Lucifer Jones

Monday, May 22, 2006

God Explained

I wonder if Daniel C. Dennett knew all along that he was going to write the book that is 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon'. You see Dennett along with Hofstadter and several other authors of the collection that was 'The Mind's I' in 1982 captivated me and helped me to understand that Computer Science was more than just programming machines, it was programming people. If there is one thing that has been constant in my life from that long ago, it has been my understanding of the deep resonances and bonds between Religion, Computer Science, Philosophy and Law. It is no accident that these subjects continue to be compelling to me mired as I am in their descendents, morality, IT, ethics and politics. If you ever wondered why Cobb spends so much time in front of the screen typing into the abyss, the answers are in that mix. So it comes as no surprise that Dennett has come to explain Religion in terms of Science. What surprises me is that I've lived with the same notion for quite some time, and perhaps it was Dennett who put the idea in me.

Back in about 1986 or so, I was on the verge of breaking up with my buppie brotherhood. I just didn't know it yet. Just fresh from State and Computer Science undergrad, I was eager to understand the other. That is the cultural stochastic stuff I didn't bother with while pursuing the soul of the machine. And one of my first stops on the way was reading Ishmael Reed. First stop: 'Yellow Back Radio Broke Down'. By the time I had finished about four of his books, I had been convinced to be polytheistic. In my way of seeing it, Reed, finally and convincingly in 'Japanese By Spring' made it perfectly clear that a measure of extraordinary wisdom is only achievable through a disciplined comparison and contrasting of multiple cultures, languages and traditions. I probably took him a bit too literally and my patriotism may have suffered for it, but I was convinced finally that there was room for all religions in my worldview. And so you will have heard me say in those days in response to the question 'Do you believe in God'? Yes, I believe in all Gods. For what I came to understand was that everyone had a reason to believe in God, and make order of the unknown. It has always been man's way to overcome the fear of death, to put the unknown in a very understandable position.

But it was that very same recognition that gave me a new reason to distrust reason. And so as part and parcel of my acceptance of the philosphical underpinnings of animism, I found it rather unsettling to discover a phenomenon I call 'scientific animism'. This is what I think people are talking about (especially critics of Dennett's book) when they speak of 'scientism'. The gist of scientific animism goes a little something like this. A man hears from his doctor that his cholesterol is too high. So now he eats foods low in cholesterol. But if you gave the man a microscope, he wouldn't know cholesterol from a colony of ameobae. He thinks he is being rational but he is acting on faith - faith in the test of his doctor, and faith in the labelling of the food in the supermarket.

In the end I have been satisfied by the social implications of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem. You cannot know everything there is to know. Religion cannot be disproven without science. Science cannot be disproven without Religion. Human logic is incapable of knowing all. There was also another out for me, which was that computers or some non-human intelligence might figure it out. The answer would be 42, or some such, which humans would reject.

So that basically left me at equilibrium which has tilted towards Religion for me in the past several years for two primary reasons.

1. I deeply admire the stability of the ancient and the ritual. In the same way that Danny Hillis finds the numinous in the Long Now, I find it in religious tradition. Pollution notwithstanding. I think there is as much bad religion as there is bad science.

2. I find, like Einstein, beauty in the finite quality of life. And I find technological attempts to prolong human life and human youth quite distasteful, and somewhat unethical. Science fails utterly to give meaning to death. Next time you're on a battlefield, let me know how many people mumble the name of Stephen Hawking as they charge the enemy.

But as readers of Cobb (aka Lucifer Jones) know, I am analytical and cannot simply accept a simple explanation of things, including the very religious traditions I uphold. So I am not put off at all, as a believer, in Dennett's provocation. Indeed, I hope with some fervor that I might be able to engage theologians at this very level. It is the direction in which I am turning my attentions.

I also want to throw in a dig at Christopher Hitchens, whose impeccable logic is rather annoyingly wrong when it comes to religion. He is fond of the axiom that we all learned in symbolic logic which is that if you assume a false premise to be true, you can prove anything. It has rather nice implications to undermine the authority of anyone whose religious premises are supernatural. I've always had a problem with this argument, and now I know how to express it. Religion is not supernatural, it is natural. In that regard, God is a theory which is just about as explainable as the Universe. QED.

I don't have time to read Dennett, and so I probably won't. The annoying fact of the matter is that I have three children to raise and not quite so much time to blog and read as I would like. There it is.