Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Religion in Modernity: Holding Back Evolutionary Science?

Scientists insist that neither theism nor atheism is intrinsic to evolutionary theory. They view the adversarial tone as coming from the proponents of particular theologies (e.g., creationism). Ignorance, both of the science and the theological dimension, unnecessarily exacerbates the general perception of conflicting points; and for added fun, sheer intransience, or stubbornness, rigidly paralyzes many of the most stalwart partisans from backing off long-held positions as if the world froze in place in 1925. In this essay, I take up the matter of faulty understandings of science, both favorable and unfavorable to it, as a partial explanation of why approximately 40% of the U.S. population surveyed in 2005 said evolution is false.[1] Admittedly, I am overgeneralizing here, as the percentages in Texas and Arkansas were doubtless much higher than in California and Massachusetts.[2]

Charles Darwin in the 1830s. Aided by the field of genetics, the science has advanced considerably since his time. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, proffers the following explanation of the antagonism. “A lot of the resistance turns out to be based not in ignorance but on simple obstinacy that [the science] seems to contravene people’s religious beliefs.”[3] The “seem to” here reflects the view held by many evolutionary biologists that the evolutionary explanation does not contradict the theological beliefs—it being the theologians who view the science as antithetical (and, for a long time, heretical). Coyne even asserts that the science can treat the supernatural explanations as testable, empirically, though this is a minority view among evolutionary scientists. For their part, theologians such as those pursuing the intelligent design theory (i.e., God is behind natural selection) assume that scientific knowledge can be subjected to theological analysis. As though two people straining across a bridge to shake hands, both the scientific and theological ends have attempted to assimilate the other. As laudable as reconciliation is, the well-intended efforts are bound to come up short if, as Von Rad demonstrates in Old Testament Theology, empirical and faith histories belong to different, albeit not disparate, categories.[4]

For instance, advocates of intelligent design (i.e., by God) once used blood-clotting as a case of irreducible complexity that only could have been designed by an intelligent being. Coyne points out evolutionary scientists have since discovered another possible means—one out of evolutionary theory. This finding does not of course mean that the biological explanation became the king on the hill simply by entering the game as an alternative; additional scientific study would be necessary for us to be able to assess whether the alternative is the one responsible for blood-clotting. Similarly, being able to get living matter from inanimate materials in a lab-setting would not necessarily mean that life emerged on Earth 4.5 billion years ago that way.[5] That is to say, the finding of an alternative means is possible chemically and biologically does not mean that it was the means by which life began on Earth.
That the reconciling devises have their limits owing to the more fundamental distinction of categories does not mean it is ok to eggerate the dichotomy. For example, characterizing the two ends of the bridge as fact and belief, respectively, distances the scientific realm inordinately from matters of faith.

Regarding the “fact” side, the scientific method functions by eliminating alternative explanations (i.e., hypotheses). That is, science never proves anything. Therefore, framing the relation of science to religion as one of a “fact-belief” dichotomy would be misleading. Unfortunately, Coyne himself attempts such a dichotomy. Referring to evolutionary theory, he states, “It’s had a million chances to be wrong, but it’s always come out right. When that happens in science, we consider it to be true in a scientific sense.”[6] Well, such truth is neither of the theological variety, nor that of the factual either; rather, the truth associated with many, many alternative hypotheses having been rejected is more of a practical sort, as in not expecting the theory to be overturned any time soon. I wonder if astronomers used this variant in referring to the Earth being flat or the Sun orbiting around the planet. As Thomas Kuhn suggests in his text on scientific revolutions, theories still thought to be valid tend to have incredible staying power, as though a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome, even in spite of new evidence. Kuhn concludes that the scientists emotionally (and especially financially) invested in the current scientific paradigm must die out before “the usurper” can claim for itself the mantle of defaulthood.

Science, it turns out, seeks communion with factual truth, yet cannot grasp it. As if only being able to dimly make out a fuzzy shape through a window darkened by soot, a scientist (or any human) can never truly see things as they are.[7] Practical “truth” is less sturdy than we might think. At the same time, that evolution as we have come to understand it is subject to the limitations inherent in scientific method does not mean that the working theory is likely to be overturned in the future.

Nor does the possibility of being replaced in the future mean that evolutionary theory must be a belief. Conflating science with fact artificially embellishes the scientific enterprise, and classifying scientific knowledge as belief, as if scientific findings are on the same field as religious belief, does not do science justice. Similarly, treating religious belief as if it were knowledge or even fact gilds the divine lily in overstating the degree of certainty achievable, and classifying religion as superstition does not do the religious experience justice.

Reaching a more precise, not to mention accurate, understanding of science, concerning both its strengths and weaknesses, can contribute indirectly to situating religious belief as belief. Admittedly, the intransience of a religionist assuming consciously or otherwise that he or she cannot possibly be wrong on matters beyond the limits of human cognition and perception fortifies any denial in keeping the door closed on anything learned on the difference between itself and belief. However, if science can come to religion’s aid in insisting that religiosity is not mere superstition because only the latter is empirically based (e.g., recording ghosts by camera), perhaps the walls will come down. Therefore, both directly and indirectly, achieving a more precise, accurate understanding of evolutionary biology and science itself can contribute to humanity moving past an old, tired antagonism overblown by human nature and fraught with too many belligerent ghosts who could otherwise finally go home.

[1] Jon Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Shinji Okamoto, “Public Acceptance of Evolution,” Science, Vol. 313 (No. 5788), August 11, 2006, pp. 765-766.
[2] Accordingly, the decision of the pollsters to show results for E.U. states separately and yet aggregate the results for the U.S. states is suboptimal both in terms of the knowledge that can be obtained and comparing apples with apples. (i.e., avoiding a category mistake).
[3] Interview conducted online by Dr. Mohamed Noor. Coursera.org.
[4] Reading Von Rad’s text, I developed the perception of the faith history putting flesh on the bones of the empirical history of Israel. In other words, the faith history looked much “thicker,” and thus quite different. One of Von Rad’s principal themes in the text is that the two histories belong to different categories, and thus should not be conflated or even compared.
[5] I have intentionally avoided using “creation of life in a lab” in order to make the point that getting living biomass from certain chemicals can be distinguished (as of another category) from the theological Creation. Lacking precision on both sides can account in part to conflating the two and thus inadvertently committing a category mistake.
[6] Jerry Coyne Interview.
[7] The darkened window metaphor I take from Augustine. The expression “things in themselves” is none other than Kant’s famed numinal realm, which philosophers cannot get to because the phenomenal realm of space and time structures, and thus delimits or circumscribes our perceptions and cognitions. Another philosopher, Louis Dupré, argues that theism can be defined as the belief, or faith, that more exists than that which lies within the range of human cognition and perception. In my paraphrasing, I am aware that “exists” presents the danger of reducing the theological to the metaphysical. Dupré’s point is that a transcendental referent and an experience of transcendence is possible only if a person has faith oriented beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

Religion and Psychology: The Case of Jemima Wilkinson, Founder of the Society of Universal Friends

Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819) pivoted from a secular, rather wild youth to being a charismatic preacher and the first woman to found and head a religious denomination. The circumstances of her unusual transformation, including her return to the land of the living from a typhoid coma as a genderless spirit, raise fundamental questions about the nature of the relation of religion to psychology (and, moreover, to secularity).

According to Chuck Mitchell, a curator in western New York, Wilkinson fell deathly ill with typhoid in 1776. Waking from a coma that had lasted for days, she claimed that “she had died and been resurrected as a genderless spirit sent by God.”[1] 

Jemima Wilkinson did not shy away from manifesting outwardly her androgynous identity.

She vowed to remain celibate in order to keep her body pure for God, and rejected her birth name, going from that point on as “the Public Universal Friend.” Whereas she had been “a bit of a wild child” and not at all religious, her sickness transformed her self-identity. She began preaching with charisma and an impeccable knowledge of the Scriptures. “The spirit of life from God has descended to earth,” she preached, “to warn a lost and guilty, perishing, dying world, to flee from the wrath that is to come.”[2] At the time, the evangelical Second Great Awakening was in full bloom in her area of the country. With her ensuing popularity in hand, she founded the Society of Universal Friends, thus becoming the first woman in the U.S. to found a religious group.

Consisting of former Quakers, the Society was naturally controversial at Quaker meetings. Critics trounced on Wilkinson’s post-coma identity as a genderless, resurrected-spirit, which they viewed as a particularly strange aspect of the religious pioneer’s personality.[3] That religious critics would resort to psychology must have felt like a thorn in the side of the androgynous spirit so opposed to the prospect of the rising secularity eclipsing religion amid the Second Great Awakening. 

Is it unfair, therefore, to analyze her from a psychological standpoint? Furthermore, would doing so invalidate her religious transformation, or had she suffered a massive psychological (and perhaps neurological) change while in the coma? The implications for religion itself are huge. If Jemima’s religious awakening was actually a result of neurological/psychological damage from a very high fever, then any religious experience or identity—especially if strange from a secular point of view—would be on the proverbial chopping block.  

[1] “History Detectives,” PBS.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jemima’s dismissiveness of her physical body is in line with Platonism and the South Asian religion of Jainism.