Wednesday, 26 December 2007

BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 has a bug, it is still religion: Edward Slingerland

[This is talk 3, session 1 of 2, on the first day of The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

The third talk of the day moves from the historians, the last being Margaret Jacob, to "a humanist amongst scientists", as Edward Slingerland, the Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia, describes himself here. His research includes cognitive linguistics, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, methodologies for comparative religion and virtue ethics. His forthcoming book, "What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body & Culture", argues for the relevance of the natural sciences to the humanities. His theme is that "Enlightenment 2.0 has a bug, it is still a religion".

He starts at Enlightenment 1.0 looking at the problem, as faced by one of its main philosophs - Voltaire - which was how to create a naturalistic morality and one to be superior to the Catholic Church's supposed moral system. Voltaire's answer was to use Chinese thought from over 1000 years earlier, in the form of Confucius, whom Voltaire argued was a rational deist. Slingerland argues that this is an incorrect characterization of Confucius (but I would respond that even if Slingerland is correct, it does not alter how Voltaire used, indeed maybe misappropriated, Confucius, and that his version served his goal to demonstrate a better moral system to use as a foil against the Catholic Church).

Anyway to make Slingerland's case we go back to what he calls Enlightenment 0.5 - the Chinese period 700 to 221 BCE - a specialty of Slingerland's. This was a time of growing skepticism and supernatural minimalism. He argues that Confucius' Tien - Heaven - was an anthropomorphic being that could act in the world and that his teachings were of a religion rather than, as popularly and academically described today, "a way of life". Still it was a this-worldly religion and Confucius was very much a humanist in thinking, even with his supernaturalism. Slingerland then goes to show that at the end of the line of development of this thought we find Xunzi (298-238 BCE) whose Tien is better translated as Nature and who creates one of the earliest fully naturalistic moralities, although he still a supernaturalistic minimalist. Slingerland argues that Xunzi is the rational deist that Voltaire ascribed to Confucius. Xunzi has a very this-worldly functionalist view of religion.

Both Enlightenment 0.5 and 1.0 share a tendency towards naturalism and both are supernaturalistic minimalistic. However they do still retain a residue of supernaturalism, which is a bug in both. Now is this is a bug that we can get rid of in Enlightenment 2.0 - to complete the move to naturalism - or is it feature of human cognition that we cannot get rid of? Slingerland pursues the second line of thought in the remainder of his talk.

If this bug exists in Enlightenment 2.0, it is that "most western liberals agree we adhere to values grounded in the non-factual". For example, from Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" Slingerland quotes the "sacred values" of "democracy, justice, life, love and truth". Slingerland goes to use a term of "a sharp distinction between religion and secularism" and argues that this distinction is unclear. I agree but because secularism is a political stance to create a state neutral on the issue of religion, leaving individuals free to chose their own beliefs and one can be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist to support this. Although I think he misuses this term, I will stick to his, I think, poor characterization of this term for the rest of this review.

For the rest of his talk Slingerland draws upon the 1989 book of Charles Taylor: "The Sources of the Self". There are two types of judgment "weak evaluation" - personal, subjective, non-normative and tolerant and "strong evaluations" - which have normative force and are intolerant - "trafficking in child slaves is wrong" - and these are justified by "ontological claims" - "empirically unjustifiable metaphysical entities". This is the bug of Enlightenment 2.0. Taylor uses a framework of ontological claims to define and describe religion. If one accepts Taylor's broad but, it is argued, not meaningless definition, then Enlightenment 2.0 is still a religion! In Enlightenment 2.0 these ontological claims are not recognized and need to be made explicit, that is such values as "human rights, free will, reason, diversity, ordinary life" - noting especially that some of these not being obvious values in the past. So can we get away from such metaphysical beliefs?

No, Slingerland thinks we have evolved constraints that lead to us having such a framework of ontological claims, so we cannot avoid religion. One is "Theory of Mind" which means agents are special, they are different to objects (as Kant argued do not treat agents as objects). The other is that we have moral emotions. These two features do not go away, they are part of what it means to be human. The eliminative materialists who argue there is no mind and free will and think that we can get beyond Theory of Mind (folk psychology), use, he argues, a dis-analogy with the Ptolemaic versus Copernican revolution. Unlike changing from a geocentric to heliocentic conception of the solar system, we could do this because we do not have a "Ptolemaic" module but, by contrast, we do have a "Theory of Mind" module, we cannot simply make the change to drop our folk psychology.

The question is not how to make religion go away but what kind of religion do we want? For Taylor that both Catholicism and Enlightenment are both equally religions, but Slingerland argues for the superiority of Enlightenment religion over the alternatives. It's empirical bias means that once the spell is broken you cannot go back and end up with Enlightenment religion. It is corrosive against traditional religion but its bias of factual claims over metaphysical claims, means it is not in conflict with science as, again, are traditional religions. We end up with a dual consciousness - the physicalist and human levels - where we use Theory of Mind but bracket it but still cannot get rid of it.

There is much I disagree with here which has forced me to try and report Slingerland's talk in more detail than planned, in order to do justice to his arguments. Still I could not help raising a couple of objections in the body of this report. Anyway Slingerland's argument needed to be made and he has made it well. I will focus on two elements, the first he is unclear about what the Enlightenment worldview is and imposes too many conditions on it. The second is to challenge the metaphysical assumptions that he claims Enlightened thinkers cannot get away from.

Slingerland is clearly dealing with the issue of morality and as to whether one can have a truly naturalistic morality. It is useful to note that in ethics there are now three levels: meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. I think something similar can be derived in studying Enlightenment: the worldview level, the content level and the application level. On the worldview level, where one only looks at the structure of the worldview and not its content classical worldviews such as catholicism are quite different to Enlightenment worldviews such as, as he uses the term, secularism and naturalism. The former assume more rather than less, assert rather than question, and are dogmatic in their claims. The latter assume less rather than more, question rather than assert and claims are kept on merit. The issue is then an a priori (but not metaphysical) one of achieving an accurate depiction of reality and the recognition that errors can be made and how to deal with them. Classical worldviews are error denial worldviews and so cannot progress internally nor correct errors - for there are (supposedly) none to correct. Enlightenment worldviews are error correcting worldviews and so can progress by recognizing and updating claims in the light of recognizing errors. It is on this basis that one prefers Enlightenment over classical worldviews, if one is concerned to minimize mistakes. There is nothing metaphysical about this and it is not unconditional or categorical but intrinsically conditional or hypothetical (in the Kantian sense). One does not need to argue for an Enlightenment "religion" as superior to classical religions - this is being made at the wrong level of analysis. Now lets look at the level that Slingerland is operating at.

When we now look at the content level, we can ask if there are ontological claims within an Enlightenment worldview and, indeed, this is a reasonable question. Slingerland seems to be implying that his version of Enlightenment 2.0 necessarily requires naturalism and secularism and necessarily fails due to residual ontological claims based on unavoidable Theory of Mind thinking but still this supernatural minimalism is preferable to the alternatives. This is partly answered by the previous paragraph and by also examining the the application level which we will do in the following paragraph. An important aside is that Slingerland seems to implying the desirability and superiority of Enlightenment "religion" over it alternatives. But this conflicts with one of the Enlightenment values he does not mention - freedom of and from religion - (but maybe this is implied in his posit of human rights as metaphysical). This also might explain his version of secularism. Most Enlightenment worldviews would be for a secular public sphere - that is one neutral to religion - allowing for everyone to have their own religion or none in private - and to protect everyone, in a majority or minority religion from discrimination or worse. This is only to illustrate the possible equivocation over the way Slingerland, unintentionally in my view, presents his case.

When it comes to the values typically espoused in Enlightenment worldviews, Slingerland would have a point if these only existed on the content level but another key feature of the Enlightenment especially 2.0 as I conceive it, is that we have plenty of historical and empirical data to back up our arguments, these are not just good ideas, of appeal to those already converted nor with a necessary metaphysical grounding. He mentions Atran and Boyer but there are others such as Hauser, Toulmin etc. who, one way or another, have studied cultural norms, to not reject the fact-value distinction - which Slingerland implicitly endorses, he comes over as a subjectivist or non-cognitivist in his approach - but who still can describe prescriptions, identify cultural variations versus cultural invariants and make testable predictions based on these. This is not the same as saying this is the way the world should or ought be to, of course. Nevertheless, this is one example of empirical work on studying societies and people, past and present and seeing what makes them tick. We have thousands of years worth of empirical data on how societies worked.

When it comes to human rights, it is the case that we apply this as an objective evaluative mechanism on societies and can specify how well they measure against this standard. But what justifies us to saying these societies ought to conform to human rights? In asking this question one can see that I reject a rights-based morality - since it is derivative of one and what is that? In this case empirical and historical analysis has shown that societies that can be better described as utilizing these type of rights (whether by plan or accident, whether acknowledged or not) are better able to fulfill the claims that they make for themselves. So, if you want to society to work in a certain way, then based on such factual claims and analysis, you can make recommendations as to what that society needs to do to achieve this. This is a quite standard means of recommendation in all walks of life and human rights applications are no different and, as I have presented it, does not require any metaphysics (this is not to say that other human rights theories have indeed relied on such but I am showing here it is not necessary and is avoidable). No more so than the design of an exam to ensure the candidate has the requisite skills for a job and the fulfillment of the requirement of passing that exam so as identify such a candidate. From my Enlightenment 2.0 conception, that is all that is happening with human rights.

Lets finish this by taking the software analogy and bugs in a different way. We can look at two different types of software - Classical Software and Enlightenment Software.

Classical Software is marketed with a range of claims and if you run it it may or may not deliver on these claims. However one of these claims is that there are no bugs. Furthermore anyone who says there are bugs is, themselves, in error. Indeed, the vendors of Classical Software blame any of the problems the users make, on those who claim there are bugs and they add anti-virus software, security protocols and consume huge resources in running this additional software to defend against these viruses and virus makers - those who claim there are bugs.

Enlightenment Software, on the other hand, recognizes there will be bugs in any software. Indeed, they have learned, by studying Classical software's bugs, some of what to avoid. They make it easy to identify, report, track and fix bugs. As a result, their software is far more likely to fulfill the claims they make. They do not waste resources on anti-virus software and other protection methods. All these users know that Classical Software is bug ridden and generally fails to deliver on the claims they make.

So why is there still a market for Classical Software? The mistake the Enlightenment Software vendors have made, is to think you do not need to market this superior software, that anyone who tries it will know it is better. Classical Software vendors use a huge marketing campaign and spend much of it on spread fear, uncertainty and distrust on Enlightenment Software. One of the tricks they use is to say look, there is a bug, (and falsely claim) we don't have one. use ours! There are many other false claims... This is my, long winded, answer to Slingerland's the spell is broken argument - it is not sufficient to see it works better and therefore there is no turning back. The problem today is that many are befuddled and confused and are indeed turning back and we need to deal with this.