No, not an attack on modular theories of mind. (If you don’t know what they are, don’t worry, it’s not relevant today)…
Instead I’m talking about a claim I often see levelled against Christians who believe in Evolution — that we are able to hold two incompatible beliefs by compartmentalising (I’m using the British English btw, as I live in England) our minds, keeping the ideas completely separate. Apparently Evolution (by Natural Selection) is utterly incompatible with Christian belief. Now long time readers will recall that I have said this was certainly NOT the view of most Christians in Darwin’s own time: perhaps because that battle had already been fought over Lyell and Buckland and geology, but rocks are unfashionable and biology is sexy today; regardless I have written on the myths that cluster around Darwin, you can find my essay here.
I will sometime describe how Christians have reconciled the two, and my own theological thinking on the issue, but to be honest it was not a problem for Darwin’s bulldog T.H.Huxley (himself not a Christian but an ‘agnostic’ – not in the modern sense of the word though) who wrote —
” The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man or in the higher ver-
tebrata, was made with the precise structure which it exhibits, to make the animal which
possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. But it is necessary to remember
that there is a higher teleology, which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is act-
ually based on the fundamental proposition of evolution. That proposition is, that the whole
world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws,
of forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was
composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the
cosmic vapour; and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of
that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of fauna of Great Britain in 1869, with as much
certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapor of the breath on a cold winter’s
day.” Academy 1869
I think it’s too late at night to explore what Huxley meant by than now: again it’s not strictly relevant. My challenge is far more drastic: I don’t deny that minds well may well be compartmentalised, but I think such an attribute may actually be almost by definition a property of atheist not theistic thinkers. I am not saying atheists are wrong, or stupid: I am saying that some but not all atheists probably have stronger compartmentalisation of neural processes than religious believers, and that I believe if an experiment was conducted, it would show a tendency towards a theists having less compartmentalised mental processes. It’s a typically ironic CJ claim, but I think atheists actually really might have compartmentalised minds. I therefore as so often intend to up end a cliché and play with it till it squeaks…
So what do I mean by “compartmentalised minds”?
OK, firstly I am not sure if this works at mind level (Cognitive process) or brain level (neural connections) or perhaps most likely both, but clear if a mind is ot be compartmentalised then it suggests that parts work relatively autonomously of each other, or only interconnect occasionally. I think the cliché of Christians with “compartmentalisation” is probably meant to work at the level of beliefs, that is I guess heuristic structures ideas, concepts, whatever. I put my religion in Box A that lives here, and my Science in Box B that works there. And then I build a bloody great big garden wall in between the two!
There is only one thing wrong with this theory: it’s bollocks. Of course people can hold deeply contradictory ideas, and of course that can arise as a neural network develops and expands, if there is no checking process for consistency. No disagreement there at all: the whole history of humans on this planet shows it, and I could point out that cancer is caused by smoking, and a lot of people smoke. I know the odds of winning the lottery: I still might buy a ticket (though only about three times since it was launched). That people can hold contradictory ideas strikes me as uncontroversial. What strikes me as nonsensical though is the assertion that a deeply rational individual such as Prof Ken Miller does this, or I do, or most Christians do it more than atheists.
Now of course individuals brains vary somewhat in anatomical detail, individuals vary in the organisation of their neural networks and relationships to a small extent, and the mass of synaptic connections that are excited and inhibited and make us “us” are of course unique. Likewise we vary in our cognitive processes at a psychological level, though we presumably share, as with the neurology, massive overall similarity. Now I was reading a paper by Dr. Christine Simmonds-Moore, on Thin Boundaries, Transliminality and Positive Schizoptpyy – I’ll reference it at the end when it struck me – atheists should actually have less integrated neural and psychological constructs?
Simmonds-Moore describes the work of Hartmann, especially his 1991 Hartmann Boundary Questionnaire (HBQ). The HBQ examines the boundaries: the compartmentalisation if you like, in the human psyche.His work based on this scale has since been examined, and several predictions confirmed. You can search Google to find experiments and papers, or if you have access just type “hartmann +boundary” in to PSYCHINFO and see what comes up. I’m not making this up… I even found the scale on a website, so you can try the test yourself.
I was unsurprised to note I scored as having thin boundaries.
What does that mean?
I really suggest if you want a proper overview you read Dr Simmonds-Moore’s paper. I will summarise my understanding as follows -a boundary is the division between two ‘structures or processes'; with thinner boundaries, there is increased interaction between them. Those with thinner boundaries will integrate more structures and processes, resulting in a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, a tendency to find ‘meaning’ in random noise, to integrate subliminal level information and a tendency to experience altered states while awake. In short we might expect believers to actually have thin, highly permeable conceptual boundaries – their mental structures might well be expected to be considerable less compartmentalised than that of an atheist, who might have a more focussed/linear method of thinking? SOME BUT NOT ALL: obviously believers and disbelievers might be found in either category, thick or thin boundaried, but thin boundaries appear to be correlated with unusual mental states, belief in psychism, and at high levels sometimes mental health issues. I would suggest from the evidence that believers are more likely to be on average thin boundaried than non-believers: that is their thinking is a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, subject to Type II errors – seeing things that are not there in random noise, finding false positives, mistakenly rejecting the null hypothesis. (Simmonds-Moore notes Brugger has made exactly this connection with Type II errors).
And thick boundaried (highly compartmentalised) thinkers? They are subject to exactly the opposite problem: failing to recognise the falsification of the null hypothesis, they fail to see what is there, and make Type I errors. Believers would be subject to false positives: non-believers false negatives, but belief or non-belief may well be related to the structure and relationships in brain/mind.
Now this is not a stick to beat atheists with: I am sure some of my more acerbic mates on the forums will type “…therefore God.” in a cynical response. Far from it, I make no claim whatsoever that this gets us one iota nearer to the truth or falsehood of any theistic or atheistic hypothesis – it is possibly completely irrelevant. In this brief piece I just wanted to point out something i said last night – we adopt linguistic structures in our belief (or non-belief communities) and use them to view the world, often irrespectively of common sense – for it strikes me as fairly non-controversial that believers often show loose and associational styles of thinking, that bear no resemblance to reality, but which we repeat uncritically. Believers do it, non-believers do it, birds do it, bees do it, nice young men who sell antiques do it – we, no, sorry that’s a song. :) I was simply interested in debunking one common cliché used to dismiss scientifically minded Christians as somehow mentally split in two: it appears the reverse may be true?
Anyway next time someone tells you believers who hold to evolution and Christianity have “compartmentalised minds”; ask for the EVIDENCE. And if anyone wants to do a full study of boundary thinness and religious/spiritual belief, go for it I am aware of no paper, but Dr Simmonds-Moores interesting paper certainly made me think about this.
Hartmann, Ernest, (1991) Boundaries in the mind: A new psychology of personality. BasicBooks, NY.
Simmonds- Moore, Christine. ‘ Anomalous Experiences and Boundary Thinness in Mind and Brain’ in Smith, Matthew (2010) Anomalous Experiences, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina
There are very few things less enticing to the British public than the sight of CJ in the bath. While occasionally Marmalade the lunatic kitten comes to balance precariously on the edge of the bath tub, and watch the great pink hippo wallowing in the foaming waters, human beings seem to find the mere prospect revolting. So I apologise in advance for calling this scene to your minds, and hope you have not recently eaten.
It was Wednesday evening: I was sitting in the bath, reading a book on Biblical Archaeology, and rather wishing I wasn’t, when I began to ponder what to write about for the RD.net Science Writing contest. And then – Eureka! I leapt foaming from the bath, hurtled excitedly out in to the kitchen, skidded across the lino and hearing someone in the living room frantically hid my modesty behind a bemused Cuddles-cat. Not an easy task, I can assure you…
The Bathtub Fallacy
And in that moment of inspiration in deciding what to write about, I perfectly illustrate the first of the perils of myth-making in the writing of History of Science; what I shall call the Bathtub Fallacy. I am sure many readers have heard of Archimedes supposed moment of revelation inthe bathtub, how he leapt out cying Eureka, and excitedly solved a problem. Reading the history of Science mere mortals like I can feel inspired – will I dream of a snake eating it’s tail, and work out the structure of Benzene tonight? (bit late!) Perhaps in a flash I will work out an elegant solution to the world’s energy needs? And this is the Bathtub Fallacy – the belief perpetuated by the anecdotes by which we make the process of discovery and science understandable, the human interest bits, that genius and a moment of sudden insight alone solves scientific problems. If it did we would spend all out time in the baths. I could of course have called this the Apple Concussion Fallacy - the well known story about Newton and a n apple falling on his head, but as my street is singularly lacking in apples, and I have never been nearly brained by anything heavier than a stray conker from a tree, I didn’t, and you all have to live with the thought of me in the bath instead.
The danger of the Bathtub Fallacy is that there is an element of truth to it: yes, insights do arrive like this. What is often not made plain by historians is the vast struggle, the endless hard work, and the single minded devotion to the problem which occupied the genius for maybe months or years before the answer came in a creative flash. Trust me, I have spent many years laying on my bed, sitting in the bath or staring blankly out of the window waiting for my Nobel Prize winning insight. Sadly, it seems you need more – work, dedication, study, and perhaps a little obsession. The bathtub fallacy is not a myth as such: these things happen– but the inference pure luck, the will of the gods, or sitting in the bathtub is what counts is very dangerous to the would be scientist, and I think when reading the history of science one should not emphasize these serendipitous moments, but concentrate more on how the heroine or hero prepared for their ‘revelation from on high’.
The Persecution Complex
My title, aimed at a little free controversy, was Damning Darwin. Why? Have I suddenly become a member of the Buttplugg, Arizona, First Church of Flanders, and adopted Young Earth Creationism? Nope. Long term readers of this forum will know that I have argued passionately that the response of many 19th century Christians to Darwin’s work was one of polite interest, enthusiasm, or overwhelming support. (You can say the same about Copernicus actually.)
Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A large number of Evangelicals were already evolutionist and many of the objections raised to Darwin’s ideas (like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce) were primarily scientific not theological. The Evangelicals response was extremely positive. John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project) published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 in which he exposes ye olde myth.
Now, who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a who’s who of Evangelicals — BB Warfierld, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. Let us not forget Frederick Farrar, James Orr, Charles Kingsley and Henry Drummond, who Henry Morris castigates for misleading Christians – the father of YEC loudly denounced the dreadful treachery of his Evangelical forebears in accepting Darwinism or other forms of Evolutionary theory. These Evangelicals critique the science from time to time, but accepted fully its theological compatibility with their Evangelical beliefs. Others like Rev.Macloskie, JD Dana, GF Wright, JW Hulke etc were evangelicals who fought hard for the scientific NOT just the theological acceptance of evolution – one could go on, but many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition of Darwin. So who damned Darwin? It was not the Church of his day. One of those famous stories everybody know is the debate between Bishop Soapy Sam and TH Huxley – which of course is nothing like what people believe it was. The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over the On the Origin of the Species. There is a superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html
So why this conflict myth, which I will dub the Persecution Complex? It was not actually created by the Fundies, the nut-jobs and the loonies. It was created by serious historians of science with an axe to grind. The fact it is a steaming pile of poodle jism has done nothing to stop it becoming accepted uncritically, and the myth has inevitably created a backlash of Christian fundies who think they are defending Biblical Truth, and who are managing to actually be far less theologically sophisticated than their 19th century forebears. Henry Morris created a lot if it in the 1960’s — and we all have to live with it today, but the myth started long before.. Two men gave us it — John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked. The books were dismissed by scholars as flawed and filled with canards, but a myth had been born. This one is more dangerous than most – it gave us YEC…
Ya Canna’ Change the Laws of Physics!
Darwin of course attracted a lot of sympathy and support for his brilliant work right from the start: geology had already demonstrated the Earth to be many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years – which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection as physically impossible. The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun (fusion not combustion) showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals. I think we can call this the Wicked Stupid Opponents fallacy, where people who raised objections to the ideas of the genius are seen as mere muppets who were just being awkward for the sake of it. I fear Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift has made this even more of a threat – those who resist fringe scientific ideas today are seen as hidebound reactionaries, like the men who laughed at Einstein. Unless that is the new scientific ideas resisted involve little grey men having abducting rural farmers for a quick probing session: then you are OK to doubt, and I’m with you as it happens.
Yet time and time again we are reminded of the sad story Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift, and how his ideas were rejected by a hidebound geological establishment. Sure they were, ‘cos until the 1950’s or 1960’s other theories explained the data just as well if not better! There is no ‘sin’ in doubting some new radical claim (or an old one) and we should respect Kelvin for his common sense objections, not belittle him (Darwin wasn’t keen on him – he refers to him as “that pale spectre”.) The historians of science often work in a world where ‘history is written by the winners’ – watch out for this…
The Myth of the Lone Gunman
And this I think brings me back to my problem with last year’s celebrations of Darwin. No look, I’m a fan. I own several standard lives, Darwin’s books, have read through the Darwin Correspondence archive and have enthusiastically supported a number of Darwin related projects. Yet increasingly I find myself frustrated that Darwin is misunderstood, misrepresented, or just a caricature. And really, I think the ultimate problem is that Darwin is not all that important.
If I asked someone on the street in Britain why Charles Darwin was important they might well say “he discovered Evolution”, completely oblivious to the fact that Evolution was widely known, and to some extent accepted, before Charles. I could point to Lamarck, Buffon, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus or probably the greatest popularizer of the theory, the Scottish writer Robert Chambers.
A few people might say more accurately “he invented the idea of Natural Selection” – except of course he did not, and the idea can be found back as far as the Ancient Greeks, and especially in some of the pre-Socratics. He did however introduce the phrase, retaining it too the 5th edition where he uses Spencer’s “survival of the fittest.” A curious circle here: from the political economics of Thomas Malthus, who inspired Darwin, to Darwin to Herbert Spencer and his “social Darwinism” of political economics again.
What Darwin did, and his importance, is that alongside Alfred Russel Wallace he collected so much evidence for the idea of Natural Selection that it, in spite of grave objections from the physicists of the day – for it was in violation of the known natural laws of physics which dictated a younger Earth, but so was Uniformitarianism in Geology, so something had to give – anyway what he did was make the first reputable evidentially solid case for the hypothesis of Evolution by Natural Selection. That was clearly a work of great importance, and worthy of our respect.
Much Darwin believed was wrong – his notion of how inheritance worked was nonsensical, and not to my mind really that far from Lamarck’s, though Lamarck gets a bad press, why I know not really – sure I know about the tragedy of Lysenkoism, but it may be more understandable than those unfamiliar with plant breeding believe – anyway – Darwin’s & Wallace’s idea would have gone nowhere without Mendel’s breakthrough – genetics.
So what is the fallacy of the Lone Gunman? Simple – the over-praising of Darwin obscures the actual history of the idea, and how a scientific hypothesis was refined, developed across a number of research communities, and slowly advanced against a series of seemingly fatal objections; how an idea, Evolution by Natural Selection, that was very ancient –and fairly obvious. If you could not infer something of the sort from animal husbandry and breeding stock, well poor old Johnny Ray and the Linnean system had pretty much classified the Animal Kingdom in a way that shouted “look, lifeforms are diversifying”.
We have lost sight of the history of Evolution as an idea, have allowed myths about a supposed widespread conflict between religion and science to obscure the actual truth of what happened back then, and all too often imposed our own ideological nonsense on the history of science. We have made it all one man, elevating him to a saintly role, and creating pious hagiographies, that espouse the myth of the Eureka moment, of a man who revolutionized science – and ignoring the quiet dedicated work of the many who worked before, were contemporary with, or the tens of thousands who have developed our knowledge of morphology and evolutionary biology since.
We need a poster of Darwin with a safety pin through the nose, Sex Pistol’s cover style. We need to metaphorically defecate on his grave, to drag him from the ridiculous pedestal where he stands taunted by Creationists, who unfairly understand Evolution =Darwin: because we implied it was so! We need more New Scientist headlines saying “Darwin Was Wrong!” not less, more real understanding of the history of science, and more realization that science is a progress done by women and men, not just bearded geniuses of another age. No lone gunman, no bearded genius from a far away country gave us modern science: it was built on the work of thousands of anonymous hardworking men and women, and geniuses are justthe pop stars of the science worlkd – the ones who we all remember. Maybe next time you pick up a history of Science book, and get very excited by the hero’s amazing successes and triumph over adversity, it is worth remebering that for that one great thinker, a thousand more dedicated researchers worked quietly building the framework for thei rbreakthrough.
We all stand upon the shoulders of giants: but we see further when we are supported by a human pyramid of dedicated scientists we never get to read books about too: it’s good to be reminded of that fact. The Hollywood Myth of the maverick who takes on the system and wins is endearing and sells books; but in the end the mountains of journal articles, the decades collecting specimens, and the humble assistance of the millions who selflessly dedicate their lives to increasing human knowledge counts for more.
In defense of Astrology? Have I finally lost the plot?
Maybe! I like to doubt my own doubts from time to time, and critique my own sceptical beliefs. I originally wrote this as a playful piece on Richard Dawkin’s forum when The Enemies of Reason TV show was announced.
All my life I have been rather amused by the persistence of belief in Astrology, and have outspokenly declared against it as superstitious claptrap — in this I was very much influenced by one of my heroes, the American Rationalist and SF/Horror writer HP Lovecraft who carried out a letter writing campaign to get it removed from newspapers, and the latter day efforts of James Randi and other decent minded Sceptics.
However, I think it’s time to say a few words in defense of the old gal, so here goes…
From the earliest times, humanity looked to the stars with awe, and very quickly they made a rather important observation, and one upon which I suspect pretty much all of our civilization is founded: the heavens predict the seasons, and by observing the skies, one knows when to plant, when to reap, and so forth. The whole calendar, and our sense of linear time, but above all the development of agriculture which enabled urbanization and eventually through surplus, the rise of technology and learning, is based on predictive study of the heavens. Astrology was a science back then, a science which enabled the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile for example. In China, the Middle East, and probably India a great body of astronomical lore and observations were amassed, for entirely pragmatic reasons.
From the earliest times, I guess people also marked important anniversaries – birthdays perhaps, or the solstices. They saw themselves age, and life events pass, and measured themselves against the passage of time, the seasons, and the stars. From these observations the astrologers with their maths developed a body of knowledge which they saw as predictive, which explained the fates of people, and came to believe in it.
Of course there were a great many sceptics in the Ancient World – Rome was full of astrological sceptics, and today we would separate the Astrological nonsense from the Astronomical truth – but in the early days of Science there was no such luxury. By the fist century BCE astrologers were pointing out, does the moon not influence the tides? How much more likely the subtleties of the human blood and spirit were bound by these same natural forces!
In fact they were almost right. We know now that cosmic rays appear to seed clouds, or so I am told, and we understand that the same rays can cause mutations in our very DNA, or again so I believe is the case? The sun clearly is vital to sustaining our little system, and the moon really does cause the tides. Indeed they were completely right to see a causal relationship between the sun and moon and the seasons, which our science has long since explained. The planets really do effect life on earth, and maybe the remains of dead stars actually brought us some of the ingredients for this life? I don’t know.
So maybe old Aunty Astrology, long since discredited by the Christian Church Fathers, vilified by sceptics, and abandoned by her wayward son Astronomy in her dotage, was not all bad. Without her we would probably still be hunter gatherers, and how much of our science in a millenia will look equally as dumb to an observer then looking back? “They believed what in the 21st century? How quaint!”
Then there is the fact that in some senses Astrology works. At a simple level, many people do seem to actually resemble their sun sign, and i think I know why — because as children we are exposed to this garbage, and therefore our personal identities shape themselves to some degree based on what we are told we “should be like”. I’m a Leo/Virgo cusp – I was told when young I was Leo, so I grew up proud, arrogant, overbearing and intensely egotistical, a thoroughly unpleasant tosser, but hey that’s me. And I’m guessing that happens a lot.
I started working on this theory years ago, after I noticed that Freudian ideas, which I considered superstitious tosh, actually were far more effective in a clinical environment than they had any right to be, and there were some brilliant Freudian practitioners. I thought through all the possibilities – was Freud right after all? Was it all just chance and misperception on my part? and then one day a possible explanation hit me – most of our patients had grown up in a society where Freud’s ideas were at least slightly known, and held authority – and that belief empowered them to get better, because they were comfortable with the ideas? I could be wrong – but I think it might work.
Astrology might gain just empower some people to make decisions, because they feel its “in their stars”, whereas in fact they are just selectively choosing which bits to believe, and which to ignore. So I actually think childhood to the ideas exposure might help shape the child’s personality and self perception in a self fulfilling prophecy – precisely Augustine’s argument as I recall, except I think he felt demons gained power to shape you once you chose? Maybe it was some other Church Father, I’m nowhere near my books!
Yet Astrology was, and still is in many parts of the world correct here – the time of your birth in any seasonal agricultural economy might be extremely important in your chance of surviving infancy I’m guessing. simply because certain illnesses and the mothers food supply hence available nutrients are going to vary tremendously with the passing of the seasons. Of course this will depend where you are on the planet, as the seasons of say Northern Finland are very different to those of Italy or Brazil, but it will be significant. The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development? I don’t know, but us “Enemies of Reason” like to consider these possibilities. The ancients were maybe not so daft after all…
So Aunty Astrology has been shown to be a gossipy old hag, but she was not without her uses. And then of course, we have the final and funniest thing of all.
A few decades ago, a French husband and wife pair discovered what they called the Mars Effect – that is that Mars was ascendant at the time that sports champions (as I recall, this is off the top of my head) was ascendant, rising over the horizon at the moment of birth. Now a moments thought will show this is nonsense – why birth – why not conception? The problem is their figures worked, and the rationalist organization CSICOP famously investigated this, and then a number of members including Truzzi quit in disgiust claiming that CSICOP had suppressed the positive replication. It was a scandal which actually besmirched the cause of Sceptisicm for years, an irrational refusal many felt to follow the facts when the conclusions were uncomfortable. In fact in the decades since there have been many positive replications, and a good number of papers which show why the original claims may well have been as flawed as was purported – but the matter is still not really in 2009 conclusively dealt with as far as I know. You can read up on this here —
Perhaps someone with time, and a good knowledge of stats and mathematical analysis cares to play?
Now let’s get this straight – I ain’t following no horoscope, or claiming Astrology as popularly understood is in any sense useful. However before one can dismiss it finally as pseudoscience, there is still a little work to be done – and if it was not for our dear mad aunty, we might still be out hunting now, and grubbing for roots, not playing on the net.
I’m not going to be too harsh on Astrology again. :)
OK, another extract from the ongoing debate! Part One can be found here –
and an earlier post on a very common part of the myth, that of the Evangelical opposition to Charles Darwin and evolution can be found here–
Frazer and his Myths on Mythology
Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough managed to pollute the intellectual atmosphere of the world in a way few have rivaled; he did to history what Henry Ford did to our lungs. Within months of Frazer publishing his work was torn apart by serious anthropologists, but it was popular, and went through edition after edition. Frazer’s kooky ideas are with us in many ways today – Tim O’ Neil and I often note their prevalence in Christ Myther circles (as someone asked — a Christ Myther is a person who denies there was a historical Jesus, claiming Christ is a fiction) and other pseudo-historical nonsense, but I’ll briefly explain the relevance here.
Frazer postulated that religion was primitive science, and that as scientific knowledge grew it usurped the role of earlier religious knowledge. His idea, which one can still find similarities with in Gebser, Wilber and some of the transpersonalists, sees Magic as the most primitive level of human interaction with the environment. From Magic develops mythology and Religion, and these fall victim to Science. It’s a historicist, approach, deeply teleological, in which history has an onward momentum, culminating in the White Anglo-Saxon Victorian civilization of Frazer. It’s also b*****ks.
The idea is superficially attractive. Knowledge does by and large increase through history, as does technology, taken globally. Individual cultures rise and fall, and there are fits and starts, but generally we see progress through history towards greater scientific and technological achievement. That certain cultures (with their religions) favour science more than others is pretty obvious – I’ll talk about that later. Frazer however saw everything was his own position, as the logical end point of the whole progress caboodle, as do his disciples. An Inuit animist was a “primitive”, being trapped in magical thinking, a Catholic Spaniard to him “a superstitious papist, trapped in the Religion phase” and the Frazer and friends reflected the epitome of rationality and “the high point”. I think we can all see the flaw in this. Compared with what? It’s arrogant and wrong. Quite an achievement.
Still, that is not the real problem. The problem is Frazer failed to note that religion is NOT primitive science. While we may have difficulties defining science, we can all agree that science serves an explanatory function in relation to the natural world – and this was by and large not the role of magic or religion. Just as very few people really believe “thunder is angels bowling”, so generally religion has not concerned itself with explaining nature.
Confronting the errors: “what everybody knows”
“Everyone knows” that Religion is Primitive Science. My opponent in the debate has implied it. But it’s not true, as a few minutes research will establish definitively for yourself. I’m going to ask you you to think through your own assumptions here, and test them againts the empirical evidence.
Religion does not explain the natural world. Let us look at the Christian Bible, how much of it represents “primitive science”? I set this challenge at the end of my introductory post. You get off to a good start with Genesis and Creation – which I will discuss the meaning of in a future post, and show it is clearly theological NOT scientific, but for now let us accept it is “scientific”. What follows? What explanatory purpose in terms of physical phenomena do the story of the Patriarchs serve? The Exodus? What of the endless law codes of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers? Kings and Chronicles are history – any science in there? Nope. Esther and Ruth lack any explanatory purpose in terms of the physical world. Ditto the Prophets. Judaism generally is certainly not supportive of “religion is primitive science”. The claim is clearly nonsense – Judaism is not interested in explaining physical phenomena, instead Creation is invoked to support the claims of Judaism – not Judaism invoked to explain the natural world. When we move in to the Gospels we find no “explanation” material – Jesus does not, the best efforts of astrotheology kooks notwithstanding, appear to tell us anything about the natural world. You can read the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation in search of “primitive science” – but you look in vain.
Turn to the Qu’ran. Does this book purport to teach you physics, chemistry, biology? I don’t think that is the message in any way. To assert that the revelation of God, or any religious text is primitive science is to completely misrepresent most religion. In fact the natural world is large a mystery to the religious mind, but one that can be explored, and understood, because it functions by rational laws, set by God.
Now let us be fair on Frazer. Frazer was talking about what he saw of Primitive Religion, which he believed reflected a kind of mythic set of archetypes about vegetation gods and reaping, sowing, etc. Unsurprisingly he found agricultural motifs and images in many religions – because naturally enough in an agriculturally based economy these motifs will be central! Frazer saw the great monotheisms as having surpassed this stage – but ever in Greek mythology, his favourite topic, it fails. He gives the story of Proserpine and the seasons as an exemplar – the myth explains the changing of the seasons. Er, quite. Is this really an explanation? As countless students of mythology have pointed out since, Greek, Roman and Norse myth are not explanatory in this way. Not all lightning came from Zeus – he was not the embodiment of the lightning, he was a God who used lightning bolts as a weapon. How does Cerberus, Orpheus, the Titanomachy, Semele and Hera, explain anything in nature? What of Loki, what does he tell us of the physical world? What “scientific” explanation did he give us? Or Jorgumand? Fenrir? What physical principle is reflected in Mjolnir?
If you have read this far, and please do say something about this in the comment thread, please examine what you have taught and your cultural beliefs about mythology. Have you been taught to think of the Gods in this mechanistic way, with deities associated with a particular realm? We often think of “X as God of Y”, and apply this across all pantheons, as if Gods represented natural forces – “Surt was a fire demon/giant”, “Flora goddess of vegetation”, and do forth. Nope, it does nto work like that. It’s a shorthand, to explain things the Gods are associated with, but most pantheons for not follow these neat (X=”corn god”) categories – while it made the old D&D book Deities and Demigods much easier to use, it doe not reflect real mythology. Classicists (and I hope some are reading this and will jump in to tell me if i am seriously wrong!) can point out that they “unlearn” these associations early. The Gods, and religions, were never “primitive science”, and if you think they were, who is the Sun God in Norse religion? Who embodies Rain? And who embodies the Wind? Not so easy is it?
Religion is not superseded primitive science. Once you realise this, you realise that a great deal of the Dawkinite assault rests upon this thoroughly mistaken assumption, as does much of the Conflict Myth.
Please do comment if you have read this far!
A Word of Explanation
On Christmas Eve 2008 having reached 7,000 posts on Professor Richard Dawkin’s forum I publicly issued the Professor with a challenge to a debate on Religion & Science. My contention was that the supposed conflict between religion and science is a modern myth, and that furthering claims of this “inevitable conflict” is just a nonsense and a harmful one. Sadly he never got back to me, unsurprisingly really as a busy chap, and I am now developing the discussion for a TV series – so my concerns, which actually represent the academic mainstream, will hopefully reach the public after all. :) Here is the opening post of the debate, which finds me in a playful, whimsical mood… I will post later installments over the next few days if anyone is interested…
On the Absurdity of the Conflict Myth
I believe the notion that science and myth are in conflict is not just a myth; I believe it is an absurdity. I think the fact the notion is so widely held is simply testimony to the fact it is so rarely considered; it appears hard to believe it can be held for long, in the weight of the evidence against it. Of course sometimes science and religion are in conflict; for that matter, so is poetry and science.
When the poet tells us he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, I feel it would be inappropriate to inform him nimbostratus have no feelings – we would miss the point. I recognize that science and religion both make claims to objective truth. So do science and history, science and philosophy, science and mathematics, science and cookery (– and I chose those carefully – if you think mathematics is part of science, is cooking? If not, why not?) So are science and history in conflict? Science and philosophy? Science and poetry? Science and cookery?
Science and Religion
Yet science and religion are seen as in conflict… or scientists and the religious, as ideas do not fight well unaided. Well, some scientists have been in conflict with some religious folks – so have some poets. That is to be expected. Some scientists also rode bicycles, and others drank vodka. Some do ride and drink. That cases can be found where scientists clashed with theologians should surprise no one, nor is it particularly interesting.
The real question is “is there a tendency for fights? is there an underlying reason demanding fights? what is the principle fought over?” I have been interested in these questions for years, and have examined the classic “stories” one finds in popular science books, and the claims of necessary conflict. I find them a silly fairy story, one of those “things everyone knows” which turn out to be a myth when examined. Science and religion are not opposed, and conflict is uncommon. In fact modern science developed in a religious framework, and owes the great monotheisms much. After all there would be no scientists without an Anglican priest – the Reverend William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ in the 19th century.
The Genesis of a Myth
Two men created the conflict myth, writing within a few years of each other. The first John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).
This according to historians of science is where the myth arose. and It was never established in the academic specialty of historians of science – the books were dismissed as flawed and filled with canards. They were an extreme form of Whig history, and a gross form of the historicist fallacy – history is seen as teleological, as man’s escape from ignorant superstition and theism to enlightenment and science, here categorized as scientific progress. By 1918, even more 1945, such books would never have the same appeal – but in what Wells categorized as the “age of whoosh!”, before his own despair and loss of faith in progress, they were immensely popular. Bad history often is – these are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail of their day – attacking the wicked conspiracy of clerics who hold back enlightened science.
Of course they were just spouting Enlightenment myths – for is there was one place where the Enlightenment failed, and throws us in to darkness, it was in the philosophes treatment of history.
A Myth Becomes Dogma
Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked.
The specifics were lost in the general argument – a myth had been born. And from thesis; antithesis – Burtt (1924), Whitehead (1926) and Butterfield (1949) reversed the argument, showing how religion provides the framework for the development of modern science. By Butterfield it was clear that science and religion have a complex relationship, a relationship which can not be simplified to conflict or support.
Yet as recent studies have shown, among the public, scientists and outside of professional historians, the “conflict hypothesis” persists. No one in the academic study of history of science takes it seriously – but outside those who study these things, “everyone knows” it’s true. In my experience when a fact is something “every one just knows”, we can usually be sure it’s a culturally constructed myth. Hegemony is not a sound way of knowing.
When I say science I might mean
i) the pursuit of understanding of natural laws
ii) the application of certain methodologies to research
iii) the social institutions and cultural milieu within which certain research is carried out
iv) as including both research and development, that is pure science and technology
v) as excluding technology, pure science, typically conducted in certain institutional forms, such as the university or basic research institute.
Not my definitions but after Rose and Rose, Science and Society, 1969
Religion is incredibly hard to define – the dictionary gives me
1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Nothing here seems to suggest conflict?
The notion of “religion as primitive science”, as explanatory and superseded one finds in Frazer is a myth: I shall dedicate much of my second post to demonstrating why, and scholars refutations. For now flip through the Bible, Qu’ran, and Tanakh, and underline all the “science” passages you find… How much of these scriptures is “primitive explanatory science?”
There is more of this – continued here –