Thursday, April 20, 2006

Theocracy, naturalism, and preferring what works

Ed Brayton asks Is Risk of Theocracy Overblown? His answer is a slightly qualified "Yes." And he highlights why I don't rail against theocracy, but against "religious authoritarianism." While he may be right that Dobson and Falwell (or Fox and Johnston in Kansas) aren't theocrats in the strictest sense of wanting to replace the Constitution with the Mosaic Law, they do want to impose their own religious values on the entire society, which is authoritarianism.

This problem is one shared by many battalions arrayed on conservative flank of the culture war. The anti-abortion movement, the attacks on gay couple's rights, fights over Ten Commandments in courthouses, and attacks on evolution in schools are all ways that religious authoritarians push their personal religious views on the totality of society.

Why is this so horrible?

Barbara Forrest helped crystalize some of my thinking on this point in her presentation last night. The point she made in her speech entitled "The Naturalism of Science: The Only Way that Works" was that science works because it relies on our shared cognitive abilities and shared experiences of the world. Anyone can study mice, and anyone can get the same data if they do the same experiment, or watch the same phenomena. This is not just science, of course. Many fields share that commitment to shared experiences, and that commitment winds up working well for all of us.

Science has humility built in, and "leaves open the question of what we can have knowledge about," and there is room for religion to co-exist with science, either as a complement to science, or as a parallel way of knowing. In large part, this is because religion works differently than science. Religion is built on revelation, and revelation is inherently personal and private. That sort of knowledge, however valid it is, leaves no chance for anything resembling scientific consensus. Revelation is also impossible to induce (though she did leave room for peyote as a means of inducing it), and what you experience as revelation is unverifiable and will be interpreted differently depending on what you come into the experience with.

This gives science an advantage in setting policy: we can all share the data and our shared cognitive abilities – the shared way we all think, the logic that we share, the way we understand cause and effect – can guide us to a common understanding and a solution.

Religious revelation, because it is private and personal, cannot be the basis of a societal consensus. From the same text, people operating from different sorts of revelation can reach radically different conclusions, can find strong support for slavery, or strong opposition, can back or oppose the death penalty, can favor or disfavor aid to the indigent. She also cited the 18 branches of the Baptist Church as examples of the problem of revelation for common understanding.

Forrest's doctoral work was on the pragmatic philosophers, especially Sidney Hook, who treated science as just one of many aspects of life in which we deal with "working truths on the level of practical living which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs." This approach is a "natural way of knowing," one we apply when appliances break, when we debate policy, and when we practice almost any academic field of study. It is a practical naturalism that makes that all work, that lets police catch criminals, or historians discuss past events, or the Romans build aqueducts.

This doesn't invalidate religious belief, the Romans always sacrificed a chicken and sought to learn divine wisdom by examining its entrails before construction began, but once they got down to actual construction, they applied the same practical naturalism that everyone relies on. Neither is entitled a priori to epistemological respect, we choose one or the other based on what works.

Moving past what Forrest discussed last night, the problem with religious authoritarianism is that it simply imposes a set of religious beliefs, private views built on personal revelation, on everyone, even people who don't share that revelation, or whose revelation was exactly opposite to it. Naturalism isn't just the basis of effective science, but of effective coexistence and governance. Naturalism, in discussing our commonality, is essentially humble, leaving room for people to explore their differences in freedom.

The next lecture in the series will be by William Schopf, of UCLA, discussing "The Earliest History of Life."