Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Aesthetics of Atheism

Philosophy proceeds through argument, but it begins with intuition. The sense that something in our understanding is not quite right and the vague idea of which intellectual direction the error emanates from are the basis for contemplation and exploration that after hard work and revision become philosophy. But while intuition may be the common starting point for everyone jumping into the project, one can never count on the universality of the starting intuition. This was made clear to me again when I was talking with Aspazia and one of her students. The conversation gave me cause to think about the aesthetic intuition that lays beneath a certain strain of atheistic worldview.

The discussion came out of Aspazia's class on the philosophy of psychiatry. She begins by considering the definitions of mental illnesses as given in the DSM IV (the handbook for diagnosing psychological problems) and whether they are what philosophers, following W.V.O. Quine, call "natural kinds," that is a group that is defined by nature itself and not arbitrary human choice. For example, biological species would be a natural kind. These are the joints where we can carve nature according to Plato's analogy.

The view that mental illness is completely reducible to biological and chemical causes is this sort of view. Aspazia argues that not only can we not reduce all mental illness in this way because there are implicit culturally defined notions like "normal" packed into the definitions in crucial places, but further that the whole idea of a natural kind itself is problematic. This is where the student, one with a natural scientific worldview, thought the train left the tracks. He saw no problem with natural kinds as a foundation for reality and all of Aspazia's arguments to the contrary seemed like well-intentioned sophistry. They had run into a clash of intuitions.

Last week, Ken had asked about my favorite passage from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I replied that it was the distinction he draws between the classical and the romantic mind. Here we see an instantiation of that. Aspazia has a romantic mind. One of her favorite passages in the history of philosophy comes from Michel Foucault's introduction to The Order of Things, where he quotes Jorge Luis Borges' citing of an ancient Chinese encyclopedia's classification of animals:

a) animals which belong to the emperor
b) embalmed animals
c) tamed animals
d) milk sows
e) sirens
f) fabulous beasts
g) dogs without a master
h) those which belong into this grouping
i) those who behave like mad
k) animals painted with a very fine brush of camel hair
l) and so forth
m) animals which have broken the water jug
n) animals which look like flies from afar

The idea is that for any set of objects, there is a multitude of ways they can be categorized and these categories form the way we see the world, so it is impoverishing the universe to claim that there is a single privileged means of classification, that science provides the only or best way of understanding reality. Placing science on a pedestal as the only lens through which to see the world is to constrain the human mind, to deny the freedom that makes us human, to eliminate that which creates beauty. It is here that scientistic atheism is seen as removing what is most wonderful from the world.

But the student wasn't seeing an impoverishment of the world at all with its ability to be absolutely and naturally partitioned, quite the opposite. For him -- and me -- the idea that there is a real natural order to things is the source of overwhelming awe. Far from being constraining, it is the reason the universe is so beautiful. Human constructions are clunky, limited, and ad hoc -- to put them on a par with the real workings of the world is a grave insult to nature. It is to disrespect what should be marveled at. Nature is ultimately simple in all its stunning complexity. The 19th century scientist, historian, and philosopher William Whewell pointed out that the creative act in science is the bringing together of disparate facts that seem to live in different scientific houses under a single explanatory roof. When Newton brought together the falling of an apple, the orbit of the moon, and the tides; when Maxwell brought together electricity, magnetism, and the behavior of light; it was like the picture that is both the young and old woman -- you may only see one, but once you finally see the other one you can't help but see them both. Your way of looking has been forever altered. When we come to realize how the joints of nature dovetail so perfectly in unexpected ways, to chalk them up to the accidental human invention.

Einstein said it so wonderfully. When word arrived that the very first experimental confirmation of the general theory of relativity had been achieved with the observation of light-bending during an eclipse, Einstein was unmoved. This moment should have brought great excitement, and when his puzzled friend asked why he was not overjoyed, he responded that he already knew he was right. When she inquired about his reaction should the observation have discomfirmed the theory, his classic response was, "I would have had pity for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

That perfectly illustrates the aesthetic foundation of scientistic atheism -- science has done so much and exposed so many things we not only could never have dreamt up ourselves, but more importantly it has allowed us to understand the simple, but intricate relations between them. Yes, science is built by human minds. Yes, scientific advancement is a result of accidental historical factors. There is a reason advances in different sciences happened when and where they did. The rise of Greek civilization, the Protestant revolution, the World Wars and subsequent Cold War all had stunning effects on what science was done, what presuppositions were challenged, what research projects were suddenly given material priority. But while science cannot be completely understood independent of sociological factors, the intuition of the romantic mind that science is merely one view amongst many and that beauty lies in letting a thousand flowers bloom strikes those of us with classical minds as bizarre because that point of view seems not to get the joke. You get a joke when you are able to reconcile the interpretation you had about the situation in the set up with what you are told in the punchline and for those of us who are inclined to naturally see structure and order, the scientific worldview makes reality a big universal joke.

Contrary to what the romantics may think, we don't miss the beauty and we see the attempts by some to shoehorn into it metaphysical entities with independent will and causal power to be like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is so sleek and elegant, so tight and smooth, that introducing such chaos is to ruin what was so gorgeous. We don't claim to be Laplace's demon, we don't actually have the understanding of how it does actually work. Science is sloppy, its best current guesses will be shown to be sorely lacking in generations to come, we cannot see the actual workings of the machine. But we do catch glimpses and those fleeting images, when you suddenly realize what you just saw, are breathtaking.

None of this, of course, is an argument. I'm not giving grounds on which to privilege one way of seeing the world over another here, but I've always been struck by the way that the romantic worldview is able to frame the classical as cold, dispassionate, and empty when, in fact, the world we see is no less spectacular, no less filled with awe and splendor. Yes, sometimes the joke is told in a mathematical language with a very intricate grammar, but it is a great joke -- the kind that gets funnier every time you hear it.