Thursday, February 26, 2009

(249) Beginning to learn to think

In the early hours of February 22nd 2009 I made a contribution to a Blog of Prof. Colin Blakemore´s at Comment Is Free entitled Science is just one gene away from defeating religion
Prof. B. argued hard for a materialist view of everything and suggested that we may soon nail the genes that force so many to take religious ideas seriously.

... at Cambridge... I walked to lectures past the Cavendish Lab... One day, scrawled on the wall, was... "CRICK FOR GOD".
No surprise that pivotal advances in science provoke religious metaphors. Crick and Watson's discovery transformed our view of life itself - from a manifestation of spiritual magic to a chemical process. One more territorial gain in the metaphysical chess match between science and religion.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was certainly a vital move in that chess game - if not checkmate. In an interview for God and the Scientists, to be broadcast tonight... Richard Dawkins declares: "Darwin removed the main argument for God's existence."

...Throughout the love-hate relationship between science and Christianity, the idea that human rationality is a gift from God has frequently been used as a justification, or an excuse, for scientific inquiry...
Science has rampaged over the landscape of divine explanation, provoking denial or surrender from the church...

Science is brilliant at questions that start "how", but religion is the only approach to questions that start "why". Throughout history, human beings have asked those difficult "why" questions.
It's true that spiritual beliefs of one form or another are universal, almost as defining of humanity as language is. But the universality of language and the fact that bits of the human brain are clearly specialised to do language suggest that our genes give us language-learning brains. Is the same true of religion?
Brain scanning has indeed shown particular bits of the brain lighting up with activity when people pray... or recollect intense religious experiences. Richard Harries said: "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief."
But there is another interpretation, which might eventually lead to the completion of the scientific harvest.
..increasingly, those who study the human brain see our experiences, even of our own intentions, as being an illusory commentary on what our brains have already decided to do... could the pervasive human belief in supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a misconception no more significant than a visual illusion?
I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.
When we understand how our brains generate religious ideas, and what the Darwinian adaptive value of such brain processes is, what will be left for religion?

The spawned thread had 712 comments. Mine was the first -
22 Feb 09, 12:23am
He didn´t checkmate me, pal.
And I´m a Grandmaster.
I think Darwinian theory is codswallop.
But harmless codswallop.

Later that morning I competed in a one day chess event at Pilar de la Horadada.
I took with me into the tournament hall a copy of a book which I had purchased some years earlier but which I had only recently began to read through: Philosophy for Beginners by Dave Robinson and Judy Groves
I had been prompted by the realisation that my knowledge of even basic philosophy was inadequate.
I had read some books on the subject, including Russell´s History of Western Philosophy, in the 1980s, but not nearly enough on so important a topic.
It was a rarity to see anyone with a book at such an event, but to my surprise I spotted a friend of some six years, and ex-team-mate, Ivan Hernandez, carrying a copy of Principios elementales de filosofia by Georges Politzer.
This was a Fontana book in their Clasicos Universales series.

I had cetainly never seen the Chilean Hernandez carrying a book anywhere before and pointed out to him the coincidence of us reading books of similar titles.
Politzer, of whom I think I had never previously heard, was very much a materialist, as this quote from his 1926 work L´ Esprit makes clear -

... for the new philosophy, there can not be dualism between certainty and security... The new philosophers will have nothing more than mere certainty. Truly, philosopher will become anew a dangerous occupation, as it was in heroic times. The philosophers will anew be the friends of the truth, but by the same turn, enemies of the gods, enemies of the state, and corrupters of youth. Philosophy will, anew, involve a risk. A selection will then take place. They will not arrive at the truth but who love it to the point of daring to transform spiritual ventures into material ones.

In the 4th round I played Daniel Zuniga and again was surprised to see that he too had a book with him. It was subtitled Las Claves Para La Educacion (The Keys for Education) although its full title was a rendition into Spanish of The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education.
It was co-authored by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith.
The Blakemore name jumped out at me. I was to discover that this was the Professor´s daughter.
It was about
what we really know about how the brain learns, and the implications of this knowledge for educational policy and practice, covering studies on learning during the whole of development, including adulthood.

Daniel explained that the book was not his but belonged to fellow contestant Grandmaster Mihai Suba. I had known Mihai for 20 years but could not recall ever before seeing him with a book.

1 comment:

Wahrheit said...

Today's coincidence: Just before coming by to read this post I was reading The Irrational Atheist by "Vox Day" (Theodore Beale). Richard Dawkins is one of the principal subjects of the book.