April 23, 2007
— Martin E. Marty
From the opinion columns and during television comments in the week that has gone by since the Virginia Tech trauma, one apparently minor theme leaped out for further expression of opinion and comment. Admit it: Many topics have been overworked, often by the under-informed. Let me launch into discussion of a topic on which I am at best only partly informed. Call it "scientific reductionism" and "free will." It takes off from David Brooks's apt op-ed in the New York Times on "Where Serotonin Stops and Sin Begins" (April 10). He properly foresaw that there would be legitimate talk about brain cells and adolescent schizophrenia, the inability to process serotonin and consequent depression and hyperaggression.
Brooks does not disdain the story of how, "over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people — even murderers — do the things they do." Fine — this is extremely helpful in approaching killer Seung-Hui Cho and his actions. But the scientific studies have "the effect of reducing the scope of the human self." Now the human is a "cork bobbing on the currents" of "evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing." So there is new doubt about "whether there is such a thing as free will." Brooks says that we cannot and should not ever go back to pre-scientific understandings, but "it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists' insights without allowing them to become monopolists." Somewhere "moral responsibility" has to be reckoned in, if not in this bizarre killer's case, then in so many more.
I'd take off from there to say that the most urgent agenda item on the religion-and-science front is not cosmology (Galileo and all that) or evolution (Darwin and all that). Scientific understandings of the brain, consciousness, will, and responsibility pose tougher questions, also for faith and theology. Reduce humans to the chemistry of neuron firings in the brain, and you have crossed a new line. The human is then "nothing but" this or that. To counter such reduction I learned from an exchange between philosopher Richard Rorty, no raging evangelist, and Steven Pinker, who makes so much — too much, according to Rorty — of what the genetic make-up of a human determines. Rorty says that, along with scientific understandings, "a theory of human nature should tell us what sort of people we ought to become."
Rorty: "The books that change our moral and political convictions include sacred scriptures, philosophical treatises, intellectual and sociopolitical histories, epic poems, novels, political manifestoes, and writing of many other sorts. But scientific treatises have become increasingly relevant to this process of change. This is because, ever since Galileo, natural science has won its autonomy and its richly deserved prestige by telling us how things work, rather than, as Aristotle hoped to do, telling us about their intrinsic natures."
That quiet paragraph inserted here into the debates about human nature, responsibility, and action will not go far in addressing the savagely warped mind of Seung-Hui Cho. However, the debates his actions inspired offer new opportunities to revisit old and new theories of human nature, theories where "science" and "faith and philosophy" do well not to exclude each other.
"Why Nature and Nurture Won't Go Away," by Steven Pinker, and "Philosophy-Envy," by Richard Rorty, appear in Daedalus (Fall, 2004). For more information, please visit: http://www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus.aspx.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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