Sunday, August 20, 2017

Homo Deus and Ontological Naturalism

A fundamental concept in understanding the relationship between religion and science is the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. Methodological naturalism means that one operates as if there is no supernatural. Ontological naturalism is the actual belief that there really is nothing outside of nature. Methodological rationalist fields such as science and history must operate according to methodological naturalism for the simple reason that beings like God, while they may exist, cannot be analyzed using such methods. Now it is important to realize that this is not atheism or some kind of trick to smuggle in atheism. On the contrary, methodological naturalism stands as a major stumbling block to atheism as it requires us to acknowledge that science is totally inadequate for directly telling us if there is a God or not.

This is not mere theist apologetics. There is often incredible value to analytical statements that are not actually true but help us understand a field. A great example of this is the Smithian Man (Homo Economicus). Contrary to stock criticisms of economics, no economist, not even Adam Smith, actually believes that there are such super-rational and all knowing humans such as Smithian Men. That being said, imagining that such a being exists and asking how he might respond to particular situations has proven to be a productive starting point for economics.

To be clear, science may play an indirect role in promoting atheism. A universe in which the methodological naturalism of science did not offer adequate explanations for observable phenomenon (imagine if there really was something in biology that was irreducibly complex) would have a lot more theists. By contrast, if methodological naturalism really allowed us to understand everything about nature, leaving no more questions, then atheists would have good ground to argue that methodological naturalism offers powerful reasons for taking the philosophical position of ontological naturalism. God would then follow fairies as a being that we have no reason to hypothesize about and come to ignore.

Keep this in mind and you can dismiss most polemics from either the theist or atheist sides as nonsense. This brings me to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In most respects, this is an insightful book if it were not marred by the author's willingness to engage in crude atheist polemics that casually jump between methodological and ontological naturalism.

According to Harari, evolution refutes the existence of the soul. Evolution is a gradual step-by-step process while the soul, for some reason, must be indivisible.

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the ideas that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. ... Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

... the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.

You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? ... biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. (pg. 104-06.)

It should be noted that if we are to take Harari seriously, we should reject the foundation of classical liberalism that individuals exist. We all might just be soulless byproducts of evolution but I would hope our collections of DNA and cells can count as distinct persons with rights. It is certainly not the place of science to say otherwise. As for the soul, any person of faith, who is already comfortable with the notion of evolution should also be open to the idea that souls might exist on some kind of continuum between animals and the divine. Alternatively, why not imagine that some kind of Adam with a soul arose at some point in history born to philosophical zombie parents. Like most religious people, I treat the soul as a black box and do not have strong opinions one way or another about its precise nature (beyond rejecting on monotheist grounds the notion that the soul can, in any way, be a part of God). The idea that science should have some kind of opinion on the matter strikes me as a bad joke on par with creation science.

The bad theology and even worse science continue with Harari attempting to prove that God does not disapprove of homosexuality. Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon. We are offered the example of the Donation of Constantine, which was used to make the religious claim that the Church was the sovereign authority over Western Europe. In the fifteenth-century, Lorenzo Valla, using historical scholarship and linguistic analysis, demonstrated that this document was a medieval forgery. So, according to Harari, Valla used science to refute a religious claim. Of course, neither history nor linguistics are sciences and their claims are far more tentative. Even if one accepts, as I do, that the Donation was a forgery. This is a relatively minor blow against a belief system that was likely based upon the normative position that the Church should have sovereign power. So some anonymous scribe had Constantine say words that are spiritual facts that he clearly believed in. Why should this affect anyone's simple faith in the Church's supremacy?

Harari applies this same logic to homosexuality. The ethical position that humans should obey God hides the "factual" claim that, 3,000 years ago, God wrote a book denouncing homosexuality, leading to the practical guideline that humans should not practice homosexuality. Harari then brings out the "science" of Bible criticism to demonstrate that this opposition to homosexuality is the product of priests and rabbis rather than the almighty. Harari ends with the retort that: "If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies, and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion." (pg. 196.)

Textual criticism is not a science and any conclusions it comes to are going to be highly tentative (like any study of ancient history). Science and textual criticism can tell us nothing about the mind of God whether, assuming he was inclined to write a book, he might write the book at once while making it look like it was assembled over a period of time. Alternatively, divine providence might have manifested itself through a historical process of bringing together and redacting different documents. Taking this logic a step further, the history of religion itself might plausibly be a divine revelation allowing man to evolve into something more godly. Whether such spiritually enlightened beings will allow gay marriage or hunt gays for sport is something beyond the boundaries of science.

The problem of how a creator God can actually care about human beings at all let alone their ritual practices (whether gay sex or pig eating) has haunted monotheism from the beginning. Much like the problem of evil, science has been able to add little to what was already a serious problem. Keep in mind that, contrary to the Whig nonsense about there being a Copernican revolution to teach man that he was not the center of the universe, pre-modern Judeo-Christian Islamic theology already taught that man was not that important in the scheme of things. If several thousand years of theology has not made religious fundamentalists, whether in Uganda or in the Bible Belt, cautious about drawing straight lines between God's will and public policy, they are unlikely to listen to scientists.


1 comment:

Eli Nadoff said...

"Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon"

This is the post. This is a much better put summary of my issues with harris than i could come up with