Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Some Thoughts on Reason

Though I liked Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct, various more recent, shorter articles and interviews have placed him in a more negative light in my mind. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, I think very highly of, with her fine novel, The Mind-Body Problem, and her excellent book on Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza (which I wrote about here). Here they are, the brainy power couple and "proud atheists", being interviewed together in Salon. It's an interesting interview; they emerge as engaging and witty, and if, as an atheist, I were forced to vote for the public face of atheism, I suspect I could do worse than opt for them (politics aside). They are far preferable to the aggressive and tone-deaf Richard Dawkins (however much I may value The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker) and the aggressive and increasingly foul Christopher Hitchens (links via This Space and Lenin's Tomb).

And yet I still feel as though something is missing, when it comes to questions of faith and reason. Pinker is asked about a proposed undergraduate requirement course at Harvard called "Reason and Faith", which was dropped after objections from Pinker and others. Pinker agrees that students should have an understanding of religion "as a historical phenomenon", but:
I didn't like the idea of privileging religion above other ideologies that were also historically influential, like socialism and capitalism. I also didn't like the euphemism "faith." Nor did I like the juxtaposition of "faith" and "reason," as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing.
I highlight this passage because I feel that both these terms, "faith" and "reason", are problematic. First, I tend to think that we atheists have a dim understanding of faith. (Pinker says: "faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it". Is this a satisfactory definition of faith? It seems to me that it is not. For example, are "faith" and "belief", or "believing something", necessarily that closely related?) Second, I've been thinking lately that reason is not best understood in the sense we tend to understand it. Goldstein says:
Obviously, religion is a tremendously powerful influence in history. But I have to say -- and I think this is something that Steve and I disagree on -- I do worry whether some of the people who are writing the new atheist books understand what it feels like to be a religious person. Do they get what that feels like? I don't want to say that there's only one kind of religious impulse. There are so many different ways of responding to the world that could be called religious -- some of them very expansive and life-embracing, and some of them not. But I think one of the things that made Steve nervous was to pose these two things -- faith and reason, religion and science -- as alternative ways of pursuing truth. In terms of the pursuit of knowledge, faith is not an alternative mode to science and to reason.
She wants atheists to realize that there might be something we're missing. But then, by way of expanding on Pinker's point, she equates faith with religion, and reason with science. Are these equations accurate? In particular, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the second equation, that of reason with science. In my post about Betraying Spinoza, I said that there seemed to be a difference between Spinoza's reason and what we think of as reason today. Perhaps I'm over-thinking the issue, but much of what I've been reading seems to use reason in a way that makes it difficult to simply align it with science. But I'm really just beginning to investigate these questions.

Pinker doesn't "like the juxtaposition of 'faith', and 'reason,' as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing", and Goldstein says that "[i]n terms of the pursuit of knowledge, faith is not an alternative mode to science and to reason". Once I would have readily agreed with these formulations, but I feel they leave a lot unexamined, unavailable for examination. For example, I question the terms. How does one define knowledge? What kind of knowledge? Goldstein allows that science might not be able to answer all the questions:
Of course, there could be things beyond the reach of science. But could we have any good evidence for accepting it? As soon as you have good evidence, it becomes science. So can there be good evidence for non-scientific propositions? No. Because the minute there is good evidence, it becomes science.
This certainly makes sense. But it only makes sense when we're talking about knowledge of an evidentiary nature. I do not accept that science is the root of all knowledge, unless we want to expand our understanding of what constitutes science (it's possible), or limit what we are allowed to call knowledge. I agree with Goldstein that, as Pinker puts it, "there is a real world that we can come to know". (Frankly, my political outlook depends on it.) Granted, there are those who claim knowledge of a kind I would not recognize as such--knowledge of the existence of God, for example. And it goes without saying that faith (whatever it might be) is not "an alternative mode to science" when it comes to the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge. It is not going to help one discover a cure for polio.

As I said, I'm only really at the beginning of my inquiry into reason and related questions. I expect to write more about it here. But to finish up, I sense that we are doing a disservice to reason when we employ it as a bludgeon against faith or religion. And I feel that we are doing ourselves a disservice when we narrow our idea of what reason is.

1 comment:

Adam Katzman said...

I was recently linked to some ted lecture by pinker about the decline of violence and another one on the blank slate and it was fairly condescending. He seems to have the idea that if an experiment rides the banner of scientific inquiry the controversy it attracts is unwarranted. Therefore the bell curve is just an inability for people who believe in innate equality to put aside their politically correct ideologies, not necessarily taking into account the historical background for that research or who funded it under what guidelines. He has some half-assed defense that because it ends up legitimizing the welfare state it's somehow progressive, as if the welfare state isn't a form of state control to perpetuate a class disparity. And any assumptions on class disparities trace back to marx who unfortunately worked on the idea of a blank slate and is therefore invalidated? I haven't actually read the books but his notion of a decrease in violence because it's not publicly sanctioned by the state as a means of dealing with the population was to an extent true, but looking for the positives in dealth penalties because it's not burning at the stake? Does he take into account the privatization of war and the way that it's perpetuated by market concerns or are smart bombs somehow more advanced than cannons and therefore a sign of propgress?