science and religion

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I really enjoyed Bill Moyers interview with John Sexton, the president of NYU, last evening. He’s a fascinating and likable guy. Of course he believes in God, being raised a catholic in Brooklyn, NY, and apparently never straying from that belief. But I think I grasp what he’s trying to say, this thing about cognitive limitations, and different dimensions.

Here’s a portion of his conversation with Bill Moyers, taken from the transcript on the Moyers website:

BILL MOYERS: By ineffable, you mean?

JOHN SEXTON: I mean that what we’re discussing now is something that’s approached through music and poetry and mythos in the best sense of that word. You know, Americans talk about myth as falsehood. It’s become a synonym for falsehood, whereas myth speaks– I mean, Lisa had never reasoned to me to the fact that she loved me. I never reasoned her to the fact that I loved her.

It was something that was an experience truth, the deepest truths in life, including what we’re talking about here, including what I tried to get at in that course. Baseball is a Road to God, with its kind of, you know, a frolicky title is there’s something very serious. But it’s not something that you get to through cognitive processes.

This is why the war between science and religion seems to me is a false war. There’s no tension between science and religion. They’re different dimensions. So everything I’ve just said to you I know is a matter of faith. There are people out there on the NYU faculty that are embarrassed to have their president say this and I delight in that, you know. I mean, but it is something that’s real in my life and affects me day-in and day-out. It– it’s self-evident that there are important things that are not reducible to the cognitive. You know, now, the neuroscientists would like to map, you know, even the poetic parts of the brain. And so on. We’ll see where that goes. But the fact of the matter is that when I listened to Rachmaninoff’s second at the Philharmonic a couple of days ago, there was an ineffable transportation to another plane that undeniably became part of my experience.

I mean, I think Keats would say, at this point, that there’s a coalescence of what we’re talking about here, about transcendence and beauty and truth and faith.

Again, whether all this about different dimensions and knowledge beyond the cognitive, is true, or just a happy illusion, just more chemical effects on our endocrine system making us feel “transported” and into a false reality, I’m still undecided upon, terribly mixed up about. The new atheists, the Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc., have put religion in its place, the opiate of the people, the awful hypocrisy of it, the source of much of the world’s evil. But still, there are cognitive mysteries, like the “turtles all the way down” paradox. Of course, it appears that Rebecca Goldstein thinks Spinoza has explained all this rationally. Or perhaps not.

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I’ve reported on Aifric Campbell’s “The Semantics of Murder” in a previous post. But in the past couple months I’ve also read three philosophical books.

1. “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong
2. “The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion” by Hans Küng
3. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Armstrong’s book is in big print (I mistakenly ordered that format from Amazon) and her case for God is far from conventional. In fact her concept of God is close to that of an atheist, I think. She joined a convent at an early age and rebelled strongly becoming an out and out atheist. But now she apparently believes in God in the sense that action alone is an expression of what God is. Her big project is The Charter for Compassion based on the golden rule. I’ve subscribed to this.

Hans Küng’s book is challenging in part perhaps because it’s a translation from scientific German. He’s actually still a Catholic although I’d say it’s by quite a stretch. To him the miracles are metaphors and God is somehow wrapped up in the incomprehensibility of an origin of the universe. Mankind’s reason meets its limit in its inability to fathom a “first cause”, and also an ending. He discusses the question, “Why not Nothing?” a great deal, something I have mentioned in this blog as my favorite question, i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?

Rebecca Goldstein’s book, basically an exciting novel which captures the kinds of feelings associated with the Why not Nothing? feeling, demolishes all the arguments for God (36 of them in the Appendix) and replaces these with a defense of morality based on the feeling of “ontological wonder”. So, if you wanted to call this “ontological wonder” a replacement for God, you could I suppose, although Goldstein herself claims to be an atheist intellectually. She seems a little worried, in the interviews of her I’ve found online, that some of her academic friends might think she’s NOT an atheist. She’s obviously a fascinating and brilliant woman and graduated summa-cum-laude from Barnard College.

So what do these three books all add up to in my mind? Not sure, to be honest. However, I am thinking of getting Goldstein’s book on Spinoza who she thinks has it all. From what I’ve gathered by listening to her, she thinks Spinoza has successfully used reason to explain, or account for, the “it’s turtles all the way down” problem. I’d like to see that one explained!

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