On science, religion and explanation

[This is really a companion piece and follow-up to my review of Paul Bloom, Descartes' Baby.]

Bloom (2004) offers a typical statement comparing science and religion on p. 213-14:

When distinguishing between science and religion, to look for a difference in the content of beliefs is the wrong approach. Better instead to examine the process through which these beliefs come about, and the social conditions under which they are maintained and modified. If a person believes in ghosts because she has been persuaded by empirical evidence and is willing to test her views and possibly reject them on the basis of the data, this is a scientific hypothesis. To the extent that her belief is rooted in faith and cannot be swayed by evidence, it is religion.

Now, it is quite possible (and common) to present evidence without being in the least ‘swayed’ by it, if you favor a specific interpretation of it without making an effort to compare its salience with other interpretations; so it is possible (and actually quite common) to practice science ‘religiously’ in this sense. The reverse is also true: some theologians (such as Tillich) declare that doubt is an element of faith, and some spiritual teachers (such as Zen Buddhists) place radical doubt at the very center of practice.

So i would slightly modify the common contrast between science and religion represented above by Bloom. In practice, science and religion both use ‘evidence’, but they differ in how they use it; and the difference is one of degree and emphasis. Religious believers are predisposed to having their experience confirm their beliefs, no doubt because their faith represents a social commitment to a community and a way of life guided by that belief. These beliefs are usually rather vague and general, unlike the caricature examples that the anti-religious like to cite, such as the belief that the earth is 6000 years old. Almost any given experience can potentially be taken as confirming, as denying, or as irrelevant to a general religious belief (such as the mercy or justice of God), but for the believer, taking it as a confirmation is the default.

Scientific method, on the other hand, is predisposed to question and test every hypothesis, the true scientist being committed to the quest for the best possible model of reality. It is often overlooked that this quest also represents a social commitment. According to C.S. Peirce, science differs from religion in that its social commitment is to an ever-receding ideal consensus and not to a consensus already established in an existing community. For the true scientist, then, science has a more profound spiritual basis than ordinary religion (EP2, 54-5):

The only end of science, as such, is to learn the lesson that the universe has to teach it. In induction it simply surrenders itself to the force of facts. But it finds, at once, … that this is not enough. It is driven in desperation to call upon its inward sympathy with nature … But insofar as it does this, the solid ground of fact fails it. It feels from that moment that its position is only provisional. It must then find confirmations or else shift its footing. Even if it does find confirmations, they are only partial. It still is not standing upon the bedrock of fact. It is walking upon a bog, and can only say, this ground seems to hold for the present. Here I will stay till it begins to give way. Moreover, in all its progress, science vaguely feels that it is only learning a lesson. The value of facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and Nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real,— the object of its worship and aspiration. It therein takes an entirely different attitude towards facts from that which Practice takes.

What Peirce calls ‘Practice’ (or sometimes ‘Art’) is the everyday practical business of getting things done. Commitment to a religious community, and thus to its beliefs, is (for a social being) simply one aspect of coping with ordinary reality. Practice being unavoidable in this mundane realm, one has to act upon one's assumptions without the luxury of an endless quest for perfect knowledge. From the ideal point of view, practice based on belief rather than knowledge is risky, ‘for belief is the willingness to risk a great deal upon a proposition. But this belief is no concern of science which has nothing at stake on any temporal venture, but is in pursuit of eternal verities, and looks upon this pursuit, not as the work of one man's life, but as that of generation after generation, indefinitely’ (p. 55-6). For a true scientist, then — a very rare creature, as Peirce points out — science is more deeply ‘religious’ than religion, which has to settle for functional beliefs. This brings out the ambiguity in the term ‘religious’: if we apply it to individual experience, as William James did in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, it connotes something profound, intense, extraordinary. If we apply it strictly to social phenomena, ignoring the experiential dimension, we get almost the opposite connotations. When we mix the two, we get paradoxes like the above remark that pure Peircian science is more religious than religion.

Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained (2001) is a good example of the social-science approach to religion, and thus it contrasts strongly with James on religious experience (and with Peirce on scientific experience). James packed his Varieties with detailed accounts of extreme ‘religious experience’ and appeared to present these as the source of institutionalized religious concepts and practices. Boyer approaches religion from the opposite direction, rejecting the Jamesian view as an attempt to create a special category of ‘religious experience’ and place it on a pedestal. For him, the roots of religion lie in ordinary mentality. In this he is probably right; we might say that experience has a religious dimension, which is fully realized only in rare individuals but operates vaguely and intuitively in all of us. (It may operate in some by causing them to reject religious institutions, as suggested by Lenny Bruce's remark that ‘every day people are straying away from church and going back to God’.)

Boyer, however, does not put it this way — in fact he has virtually nothing to say about experience at all. As a social scientist, what he wants is ‘to explain vast trends in social groups’ (p. 319). Social science generates only statistical truths or probabilities, and the methods useful for that purpose fail to account for anything idiosyncratic, such as why some people are more ‘religious’ than others. As Boyer goes on to say,

The probability of a single event does not satisfy our appetite for explanations, which hankers after a definite causal chain that would have led this person to have this particular religious attitude. But if the intuitive plausibility of religious concepts is a matter of aggregate relevance, of activating different systems in different ways, then it is in principle futile to try to identify that causal chain. All we can describe are trends in groups, which is certainly frustrating.
So this kind of explanation can tell us nothing about experience, because only individual humans have human experience, and anything individual is averaged away by the sociological method. Boyer is forced by his method of explanation to throw out the baby of meaning along with the bathwater of Jamesian ‘religious experience’. Whatever advantages this method may have for the sociologist, it's of little use to anyone trying to understand a religious idiom from the inside, enter into dialog with it, or learn from it. Boyer, for instance, could have no use for James's argument that religious experiences or beliefs are to be evaluated in terms of their effect in transforming people's actual lives. Such transformation is in principle idiosyncratic, since it must to some extent run counter to the inertia of social custom. It drops completely out of sight when we shift our focus to the aggregate level of ‘vast trends’. And although Boyer describes this situation above as ‘frustrating’, his own attitude seems more like condescension, or even contempt, toward those who are interested in dialog. Take for instance this passage (p. 262-3):
… as far as familiar religious performances are concerned, we often think that the answer is the official one given by the believers themselves or the authorities: We have these Sunday sessions in order to commemorate a crucial event, partake of supernatural blessings, celebrate a particular supernatural agent and renew a special contract with that agent.

This cannot be the explanation. These thoughts are all perfectly relevant to the situation in question, but they are not a description of the mental processes that make a Mass, or any other ritual, a salient event that people somehow assume they should perform again and again in the same specific way. The explanation for the cultural success of rituals is to be found in processes that are not really transparent to practitioners, that become clearer only with the help of psychological experiments, anthropological comparisons and evolutionary considerations.

So an explanation has to be a ‘description of mental processes’, but the testimony of first-person experience is eliminated from the description. A real explanation can be produced only by a ‘scientific’ observer. In Boyer's eyes, this mandates his dismissal of the explanation offered by the practitioners themselves; he cannot consider, for example, the possibility that the first-person account may be in a different idiom from his own, and that the two idioms might be translatable back and forth by someone well versed in both. He does not even allow for Dennett's ‘heterophenomenology’ (Dennett 1991), which at least involves some level of person-to-person dialog. Whereas Dennett argues that the participant has no privileged access to the mental processes underlying her participation, Boyer seems to think his methods provide him with privileged access, so that processes which are not transparent to practitioners are transparent to him.

Rosen (2000) remarks that many scientists cling to mechanistic models and avoid complexity because they are unwilling to learn anything new about physics from biology. Perhaps Boyer likewise clings to a supposed objectivity in order to avoid learning anything new about psychology from religion. Contrast this attitude with Peirce's description of science as ‘driven in desperation to call upon its inward sympathy with nature.’ Boyer's kind of ‘objectivity’ allows its practitioners to play the role of the cognoscenti, looking down with bemused tolerance on the foibles of the common folk. They seem to think they have talked themselves beyond the limits of language, all the way to a context-free truth. They take a god's-eye view, and thus appoint themselves priests of their own cult, ironically mirroring the role which Boyer assigns to ‘literate guilds’ (see below). But for people claiming such superior insight into the mental processes of others, these professional explainers seem to have a remarkably innocent attitude toward their own. They ignore the fact that explanation is itself a mental process, and a practice with its own motivations and experiential dimensions. They do not indulge in searching reflections on the nature of explanation such as we find in Bateson (1979), for instance. Boyer does not apply his theories about mental process to his own theorizing; instead, he asserts (p. 322) that ‘scientific activity is both cognitively and socially very unlikely’ (in other words, only a privileged elite practice it). Peirce agrees that the true scientist is rare, but the Peircian practice of science is very different from Boyer's ‘scientific activity’.

At times Boyer's disdain for experience extends to a thinly veiled contempt for anyone who is interested in it. Consider for instance this passage (p. 308):

Among the many (non-Eastern) people who find special fascination in Buddhism or other Eastern teachings, it is generally assumed that these are precious because of their focus on experience rather than argument. (Incidentally, there may be an ironic misunderstanding here. After all, most Eastern teachings are primarily about correct performance of various rituals and technical disciplines, rather than personal experience as such.)
Boyer offers no evidence that his lofty generalization about ‘Eastern teachings’ is based on any familiarity with them. But in any case, non-Eastern people would typically get their ‘Eastern teachings’ either from contemporary figures such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama, or from translations of classic texts such as the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, Diamond Sutra and so forth. Reading such teachings or texts as ‘primarily about correct performance of various rituals and technical disciplines, rather than personal experience’ would be quite a feat, requiring the most dogged determination to avoid learning anything from them. Compare the advice on reading offered by Thich Nhat Hanh (1998, p. 12):
When we hear a Dharma talk or study a sutra, our only job is to remain open. Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing. If we read or listen with an open mind and an open heart, the rain of the Dharma will penetrate the soil of our consciousness.

Boyer clearly does not want his soil penetrated by any Dharma rain — nor does he feel the quaking of Peirce's bog. His attitude toward ‘Western’ teachings is similar. While it is refreshing that Boyer (in contrast to the more limited scope of James) places indigenous and tribal religion in the spotlight, thus downplaying the Abrahamic religions, it is also a bit too convenient, allowing him to gloss over the tension in religious history between the forces of orthodoxy (Jewish, Christian or Islamic) and the rebellious souls (Hasidic, Kabbalistic, Gnostic, Sufi etc.) who stood for a renewal of experience in the ‘revealed’ religions. Elaine Pagels (1979, 2003) has popularized this tension in early Christianity, but many other scholars have found it in other times and traditions. Boyer, in contrast, argues that these traditions are atypical (even though their adherents number in the billions) because their institutions have been taken over and dominated by ‘literate guilds’ (Chapter 8). Since literacy is a recent development in evolutionary time, it is irrelevant to an ‘explanation’ of religion according to the principles of evolutionary psychology. So the mystics, heretics and other reformers, many of whom used their literacy to challenge current orthodoxies and power structures, drop out of Boyer's explanatory picture along with individual experience. If Boyer had anything to say about the Bible, which he doesn't, it would be parallel to his remarks about ‘Eastern teachings’ above — in other words he would read the whole Bible as if it were Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and only what scholars call the ‘priestly’ stratum of the canon would be visible to his supercilious eye.

The irony here is that in the terms outlined above, Boyer's methods are more ‘religious’ than ‘scientific’, in that they assume the principles of evolutionary psychology rather than questioning and testing them. A decade after Consciousness Explained, Dennett published an article entitled ‘Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?’ Boyer on the other hand does not betray any doubts about having explained religion. He seems secure in his faith, one of the elect. The rest of us, though, may still have something to learn.

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