Oh, Jon, you failed me. My wife and I watch The Daily Show almost every night, and we enjoy your skewering of political, religious, and other varieties of pretentiousness.
But last night your interview with Marilynne Robinson, author of "Absence of Mind," was pathetically weak. PZ Myers, an avid defender of science and attacker of religiosity, also felt let down by you.
The low point came as Stewart tried to justify Robinson's nebulous argument that science and religion need each other, and he offered stock apologetics.
The more you delve into science, the more it relies on faith.
No, it doesn't. The less you delve into science, and the more superficial your understanding of the evidence, the more likely you are to ascribe its more difficult concepts to faith. Faith is the product of ignorance.
When Stewart strained to give an example of faith-based conclusions in science, he came up with one: anti-matter. He's never seen it, so obviously it must not be real, but only the imagined fancy of some egghead physicist somewhere.
Unfortunately for Stewart, anti-matter exists. It's been observed, measured, analyzed. Its existence is not a matter of faith, but of knowledge and experiment.
Marilynne Robinson was no better, of course, just mumbling the usually feeble platitudes and complaining that the atheists represent science poorly, as if she'd know. And at the end, she offered up this little jewel, unchallenged by Stewart.
We need insights from religion.
Name one. Name one insight religion has ever given us that could not have been made by secular philosophers, that was also useful and true.
Actually, I think Stewart was thinking of dark matter when he said "anti-matter," because I recall him mentioning that science doesn't know what most of the universe is made of. (Dark matter is estimated to constitute 80% of the matter in the universe, while regular matter constitutes 20%.)
Regardless, I agree with Myers that Robinson exhibited little understanding of the scientific method, and explained her own competing approach to grasping reality in confusing philosophical verbiage.
Her book apparently argues that science ignores subjectivity and human consciousness. But this obviously isn't true. Modern neuroscience studies both of these areas in considerable depth. What seems to bother Robinson is that the findings of science don't support her personal religious views.
As this review says:
Robinson herself is a student of John Calvin and the American transcendentalists, a woman of deep Christian commitment. In the best sense, she's a religious writer, always returning to the most fundamental human concerns: What does it mean to be alive? What must we do to stay true to our deepest selves? How are we to live and die?
So it isn't surprising that Robinson is irked by science's inability to find evidence for the existence of God or the soul. Though I haven't read her book, she seems to favor the Subjective Argument for God that I criticized in a recent post.
Another review of her book contains this quote:
Subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method."
What the heck is she talking about? What "literatures" refuse to acknowledge subjectivity? I've read every major book by the so-called New Atheists: Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and others.
They don't claim that subjectivity doesn't exist. I've never heard any scientist or philosopher make such a statement. Rather, the scientific method, and rationalism in general, is used to guard against unwarranted subjective conclusions about the nature of objective reality, because the human mind can be fooled.
One of the comments on PZ Myer's post nailed it for me:
I expected better than not even wrong from Stewart. More fool me, I suppose. Just one more otherwise smart person with a huge blindspot when it comes to their chosen sky fairy.
We need insights from religion.
This is like saying we need insights from crack cocaine use. Actually, it is probably worse than that. She [Robinson] is saying that all the oppression, the 'holy' warfare, the torture, the homophobia, the misogyny, the racism, the child-rape - all the horror born of irrational woo is all OK, because she needs her dose of comforting fairy tale to get through the day and help her deal with complicated scientific concepts that hurt her (pea) brain.
Pathetic is not a strong enough word. Religion has nothing to offer science except the corruption of scientific vigour and the debasement of scientific endeavour into a means to extend the stygian, superstitious darkness of the mind propagated by religion beyond the point in our species development when we were so afraid of the unknown that believing in a sky fairy was the only way we knew how to deal with the uncaring, purposeless universe.
We are witnessing a new intellectual dawn for our species, and the fundies are desperately scrabbling to get back into the shadows of ignorance that empower their delusions.
Julian Baggini's review of "Absence of Mind" is more nuanced, but also critical:
So it is not clear what restoring the status of subjective testimony would entail. Surely it cannot mean anything so crass as trusting our gut instincts or intuitions. This typifies a general failing of the book: by focusing on the inadequacies of some attacks on religion and subjective experience, Robinson avoids having to say much positive in favour of them.
They just become varieties of venerable mystery that science has no right to defile. That does not prevent quantum theory and other scientific unknowns being invoked in religion's support, as though the acceptance of corners of mystery in one domain justifies a whole edifice of mystery in another.