I’ve been critical before about the New Yorker‘s implicit dissing of science as well as its softness toward religion (see here, here and here, for instance). After all, the clientele of the magazine is liberal, wealthy, and though they’re probably not religious, they like a gentlemanly, well-fed detente between science and religion. The magazine also has a postmodernist tinge, one that was mentioned in an email I got from a colleague last May (see last link). My colleague was trying to finger the New Yorker‘s problem with science:
The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.
. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.
But Adam Gopnik, one of their staff writers, is a welcome exception, for he does show an appreciation for science and a knowledge of how it’s done, even though he appears to take the view that there are “ways of knowing” about the Universe that can be derived from literature or the humanities rather than science (I’m hoping the two of us will write a back and forth article on this topic). Gopnik, while not explicitly asserting that he’s a nonbeliever, has been moving more and more toward admitting it and singling out the follies of faith. He even admitted to reading and liking this website, even if his praise was accompanied by a mention that my love of other topics on this site bespoke an “irrational love”, so that in some respects a scientist simply cannot be a fully rational being (yes, that’s true; we’re human):
If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.
Well, I can forgive the caveat, and let me now praise Adam’s new piece in the magazine, “What can meditation do for us, and what it can’t.” It is a review of Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. (I suspect Wright filched the title from WEIT), as well as a general discussion of Buddhism in America and its connection with secularism (like a good reviewer, Adam never limits himself to merely evaluating a book’s merits). I haven’t yet read Wright’s book, but it appears to be an attempt to show that meditation works, there is a scientific basis for its efficacy, and that the benefits of this practice jibe with what we know from evolutionary psychology. As Antonio Damasio noted, in a glowing review of Wright’s book in the New York Times:
My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time. It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.
Gopnik is not nearly as enthusiastic about Wright’s book, though he does say it has its good points. One of his criticisms is that Wright ignores the traditional trappings of Buddhism, including the poetry, koans, and, especially, the supernaturalism (that, of course, is not Wright’s purpose, as he professes to be an atheist). Gopnik:
Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor—tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the flag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which eventually led him to a series of weeklong retreats and to the intense study of Buddhist doctrine—he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear.
Gopnik also argues that the evolutionary-psychology underpinnings of Wright’s thesis may not be accurate: at one point he says (my emphasis) “Whether or not evolutionary psychology is a real or a pseudoscience—opinions vary—one can believe that human beings are afflicted with too much wanting. . “. While Gopnik correctly asserts that most of Wright’s claims about how Buddhism works are still supportable without the need for evolutionary psychology, I wish that Adam had granted the field a bit more credibility. Yes, there’s a passel of bad evolutionary psychology, but the attempt to uncover the evolutionary underpinnings of human behavior is not in principle or practice “pseudoscientific”, and it has led to some decent evolutionary understanding of our behavior. Does Gopnik think, for example, that the differences in sexual behavior between men and women, which parallel differences among many of our relatives, near and far, and are well explained by evolutionary psychology, are merely “pseudoscience”? That’s just not fair, nor is it fair to imply that the field is intellectually bankrupt.
That said, I found the best part of Gopnik’s piece his discussion of whether “Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism.” That’s a good question, for, after all, the Dalai Lama, while professing to be down with science, still believes in the supernatural tenets of reincarnation and karma. In that sense Buddhism cannot be divorced from superstition any more than can Catholicism, with its adherence to a soul the dogma that of Adam and Eve are our literal ancestors.
Gopnik notes that Western Buddhists often fob off the supernaturalism of Buddhism by saying, “Well, everyone believes in something.” And here is where he takes out his silver scalpel and severs science from superstition (my emphasis):
Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing. We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer. Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs.
A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling. The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and effect that fixate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now—is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible. The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.)
I’d like to think that some of this was influenced by my similar arguments in Faith Versus Fact (which I think Adam’s read), or my piece in Slate, “No faith in science,” but I just don’t know. Regardless, the distinction between religious faith and “trust” or “earned confidence” is important, and it’s time someone made this point in the New Yorker.
Finally, Gopnik seems to embrace secular humanism, implicitly arguing that, stripped of supernaturalism, religions often arrive at similar sets of values:
All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed—an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism.
If that’s not the statement of a nonbeliever, I’ll eat my balaklava (though I’d wish it were baklava). Kudos to Gopnik for a thoughtful discussion, and for deep-sixing the “we take science on faith” argument.