by Lucy Tatman.
Presented at "From Stars to Brains" MCH conference in honor of Paul Davies Canberra, 20-21 June 2006
From stars to brains to consciousness… I am conscious of the fact that so many brilliant brains are gathered here today on land for which the Ngunnawal people have been the traditional custodians for many generations. I am conscious too of the fact that we are gathered here, within the walls of the Australian Academy of Science. ‘Here we are,’ says my brain, but already my consciousness is in a tizzy, all too aware that ‘here’ admits of no single telling.
It is a thing both wonderful and terrifying, stupendous and paralysing. Those words could refer to the awesome unfolding of the cosmos, to its vast and intricate complexity. Or they could refer to human awareness of our tiny, momentary presence in this ever-expanding universe – truly an event both wonderful and terrifying, stupendous and paralysing. Then again, so too was the invitation, by Manning Clark House, to speak at this conference in honour of Prof. Paul Davies. Here is a man who enables the wonderful, stupendous findings of science to be brought to conscious awareness in the brains of those who are not fluent in the language of physics or astronomy or biology or information theory – what an extraordinary gift Prof. Davies gives to us – stories which bring to conscious awareness the wonderful, terrifying, stupendous complexity of all that is. Of course I should like to add my voice to the chorus of praise and thanksgiving for his work.
But. But oh dear heavens the topic I have been given to address: religious faith vs. free will and biological determinism. Versus? To what does this refer? As a Quaker and a feminist process theologian I profess faith in both free will and two sorts of biological determinism. I simply cannot find a place of conflict between these terms. But that’s not the worst of it. In the letter of invitation I was given the most detailed instructions I have ever received regarding the content of a conference paper. Specifically, I was instructed to “aim at exploring the contrast between biological, genetic and existentialist determinism[s] and the human striving for omnipotence and omniscience inherent in faith and in the religions.” My first reaction upon reading those words was to snort my coffee. My second reaction was to write a paper in which I did not refer at all to those instructions, and drew instead upon the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh. My third reaction however, and the one I’m going to inflict upon you today, was to try to make sense of the ‘versus’ in the title of this paper. I became curious, you see. Someone or ones had devoted serious thought to the topic, and it obviously made sense, was meaningful to them. I could only assume that the issue was felt to be real, and to matter somehow in their lives. So I set out to find an answer to the question: What sort of religious faith is in continual conflict with free will and biological determinism?
The answer depends in part upon what is meant by ‘biological determinism’. Although there have been decades of contentious history around the term, I’ll skip over them. What is notable though, is that physicists’ use of the term biological determinism is quite unique. As I understand it, within physics it refers to the gorgeous if somewhat contentious and nebulous hypothesis that bios, life, seems determined to emerge in this universe. What sort of life is not specified. ‘Genetic determinism’, however, specifies quite a bit. In the strong popular version it presents the toxically irresponsible fantasy that our genes program all our behaviour (goodbye to all free will). In its weak (and even more popular) version, our genes only determine some of our behaviours – generally those considered by male sociobiologists to be the most naughty, it seems to me, but never mind that. The point is, genetic determinism says something quite specific about the nature of human life forms, whereas biological determinism as defined by physicists says ‘life wants to become’, and these are exceedingly different kinds of claims.
Regarding existentialist determinism, I confess that I am unfamiliar with this concept, but then, so too would be any existentialist philosopher worth her salt, for one of the fundamental premises of existentialism is that the nature or essence of ‘human being’ is in no way determined in advance of existing – of particular, specific human beings living their particular, specific, different lives. The nature of their beings will be determined by what they have made of their lives, by how they actually lived them. In the famous formulation, “existence precedes essence.” An existentialist, then, would say very rude things about genetic determinism. To the assertion that life wants to become, an existentialist might reply, “sometimes yes, sometimes no.” In both cases the existentialist would be speaking from the conviction that scientific knowledge is only one of many different kinds of human knowledge, and that no single kind of knowledge can ever explain fully anything having to do with human beings. In this, I think the existentialists were quite correct, and it’s a pity they aren’t read more closely these days. I’ll come back to biological determinism, but…
Now it’s time to examine the notion that there is “a human striving for omnipotence and omniscience inherent in faith and in the religions.” Being personally unfamiliar with such a striving (no doubt I lack the gene), I went in search of it. I couldn’t find it in Buddhism, although I did find a lot of compassion and a gentle striving for enlightenment. As far as I could determine though, enlightenment is to omniscience as a fish is to a bicycle, and omnipotence was simply elsewhere, having taken up an empty rice bowl and wandered off ages ago. I then went to Taoism, where I found harmony amongst the ten thousand things, and peace in letting be, but again no trace of omnipotence or omniscience. Next I spent a most pleasant afternoon revisiting all my favourite feminist theologians (of various Jewish, Christian and Muslim stripes), and couldn’t find a single ‘human striving for omnipotence and omniscience’ in seven metres of bookshelf, but I was reminded of a persistent, conscious concern that we humans are already overly powerful and underly responsible for our actions and for the uses to which our knowledge is put. I was reminded too of something that doesn’t get stressed very often in scientific journals or conferences – that the fact of having a brain doesn’t guarantee that one will use it to think wise thoughts, and that being conscious of something at one time doesn’t guarantee that one won’t later freely choose to ignore or deny it.
But back to ‘the human striving for omnipotence and omniscience’. I hope I’ve made the point that it is simply not inherent in faith or in the religions which are commonly recognised as religions. It’s true that within the monotheisms God is traditionally understood to possess the divine attribute of omnipotence, but it is always understood as a divine, not human, attribute. Indeed, those who seek to usurp the role of God and assume ‘his’ power are repeatedly assured of failure. This is not a trivial point. The monotheisms do take into account that sometimes people become obsessed with power, but the usual response to this is to deliver a theological bop on the nose in the form of a pointed warning about the sin of pride. Lately, and happily, from my perspective, even God’s omnipotence has been subject to theological scrutiny and disavowal. As for any human striving for omniscience within the monotheisms, the short answer is no. While knowledge as such is not traditionally denigrated, neither is it assumed to lead automatically to understanding. Wisdom is valued just a bit more than knowledge, I think, and in any event there seems to be a shared acceptance of human limits, limits which ensure that no matter how much knowledge we gain, we will still only ever manage to ‘see through the glass darkly’.
Those pesky creaturely limits. An awful lot of energy has been poured, by religions, into making those limits more bearable, more live-with-able, if you will. Suffering and finitude are the constants: what multiplies are the myths which help us to endure those less than pleasant dimensions of human existence on this earth. What religions seem to accept without question is that we human beings are a particular sort of biological beastie, and that the overall shape of all our lives is in a broad way determined by the sort of beasties we are. For example, we are all born utterly defenceless and are utterly dependent on others for our survival for many years. We all age, and as we do we invariably experience a host of different pains and sufferings. Inevitably, we will each die. Different religions find different ways of explaining these brute facts, of putting them in different over-arching contexts, of making them more endurable. I think of our human beastiness, of our specific creaturely limits, as a kind of biological determinism, and it is a biological determinism that my faith accepts as the given which I need to myth around.
The facts of pain and suffering and unavoidable death are not, however, accepted by those who worship at the altar of science. These persons of faith don’t seem to like myths designed to make suffering and finitude more bearable. They prefer myths that promise the eradication, here and soon, of all suffering and finitude. In the words of Donna Haraway, “For…the true believers in the church of science, a cure for the trouble at hand is always promised. That promise justifies the sacred status of scientists, even, or especially, outside their domains of practical expertise. … Dazzling promise has always been the underside of the deceptively sober pose of scientific rationality and modern progress….”
Practicing scientists as the priests and prophets of a new religion. The thought probably makes many of you deeply uncomfortable. If it’s any consolation you can, of your own free will, choose not to put your faith in the promises of science. What neither you nor I can do, however, is deny the existence of those promises made in the name of science. You know the ones. They tend to appear in last chapters, or on the front covers of Time and Newsweek. Designer Babies. Reversal of Aging. Free Energy. My favourite example of the genre involves downloading human consciousness from its current, unsatisfactory location in failure-prone wetware, and transmitting it (somehow) to the mass data storage component of the cosmic supercomputer – the one that will be powered by energy drawn from a black hole or two. There, presumably, our individual consciousnesses will consciously keep doing their stuff for all eternity.
What strikes me as extraordinary about this myth is not its reinstatement of an old mind/body dichotomy, nor is it the heavenly location of the cosmic supercomputer – it’s the fact that no human being has first to die before they get to enjoy the data storage life. This is a myth that does not work with human death as, for example, a threshold; it just refuses death entirely.
I interpret this myth to be a paradigmatic example of religious faith versus biological determinism – vs., that is, all human creaturely limits. But what of the rest of the title of this talk? How is it that the ‘church of science’ is in conflict with free will? I don’t think the conflict is with free will per se, but then, it never is. No religion ever has a problem with people freely choosing that which is deemed acceptable by the religion. It’s only when people freely choose that which is frowned upon by the religion that there is any conflict. I said before that all you priests and prophets of the religion of science could freely choose not to have faith in the grand promises of science. Strictly speaking, that’s true. But if you want to continue receiving grants and investment dollars, you would do better to keep your doubts to yourself.
What I suspect is that the full-blown religion of science is much the same as any other fundamentalist religion. What is demanded of the faithful is that you believe its truth and no other. In the case of science what is demanded is that you believe in the truth of knowledge as the product of rational enquiry. Given enough rational enquirers diligently beavering away, rational humans can come to know… everything. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that the ‘human striving for omniscience’ is inherent in the religion of science.
And finally I think I understand that detailed letter of instruction I received from the Manning Clark House organising committee. The assumption of “a human striving for omnipotence and omniscience inherent in faith and in the religions” now makes much more sense to me, coming as it did from one or more practicing scientists. The writers of the letter probably don’t think of science as a religion. But their assumptions about the nature of human faith only make sense if they transferred their beliefs about science to the religions. I think, however, that those assumptions – concerning the human striving for omnipotence and omniscience – need to be transferred back to their proper home – the church of science. In truth, I fear that the human striving for omnipotence and omniscience is not at all good for this planet, and I wish that there were a scientific equivalent to the theological bop on the nose. Unfortunately, the only bop on the nose that I can see science receiving in the near future is not coming from, say, scientists who believe that life on earth is in an interdependent relationship and that human beasties have gotten far too big for our britches. No, what I can see instead are catastrophic consequences arising from yet another versus – science vs. religion. It’s already happening, and it terrifies me. Evolution vs. creationism. A vaccine which will prevent almost all cervical cancer vs. Christian fundamentalists in the USA. Even condoms vs. abstinence can, and I think ought, to be interpreted as a part of the science vs. religion conflict.
I mourn for every tragic, unnecessarily early death that has and will result as a consequence of ‘religion’ currently being ahead in this science vs. religion conflict. I hate that at present the loudest voice of religion is the voice of patriarchal extremism. What makes me want to pull my hairs out, though, is the shared constant I witness on both sides of the conflict. “Accept our truth and no other.
Once upon a time human beasties used to love a good story – the more richly detailed the better. The one about the greedy racoon with the sore paw, or the one about the rain coming down because the goddess is sad; the one about the snake and the tree, no, the one about the walrus on the ice floe. All manner of slippery, fact-resistant truths were transmitted from one generation to the next through those silly stories. I imagine that good storytellers were held in high esteem by their villages. So too were good farmers and good midwives. I would guess that when it was getting time to plant or to reap the farmers’ advice was sought, not the storyteller’s. When a woman went into labour I believe they probably sent for the midwife, not the storyteller. But on dark, quiet nights, when they needed reminding that they belonged in this vast, complex, difficult here – I think they called for the storyteller, and I don’t think they were ever satisfied with one single story.
Prof. Davies, you are a wonderful storyteller, even if some of your last chapters make me want to bop you on the nose, just gently. Thank you for bringing the wonderful, stupendous findings of science to conscious awareness in my muzzy brain, and in the beautiful brains of so many others. I wish you a belated happy birthday, and hope that in the coming years you write many more stories for us all about the amazing, terrifying universe in which we dwell.