Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Evolutionary Bi-ALL-ogy

The humanities are doomed. Hence I've decided to forego a career in art history. Hitherto my training has been a waste. Instead I will surrender the discipline to biologists, clearly the only field capable of commenting with authority on any subject. If, as the new atheism so persuasively claims, evolutionary biology is able to make perfect sense of a subject as complex as religion (explaining it by inventing the idea of "meme" which, because it's scientific, must be incontestible), how far away can biology be from explaining all facets of human experience and aspiration? The only smart thing to do is to abandon future biological sub-fields now. I eagerly anticipate forthcoming works that will account for masterpieces by genetic necessity alone, providing the long overdue biological take on Raphael, Rembrandt and Matisse.

But just as I was about to sign away my humanities graduate stipend to the biology department - what seemed the only honest option - I ran across David Bentley Hart's review of Dennet's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that gave me doubts about what seemed an inevitable course of action.
Continue... Hart writes (in the current First Things),
Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one's conclusions will always be unable to command anyone's assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable...

In the end, the most scientists of religion can do is to use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism. When they do this however, they are not investigating or explaining anything. They are merely describing a personal vision and will never arrive anywhere but where they began...

If one proceeds in that fashion, all one can ever really prove is that, with theories that are sufficiently vacuous, one can account for everything (which is to say, of nothing).
And so I began to wonder if perhaps I should stay in my chosen field after all. Maybe science explains some things well, and other things poorly. If the new atheism's account of religion was suspect, perhaps their pending account of the rest of the humanities was suspect as well. I kept reading:
The [new atheism's] task of delinieating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do...

Dennett is conscious of this 'hermeneutical objecton,' but he truculently dismisses it as an expression of territorial anxiety on the part of scholars in the humanities who hear the invasion of their discipline by little gray men in lab coats. His only actual reply to the objection, in fact, is simply to assert yet more stridently that human culture's 'webs of significance' (in Clifford Geertz's phrase) can be analyzed by methods that critically involve experiments and the disciplined methods of the natural sciences.

Well, if Dennett going to resort to italics (that most devastatingly persuasive weapon in the dialectician's arsenal), I can do little more than shamelessly lift a page from his rhetorical portfolio and reply: No, they cannot. This is not a matter of territoriality or of resistance to the most recent research but of simple logic. There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one's object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one's evidence or one's conclusions - indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.
Does Hart mean that success in a laboratory does not instantly translate into success in all cultural, anthropological, and spiritual fields of inquiry? Maybe there is a reason to stay in the humanities after all. Furthermore, how nice to see the hermeneutical complexities of postmodern theory marshaled to unmask the new atheistm's conceit.

Guess I'll stick with art history. Maybe, taking a cue from the new atheists, I'll even begin to use its methods to account for science, interpreting molecular structures based on what we know of 14th century German altarpieces!

No, that would be inane.