Friday, February 04, 2005

Defending Naturalism

Pantheon, in RomeAfter my comments on the last school board meeting, I got into a discussion with various people in real life and at Pharyngula, over the tactics we should use in beating creationists. I have come to the conclusion that we won't win by sinking to the same level of disdain and wackiness that the creationists employ. Our chief advantage as scientists is that we are respected and seen as honest. If we start seeming extremist or doctrinaire, we lose. The same is true if we start attacking religion.

On the other hand, I don't think there's any harm in defending philosophical materialism as well as the more moderate methodological materialism. Eons ago, I said that the discovery of Pierolapithecus was “part of an incredible story that puts humans in a context, but that demonstrates how special we are.” The same is true of so many great discoveries in science.

Preposterous Universe offers another example today.

Everyone knows what it's like to experience the hallucinations that accompany certain kinds of drug use (among other mind-altering contexts) -- if not from direct experience, at least from depictions in movies and literature.

He goes on to discuss the insights into hallucination developed by some physicists studying the brain. I'll leave the details to him, but the point is that the psychedelic tunnels and swirling patterns familiar to fans of Pink Floyd or 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke can be explained by the arrangement of the visual cortex. If it were flat, the tunnels would be linear, but unevenness in the brain makes the tunnels swerve and the spirals spin.

Postkarte Hilde3To make it even simpler than PU does: these hallucinations, also characteristic of some religious visions (like Hildegard von Bingen's) are us seeing our own brain at work. Hallucinogens lower the threshold that usually keeps us from seeing these neurons firing (or that keeps them from firing, PU left me unclear on that point). That's cool.

The light at the end of the tunnel may not be the Pearly Gates. It may be our own brain chugging away, trying to make sense of things. I don't think that diminishes the divine, or explains away the afterlife as an ocular hallucination. I think it shows how small our imagination can be. People experience these visions and interpret them as mystical for many reasons, but one is that the literal introspection this implies is truly mind-boggling.

At the meeting on Tuesday, I started thinking of a line from Hamlet by William Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” When you force things into a philosophy, you lose. When you compel science to conform to the literal word of the Bible, you close yourself off to all of creation. When you won't see your own brain in a hallucination, but force it to be a foreign and mystical world, you close yourself off to exactly what you are celebrating, the uniqueness of your own being, and of humanity.

The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd from the album Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, 4:44).