Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Totally Overlapping Magisteria

Things have been a little quiet(er) around here for the last few months. This probably has to do with me not posting anything since sometime around the end of the pleistocene. My hopes were briefly piqued when I came across headlines declaring that Margaret Thatcher was to get a state funeral. I had hoped that such headlines could be reserved until she was, you know, dead.
So, instead of a cheerful upbeat blog entry it'll be back to ranting as usual.

Comment is Free, goldmine of nonsensical articles that it is, has not disappointed. Today, we are treated to an article by Mark Vernon grandly entitled The Frontiers of Faith and Knowledge with the equally nonsensical subtitle "So why can't boffins and bishops agree?" Surprisingly we get three words in before the name Templeton is mentioned, although that is only because the first two words are Sir and John.

Let's start with the title shall we?
Faith has frontiers? I think this must be another example of my not understanding the complex and subtle theological concept of faith (something I have been told by actual theologians) because I'm pretty sure faith doesn't have ears, on the front back or sides. For something to have a frontier there surely must be something further on that hasn't been affronted yet. I'm not really sure how this tallys with the "faith"-based approach of simply saying that god did it and that there's a plan and don't think about that because you might discover it's nonsense. (or, much more plausibly, that Satan will make you one of his little wizards...)

It's not really the same as a scientific frontier, where you first see something you don't understand, then form a hypothesis, then test it, then develop your theory. That seems much more eary to me, and possibly more frontal as well.

Leaving the title, and horribly overstretched puns, behind let us move on the "content" of the article. Unusually for a piece in this genre, we get a whole sentence into paragraph 2 before the mandatory Dawkins-bashing occurs. It is mercifully short, however, and is followed by the meat (or fish on if it's a Friday? I forget) of the article in which the author considers the thoughts of past Templeton Prize winners. Apparently "they are, perhaps, illuminating."

So, let us skate onto the icy pond on faulty reasoning and see if we fall in. You never know, that ice might be many metres thick and riddled with polar bears and fur seals. It might.

Prize winner number 1 is Freeman Dyson, famous physicist and advocate of space exploration and colonisation.
"Dyson draws an analogy with one of the central ideas in modern physics, that of complementarity. The best-known example of complementarity is that of the dual nature of light. Depending on how you look at it, you see either particles or waves. Light itself is richer than any one picture we might use to describe it."
This is the usual argument that science cannot yet (or possibly ever) explain the full range of human experience, so religion is required to explain the rest. It handily forgets, however, that religion has not, does not and simply cannot actually explain anything about the Universe at all. Religion exists purely to explain itself, which is not only narcissistic but ultimately self-defeating. That perpetual and frustrating little habit of science to explain things previously blamed on god is, as usual, dealt with by saying the two spheres never overlap.

The conclusion seems to be that religion and science are just two ways of looking at the same thing. The problem is that like many situations where there are two ways to look at something, one of them is right and the other is clearly wrong. I would be a little concerned if a physicist told me that, yes, he believed all the equations about how photons behave but that he also knew them to be banana shaped and to taste like ice-cream.

Anyway, onto winner number two in the Templeton Victory Parade (TM). It's none-other than everyone's favourite priest-scientist John Polkinghorne! Polkinghorne believes that "science only gives a thin notion of God."
You know I think he might be right there. Science also only provides very thin notions of unicorns, fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Can you guess why? I think you know why...

They're all made up!

Science has notions about all sorts of other exciting things that are pretty-well thick enough thank you very much. Our notions do not need thickening. You know what happens when you mix a little water with a lot of cornflour? That's how not-thin many of our notions are. Would you like a steak-knife with those scientific notions? Some of them can be rather meaty.
On the other hand, I think those people over on the religion table would like some straws with their notions.

Do not despair, dear reader, because our author, the cunning devil, has left the best 'til last. Charles Taylor ("arguably the most important philosopher-recipient of the prize?") apparently wrote a book suggesting that in the past we experienced "religious time", which was focused around festivals and such whereas now we run on linear "scientific time."

I'm not really sure what Mr. Taylor is getting at here. On the face of it, he's stating the blindingly obvious. In the past, peasants had really boring lives apart from at Christmas when they could have a goose for dinner and get drunk as a skunk. As a result, they focused their energies into these few occasions. These days we (presumably in the west) have the instant-gratification celebrity culture and so we have no need to focus on specific days.

However, I am at a loss as to how this translates into any meaningful statement about time. Did religious time run at a different speed? Does having a clock actually change the Universe in some meaningful way? I get the impression that something like this is being hinted at but that it is being kept carefully hidden in order to conceal the crazy within.

Taylor also "describes the disturbing affects of every day bumping into people who see the world in radically different ways to your own." He's got a point there. Doctors in psychiatric institutions regularly bump into such people. In there it's called psychosis. Outside the asylum, they call that shit religion.


artificialhabitat said...

mmmmmm. Ice cream.

Stephen Bain said...

Yes, ice-cream indeed.

It's that kind of incisive mind, the kind that can cut right to the fundamentals of a concept. It's that kind of mind we need more of around here...