Science, Fantasy and Religion
by Mark English
Maybe I have read just one too many articles promoting the so-called simulation hypothesis. Maybe I have seen just one too many populist videos purportedly dealing with scientific topics but which, in order to maximize audience numbers, manage to leave all the hard and interesting stuff out and focus instead on presentational style (including colorful and virtually meaningless graphics) and half-baked ideas. In my opinion too much attention is given in the communication of science to a wider public to science-fictiony ideas and outlandish possibilities like mind-uploading or time travel and not enough to what we actually know about time, the brain, the sense of self, etc.. The lack of advanced mathematical training or theoretical knowledge in a potential audience does not mean that they don’t have a genuine and serious interest in big scientific questions, nor that they need to be motivated by gimmicks and popular culture references.
Not that there’s anything wrong with science fiction and fantasy, of course. But these are literary or cinematic genres and have (for the most part) zero or minimal hard science content. In other words – like general fiction – they tell us more about the state of our culture and (at their best) our moral preoccupations than about the nature of the world beyond these preoccupations.
Those who are interested in the sciences may have various motivations. At one extreme are those (often on the autism spectrum) who lack any deep sense of social reality but who are gifted in technical and sometimes mathematical matters. Typically they take a piecemeal, pragmatic and problem-solving approach to scientific questions. Those who have a strong sense of social and cultural realities may also take a pragmatic and problem-solving approach to scientific questions, effectively compartmentalizing various aspects of their lives and not really looking to or expecting their scientific knowledge to influence in any significant way their general view of the world. And then there are those who, motivated by what has traditionally been referred to as a philosophical spirit, are driven in varying degrees to try to understand our place in nature and the human implications of what we know about the natural world.
Once such questions were dealt with mainly via theology and religious modes of understanding but progressively theological answers have lost credibility. Theological studies in the West incorporated secular disciplines like logic which eventually regained the freedom and independence they had had in the classical world. Empirical research, by contrast, was not encouraged, but technological and mathematical advances in the early modern era led to opportunities for observation and measurement which in turn allowed empirical science to progress rapidly and totally eclipse anything the Greeks had been able to achieve in this area.
Most educated people now accept without question that the sciences, which are typically driven by a melding of empirical and formal methods, represent the only solid body of knowledge that we have about fundamental, extra-cultural reality. But it is also widely accepted that the sciences are ill-equipped to answer many of the questions which religions traditionally addressed. Questions concerning cosmic purpose, for example, or transcendent values seem to be outside of science’s scope. Some see this as a mark of the limitations or even of the inadequacy of our science; others as suggestive of the fact that ultimate ‘why’ questions are ill-conceived and that transcendent values are a figment of our imaginations.
The simulation hypothesis got a significant boost in terms of its media profile and respectability by Nick Bostrom’s work. Bostrom is an author and futurist who has a PhD in philosophy and a background in a range of scientific disciplines. His probability-based philosophical argument about the simulation hypothesis was picked up by the mainstream media. I am not going to address the argument here except to point out that Bostrom makes at least two crucial assumptions. One of these assumptions relates to beliefs about the sorts of things which may be conscious. The argument does not get off the ground unless a particular position or orientation within the philosophy of mind is seen to be correct. Also, the argument does not take sufficient account (in my view) of the physical limits of computation and data storage.
The idea that what we see and experience is illusory has a long and distinguished history. It is also appealing in some ways, even comforting. If the world we know and experience is not the real world, then we may be led to take it less seriously. A burden of anxiety may be lifted. But at what cost? Any psychological benefits must be balanced against possible negative effects on our thought and behavior. Moreover, the truth or plausibility of the claims also need to be taken into account (unless you are a thoroughgoing pragmatist, of course).
The notion that we are living in a simulated world is barely comprehensible to me, and to the extent that it is comprehensible, it seems both clearly wrong and morally deleterious. I am more than open to the idea that the workings of nature can be seen in terms of computation and the cosmos as a quantum computer. But such a view does not entail the view that the realities we encounter are somehow not real, or less real than some other reality which lies (in some sense) behind them.
My main target is not the simulation hypothesis which I see as just one of many signs of a long-term cultural trend. I see the popularity of this idea as a symptom of a broader (and ultimately catastrophic) social, cultural and intellectual failure. The belief that we are living in a simulation seems to me to be in the same general category as, for example, the belief (very popular in the 1980’s) that aliens are amongst us. Both ideas belong to the science fiction genre; both found expression in iconic Hollywood movies; both ideas could be seen to operate in many ways as substitutes for religious beliefs; and both incorporate powerful god-figures. Both notions are also, I would say, pure fantasy without any compelling scientific justification or content.
My basic point is that we are seeing a drift to fantasy, not in the sense of the literature of fantasy and science fiction (which is as wholesome a product as any genre of literature), but in the sense of a growing tendency to believe that the world in which we live is more amenable to our thoughts and wishes than in fact it is. Institutions – such as traditional religions or mainstream science – which push against this trend and promote the idea that the scheme of things in which we find ourselves just is a certain way are increasingly being called into question. I see this general tendency to believe that one may somehow remold the world in one’s own image or as one sees fit as a symptom of a progressive infantilization of adult society. We have become infantilized just as, paradoxically, our children have come to behave as precocious and petulant little adults.
These are not the sorts of claims that could ever be definitively demonstrated but nor are they particularly eccentric. There have been suggestions by many others that a “new infantilism” has taken hold not only amongst millennials but also amongst writers, intellectuals and academics in the humanities and social sciences. Identity politics is closely associated with this phenomenon. Brian Leiter has talked about these matters in relation to trends in philosophy, for example. My point is in line with these critiques but my focus is a longer-term trend.
The relative eclipse of scientific ways of seeing things is a difficult phenomenon to pin down. The perceived status of science varies from time to time and from place to place. Though I am no defender of religion, I think we need to recognize the not-entirely-negative influence institutional religion has had on our ways of thinking, including attitudes to science; to recognize that, over the last several centuries at least, mainstream and traditional religious views have been less antagonistic to science than is popularly believed. Not only were the mainstream churches incubators of some of the most important intellectual tools and practices of Western science (logic in particular), as science progressed and made its mark on Western culture, the churches generally came to terms with – and even in some cases contributed significantly to (Jesuit astronomers, Gregor Mendel, etc.) – this new cultural force. It’s also worth noting here that one profoundly important form of scholarship which is closely aligned to scientific methods and modes of thinking, namely textual criticism, has long been embraced by religious scholars working on Biblical texts.
Government bureaucracies, the media and the education system clearly play crucial roles in determining a particular population’s attitudes to the arts and the sciences, and it is arguable that the strong emphasis on the importance of the arts (relative to science) which C.P. Snow famously identified and described in mid-20th-century England still manifests itself at elite levels of the general culture and in certain government and educational contexts.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Artistic and creative activities are an intrinsic part of human life. But this is not to say that an artistic focus cannot be distorted or overdone. The devil is in the detail.
Bearing in mind the various axes along which artistic matters may be approached (critically, or in terms of practice) or judged (self-indulgence versus rigor and discipline), and the various ends (political and other) to which artistic works may be put, the very notion of “the arts” as this term is used today could be seen as somewhat problematic. What constitutes the arts, exactly? Anything and everything that claims to be?
And does a love of or an emphasis on the arts (however defined) entail a negative view of science and scientific ways of knowing? Of course not. Yet, as the arts have become increasingly organized, bureaucratized and politicized, anti-science sentiments within the arts and humanities seem to have become more pronounced. (Hardly a surprise when the issue is the notoriously zero-sum game of maximizing government funding.)
Although I can no longer embrace a Romantic aesthetic or the (basically Platonist) metaphysical assumptions underlying it, I understand and respect that point of view. But there are many forms and manifestations of Romanticism, and what we see today – more often than not – are hollowed out and debased forms incorporating various elements of contemporary popular culture, including faddish psychological and educational ideas. For one thing, the focus seems usually to be on the well-being and personal satisfaction of practitioners rather than on the quality of the product. The high ideals and convictions which drove the original Romantics are generally absent.
A while ago I came across an episode of an old Canadian TV panel discussion program called Fighting Words which seemed to me to represent a fascinating time capsule in a number of ways. For one thing, of the four panelists, two were philosophers – albeit very different kinds of philosopher. Max Black, who taught at Cornell and was at one point involved in anti-Vietnam War activities, had a background in the philosophy of mathematics and logic and was sympathetic to logical positivism. George Grant was, unlike Black, a deeply religious man and a political philosopher with conservative and idealist tendencies.
A clearly heartfelt claim by Grant about the noxious nature of the book, Peter Pan, the fantasy by J.M. Barrie about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, led to a brief but fascinating exchange. (It runs from the 3 minute mark in the linked video to about 4:30.) Twice Grant used the word ‘revolting’. Grant’s strong reaction puzzled me somewhat, but I think I understand now what was driving him: a sense that such fantasies both reflect and, to the extent that they are popular and influential, encourage a certain kind of childish, Romantic solipsism and undermine certain traditional assumptions about the essential (and basically positive) nature of civilization to which he was strongly committed.
One reason I mention the case of George Grant is to bring out the fact that a religious view of the world does not necessarily lead to the sort of infantilism to which I am drawing attention. Grant’s views are deeply rooted in classical and Christian traditions and so are very different from the sort of culturally shallow, ‘smorgasbord’ approaches to religion which are predominant today and which (in my opinion) feed into both the sentimentalization of social and political questions and the demonization of science.
Whereas modern spirituality is largely hostile to science, many mainstream religious traditions have evolved to the extent that they are entirely compatible with a scientific view of the natural world and also with a scientific approach to psychological, social and cultural phenomena.
I don’t want to play definitional games here, but just as ‘science’ can be understood in a narrow or (as I prefer) in a broader sense, so the word ‘religion’ can be used to signify very different things. Grant’s Christian-Platonism is very different from fundamentalist forms of religion. The former, of course, is far more sophisticated than the latter. But both are undoubtedly serious forms of religion.
Very different again are the sorts of historically and culturally untethered forms of spirituality which I alluded to above and which I see as symptomatic not only of social fragmentation but also – at least to the extent that they feed into a relativistic and anti-scientific outlook – of cultural decline.