June 20, 2008

Thoughts on Michael Dowd: Erroneous but Perhaps Positively So

Willington, CT is a bedroom community located about 5 miles from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Michael Dowd spoke at its public library last night; the event was arranged by a local spiritual group whose leader, Bob DiQuattro, is an ordained minister and pastor of the United Church of Christ and grief counselor. It was clear from the outset that Dowd, dressed in a t-shirt, slacks and sandals, wasn’t going to be the fire and brimstone preacher type. Dowd demeanor conveys an identity more like that of a peace activist than a minister, more the self-help guru than the doctor of psychiatry. Two words that describe the instant impression of Dowd — and lingered for me through his talk — are, “nice guy.” I came away from his presentation without a doubt in my mind that Dowd isn’t up to anything that he isn’t perfectly willing to state in plain language. When Dowd says that he’s out to heal the rift between religion and science in America, that he thinks it crucial that religious people embrace evolutionary ideas as part of their theology, and that he wants to be a guest on “Oprah” in order to get his message out, he’s saying exactly what he mains. Whether his “evolution theology” can accomplish anything more than the third of these goals, however, I find highly questionable.

Dowd began his presentation with a pyramid that at its base had four principles of division between science and religion stated as “vs.” categories. For instance, the language of science was compared to that of religion as “day vs. night language,” with science speaking the former tongue and religion the latter. Day language is the language of facts and analysis, culturally non-specific and accessible to anyone regardless of religious context. Night language, the mother tongue of religions, is the semiological equivalent of dreams. It is bound to specific cultures so to time and geography. It isn’t literal; it has to be interpreted and this can only be done within its specific context. He illustrated the difference between these waking and dreaming lexicons by using the Genesis account of the temptation of Eve by the serpent in Eden. If one were to meet a talking snake on the way to one’s car, Dowd explained, we would wonder “who slipped us the LSD” because such an event would be far outside anything we could rationally expect to experience in waking consciousness. Yet people can still find truth in such a story by interpreting it in light of what we do know about the world. The serpent, Eve, Eden and the whole story are metaphorical but still convey information, in other words, about the human condition. Thus, he maintained, those who insist on a literal interpretation — he calls such people “flat-earth Christians” — are missing the whole point of the story and failing in both their role as spiritual and rational humans.

Another such distinction he examined was “public vs. private revelation.” Private revelation, like night language, is culturally and temporally specific. As he put it, “Moses went up on the mountain, something happened” and the result was a change that was relevant to a given culture. Private revelation is knew understanding of the working of the universe that comes through one person and is not universal. By “public revelation,” Dowd is referring to science, the “skeptical process” by which cultural specificity is stripped away in order to make understanding of reality universal. My understanding of this, then, boils down to the idea that Dowd’s “private revelation” is of limited scope and meaningful only to those who possess the right night language lexicon to decipher it, whereas “public revelation” is accessible to everyone. It’s an interesting idea, but this was the first area in which I find a basic flaw in Dowd’s ideas. The language of science is filled with jargon and concepts that are meaningful only to those who have put in the effort to become conversant with it. A lexicon is still required and there is no reason to expect that everyone will have the means to possess it, a situation which is illustrated in current science vs. religion debates. Every time a Creationist asserts that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes evolutionary theory an impossibility, for example, they are demonstrating precisely that they don’t possess the right conceptual dictionary to comprehend the science implicit in their argument. In essence, this is really no different from a Christian mocking a Hindu for believing in many deities instead of one because the former doesn’t understand the “night language” of the other. In order for Dowd’s evolutionary theology to become adopted by anyone, then, it would be necessary for the potential adopter to either learn a number of other lexicons or else be willing to disregard the differences between them, whether we’re talking about religion or science. It’s a catch-22 situation as far as I can see, because inflexibly religious people aren’t going to do that and scientists have enough trouble keeping up with developments in their own field and unless their field has to do with religious experience they don’t have the time to learn the “night language” of other religions in order to foster dialogue between scientific skepticism and religious symbolism. Unfortunately for Dowd, who I think is absolutely sincere in his desire to see religion and science locked in a fond embrace, this is only the first of several such difficulties that ultimately leave us exactly where we started, even given his initial assumption that the reconciliation of reason and faith is necessary and productive.

The next tier on Dowd’s pyramid consisted of what he termed three fundamental scientific discoveries. The first of these, however, seems to me more of a personal interpretation of a basic property of self-organization. The label Dowd assigns to it is “nested creatheism,” and he stressed that the second word can be pronounced as either “cre-A-theism” or “cre-uh-theism.” He defines this as the spontaneous organization of simple components into more complex systems; subatomic particles assemble into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into organisms, organisms into societies, and creativity thus exists at every level in this analogy that he glyphs as a nested doll, with smaller dolls inside of larger ones. The largest doll, containing all the rest, is the universe, or God, or whatever other name one might attach to it. In set theory, this would be the infinite universal set. Dowd stressed that this isn’t a teleological principle; there’s no inherent purpose to it, it wasn’t designed and there isn’t a puppet-master pulling invisible strings to make it happen. This assertion brought to my mind something that John Allen Paulos wrote about in his recent book, Irreligion:

Some thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Baruch Spinoza seem to identify Him with the laws of physics or the structure of the universe…

Irreligion, p 99

What Dowd appears to be talking about is, I think, better known as emergent properties. I don’t understand why there is a necessity to coin a new term to describe a fairly old concept, although this may be explained by the presence of emergence as another of the three scientific discoveries in this tier of Dowd’s pyramid. It may be that it’s just convenient to separate “spontaneous creativity” and emergent properties in order to make an esthetically-pleasing pyramid shape. In any case, this isn’t something new to scientists and I am not at all sure why those who oppose science in the name of religion would be inclined to accept a non-teleological basis for increased complexity. To the contrary, it seems that all Dowd has done here is recapitulate one of the issues that divides the religious fundamentalist from the naturalistic scientist.

The next level of Dowd’s pyramid consists of two approaches to understanding reality. On the one hand is the sectarian, religiously conservative approach by which religious texts are used as source material. On the other is the secular, religiously liberal approach, by which Dowd seemed to mean one that embraces empiricism rather than authority. I’m unclear on why this is important in Dowd’s “evolution theology”, aside perhaps from the notion that one has to use different language (again, night vs. day) in order for one side to make itself understandable to the other.

The capstone in Dowd’s pyramid is “a healthy future for the whole.” By reconciling all of these dichotomies and synthesizing science and religion, by the two sides understanding each other, we can bring about a transformation in the way that humans interact with the world that “aligns” us with the best interests of ecology and creates a better future. It’s a noble enough notion, certainly, but I’m not sure that Dowd’s belief that reconciliation of science and religion makes this possible or that incentivizing people to act in the best interests of the biosphere as a whole through their self-interest can ultimately pan out. Dowd expressed a few concepts in terms of gain theory (e.g., increasing strata of complexity resulting from emergent properties as “non-zero sum). There is another related concept: the red queen. That is to say that even when some biological or social system achieves an apparent equilibrium beneficial to all of its parts, sooner or later a cheater arises who exploits that very system for its own gains and by so doing can ultimately destroy it. Why this shouldn’t be expected to occur in the kind of system that Dowd envisions as a result of his evolution theology was never explained, nor was the red queen herself ever brought up. Dowd’s is a glittering Utopian vision and one that certainly feels good at an emotional level, but at the rational level based on empirical understanding of how evolution really works it is an exceptionally unlikely scenario for anything more than a brief historical period.

I’ve already critiqued Dowd a good deal and yet have barely gotten into his presentation, so I want to make clear that I can see a lot of potential good in Dowd’s message, flawed though it is. While few people are going to devote themselves to a full understanding of evolutionary theory or scientific knowledge because of what Dowd has to say, I do think that he can provide a ground upon which the religious can get over the assumption that science is out to obscure what they feel are religious truths. They may not actually learn much about science, but I think that merely having this feel-good view of it is a useful thing. While I find it hard to believe that Dowd is going to sway religious fundamentalists of any stripe, and as a scientist I don’t find myself transformed in any way by the presentation, his message is a good one for middle America to hear. It may allay some fears when it comes to talking about the content of science education, for example, and that in itself is an important point to keep in mind. I don’t, and never have expected, that everyone in America would ever become a scientist and so it isn’t necessary for the bulk of the population to have a detailed understanding of biology. What is important is that half or more of our population isn’t frightened by those of us who do and that they get over the notion that their children are going to be indoctrinated into some sort of science-based cult by receiving a sound education themselves. Dowd provides a warm-and-fuzzy way for this to happen, and that’s far more critical at this juncture in history than that every American citizen understand what fitness means in terms of natural selection and the fine points of how self-splicing genetic sequences can alter the course of evolutionary history. Fundamentalism flourishes in an environment of fear; Dowd may be a good agent for countering that situation. He might make for a poor scientist, but he’d be an excellent guest on the talk show circuit. By all means, put the man on “Oprah.”

A theme that ran throughout Dowd’s presentation, and which also formed one of the basal blocks of his pyramid is the difference between faith and belief. Faith, in Dowd’s interpretation, is simply an open and trusting stance in regard to the universe and the result of interpretation of religious stories. Belief is particular; it relies on the acceptance of religious imagery as literal truth. In other words, a Christian might read a story from the New Testament and interpret it in light of worldly knowledge and so come to an understanding that no matter what happens, everything will be alright in the end. Alternatively, he might read the same story and thereafter insist that Jesus literally walked on water and that an actual multicephalic dragon was going to emerge from the center of the earth at the end of time. The former is faith, the latter is belief. Belief is counterproductive, faith is not. This works fine on the religious side of the spectrum, bt what about when it comes to science? Dowd asserted that he finds faith arising from an understanding of cataclysms throughout evolutionary history because each mass extinction was followed by adaptive radiation and speciation. In other words, life will always find a way. He finds faith in DNA, too. During the brief question and answer period, I was one of three people who got to ask a question. My question was that, being that I look at genetic sequences nearly every day and don’t find a reason to trust the universe anymore than I already do because of it, where in DNA can one find reason for increasing faith? Dowd’s response to my question was to refer back to periods of rapid evolution following cataclysmic extinction events. Frankly, I don’t feel that he really addressed my question on this point. I still don’t see any reason to be more open and trusting based on the alignment of genetic sequences that are already so much a part of my existence based on the continuation of biology through periods of destruction. Dowd seems to be saying that these impersonal bits of life’s history can serve as a model for getting through times of crisis in one’s own life. Our personal disasters are tiny as compared to those that have befallen the earth in the past and everything worked out for the better for life, so that should be a sign to us that we’ll emerge better for our individual tribulations, too. This presupposes that it’s true that life on earth is better for having been nearly wiped out in the past, but we have no way of knowing whether the world would be better off if the evolutionary trajectory of dinosaurs had continued to the exclusion of the eventual rise of primates. We can only take the personal view in the first place that things as they are constitute the best of all possible worlds because we’re here to say so. Moreover, observation tells us that many people in the world are not better off because they trust in an essential goodness of the universe or God or even other people. There are any number of disasters that occur in people’s lives that are never resolved for the better; someone who dies of cancer or who loses everything they ever had and winds up homeless and starving can take little solace in the fact that the asteroid that killed off the sauropods likely made it possible for we humans to eventually come into existence and there’s no good reason that they should. This part of Dowd’s evolution theology reminded me far more of self-help ideology than it did of anything that we can logically infer from science. Indeed, it would only make sense in a system that incorporated a teleological, “everything happens for a reason” element, which science manifestly does not. It’s a bit of warm-and-fuzzy, certainly, but in and of itself doesn’t appear to me as anything that couldn’t result from a literal interpretation of scripture.

In a general sense, what Dowd is bringing to the discussion isn’t anything new. Most of what he talked about were things I’ve seen in various mystical ideas; Dowd has a lot in common with Ramakrishna, for example. What’s new here is that Dowd is trying to incorporate intrinsically scientific principles into a mysticism that turns them into universal exposition of what were previously culturally-specific ideas expressed by religions that were based in part on dreamlike symbolism and in part on imperfect and limited understanding of all of the mechanisms by which the world works (as I’ve said in the past, religions are attempts to explain the world that were formulated with the best tools available at the time but which aren’t as good as those we have now, and so those who cling to literalism do a disservice both to religion and progress). There’s a hidden danger in doing this, because his efforts could certainly serve as an alarm to those who’ve been insisting all along that science is a religion. They could well point to Dowd as an example of someone who is trying to replace religion with science and who disregards, for example, the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. I haven’t looked for examples of this to date, but I’m sure I could find at least a few if I tried.

To the extent that Dowd is a novelty in the context of the ongoing “culture wars” in America and elsewhere, I do think we’ll be hearing more about him, and all-in-all I see no problem with that. He could make the situation a little better and I don’t think he could make it much worse. On the other hand, I don’t see a basis for thinking that his ideas are going to change things overall. Considering that he closed his presentation with the hope that lessons from biology could serve as the basis for a new system of government, I’m inclined to hope that he doesn’t garner too much influence. I don’t think that would be a good idea; biology is explanatory and it can and should inform relevant decisions made by governments, but I would certainly vote against any candidate for office who thought that our system of government should look like a biological system. Evolutionary biology shows us that the history of life is rather harsh overall, that it’s driven by competition and destruction. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that used natural selection as a basis for inclusion. One of the great things about humanity is that we can do much more than mere biology would allow because our capacities to imagine and envision are emergent properties that have been produced from evolutionary processes. We’re the first species that we know of that can step outside the confines of pure biology, so we needn’t — and shouldn’t — be limited by biology itself.

In summation, then, Dowd is interesting, but I think he’s still falling into many of the traps that mystics throughout history have encountered. His desire to see the reconciliation of science and religion is noble in and of itself but his ideas don’t really constitute a means by which this can happen unless he’s talking to an audience that has already decided that such a reconciliation is possible in the first place, which essentially means that both religious fundamentalists and so-called “new atheists” — the very people he most needs to reach — are very unlikely to accept his message. While he acknowledged repeatedly that evolution isn’t soft and cuddly, he largely misses out or passes over the points from evolutionary biology that run counter to a Utopian vision for the future at either the personal or societal level. Dowd certainly isn’t an evangelical Christian in the sense that we normally see that term used, nor is he a scientist or science teacher. He shares a good deal of methodology with self-help mavens, though, and audiences open to the spiritualistic sources like The Secret are the ones most likely to be receptive to his ideas. While I think he’s in error about what evolutionary biology tells us about ourselves and abut the world, his errors are at least positive ones. Considering what we have before us in American society today, I find myself in favor of his continuing to get his message out, if only because it stands to replace erroneous thinking that is inimical to science with erroneous thinking that at least leaves the door open for the continuation of scientific progress.

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