dogmas old and new

TLS runs some back and forth inspired by Dawkins’ The God Delusion. John Polkingthorne has this to say about the scope of scientific inquiry and religious experience:

Science achieves its success by the modesty of its ambition, only considering impersonal experience open to repetition at will. Personal experience, let alone encounter with the transpersonal reality of God, does not fit within this limited protocol.The concept of reality offered by scientism is that of a world of metastable, replicating and information-processing systems, but it has no persons in it. Darwin’s angel criticizes Dawkins for a lack of trust in the power of imagination to explore reality, such as we exercise through poetry. He is said to sound “as though he would substitute a series of case-notes on senile dementia for King Lear.”

The latter statements rehearse a familiar anti-naturalist point, and it’s hardly fair for Polkinghorne to repeat it just as he calls for a rapproachment between scientific and religious inquirers. Natural science need not evacuate the concept of the person. Natural scientists simply attempt to explain, as for example Dennet does, how the capacities which we take as central to personhood emerge from a material system. Some neuroscientists, many of whom would call themselves reductivists, conduct research on the human ability to tell stories, to remember faces, to suppress trauma, to feel sympathy – the kinds of richly social and imaginative experiences that Polkinghorne fears science will leave out.

As to the jibe about Lear, there’s no reason to paint naturalism as hostile to metaphor or narrative. Scientists and non-scientists can agree that art and tradition enrich our understanding of each other and of ourselves – but vague senses of richness and occasional moments of insight are not all that believers attribute to their religions. No Christian reads the Bible like I would read Faulkner or Camus.

But Polkinghorne does key in on an important difference in scientific and religious epistemologies: how they deal with experiences that cannot be repeated. It’s important to understand, though, that this divergence owes to differences in project. Scientists aren’t asking questions like “Is this particular experience valid or meaningful?”, rather they’re trying to deduce laws. A singular religious experience can enrich the life of the person who has it, and if that person is a gifted communicator then perhaps the lives of some others as well, but that experience is not an appropriate basis for generalizable laws even if it is, for the one who has it, as undeniable as the pull of gravity. And religious ethics and cosmologies often attempt to work back to such laws from singular spiritual experiences. For their parts, atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens wrongly express hostility to the idea that a person’s particular moments of spiritual significance can be understood as anything but self-delusion. But such a closed-minded view is not implied by scientific doctrines.

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~ by staticandme on December 28, 2008.

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