Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Jaron Lanier on Faith and Reason

Jaron Lanier, a founding father of virtual reality research (with a guy named Chuck Blanchard, but not the author of this blog), has an interesting essay on the conflict and compatibility of faith and reason. Here are some highlights:

Why not approach the idea of God in the expansive way that democratic capitalism harnesses clannishness? Einstein did something like that when he spoke about God not playing dice with the universe and when he pledged allegiance to the God of Spinoza. It isn’t disrespectful to embrace God in a confusing way; to do otherwise could be seen as showing a lack of humility. A complex God is less likely to rally violent mobs. That’s why I felt comfortable mentioning God in these pages, pissing off more than a few atheist readers (see Jaron’s World: Raft to the Future), and why I think the advent of binary worship is potentially a healthy thing. When scientists absolutely reject God, we leave behind only a simpler and more dangerous God.

This optimistic assessment makes sense only so long as God is a truly big idea, not an idea small enough to be threatened by the results of experiments; not a “God of the gaps” but a God that is bigger than the cosmos.

Scientific experimentation needn’t be a source of constraints that reduce God over time. There are well-established streams of religious thought that treat science as elevating God so as to be concerned only with things too big to be framed by science. But why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?

Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions don’t exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what I’ll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.

It’s mean-spirited to fight against that kind of hope. It also reinforces fears that scientists are claiming to be an immaculate, elite population. After all, scientists are also afraid to die, and we haven’t necessarily achieved some hypothetical level of perfect rationality inside our own heads. Instead of telling other people what not to hope, a more constructive approach is to learn how to be more articulate about the limits of experimentation.

My favorite example of a potential permanent mystery is consciousness. Another is the source of mathematical truth. Yet another example is the question of what happened before the Big Bang, when time had not yet come into existence. (That last one might not belong on the list, since it’s about a phenomenon that can be measured: the universe. Indeed, in Raft to the Future I described a possible new kind of explanation for the origin of time that my friend Lee Smolin and I have been considering.)

Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular question belongs in the ranks of the permanent mysteries, but I’ve found it is hard to empty the list completely. Often, when you try to remove a particular question, it will pop up again in a different form, as if you were playing a cosmic whack-a-mole game. I’ve examined how this happens when you try to get rid of a sense of permanent mystery regarding the existence of consciousness (Jaron’s World: The Soul of the Machine). If you think of the brain as a computer, all of a sudden computation takes on a mysterious quality. Maybe the binary cult appreciates this line of thinking. After all, they could just as easily have chosen to worship an operating system like Linux, which would have put them in a lower league.

Science can declare the approximate limits of its territorial ambitions and be stronger for it. My dearly missed old friend Stephen Jay Gould framed this possibility beautifully with his proposal for “nonoverlapping magisteria.” I’ll go further and suggest that scientists should not only refrain from ridiculing people who find hope on the other side of the border but should also actively delight in a cacophonous, multicultural colonization of that far frontier so that it can’t be monopolized by fundamentalists. A workable definition of spirituality is “one’s emotional relationship with unanswerable questions.” It’s possible to find joy in them.

Of course, it’s not always easy to do this in practice. Where I live, in the Bay Area, you’re as likely to run into New Age superstition as Christian fundamentalism. In either case, the believer will often take the uncertainty of a big, genuinely mysterious question like consciousness as license to believe in something smaller like astrology, which can be disproved by experiment. Then I end up on the spot, once again telling someone else what not to believe.

Read it all here.

I think this comes close to how address my own faith. I don't believe in a God that would play tricks with the universe to mislead us. I therefore think that we need to take science and the scientific method seriously--which means we explore natural phenomena without using any pre-conceived notions about our worldview of the universe, and accept the results of this search for truth.

But like Lanier, I think there are larger issues to which science cannot and will not offer answers.

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