The view from Andrew Sullivan’s window

(If you’re a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, you’ll understand the title of my post.)

As mentioned in the previous post, Andrew Sullivan has been debating theism with Sam Harris. Harris commented on consciousness at one point. I want to pick up on it in light of recent discussion of consciousness on this blog. He writes:

The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.

After the initial exchange on beliefnet, Sullivan is posting his half of the dialogue on his blog. He uses Harris’s comment on consciousness as a springboard to argue that the scientific method cannot be the only means by which we validate truth:

I do not believe … that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be ‘proven’ by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer. What I found insightful about your book was your openness to this possibility. You repeat that openness in your recent posting:

While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.

So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it. This is a big concession, and it undermines the certainty of your entire case. Such an argument must rest on a notion of ultimate truth that is deeper than science, beyond science. It must rest on a notion that allows for the rational legitimacy of my faith.

It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true — and could never be proven true — by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian – and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.

I appreciate Sullivan’s reference to the canons of historical truth, since I have spent a lot of time investigating the question of the “historical” Jesus. I can’t comment on mathematical proofs, but in my view there’s merit in the notion of “aesthetic truth” too — or at least, an intuitive grasp of truth for which an aesthetic experience may be the catalyst.

I often agree with Sullivan’s positions on religion and, to a lesser extent, on politics. I think I’m going to have to buy his book (pictured in the previous post).

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. whig
    Jan 28, 2007 @ 19:29:23

    The problem with Sully is that he has been a drunken warmonger and I don’t trust his judgment. He may make very good points and sometimes I have even linked him from my blog, but he would not be someone whose reputation aids his credibility.

    Reply

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