Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spheres of Influence

Returning to The Pure Society -- Pichot touched on a question that has been on my mind for some time now, ever since I read Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999). I've read most of his other books, and Rocks of Ages was the first I couldn't finish. Gould argued for a division of spheres of influence between science and religion, for what he called "non-overlapping magisteria" or NOMA. He actually drew a parallel between this proposed division and the infamous division of the New World into Spanish and Portuguese spheres by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which overrode Pope Alexander VI's bull granting most of the land to Spain. In both cases, there are other claimants to the territories involved, not least the people who are living in them to begin with.

Gould first declared that moral and social questions were the proper sphere of religion, and explanation of the universe was the proper sphere of science. As long as each magisterium kept to its knitting, all would be well. But then he backtracked, admitting that religion hadn't done such a good job with moral questions, and dropped the matter. The author of The Mismeasure of Man might have done better to point out just how badly science had done when it ventured into the moral and social arena.

Richard Dawkins attacked Gould in his normal manner, what Pichot calls the "idiotic hawker" (70) style, in The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). To some extent I agree with Dawkins, as when he asks why religion should be consulted at all:
I suspect that both astronomers were, yet again, bending over backwards to be polite: theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let's throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will. Unlike my astronomer friends, I don't think we should even throw them a sop, I have yet to see any good reason that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.
Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free license to tell us what to do. Which religion, anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up?
As I already pointed out, Gould had backtracked on the advisability of letting religion pronounce on moral and social questions. One might also ask, though, why anyone would ask Dawkins's advice on morality or any other matter. (Of course "theology" is a subject, if an eminently dismissible one; the idiotic hawker is letting his rhetoric run away with him, as usual.) His discourse on social matters, which has been abundant, is no better than that of "religion" (as though religion were a coherent body of discourse), notable for its incoherence when it isn't just good old-fashioned scientific racism.

I was even more startled when Michael Shermer declared in his The Science of Good and Evil (Holt, 2005, page 6):
Most people don’t go to church to hear an explanation for the origin of the cosmos and life (and if they did, and they knew something about the findings of modern science, they would be dismayed to be told that the Genesis myth of a six-day creation less than ten thousand years ago was to be taken literally). Instead, most folks go to socialize with like-minded friends, neighbors, and colleagues to contemplate the meaning of their lives and life and to glean moral messages from the homilies presented in stories, myths and anecdotes of the knotty problems that life presents to us all. To date science – even scientism – has had little to do or say in this social mode, …

As long as religion does not make quasi-scientific claims about the factual nature of the world, then there is no conflict between science and religion.
Why doesn’t this reassure me? The avoidance of turf wars between two vicious gangs doesn’t necessarily make a better world.

I am still boggled by Shermer's claim that science has had little to do or say in this social mode. As Pichot's book shows, this is completely false, though I knew that long before I'd read Pichot. Shermer lets the cat out of the bag when he says a few pages later (9), "As such, evolutionary ethics is a subdivision of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior." Evolutionary psychology is the current alias of sociobiology, the main intervention of "science -- even scientism" into the "social mode."

Pichot says it better (341):
Against these temptations and attempts, it has to be reasserted that the universality of human rights is not based on the genetic identity of the human species. Such a notion leads straight to the differentiation of social and political rights as a function of variations in the genome – whether these are racial variations or not. It is not up to biology to lay down the law, to make decisions of a political and social order, whether on matters of race or of ‘genetic correctness’.

As we have explained, there are two quite distinct social uses of biology … On the one hand, there are uses, such as Pasteurianism, that are essentially technical, and these are perfectly acceptable and even desirable. On the other hand, there are uses, such as those made of genetics and Darwinism, that claim the right (or even the obligation) to intervene in the social-political order and modify this to make it correspond to a [342] supposedly natural order – which in reality is more like an order of profitability. This second category of social uses is totally unacceptable.

In these matters of society and politics, geneticists have nothing to say; it is up to political philosophers to make comments and recommendations. As these latter keep silent and abandon the field to biologists, which they certainly should not do, I shall attempt, for better or worse, to step into their place and maintain that, although the objective physical and intellectual qualities of individuals may be different – whether this difference is hereditary or acquired – this does not affect these individuals in their essential being, because they cannot be reduced to a set of objective qualities. Persons are not objects, ‘human resources’ whose profitability or contribution to progress is to be measured. In this respect, they are neither unequal nor different; they are in fact incomparable. And it is because they are incomparable that they are equal, in an equality that is based neither on measurement nor on comparison, but on an equality of dignity and right. Biological criteria have no place here.
Of course, we mere humans needn't defer to political philosophers either...