29 December 2008

Various and Sundry Engagements With Matters of Enlightenment

A few hours of desultory reading on the web can either be fuel for contemplation or a complete waste of time that calls into question one's character and sanity. Happily, this morning can be declared the former.

First Things has been on a roll with the daily article of late. R.R. Reno discusses some thoughts on how scientific discoveries are received by ordinary people, and sheds a tear of compassion for the well-funded, highly educated army of researchers whose labors do little to influence public opinion on matters that touch on basic human experience. The matter in question? Brain science, and the conviction among researchers that impending discoveries will put the last nail in the coffin of freedom (and hence moral responsibility). A recent study from the University of Utah suggests that regardless of the scientific consensus, certain basic convictions just won't be eradicated. Reno does a fine job of reining in our view that science has the last word on the humanum.
When a scientist reports that action x can occur if and only if there is an antecedent brain state y, which in turn requires brain state z, then he is identifying y and z as necessary condition for and not the causes of x. We all know that what counts as a free choice is not a mental moment suspended in ether, unconnected and uninfluenced by emotions, habits, and intuitions. The ability of science to explain and illuminate the webs of interconnection does not dislodge our deeper intuition that our deeply embedded, highly influenced, and profoundly physical mental lives are somehow genuinely our own—and somehow our responsibility to discipline and cultivate.

Reno's appraisal of the general reluctance to swallow massively counterintuitive scientific claims sits well with the perspectives of another FT contributor (and a favorite author of mine) Stephen Barr. I plowed through his Modern Physics and Ancient Faith on the exercise bike this summer, which I highly recommend to enthusiasts in the field of the philosophy of science. Dabblers might be more suited to print out an article that presents the thesis of the book in summary form, entitled "Retelling the Story of Science", and park themselves in an easy chair on a winter morning with a cup of hot coffee and a pencil. In it, Barr nails down five areas of scientific progress that have actually undermined the Enlightenment aspirations to eradicate religious perspectives on the world. The fourth and fifth these areas of discovery touch on the issues outlined by Reno above, but in a very different light. Barr takes up the favorite activity of ideological materialism, "debunking myths," and turns it back on its practitioners:

Here the scientist debunks himself. Here all the grand intellectual adventure of science ends with the statement that there is no intellectual adventure. For the mind of man has looked into itself and seen nothing there except complex chemistry, nerve impulses, and synapses firing. That, at least, is what the materialist tells us that science has seen. However, the story is really not so simple. Here again the plot has twisted. Two of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century cast considerable doubt upon, and some would say refute, the contention that the mind of man can be explained as a mere biochemical machine.

What might those discoveries be? Read the article and find out.

On a note related to some thoughts on relativism earlier, I came across this interesting video of Penn Gillette's reaction to the gift of a Bible from one of his fans after a show (link via Creative Minority Report). A short encounter with a genuinely good Christian man had an obviously powerful effect upon him.

What is most interesting is the way he countextualized the simple gift of a small Gideon Bible. "How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that?" Contra the popular conception of evangelism as judgment and condemnation, this self-proclaimed atheist accepted what this man was offering: the gift of God's love, despite the personal discomfort making such an offer would probably bring him. That offer worked on a level more profoundly than the merely intellectual:
I know there's no God, and one polite person living his life well doesn't change that. But I'll tell you, he was a very, very, very good man.
We have here something akin to what made Christianity such a popular religion in the first place. Benedict has said that
the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity was not the result of any planned activity on the part of the Church but the fruit of the proof of the faith as it became visible in the life of Christians and of the community of the Church … The Church’s community of life invited people to share in this life in which was revealed the truth from which this kind of life arose. On the other hand the apostasy of the modern age rests on the disappearance of the verification of faith in the life of Christians. In this is to be seen the great responsibility of Christians today. They should be reference points of faith as people who know about God, should in their lives demonstrate faith as truth, and should thus become signposts for others.

We have, in this short, unpolished video, an account of just what effect a life lived in fidelity to truth can have on unbelievers.

Perhaps it also gives the lie to a common saying that, in my opinion, is much abused: preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words. A true statement in itself, but perhaps it's necessary more often than we've led ourselves to believe.

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