The philosopher’s monologue

[A piece of creative writing for you. Imagine a scene: a scholarly debate is about to begin between a prominent evolutionist and a well-known theologian. The hall is packed and the atmosphere tense. But before the debate can begin an elderly member of the philosophy faculty gets up and takes the floor. Here is what he says:]

I find the argument of these two gentlemen entirely artificial and, indeed, the very premise of the question ridiculous. To set science against religion as if they were alternates is a truly false dichotomy. Science no more can explain the meaning of life than religion can tell of the inner workings of a star. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the philosophy of science, indeed to misunderstand philosophy in general.

Science is concerned with process, with the how of something. How does this work, what is its purpose and where did it come from? It is a method of exploring the practical nature of the reality around us; its functionality. It starts with a curious examination, postulates a theory and then experiments to examine the effectiveness of said theory. If a theory stands up to experiment, if it seems an effective model and explanation for the observed ‘thing’, then the theory stands. If not, it is rejected.

Scientific theories stand only as long as they remain the best theory available. They are frequently supplanted, however ‘right’ they might have seemed in the past. There is always a revision, an improvement, an alternative. As such science cannot be said to deal in facts, only in observable results and in current theorems. It is a realm of questioning, questing and searching; of scepticism and disbelief.

Religion, in many ways is the opposite. Although there are far more parallels than contradictions between open religious dialogue and modern scientific thought. Religion deals primarily in the why of the world, and specifically in the whys of human behaviour. Religion is the enculturation of cultural history and social norms; it is the framework of explanation that allows morality to develop.

Primarily, religion seeks to provide stories around which individuals can gather, to find common ground and a shared sense of identity. It seeks to answer questions that are completely beyond the scope of science: ‘why are we here?’; ‘how should we live?’

Perhaps my argument is too esoteric. Let us try an example:

Near my home in the village where I live is a duck pond. Every now and then, when deep in thought about this matter or that, I like to wander through the village, wave to my neighbours and say my cordial helloes, and to sit on a bench by the duck pond and marvel at the ducks.

I should start by saying that both science and religion are quite capable of joining me in marvelling at said duck, and are both perhaps quicker than an old philosopher at excepting that the duck is indeed there before them. A scientist would ask “is the duck observable?”, conclude it is, and move on to other questions. Likewise the priest or theologian. It is the old philosopher who gets bogged down in questions relating to whether he can believe the evidence of his own eyes… But I digress.

The scientist may ask “what is a duck?” and muse on its biology and microbiology, its place in the great genealogies of fauna, its importance to the biodiversity of the duck pond. To the scientist, this question is functional; how does the duck itself function, and what function does the duck have within the life cycle of the duck pond and its environs. If the scientist were to ask “how did the duck come to be here?” the question would be asked in the context of local ecology, migratory patterns and evolutionary history.

The scientist may indeed marvel at the duck. He marvels at the incredible complexity of its microbiology, or the way it perfectly fits within the ecology of the duck pond; the interoperability of the duck’s various ‘systems’ and the interdependence of the duck with the many other life forms within the ecosystem. He marvels, then, on the functionality of the duck, its physical nature and its place within the physicality of the cosmos.

The religious man looks at the same scene in an entirely different way. Religion is less concerned in the nature of the duck than it is in the story of the duck. What can be learnt from observing the duck and the duck’s behaviour? How can these stories be applied to our own lives for our moral betterment, or to more closely define our society or culture? How does the very existence of the duck point towards the nature of the universe and our place within it?

If the religious man asks “what is a duck?” he muses on its created nature; he asks how different the duck is from himself, or from God. He asks, more importantly, how the duck came into being, and why. The answers to these questions may be myth or conjecture; they may be deeply rooted in tradition and cultural heritage or they may be wild speculation; indeed, the answers to this may be impossible to know. But in asking his ‘why’, the religious man goes where the scientist cannot, to embrace the existential nature of the duck, and what it might or might not say about the existential nature of the man.

When the religious man marvels at the duck, he marvels in its beauty. He marvels in the beauty of the duck, in the beauty of the duck pond, and in the way that they so obviously complement each other. He marvels that he is there at all, to witness this beauty and to appreciate it. He marvels at the gift that such a moment can be found, with ducks, duck ponds and men to marvel at them.

While both men might ask “is the duck good to eat?”, the scientist thinks in terms of taste and nutrition and digestion; the religious man in terms of the morality of the act. While they may both ask “am I like the duck?” the scientist thinks in terms of genus, and the theologian in terms of how his nature is similar or different from that of the duck.

My point, friends, is that the questions are different, as are the questioners. They stand on entirely separate mountains, looking at the same subject from entirely different perspectives. And, quite often, they are found to be looking at entirely different things.

My colleagues here will stand before you and try and argue the right of their perspective to describe the nature of our universe, and the unsuitability of their rival’s. Science, you will hear, has explained away religion entirely and obviated its need. Or perhaps you will here that religion can be argued in terms of proof, and that that proof is evident around us…

Poppycock.

My contention before you today, friends, is that there is no basis in philosophy for this argument. A scientist cannot stand in the physical realm and speak to the nature of the spiritual; he does not possess the necessary tools. All the tools he has are based on what is observable and testable and he cannot observe, and certainly cannot test, what is beyond the veil.

Likewise religion has misguidedly wallowed into an argument that it is ill-equipped to fight, and certainly cannot win. The stories that we tell ourselves of existence, our existential musings in the dark of the night, are vital to our very humanness; they are what lift us up above the animals around us and mark us as different, separate. But those stories, those musings, those wonderings, however fresh or ancient, are unable to explain to us the inner workings of a duck, or a cell, or a star. They may ponder on the purpose of such things, but can tell us little about their function.

In this fight both camps have made the same mistake: they have conflated the how and the why. This is a grave error, and yet it is the foundation of tonight’s debate. Science has an incredible capacity to gradually discover the nature of the mechanism of our existence, to find explanation for the many steps in the long and complex journey that brought us to this place. But it is entirely unable to tell us why we are here at all. There is no tool in the scientist’s toolbox that even begins to tell us why, although it may one day offer theories as to why we ask that question.

Similarly religious thought, deeply suffused with attempts at explaining the ‘why’, at looking beyond the physical realm into other possible realities, at examining the nature of the human soul, is ill-placed to begin to satisfactorily answer the ‘how’. All it can do is regurgitate the stories that have been told in the past; stories that, however acceptable then, are simply insufficient now.

Both streams of thought do themselves a disservice by seeking to attack the other. They belittle their own usefulness in order to enter a realm where they can both quarrel. Science has little that is useful to say about morality, or the construction of society, and is in fact necessarily amoral in its questing approach. Likewise with religion, which can only make itself a laughing stock by arguing for the ‘how’ in old stories that are… well, beyond their usefulness in that regard, shall we say.

I will say this though, before I yield the floor to this pointless debate. While I see tonight’s argument as entirely false, I do not see science and religion as entirely separate. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The scientist and the religious man at the duck pond may indeed be one and the same. There is plenty of space within humanity to look for beauty, morality and mechanism within a scene. In fact, it is essential that there is. It is necessary for us all to ask ourselves both whether the duck is good to eat, and if it is good to eat the duck. To do otherwise is to reduce ourselves to a mechanistic level that denies the higher faculties on which science necessarily relies.

Science can examine the biochemical, psychological and sociological nature of mankind and determine the many factors at play in a man’s decision making. But when a man raises a gun to shoot another it is our religious tendencies that much judge who or what is to blame and what kind of justice might be applied. Science, you see, has no concept of justice at all.

It cannot. You cannot form judgment on what is ‘right’ by experiment; ‘rightness’, whatever that may be, is not observable. But that does not mean it is not knowable. Science, by detailed process of observation and experiment may determine what is the favourable outcome in a human endeavour, but it can very rarely provide explanation of why the outcome is favourable. It is the scientist’s religious tendencies that provide the explanation of said favourability.

I am rapidly losing the goodwill of my audience, so I will desist in my interruption. But first let me end with this thought:

The fact that we dislike or disprove of a particular narrative does not remove the necessity of any narrative at all. The fact that we raise science up to the level of a religion does not make us any less religious in our convictions. We have simply found disfavour with one dogma and replaced it with another.

I am not interested in arguing in favour of dogmas, on either side of this debate. I am simply here to remind you all of the nature of philosophy, and the very necessity of both moral and practical philosophies. They are both of equal necessity to us as individuals and as a society. It is unacceptable to equate them, or to say that only one side is needed, just as it would be to say that we only need women, and not men. In fact, such an assertion would be ridiculous, as is the one before you tonight.

And with that, I yield the floor…

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3 thoughts on “The philosopher’s monologue

  1. Rachel N says:

    “WAIT! WAIT!” yells somebody from the back of the room. The audience bristle and turn around as pleasant anticipation of the big fight is disrupted. Their pointed stares signal loud disapproval.

    “Professor! You’ve missed out a character in that story about the duck pond.”

    The elderly gentleman raises his eyebrows pleasantly. He strains to see the speaker, and leans towards the back of the room to listen more carefully.

    “I’m not surprised you’ve forgotten about her. She’s so slight as to be barely visible. In dark weather, she’s almost transparent. Squint in the rain and you’d swear she was a sprite.
    But, I promise you, professor, when I describe her, you’ll remember how real she is. I can see her sitting in the grass by the edge of the pond. She’s dangling her legs in the water. She’s staring intently at the duck.
    Actually, she’s noticed that the poor bird is anxiously darting back and forth, looking around. She pushes off from the edge of the pond. She’s clearly enjoying the water around her legs, and the way her toes sink slowly into the gloopy mud. She reaches into the pocket of her jeans and pulls out a fistful of breadcrumbs, holding them out to the duck. He is so hungry that he flaps toward her clumsily, spraying crumbs everywhere in his eagerness to gorge.
    She strokes him tenderly while he has his fill. Once her hand is empty, the fowl inspects her jeans as if to ask for more.
    She pulls out some more crumbs (there are a few bits of lint here and there, but he doesn’t seem to mind) and offers them. The duck is a bit calmer now, and dabbles around on her outstretched palm. She watches him and smiles. Between her palm, the cool pond, the greedy beak, the silent watching men and the crumbs, there is something beyond words.

    Then, she notices something – it’s glinting in the sun. A silvery line is tangled in some pondweed. She narrows her eyes in disgust and extracts an angler’s fishing line with lead hook. She crushes the line into a ball and slides it into her back pocket.”

    There’s a sigh, and the old man’s face shows recognition. He begins to nod slowly.

    “Her name, professor, is Dasein. I know you two have met.
    But I’m not surprised that you’ve forgotten her in the heat of your frustration. Well, that, and the fact she’s mute. She can only express meaning by being and touching.
    Yes, generations of philosophers before you neglected her too. But she’s the ghost guest at every debate. And she’s here now, reminding us – if we care to look – that our very being affects our science, and our religion. How we act changes them, and they change us. We live in them. They are never separate – as if you could observe them from…”
    “Oh, just get on with it!” shouts a man.
    The room has become a hum of discontent. Somebody coughs loudly. There’s a groan of chairlegs against the parquet floor.
    “What’s the hold-up? Who’s the chair of this debate?”
    The audience becomes restless, spoiling for a fight.

    The evolutionist and the theologian exchange glances.
    Strangely, the single thought that pervades their minds in that moment is how much they’d like to be dangling their legs in the clear waters of the pond.

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