Friday, April 20, 2007

Of gods and monsters

I flew from Sweden to Germany for three days, to meet with some students and for a hiring committee I was so stupid as to accept to be on (more on that sometime later).

These days, just after the Virginia shooting, everyone is wondering how a known psychopath repeatedly reported to police and mental health counseling could be legally authorized to buy firearms and run amok in a university campus. One mourns today a loss of life, of esteemed intellectuals and a part of that students population who is the future of the nation, fallen victim to barbaric laws on the sale and possession of firearms. For those who watched Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine", this is a sad reminder that many of the problems so clearly denounced in that beautiful documentary are still where they stood at the time of the Columbine episode. Attacks on universities always steer powerful emotions, like the recent major suicide bombing at one of the main campuses in Baghdad. One inevitably sees in them a direct attack on civilization, they evoke in our subconscious the nightmare image of the culture of ancient Alexandria being torn to pieces by angry mobs of Christian fanatics, the fear of science and learning being obliterated and the world being plunged into centuries of darkness.

The right to bear arms, they say, is one of those topic that cannot be discussed in the US, supported by such fundamentalist zeal that it is beyond the reach of rational thinking. The tragic loss is preferable to questioning a stupid inheritance left behind by macho cowboys mentality of the early frontier. This sort of fundamentalism, it is also well known, goes hand in hand with the other great unquestionable of America, the religious fundamentalism (Christian one specifically). There have been many recent attempts at discussing the grip that religion has on the American mind, so much at odds with the trend in the rest of the developed world and so much more similar to the role religion still plays in much of the developing world.

If you're in for some clear cut statements, Dawkins new book "The God Delusion" goes all the way to denounce religion as harmful to humanity and devoid of any possibly redeeming factor. Dennett's "Breaking the spell" tries to bring home a very similar message, while trying not to be directly confrontational towards American readers with a religious upbringing. Does it help to confront religion? Is it a better option to seek a kind of non-interference policy? The latter would perhaps be preferable if agreed upon by both sides, but with the current ferocious attacks of religion against science and rationality one is pushed more and more into the confrontational option, at least for the sake of protecting science, which is after all the greatest achievement of the human mind and the only survival hope for our species in the long term.

One point Dennet brings home very well in his book is, for example, the role of the "absurdity" of religious practice in the perpetuation of religion: one proves oneself "truly faithful" or "devout" by agreeing to perform actions that are obviously absurd (think of all the very complicated restriction and prohibitions and complicated rituals involved in any religious cult) and that go obviously against what rational thought would suggest. One then begins to suspect that religion functions and perpetuates itself in training people to shut off their capacity for doubt and questioning and in suppressing the capacity for rational analysis and judgement. If this is the case, then there is simply no hope of any kind of dialog with science, no matter what some may wish. Perhaps this is not the case, but one remains skeptical at least.

Coming back to the recent events and the culture of guns in the US, it is equally disquieting to reflect on the fact that Guns and God are the two characterizing features of the Bible Belt area. This should also constitute a good wakeup call for those who still harbor the illusion of religion as a herald of peace. Anyway, all these are platitudes, not worth discussing further here. I leave this kind of analysis of the role of religion to more competent people like Dennett and Dawkins.

It is interesting that even on the side of those more "enlightened" religious authorities who praise the achievements of modern science and encourage religious thinkers, leaders and teachers, to learn and teach about science, there is still an enormous gap in intentions and methods, which is hard to bridge. I happened to read recently a book written by Tenzin Gyatso, known to some as the 14th Dalai Lama, the main religious authority of Tibetan Buddhism. How I came to read this book is somewhat unusual. I promised a friend who was coming for a conference to meet him at the station in the nearby big city. His train was late and I had an hour of spare time, so I looked for something readable in the train station bookstore, just to have something to do while having coffee and waiting for the train. Well, train stations bookstores being what they are, the choice was limited, but I happened upon Gyatso's book and got curious enough to try it out. I never had all that much sympathy for the monks ruling of Tibet prior to Chinese occupation: it had all the features of a backward feudal society with a priviledged cast of monks ingorant of the modern world, maintaining the rest of the population in even deeper ignorance, gender oppression, and all the sort of things one associates to religious obscurantism and theocracies. Well, I was glad to see that, to a good extent, Gyatso readily admits all that to be true. I was even more impressed by the honesty with which he makes the statement that if modern science were to disprove any of the fundamental pillars of Buddhism the Buddhism would have to change its credo to adapt to the findings of modern science. Admittedly, one could hardly imagine such a clear and laudable statement coming out of the pen of Joseph Ratzinger or of Sayyid Ali Khamenei, although an alleged curiosity for modern science manifested by Karol Wojtyla resulted in mathematically inclined Polish prelates at the Vatican Observatory trying to prove the existence of god using groupoids and noncommutative geometry. The sentence I just mentioned, with the candid admission that Buddhism should keep up to date and adapt to the findings of modern science, is -I am afraid- the high point of the book. The rest is quite shallow. Gyatso admits being fascinated by quantum physics, his knowledge of the subject being influenced by (who else) Bohm. Unfortunately, he also admits not having any understanding (any karmic connection, as I believe he puts it) with mathematics as the language of science. Too bad, because unfortunately one cannot talk about physics without a good understanding of higher mathematics, and additionally it seems to me that perhaps modern mathematics could provide a much more rewarding and interesting substitute for much of Buddhist philosophy Gyatso talks about. So, while his appeal to religious schools to introduce modern science in their curricula can only be praised (that surely cannot hurt, especially if it teaches the students the capacity to doubt and question any kind of statement, including and especially those that pertain to religion), his overall vision of the confluence of science and religion I am afraid is largely based on a misrepresentation of what science actually is.

While remaining on a somewhat similar subject, but taken from a very different angle, I want to mention one more book, that I read on the flight from continental Europe up to Sweden. It is one more very nice booklet by Norbert Wiener, called "God and Golem, Inc." and described by the author as "A comment on certain points where cybernetics impinges on religion". You won't find much religion in the book (fortunately) except as the source of poignant metaphors. The book is, like many other of the author's writings, primarily a reflection about cybernetics, the concept of automation, its role in human society, the human/machine interface problem, and the question of artifical intelligence. It is extremely cleverly written (like all Wiener), with a zest for fascinating storytelling (not at all of the "silly anecdote" type) mixed with serious reflections on intelligent and self-reproducing machines.