05 November 2011

Haught n Jerry

Recently catholic theologian Prof John Haught debated biology Prof Jerry Coyne on the topic 'Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?'

The debate generated a bit of on line fuss, because Haught attempted to block the release of the video of the event, but it is now online and linked to above.

Anyway, it seems to me that Haught was persuing the NOMA (non overlapping magisteria) tack and concluding that science and religion are compatible and are just different ways of knowing stuff about the world. He said that there are different levels of understanding and gave some examples: a monkey looking at a book just sees black squiggles on a page, a todler recognises the odd word, an older child can understand the text, an experienced adult can recognise deeper meanings, understand metaphor and so forth. So, he's saying that your understanding can be transformed by experience and that if, say, you have a deep personal experience of Christ, then that can radically transform your understanding of the world.

The problem I have with that is that experience is conditioned and what is true is going to be true independent of what anyone believes is true. So, the hindu might experience brahma, the muslim, allah, the catholic, jesus and any of those experiences might be personally transformative but what can the experience reveal about what is actually true?

He uses another analogy which is to do with meaning and purpose. Imagine a pot of boiling water. Why is it boiling, what is its purpose? On one level, energy applied to the pot is causing the water molecules to bump into one another and heat up until it reaches the phase transition point where water turns to steam. On another level, he sais, the water is boiling because 'I want a cup of tea.' His idea is that the universe has purpose and that that purpose is supplied by an external higher intelligence - the 'I want a cup of tea' level.

The problem I find with that one is that he is conflating causation with purpose. Meaning and purpose seem to me to be human attributes. An aardvark is seldom heard asking itself 'what is the point of being an aardvark?' The purpose of being an aardvark is to be an aardvark. Humans, perhaps uniquely, I'm not sure, have brains capable of asking the question: for what reason do I exist? That does not mean that the question is a valid one: that just because we are capable of asking the question, that there therefore must be an answer to it over and above the brute fact that we exist. In asking the question one can supply the answer on as many levels as you can ask the question. Haught is saying that there is one 'true' answer to that question. I beg to differ. So did Prof Coyne, evidently to Prof Haught's considerable annoyance.

You can judge for yourself.

There is much more to be said, but today, I have a higher purpose... :-)

No comments: