As a card-carrying, future-thinking transhumanist, I take it as obvious that most of the particulars of current religions are relics of earlier eras in human cultural development, which currently do a lot of harm along with doing some good.
But I still find it interesting to ask what aspects of religion reflect underlying phenomena that are essential, meaningful and necessary -- and are likely to continue as humanity transcends the traditional "human condition" and enters its next phase of development....
Fish and Eagleton on the Wonders of Theology
What spurred this blog post was: My dad pointed out to me this New York Times blog post by Stanley Fish reviewing a book that extols the merits of religion (Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton).
The basic point Fish makes is that religion offers something science by its very nature cannot.
Eagleton acknowledges ... many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.”
He notes that science cannot address what he calls "theological questions", where
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
He also notes that the author is
... angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.
I haven't read Eagleton's book and I'm unlikely to do so -- I have a long list of more interesting-looking reading material -- but Fish's summary did resonate with a paper I'm in the middle of writing (it's paused while I work on more urgent stuff) on the limits of science.
My basic point in that paper will be a simple one: science is based on finite sets of finite-precision observations. That is, all of scientific knowledge is based on some finite set of bits, comprising the empirical observations accepted by the scientific community.
To extrapolate beyond this bit-set, some kind of assumption is needed. To put it another way, some kind of "faith" is needed. Hume was the first one to make this point really clearly ... and we now understand the "Humean problem of induction" well enough to know it's not the kind of thing that can be "solved."
The Occam's Razor principle tries to solve it -- it says that you extrapolate from the bit-set of known data by making the simplest possible hypothesis. This leads to some nice mathematics involving algorithmic information theory and so forth. But of course, one still has to have "faith" in some measure of simplicity!
So: doing or using science requires, in essence, continual acts of faith (though these may be unconscious and routinized rather than conscious and explicit). To the extent that Dawkins, Hitchens or other anti-religion commentators de-emphasize this point, they're engaging in judicious marketing. (It's hard for me to feel too negative toward them about this, however, given the far more explicitly and dramatically dishonest marketing that religion has carried out over the last millennia.)
My paper will focus on what the limits of science tell you about AI, machine consciousness and so forth -- and I'll save that for another blog post, or the paper itself. (Don't worry though, my conclusion is not that scientifically enginering AGI is impossible ... I haven't lost the faith!)
Anyway, I certainly agree with Fish and Eagleton that religion addresses very important questions that science cannot, by its nature, answer.
But I find it rather screwy that Eagleton refers to
“Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
and so forth as theological questions.
Surely, these are philosophical questions.
One can answer them in various ways without invoking any deities or demons!
"Why does God exist?" is a theological question ...
"Why does anything exist?" is philosophical...
(Though, for the record, I don't think "Why does anything exist?" is a very useful philosophical question. I'm more interested in questions like
- "Why do separate objects exist, instead of just one big fluid cosmic mass?"
- "In what sense could the universe be considered compassionate?"
- "How much ethical responsibility should I feel toward (which) other minds?"
- "Why does my mind perceive such a small subset of the space of all possible patterns?"
- "How much can a mind grow and expand without losing its sense of self and becoming, experientially, a 'fundamentally different being'?"
- "What is it like to be a rock?"
Theology is one way of providing answers to philosophical questions ... but by no means the only way.
I think that religion addresses some very important questions, that are beyond the scope of science -- and by and large provides these questions with extremely bad answers.
One of the many limitations of religion as conventionally conceived is indicated by the quote, given above, that religion's
“subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself....”
From a transhumanist perspective, the qualifier "nothing less than" is misplaced, as this is actually a very limiting subject. The nature and destiny of humanity are important; but one of the things that science has opened our minds to is the relative insignificance of humanity in the space of possible minds. I'm more interested in philosophies that address the nature and destiny of mind itself, rather than just the nature and destiny of one species on one planet.
It is of course a subtle matter to compare and judge different explanations to philosophical questions. You can't compare them using scientific or mathematical methods ... and of course the question of how to evaluate philosophical views becomes "yet another tough philosophical question", tied in with all the other ones.
A crude way to say it, is that it comes down to an intuitive judgment ... which leads into questions of how one can refine and improve one's intuition ... and these questions, of course, possess numerous answers that are philosophical- or religious- tradition -dependent...
It does seem to me, though, that there is an interesting notion of science-synergetic philosophy lurking somewhere in all this.
Suppose we take for granted that doing science -- just like other aspects of living life -- relies on a constant stream of acts of faith, which can't be justified according to science....
One may then note that there are various systems for mentally organizing these acts of faith.
Religions are among them. But religions are quite detached from the process of doing science.
It seems sensible to think about philosophical systems -- i.e. systems for organizing inner acts of faith -- that are intrinsically synergetic with the scientific process. That is, systems for organizing acts of faith, that
- when you follow them, help you to do science better
- are made richer and deeper by the practice of science
Now, one cannot prove scientifically that a "scientifically synergetic philosophy" is better than any other philosophy. Philosophies can't be validated or refuted scientifically.
So, the reason to choose a scientifically synergetic philosophy has to be some kind of inner intuition; some kind of taste for elegance, harmony and simplicity; or whatever.
One prediction I have for the next century is that scientifically synergetic philosophies will emerge into the popular consciousness and become richer and deeper and better articulated than they are now.
Because Fish and Eagleton are right about some things: people do need more than science ... they do need collective processes focused on the important philosophical questions that go beyond the scope of science.
But my prediction is that we are going to trend more toward philosophical systems that are synergetic with science, rather than ones that co-exist awkwardly with science.
What will these future philosophical systems be like?
There's nothing extremely new about the concept of science-synergetic philosophy, of course.
Plenty of non-religious scientists and science-friendly non-scientists have created personal philosophies that don't involve deities or other theological notions, yet do involve meaningful approaches to personally exploring the "big questions" that religions address.
Among the many philosophers to take on the task of creating comprehensive science-synergetic philosophical systems, perhaps my favorite is Charles Peirce (who also developed a nice philosophy of science, though one that IMO is significantly incomplete ... but I've discussed that elsewhere.)
Building on work by Peirce and loads of others, I tried to lay out a science-synergetic philosophical system in my book The Hidden Pattern -- but like Peirce's writings, that is a fairly academic work, not an informal tract designed to inspire the common human in their everyday life.
My friend Philippe van Nedervelde likes to talk about this sort of thing as a "TransReligion/ UNReligion", but I confess to not finding that terminology very compelling.
Philippe is interested in (among many other things!) developing vaguely religion-like rituals that coincide with some sort of science-synergetic philosophy. There has been talk about formulating a "TransReligion/ UNReligion" as an outgrowth of the futurist group now called "The Order of Cosmic Engineers." Which I think is an interesting idea ... yet I'm not really sure it's the direction things will (or should) go.
I'm not sure there will emerge any one "Bible of science-synergetic transhumanist philosophy" ... nor any science-synergetic-philosophy analogues of speaking in tongues, kneeling at the altar, or consuming the simulated blood and flesh of the Savior the Son of God who gave his life for our sins. Perhaps, science-synergetic philosophy may wind up being something that pervades human culture in more of a broad-based, implicit way.
Time will tell!