I'm not sure what to make of that, but spite, alas, seems to be part of the human condition.