Science and Religion review – part 2… of 4!

One of the routines that launched the brilliant and infuriating comedian-musician Tim Minchin was a beat poem called Storm, about an encounter with a girl who embodied the unholy, Dawkins-baiting marriage of New Age with postmodernism. There are lots of live performances out there, but here’s an animated version, from Tim Minchin’s site:

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It cries out for the kind of academic-style point-by-point, death-by-pedantry refutation that could only be funny if done as self-satire, but still it’s hard to disagree with Minchin’s frustration at the anti-atheist caricature of a soulless rationalist, and it’s tempting to sympathise with his plea for an appreciation of beauty unburdened by myths and narratives.

But is that kind of appreciation really possible? Thomas Dixon hints at this problem when he wonders what we might make of the moon if we had no scientific awareness whatsoever. What would we see up there? He suggests a giant aspirin, whereas my childhood compels me to see Button Moon:

A moment spent looking up at a starry sky can obviously be a fairly quiet one, but it’s never the moment of truly wordless appreciation of beauty that we might imagine. It’s possible to get a hint of this, I think, by practicing any one of hundreds of meditation techniques, even for a relatively short period. A day in meditation can be imperfectly peaceful, but the aftermath often more violent – a sudden rush of narrative, judging, planning, and remembering, of barely connected lines of thought crashing into the mind like water let loose from a dam. This is how most of us usually are: a never-ending commentary, whose ubiquity means that I don’t notice it and simply mistake it for ‘me’ – but which, when it comes in the form of this sudden rush, is revealed as something which is less ‘me’ than being done to me.


Our appreciation of beauty takes place in a similar way, as part of this commentary – in the form of unnoticed mini-judgments and the activation of barely recognised preferences, even when we’re engaged in something as supposedly open as gazing at the night sky. Our verbalisations quickly give us away: if it’s two American teenagers lying on the bonnet of a car (according to the surrogate American childhood that Hollywood has given me) it might be something along the lines of ‘we’re all so small and insignificant'; if there’s room on the bonnet for Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, it might be a series of thoughts on distance, matter, chemistry, or underfunded astrophysics; a still more copious bonnet might yield any number of women and men offering poetic, mythic, or technological thoughts, or else finding themselves at the mercy of a range of anxieties and aspirations.

Tim Minchin

My point is not that all these musings about the heavens are somehow equally ‘true’, in the strong subjectivist sense that Minchin’s protagonist, Storm, is perhaps championing; just that we can’t escape some kind of narrative framing of our experience.

This has implications for three of the historical-cultural themes that Dixon tackles: the human person and soul, the morality of ‘mind’ sciences, and Creationism. This was supposed to be Part 2 of 2, but to avoid sliding from blog post into essay let me leave the morality of mind science and Creationism for Parts 3 and 4 of 4…then I promise I’ll stop there…

As with many who share his set of views on these sorts of things, Tim Minchin takes the Enlightenment as a kind of turning point, and indeed from the point of view of a religious pessimist the centuries since then have been characterised by the modern state and modern science ganging up on religion and taking away all its toys: history, cosmology, politics, the provision of education and the exercise of charity, etc.

One of the more recent toys to be yoinked from its grasp has been the ‘inner world’. Psychologists, cognitive scientists and all the rest might offer the odd nod to Augustine of Hippo and his Confessions or to parts of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, but really modern science is held to be making the pace. And for many who hold to some kind of religious or spiritual outlook, the exclusive understanding of the human person in terms of brain and nervous system processes governed largely by genetic inheritance and the environment is the ultimate taboo.

Dixon puts it with characteristic economy:

If the soul is nothing but a product of brain activity, as science seems to suggest, does that not imply materialism, determinism, blank atheism?

This is one of those areas where consideration of non-western systems might have been useful for Dixon’s book, given the range of positions on the nature of personhood available within Buddhism alone and the shift into metaphorical readings of monotheistic sacred texts that contact with Asian traditions has helped to encourage. That said, it’s interesting that though the general thrust of scientific understanding has made Christian resurrection seem increasingly unlikely it has been argued by Fraser Watts that the reliance of the mind upon the brain actually makes resurrection – in some kind of new body – more plausible in some ways, at least when compared with more fashionable, often rather incoherent ideas that suggest some immaterial consciousness.

As Dixon points out, however, this unapologetically embodied understanding of resurrection takes us, from the point of view of science and scientific evidence, ‘from a dualistic frying pan into an apocalyptic fire’. Nor, as Woody Allen has pointed out, is the alternative understanding of immortality in terms of one’s enduring influence upon family and the world necessarily a satisfying substitute:

 I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it  through not dying.

In an interesting little tour through the modern history of brain sciences, from Queen Victoria’s request for phrenological readings to be made of her children to the contemporary neuroscience of religious experience, Dixon offers the important point that findings in neuroscience often don’t offer much in the way of theological implications – at one time, he says, the fact that ‘God’ experiences lit up the whole brain on an fMRI rather than being located in one spot (as had previously been thought) was used by some to prove that God must be a reality. But as Dixon says, it’s hard to see why ‘God patterns’ in the brain are any more or less suggestive of anything than a ‘God spot': fMRI findings tend to demonstrate correlations rather than causes, and even if organic causes for religious experiences could be found, for this to negate religion or God would require the further – fairly flimsy – logical leap that religious experiences can only have one cause, brain or God.

Dixon is careful not to offer a view on any of this, but it’s worth pointing out that elsewhere in science – and certainly in psychology and psychiatry – monocausal explanations are usually fairly suspect.There are plenty of much better arguments against religion and religious influence in public life (more of which in a later post), and it’s a shame when science applies such a degraded, short-cut version of its own methodology to questions of belief and faith – like a football club fielding its C-team against an opposition it considers to be without merit.

The morality of ‘mind’ sciences shortly, in Part 3…


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