Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jon Stewart & Marilynne Robinson: Disappointing and Disingenuous

I'm very disappointed in Jon Stewart. He passed up a great opportunity to stand up for science and reason, and instead he promoted ignorance and confusion. It happened a few days ago, when he interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was promoting her new non-fiction work, Absence of Mind. The discussion was about the public conversation on science and religion.

Robinson claims that both religion and science have been poorly represented in the public domain. She says can help us understand both, and why both science and religion must work together to help us understand ourselves and the world. She doesn't spend any time criticizing religion or religious leaders, however, so it's not clear what problem she has there. She's a Calvinist, in fact, though she says she loves science. She tells Stewart that the "new cosmologies and so on are among the most beautiful things that people have conceived." (As I'll explain, I have reason to doubt she's qualified to appreciate the beauty of our best scientific theories and models.) She goes on to say that such scientific achievements are neither religious nor anti-religious.

This suggests the view, commonly associated with NOMA, that science and religion are concerned with different sorts of questions, different domains of inquiry, and do not overlap. Scientific truths have no impact on religious faith, and religious faith has no implications for scientific inquiry. Perhaps that's her view, but she doesn't explicitly say it. In fact, at the beginning of the interview, Stewart says that the common belief is that science and religion are completely separate and have nothing in common, and Robinson says she is trying to change that. So she's apparently both pro- and anti-NOMA. I'm tempted to conclude that Robinson has no coherent position to speak of.

If anything, she is against sociobiology and naturalism, as this review of her new book shows. (Naturalism is perhaps best defined as the view that no causes are theoretically outside the bounds of scientific discovery.) Robinson suggests we all garner a healthy respect for the mysterious essence of humanity and nature. This anti-naturalist position is not what I would call a coherent philosophical position. It's more of an anti-position, an irrational insistence that there are just some things we cannot understand.

Interestingly, Robinson left the mystery stuff out of her Daily Show interview. She does not openly criticize naturalism at all. She does not claim that we should "acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are," as she writes in her new book. Rather, she acts as though she is not taking sides in the debate over naturalism. This is disingenuous. She might admire science, however ignorant of it she actually is; but she is definitely taking sides. She believes that religion complements science, that we need both to fully understand ourselves and nature.

Before I criticize Robinson in any detail, I want to explain my disappointment with Jon Stewart. I am not disappointed in him for taking sides in the science-vs.-religion debate. I'm not even disappointed in him for promoting a book that is against naturalism. At least, I wouldn't be, if he were qualified to have an informed opinion about it, but he is clearly not competent to make an informed judgment as to its merits.

I'm disappointed in Jon Stewart's ignorance and his willingness to let that ignorance guide the judgments he makes on his show. He not only gave Robinson a platform for her anti-naturalist agenda; he helped her propagate the fog of confusion that impedes the public's understanding of science and religion.

It's clear that Stewart has no conception of what distinguishes science and religion. He says as much himself. He starts by saying, "the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith." To explain this, he uses the example of dark matter, which he mistakenly refers to as "anti-matter." Interestingly, Robinson didn't catch the mistake. I guess she's not so up on those "new cosmologies" she claims are so beautiful. In any case, it doesn't matter that Stewart mistook anti-matter for dark matter. He's not expected to know about that stuff. But that's part of the problem: He acts as though he has some insight into the fundamental nature of scientific arguments, but he obviously isn't even familiar with them.

His argument is that scientists just have faith that the universe is composed of dark matter, giving a comical take on the speculative nature of our current understanding of it. We can't observe dark matter, we can't measure it, but it's just there. God is the same: You can't see Him, you can't measure Him . . . He's just there. Stewart concludes that, "at their core," the scientific argument for dark matter and the theistic argument for God are similar. (Robinson agrees with him, of course.)

Maybe I should explain why Stewart's argument is so ignorant and insulting to scientists. He is ignoring the explanatory value of postulating dark matter. The idea of dark matter explains a lot of what scientists observe. In contrast, the idea of God does not explain anything. There is a fundamental difference between (1) postulating dark matter within a scientific framework for understanding nature and (2) postulating a supernatural Being as the ultimate cause of nature. The former has explanatory value; the latter does not. That's the difference, and it is crucial.

Scientists tentatively postulate dark matter until it no longer makes sense, in terms of explanatory value, to do so. The legitimacy of the notion of dark matter rests entirely on our ability to relate it directly or indirectly to repeatable observations. In contrast, theists postulate God without sense or contingency. The claim that God created the universe does not explain anything. More, the very notion of something creating the universe is without sense. That's what makes theism a matter of faith: It is entirely irrational. Scientific arguments for dark matter, in contrast, are rational: Scientists do not have faith in dark matter.

It is a shame that Jon Stewart does not understand the difference between science and faith, and that in his confusion he furthered Marilynne Robinson's anti-naturalistic agenda.

If you read the review of Absence of Mind which I linked to above, you'll see that Robinson doesn't seem to understand the scientists she is talking about. She accuses sociobiologists of thinking that human behavior is ultimately a matter of individual self-interest. That couldn't be further from the truth. The whole point of sociobiology (including Dawkins' "selfish gene" approach) is that human behavior is not ultimately a matter of our own interests at all, but a matter of what has helped our genetic lineage replicate.

Robinson argues that scientists have failed to observe the human element when examining neurological phenomena. For example, she critiques what she calls "parascientific" literature on Phineas Gage, a 19th-century American who managed to survive an explosive accident which sent a three foot, seven inch iron rod clear through his skull, taking with it a significant portion of his frontal lobe. What is remarkable is not only that Gage survived the incident, but that his memory and intelligence were unharmed. Yet, he suffered a severe personality shift. He apparently lost the ability to maintain social relationships or make responsible decisions about his future. This suggests, but of course does not prove, that there are distinct parts of the brain responsible for social skills and personal development, but which are not necessary for memory or intelligence.

Robinson criticizes scientists for ignoring Gage's humanity, for failing to see that his personality shifts could have been the result of his having suffered a disfiguring trauma. She suggests that scientists don't think about what it means to be a person, and so fail to grasp the full complexity of humanity. This is rhetorical fluff, and not a philosophically or scientifically sound argument. If she wants to criticize the way scientists draw their conclusions, she has to read actual science, not offer alternative explanations of particular cases. And the case of Phineas Gage was never properly documented, as scientists are ready to admit. It was never taken to be a conclusive study, so her criticism is irrelevant. (That's assuming that it's even accurate, which I'm not willing to concede.)

As she says in the Stewart interview, Robinson thinks that philosophers and scientists since the early 20th century have "minimized the complexity and importance of the human mind." Yet, philosophers and scientists have largely marveled at the complexity of human cognition and emotion. They haven't minimized it. So why does she make this comment? Because of Phineas Gage? Perhaps for Robinson, any scientific attempt to understand human behavior is a minimization of the complexity and importance of the human mind. If we treat humanity as an object of scientific study, as part of nature, biological at its core, then we are doing an injustice to the human spirit.

At one point in the interview, Jon Stewart asks a good question, though he phrases it awkwardly: "Science is making an argument that discounts religion or faith? . . . Science doesn't take into account magic--like, the soul? Is that the suggestion?"

It looks like he's struggling to understand what her view is: What is it that limits science, exactly? What is it that distinguishes science and religion?

This is where Robinson could have--and should have--come clean. She should have revealed her Christian apologetic agenda and said, yes, science cannot account for the essence of humanity, the human spirit; we are not fundamentally biological creatures. But she didn't. Instead, she said, slightly fumbling, "Not so much as, um . . . I don't think, frankly, that it is scientific to proceed from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos."

This is probably an implicit jab at E. O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, who is well-known for his study of ants. However, it's also a poetic way of criticising Richard Dawkins' attempt to use scientific evidence (most famously, his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit) to argue against the probability of God's existence. Robinson is claiming that evolutionary theory cannot tell us about the nature of the universe. But is she saying that science, in general, cannot tell us anything about the nature of the universe? Or is she just saying evolutionary theory is not up to the task? Either way, I'm not holding my breath for her answer.

Marilynne Robinson and I do agree a little bit. I'm similarly unimpressed by Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. I generally don't find weak atheism (aka "teapot agnosticism") convincing. It gives too much philosophical credit to theism and supernaturalism, as I've explained several times before (e.g., see here and, more recently, here.) But that doesn't mean evolutionary theory in general, or the study of ants in particular, cannot tell us anything about the nature of the cosmos. And it certainly doesn't mean that there is any insight into the nature of the cosmos to be found in theism or religion.

In fact, I would agree that the case for science and naturalism has not been very well-represented across the board. Some represent it better than others. But I don't think Robinson would agree with me that the case for naturalism has not been well-represented. Rather, she would say only that the case for science has not been well-represented. She would probably say that to best represent science, we must abandon naturalism. That's where we disagree.

As I said already, she was disingenuous in leaving naturalism out of the interview. This may have been a deliberate strategy. She wanted to look like a friend to atheism as well as theism, even though her agenda is clearly theistic and against naturalism. Why the disguise? Perhaps because she knows that, if she advertises her book as an assault on naturalism, it will only appeal to the anti-naturalists. She wants to sell her book to everybody interested in the debate over science and religion, and she wants to make it seem like she has something new and valuable to add to the conversation--something which both sides would benefit from understanding. Either that, or she just doesn't know what she is talking about at all.

In any case, I'm inclined to doubt that Robinson brings any intellectual or scholarly weight to the table. And it's clear that Jon Stewart is not qualified to critically review or recommend her book. And he's certainly not qualified to discuss the nature of scientific arguments. Thus, I am disappointed. Perhaps as recompense, Stewart will give a more thoughtful interview with a well-spoken naturalist in the near future.

One can hope.

[Update July 13, 2010, 6:55 GMT: I originally claimed that Absence of Mind was Marilynne Robinson's first work of non-fiction. That was a mistake, as one commenter was nice enough to point out.]