Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pale, small, silly and nerdy

Thomas Nagel, whose atheistic rationalism has transmuted itself into a view of the world which is looking increasingly religious, is one of quite a number of prominent secular thinkers who have moved in this general direction in recent years. What's going on here, I wonder?

Well, I'm not optimistic about coming up with an answer, or even throwing much light on individual instances (I was going to write 'cases', but I don't want to imply a pathological cause!). This apparent trend puzzles me, and I intend to do a post or two on this general topic and/or on individual thinkers like Nagel or Hilary Putnam (who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at age 68) in the future.

David Albert is another figure I intend to look at. Albert has very interesting views on quantum mechanics, but I haven't yet ascertained where he stands on religious or broadly metaphysical questions.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, Albert's dismissive review of Lawrence Krauss's book, A Universe from Nothing, was the catalyst which sparked a series of accusations and counter-accusations culminating in Albert's longstanding invitation to join a discussion panel for a high-profile event at The American Museum of Natural History being withdrawn.

Having argued that Krauss's idea of nothing (relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states) was not nothing but arrangements of elemental physical stuff, Albert demonstrated his deep frustration with what he sees as Krauss's facile dismissal of religion in these two (rhetorically effective, at least) final sentences:

"When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things – it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world – and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."

I feel the force of what Albert is saying here. Religion has played a major role in our social, cultural and political history, and has in many ways been the matrix out of which the hopes and dreams and expectations of all civilizations have developed.

He is implying that people like Krauss lack both a knowledge and an appreciation of this dimension of human life and experience.

And maybe they do.

But the question still remains concerning the plausibility of religious claims in the light of our current scientific knowledge.

Even if many great and important elements of our civilization arose directly from religious traditions or in a religious context, it can still be asked whether religion is in any real sense still credible.

And for religion to be credible, its doctrines (or assumptions) must be credible.

The doctrines of Christianity are simply not credible, in my opinion. Nor the Jewish notion that an all-powerful, universal God favored and guided and protected a particular human population. Nor do Plato's mythic speculations stand up to modern scrutiny.

There is much more to be said on these issues, of course, but, if I had to say here and now where I stand after a good deal of thought and consideration over the years, I would have to come down on the side of those who feel that religion is, frankly, of the past; that it no longer has anything of value to offer.*

David Albert may well have been justified in criticizing Krauss for claiming that modern physics has satisfactorily explained why there is something rather than nothing, but those (now notorious) final two sentences, if anything, weaken his critique by suggesting that his outlook may have been unduly motivated by pre-existing attachments, by emotional factors in effect.

As I indicated above, I am currently in the process of trying to figure out where David Albert stands on questions of religion.

* I am aware that the words 'religion' and 'religious' can be used in a broader sense to encompass, not just more or less clearly defined traditions, but ways of feeling and thinking which might pick up on certain religious themes or attitudes or points of view – a general sense of providence, for example, along the lines of Julian of Norwich's "all shall be well" but without the trappings of specifically Christian belief. Religious thinking in this sense cannot be so readily dismissed.