We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge.
Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.
I have just finished reading Robert McCauley‘s book on the issue of religion and science. It is a valiant attempt to deal with this issue as dispassionately as possible. It is, however, in my view, only partially successful. I think this is largely because he holds back by far his most effective explanation of the key considerations until the very end. The result is that much of the book appears not to be comparing like with like.
Let’s look at his basic case first, as explained in the opening half of the book, before looking in more detail at how his treatment of his topic has to some degree undermined his argument.
The Basic Points
He lays a foundation for his argument by explaining at length what he regards as two forms of natural cognition: there are learned skills/cognitions as against what he describes as maturational ones. Chewing and walking are maturational skills: they come inevitably as we grow. As he explains (page 22) they occur very early, we don’t remember learning them and they don’t require the guidance of adults to acquire. Writing and riding a bike are different. They come naturally up to a point but entail coaching, we remember learning them as a rule and yet we exercise the skill automatically and unconsciously once acquired and they feel completely natural.
He concludes his introductory overview by stating (page 30):
This suggests (i) that most of humans’ maturationally natural forms of knowledge arrive comparatively early, (ii) that they will address some of the most basic problems humans face (like those that are solved by chewing and walking), and (iii) that they will prove to be so ubiquitous that their emergence counts as normal development. In contrast to capacities that possess a practiced naturalness and are second nature to us, perception, cognition, and action that possess maturational naturalness are first nature to us.
When it comes to interpreting our environment, maturational cognition kicks in swiftly. It had to in the past. Our survival depended upon it. It lies behind our susceptibility to visual illusions such as the Müller-Lyer illusion which cannot be over-ridden in spite of knowing the reality, happens completely automatically and unconsciously, and for example can cause us to almost instantly interpret unexpected noises as a potentially malign presence or, in his terms, agent. It operates on minimal information and involves no higher processes of reflection. Kahneman has examined many of its manifestations in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and McCauley refers to his and Tversky‘s work often in this book.
Kahneman uses the expression ‘System 1’ to describe this mode of thinking (page 21):
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
This same system of thinking causes us all sorts of problems when we have to interpret information for which it is ill-suited but to which it nonetheless confidently and immediately responds with a completely erroneous answer. An example would be useful here as it helps clarify why much of scientific thinking is not natural – much more of a System 2 operation in fact. A favourite area and rich source of examples of erroneous thinking typically involves probability, something we humans are very blinkered about.
McCauley draws an example from the work of Tversky and Kahneman (page 124). They gave character outlines to many people including the scientifically sophisticated, who can find it almost as difficult as the rest of us to counteract these biases despite all their practice to the contrary. One of these outlines includes the information that Linda was a bright, outspoken philosophy major in college and was active in a variety of causes concerned with questions of justice. They were asked to decide what her job is likely to be now. The list included two items: ‘bank teller’ and ‘feminist bank teller.’
The overwhelming majority of subjects assumed that she would have become a feminist bank teller. This is a beautiful example of where our maturational cognitive system leads us astray. As they explain (page 125):
The probability of two claims both being true can never exceed the probability of the truth of the least probable of the two claims.
It would therefore always be more probable that she would be a bank teller rather than a feminist bank teller. Even when we know that intellectually, it is almost impossible to see it as more probable that Linda would end up a bank teller rather than a feminist bank teller. It goes so much against the grain of our first nature to reach that conclusion. We automatically feel that ‘like goes with like’ (Gilovich: ibid).
Implications for Religion and Science
He then moves onto explaining why science, that, by and large, cuts against the grain of these maturational ways of thinking is so much harder for us to learn than religion that cuts far more with grain. The whole of the first part of the book is concerned with expanding upon this point.
It was really not until page 211 that I felt he fessed up clearly to what he had really been doing in the book as a whole, and which had caused me considerable irritation. He says:
Up to this point the target of my analysis has been the cognitive status of popular understandings about religious belief and action, as the corresponding representations are entertained and as religions’ rituals are carried out by ordinary participants. It has been a discussion of religion at the retail level.
So basically he has been contending that hard real science is difficult for us to learn whereas popular religion comes naturally. He concedes that theology is just as difficult as science and draws upon many of the same higher order cognitions that produce counter-intuitive conclusions, though it does not dispense with the idea of an agency working behind the scenes. He also recognises that our intuitive ideas about the reality that science deals with are just as blinkered, automatic and ineradicable as the simplistic ideas of supernatural agency that he attributes to retail religion. But the annoying implication up to this point has been that real science is inherently superior to any form of religion altogether.
That he concedes there is tough thinking inherent in theology, though welcome, doesn’t go far enough for my taste in any case, even when he creates a clearer basis for his comparisons in the final chapter of his book. He completely fails to recognise the existence, let alone the possible validity, of replicable experienced-based forms of religious practice that are not symbolic rituals and also are clearly not abstract and quasi philosophical.
There is no mention of meditation and the resultant mystical experiences that a consistent practitioner can replicate. Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber, amongst others, argue cogently, in books such as Human Minds and The Marriage of Sense and Soul, for the need to respect that tradition at least as much as science’s. The conclusions arrived at through meditation were also frequently higher order and counter-intuitive.
These are religious traditions in some cases without any ‘theology’ but which have a deeply sophisticated understanding of psychology and of physical reality derived from centuries of meditative practice – for example, in Nāgārjuna (ca. 150 C.E.). In my view, though physics is catching up, psychology is still lagging woefully behind. A recent major consideration of this is to be found in Irreducible Mind, a work to which I shall be returning in this blog. There is at least one religion, the Bahá’í Faith, with no rituals and no theology. It is also at its core pragmatic and empirical as well as transcendent in its approach, measuring spiritual progress to some extent by positive measurable results in the social world – very much ‘treading the spiritual path with practical feet.’ He seems to regard these examples as too esoteric to be relevant to his case.
A Climate of Mutual Respect
I don’t usually post reviews of books when I am so ambivalent about them and have such strong reservations. The reason why I have gone public in this case is because the book is a laudable attempt to deal with a very difficult issue from an unusual and fruitful angle. I just wish he had placed the last chapter first and gone just a step further in acknowledging that religion can potentially, at its highest and best, shed light on the nature of our reality even if, at its most routine, it is no better than lay or retail science.
In the end though, by flagging up the recency and vulnerability of the great achievement which science constitutes as currently practised, he is issuing a useful warning (page 286):
Science’s radical counterintuitiveness makes it cognitively unnatural in the extreme. Humans have produced science so infrequently in their history because not only does it not come to them naturally but because it is incredibly difficult to do and the doing of it is incredibly difficult to sustain. . . . . Historians and philosophers of science, who point to two critical episodes in history of Western thought, namely, the science of the ancient Greeks and modern science born at the turn of the 17th century, hold, in effect, that science was once lost and had to be reinvented. One consequence of the position that I have been defending is that nothing about human nature would ever prevent the loss of science again.
As I believe that both religion and science are essential to our survival as a species and the creation of a better civilisation, I welcome this wake up call. Evangelical atheists, in his view, have been fruitlessly attacking what is so central to human understanding that it will never die, while at the same time, in my opinion, doing a disservice to science, which is already vulnerable, by giving ammunition to its enemies with their arrogant and ill-informed attacks. And I’m not the only one to have profound reservations about their approach. Alvin Platinga, in his excellent book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, writes (page 54):
. . . . declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust.
It is undoubtedly time we created a climate of mutual respect.