Saturday, March 17, 2007

Susan Neiman: Religion and Science

In this series on the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, I am now up to Session 6, where the first speaker was Susan Neiman.

Neiman, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was asked to speak about the possibility of morality without God. In doing so, she decided to take on the ‘intolerance’ of Richard Dawkins, telling Dawkins directly, “I have not said anything to offend you yet, but I am about to.”

She began her presentation by comparing and contrasting two stories of concerning Abraham; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham attempting to convince God to spare the cities. The second was the story of Abraham bundling up his infant child and heading off to sacrifice that child to God.

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Neiman focuses on the report that Abraham negotiated with God to save the city. At first God said that he would destroy the city. However, Abraham was concerned about the innocent people of Sodom, getting God to agree that it would be wrong to destroy the city if there were 50 good people in the town. Ultimately, through negotiation, Abraham gets God to agree not to destroy the city if Abraham can find 10 good people. Ultimately, however, Abraham fails and God destroys the city.

However, when God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac up into the mountains to be sacrificed, Abraham obeys without question, refusing to question God's actions. According to Immanual Kant, Abraham should have thought that whoever would have asked him to do such a thing was not God.

I have no qualms about being partisan. The Abraham who risks God’s wrath to argue for the lives of unknown innocents is the kind of man who would face down an unjust tyrant anywhere, is deeply human in the best of all senses, and neither his fear nor his frailty stands in the way of his own reason. He is reverent but not deferential for his faith is based on his moral background and not the other way around. He is, in short, what I would like to call ‘enlightenment hero’. As Kierkegaard taught us, the Abraham that takes his son to Mount Mariah left ethics and enlightenment behind.

She reports that her purpose for bringing up this story is to show that the bible is equivocal. The Bible contains stories of complete and unquestioned obedience to God. At the same time, the Bible (or, Neiman claims, all three Abrahamic faiths) contain a rationalist tradition – a tradition of biblical leaders using reason to argue against God and, sometimes, winning.

[F]ar from viewing our capacity to reason as threatening our capacity to obey God, this tradition sees thinking as its very fulfillment . . . . If reason is God’s gift, he meant for us to use it even against Him if He turns out to be wrong or hasty. On this tradition, our ability to make sense of the world whether with Science or through right moral actions is just further proof of God’s goodness.

Neiman’s point in this is that it is a mistake to divide the world along religious and secular lines. On the question of whether religion and science is compatible, Neiman wishes to give the answer, “Sometimes, it depends on the religion.”

Here, she also uses Socrates of an example of a compatibility of religion with reason. Socrates, she claims, was not put on trial for atheism, but was put on trial for holding that we need reason to determine what is good, which in turn determines what the gods love. Socrates actually did believe that the gods loved them because they are good (in themselves).

Neiman also quickly brings up a non-religious philosophy that she suggests is resoundingly anti-science; post-modernism. This is a theory that holds that there is no truth, just different interpretations of reality, with the scientific model being just another tradition no more or less valid than any other.

With this, Neiman has shown that being religious is not a sufficient condition for being anti-science (some religious traditions are pro-science and view our capacity for scientific inquiry as ‘God’s gift’). Religion is also not a necessary condition for being anti-science (there are non-religious traditions that are also anti-science).

After establishing that it is a mistake to conflate anti-science with religion, Neiman goes back to the question of whether it is possible to have morality without God. To this question, she says that the answer is a resounding yes even within some religious traditions.

There are deep sources for rejecting the question, ‘Do we need religion to maintain ethics,’ because the answer is a resounding, ‘No.’ The Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah certainly didn’t. It was he who gave God lessons in ethics at extreme peril.

I want to stress here that Neiman was dividing religion itself into two camps. She was not denying the fact that some religious traditions would hold that Abraham could give God lessons in ethics is absurd. This would deny that God is all-knowing and deny that God is morally perfect. She has nothing favorable to say about those who act more like the Abraham who unquestioningly sets out to kill his own child over the Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah. She only goes so far as to point out that there are religious traditions that do hold that humans can give God moral lessons.

She uses this in a criticism of unnamed critics of religion.

Some of the objections to religious thinking that I have heard during this conference really does precede on the assumption that there haven’t been religious thinkers and, honestly, there have been.

This all makes sense as far as it goes, but how far does it go?

There are others who have accused critics of theism of arguing against a “crude theism”, leaving the more complex theories untouched. Thomas Nagel raised this objection to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in a review published in the New Republic. In effect, these philosophers accuse Dawkins (and, I assume, Sam Harris) of creating a straw God.

On this issue, I would like to distinguish three different types of arguments, and show an important difference between two of them and the “straw man” that Dawkins and Harris are accused of.

The straw man argument takes the following form.

Person 1 asserts position P. Person 2 answers by ‘reinterpreting’ position P as position Q. He then defeats position Q, and claims that he has defeated position P. In this form of argument, position Q stands in as the “straw man” in place of position P. Q’s easy defeat generates an illusion that P has been defeated.

This is, indeed, a fallacy, and a form of argument that a person of sound reason will avoid.

However, this interpretation of events assumes that there is nobody out there asserting Position Q.

If there are position Q defenders, then we can have another situation.

Person 1 asserts position Q. Person 2 then defeats position Q. Person 3 then comes along, asserts that there is a position P that is like position Q, accuses person 2 of failing to defeat position P. Person 1 then asserts that this criticism of person 2 means that his position Q has not been defeated after all.

In this type of case, person 2 has been unfairly maligned. He has defeated the position he intended to defeat. If we take position Q as the fundamentalist, anti-science, obey God at all times position, Dawkins and Harris have had some harsh words to say against that position that stick. Neiman’s suggestion that there is a position P, a science-friendly religion where humans can use reason to question God even on matters of morality, does nothing to defeat or even criticize the position that Dawkins and Harris has taken against their intended targets.

Furthermore, we have reason to believe that the ‘theology’ that Neiman describes is far too rare to be worth more than a massing mention. Dawkins and Harris are free to dismiss them in a footnote. “Footnote: My criticisms here do not apply to position P, which also exists, but is so rare that it is of little practical importance.”

In fact, neither Dawkins nor Harris is entirely free to take this route. Both of their writings contain elements that suggest an alternative track. They can be interpreted as saying,

“Against position P; this is similar to position Q. As I have shown, position Q is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Furthermore, those who hold position Q gain moral support from those who hold position P. They claim, ‘Because there are defenders of position P about, I am justified in holding position Q, even though P does not imply Q.’ We must destroy all straws that the defenders of position Q might grab on to. Therefore, we must reject position P.”

This argument does not work. There is only one legitimate reason for rejecting position P, and that is because position P itself is flawed. There is no sense (and a great deal of injustice) in asserting the argument:

• P does not imply Q, but some misguided people think that P implies Q.

• Not-Q.

• Therefore, not-P

This is bad reasoning.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was most interesting. But the section about Abraham taking his son up on the mountain to kill him appears to be partly truncated. Can you fix or is it just me?

Anonymous said...

Lol, Mind you P's and Q's.

Great reading, keep at it.