On mechanical cows and the uses of religion.

In his very interesting introduction to his condensed edition of Aquinas' Summa, Timothy McDermott outlines an Aristotelian view of nature for his readership.  He points out that the modern, atomistic view of the way the world is, ie constructed out of "fundamental" particles and energy, was a view that Aquinas would have viewed as crude and primitive.  Indeed, Aquinas talks about how the early gropers after the truth about the world had such a view (he is thinking of course of the atomists such as Democritus), and slowly felt their way to a much richer understanding of the world, culminating in the obscure and difficult Metaphysics of Aristotle.  The basic point here is that, when one asks "what things really exist" - when one tries to compile an ontological catalogue - the study of biology especially compels the Aristotelian to say that things like dogs really exist, and are not just constructs out of the rather greyish slurry of basic "stuff".  He goes on to talk about animals in this light, and in particular their roles in the world.  What, he asks, is a cow for?  Of course, we can isolate things cows do, or things we use cows for, but these instrumentalist views do not really capture "cowness" itself.  And thus, he argues, we can distinguish between machines, which always have a function (and nothing else) and an animal which, although it has certain faculties (producing milk, mooing, reproduction  etc) isn't for anything.  Indeed, when we try to describe a cow in mechanistic terms, we end up leaving out...what?  Well, we end up with the same problems as with humans; there is some sort of idle component that plays no role in the functional description, but yet is what cowness is all about: ie the sheer being of the cow itself.  A cow is not for anything, but what can imagine to be its idle enjoyment of its own experience.  This is, of course, an aesthetic analysis of a cow, and I am not suggesting (yet: evolution of aesthetics will come later) that cows have aesthetic experience per se.  To put it another way, one could easily imagine a zombie cow without any kind of experience at all; and yet still describe the mechanical functions perfectly well.  Indeed, it is far more respectable to imagine that cows really are like that than humans.  But such a description does not capture the essence, the substance of the cow, to use the Aristotelian terms.  

I previously argued rather equivocally about zombies, coming to the vague conclusion that they are imaginable but not real in fact, at least for humans.  So, despite what some have said, we also have this uncapturable "humaness" about us, that is always left out when doing descriptions of the world.  And I think this is one of the reasons that religion has been so difficult to deal with for those recent commentators who are hostile to it.
So, turning seamlessly from mechanical cows to religion, writers like Dawkins have tried to categorise religion in terms of mechanical uses: and for him, he suggests the for possible are "exhortation, consolation, inspiration and explanation".  I shall ignore the rather pat didactic tone of this characterisation and try to investigate what he means by this.  
There is a fashionable fable about the origins of religion that sees it as a sort of feeble attempt at science. E.g.: the thunder rumbles, so that must mean a god made it happen.  Then, the argument runs, we got philosophy with the Greeks and could start thinking about the world systematically, which in turn laid the foundations for Science; thus rendering at least the first (and presumably the second, too) obsolete.   
I find this Whiggish in the first order.  It makes all sorts of assumptions about what people were about at the dawn of consciousness; and in particular they were all amateur scientists.  But science is a very recent concept, and it seems just bizarre that that is what people were really interested in.  Indeed, most people aren't interested in it today.  It's true, of course, that most religions have some sort of cosmogeny built in to them, but why should be forced to think that that is what "religion is for"? It would be a natural extension of religion to encompass the whole experience of the world, including an account of its origin.  And, after all, cosmogenies don't always look like an attempt to "explain" anything.  Take, for example, the account in Genesis, which in turn relates to other ancient cosmogenies.  The Genesis versions, especially the "Yahwist", actually leaves out most of the "explanation": it attributes creation to God but completely fails to go into potentially amusing details.  It is, in fact, an experiential account of creation - the experience of the world as created by God - rather than even a protoscientific view, telling us a naive theory about how it was done.  So, we are back to the aesthetics of the situation again: the non-mechanical idle component that I think Dawkins completely fails to recognise in his mechanical analysis.  To put it crudely, people in this account are religious not because religion plays a role in their world view, whether it be explanation, exhortation or whatever, but because they have religious experience, akin to, but not identical with, aesthetic experience.  
After all, one can try to analyse aesthetics mechanically too: and I shall try to do this when I discuss its evolution.  Aesthetics might be related to finding food, or mate selection, etc.  But these do not really capture the subjective aesthetic experience itself; the idle, and indeed pointless enjoyment of something without an end in mind.  As soon as one asks "what is aesthetics for", or "what is religion for", one is bound to start missing the essential point, even though some interesting other facts will emerge in this endeavour (knowing how a cow works is interesting, even if it does not tell you about cowness).  In order to have sympathy with religion, one must stop seeing it as a bad version of something it is not, and start looking at it in its own terms.  Such a view is bound to have to include its essential subjectivity.  It seems we must return to Kant's universal subjective judgements at some point.


Kommentera inlägget här:

Kom ihåg mig?

E-postadress: (publiceras ej)



RSS 2.0