This post is prompted by listening to “The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special” – you can listen to it here.
It’s hosted by Professor Brian Cox (he of numerous TV series etc) and Robin Ince. The guests on the programme were Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock), cultural anthropologist and editor of the Sceptic Magazine Deborah Hyde and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.
Now it’s a sort of comedy come scientific education reality show .. sort of hard to categorise. However you define it, it’s popular – this is its 15th series. It’s an enjoyable listen, if trying a bit too hard to be funny.
The theme of this show was ghosts and “the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.”
This was no New Atheist rant against the dangerous irrationality and intolerance of religious faith. But (not far) under the surface, some very familiar themes were bubbling.
Basically the topic of ‘ghosts’ could just as easily have been ‘God’ or – as the blurb on the website says – the supernatural in general.
Science and the measurement of reality
Cox began the show with a statement: We are here to investigate reality. When it comes to ghosts, there is nothing to investigate because they do not exist. For some sort of persistence of people after death to be possible there would have to be an “extension to the standard model of particle physics” that has escaped detection at the CERN Hadron Collider – something inconceivable at the energy scales that it is now able to measure.
His point goes beyond ghosts to any notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ – anything that would somehow interact with our bodies must be detectable. Cox asserts (his term) that they can be no such thing as an energy source that drives our bodies. We are purely material, physical beings.
Similarly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that there was nothing he had encountered that defied his “complete knowledge of maths, physics and astrophysics.” Belief in ghosts etc was simply the ill-informed seeing mystery in things they did not understand.
Deborah Hyde commented that belief in the supernatural is the “default setting for human beings” and it takes “a lot of education” to come to understand things as they truly are. In the past it was “forgiveable” that people believed such things and it provides comfort in the face of the realities of life and death.
She added belief in the supernatural “plays into” human nature – “we don’t see the world as it really is.” We are finite and limited. We can’t see infra-red, electrons, gamma rays etc etc. Humans are enormously attuned to a very narrow range of stimuli (faces, movement) and tend to see the world through that (distorting) lens.
It is the genius of science, she implied, that has educated and set us free from the narrow psychological need to see the world in spiritual terms.
To this Tyson made an impassioned plea NOT to believe in or trust the hopelessly limited 5 senses of the human body. Science has access to dozens and dozens of sophisticated senses to measure all sorts of things the human senses have no access to. So successful has science been that it makes sense of the world, it transforms our cultures and has incredible explanatory power. So to believe in something spiritual beyond the human senses is not hard. But to believe in “some spirituality” beyond the vast modern day scientific apparatus is hardly tenable.
And going forward, anything seen as ‘spiritual’ will almost certainly one day be explained by advances in science.
To his credit, Bishop Nick Baines responded that Christianity says there is more to reality that what is measureable. It also deals in questions of meaning and purpose beyond the boundaries of science, but the overwhelming flow of the programme was that science is the gateway to knowledge and objectivity.
Nothing will stand in its way as an explanatory tool to understand all reality. The ‘spiritual’ and the ‘supernatural’ will eventually be squeezed out of existence by the onward march of the inquisitive scientific pioneer.
Now as I heard the show (and this is simply my take on it, my opinions are demonstrably falsifiable – just ask my family) this was an entertaining form of scientism – the belief that scientific enquiry forms the limits of our cognition and that any knowledge or belief claim that does not measure up to empirical enquiry is at best inferior and most likely a delusion.
It was a celebration of science, not only for what science can do but for what it is ‘disproving’. The whole ethos of the show is the elevation of experts sharing with us insights into the reality of the world; a top-down hierarchy of knowledge to be shared (in an entertaining way) with the masses.
Science deals in the trade of measurements, instruments and fact; religion is in the realm of unprovable opinions.
This is very much a modernist celebration of the advance of rational objective enquiry and the increasingly discredited and unbelievable world of subjective and credulous faith.
A Conceptual Brick Wall
It seems to me that there is what I call a conceptual brick wall being built here; an inability to grasp that Christianity (I will focus on Christianity rather than the supernatural in general) believes in a God who created the material universe but who is distinct from that universe. He existed prior to it and will continue to exist if it ever collapses. He is not by necessity a material being but a Spirit who cannot be ‘measured’ in material categories.
The ‘ghost’ of Immanuel Kant
Human reason was the basis of human knowledge, but it could only lead into knowledge of the empirical world. This was true objective knowledge.
That which does not belong to the material, spatio-temporal world (e.g. God, supernatural) cannot be comprehended by the human mind. So faith, for Kant, lay elsewhere, in man’s moral sense; in the realm of the subjective, as opposed to the world of ‘pure’ reason.
Brian Cox & co are disciples of Kant in their claim that knowledge only lies in the empirical world of scientific measurement. Yes, people may believe that there is something beyond the materialist view of the universe, but such claims are subjective (nonsense).
Kant’s ideas were a dead end philosophically. Christian truth is not confined to the realm of private subjective moral feeling. It is ‘public truth’, open to enquiry. Neither is it irrational. It has 2000 years of deep theological and philosophical tradition that has explored profound questions of existence. It is rooted in real historical events concerning the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course the Christian faith is not a total explanation of everything, but no belief system or worldview can ever be a total explanation of everything – including science.
Indeed, the Christian faith is not even really a ‘belief system’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘explanation’ of reality. It is a faith in a person – the resurrected Lord.
I guess my feeling in listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage were these:
- These guys (Cox and Ince and guests) are very smart
- They know it
- They are also very confident
- And that self-assurance is leaking over into an over-confident celebration of all things scientific whereby science itself seems to be the measure by which reality and life can be understood
I guess I am just not that confident.
We don’t live in Kant’s Enlightenment Age, intoxicated by the apparently infinite capacity of human reason and all the good it will do. We life in a post-modern world, rightly sceptical of those who confidently claim to have the keys to knowledge.
Yes the rise of science and human reason has led to unimaginable advances, but also to unimaginable brutality and a contemporary ‘culture of death’.
Rather than deGrasse Tyson dismissing the Bishop at one point “Yes, you can get all philosophical if you want”, it would have been good to have a hint of humility that maybe science doesn’t have all the answers. That maybe things that can’t be ‘measured’ – like love, forgiveness, truthfulness, character, compassion, hope, joy – are what really make life worth living.
Comments, as ever, welcome