Thursday, March 25, 2010

Divine Foot, meet materialist mouth

At my workplace there's some well meaning propagandist who never fails to drop off Jehovah's Witness “literature”. February's issue of Awake! is particularly compelling, with the cover tagline of “Earth- designed for life” (not even the grace of a question mark to be found...). Of course, it lines up the usual suspects: the fine-tuning argument, the teleological argument, etc. There's also a ridiculous sidebar entitled “The Bible is Scientifically Accurate” with four very pained attempts to show our omniscient creator's scientific foreknowledge (i.e. “The universe is governed by laws: 'I [Jehovah] had appointed...the statutes [or, laws] of heaven and earth' -Jeremiah 33:25, written before 580 B.C.E.”)

What's of more concern, however, is the fact that once again biologist Richard Lewontin's words in the New York Review of Books come back to bite the collective behinds of materialists. Awake! doesn't use the whole quote, but even in its entirety anyone can see how ripe it is for creationist quote-mining:

“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.”

Awake!, like countless other apologists, pulls the especially juicy bits about a prior commitment to materialism to conclude

“Despite the evidence that the natural world seems too well designed to be a mindless accident, amny scientists refuse to believe in a Creator. It is not that science somehow compels atheists to 'accept a material explanation' of the world, say evolutionist Richard C. Lewontin...Is such dogmatism wise, especially is the evidence overwhelmingly points to a Creator? What do you think? -Romans 1:20”

Nice bit of argument from divine authority at the end. I sympathize with the points Lewontin was trying to make in the piece (I recommend reading it all!)- that the fundamentalist religious backlash in the US must be seen as a result of the calculated destruction of progressive left alternatives within the culture of the rural and southern working class, that a science in the service of institutions of political and economic exploitation can produce monsters, that the tools of critical rational thought must be extended to all instead of simply being told the results of the use of those tools. At heart, he says, “What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance...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.”

Despite all this, his talk about “a prior commitment to materialism” is simply throwing red meat to the intellectual cannibals. The intelligent design proponents at the Discovery Institute have frankly admitted that their war against evolution is simply the opening battle to their greater showdown with the materialisms of not only Darwin, but more importantly of Freud and Marx. Besides, what Lewontin says here may not be true- see Sean Carrol on why the oft-quoted distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “ontological naturalism”, that science somehow is barred from investigating supernatural phenomena, is not as tenable as it might seem. There's a good case to be made that science can, and has, investigated possible divine phenomena- and that to date almost every religious postulate about the natural world has been found to be utterly wrong. Heliocentrism, immutability of kinds of animals, the age of the earth and the universe, whether we should beat non-virgin brides to death with large stones..the list goes on and on. So, materialism need not be a priori but rather a supposition demanded by the history of knowledge.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Culture, Genetics, Stinkheads

Alright, I promised to write a bit more about cosmopolitanism and theodicy, but that's still cooking somewhere in the back of my head and right now I don't have access to enough caffeine to bring it out. In lieu of that, let me point this article, via Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True. Coyne is discussing a recent paper (and the NY Times article about it) on recent work to discover some evolutionary changes in the human genome that may have been selected for because of cultural practices. By this they mean things such as the appearance and spread of the mutation that allows adult human to remain lactose-tolerant even after reaching adulthood. This is the partly contingent and partly human-chosen structure of culture affecting the genetic makeup of humans. Now sociologists are often deeply suspicious of genetic explanations for human qualities, and with good reason- scientific racism is not dead yet! Still, these sorts of studies are of a different sort and cautious enough, though I'm not sure if they can be useful for the social sciences.

This sort of work that should be considered in light the evidence compiled by sociology, anthropology, and history of the extreme cultural malleability of human behavior. One of my favorite prosaic examples of that is “stink heads”, salmon heads buried for a week or more in the ground to rot and considered a delicacy among the Yup'ik. Our biological inclination to avoid rotting food, so seemingly basic and undeniable, seems less like a law and more like a tendency which socialization at an early enough age can overcome. The work discussed by Coyne comes at this problem from the other direction. Looking at both we would say the relationship between culture and genetics is dialectic over the long-term, in which cultural practices can influence our physical makeup and this can in turn affect the development of culture. But again, given the very long time frames and social isolation needed for these culturally-induced genetic effects I think we have to be very careful in seeing what role they may play in cultural and social history, especially in our highly globalized modern era.

More useful to the social sciences ( and to atheists!) might be the application of phylogenetic methods to understanding human cultural development. One cool example is this paper by Steven Jay Gould's old collaborator Niles Eldredge and Ilya Temkin which traces the “evolution” of the trumpet-like cornet (NYTimes article as well). Phylogenetic trees, the “tree of life” style charting that is used to plot evolutionary history, might be a useful tool for charting the tangled path of social evolution.

Once some solid methods are hashed out, these sorts of phylogenetic approaches might be applied to things as large as the changes over time within the institutions that interact over multiple nations, civilizations and even at the level of a world-system. Types of states, economic models, even the way radical social movements organize themselves could have their development laid out phylogenetically. One could certainly apply this kind of evolutionary tree history to religion- the sort of project that I bet would show how “innovation” in religion, from directly political and tyrannical to the more mild polite forms we see today, has most often come from outside its epistemologically frozen structures. You know, from those nasty heretics/atheists/freethinkers/doubters who wouldn't just sit down and “be polite.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Natural disasters and the excuses of theodicy

The recent Haitian and Chilean earthquakes have once again put theodicy in the spotlight. Like the massive South Asian tsunami of 2004, these are natural disasters that kill thousands of men, women, and children during the disaster itself and doom thousands more to painful starvation and homelessness. Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the concept of a loving, all-powerful god with the obvious existence of suffering in the world, as you might expect, has a long pedigree as a feature in the larger religious knowledge structure. However, in the last few centuries it ( or rather the economic, political and cultural environment that theodicy has been forced to deal with)has undergone some important transformations that I think auger well for the future prospects of atheism and secularism.

In the days of local temple and city gods, and subsequent pantheons composed of many gods with human-like personalities, the “problem of evil” isn’t much of a problem at all. One can simply read the religious stories (oops, I forgot we call these ones “myths”) of Near Eastern and Mediterranean antiquity: there we see that if an individual sickens and suffers, or even if an entire city’s population is crushed by some nasty turn of fate, it is assumed that some deity was behind it. This doesn’t really present a problem for most believers, however: if those suffering are unknown to you or enemies then of course they may be thought to have brought the suffering down onto their own heads through their wicked ways, and if the suffering is visited upon you, those you love or your friends/countrymen then of course it might not be the work of YOUR specific God at all but rather that of a competing/jealous/enemy deity. So far, so simplistic.

An interesting aside to this is the discussion of the development of doctrines of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism. Both “karmic” explanations and “propitiating your owner god/watching out for competing gods”-type explanations have the benefit, of course, of being wonderful rationalizations for all sorts of hierarchical social practices- here we see religion’s role as a type of “anti-sociology” that undercuts any attempt at rationally analyzing one’s social situation. I remember the first reading I did that really brought this home to me were the descriptions of ancient Near East god-kings in Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (a flawed but really entertaining and intriguing book…)

Back to theodicy, the problem of evil really became an issue once monotheism gets running. The ancient Jews actually unwittingly charted this transition in their own holy texts, where we can see lingering hints of the older “many Gods competing” narrative next to the newer omnipotent concept of Yahweh who takes gleeful credit for suffering in the world. Bart Ehrman’s "God's Problem" is an excellent mapping of the various theodicies in the Old and New Testament; his treatment of Yahweh’s behavior in the book of Job alone is a pretty good demonstration of just what a unethical and capricious monster the Old Testament Yahweh was thought to be.

For the ancient Hebrew tribes, God was all powerful and yet the continual humiliation of Israel and Judea at the hands of invading conquerors even when the Jews were doing the right things (i.e. executing non-virgin brides, keeping men with injured testicles away from the Temple, ritualistically killing animals, smearing their blood around the altar in the right order, burning them “to make a sweet savor unto the LORD” etcetcetc…) meant there was a problem. Eventually they resigned themselves to the fact that god will visit pain on the deserving and the innocent alike, just as the big man asserts in his rant to Job. Of course, this is tantamount to being ruled by an insane dictator, one with whom there is no chance to even get on his good side. No surprise, then, that by the time Christianity spreads in the cosmopolitan world of imperial Rome, there is a return to the “competing gods” line in the form of demons and, of course, the bad behavior of that horny old goat Mr. Splitfoot.

Notice all this rationalization is pretty far from the New Age "apophatic" god so popular with apologists these days, who hardly seems substantial enough to burn a bush let alone raze a city.

So much for the history-next time I’m planning to talk a bit about why it looks like theodicy is becoming an increasing problem for religion today. I think this is bound up with the increasing cosmopolitanism of world cities and, even more importantly, the globalizing processes that have occurred over last few centuries in both economic and political spheres.