the case for god 2 21-09-2009

an afterthought…

(see the previous entry ‘the case for god’)

karen armstrong would, i think, paraphrase the stand-off between religion and science something like this. religion is, or should be, a body of practises which help us articulate mystery, the fact there is something than nothing, our finitude, our suffering, our sense of wonder, our place in a universe which will is ultimately incomprehensible. science, on the other hand, is a set of practices which generates a contingent set of ideas (for scientific ideas are always contingent) which enable us to manipulate and understand the physical world. mythos on the one hand and logos on the other. two cultures which simply don’t intersect, except perhaps on the outer reaches of cosmology and particle physics.

this is right, i think, but it is all rather grandiose, an image best captured in stephen jay gould’s equally grandiose idea of non-overlapping magisteria. it is a picture which suggests that this boundary is something that can be seen only from a great height and spelled out using capital letters.

but if there really is a boundary this distinct it should surely be visible on the ground, when you’re making a cup of tea or taking a walk in the park. and it is.

science deals with the objective world. religion, on the other hand, deals with the subjective. to use the perennial philosophical chestnut, science can tell us a great deal about the colour red but almost nothing about our experience of seeing the colour red. the conundrum being that there is no way of telling whether, or how, my experience of the colour red is different from yours. There are philosophers and scientists who would dismiss the question as meaningless. indeed there are some (daniel dennett for example) who would say that our peculiarly personal and interior subjective experience of the colour red (or anything else) is simply an illusion, period.

science can tell us about this subjective experience only when it manifests itself in physical events (the behaviour of neurons, our descriptions of our subjective experience, the inability of some people to tell red from green…). however closely we examine the physical world we simply cannot find subjective experience. even if we know precisely what is happening in the brain, even if we find the exact neural correlative of a particular subjective experience, it still gets no real purchase on having that experience (if we look closely enough all we can see is the random bubbling of quantum activity which, if anything, makes the puzzle even greater). but having that experience is why the world exists for us. and the fact that you and i agree most of time that we’re both seeing red is what makes human civilisation possible. dennett may be right in saying that subjective experience is an illusion. but to dismiss something as an illusion simply dodges the biggest question of all.

religion, of course, is not the only way of articulating our subjective experience. writing and reading novels is another, as is composing and listening to music, as is making and looking at pictures. but there is a very definite border between what science can and can’t do. and the overwhelming success of science in flying us to new york and transplanting hearts and sending robots to mars has made us blind to this border. but you and i are sitting on that border right now.