MD On Faith

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Thu Oct 14 2004 - 08:08:16 BST

  • Next message: Mark Steven Heyman: "Re: MD On Faith"

    Greetings to all and sundry,

    It's all Mark Maxwell's fault.

    I was quite happy enjoying my break from MD discussions, when, apropos something that I had
    suggested for an MF topic, Mark said that it couldn't be done as it was being discussed in MD. So
    after a return from holiday, I resubscribed to MD, intending just to lurk and listen. But then I
    discover that the argument that had driven me away ('on faith') had not itself gone away, and is
    still being debated. (Perhaps it's not that surprising - what I suspect we'll all agree on is that
    the salience of this issue is only going to increase in the coming decade, whoever wins the
    Presidential election.) But even though I agree with almost everything that Scott Roberts has been
    saying, I still can't resist the temptation to add my own two pennies worth. And my batteries are
    recharged, so hopefully I won't give up just from sheer exhaustion. On top of which, it seems like
    people are ganging up on Platt, and I'm sure he'd welcome another somewhat conservative voice in the
    mix (Hi Platt ;-).

    Anyhow, to the topic. I want to say something about science/faith/MoQ but a few preliminaries first.

    1. One of the best things Scott said was "What I find annoying are critics of religion who have not
    studied it. No modern non-fundamentalist theologian is ignorant of the value of science, but how
    many critics of religion are familiar with modern theology?" Quite so. I thought the whole point of
    understanding the MoQ was that it would help us to resist slopping around stale tea in our cups (aka
    degenerate static patterns from 200 or so years ago). Can't we be just a little more open to the
    dynamic? In other words, can we try to avoid simply repeating the stale cliches of enlightenment era
    propaganda, and try to listen to what religious people (like me) or educated non-religious people
    (like Scott) might be saying?? Or is that too much to ask?

    2. We could do with a little conceptual clarification on the nature of faith. Compare and contrast
    these two beliefs: 1. a molecule of water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of
    oxygen bonded together; 2. my spouse has been sleeping with my best friend. Both of these statements
    can be seen as possessing cognitive content, ie they both convey information. But one has rather
    more interest than the other, one will have rather more of an impact on the shape of a life than the
    other, one, in short, has an 'action guiding' effect, whilst the other (barring obscure and
    improbable situations) does not. Much of the discussion about faith seems to assume that a religious
    belief is simply a matter of cognitive content (ie like belief 1) when in fact it is the rootedness
    of a religious belief in the overall shape of a life (ie like belief 2) that both describes its
    nature accurately and accounts for its persistence.

    3. It's also been asserted that orthodoxy doesn't change. This isn't true (in Christianity; it is
    true, I believe, in Islam - the 'gates of ijtihad' have closed). To begin with, it took - in the
    case of Christianity - several hundred years to work out what 'orthodoxy' was, and secondly,
    orthodoxy *does* evolve, and there are mechanisms in place to effect that (if not, why has the Pope
    been saying 'sorry' so often in the last few years?). To say, as Pirsig does, "Thus science, unlike
    orthodox theology, has been capable of continuous, evolutionary growth" is simply false. It is true
    that the static barriers which DQ has to overcome have had a lot longer to get entrenched in the
    religious sphere, but then, science has lots of SQ barriers to DQ as well - as indeed it should.
    Just because something is *new* doesn't make it *better* - that's just the inherited prejudice of
    the age.

    4. I want to build on something that Scott said. "Science can only deal with the measurable and
    repeatable, and there is more to life than that. That doesn't mean that religion is the only thing
    that can deal with the unmeasurable and the unique, but to compare science to religion is -- since
    the 17th century, anyway -- meaningless." Quite so. I would amplify this by talking about the
    scientific method, which, as I understand it, is predicated on an emotional distancing from what is
    being investigated, something I call 'the apathistic stance'. (I'm talking about 'classical'
    scientific endeavour here - the quantum stuff rules out an apathistic stance just as effectively as
    it rules out many other things). In other words, to be properly scientific you need to put your own
    cares and concerns aside in order to gain an 'objective' view. (Surely the people gathered here are
    alert to some of the problems here?? Perhaps not; there's a good book I'd recommend, called Zen and
    the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it's relevant to this point.) Now, the key thing about this
    emotional distancing is that is is a) easier and b) more relevant in specific restricted spheres of
    human existence. The realms of physics and chemistry - straightforward. Biology - almost as
    straightforward. Economics - partly possible, partly impossible. English literature - impossible.
    Poetry - eh? Working out who you're going to marry - are you mad? Deciding how to raise your
    children - get thee behind me Satan! My point is that science is very good at obtaining type 1
    knowledge, but we don't care very much about type 1 knowledge, it's ultimately trivial. Even if we
    discovered a cure for cancer, it's the fact that such an item of information is type 2 that reveals
    its excitement. In other words, it is the *meaning* of the information that we value, not the
    information itself. And as soon as you are in the realm of discussing meaning, you have left the
    realm of science behind, because you cannot divorce your own cares and concerns from the process.
    (You are also then using religious language, however that might be disguised).

    5. Which leads me to what I really wanted to say. Horse asserted "my point all along has been that
    scientists have not resorted to violence in order to promote science and when there are differences
    they are resolved by argument and not force." Well, that all depends on what you mean by 'science'
    and what you mean by 'force'. If you take 'science' to be purely about type 1 beliefs then I'll
    grant that they've never been defended by force - simply because nobody would ever bother to defend
    something they don't care about. But as soon as you widen the understanding of science so that it
    includes things that people care about - in other words, when it takes on ideological content - then
    quite obviously science is just as vulnerable to human hatred as any other belief system. Communism
    was avowedly scientific after all. And how exactly are we to describe what happened to Pirsig, as
    described in ZMM? Wasn't his incarceration and treatment in an asylum an example of force employed
    to establish a soundly scientific (ie 'rational') world-view in him?

    6. A more interesting line to explore, if people share my sentiments, is how science's supposed
    non-violence etc links in with the different levels of the MoQ. In other words, if science is
    defined as a purely intellectual (ie purely fourth level) activity, then isn't it _impossible_ for
    it to be violent? That is, if violence is the employment of biological means, directed more or less
    coherently by social patterns, then there is no way for science to directly be violent itself - it
    can only support social patterns which are violent in their turn. (and there are lots of examples of
    scientists upholding social spheres that were in their interest. Dr Mengele anyone?) The key
    question then is: is religion a fourth level pattern comparable to science, or does science occupy
    the fourth level in splendid isolation? Our answers to that question, I think, will repeat the
    various prejudices displayed so many times before when we've considered that very question. I would
    just reiterate Scott's point that I started with: "What I find annoying are critics of religion who
    have not studied it. No modern non-fundamentalist theologian is ignorant of the value of science,
    but how many critics of religion are familiar with modern theology?"

    Regards to all

    Sam (the priest) Norton

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