Posts filed under ‘Religion’

Varieties of Anthropocentrism and Human Exceptionalism

This is the first of a prospective series of posts on anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism; I hope to build on each one and then tie the subject into other recent topics of interest such as functional explanation. As the foundational post, this will mostly be groundwork. I will first attempt to describe a spectrum of anthropocentric attitudes and then add epicycles and observations to the initial scale and definition. So, what are some varieties of anthropocentrism?

Strong anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is the view that there is a significant ontological difference between humans and much of the material world. A classic and famous example of this in philosophy is Cartesian dualism, with its assertion that humans are of two worlds that seem sufficiently intuitive: the mental and the physical. Much of the rest of the world is far more mechanistic in character; humans are exceptional, then, because we consist of a mental substance somehow connected to the physical. Descartes philosophy is also heavily reliant on the existence of God and various philosophical/theological details that expand on the two distinct, yet connected substances of the world. Similarly, a lot of human exceptionalism is founded on religious beliefs, particularly those religions that describe the special creation of humans and the existence of an immaterial, immortal soul linked to an eternal, omniscent, omnipresent deity.

Moderate anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is more influenced by modern Western culture and a corresponding attention to science at a popular level. This is an anthropocentrism that acknowledges the continutity of humans with the rest of the world, usually by reference to evolution and common ancestry. However, moderate anthropocentrism remains coherent with a dualistic metaphysics.  One subscribing to moderate anthropocentrism could be a Cartesian-style believer in immaterial characteristics posessed by humans but not necessarily the rest of the world. The difference between moderate and strong anthropocentrism is the acknowledgement of a stronger continuity of humans with the rest of the (physical) world within the moderate attitude.

Weak anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism, then, anchors the other end of the spectrum. Weak anthropocentrism is coherent with a physicalist monism: the view that there are only physical substances in the world. Under this view, humans are not exceptional because they are creatures of two worlds while most beings are restricted to one, but because of other unique charactersitics of humanity. Humans are apparently more intelligent and creative than other beings, as evidenced by the existence of complex human cultures and languages. For all we know humans are the only beings with such cultural, linguistic, and creative complexity. It is this complexity and intelligence, therefore, that set humans apart from other beings (although at least, under this weak variation, humans and the rest of the world consist of the same stuff).

For each strength of anthropocentrism there are, of course, a great deal of variations. For example, in some religious thought, the existence of a soul and of a deity does not imply dualism. Indeed, the existence of a deity implies a strong monism, as everything is unified through the existence and power of the deity. This attitude can go in a multitude of directions, however– one can go from it to a Spinozistic monism, or to panpsychism, or continue to believe that, despite the unity of the world as established by the deity there is nonetheless something more or less exceptional about humans. What is true for my descriptions of the variations of anthropocentrism above is also true when it comes to this viewpoint; a metaphysical attitude leads the way, and attitudes regarding human exceptionalism follow.

With that thought, however, a psychological issue raises its head. Philosophically speaking, I think it seems clear that the metaphysics one accepts influences (if not implies, depending on the metaphysics) ones attitude towards anthropocentrism. Psychologically speaking, though, it may be the other way around. It makes sense to consider that humans are, at default, anthropocentric; we have, more or less, a preference for others of our own species, and even members of that species that bear particular resemblance to ourselves. Depending on the veracity of group selection hypotheses, there may only be so much a human can do to consider anthropocentrism from something approximating an archimedian standpoint. Between the psychological, anthropological, and philosophical, we are left with the questions: Is the anthropocentric attitude justied? Which one(s) are justified or justifiable? And even if evaluation of the justifiability of anthropocentrism is possible, how possible is it to change anthropocentric attitudes?


August 28, 2009 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Functional Explanation, Science, and Religion

I am pressing ahead with Peter McLaughlin’s What Functions Explain. Although I have more reading to do– and McLaughlin is judicious in his pacing, frustratingly raising interesting questions and promising to engage them in later chapters so as to continue on a single subject– his discussion of the etiological approach to functional explanation raised some interesting thoughts having to do with a contrast between certain practices in science and religion.

Let me go over that territory again before linking functional explanation to science and religion. Exactly what entails a functional explanation– or an explanation of some entities function– is difficult philosophical territory. In contemporary philosophy, there are two main competing schools on what a function should consist of, originating with Thomas Nagel and C.G. Hempel. The etiological approach to functional explanation relies on including a causal aspect in the explanation. Instead of a nomological statement or two– along the lines of:

The function of an item X in a system S is to do Y, which under some condition C (including internal state Ci and environmental context Ce) is required for, or is at least conducive to, goal G. (McLaughlin, 2001, 68)

The Hempelian variation on this theme is broken into three parts by McLaughlin, namely disposition, welfare, and feedback. Disposition is the tendency of something– an organ, artifact, organism, or other entity– to do something under some condition (as above). The welfare condition is that that something tends to promote a goal of that entity. Finally, the feedback loop is the etiological (causal) characteristic of the explanation. It relates to how the entity has come to perform its function and how the performance of that function is vital to the continued existence and performance of that entity. In other words, it isn’t enough for a functional explanation to feature a means and an ends: it must also feature how the performing entity came to be a function bearer, and continues to exist as such. It must be part of the function of a thing to put it in place to perform its function in the first place, instead of its coming to perform its function by accident.

Naturally, this account raises all sorts of problems. I will take McLaughlin at his word, though, and continue on in his text before I take the plunge into that discussion. For now, I’m going to ignore some of the problems with the etiological account of functional explanation and go forward with how such explanation is illuminating for a description of science and religion. At least some of the time– when there aren’t issues with the vagueness surrounding the term “function”– I think scientific explanation makes use of this kind of explanation. In particular, the issues scientific explanation would have with function seem more oriented towards the dispositional and valuational characteristics of functions and not the etiological aspect. The opposite seems true of religion.

One of the issues, of course, is that of teleology and its attendant baggage of intentionality. The more interesting issue is that of the causal feedback loop. The issues scientists have with teleology and its gestures towards an unknown agency are fairly well-known, and so I will leave them to other authors or separate posts. What caught my interest today are the different demands of science and religion on functional explanation. Science seems to demand an etiological component, and religion does not. This is because of the two different approaches science and religion have towards causation. Religion, (if the definition includes some content regarding the supernatural) is not merely permissive of interrupted causation in the natural world– it is demanding of it. Science, on the other hand, stresses a uniformity of causation in the universe.

The significance of this is that causal feedback loops may be an essential ingredient of an adequate scientific explanation, while they create a source of tension with some religious explanation. A causal feedback loop provides closure in an explanation– the heart is frequently used as a classic illustration of this. The function of the heart is to pump blood, which certainly contributes to the welfare of the organism that contains the heart. As long as the heart continues to pump blood, the organism will continue to live and cause the heart to pump blood. Short of some interruption in the system, the heart will continue to function. The heart was developed particularly to do this, in that sort of system, and will continue to do so unless interrupted or replaced.

If one insists on a more intentional world (at the extremes, this consists of belief in special creation), this explanation might seem incomplete or unsatisfactory. “Why,” such a person might ask, “did the heart come into existence at all?” This question is intended not to probe the intricacies of the causal reinforcement loop– the reply, “it developed to pump blood” is really only a restatement of the information contained above, and it is not the sort of answer the questioner is after, anyway. This is because such a question is intended to step beyond the causal loop, and beyond the uniform sort of causation contained within. Doing so does away with the need for the etiological condition, reducing functional explanation to the dispositional and the valuational while providing an overlaying agency to the world. Now, the explanation for the function of the heart is this: The function of the heart is to pump blood, which certainly contributes to the welfare of the organism containing the heart. The heart came into being with organisms that required them to, themselves, function. It is not difficult to imagine this line of thought terminating in something akin to Aquinas’ arguments, a sort of regress that ends in the divine. This is a familiar sight in philosophy– if unsatisfied with a loop, the other choice is a regress. What had not occured to me before is how scientific explanation tends to be comfortable with the one, and religious explanation the other.

July 17, 2009 at 12:16 am 3 comments

How does the study of science and religion fit with the study of science?

The way I’m thinking about the relationship of science and religion right now is through the lens of a nesting metaphor. I’m a little wary of this: it could be that nesting is too oblique, and that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the relationship. Right now, however, I think of the study of science and religion as one that’s half in, and half out of, the study of science nest. It’s not that the religion part hangs over the side, only that the study of science doesn’t fully contain the study of science and religion. I want to talk about the particulars of how science and religion debates fall within the realm of the study of science, and how one can inform the other.

Why not? That question leads back to my previous conception of my summer project on the development of biological thought in Pakistan. When I started it, I was vaguely connecting the idea of science and religion with questions about the process of theory choice in science. I read a lot of Kuhn and Kitcher at the end of my semester in Edinburgh, and so theory choice literature was at the forefront of my mind. Only recently did I realize that thinking about science and religion in terms of theory choice was an impoverished line of thought. Whatever PZ Myers might have to say, the relationship between science and religion doesn’t boil down to theory choice. It boils down to interaction and development.

Looking at the Pakistani educational system, it’s hard not to consider science as a cultural force. The institution of science is a cultural force here in the USA, make no mistake, but it’s easier to see such a force when it is perceived as a foreign one. I have a lot of questions relating to the degree to which science is perceived as a foreign culture in Pakistan, but that strays from the topic. I feel like science is a less recognizable cultural force here than in Pakistan, but that might be due to my involvement in the academic community. There are certainly people in the USA who perceive science as something foreign, as well.

Religion, on the other hand, is an obvious cultural force. Christianity is here, and Islam is in Pakistan. There is ostensible separation of church and state in the USA, but Islam is integrated into seemingly every aspect of governance and education in Pakistan. Science, generally speaking, is not nearly so pervasive. So one reason why it doesn’t make sense to characterize the relationship between science and religion as analogous to theory choice is that the two are very different cultural animals.

There are many other reasons why it doesn’t click to put science and religion on par with one another, but this one seems very important for my work. Since science and religion are so different in cultural force, how can the study of religion inform the study of science? Sure, we’ll find something out about science by looking at how people link it to religion, but isn’t this a diminished, diluted kind of study? Why not just study science as science and leave it at that?

To think that way is to think of science and religion as two fried eggs. It’s to think they only touch along the whites, but what we really should be looking at are the unadulterated yolks. It’s to think that somehow only the religious half of science and religion is hanging out the side of the science studies nest. But the study of science and religion is more accurately described as a batch of scrambled eggs where even the yolks have run together.

To study science and religion is not to study an example of theory choice. It is to study an example of belief interaction. Sometimes a person’s religious beliefs supervene on scientific ones, and sometimes it’s the other way around. For my part, I don’t have much in the way of religious beliefs. It isn’t that I see science as supervening on religion, but that I don’t have any religious eggs to scramble with my scientific ones. Most people do, however, and this has an impact on science. Religion has an impact on how science is taught, how science is learned, how the public perceives science, and how science is practiced. So do politics, economics, and a host of other cultural forces. The difference, I think, is that neither politics nor economics engage questions of biology, physics, and cosmology. My seventh grade earth science course didn’t cover how the mining industry influences the direction of geological research, but there weren’t any parents that demanded such material. There are, however, plenty of parents in the USA that demand the teaching of creationism alongside biology.

Just because I don’t have any religious eggs in my scramble doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in the larger pan. The cultural force of religion affects our understanding science. Because of this, an investigation of science and religion is an investigation of the impact of a significant cultural force on science. The interaction flows in the other direction as well, but the mechanics of that interaction is a question for religious studies.

One more thing: this ramble was concerned with the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, characteristics of the study of science and religion. Included with the many other “topics for another time” are my thoughts on how much, if at all, religion should impact science. I think a good description of the interaction will help me understand how the interaction could be improved.

July 9, 2008 at 12:26 pm 4 comments

Averroes and the Limit of Thought

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

Final Papers Might Equal More Posts

I’m in the midst of final papers. This should mean that my blog continues in its update dry spell. Instead, it probably signifies a increased volume of posts. I started this blog while writing my final papers at the end of spring semester, after all. Both developing thoughts and overflow might end up as new posts.

There are three topics on which I’m writing final papers, so the odds of posts materializing for any of them are good. For my Wittgenstein class, I’m writing a paper on Wittgenstinean Causation, with a focus on Wittgenstein’s influence on G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Causality and Determination”. For my class on Science and Religion, I’m writing a paper on Medieval Muslim views on causation. The primary figures of this comparative paper are Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Al-Ghazali, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). For my Seminar in Ecology I might have some posts which lean closer to science than philosophy. I’m giving a presentation and writing an accompanying paper on Agave pollination syndromes with a focus on the coevolutionary aspects of this particular syndrome.

December 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment

The Limits of Science

I wrote this in response to a question on the class blog for my Science and Religion class. I would link to it, but it’s a private blog. The prompt asked if there was a limit to science, or topics which were better left to religion than science (with questions about the origin of the universe as an example). Here’s my response:

  There are no questions which should fall outside the range of scientific inquiry.

 To explain, let me say this: my understanding of science is my understanding of a method of thought aimed towards understanding the world. Not pieces or parts of the world, but the world as it exists, has existed, and will exist. Because of this, I do not think that it is correct to declare some questions about anything, including origins, to be out of the range of science. Because science exists as a method, an activity, a framework, and a worldview, rather than an object, I think that if one draws a limit to science one draws a limit to human thought. A better question to ask than “are there some questions that science cannot answer” is “are there some questions which we as humans cannot answer.”

 An objection to my point regarding science has already been posted on this thread by Chris. It’s a tough post to follow. That being said, I do not think that “the Bible is attempting to answer fundamentally different questions than science” or that science fails to ask “why” questions that Chris suggests are better left to religion. Indeed, this is part of why I perceive science and religion as being in competition—they are two methods of thought which are in competition over the same goal: explanation.

 I might be accused here of conflating science with philosophy. Another point that Chris made is that there are separate ways in which scientists themselves might think that their work does or does not explain why something like the big bang occurs. Separate from that, I’m sure that there are many people who would say that, outside of religion, philosophy is the discipline that should answer the why questions of the events and objects that science describes.

 I do not understand why there should be any such distinction between science (at least as I understand it) and philosophy. I think that the best philosophy is conducted in a scientific manner. This is not to say that philosophy needs to be written in the traditional scientific method (indeed, many scientific studies are conducted in a method which does not mirror the 5 bullet points on the wall in many classrooms). Sometimes the best expression of a good scientific thought might be achieved with more poetic language.

 What I mean when I say that philosophy should be conducted in a scientific manner is that philosophy should adhere, at every step, to a careful self-examination to make sure that the conclusions drawn about any subject depict reality as closely as possible. When making normative (“should”) claims, philosophy should similarly strive to depict the best of what is possible. Epistemology and metaphysics should describe the universe as it exists, has existed, and will exist as well as why it exists. Kind of like… science. Ethics and other human affairs (including some branches of philosophy of science) should describe the best that is possible for us as humans to achieve. Hence, fields like… political science. There are many different topics and types of scientific inquiry in the world, and it almost seems unfair to lump them under the same label. But it seems to me that science, in the abstract (unhinged from earth science, psychological science, computer science, political science, or anything else described in the same form) is foremost a method, a way of thinking. What compares to this way of thought? How can we draw a limit to it?

 The discipline which compares to science is religion. One can borrow from the other in practice, but they are in competition over how to explain the world, how to describe what is best and possible and why it is all here. There can be religious incorporation of scientific discoveries, and scientists who believe in god, but these actions do not necessarily tell us about science or religion themselves. Religion has a method for investigating and answering questions about the world that are different than science, and it is just as difficult to draw a limit to it as it is to science. But the two are in no way the same. Scientific explanation is separate from religious explanation, much as the two mirror one another because they share a goal.

 What then, of the limits to science and religion? I think that to draw a limit to either is to draw a limit to human thought. It seems obvious that we are limited by virtue of being humans. We each exist separate from one another in space and time. We exist only for a short period in comparison to some beings and a long period in comparison to others. Hopefully, we can continue to accumulate and stockpile knowledge that helps us to understand the world, but we can never know it all. It’s a necessary condition of being embodied that we cannot. We are limited, and as we are limited so is science, religion, and anything else we can use to increase our understanding of the universe.

October 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

Pascal, Transcendentalist? pt.2

After reading more of the Pensees, I suppose my idea of Pascal as a would-be transcendentalist if it weren’t for dominant social factors of the sixteenth century is more of a stretch than is realistic. Or at least, that’s what I was thinking for most of the night. Then, I found another passage which hinted at a transcendentalist thought and I’m right back into thinking it a feasible project.

The first glimmerings of my idea that Pascal and Thoreau could be compared came about, as I mentioned before, because of the similarity in style between the Pensees and Thoreau’s journals. But the idea that Pascal might have been a transcendentalist came about in reading the early sections of the Pensees, when Pascal focuses on distraction and wretchedness. Pascal argues that, if man is so wretched that he must distract himself from the present, then he would be the worst kind of fool not to accept the divine.

It is that focus on the moment which first gave me the idea that Pascal might be a transcendentalist. Thoreau has a similar focus on the moment, and I think a similar attitude towards the things Pascal deems “distraction”. But where Pascal sees living in the moment as revealing how wretched man is, Thoreau sees it (in true, founding transcendentalist style) as the only way to link his subjective experience with a universal truth.

Why not claim that the time was right for one to think the way he did and not the other?

August 3, 2007 at 10:19 am Leave a comment

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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