Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and the Science of Religion.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher I admire. As a participant in discussions on a PBS television program examining ideas for a popular audience, he was witty and engaging, displaying an attractive screen personality representing philosophy for a large audience. Dennett is someone whose works I will continue to study because we disagree about many things, while (I suspect) also agreeing about others.

Our political views are probably similar. We are both feminists, advocates of democracy, Constitutionalists, best described as religious agnostics, some would say atheists. I am not one who accepts the rules or strictures of any organized religion, political party, club or organization, except for the United States Constitution, which allows me to be different. I should note that those rules are not, in my opinion, what is essential about religion.

I like Dennett's pragmatism and his concern -- this is an indication of his aesthetics -- to write well, clearly and elegantly, which he does. Concerning his writings, Dennett may well agree that form and substance are not easily separated. It is always a pleasure for me to read Dennett's prose and that is an important inducement to study someone's written work in this age of distractions. (Excuse me, my phone is ringing.)

I wish to comment on an exchange between Dennett and Freman Dyson in recent successive issues of The New York Review of Books. The Review is the one journal of opinion to read, whatever your interests may be, since the quality of the writing alone justifies doing so. I discovered many of my favorite writers and areas of intellectual concern in the pages of this journal of ideas, literature and politics. Mr. Dyson reviews Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell, [NYR, June 22]. Dennet objects to the following (I think) roughly accurate assessment of his views by Dyson:

My view of religion and Dennett's are equally true and equally prejudiced. I see religion as a precious and ancient part of our human heritage. Dennett sees it as a load of superflous mental baggage which we should be glad to discard.

Dennett claims that he does not hold a position such as Dyson attributes to him. He admits that religion does much good as well as harm in the world. Dennett's pragmatism shows in this observation:

People who would otherwise be self-absorbed or shallow or crude or simply quitters are often ennobled by their religion, given a perspective on life that helps them make the hard decisions that we all would be proud to make. [NYR, August 10, 2006.]

Dennett is saying that religion "works," that the ability to improve or benefit "some" people is what justifies religion, to the extent that it can be justified rationally, which is a very American view of the "cash value" of religious ideas. I think that this capacity to "improve" people is mostly incidental to what religions are about. Such material improvements in people's lives might be accomplished equally well by secular-minded social meliorists. Before getting to what, I think, religion is about, let's give Dennett a chance to make himself clear on the "issue," as lawyers say:

... my plea for an objective approach to religions -- in which we reverse engineer their many design features to see how and why they work -- is directed as much to those who would strengthen, reform, and preserve their religions as to those who would hasten their extinction. I declare myself still agnostic about these alternatives, since I don't yet know enough -- and nobody else does either. That's why I wrote the book.

Let's begin with the idea of an objective approach to religion. Let us suppose that you come upon a man who is in agony. He is writhing on the floor. You kneel down and say to him: "The cause of your suffering, my good fellow, is a spike that is protruding from your foot. Have no fear, in due course, a medical person is bound to arrive and take you to a hospital where, with appropriate medical treatment, the spike will be removed. Assuming you have not lost too much blood, of course, it is likely that you will recover and the pain will be eased."

Suppose this unhelpful Samaritan, then explains (in tedious detail) the scientific basis for the sufferer's predicament. I suspect that the person in pain will not find this discussion very helpful. Eventually, the arrival of medical people may result in saving his life. This will involve science applied to his predicament. But if that spike was hammered into his foot by a torturer, then the suffering will not be eased by relief of his physical pain. Spiritual agony, outrage at injustice, insults and slights, denigration and dehumanization are forms of MORAL harm, damaging both psychologically and spiritually. Think of what racism does to people, how it hurts all people, worst of all racists.

What racists often fail to appreciate is that racism is a mechanism of control through division of persons with shared economic and social interests -- like blue collar and poor people in America whose economic concerns are nearly identical regardless of ethnicity or race.

Suppose that human life in our time and place -- maybe always -- involves, for many or most people, coping with the equivalent of a spike in one's foot. For some people there are many such spikes, everywhere in their bodies. Suppose that these spikes cannot be removed by physicians. Suppose that people even understand (scientifically and in other ways) the causes of their spikes and wounds: childhood deprivation, loss, cruelty, physical abuse, other forms of abuse, poverty, hunger, cultural displacement, separation from loved-ones, rape or other sexual violations, along with many other continuing horrors, like torture and the torture of loved-ones, especially children -- all of these things resulting from unsought encounters with evil persons, together with the challenge of finding meaning and a reason to live with such pain, every day.

Do you think, Professor Dennett, that an "objective" approach will be the best or most "useful" way of coping with people's spiritual needs? It is a very American confidence in us which seeks to "solve all problems," preferably by means of scientific or technological innovations. Do you, Professor Dennett, think that a new gadget will solve the problem of human affliction and suffering?

What if tragedy is inherent in the human condition (has anyone read Miguel Unamuno lately?), so that no amount of improvement will alter the reality that persons must suffer, morally and spiritually, whatever the material circumstances of their lives? Do you think that debating the improbable nature of religious stories has any bearing on the comfort and meaning provided by such stories, to those who can read them as symbols?

For most of the people of the world such a "scientific" approach to religion is insane. Americans are often perceived as capable of stunning insensitivity and stupidity about such spiritual matters. After all, not everyone is as tactful and intelligent in pursuing such inquiries as Professor Dennett. In discussing delicate emotional and spiritual matters, which are regarded in other cultures as anything but scientific subjects, feelings are as important as thoughts. For most people in the world, religion is the opposite of a subject-matter for university studies. These differences in cultural attitudes are relevant to many of our difficulties in the Middle East.

"Love is a defense mechanism," psychobabblers say. We all nod with agreement. I can only hope that someone -- an artist maybe -- will step foward and explain to social "scientists" that there may be more to love than that.

Whatever science tells us about religion, I promise you that there is more to religion than "compensation" or any other one word motive. If you see the Cuban film Buena Vista Social Club, a single gesture by a man wiping away a woman's tear -- whose smile does the same for him -- is a complete definition of religion.

We are obligated to do everything in our power to improve human lives by making use of science, technology and anything else that we can find or create. We must make things better for our children, knowing that the gift of life to them is also an introduction to pain and mortality. We kiss them gently on the forehead knowing that they will age, that loving others will be (at best) horribly painful for them. Yet love is the most important and good thing in their lives (love's absence is infinitely worse). We know that they will be prey to monsters of depravity, political evil, social injustice, torture, deprivation and hunger, sometimes resulting from the actions of persons claiming to act "for their own good." We say (sincerely) that life is good. Why? What makes life good? Your answer to these questions will contain your understanding of religion. See Roberto Benigni's film, "Life is Beautiful."

What is it that makes life good if not love and the struggle to find or create beauty and meaning? Religion is essential to loving (it teaches us what love is) and to the creation of meaning and beauty (it teaches us what is possible with love).

A single act of love and compassion, of self-giving in choosing to share the pain of a fellow human being in extremis will reveal more about religion than all the books seeking objectivity, as opposed to real theological insight, which is intuitive and impressionistic, like philosophical insight. (See Bernard Lonergan's writings on "insight.")

Feeling (religious devotion, compassion) and mind (philosophy, science, theology) are all paths to religious wisdom and insight, forms of resistance to injustice, besides whatever other benefits result from these endeavors. Hegel (mind) and Kierkegaard (feeling) embody these options in Christianity, but a single gesture or symbol will explain religion, if it is properly understood. Recall the Buddha's holding of a single flower as the totality of his sermon to bewildered acolytes. There was nothing more to say. The flower "is." So are you. End of sermon. You cannot defeat these ancient forms of wisdom and meaning in human life by altering my writings. ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

Point to a crucifix. Point to a Star of David above a synagogue in New York with barricades in front of it to protect it from terrorists. Sadly, this need to protect religious structures is something that I have experienced. I was searched when entering a house of worship. This was painful because I know that my Jewish friends have to live with these reminders of hatred when they seek to worship. Listen to the call to prayer as the sun sets in Egypt. See the people kneeling and bowing towards the East and Mecca, in a single act that is both a display and reminder of humility before the enormity of life and the universe, as well as before the God many intelligent and educated persons believe keeps all in balance. This is because such a God is balance. God is the "peace" sought in Islam. Dennett writes:

... we should brace ourselves and set aside our traditional reluctance to investigate religious phenomena scientifically, so that we can come to understand how and why religions inspire such devotion, and figure out how we should deal with them all in the twenty-first century.

Notice the assumptions being made by this highly talented philosopher:

... my book strenuously seeks to avoid both biases -- and I think it succeeds -- in the only way we have ever found to explore any complicated and controversial phenomenon objectively: by adhering to the methods and working assumptions of science, expanded to encompass the work of historians and other investigators in the humanities. ...

Become "child-like," Professor Dennett, and you will understand what is religion. Leave your lab coat at home, then volunteer to work with a charitable religious order, while living in poverty for a year. You will write a very different book at the conclusion of that year. Forget Quine and Ayer, think Spinoza and Kierkegaard.

I am called a "fool" -- among other things -- because of my respect for the truth and wisdom in religion, despite being a doubter. I recognize the irrefutable ethical truth (about which I have NO DOUBT) at the center of all three of the great religions of the West: love and compassion is what we are here to learn. Love is the only source of meaning and redemption in this world of shadows, where suffering, pain, loss and death as well as joy, meaning, achievement, beauty will be found in all of our lives. We are meant to love -- and should learn to love more -- through these contradictions and sufferings. If we do not learn this painful lesson, then I think that we will be quickly destroyed.

Whoever you are, I promise you that both pain and joy will be in your future. As Norman Mailer once said of death, "there is something out there looking for you and it's not fooling." I think great suffering, especially spiritual suffering, can be a revelation. There is always a glimmer of light that ends the dark night of the soul. If there is such a thing as religious perspective, then it must include a willingness to die for what we believe and those we love, which is another way of describing the achievement of our humanity. (See my story "The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

Professor Dennett's confidence in his methods is more than understandable. After all, science has provided so many "miracles" already, but morally and spiritually the human condition has not changed. Individuals make progress and learn; humanity is essentially the same in every historical age, apart from improvements in external conditions, which are cumulative.

Professor Dennett is a highly fortunate human being: born in a rich country, into a comfortable segment of the population, well-educated, ethical, humane, civilized and scientifically literate. No doubt he is dismayed by ordinary people's belief in myths that are ancient, whose understanding of the world belongs to the dark ages. He wants to help them "move on."

Suffering destroys the possibility of moving on. The misery and affliction of most people's lives -- pain for billions lacking education and struggling in desperate poverty -- forces them to seek religious understanding and meaning, much more than factual knowledge. Science cannot help them with such objectives. Art and religion can and do help people to cope.

I knew a man who was sent to a political prison. He told me that at one in the afternoon, some of the professors who were in this prison for their ideas would lecture on various subjects, inmates would discuss things in whispers. Some took mental tours of European capitals, knew the streets of Paris, could see them, though they had not left their cells.

All of us are in prisons of one kind or another -- including Dennett -- while religions offer us mental tours of Paris. It is love which opens the prison gate for each of us. The very worst prisons are built out of an inmate's own hatred. Love, when it is expressed and received in turn, is a tour of Paris, wherever we happen to find ourselves. Such love is the fulfillment of religion's promise.

Neutrality is not an option. It is merely another kind of bias. Find yourself at the mental equivalent of Auschwitz, Professor Dennett, then see whether neutrality is an option. It is good to understand what makes persons or societies descend to such levels (Nazism), but science will provide little assistance in this effort because it looks at people and phenomena from the "outside," whereas the deepest understanding of both will only come from the "inside," from PARTICIPATING in the human condition, in dialogue with and recognition of as well as empathy for our suffering neighbors. Think again about how Dennett is using the word "objectively" in the quotation that appears above. Can you think of another way to use that word? ("David Stove and the Critique of Idealism" and, once more, "Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

Imagine a God who understands this human pain, teaching wisdom and compassion by becoming human, sharing in mortal agony. Imagine a God who chooses a people for moral edification by means of unprecedented tragedy, who permits slavery and evil -- as human choices, not His choices -- as our self-imposed cost to achieve humanity for ourselves (which is freedom that allows for either love or evil), so that with freedom, all persons may learn to come closer to God. The way we come closer to God is by loving. Loving is not "supernatural." Yes, these are metaphors. Whenever you are asked whether you believe in God, it is a good idea to respond by asking in return: "What do you mean by 'God'?" (See my short story "Pieta" and "Is it rational to believe in God?")

I might go on pointing to doubtful statements in Professor Dennett's response to Mr. Dyson's review. Mostly they suggest a misunderstanding by Dennett of religion's purpose. It may be best to thank Professor Dennett for his work, as always, and to offer by way of conclusion a quotation from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis.

I remember when I was at Oxford saying to one of my friends as we were walking round Magdalen's narrow bird-haunted walks one morning in the year before I took my degree, that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul. And so indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom: failure, disgrace, poverty, sorrow, despair, suffering, tears even, the broken words that come from lips in pain, remorse that makes one walk on thorns, conscience that condemns, self-abasement that punishes, the misery that puts ashes on its head, the anguish that chooses sackcloth for its raiment and into its own drink puts gall: -- all these were things of which I was afraid. And as I had determined to know nothing of them, I was forced to taste each of them in turn, to feed on them, to have for a season, indeed, no other food at all.

Wilde explains the need for an experience of darkness as well as light, of the ways in which artistic and religious development come together in afflicted souls. Perhaps this "insight" is not all that different from what Hegel means by "the beautiful soul":

... the artistic [and spiritual] life is simple self-development. Humility is ... frank acceptance of all experiences, just as love in the artist is simply the sense of beauty that reveals to the world its body and its soul.

Recall the Eucharist held high by the priest in the Catholic mass. Think of the lifting of the Torah in a synagogue. Picture the huddled worshippers in a Mosque listening to the Imam read from his people's Holy Book. For Wilde, Christ's passion explains religion. I agree, for Christ in the Scriptures ...

... understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich. [Christ's lesson is] ... whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, "Whatever happens to another happens to oneself."

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