Monday, March 27, 2006

Breaking the Spell

The current issue of the New Yorker includes H. Allen Orr's review of "Breaking the Spell," Daniel Dennett's new book calling for scientific inquiry into the phenomena of religious belief. Dennett, as I mention at every opportunity, was my faculty advisor in college, so his position is not surprising to me.

Orr's review ends with the usual, waffly, ahistorical science-and-religion-explore-different-terrain silliness. Here's a prime example:

Science can certainly undermine particular factual claims made by religion (the universe was created in six days), but it’s far less clear that it can challenge religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose). To insist on this distinction is to recognize what it means for something to be a metaphysical, not a physical, claim. What experiment could prove that the universe has no purpose? To suppose that a kind of physics can demolish a kind of metaphysics is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake.

That may well be (my scholarship was sufficiently slovenly that I don't recall what a category mistake is) but it's also a mistake to claim, as Orr does, that saying the universe has purpose is to say something metaphysical rather than physical. Who says? There are two possible meanings to the phrase, "the universe has a purpose." One is that the universe was created to fulfill an end. The other is that the universe itself has intentionality. Both of these interpretations belong just as firmly in the realm of the physical as does the claim, "Britney Spears has a purpose." If someone created her to fulfill an end, that is something that can be determined physically. If Britney Spears herself has some purpose of her own, that, too can be determined physically. Eventually, we will be able literally to see that purpose as a neurochemical configuration in the brain of either Britney Spears or, if she was created to fulfill an end, in the brain of her creator. The MEANING of the universe may be a metaphysical debate, but whether it - or its creation - is or was imbued with intentionality, is not.

That said, I've been thinking a lot about Dennett's challenge to science, that it confront religion head on, not as an adversary but as a subject. I think the time has come for journalism to do the same thing, and in my next post, I'll attempt to lay out what a Journalism of Religion ought to look like.

5 comments:

CitizenSteve said...

Well Jonathan, you've certainly pick a daunting topic. Will this Journalism cover Religion in a broad sense or religion as in "political movement"?

With the Amish I can see (observe)them living their beliefs... But when I see someone buying cornflakes made from Genetically Modified corn, I can't tell if they are secular humanists or fundamentalist christians.

ceej said...

That reviewer seems confused -- he says "Science can certainly undermine particular factual claims made by religion (the universe was created in six days), but it’s far less clear that it can challenge religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose)."

"Particular factual claims" are subject to science? Is it the particularness or factuallness? I think he simply means that religion is not falsifiable, so science is not relevant. But I don't think metaphysics is necessarily not falsifiable, and I think he is wrong about this category business.

ceej said...

P.S. THE GOSPEL IS COMING!

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812976568/103-8653658-0158268?v=glance&n=283155

Sportin' Life said...

...religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose).

All religions that I am aware of make claims which are quite a bit more specific than this, and it's those claims which have power in the world--and are worth trying to get to the bottom of.

Anonymous said...

>One is that the universe was created to fulfill an end. The other is that the universe itself has intentionality. Both of these interpretations belong just as firmly in the realm of the physical as does the claim, "Britney Spears has a purpose." If someone created her to fulfill an end, that is something that can be determined physically.
-----
I think the issue is more subtle than you are giving it credit for.
Suppose that someone put a cup on the table, FOR SOME END. Could we figure out that end by subjecting the cup to scientific tests? NOT NECESSARILY. Maybe it would help to look at the cup+table system? Or maybe we would have to have a good idea of who would be interacting with the cup later....
Intention need not rest INSIDE the system that has a purpose.

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