a blog by josef johann

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harris and The Synthesis

There is an ongoing caricature of critical atheists, according to which they are identified more with an objectionable tenor than a body of criticisms. I think this characterization reflects a form of misoneism more than engagement, but it is probably also in part because the criticisms, such as they are, have only begun to cross over from philosophy departments into the sphere of "public dialogue."

In any case, if I could will that the character of atmospheric disagreeableness be replaced with a specific statement, it would be this:

Even the thoroughly liberalized thinking-mans theology, which has amended itself to the requirements of modernity by carving out its place as an explanation for the subtleties of human empathy and nature, is based on an unwarranted and premature assumption about the limits of science.

That it hasn't done so, I think, is typically held up as the point of differentiation between this moderated form of theology and its more fundamentalist counterparts. And it's one of the reasons why it's ok to aggressively refute any of the various iterations of fundamentalism, but not to treat moderates in a similar manner.

I think it would be pointless or even destructive to kick up a culture clash for the sake of it, as these moderates have also distinguished themselves from fundamentalists in that they continue to be relevant participants in the conversation on "human nature," so far as we are capable of having one.

However, there will probably come a point when the state of our scientific knowledge advances to the point that certain religiously inspired conceptions of the limits of science will prove to be a hindrance to scientific understanding in the same way that fundamentalism is now.

Hopefully Sam Harris's op-ed in today's New York Times regarding the appointment of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health will represent a step forward, and out of the discussion about tenor. Collins, a brilliant geneticist, has attempted to perform The Synthesis, but as Harris points out, it's a way of thinking that could tangle otherwise clear thinking on scientific issues.

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

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