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The Sciences

The Sacred

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJanuary 26, 2009 11:03 PM

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Over at Reality Base, Melissa has invited Adam Frank to contribute a series of guest posts related to his new book: The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. Adam is an astrophysicist at Rochester, a smart guy, and a great science writer; he interviewed me for this story in Discover, and it was the most conscientious bit of science journalism I've been involved with. There is a copy of Adam's book lying around here somewhere, but I can't find it right now; I've looked through it, but admittedly haven't read it closely. You can get some feeling for where he's coming from by checking out his blog devoted to the book. Roughly: "Sure, simple-minded creationism and a naively interventionist deity is crazy. But there is something valuable in notions of the sacred and spiritual endeavor that captures something important about being human, and it's a mistake to simply dismiss it all under the same umbrella." There is a family resemblance to the argument made (in very different words) by Stuart Kauffman in his recent book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Kauffman points out an indisputably true fact: there is such a large number of possible configurations of the genetic material in a complex organism that we will never come anywhere close to exploring every possible arrangement. Therefore (he leaps), we have to look beyond simple determinism to understand our world. There is (he bravely continues) a radical contingency in the way life actually plays itself out, and it makes sense to grapple with this contingency by turning to concepts such as "the sacred." Let's get the agreement out of the way first. There is certainly no question that the techniques of fundamental physics are not sufficient for dealing with getting us through our everyday lives. Even if we are hard-core determinists, and think that every particle and quantum field does nothing but march to the tune of the universal Schrodinger equation, that fact isn't very helpful when it comes to fixing the economy or listening to music. We deal with complicated human experiences, and a different set of concepts and vocabulary is required, even if it's nothing but the laws of physics underlying it all. And it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life, in addition to their undoubtedly successful programs of understanding the natural world and highlighting the inadequacy of traditional religious belief. So I'm very happy to have creative and intelligent people like Frank and Kauffman address these hard issues from the perspective of someone who takes the laws of nature seriously. However, I continue to be baffled about why they would ever think it was a good idea to invoke words like "spiritual" or "sacred" as part of that endeavor. The problem is, words have meanings. When you start talking about "spirituality," people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just "hard to understand in terms of them" -- something supernatural. Now, you may not want them to make that association; that might not be a connotation you wish to invite. (Or maybe it is, in which case I've completely misunderstood.) And you are free, as was Humpty Dumpty, to insist that words mean whatever you say they mean. But it's a very good strategy for guaranteeing that people will misunderstand you. The puzzles of human life, and our mutual sense of wonder, and a feeling of awe when confronted with the cosmos, are all perfectly respectable topics for discussion. And there exists perfectly respectable vocabularies for discussing them, that don't come laden with unfortunate supernatural overtones: literature, anthropology, psychology, the arts, and so on. There is a huge disadvantage to throwing around words like "sacred" and "spiritual," in that you will very frequently be understood (misunderstood, one hopes) to be talking about the supernatural. So if you really want to rehabilitate those words in the eyes of a cheerful naturalist such as myself, your task is clear: give very specific examples and contexts in which we gain some sort of understanding by using that vocabulary that we would not gain by sticking to words without those unfortunate connotations. I'm happy to admit that such a context might be possible, but I haven't seen anything close to a persuasive argument, so I'll remain extremely skeptical until one comes along. And then, one can't leave this territory without bringing up Richard Dawkins for some good bashing. Here is where Adam has a go. "Dawkins only addresses a naive and simplistic view of religion," etc. We've talked before about how "sophisticated" approaches to religion are not any better, and how Dawkins has served an extremely valuable rhetorical purpose. But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It's Not About You. Richard Dawkins was not addressing this kind of touchy-feely non-interventionist religion, for the excellent reason that it doesn't match up with what the overwhelming majority of religious believers actually believe. Dawkins was, rather, addressing the kind of religion professed by Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA). Rep. Broun is shown here, accompanied by two ministers, anointing a doorway in the U.S. Capitol building with oil. It was the doorway that Barack Obama would walk through on the way to his inauguration, and these well-meaning gentlemen understood that a carefully placed dab of oil might make God look more charitably on the new President.

This is what Richard Dawkins was arguing against. This is a member of the U.S. Congress, who in fact is a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, who believes that some sort of esoteric rite is going to curry favor with an omnipotent being. Dawkins is worried about them, not about people who are occasionally impressed with the grandeur of the cosmos. If the oil-anointers were a tiny minority of religious believers rather than the vast majority, I suspect Dawkins would spend his time worrying about other things.

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