Friday, February 19, 2010

Dan Brown, Religion, and the Limits of Science

So I just finished reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. It took a little over a week, and reading it caused in me a similar sensation to eating crackers with vegemite spread; I felt disgust and nausea, but I just couldn't stop. Dan Brown is a good writer; there's no getting around it. He exploits the cheapest tricks in mystery writing to keep you hooked, and I still stand by my belief that there's nothing wrong with enjoying his anti-Christian, anti-organized religion fiction as long as you keep in mind that it is fiction.

At first, I didn't really understand what was causing my upset intellectual stomach. I couldn't pinpoint what it was that he was doing that just made me feel so much outrage. It wasn't just how he mixes truth and fiction so well that even the blatantly unhistorical portions are mistaken as facts. It wasn't just his oversimplification of very complicated historical and philosophical ideas and trends. It wasn't the way in which he portrayed all forms of established religion and doctrinal orthodoxy as a small step away from terrorism and the way he takes moral corruption, a tragic truth in Christian religion, and blows it up into preposterous, conspiratorial proportions. I can even forgive the overuse of symbolism (even the invention of a completely fictitious discipline, "symbology") because it makes for an excellent and gripping read.

I think this time around, one of the biggest bones I have to pick with Dan Brown is the insidious way in which he defines and categorizes big ideas such as reason, science, and religion. He does not merely over-simplify complex concepts; you can make the case that things like religion and science have quite simple definitions. Instead I would frame his offense as incorrectly portraying these ideas as they relate to each other. The entire premise under Angels and Demons is that science and religion have been at war each other for epistemological supremacy (of course, Dan Brown didn't call it that because it would encourage his readers to look up epistemology and when they do, the foundation for his entire story would crumble). Science wants to describe truth one way, religion another; but both can't be right at the same time and that's why over history blood was shed, men were martyred, and atrocious acts of torture and treachery were committed by "both sides" (but ESPECIALLY religion, says Dan Brown).

I call what Dan Brown does insidious because he wields such an enormous influence over popular culture. One of the difficult things for me to realize is that not everyone who reads the book, in fact not even everyone who is reading this blog, shares the same foundational philosophical convictions as I do. And that's part of the reason why certain presumptions he makes in the book leave me with intellectual diarrhea and leave others with a profound sense of enlightenment. Even though I immediately dismiss some of his presuppositions of life as wrong-headed to the point of being stupid, I can't assume that everyone agrees with me. So, even though I am painfully aware that I am once again late to the game and everyone else has already gotten past all this hype, for the rest of this blog, I hope to illuminate(i) the underlying philosophical premise that Dan Brown and I disagree on. And hopefully it will segue well into my next blog, on faith and reason.

It's true; there was a brief period of history (modernity) in which science and religion were forced like Roman political slaves to enter the coliseum and duke it out. The reign of science and Modernity's dreams of subjecting mother nature to the omnipotent laboratory was cut short by a bloody awakening. We were startled and horrified by the realization that even science could be used for destruction and atrocity; that the propensity of humanity for evil underlined all our other endeavors and aspirations; that the line between good and evil cut across every human heart, cut across every new technological discovery and man-made innovation, and poisoned every attempt to pull ourselves out of our own depravity by the bootstraps of our cunning and intellect.

To Dan Brown's credit, he did talk briefly about the horrible things that have been done in the name of science, but my point isn't to argue pragmatics; I didn't mean to begin discussing which system of belief works better in creating peace and social harmony. My point is, the argument of science verses religion is inherently flawed. You can't compare the two because the premises on which you define these two concepts is wrong.

In his book, Dan Brown creates a situation in which the reader can entertain two questions: 1) Which is better for creating social harmony, science or religion? 2) Which is more reliable for discovering truth, science or religion? I argue that both questions are logically nonsensical. It's like asking, "What tastes better, a poem or high-definition television?" or “What's more effective in getting rid of head lice, the Pythagorean theorem or Mike Ditka?” (actually, that last one has a reasonably defensible answer).

Dan Brown's operative premise for asking the first question is that both science and religion are man-made tools for enforcing social order. Science gives us bombs and cures for diseases, religion gives us a placebo in the form of a higher purpose for living. Now which one would you rather have governing society? I venture that to make this assumption is to do massive injustice to both things. It is taking two things, both of which have nobler objectives than a mere sedation of the masses, and defining them by the uneducated popular impressions that the public have, and then forcing them to do your will.

It took me 15 minutes to write my last sentence because I didn't know how to complete the part after “It is taking two-”. Is it taking two disciplines? Two beliefs? Two ideas? Two worldviews? And that brings me to my next point. Science and religion aren't even in the same category of objects! Wikipedia defines science as a “systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome”. In the broadest category of understanding, science is a methodology. It is a set of rules that you follow in order to arrive upon a certain conclusion, within the prescribed system.

What's important to point out is that science is a system. It is consistent and coherent. Working within the system produces dependable results. But it also presupposes that there are certain questions and conclusions that can be asked which operate outside the scientific system. What that means is, there are certain questions regarding life which science is not meant to answer. You can ask a chef how to make a poached egg, but you can't ask him to explain the chemical process of denaturing the egg proteins when heat is applied. You can and he might know, but his answer will be outside the discipline of cuisine. In the same way, you can ask a scientist why a baseball hit by Barry Bonds will land in McCovey cove instead of flying into space and he'll explain to you stuff about the gravitational force. But if you ask why there is gravity, he cannot, by virtue of the limits of his discipline, answer that question.

My point is, if you direct enough “how”s and “why”s to science, you'll inevitably solicit a frustrated throwing up of arms reaction followed by an aggravated, “That's just how it is!” And THERE you encounter the limits of science. Science does not have an answer for why every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It cannot answer why there are four fundamental forces and not three or five. It cannot tell you why energy cannot be annihilated but only converted to other equivalent forms. The most that a scientist can do when faced with these questions is offer a poetic speculation in awe and wonder, and refer to the inter-connectivity of these first principles in all areas life.

In understanding this point, whether you agree with it or not, it is important to distinguish the questions that science has not answered yet and the questions that science by the definition of its own system cannot answer. I am totally down with the whole idea of the inevitability of the scientific progress in answering our questions, just not ALL questions. You're right. We were stupid to think that the earth was the center of the universe. We were stupid to think that the heavens were a canopy and that God literally pitched a tent over the earth. But these kind of discoveries are different categorically from the answers that truly echo in the human heart. Does it satisfy your bones, secular humanist, that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Are you pleased with your discovery that love is a certain psycho-biological state?

In C.S. Lewis' book The Abolition of Man, he describes people who reduce all knowledge into scientific categories as “men without chests”. They have satisfied their intellectual thirst but for those who do have chests with hearts, after their victory they feel a deep hollow emptiness; a gripping loneliness and a sense of alienation and exile as they emerge into their new world, a world divested of illusions and lights. In this world, any question that science cannot answer must not be relevant to live. And therefore meaning and significance is abolished. Purpose and normative living was ejected out into the deep cold of space. Ethics is pragmatic but ultimately unfounded. Concerning the abandonment of value judgments, Nietzsche wrote,

“Indeed, we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel, when we hear the news that the is dead, as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the love of knowledge is permitted again the sea, our sea, lies open again, perhaps there has never yet been such an open sea” (Human, all too Human)

But in his prophetic brilliance, he also realized that this freedom was cold and vacuous; a freedom humanity was not meant to have. We've been untethered from the sun, and now we're plunging continually through space in all directions, backwards, sideways, and upwards:

“We have left the land and have embardked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity.... Woe, when you fell homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom – there is no longer any land”

I lament my inability to resist the temptation to sidetrack into my favorite philosopher in all the land. I venture that science is incapable of answering the same questions that religion answers, and vice versa. When religion tried to answer scientific questions, Galileo was scandalized and the church was disgraced. But when science tried to answer religion's questions, people quickly realized that the world it created was neat and orderly and cold and barren. We left Eden and quickly realized that the world was harsh and unsuitable for humankind, who didn't even have fur for warmth or fangs for hunting.

I conclude by stating that religion and science was never at war; at least not until the foolish humans pit them against each other by locking them in the Octagon, with disastrous results. Science is not in the same category as religion. It is perpendicular to her. Science can be used for immense good or devastating evil, but one thing it cannot be used for is telling us why we're here and what our ultimate purpose is.

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