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Sunday, September 30, 2012, 10:01 PM
Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle.
– Albert Einstein
Crisis in Religion
A spate of bestsellers—The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith by Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everythingby the late Christopher Hitchens—argues that religion, as we’ve known it, no longer serves the needs of our scientific, cosmopolitan world.
Books like these appeal to a public put off by science deniers, repulsed by clerical abuses, and alarmed by fundamentalist zealotry. Contemporary religious leaders, painfully aware of the relationship between public participation and institutional viability, know that empty pews, like empty theaters, herald obsolescence.
If religion is serious about restoring its public reputation, it could do so by partnering with science. I know that sounds naive, but hear me out. Religion heralds “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” Science gives us reason to think we can vanquish famine, disease, and poverty. What would it take for these venerable antagonists to emulate Rick and Louis in Casablanca and form a beautiful friendship?
By way of introducing my answer to this question, I’d like to acknowledge that, despite its current ill-repute in some quarters, religion has in fact gotten some very big things right.
A Few Things Religion Got Right
Any short list of religion’s greatest hits would include (1) the idea of god, (2) the golden rule, and (3) a vision of universal human dignity.
With the idea of god, early humans were imagining a being who understands things well enough to build them. If there’s a God who comprehends the world, and we’re made in His image, then we, too, might someday understand. As Stephen Hawking famously said, to comprehend the world is to “know the mind of God.”
Humans gain understanding, and hence a measure of control, by building models. A model is a representation of an object or phenomenon that simulates aspects of the real thing. Models take the form of theories that describe natural phenomena, stories or human beings themselves who show us how to behave, and spreadsheets that forecast how businesses will fare. By studying models we can anticipate the behaviors of the real world phenomena they mirror.
For most of human history, though religious models met a need for shared communal beliefs, they lacked explanatory power. Today, they’re often dismissed as mere myths, but it’s more fruitful to think of them as stepping stones to better models. We now understand some things far better than our ancestors, and other things not much better at all. Whether we’ll ever know God’s mind is an open question, but that our models of Nature are good enough to steal some of His thunder has been answered decisively with twentieth century technology. If E = mc2 is a jewel in crown of modern science, the golden rule, which embodies a symmetry reminiscent of those that shape physics models, is a gem in religious thought.
In addition to the world’s comprehensibility and the golden rule—which by themselves warrant a tip of the hat to religion—there is also the notion of universal dignity.
Theistic religions proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god—a “father” who loves all his “children” equally, according them equal dignity regardless of their status, rank, or role. The universality of dignity is not a description of life as we know it, but rather a prescription for life as it’s arguably becoming. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Though we should anticipate setbacks, the circle of dignity is slowly expanding. Explicit demands for dignity fuel recent protests in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and, in the form of the Occupy Movement, in North America.
Like good science models, the golden rule and the universality of dignity derive their power not from the zeal of true believers, but from the truths they encapsulate. The alternative to fundamentalism is not relativism, it’s ever more realistic models.
Ingredients of a Beautiful Friendship
Learning to see science models as provisional has resulted in unimaginable technological and economic gains. By taking a page from science, and embracing the improvability of personal beliefs and religious teachings, religion could foster parallel gains in personal growth, social harmony, and international cooperation.
The truth is we’ve been living without absolutes from the start. There really never were any, but until now we’ve needed to believe in them much as children fix on certain beliefs while they find their footing. With adolescence, we temper these beliefs, and with maturity we can let go of belief in belief itself.
That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by scientists. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it’s a theory. What else could it be? But it’s a rigorously tested theory and it makes sense to use it until we have something that’s superior.
When it comes to the discovery process, the differences between the eurekas of science and the revelations of religion are window-dressing. Yes, scientists wear lab coats and jeans, and we imagine prophets in tunics and loincloths, but investigators of every kind base their insights on meticulous observation and savor their “ah-ha” moments. The dysfunctional relationship that now exists between science or religion could be retired in favor of a beautiful friendship if both parties would acknowledge that:
*Both science and religion make use of educated guesses to identify new truth, devise rules, construct theories, and build models.
*Scientific and religious models that are found wanting must be revised or discarded.
*Human fallibility means revisions are the rule, not the exception. We’re well advised to “try, try again,” because one success, which may then spread via imitation, makes up for countless failures.
*Both scientific and religious precepts must be grounded in painstaking observation and are defended by reference to such evidence.
*The act of discovery—though it goes by the different names of eureka, epiphany, revelation, and enlightenment—is basically the same in all fields. An occasional ah-ha punctuates a lot of ho-hum.
*Science and religion reduce suffering in complementary ways: science by alleviating material wants and curing disease; religion by cultivating kindness and compassion.
*Both scientists and religious leaders have sometimes put their institutional interests above the public interest. Both science and religion have also produced leaders who have sacrificed themselves for truth, beauty, and justice.
The Peace Dividend
As dignity’s discoverer and its defender of last resort, a larger, revitalizing role for religion would emerge if it partnered with science. If they made peace, together they could usher in an epoch of universal dignity.
Religion could blunt accusations that it’s just another self-serving institution and regain its voice by:
*Sponsoring dialogues to clarify exactly what’s meant by “equal dignity for all.”
*Developing models that close the dignity gap that separates those who are regarded as somebodies from those who are taken for nobodies.
*Assisting organizations in aligning their cultures and practices with dignity-affirming values.
*Actively supporting the dignity movement.
*Critiquing the findings of neuroscience on the nature of mind, and helping us cope with advances in machine intelligence that may someday threaten our sense of selfhood.
*Designing dignity-preserving institutions of global governance.
*Ennobling the quest to achieve “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men.”
If science and religion cooperate to extend dignity, we could realize the promise of a fair, just, and peaceful world, not merely in our dreams, but here on Earth, not in the indefinite future, but before this century is out.
Indeed, there is reason to hope.
This article is a synopsis of my recent blog series “Religion & Science: A Beautiful Friendship?”. The complete series can be downloaded as a free eBook here, and it is also available as a print-on-demand edition.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012, 8:18 PM
[This is the 20th and last in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?]
We are as gods and have to get good at it.
– Stewart Brand
The shift from opportunistic predation to inviolate universal dignity is an epochal one, and arguably, it’s one we now find ourselves making. However, it’s only prudent to ask “What could go wrong? What could postpone the advent of a dignitarian world? Are we overlooking new threats to human dignity?”
[Someday human intelligence] might be viewed as a historically interesting, albeit peripheral, special case of machine intelligence.
– Pierre Baldi
Futurists are warning that at some point during this century we’ll be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human—the advent of sophisticated thinking machines. It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it would be quite another to face machines manifesting supra-human intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk who, by any measure, outperforms the cleverest, most creative person you know. We’ll probably program such devices not to condescend to us, but the knowledge that they beat us at our own game would take some getting used to.
A preview of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior demotions in status. Copernicus’s removing the Earth, and us along with it, from center stage caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s depiction of us as descendants of apes was initially scorned and is still rejected by some. If, as now seems likely, life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a special role.
In the face of these previous humblings, humans found what appeared to be an incontestable basis for pride in their superior intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? We’ve rarely handled such blows with grace.
Faced with creations of our own making that outdo us, and notwithstanding a few valedictory tantrums, we’ll probably end up by humbly accepting the help of thinking machines much as aging parents reluctantly accept advice from their grown offspring.
Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with help from our clever progeny, may someday supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes, but expunged? Not by smart machines, if we make them our allies.
If the current trend toward dignity is reversed, it will likely be due to scarcity thrust upon us by our own actions. Obviously, the advent of a dignitarian world could be set back for decades, possibly centuries, by global economic collapse, war, pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and a host of other eventualities that could reinstate predatory competition for scarce resources. Though such calamities might slow the universalization of dignity, they are unlikely to permanently reverse a trend that can now be read between the lines on every page of the human story.
In the context of future challenges, it’s illuminating to consider the proverb “The poor shall always be with you.” Does “poor” refer literally to wealth, that is, does this proverb deny the possibility of an equitable world?
We could take the saying to mean that even if everyone has enough, there will always be variations in wealth, that is, there will remain some who are relatively poor. Or, we could take it to mean that although there may be no significant variations in financial security, there would still exist people who are poor in spirit, who lack recognition, or are lonely or otherwise unfulfilled. I find this maxim to be one of religion’s more provocative hypotheses. I hope it’s wrong, in both senses, but it’s too early to tell. We do seem to be getting a handle on malnutrition, and it’s not impossible that we’ll eliminate it entirely and go on to address the damage done by malrecognition. Success against both “maladies” would offer hope that the poor will not always be with us.
Likewise, with the admonition “Love thy enemies.” It sounds like a bridge too far in today’s world, but in a dignitarian world, where synthesis is the name of the game, love will be much closer to hand. Once again, religion is likely prophetic: sooner than we think, it’s going to become obvious that to be anything other than our brothers’ keepers endangers us all.
As it happens, we’re making the shift to dignitarian values in the nick of time. As the above list of possible setbacks suggests, the problems looming on the horizon are even tougher than those of the past, and solving them will require overcoming old divisions that block cooperation.
If we do discover life on other planets, we’ll want to know where we stand relative to it on the evolutionary scale. If this analysis is correct, then dignitarianism is universal and it won’t matter if extraterrestrial beings are more advanced than we because they will also be dignitarian and will protect our dignity much as we increasingly concern ourselves with the dignity of animals. And if it turns out that they are less advanced than we, then we will treat them with dignity. Either way, we should be okay—if, when that day comes, we’ve let go of our old predatory strategy in favor of a dignitarian one.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that although we’ve been making models from the start, we’ve only become really good at it in the last few centuries. This suggests that we are probably much closer to the beginning of human history than the end.
It’s myopic to believe that the problems we’re confronting now are insoluble and will continue to obsess humans of the future. Even in the last hundred years, we’ve halved the percentage of people whose primary concern is food and shelter. Likewise, there are already signs that our focus is shifting from issues of war and peace, and domination and dignity, to global threats like those listed above. These will likely prove as bracing as those we’ve been focused on.
The apparent infinitude of our ignorance has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will remain unfinished, our understanding incomplete. This means that there will always be opportunities to contribute to knowledge. We, or our successors, will never be out of a job. As David Deutsch argues, we’re at “the beginning of infinity.”
Is the Universe Friendly?
The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
– Meister Eckhart, 13th c. mystic
Asked what question he would most want to know the answer to if he returned to Earth in 500 years, Albert Einstein replied, “Is the universe friendly?”
Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and, at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I look into the cosmos.
Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anything matter?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. At first glance, the universe seems uncaring; the indifference of infinite space, a cosmic, comic indignity.
But then the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does have a heart—indeed, lots of them. They’re beating in our breasts.
Any inventory of the cosmos that omits us is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument capable of understanding itself and empathizing with others. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If I believe the universe is heartless, it’s because I myself do not love.
But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between then and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for hominids. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated modeling skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes—those of our own making as well as asteroids with our name on them.
The passage to a dignitarian world will probably not be smooth. We still have to lift billions of people out of poverty. Each year millions of children die from malnutrition and millions more suffer from malrecognition. But despair is unwarranted. The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart—our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and modelers—the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.
The universe, for its part, is likely to be as friendly or unfriendly as we are. Indeed, there is reason to hope.
[This is the 20th and last post in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]
Monday, July 30, 2012, 11:50 PM
[This is the 19th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
As prophets in every religion have tried to tell us, humankind is one big extended family. The simultaneous advent of globalization and the emergence of dignitarian values is no coincidence. Greater exposure to “foreigners” is making their demonization untenable, and, as discussed in previous posts, the predatory strategy is becoming obsolete.
An important factor in its demise is that it simply isn’t working as well as it used to. Victims of rankism have gained access to powerful weapons and can exact a high price for humiliations inflicted on them. Increasingly, they’re in a position to make the cost of predation exceed the value of the spoils. Weapons of mass destruction seize the imagination, but even if they’re never used, non-violent “weapons” of mass disruption, employed by aggrieved groups, can paralyze modern, highly interdependent societies. This represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in favor of the disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed.
Given that predation has been a fixture throughout human history, it’s not surprising that when one form of predation has ceased to work, we’ve devised alternative, subtler forms to accomplish the same thing. Although slavery itself is no longer defended, poverty functions in much the same way—by institutionalizing the domination and exploitation of the poorer by the richer. As Reverend Jim Wallis says, “Poverty is the new slavery.”
We shouldn’t be surprised if, using techniques of mass disruption and tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, the poor make their continued exploitation untenable. The Occupy Movement, like the Arab Spring, is a harbinger of a worldwide awakening to the inviolability of dignity.
Although moral precepts point the way, politics will play an indispensable role in setting aside predatory habits in favor of dignitarian ones. The next section shows the role that traditional Left and Right will have in crafting legislation to make “Dignity for All, Always” the world’s new default position and so, finally, to realize religion’s ancient dream of the brotherhood of man.
The Politics of Dignity
The tendency of societies to divide into two opposing partisan camps—conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, Right and Left—is universal and, in democracies, usually results in the parties taking turns in power. In one party states, the Left/Right division occurs within the single ruling party.
Simply declaring one party or the other wrongheaded fails to understand the complementary roles played by each. Both political orientations must serve a purpose or one would long-since have withered away. What purposes do the Left and the Right serve?
Partisanship has roots in the legitimate issue of how much authority to vest in rank. The Right has traditionally been the party that defends the authority and prerogatives of the propertied classes; the Left the party that would place limits on the power and privileges of those exercising authority. Accordingly, the Right tends to oppose, and the Left support, legislation that would make it easier for “nobodies” to hold accountable those entrusted with power. In the hurly-burly of history, the labels of Right and Left occasionally reverse. When the Bolsheviks, the party of the Left, seized power during the Russian Revolution of 1917, they abolished all constraints on governmental power.
Since both political persuasions have a valid role in good management, it’s not surprising that democratic electorates tilt first one way and then the other, like a navigator who makes a continual series of course corrections to avoid beaching the ship (of state) on the shoals (of extremism).
Which party fulfills the progressive or conservative role is secondary compared to the overarching need to maintain social and political stability while avoiding autocracy and stasis. A society that can’t trust anyone with power loses its ability to carry out complex tasks in a timely fashion. Systems of governance that cannot “people talking,” in Clement Atlee’s phrase, are vulnerable to what the women’s movement called the “tyranny of “structurelessness,” which often takes the form of interminable, inconclusive meetings. On the other hand, societies that don’t limit the power of their rulers (such as the USSR, Nazi Germany, and North Korea) find individual initiative stifled and liberty extinguished in a tyranny of conformity.
Aversion to abuses of power can blind liberals to rank’s legitimate functions. Likewise, attachment to the status quo can turn conservatives into apologists for rank’s misuse. To paraphrase an unknown pundit, we have lunatic fringes so we know how far not to go.
The dignitarian strategy is to put rank and the power it signifies in the spotlight, and so make abuses of power, and the indignities resulting therefrom, indefensible. It sees a world of equal dignity as a steppingstone to the more just, fair, and decent societies long foreseen by those who prophesied the brotherhood of man.
The French revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” overlooks the sine qua non of social harmony—Dignity. A persistent lack of dignity breeds indignation. Blowback may be suppressed for a time, but indignities, once lodged in the breast, fester until the aggrieved person, group, or nation sees a chance to get even.
No political theory predicated on either liberal or conservative values, qualifies as a TOE (Theory of “Everything”). By showing where each party’s attitude toward authority is relevant, a dignitarian analysis locates libertarian, egalitarian, and fraternitarian values within a new larger synthesis—the politics of dignity. Dignitarian politics, which finds its ultimate rationale in the co-creation and mutual maintenance of both our persons and our personas, subordinates the agendas of both the Left and the Right to the task of establishing dignity for all here and now.
The adoption of dignity as an inviolate political right marks a change fundamental enough to mark an era. Opportunistic predation—the survival strategy that we’ve long taken for human nature—has reached its “sell-by” date. Even wars by superpowers against much weaker states are proving unwinnable. When the long-term indirect costs are taken into account, domination is not profitable.
Rankism is the residue of predation. Humanity’s next step is to build dignitarian societies by overcoming rankism. Knowing that the moral arc of history bends towards justice gives reason to hope that the religious intuition of universal dignity is achievable.
If science and religion cooperate to uphold and extend dignity, and Left and Right remove the inequities that thwart fair competition, we can build a global society that’s as close to heaven as we have need for, and realize the brotherhood of man not merely in our dreams, but here on Earth, not in the indefinite future, but before this century is out.
With the appearance of the next and final post in this series (#20) we will provide a link to all twenty posts collected into a free eBook titled: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.
Saturday, July 28, 2012, 7:42 PM
[This is the 18th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
– Martin Luther King Jr.
One reading of the human story emphasizes war, domination, pillage, rape, slavery, colonization, and exploitation. Wealth and leisure for the few and a subsistence living for the many. To the extent that we can put people down and keep them there, we take what’s theirs and force them to do our bidding. To the extent that we can’t credibly do so, it’s our ineluctable fate to be victims.
Another telling of history highlights overthrowing tyrants, expelling colonizers, and, by marshaling the strength of numbers, progressively emancipating ourselves from slavery, poverty, and other degradations.
The key to deciding which of these perspectives is predictive of the human future lies in a paradoxical property of power. Once it’s understood that a group’s competitive success vis à vis other groups depends on limiting abuses of power within the group, King’s optimism regarding the curvature of the moral arc of history is vindicated.
Here’s the gist of the argument: If a ruler is regarded as unjust or self-aggrandizing by his subjects, morale will deteriorate to the point that group solidarity is weakened and the will to defend the group is impaired. Unjust leaders neither deserve nor elicit loyalty and, when push comes to shove, their people turn on them.
This means that governance that promotes loyalty and solidarity has survival value. Even societies that adopt a predatory stance looking outwards, are short-sighted if they disregard dignitarian values looking inwards. Over the course of history, not to complement outward-directed predatory capability with a modicum of dignity for those within the group has been to lose out to groups whose stronger social bond enabled them to marshal and project superior force.
For this reason, upholding dignity is more than an admonition to be “nice.” A policy of relatively equal dignity enhances the power of groups that practice it. None do so consistently, of course, but some do so more than others, and this gives them a competitive advantage stemming from social cohesiveness. This suggests that, on a millennial time scale, the golden rule is self-enforcing. We were too quick to judge it toothless. Rather, it simply took a few thousand years to cut teeth.
As we realize that over the long haul dignitarian societies have a competitive advantage, and as less dignitarian groups are absorbed by more dignitarian ones, we gradually operationalize the golden rule and extend its writ.
It’s important to recognize that within groups, it’s not just “top dogs” who abuse power. Power abuse is a tempting strategy at any rank because everybody is a somebody to someone and a nobody to someone else. Accordingly, unless you’re at the very bottom, a predatory posture can be assumed towards underlings no matter where one stands in a hierarchy. And, even if you are at the bottom, you can always kick the dog. Much cruelty to animals is a result of indignation that humans feel towards other humans who have humiliated them, but whom they dare not confront because the abusers are shielded by the power attached to their rank.
Because societies predicated on equal dignity are more productive and creative, and are more strongly committed to their common cause—be it aggressive or defensive—they are, on average, fitter. This does not mean that dignitarian groups win every contest with more predatory groups. Factors other than social cohesion also figure in the outcome. But it does mean that, with starts and fits, organizations and states that tolerate power abuses effectively de-select themselves. Over a long enough time period, the circle of dignity expands.
The paradox of power is that, statistically, dignitarian societies gradually absorb less dignitarian ones until finally there is no longer a significant likelihood of inter-group predation. Disgruntled outliers may resort to violence or disruption, but they will not be successful unless they are serving as proxies for a larger group that shares their grievances and their indignation.
A selection process governed by the same dynamic unfolds among organizations. For example, more dignitarian companies will, on average, serve their customers and employees better, and will outperform less dignitarian ones. In a phrase, dignity works, indignity doesn’t.
While the evolutionary trend prophesied by Martin Luther King Jr. may at first sound like wishful thinking, it is revealed as a logical consequence of the free play of power within and among competing groups. The paradox of power—that in the long run, right makes might, not vice versa—provides causal underpinning for optimism regarding the curvature of the moral universe. Despite the relentless drumbeat of bad news, the twenty-first century could witness the gradual phasing out of our age-old predatory strategy and the adoption of a dignitarian one. Even if there are major setbacks—and we must expect reversals and prepare for them—there is reason to believe that the state toward which humankind is tending is one of universal dignity.
Is Competition Compatible with Dignity for All?
There’s a conceptual barrier to putting our predatory past behind us, and not to address it would be remiss in a series of articles claiming there is reason to hope.
Disallowing predation sounds utopian to many because, as a society, we haven’t quite figured out how to forego habitual predatory behavior without inhibiting competition. Although it’s natural to see competition as the culprit (because it is so very often unfair, and because many competitors interpret winning a particular competition as an excuse for demeaning and exploiting those who lose), no society that has curtailed competition has long endured. As libertarian ideology confuses predation with competition and may find itself an apologist for the former, so egalitarian ideology confuses competition with predation and may advocate killing the goose—competition—that lays the golden egg. To this dilemma—how to allow competition while disallowing predation—dignitarian ethics provides a possible solution.
Competition is an integral part of our past and fair competition is indispensable to a prosperous, robust future. To delegitimize gradations of power is not only impossible, it’s a recipe for dysfunction. Fair competition is in fact one of the best safeguards against rankism ever devised.
From the natural selection that drives the differentiation of species to the marketplace that refines products and ideas, competition determines fitness and protects us from abuses of power by economic and political monopolies. To abolish competition is to invite stagnation, and eventually to fall behind societies that hone their competitive edge.
The difference between predation and competition is that predation knows no rules. In contrast, competition can be made fair. In athletic contests, we do this by having referees to enforce the rules evenhandedly. Making sure that competition is fair—by disallowing rankism in all its guises—is a proper function of government.
At every point in our social evolution, power rules. Power is neither good nor bad, it just is, and trying to eliminate power differences is barking up the wrong tree. Abuses of power, however, are something else. They will persist only so long as the individuals or institutions perpetrating them wield greater power. This would be grounds for cynicism were it not that when power is abused there eventually surfaces a less abusive and therefore ultimately more powerful alternative.
Groups that harbor indignity burden themselves with the corrosive effects of suppressed indignation. The long-term trend of this evolutionary process is the discovery of ever more effective forms of cooperation, successively out-producing, out-performing, and finally replacing more rankist organizations, institutions, societies, and states.
Dr. King’s intuition regarding the curvature of the moral universe is correct: it bends toward justice.
Saturday, July 28, 2012, 12:07 AM
[This is the 17th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
The Many Faces of Rankism
Rankism is a collective name for the various ways power can be abused in the context of a rank difference. It’s a name broad enough to cover a wide range of rank-based indignities and abuses. Whereas rank is meant to serve, rankism is self-serving, a perversion of service.
Examples of rankism (some may overlap):
• Illegitimate uses of legitimate rank (e.g., a boss extorting money or sex from an employee)
• The creation or use of social hierarchies that condone degradation and exploitation (e.g., the social construct of white superiority and supremacy, the caste system)
• Damaging or degrading assertions of rank (e.g., hate crimes, sexual harassment, child abuse)
• Actions or social arrangements that violate the principle of equal dignity (e.g., racial segregation, lack of the franchise)
• Putting others down; disempowering them (name-calling or obfuscation by elites)
• Using the power inherent in rank to strengthen the hold on a senior position or otherwise advantage incumbents. (E.g., office-holders exploiting the advantages of incumbency to insure retention of rank; life-time appointments that leave tenured teachers, professors, judges, and clerics virtually unaccountable.
• Self-service as contrasted with serving the avowed purpose of the organization (e.g., executives awarding themselves bonuses not on the basis of performance, but simply by virtue of their power to get away with doing so)
• Using the power of rank not to empower others, but to promote, enrich, or empower oneself (e.g., predatory lending)
I hope you’ll add to this list.
In many cases, ranking serves no purpose other than to create and maintain the privileges of the high-ranking. Although ranking is not inherently rankist, it’s often used as a cover for institutionalizing discrimination, for example, in aristocracies, caste systems, and schools. Hierarchies are famously prone to ensuring the privileges of rank-holders, to the detriment of those served.
Varieties of Rankism: The Mother of Many Isms
Corruption (all kinds)
The Golden Rule in the Model of Morality
As mentioned in post #15 in this series of blogs, the simple rule at the core of this model of morality is “Dignity for All, Always.” Look around and you’ll see that the world is manifestly in violation of this precept: predation and the consequence thereof—indignity—is everywhere.
But, the fact that we have successfully disallowed subspecies of predatory practice suggests that we might be able to give up predation itself. Though they’ve not been eliminated, many of the most egregious forms of predation have been made illegal. Delegitimizing residual predation, by disallowing rankism, would usher in a dignitarian era in human history, an era in which we’re obliged to respect and protect the dignity of others as we would have them respect and protect ours. Dignitarian politics gives the golden rule teeth—by naming indignities and so making them targetable. Together, science, religion, and politics could, plausibly, retire the predatory survival strategy, which has been characteristic of Homo sapiens until now, in favor of a dignitarian strategy that will describe our species going forward.
The manifest righteousness of the golden rule has long posed a psychological barrier to inflicting indignity on our fellow humans. The lengths to which we’ve gone to justify predatory behaviors belies our unease with contravening it. The excuses we invent to create loopholes to the golden rule are graduated in proportion to the degree of the indignity we inflict. For example, we demonize our enemies to justify killing them; we dehumanize captives to justify enslaving them; we disparage victims of discrimination to rationalize exploiting them; we dismiss people as nobodies to justify discounting their views.
So long as our individual survival depended on out-competing rivals for scarce necessities, we availed ourselves of excuses like these to suspend our intuition of the brotherhood of man and free ourselves to prey on our human kin. But, the fact that we don’t flout the golden rule without feeling the need to justify ourselves suggests that if these excuses were disallowed, the rule might become largely self-enforcing. That’s exactly what having a collective name—rankism—for the various causes of indignity can help us do. As mentioned, just having the word sexism in the lexicon helped to disallow excuses for discrimination against women. In a similar way, might not the word rankism enable us to spotlight residual rank-based abuses of power and put perpetrators on the defensive?
The self-evident nature of the golden rule and the success of Einstein’s relativity theory both have their origins in underlying symmetries. As the poet says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Mathematicians have discovered that the connection between truth and beauty lies in symmetry.
The symmetry undergirding the golden rule is the assumption of equal dignity for all. The symmetry underlying the theory of relativity is the assumption of equal validity of reference frames (of other observers). A deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos will likely shed further light on the role of symmetry in shaping both physical and moral law.
When, in 1915, Einstein succeeded in generalizing his theory of special relativity to general relativity, he was rewarded by a theory of gravitation that improved upon Newton’s classical laws of motion. So, too, when identity politics is generalized to apply to all victims of degradation (not just those distinguished by a trait like color, gender, age, etc.) then we’re rewarded with a universal theory of morality. The analogue of Einstein’s assumptions—that one reference frame is as good as another and the speed of light is the same in all of them—is the assumption of equal dignity for all people regardless of role or rank. Since indignity is caused by rankism, it follows from the assumption of equal dignity that the model of morality delegitimizes rankism.
So long as we see our “self” as a target that must defend itself against indignities, we’re likely to respond in kind. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is, among other things, the fundamental law of reciprocal indignity. But, if we see our “self” as nimble and porous, we can sidestep arrows with our name on them and respond to indignities in a way that does not attack the dignity of those who trespass against us. Breaking the cycle of indignity and violence is a dignitarian application of “turn the other cheek.” As reciprocal dignity becomes the norm, the roles we play in co-creating and maintaining each others’ identities become clear, and “love thy neighbor as thyself” begins to look like an obtainable ideal.
While the twentieth century saw progress in overcoming certain sub-species of rankism, many varieties of it persist unchecked. Reasons for pessimism and despair are not hard to come by. Since World War II there have been scores of wars, millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees; fighting continues today in many parts of the world. Since the Holocaust, and despite the world’s determination that it not happen again, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere. Poverty enshrouds one-third of the world’s seven billion people and experts warn that population pressure and/or climate change will pit us against each other in a struggle for scarce resources.
Many insist that man’s predatory practices are undiminished and ineradicable. But an opposing trend is becoming visible. While admitting that “the arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “it bends toward justice.” Did Dr. King, do we, have reason to hope for “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men,” or, is the brotherhood of man a pipe dream? The remaining posts address this question.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 8:51 PM
[This is the 16th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
What People Want – Dignity
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re half way there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Somehow, Someday, Somewhere!
– Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story
What people really want in relationships is dignity, not domination. While it’s not hard to understand why people who have suffered oppression might fantasize taking a turn at domination, to actually do so is to over-reach. Domination is not a reciprocal, symmetrical relationship. It’s one of superior and inferior, and simply reversing the roles of sovereign and subject perpetuates indignity rather than ends it. Reversing the directionality of domination is not a long-term equilibrium solution to inequity, indignity, and injustice. Like other revenge-driven “peace” arrangements, it invariably unravels and the struggle for domination resumes.
Dignity is in a class by itself when it comes to establishing good relationships with our fellow humans. Why? What do we mean by dignity?
Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our individual traits or worldly status. Though religious practice may deny equality of dignity—there are, for example, plenty of sexist precepts in the world’s holy books much as there are many discarded theories in the world’s scientific books—these same holy books also teach that dignity is a birthright that cannot be annulled by any person, circumstance, institution, or government. That god does not play favorites is an article of faith common to most religions, and one of the sources of the egalitarian ideals to which governments of every stripe feel required to pay lip service.
Indignity – An Existential Threat
Dignity is not negotiable.
– Vartan Gregorian
Like other animals vulnerable to being preyed upon, we’re supersensitive to threats to our well-being. Among our ancestors, those who missed signs of predatory intent became someone’s lunch.
For this same reason, we’re alert to subtle attempts to determine our relative strength, from “innocent” opening lines such as “And you are?” or “Who are you with?” to more probing queries regarding our ancestry or education. All it takes is a faint whiff of presumed superiority or condescension and we’re on guard.
Indeed, we’re often unaware of our dignity until it is slighted. We know at once when we’re treated with disrespect, and for good reason. An intimation or overt gesture of disregard may be a test to gauge our resistance to subservience, or to put us in our place. An insult is often a precursor to ostracism, to casting us as a nobody. Whole groups may be marginalized, as well as individuals. I short, Indignity is an existential threat. No wonder we’re so quick to register it!
While those atop the social pyramid prize liberty above all, most people put dignity first. History is full of examples of humiliated peoples who willingly surrender their freedom to a demagogue promising to restore their pride. One has only to think of Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the punitive Versailles treaty that concluded World War I.
The need for dignity is more than a desire for respect. Dignity grounds us, nurtures us, protects us. It’s the social counterpart of interpersonal love. To affirm people’s dignity confirms their status as valued members of a group. Dignity and self-respect go hand in hand: dignity nourishes our self-respect, and self-respect inclines others to affirm our dignity.
By protecting the dignity of others as if it were our own, we not only give others their due, we simultaneously protect ourselves by not giving offense in the first place.
Every child knows that indignities flow downstream—from “somebodies” of higher rank (indicating greater power) to “nobodies” of lower rank (and relatively less power). No sooner do we understand this, than we imagine a solution: eliminate ranks that signify degrees of power.
But power differences are a fact of life. To bemoan them is like complaining that the sun is brighter than the moon. When rank differences reflect legitimate power differences, they cannot be wished away.
Fortunately, this stark reality does not doom the prospects of achieving equal dignity for all. In and of itself, rank is not a source of indignity. Unless rank is inherently illegitimate—as, for example, specious social rankings that foist second-class citizenship on particular identity groups—then the problem is not with rank per se but rather with its abuse. The distinction between rank and its abuse goes to the heart of many vexing and intractable political issues, domestic and international. In most cases, indignity has its origins in abuse of the power signified by rank.
Confusing rank with its abuse occurs because rank is so commonly misused that young and old alike jump to the conclusion that the only remedy is to abolish ranking. Conflating rank and rank-based abuse is logically unnecessary and it’s a mistake with grave consequences. The socialists of nineteenth-century Europe and communists of the twentieth century often suffered from, or cynically exploited, this misconception.
When egalitarian ideologies did prevail, the self-appointed leaders typically imposed even harsher tyrannies than the ones they replaced. This was the Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel.
When it is legitimately earned and properly used, rank can be a useful organizational tool for achieving group goals. We rightfully admire and love authorities—parents, teachers, bosses, even political leaders—who use the power of their rank in exemplary ways.
Accepting such leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity by those in subordinate roles. It is when people use the power of their position to aggrandize themselves or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown.
Equal dignity is grounded in the fact of our dependence upon specialization and cooperation for survival, or, more fundamentally, in the co-creation of our very identities. This suggests that both the Left and the Right have equal stakes in, and responsibility for, universalizing dignity.
Rankism—The Source of Indignity
To have a name is to be.
– Benoit Mandelbrot
A key insight of identity politics is the importance of naming the malady you want to cure. When women pinned the label “sexism” on the attitudes and practices that had long kept them down, those practices became targetable. In the last half-century, identity politics has given a name to a half-dozen trait-based abuses and delegitimized every one of them. Eradicating a malady takes longer, of course, but it begins with the delegitimization that naming makes possible.
Absent a name for rank-based abuses, targets were in a position similar to that of women before the term “sexism” was coined. Writing in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as “the problem that has no name.” By 1968, the problem had acquired one – “sexism.” That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and public debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power-abuse linked to gender.
When abuse and discrimination are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re age-based, we call it ageism. By analogy, abuse of the power attached to rank is rankism. Once there’s a name for it, you see it everywhere. And once it’s visible, its legitimacy can be questioned.
The relationship between rankism and the various isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as subspecies of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific malignancies all had their origins in cellular malfunction.
In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers, and rankism is the generic malady analogous to cancer itself. Now that it has a name, it’s easier for victims of rankism to stand up for their dignity. Once victims are on their feet, they rarely stand down until their demands are met.
Religion divined the golden rule thousands of years ago, but has failed to bring about its widespread observance. In every society and every religion, leaders have downplayed, if not ignored, its implication of dignity for all and instead lent moral support to the degradation of racial and ethnic minorities, colonial subjects, women and girls, and homosexuals.
The twentieth century witnessed the successful application of the strategies and tactics of identity politics. Those same organizational techniques, applied to overcoming rankism, can render it as insupportable as the isms that identity politics has now put on the defensive.
In the next post, I’ll look at rankism’s many faces, and discuss how targeting it, in all its guises, would systematically operationalize the golden rule.
Sunday, July 22, 2012, 6:00 PM
[This is the 15th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
Somebodies and Nobodies
Bullying has always bothered me. Not just being bullied, though that too of course. I mean the phenomenon of bullying, in all its forms. I think bullying troubles everyone, even the bullies themselves. No one wants to be pushed around, to be forced to act against one’s own interests. And, if it’s happening to anyone, deep down we know it can happen to us.
Growing up, I saw bullying all around me. War was an extreme example of it. Slavery was, too. But, I didn’t need to look that far afield to find bullies. My schools were full of put downs, physical and verbal. Some of my classmates were regularly humiliated with epithets like “retard” and “fatso.” In college and graduate school, one-upmanship was the name of the game. Women were actively discouraged from studying mathematics and physics. Some educators even went so far as to claim that females lacked the “math gene.”
And, of course, in mid-century America everyone knew that blacks could be denigrated at will. When our all-white high school athletic teams lost to a school with black players, the N-word was employed to remind African Americans of their inferior social rank.
By the 1960s, the growing strength of the civil rights movement was forcing Americans to question race-based discrimination. Within a few years, other liberation movements took aim at the indignities that were routinely visited upon women, the elderly, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.
As a college president in the early 1970s, it was my responsibility to handle the grievances of various identity groups. I sensed that all of them had something in common—namely, those targeted for discrimination were taken for “nobodies” by their victimizers, who in turn saw themselves as “somebodies.” But, rank was relative. You could be a somebody in one context and a nobody in another. Somebodies could pull rank on nobodies, of course, but equally significant was that nobodies could lord it over people of still lower rank.
It was the power attached to rank that made degradation, discrimination, and abuse possible. If, by virtue of your place in a social or organizational hierarchy, you outranked someone, then the power of your rank shielded you from retaliation.
Identity politics had been effective at curtailing indignities that targeted solidarity groups defined by a common trait, but it was impotent when it came to disallowing indignities within these groups. My ah-ha was that all of the familiar isms were special cases of rank-based abuse and that, even taken together, they represented just the tip of the indignity iceberg.
But not to despair. In combatting racism, sexism, ageism, etc., techniques had been battle-tested that could now be leveled against the basic source of a wide variety of indignities—the abuse of power vested in rank.
Given the achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, is it unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone’s equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? If one racial group can learn to treat members of another race with dignity, why can’t it learn to treat people of the same race with dignity? The same applies to gender and the other traits that have served as pretexts for abuse and discrimination. If we can learn not to put people down who carry certain defining traits, why can’t we learn not to put anyone down?
That we’ve found ways to curb the indignities suffered by minorities, women, gays, the elderly, and people with disabilities suggests that making dignity the norm universally may not be out of reach. We could teach kids that dignity is their right and that it’s also everyone else’s. We could teach everyone to defend the dignity of others as they would have others defend theirs.
When I heard this proposition sounding in my head, I recognized it as an echo of the rule we’d mouthed in Sunday School. But in those days, although we were exhorted to obey the golden rule, no one seemed bound by it, not even the teachers and preachers who urged it upon others.
Since then, liberation movements—as personified by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, and others—have done more to put violations of the golden rule on the defensive than centuries of preaching. What if the techniques of identity politics were applied not just in defense of the dignity of minorities, women, and gays, but to overcome all forms of indignity?
The rest of this post sketches a model of morality that, by pinning a name on the rank-based abuse that causes indignity, addresses one of my take-away questions from Sunday School: How could we make the golden rule not only self-evident, but self-enforcing?
A Model of Morality
As mentioned in the discussion of modeling, the natural sciences search for grand unifying theories, also referred to as “theories of everything,” or TOEs. Everything? you may wonder. Really, everything?
Well, no, not quite everything. Not why some people like blueberries and hate broccoli, and for others, it’s vice versa. Not who will win the World Series next year. Not the answer to the question Einstein said would be his first if he returned in 500 years: “Is the universe friendly?” Chalk up the use of “everything” to poetic license. What scientists mean by a TOE is a theory that explains everything that current narrower theories do, but goes on to explain something more. In other words, a TOE is a broader, more inclusive, theory. It’s a theory of greater generality.
Whether it’s a theory of nature or human behavior, TOEs are important because they give us insight into the unruly margins where models of lesser scope break down. For example, by examining the intersection of the fields of electricity and magnetism, Maxwell discovered a broader theory that revealed that light was an electromagnetic wave and accurately predicted its speed. Radio was one of the early applications of Maxwell’s theory. When Newton’s laws of classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory were applied to the atom, they gave false results, but in the hands of Niels Bohr a new theory emerged—the quantum theory of the atom—that opened up the hitherto unexplored world of atomic physics. Similarly, when Paul Dirac married quantum mechanics and relativity, his more general theory predicted a new family of elementary particles, known as antiparticles. In the natural sciences, nothing hollers “Nobel Prize” louder than a TOE.
A more modest acronym for the Moral TOE I’ll suggest in this chapter would be MOM—Model Of Morality. (Think of “MOM” as acknowledging the mothers of the world who model morality for their children. Although, I shall speak of TOEs and MOMs, it’s not without a dollop of irony, as the acronyms are meant to suggest.)
Models are sitting ducks—meant to be faulted and disproven. Like all models, the MOM I shall sketch immediately becomes a legitimate target: What does it not account for? What does it get wrong? After all, its certain destiny is to be replaced by a better MOM. But if this MOM serves to provoke others to come up with something better, then it will be worth whatever mockery it provokes.
In the spirit of full disclosure and minimal obfuscation, I’m going to reverse the usual practice and give away my MOM’s punch line up front. Like the truths of science, it is disconcertingly simple, yet has a host of non-obvious, far-reaching implications.
When science and religion stop fighting and pool their findings, the headline and bottom line of the MOM that leaps out at us will be:
Dignity for All, Always
Sunday, July 22, 2012, 11:52 AM
[This is the 14th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
Those who argue that religion should be counted out are overlooking the role that religious leaders played in overcoming segregation in America, repealing apartheid in South Africa, and ending the communist dictatorship in Poland and Central Europe. That religion has not always lived up to its own ideals does not mean it hasn’t also made important contributions to social justice.
Religion is a repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, and a purveyor of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can legitimize patterns of indignity; premonitions of a fairer world are then strangled in the crib. While the heavy hand of tradition saves us from our worst, too often it keeps us from our best.
Tradition and precedent, sometimes bolstered with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the twentieth-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues of race, gender, marriage, divorce, birth control, and sex. After decades of debate, new values gradually displaced older ones in the public mind. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly look not to their church, synagogue, or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics. This same trend is now becoming visible in the United States.
When either science or religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine—no matter if it’s Left or Right—it weds itself to the biases of a particular time. That is what Soviet supporters of Lysenko did in the 1930s. It’s what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked religious beliefs in support of the state’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda.
Likewise, when religion attaches itself to particular social or political models—for example, racial segregation or sexual mores—it eventually loses relevance in those domains. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with the ship when it sinks. The nineteenth-century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, an early champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, pointed out that, in just this way, “Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.” Untold suffering is often the result of such partisan mistakes, and they are avoidable.
For example, when Alfred Kinsey’s studies on sexuality revealed the full range of human sexual behavior, we had two choices. We could label some of the behaviors that came to light “perverted,” and try to suppress them. Or, we could look upon the behaviors that Kinsey’s research revealed as falling within an enlarged domain of “normal” and modify our prescriptive models accordingly. The advent of reliable birth control only intensified the pressure to revise traditional sexual norms. The ensuing sexual revolution suggests that the public is moving toward a new consensus on sexuality.
What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about broadening the definition of marriage to include partners of the same sex? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much as disagreements over slavery and, a century later, segregation, were decided. As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned and instead other religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.
If barring same-sex marriage is viewed as an infringement on the civil rights of homosexuals, then the tide of history suggests that these barriers will fall. Despite frustratingly slow progress and numerous setbacks, it’s hard to find examples of campaigns for equal minority rights—that is, movements to end second-class citizenship—that do not ultimately succeed. In the long run inclusiveness beats exclusiveness; dignity for all trumps indignity for some. Religion could as well lay claim to this general insight (which it co-authored), and consistently champion the indignified, as give its blessing to one or another kind of second-class citizenship.
The movement toward more inclusive, participatory models of governance shows no signs of abating in the twenty-first century. Protests for dignity and democracy have erupted in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and across the United States in the form of the Occupy Movement.
Let’s take a moment to consider what it would take for religion and science to end their stand-off and support each other’s role in the pursuit of universal dignity.
Moral laws can be seen as intuitions, based on observation, that are then elevated to absolute truths. It’s the elevation to absolutes that leads to trouble, not the intuitive guesswork that’s common to discoveries of all kinds. So, one way to resolve the perennial war between science and religion is for religion to accept science’s methodology and defend religious precepts much as scientists defend theirs. In such a framework, both science and religion would reserve the right to speculate and, before expecting others to accept their findings, they’d assume responsibility for demonstrating the validity of their ideas and theories by marshaling evidence for their support.
Such an understanding does not preclude specialization. Religion is free to imagine new worlds and to suggest things it cannot prove. Guessing the answer is a respected way of doing science and so scientists don’t have a leg to stand on when they dismiss religion as guesswork.
First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.
– Richard Feynman
Science tests these guesses and intuitions against the evidence. Religion can do no less.
Under the terms of this deal, religion would be more humble about its teachings, acknowledging that they are sometimes wrong. When a hypothesis is disproven, religion would gracefully accept the result and propose something else. When science confirms one of religion’s guesses, it gives credit where credit is due for having “divined” the answer before it could be established beyond doubt (that is, verified to the satisfaction of investigators who were initially neutral or skeptical).
In time, science and religion would come to see each other as complementary aspects of a common truth-seeking strategy. Religion specializes in identifying cutting-edge, revelatory insights into human psychological and social dynamics (seemingly out of thin air, but actually, intuitively, after close observation). For its part, science specializes in testing these insights against the evidence, and either disproving or confirming them. Both vocations are at liberty to encroach on the other’s traditional turf.
Under this arrangement, science and religion would likely retain something of their traditional flavors, but gradually each would incorporate into its practice the others’ perspective. With the roles of science and religion clarified, their relationship would be characterized by mutually respect and collaboration. On matters for which there is insufficient evidence, people would be free to disagree. The difference, though, is that they would cease to berate and demean each other.
By interpreting religious principles not as holy, inerrant writ, but as fallible truths that are discovered in the same way as other truths, religion can defend itself against accusations that it is another self-serving institution, and, by assuming a leadership role in the transition to a post-predatory world, help realize the prophetic vision of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.
For centuries, religion has served peoples’ emotional needs with its art and music, its theater and counsel. This will no doubt continue. But, as dignity’s defender of last resort, a new revivifying role for religion can be envisioned. In it, religion would:
• Provide a forum for debating and disseminating proposed models of morality
• Research and develop models that extend dignity to people subjected to indignity
• Facilitate society-wide and world-wide conversations aimed at defining exactly what is meant by “equal dignity for all”—until a broad consensus is achieved
• Assume the role of coach to organizations as they bring their practices in line with dignity-affirming values
• Support the dignity movement as it did the civil rights movement
• Teach the latest findings on the workings of the mind and the dynamics of self-transformation
• Offer enlightenment and creativity training (analogous to literacy training)
• Support scientific and spiritual seekers by reminding them of the mythic nature of the quest for truth
• Imagine better futures—such as the brotherhood of man—and ennoble our quests to actualize those dreams
With the advent of a beautiful friendship between science and religion, there is indeed reason to hope.
Friday, July 20, 2012, 9:42 PM
[This is the 13th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
When religion has committed itself to a particular science model, it has often been left behind as the public embraced a new model. That’s the position in which the Catholic Church found itself in defending Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system against the simpler heliocentric model of Copernicus. It’s the situation in which supporters of “creationism”—and its offspring, “intelligent design”—find themselves today.
Many contemporary religious leaders do not make this mistake, although those who do get a disproportionate amount of attention. Religious leaders who cheerfully cede the business of modeling nature to science are no longer rare. Neither they nor the scientists who study these matters, many of whom are themselves people of faith, see any contradiction between the perennial wisdom embodied in the world’s religions and, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the geological theory of plate tectonics, or the Big Bang theory of the cosmos.
It may surprise some that the father of modern cosmology, George Lemaitre, was a priest. When asked how he reconciled his faith and his science, he wrote:
The writers of the Bible were…as wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible….
Father Lemaitre showed that Einstein’s general relativity predicted an expanding universe. Einstein, convinced that the universe was static, modified his theory to avoid this implication. Later, when the universe was found to be expanding as Lemaitre had predicted, Einstein withdrew the modification, declaring it the biggest blunder of his life.
Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, put it unequivocally in an op-ed in The New York Times, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”
That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by the scientific world. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it’s a theory. What else could it be? But it’s an extremely well-tested theory and it makes sense to use it unless and until we have something manifestly superior. A society that rejects the theory of natural selection, Newton’s laws, or the standard model of elementary particle physics because they make no claim to being absolute truths, shoots itself in the foot.
Just as religion finds itself challenging contemporary science when it identifies with discarded nature models, so it must expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models when it clings to antiquated moral codes. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with most nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social, political, or moral model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because shifting personal preferences play a much larger, often hidden, role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the “facts” cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.
Like nature models, political, social, and moral models originate in human experience, and, as experience accumulates, they evolve. Typically, the models we’ve inherited from the past were formulated over centuries, if not millennia. One reason that religious models generally lag behind the emerging social consensus is that the morals espoused by religion have usually proven useful over long periods of time and have become deeply entrenched. Hence, the first impulse is a conservative one, and often takes the form of shaming or coercing non-conformists into toeing the line.
The predilections of rebellious youth notwithstanding, tradition is not always wrong. What are now seen as traditional values earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. But, in basing morality on scripture, instead of evidence, people of faith belie a lack of faith in the findings of their own sages and prophets. Instead, why not see these prophets as futurists and judge their prophecies against the evidence? The question then becomes: Are their predictions confirmed or contradicted by experience? The answer may not be immediately apparent, but looking for an answer in a context that respects evidence is a lot more productive than invoking ambiguous scripture on one side or the other.
In this view, the term “moral” does not gain its legitimacy by virtue of its status as “received wisdom,” engraved in holy writ. Rather, the body of moral law is a prescriptive model of morality based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mo Tzu, Jesus, Mohammed, Sankara, and others are seen as perceptive moral philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view.
As in science, virtually simultaneous, independent discovery of the same moral truths is not uncommon. Then and now, moral precepts can be understood as intuitive extrapolations based on empirical observations of cause and effect.
Take, for example, the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge killings concluded that “not killing” was the way to avoid deadly multi-generational feuds, and that someone—tradition credits Moses—packaged this discovery (along with other similar moral precepts) for his contemporaries and, unwittingly, for posterity.
From a modeling perspective, it’s plausible that all ten commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of people who, drawing on the oral and written history of past and current generations, and bearing close witness to their own psychological and emotional dynamics, realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability and undermined group solidarity, thereby making the community vulnerable to exploitation and domination by more cohesive groups. They labeled these practices “immoral,” anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social, and political forces would bring about either the elimination or relative decline of groups that countenanced them.
The Ten Commandments and other moral precepts are recorded in the world’s holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the moral foundation of human societies. If somehow they were to disappear from consciousness and we had to start over (think of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies), we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover some of them from scratch and discard those that, in the meantime, circumstances had rendered obsolete.
Although some attribute moral principles to divine revelation, that’s just one explanation and it’s unverifiable. We may instead think of them as having been discovered in the same way that we discover everything else—through careful observation and verification. Having demonstrated their value in reducing suffering and/or in maintaining social stability, they were then elevated to special status, not unlike the process that results in the formulation and promulgation of successful science models, theories, rules, and laws.
A given rule of thumb can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that undergirds it, in the same way that Newton’s laws encapsulate classical dynamics. The moral principles of religion represent an accumulation of proverbial injunctions that function as reminders and ethical guides.
As with all models, so with models of morality: close follow-up scrutiny may bring exceptions to light. Exceptions have long been sanctioned to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”—to wit, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the twenty-first century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable. Likewise, the inefficacy of war as an instrument of foreign policy is becoming clearer, and, as it does, the frequency of wars is diminishing (as documented by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).
In the next post, I’ll explain why I think ending the stand-off between science and religion is worthwhile, and suggest some of the elements of a deal that would enable them to cooperate going forward.
Monday, July 16, 2012, 7:09 PM
[This is the 12th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle.
The allure of mystery points directly to the nature of reality as open and infinite. It offers a foretaste of our real power within that reality as its discoverer and knower.
But because of its connection with power, the miraculous seduces some into magical thinking. Both the fraudulent and the profound appear at first to violate our expectations. Science has learned to examine puzzling new phenomena from all angles to see if there isn’t a way of accounting for them from known principles. New evidence may force scientists to revise their best, most comprehensive theories, but only as a last resort. This essential feature of science is captured in an oxymoronic description that scientists sometimes apply to their methodology—radical conservatism.
The appeal of the mysterious has its origin in our desire to free ourselves from any “box” in which we find ourselves. Our vicarious delight in the escape artist’s success is an expression of our will to freedom.
But our true powers lie closer to hand, and may be tapped to the extent that we understand how Nature works. Miracles do not consist of violations of Nature’s laws but rather of aligning ourselves with them with such fidelity that we partake of her miraculous powers.
Hearts and Minds
Despite some egregious moral lapses and its losing streak when it aligns itself with discredited science, religion still holds a special place in the hearts of many. This is partly attributable to its genius for multitasking. Religion consoles and guides. It commends and condemns. It awes and humbles. It helps believers to endure the unendurable.
One need not belong to a particular faith to see that shared religious beliefs promote social cohesion which in turn facilitates cooperation. A group’s ability to respond to natural or manmade catastrophes depends on nothing so much as unity. As Lincoln, quoting Jesus, noted, “A house divided against itself can not stand.” Shared religious beliefs help hold the house together.
On the personal front, religion helps to take us out of ourselves so—as witnesses to our own behavior—we can see how we’re affecting others and make adjustments. Above all, religion affirms human dignity and helps us cope with the indignities and losses that invariably befall us.
When it comes to personal transformation, religion has not only made fundamental contributions in its own right, but has also inspired great art and literature. Classics by Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Melville, Balzac, Dostoevsky, and others serve as handmaidens to the world’s holy books.
Examples of religious insight into personal change can be found in all the religious traditions, but I’ll cite only two, drawn from Christianity and Hinduism, respectively—the doctrines of resurrection and reincarnation. As applied to the physical body, these tenets are arguable. Nonbelievers reject them outright and even many believers take them metaphorically. That some people do take such doctrines literally does no harm to those who do not, and since evidence is hard to come by, this is a realm where agreeing to disagree is not an inexcusable cop out.
Interpreted metaphorically, however, and applied to modeling, these ideas are arguably profound. Models must “die to be reborn,” none more dramatically than our self models or identities. The disintegration of a current identity is often experienced as a kind of death. The struggle to come to terms with the loss of a partner or child, or with a sudden change in our status or health, can feel like what St. John of the Cross described as a “dark night of the soul.”
From the modeling perspective, resurrection and reincarnation can be understood not as migrations of the soul, but rather as metamorphoses of the identity. In today’s rapidly changing world, most of us experience several distinct changes of identity. Yes, the process occurs within one’s lifetime rather than connecting one life span to another as some theologies suggest. Many find reassurance for life’s most hazardous passages in the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the Upanishads, and Sutras. That the core teachings in these books still serve as illuminating and consoling guides to self-transformation is why they’re deemed holy.
During those perilous passages where one identity dissolves and another crystallizes in its place, we are at maximum vulnerability, like a crab molting its shell. When a familiar identity disintegrates, we may doubt our worth. At times the community we normally depend on for support, even the fellowship of friends and family, can fail us, and we may find ourselves defenseless and alone.
Religion serves when it illuminates the process through which we morph from one identity to another. Religion combines art, literature, and theater in the context of communal fellowship to effectively transmit truths about the identity and its transformation that help many maintain their balance in a world in flux. The future of vocations that can help people through the whitewater of traumatic change is secure.
Foundation for a Beautiful Friendship
The preceding posts provide a basis for rapprochement between science and religion. Here are some of its principal elements:
1. Both science and religion make use of educated guesses to create theories, devise rules, and build models. The vast majority of these scientific and religious models—including our identities (or self models)—are found wanting and must be revised or discarded.
2. But human fallibility does not invalidate the process. We’re well advised to “try, try again,” because one success, which may then spread via imitation (mimesis), makes up for countless failures.
3. The alternative to fundamentalism—whether of the religious, political, or scientific variety—is not relativism nor obscurantism, it’s modeling.
4. Both scientific and religious precepts ultimately rest on painstaking observation. (More on this in the next post.)
5. The models of religion, politics, the arts, and the sciences are the DNA of civilization.
6. Both science and religion can reduce suffering: science by alleviating material wants (e.g., hunger and disease), religion by cultivating virtues (e.g., kindness and compassion).
7. Both religion and science sometimes cling stubbornly to their mistakes.
8. The process of discovery—though it goes by the different names of eureka, epiphany, revelation, and enlightenment—is basically the same in all fields. An occasional ah-ha punctuates a lot of ho-hum.
9. Both scientists and religious leaders have sometimes put institutional interests above the public interest. Although this is self-serving, condemnation is tempered by the fact that both science and religion have also produced leaders who’ve sacrificed themselves for truth, beauty, and justice.
10. Science gives us reason to think that hunger, disease, and scarcity can be overcome. Religion harbors the hope that peace is attainable. In the remaining chapters, I’ll try to show how, together, science and religion could deliver on the dream of sufficiency and decency.