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June 23, 2006

The Attack on Reason

This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...

It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....

Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...

Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.

(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 23, 2006 6:20 PM


But still biological science has yet to change the genetic predisposition to believe in the supernatural. That is why the more science changes our environment the more oposition there is to those "unnatural" changes.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 24, 2006 7:15 AM

not a defense of those nay-sayers to evolution, which scares me too: but perhaps we've come to a moment in history when (sorry to keep beating this dead horse) humans have come to the nadir point of recognizing the emptiness of binary thinking: have become so empty, so at a loss to explain the ongoing suffering and pain of this world, so betrayed by god and science--both of which fail to explain these, that they grasp for the ridiculous, the extreme, the titillating, the violent .... maybe this is the 'inter-regnum' through which we begin again? Maybe we just need more poetry to link science and faith (in love, if nothing else):

"...I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are."
[--from Adrienne Rich's 'from an atlas of the difficult world']

Posted by: JM at June 24, 2006 1:14 PM

or possibly this is the moment -- a centuries long (or longer) moment -- when humankind is trying to learn how to live without gods. Not sure it is a "nadir." Is a challenge, among our greatest. Early fears (e.g. Dostoyevsky) of moral chaos, have proven (so far) groundless. Enlightenment hopes of natural, human-centered utopia have not (so far) come true. Which leaves us...? Doing a complex dance, I believe, in and out of meaning. Origin of the Species, read or unread, belongs to this dance. Book of Revelation, read or unread, does not.

Posted by: mitch at June 25, 2006 1:36 PM

Neither God nor Science can betray anyone. The first does not exist and the second does whatever we make it do. We are the only ones capable of betrayal.
Betrayal is a moral concept and part of a social construction of reality.

But I would argue we are not capable of betraying our biology and that biology will lead us to changing our minds, literally. Our only hope of survival is to redesign our biology. Natural selection is too slow by itself to handle the changes brought about by the machine builders (us). And nature has no stake or bias in our continued existence.

The Dance is a beautiful metaphor but when we think we choreograph our own moves we are fooling ourselves; genetics is the choreographer.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 25, 2006 3:39 PM

A century long moment???? Not a perspective I can get a handle on, though it is quite possible there are intelligent awarenesses that would view our whole existance as merely momentary.

Just a momnet... ahh, now I feel better!

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 25, 2006 3:42 PM

You're right, JS -- should've said, 'betrayed by our reliance on god and science' -- because we do absolutely rely on these constructions, one and/or the other. Science is a construction, I would argue, not transparently neutral -- it is, as you suggest, what we make it do. Always comes w/ our biases, needs, assignments of priority etc.

I think we do allow ourselves to be deceived/betrayed by these constructs in different kinds of ways. The god one easier to observe in action (whether one believes in god or not); science harder to see perhaps. You speak of 'biology' as if it were irrefutable, though, like 'biology = destiny' ... Isn't biology constantly altered by environment? (and not talking about natural selection as such here)

Certainly dance can also be unchoreographed, too ? it is an interesting metaphor for this idea, agree, and undermines the utopia/chaos binary in pretty significant ways as well...

The place of art, maybe, is what I'm trying to get at still (interesting, therefore, Mitch's suggestion of 'dance' again): living life without gods, not investing all our hopes/dreams in science, art potentially feeds that desire for imagination/creation of worlds that religion has filled in the past? still thinking this out, sorry for the vagueness.

Posted by: JM at June 25, 2006 6:11 PM

Don't be sorry, good conversation. Being an artist/scientist I think the distinction, dating back to the Persians is artificial. Art and science are both representations for what is "out there". I use the most advanced scientific visualization software ever made to do art. Is that art or science?

Although the environment can damage our genetic code, there is little if any difference biologically between modern people and pre-history people. Evolution is agonizingly slow compared to scientific advances.

Now I love to dance and play music and almost always improvised, but, though I would like to think I do it my way, I believe I do the way I way born to do it. Yes, the environment will present different stages and obstacles to dance on and around, but the path I travel in any environment is up to my genes. The more we learn about genetics the more evidence there is that the whole dance is choreographed; not by God, but by genetic evolution.

Science is definitely a construct, as is any form consciousness. It just appears to relate to the input better. But we could all be wrong and our science could all be just close enough to fake us all out (us scientists). The idea popular among some theoretical physicists we will soon (or ever) be able to reduce everything to equations is, in my mind, absurd and just as wrong as the idea of God.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 25, 2006 8:10 PM

And yes, art and science both about the 'out there.' (and maybe the 'in here,' too--heart, mind, 'spirit').

Want to play devil's advocate (poor choice of words for this blog, realize) re: Mitch's original post here, re: Revelations being out of the dance... the highly metaphorized, symbolic prose going on there is partly what gives it so much appeal (the stuff of films, novels, poetry, sermons, songs, political speeches): it would not have such a draw on the imagination (read, or not) if it wasn't finally 'poetry'. Problem as I see it, based on Mitch's points here, is people taking it literally, as 'true,' 'real', i.e., like scientific, predictable data-like fact.

I guess I'm trying to make distinctions about the *ways in which we appeal to language*: and so, reading DNA is a language. Perhaps it's ultimately determinative. Not sure about that (geez, i started college as a pre-med bio major and I"m having very strange deja vu as a result of your posts, JS! ) Poetic language, something else--Revelations is poetic, finally. Darwin, another kind of language.....i.e., how we invest in particular relations to language may be the lesson of the centuries-long moment ? May be what qualifies particular texts for Mitch's danse.... because only through language (yeah, + our senses, if I remember a previous moment w/ you, JS) do we construct realities, create worlds, engage in relations w/ time and space, get burned at the stake for advancing particularly threatening views.....

appreciate this thinking out loud.

Posted by: JM at June 25, 2006 8:59 PM

Only through symbolic interaction do we create our worlds, both internal and social. Our minds turn sensory input into a symbolic construct of consciousness. And symbols by definition do not contain the essence of what they represent. DNA and RNA are not binary; they are analog, which account for the amazing complexity in such a small thing. Our whole bodies and personalities are mapped out when the egg and sperm combine.

We are on the cusp of being able to reengineer DNA in humans. To some of us it is our nature to pursue those changes. To most of us those kinds of changes are immensely frightening. For the eventual outcome is mind-to-mind connection, which will lead, quit quickly to a Borg (Startrek). When the speed of the connections between us is as fast or faster than the speed at which our minds process symbols we will no longer be individuals. We will be part of something larger and unimaginable, just like a blood cell works and makes decisions in our bodies but has no concept of the body as a whole.

Science is the poetry of numbers. Numbers are the most abstract of symbols.
It is a paradox that our most abstract language is also our most powerful one.

I ramble......

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 25, 2006 11:25 PM

gosh this stuff wakes me up way too early...yes, I wanted to acknowledge that all this has been said by people like Roland Barthes and many others (JS, you, as well, have said this before): signifying systems *are* our whole world. No arguments for me there.

The trick for the issues being raised in M's book (as I see them, in these terms, at least) is figuring out *how to reinvent our relation to/use of these signifying systems* whether they be linguistic, genetic, mathematical, musical, ones and zeroes. I guess what's new and exciting (for me, anyway) about thinking this right now, is that we are technologically advanced enough to see these signifying systems not one at a time, but 'transdisciplinarily" if that make sense.... that these are no longer discreet signifiying systems... that rethinking our relation to them could generate infinite combinations, in other words, particularly at a moment 'without gods' if M is right...

Potential problem--JS, while I agree w/ you in the main I'm a bit anxious that we not set science up in the place formerly occupied by religion....no changes in our evolutionary thinking if we simply leave the hierarchical structures in place and substitute human genetic engineering in the place that god once occupied. (Merely the achievement of Enlightenment reason in that case, a centuries-long moment finally come to its end?) The Borg is precisely that as I see it: fulfillment of this logic. Not the future I'm hoping for, at least...

If none of these signifying systems is 'privileged' or determinative (for the moment, not even DNA, let's say), and if we reimagine our relation to these--*this is the task as I see it*--we potentially intertwine them to achieve truly new knowledges, moving beyond 'religion' and 'science' both, a breaking out of the entire set of binary relations that have structured/limited our consciousness since, well, forever?

that to me would be success....

Posted by: JM at June 26, 2006 6:06 AM

Maybe I missed something in your posts, but I am unsure what you mean by binary.

I cannot see a way out of our belief in science. In my science classes I argued your point, that science is as much a belief system as any other, based on underlying assumptions. In my sociology classes, where I was told we construct social realities, I argued that we create all realities. In neither case did I change many minds.

The thing about believing in science is that it has huge real world consequences--technology. And those advances are accelerating asymptotically. The unwinding of the human genome and the ability to change the genetic code will happen unless we destroy ourselves first. That will lead to beings many times more intelligent and aware than we are. We cannot see what that will bring; it is over the awareness event horizon.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 26, 2006 8:07 AM

JS, binary oppositions-- basically a kind of shorthand for talking about hierarchical power, power that goes top-down.

Male/female, First World/third world, Science/nature, ad infinitum: first term assumes for itself a place of privileged power (by any means necessary), defining itself against its 'other' and presuming that the second term only has status through its relation to, that first, privileged term...

and therein lies the ruse (and here's the point of departure for 'deconstruction' and other post-structuralist reading strategies): *difference* is 'always already' (to invoke Jacques Derrida, whose work broke a lot of this ground) the condition for the possibility of identity and *not* the other way round... but because of the way that power works (frequently overt and violent but not always--Foucault a major advocate for thinking about power not only when it says 'no, you can't do that or you'll be punished' but especially when power says, 'yes--you can have x, as long as you consent to ....' capitalism a great example), there is generally great struggle to act on that knowledge.

Good example of this is feminism, postcolonial struggle, etc. (hope some of the above is helpful at least?)

To go back to your concern re: science and religion: if god formerly occupied the place of all power, the Enlightenment began a 'centuries-long moment' to put man, and reason, and science as its primary manifestation, in that former place of privileged power.

My issue with what you're calling 'our belief in science' then is that we've had, since the 18th century, the displacement of 'god' as the center. Man/rationality/science has been the center since then, regardless of the ongoing presence of religion (which is maybe why Mitch is writing this book but that's just a guess), belief in god(s), etc. What would it mean to break down this entire ontological structure? to get out from under hierarchical domination by any one idea, to break free from 'binary logic' in the sense of above ? to have 'nothing' in the place of the center?

Posted by: JM at June 26, 2006 1:55 PM

If I understand what your meaning I would posit we do not have the ability to function without a belief system. We are unable to live outside the yin yang of consciousness and belief in reality.
And that, if I understand you, is binary.

Like I have said before, even understanding what we perceive is a symbolic construct, we are trapped inside the box of consciousness and can only use symbols to understand that construct. In other words we can only think about consciousness from inside consciousness. Not easy or even possible to really explain because symbols are not what they represent.

And communication is based on the assumption, a social contract, which assumes we have the same meanings for our symbols. There is no way to verify that belief outside of more symbols.

A book I think you would find fascinating: Visual Intelligence by Donald D. Hoffman. It explains how we create a 3D reality from 2D input.
Blew my mind.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 26, 2006 3:50 PM

By man evolving to the state of reason and ability that he has, would it not be fair enough to say that we are the Higher Power?

As man has come to be taking dominion over the planet, for better or worse..., is it reasonable to say it is all up to humanity.

From the definition at dictionary.com...
1. God
1. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions.
2. The force, effect, or a manifestation or aspect of this being.
2. A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people, especially a male deity thought to control some part of nature or reality.
3. An image of a supernatural being; an idol.
4. One that is worshiped, idealized, or followed: Money was their god.
5. A very handsome man.
6. A powerful ruler or despot.

Isn't the history of man 'without gods' the same as the history of man becoming his own god???

Just thinking...

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at June 26, 2006 5:30 PM

Every living creature down to the individual cell uses perceptions of the outside to form a construct by which it makes decisions. Life is God. To each little piece it's own.

My dog is more humane than most people I know. Her version of reality seems to be a very happy and rich one. If we humans really wanted to pursue happiness we would learn how to be golden retrievers.

If you do not know you are a God can you still be one? I would say yes, but poorly. Poor Gods…poor gods. Poor, poor gods.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 26, 2006 9:30 PM

Aah...and what of this?
The way to the essential wealth of becoming "gods"?

2 Cor. 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at June 26, 2006 9:55 PM

Well that certainly clears it all up, its economics! Trickle down from on high.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 26, 2006 10:10 PM

Jay Saul, do I detect a prayer in that last posted comment you made? LOL

Hmmm, still if we really be gods, then I would have thought to count wealth as instrinsic. Not that which can be calculated or accumulated. Divine essence.

Economics are more the preoccupation of those who claim most to speak for God. :rollingeyes:

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at June 26, 2006 10:43 PM

Jay Saul: yin-yang not binary -- this is a critical distinction. Yin-yang represents fluid, dualistic, equivalent energies (symbiotic perhaps,too, but that's another thread). Binary oppositions always depict hierarchical, vertical relations of power... think colonialism (including neo-colonialist practices we are currently witnessing). Achieving a more fluid, rhizomatic field of power relations moves out of even that dualistic form, but the dualistic structure you invoke still far preferable (to me at least) than the various institutional practices that determine our constructed realities at present... more later.


Posted by: JM at June 28, 2006 2:02 PM

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