Saturday, October 14, 2006

Widening The Debate

Widening the Debate One thing I have always been convinced about is the veritable infinity of knowledge. Firstly let me start with a small quotation which for me was always an inspiring gem or vision that might underpin any plausible epistemology. My quote comes from David Brewster’s (Scottish scientist, 1781-1868) celebrated biography of the great scientific genius Isaac Newton (1642-1727): "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." (Brewster, Vol 2, Ch 27) The other quotation which I also love is from Socrates: “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I could go on there are many other quotations which I could marshall as necessary supports not only for a credible epistemology but also for sincerity and authenticity of character, but that self-indulgence must wait for another day. These thoughts follow on as a logical continuation of my blog entry on Richard Dawkins. Firstly, in keeping with my own epistemological premise outlined above, I must first admit my ignorance in a Socratic fashion. Dawkins is a brilliant biologist and a marvelous writer. In short he is an amazing popularizer of scientific thought, especially of the theory of evolution. I read his first great book many years ago and was much taken by it, convinced by much of it, but put off by its stridency, its tendency to preach, its tendency to have as it were all the answers. I admit that it did have a lot of the answers, but certainly not all. The claim to absolute truth no matter whether it comes from scientific or religious quarters puts me off. I also have every intention of buying Richard’s new book. Why? I always love good, clear and precise writing. I also subscribe to the scientific and benefit with joy from its many successes. I also like being confronted and challenged by a great mind of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – as indeed should we all. However, I question Richard Dawkins’ narrow or reductionist approach. I have read some of his later interviews and listened to some others he has broadcast which are available on Google and on YouTube I think. Richard is a thinker’s thinker, if I may be so bold as to put it that way. He tackles the origins and destiny, the arts and literature, not just the various human and physical sciences of humankind from the position of being a high thinker. He seems not to allow for feelings or emotions, nor for the drive to meaning which lies within the human breast. He is very light on sociology and psychology. What do I mean by this? Whether religion is true or not (in a scientific manner I mean) is really not relevant. Look around you and you see at least thousands of people attending religious services of various denominations. Obviously attending to religious duties or worshipping what these people call God fills a need or a gap in their lives. It allows people as a community to celebrate birth, marriage and death in a culturally acceptable way. One of my favourite Irish journalists, John Waters, acknowledges this sociological role well in a rather rhyming phrase namely: “hatching, matching and dispatching” function of the various churches. On a psychological level a considerable number of people need their beliefs to give meaning and structure to their lives. I myself do not practice my religion, but I feel that a lot of people need it. It just happens that I don’t – just like it so happens that Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Daniel C. Dennett etc don’t. When I was hospitalized for depression in 1998 I let go of religion as a crutch or support and found more support in counseling, psychotherapy, the Self-Help movement, psychology and psychiatry with its various pharmacological interventions – all very necessary. I also remember having heard some Oxford Don professing that he had “rather growth through and out of religion.” I thought this was a marvelous sentence and I appropriated it for myself as that was precisely what happened for me. I have a native distrust of and aversion to evangelicals from either the religious or scientific extremes. Why should they want to convert me to the way they think? There are so many ways of thinking. Another person’s way might not be as sophisticated or as logical as mine, but that’s no reason to disparage it. In its simplicity that person’s way of thinking may be exactly what he or she needs at that time in his or her life. I have heard Richard Dawkins proclaim comments like: “I’m not interested in free will” etc. He firmly maps out his area of interest and argues a tightly coherent argument that virtually irrefutable. That’s fine and I can go along with the logic of this. But if Richard or any other scientist or philosopher wishes to then generalize on all aspects of human knowledge and endeavour from the constraints of their narrow precision within their area of expertise then we are into an area that is commonly called reductionism – namely generalizing from a specialism or a specialist viewpoint. By all means, let’s widen the debate. Let’s throw it open. Let’s not confine it to one version of the truth, i.e., the scientific or mathematical method. Let’s be open to knowledge from all other disciplines. Let’s look at philosophy, sociology, psychology, and even, God forbid, theology (all irony intended here). I think looking at the psychology of belief – be it religious or scientific – could have some interesting results for the way we humans think and believe in general, not just in religious or scientific fashions. The believer and the unbeliever might be closer than they think, and far closer than they feel. The picture I have placed above this post is one I took of the surf at Dún Chaoin in Co Kerry October 2005.


Anonymous said...

I keep coming back to read bits of your blog. There's so much to enjoy and think about.
I'm an ex-catholic. I used to have very strong personal faith, even when I disagreed with much that was said and done by the church hierarchy, I still could always say that I believed what is written in the creed.

A few years ago, I started reading a selection of writings by devoutly catholic (and other christian) people and articles and books by sceptics and philosophers like Bertrand Russell. At the same time I stopped going to Sunday mass as it was too difficult to take my 3 young children. I just felt my faith ebb away. I'm still a bit disappointed and feel an emptiness. I keep thinking I should go back, just be a cultural catholic, but can't. It is just too meaningless and I wonder how I ever believed those things before.

I'm looking forward to reading Dawkin's new book, but find him strident. His level of faith in science is touching though! (I say that as a scientist too.)

TQ said...

Hi Sharon,

Third time lucky for me. I already typed two responses but they disappeared into the ether due to my clumsiness this evening. Thanks for your considered and personalised response to this post. I have often considered my own disaffection from the RCC since I was 40 - I'm now 48. So I lasted a long time as a member, and a practising member at that, of the Roman fold. I bear it no ill will. I have outlined my reasons for my disaffection in other posts in these pages so I won't repeat all that here. I feel and think that belief/faith is a culturally and socially conditioned phenomenon. Much more even that that I think and feel that it is all bound up with psychology or rather with our own psychological state. In other words, I'm alluded here to our own personal needs. I think that at 40 years of age I finally grew out of religion - in other words my needs were met elsewhere. For me that elsewhere I would call spirituality. Mostly I get great solace from meditation especially, and am particularly drawn to the teachings of Buddha. This latter can be pursued as a religion or as an agnostic practice. I fall into the latter category. I also feel that the "collective unconscious" of Jung approximates somewhat to what could possible be what spirituality is all about. However, I am loathe to say that this simple equation is the answer, as I don't believe there are clear and precise answers. I don't want to be guilty of the reductionism of mystery that I slate Dawkins et al with. There are, of course, always better questions on the road to those answers. This probably is not making sense. I think said it better I think in my other 2 lost comments. Hope this is not too confusing and that it won't disappear somewhere into the ether of the WWW.

With sincere respect