Religion & (Popular) Science


Kandinsky, Around the Circle (1940) 

I spent a good part of winter break reading up on popular science. This to me is terra incognita. There were four motives to do so.

 [1] Edith Wyschogrod told me many years ago before the new fad in “speculative realism” in continental theory that biology and consciousness would open important new vistas in continental philosophy of religion.

[2] Last spring, Norbert Samuelson asked me to respond to a special issue of the CCAR Journal, featuring an essay he wrote on Jewish religion and science. According to Norbert Samuelson ignorance of science is widespread across the entire field of modern Jewish philosophy. Trained in medieval Jewish philosophy, Norbert has been a pioneer in advancing the study of Judaism and contemporary science. I was happy to write a short response formed upon a basic grasp of the arguments involved.

 [3] At the last postmodern and religion conferences organized by Jack Caputo at Syracuse (2011), Catherine Malabou spoke about I forget what. I recall finding her talk chilly. I read her book on What Should We Do with Our Brain?. I was unable to assess one way or another any of the claims regarding neural plasticity. At the conference Clayton Crocket also spoke on astrophysics with great brio. For the life of me, I was unable to assess the science. More critically, I am not sure what to make of the leap from physics to the theology advanced in his paper. This inability to make the leap between different levels of physical organization helped clarify my response to the same leap articulated by Norbert in the CCAR Journal.

[4] Gail Hamner, Vincent Lloyd, and William Robert organized the annual SU Religion Department reading group. This year the focus is on Affect Theory. We’ve read primarily in the Affect Theory Reader. Many claims were made (by Brian Massumi in particular) about non-conscious states of affect. This to me struck me as an attempt to do an end-run around Cartesian (?) consciousness. Once again, I found myself unable to assess the science.

 This was the last straw. I finally decided I needed to know some basics. As someone once told me, it’s important at least know where the bodies are buried.

In my response to Norbert, I mentioned that most of us will pause between entering into the rabbit hole of competing data sets. Most of us will make do with diffuse scientific notions that have worked their way into the intellectual culture at large or through books of popular science written by specialists for laypeople.

 I started with the problem of consciousness, given my own theoretical commitment to some version of phenomenology. For general orientation I went first to John Searle’s The Mystery of Consciousness. I went then to David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. I was assured by philosophy grads that Chalmers is considered the real deal, albeit not uncontroversial (mainly because of the dualism espoused in his work).  I learned the most from Chalmers (in terms of framing the difference between neural mind-activity versus phenomenal consciousness of subjectively felt qualia). From there to Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge?Free Will and the Science of the Brain, and AnonioDemasio’s The Feeling of What Happens. Had I been more diligent I would have read Dennet’s Consciousness Explained and work by P. and P. Churchland. But there’s only so much gas in the tank.

As a layperson, what I found astonishing is that nobody could explain phenomenal consciousness. How do we get from neural firing to the subjectively felt feelings of lived and living physical sensation (as in “refresh me with apples for I am faint with love”)? In a blog, Sam Harris, very tongue in cheek refers to consciousness as a “miracle.”

Regarding religion, what interests me here is the notion that religious “experience” is an object of phenomenal consciousness (felt qualia) rooted who knows how in brain activity.  Chalmers in particular points one to dualism in which a phenomenal, qualia based notion of mind compliments what would otherwise be the psychological-functionalist concept of mind that dominates psychology and cognitive science. Part of what I get from Chalmers is how to frame the discussion of religion around subjectively felt qualia. This goes back to my attraction to the religious phenomenology of Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel, Rudolf Otto and the art of German Expression explored in my Shape of Revelation. On the other hand, a Jewish philosophical approach might want to hone in on the psychological dimensions for an understanding of  mind insofar as the behaviors-acts-mitzvot that shape Judaism are dispositional, learned and habituated. This is actually also Chalmers’ more speculative point about the possible laws that might correlate psychological-functionalist modes and phenomenal modes of consciousness.  

 I know there’s a burgeoning literature here on religion and consciousness and neural cognition, to which I hope to get to at some later point. In the meantime, I hope that in addition to acquiring a little general knowledge, that some of this reading might help clarify my own current thinking about the place in religion of images, and the imagination.

 Having skimmed a small sliver of the surface, I’m going to take a very quick, cursory peek at physics for string theory and multiple worlds. As Gazzaniga notes, physics moves thought beyond the determinism and neural reductionism that, in his view, still mires his colleagues in the biological neurological sciences. In his opinion, mind-consciousness can trump or override (?) the biological hardware that wires it. He thinks that physicists are actually better at getting what he calls the “art” of thinking across different organizational levels of physical reality. I’m just started Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe and appreciate the light touch for laypeople. I’ll move through this fast in the hope of getting something, which will be enough for now.

I am hoping it’s better to know a little than it is to know nothing –as long as one doesn’t plan to actually use it, in which case a little knowledge is almost always worse than nothing.

 That’s what I’m reading now.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Religion & (Popular) Science

  1. Jill says:

    I understand the events that brought you to the query, but I’m still curious about your investment in the search. Beyond wanting to be able to assess the science, how might this info, this discourse, clarify or invigorate your thinking about religion, images, imagination? It does not sound like you are looking for the neural processes of seeing/imagination or that cognitive science is actually going to “do” it for you. It seems like you are pointing to something with your comment about the art of thinking in theoretical physics. What does it mean that something at the far reaches, the fringes, the borders of “science”– a field that pisses off a lot of scientists– may be what touches art and the imagination?

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