2012-05-02

Postscript: Explaining "Explaining"

In the frist segment of “Evolution’s Arrow,” I addressed the meaning – or, rather, vagueness -- of “explanation”:
What is explanation? What does it mean to “explain”? A literature teacher explains James Joyce’s Ulysses. The chess master explains why it’s better not to take the bishop on move 21. A museum docent explains the Van Gogh paintings. You explain to your new friend the idiosyncratic behavior of your old friend. These are all very different, though they all go by the name explanation. Science offers a sort of explanation. Science helps us make sense of things in one particular way: namely, a way that allows for control and prediction. Religion helps us make sense of things in a different way. Where science helps us control and predict the universe, religion helps us befriend our world, enter into a relationship of love and value with it. Scientific understanding lets us know what’s going to happen. Religious understanding lets us feel at home in this universe, at peace with it, whatever may happen.
On Facebook, I linked to that blog post, along with the question: “Science and religion have no more to do with each other than auto mechanics and flower arrangement?” It’s a multi-valent question: whether you think the science-religion connection is tighter than the auto mechanics-flower arrangement connection depends not only on how connected you regard the former, but also on how connected you regard the latter. (Indeed, as the bud vase in VW’s “New Beetle” illustrated, perhaps auto mechanics and flower arrangement are connected after all).

My facebook update was favored with a comment from Lyn Robbins. Lyn and I were students together at Baylor for a couple years almost thirty years ago. Lyn blogs over at Blogarithmic Expressions. He’s an articulate and thoughtful Christian, and, Lord knows, the world could use more of those. (The world could also use more Unitarian Universalists committed to spiritual cultivation, but that’s a topic for another time.) Quoth Lyn:
Meredith, you will not be surprised that I disagree at some level. Science and religion are in fact related: they are both human attempts to explain the work of God. Certainly they come from (apparently) different starting places, make (some) different assumptions, and use (mostly) different methods. But at their core, they both ask why the sun rises, why two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen make water, and why the human being is different from all other created animals. And then, the similarities cease, for while science can and does describe each of these questions with more detail and perhaps with bigger words, science has to answer each of them "I don't know."
I replied to Lyn, and I confess I was a touch on the cranky side because I thought I had already answered this “explain” thing on Lake Chalice, and I didn’t know whether Lyn had bothered to actually read it. Probably he did – and, as usual, I was neither as clear nor as persuasive as I deliriously imagine myself to be. (It’s also possible that I might not be as right as I imagine, but, naturally, I don’t think that’s it. Must be that I just haven't been clear. My view on the subject hasn’t changed except insofar as clarifying a view does change it.) Quoth I:‎
1. My status update is asking a question, not stating a claim with which one could disagree.
‎2. The key word is "explain" but we have no clarity on exactly what "explaining" is. The variety of activities that get called "explanation" is vast. A chess player might feel that chess explains life. A musician might say that music explains life. But that doesn't mean chess and music have much to do with each other.
3. I appreciate Lyn's conclusion that science must end in "I don't know." Religion, too, must end in that "I don't know" of mystery and wonder. So science and religion have at least these two things in common: (a) they both explain, and (b) they both utterly fail to explain. (Auto mechanics and flower arrangement have more concrete similarities than that--precise positioning of physical parts, for example.)
4. RE: "why the human being is different from all other created animals" Actually, I find both science and religion to be more gratifying, more helpful, more inspiring, and more whole when they facilitate awareness of the similarities and connections (rather than the differences) between us humans and the rest of creation. "How we are like them" tells us a lot more about who we are than the vain project of glorifying slight differences.
Lyn was curtly dismissive:
Mer, I will continue to be sorry that your religion "utterly fails to explain" and leaves you with "I don't know."
So I shot back:
Lyn, any religion that doesn't bring us to a god of mystery and wonder isn't worthy, and any god boxable within the categories of human knowability is too small a god to be of interest.
Lyn:
Meredith, I don't claim that we can or will (this side of Heaven) know or understand everything about God, and I fully embrace the concept of the mystery of God. On the other hand, the inherent purpose of the incarnation is that in Christ we can and do know God. To say that we know God is not to say that we know and understand all the details of God. I cannot explain all details of H2O, but I can land on God as an explanation for why things are the way they are. Pure science, if it is honest, always reduces (much like a 3 year old) to the question "Why?", and that is the difference between science and religion... at least my religion. Christianity reduces to the answer "God."
At which point, Jon Zila, a friend from my El Paso days, jumped in:
"Christianity reduces to the answer "God."" That is not the answer. That is still a question. While you might "know" god, in the sense that you have had an experience with god, to know everything about god (to which you agree) is two different things. You may not know how H20 works, but to ultimately say it's just god is me saying "I don't know what makes this car move as fast as it does, yet I know it's because of physics." Both of which are things I do not know well. Although I know physics more than I know cars. You are replacing one thing you don't know with something else you don't know. The true miracle is the wonder of it all. To ultimately try to reduce it to a label is what takes away from that wonder. To write anything off as a simple word is what (imo) takes the miracle away.
Lyn:
I am sorry that I have articulated this poorly. I am not eliminating miracles or mystery and I don't claim that knowing God means we understand all the wonders of the universe. My point is only that saying that God is the source of physics and chemistry and biology is a huge step that pure science cannot take, and when coupled with knowing that God produces a far different answer than does the "I don't know" of science. I admire both fields - but they both try to answer some of the same questions, and religion gets much further down the road.
Ah, and what road would this be? It would seem to the old “explaining” road. Lyn, I gather, is saying that religion explains "more" than science does. Gone are the days when I was interested in debating, on its own terms, whether science or religion “explains more.” What I now want to say is that the notion of “explaining” is itself confused and illusory. Once we clear that up, we will see that the question of whether X or Y explains “more” is itself a nonsense question.

French playwright Moliere gave us a famous illustration of illusory explanation. In his play, “The Imaginary Invalid,” Doctor Bachilierus addresses the question of why opium cause people to go to sleep. The doctors “explains” that this is because of opium’s “dormative power.”

You see the problem here. The proferred explanans (“Opium has a dormative power”) merely restates the explanandum (“Opium puts people to sleep”).

Yet the reason Moliere’s lampoon works is that the reality of “explanation” isn’t much different. We can see how a listener (one not quite as clever as we are) might have the impression that Dr. Bachilierus has actually explained opium’s sleep-inducing tendency. His “explanation” does have a momentary “explanatory feel” to it. When re-statings of an explanandum are a little more elaborate, the illusion of “explanation” gets much harder to see through. Some of us find that “because of God” has a very satisfying explanatory feel to it, while others of us find that offering “God” as an explanation feels as circular and uninformative as “dormative power.” On the science side: some find that Newton’s laws of motion have a satisfying explanatory feel, while others point out that Newton’s laws don’t explain motion but merely describe it.

What are we really doing when we (think we) “explain” something? Fundamentally, this human activity we call “explaining” is narrative. Humans are a story-telling species. For us, stories give us the feeling that things make sense. So when we assess some “explanation” as “satisfying” or “further down the road” or “incomplete,” we are making a literary judgment – not unlike the judgment we make when we assess Dickens’ novels as more developed that Defoe’s.

Does this mean that if scientists took a few courses in literature criticism, they’d be better equipped to evaluate the explanations of phenomena that appear in the science journals? Maybe. Or maybe it’s enough that scientists-in-training stick to a science curriculum because the science curriculum IS a form of training in literature criticism.

In the preceding seven segments of “Evolution’s Arrow,” I spoke often of evolution as a “story,” and not at all as an “explanation.” “Explanation” is essentially story-telling, but there are certain pitfalls that we avoid by saying “story” instead of “explanation.”

One pitfall is the chimera of the “complete explanation.” No one supposes that fiction-writing would ever develop to the point that no further story need be told. Stories aren’t aimed at an endpoint – whereas if we say “explanation” we can fall into the mistake of imagining that they are aimed at an endpoint.

Another friend from El Paso, John de Castro, wrote this week of attending some “International Symposia for Contemplative Studies”:
Last evening we attended a panel discussion of the nature of consciousness. The anel consisted of an internationally renowned neuroscientist, a Tibetan monk and aide to the Dali Lama, and a renowned Philosopher. After wonderful thoughtful presentations by all about consciousness from completely different perspectives, they all came to the same conclusion! Consciousness cannot be understood within any current paradigm.
What does this mean? “Understood,” like “explained,” sounds like an allusion to an endpoint. But there is no such thing as THE understanding or THE explanation. There is only AN understanding and AN explanation – just as there is no such thing as THE story but only A story.

It’s true we don’t have the final understanding of consciousness, but that’s because there’s no such thing as a final understanding of anything: rocks, oranges, algebra, love, death, or Australian-rules football. There’s no final story about anything.

We do have stories to tell about consciousness – just as we have stories to tell about quasars, rain forests, transfinite cardinals, and monogamy. We may, of course, hope for and continue to work toward more satisfying stories about consciousness just as we hope for and continue to work toward more satisfying stories about everything else. What will count as “more satisfying” will depend as much on changes in the sensibilities of the readers as it does on changes in the stories.

Also back in the first segment of “Evolution’s Arrow” I mentioned that science helps us control and predict the universe, while religion helps us befriend it.

Science could continue to do what it does without thinking of itself as engaged in the project of producing something called explanation. It could, instead, simply say, “If we tell this story, then here are some cool research projects that might further extend our ability to control and predict.”

Likewise religion could continue to do what it does without thinking of itself as engaged in the project of producing anything called explanation. It could, instead, simply say, “If we tell this story, then we provide narrative support for certain practices – and the practices and story together help increase our ability for love, connection, inner peace, and joy.”

* * * * *
This is a postscript to the seven-part Lake Chalice series, "Eschatology: Evolution's Arrow."

Previous: Part 7: "Thank God for Evolution"
Beginning: Part 1: "Science, Religion, and a Bud Vase"