I am genuinely curious about how human minds work. I am particularly curious about how religious minds work, because they seem to be able to quite easily hold multiple contradictions simultaneously, and not have a problem with doing so. Religious people frequently attempt to argue using ‘logic’ when they have, by accepting a completely illogical premise (ie, the existence of a supernatural being who cares about the affairs of humans), abandoned all structures of logic. Perplexingly, they seem completely unable to understand the paradox inherent in this pursuit.

Take this opinion piece penned by one Simon Smart for the Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend. You should really read it to get the full flavour of its absurdity, but I will synopsize it for those who don’t have the time.

Mr Smart attempts to hijack the old maxim that ‘The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ and use it in the service of a religious argument. He is basically claiming that humans, unlike other animals,1 have rituals that surround food and this (somehow) means we are chosen by God. Or something. I’m sorry if I sound confused – it’s because I am.

Of course humans have complicated rituals involving food. We have complicated rituals involving everything. We have complicated rituals involving killing one another – is that God’s handiwork too? It’s banal to observe that humans do things that are different to other animals, and to infer that there’s something ‘miraculous’ about this is simply an awkward manifestation of 19th century thinking.

I have to snip a quote from Mr Smart’s daft noodling:

Imagine for a moment a dinner party of old friends. There’s a scientific way of analysing all that transpires at this dinner – plenty that the biochemists, anatomists, physiologists and neuroscientists could describe – regarding chemical processes of the body and brain that are astonishing in their complexity and intricacy.

But such a description wouldn’t even come close to telling us what’s going on. One guest can’t quite manage to lose the acidic feeling in his stomach as he tries and fails to forget the precarious state of his business. Another diner, perennially proud of her successes, feels an even warmer glow of satisfaction than those drinking the bottle of Grange she came armed with. The host, enlivened by the wine, smiles at his wife across the table and thinks how much he still loves her after all these years. Another, at the first mouthful of her favourite dessert, is lost in thought as she nostalgically recalls her childhood family kitchen.

You see what he did there? It’s a familiar piecer of religious prestidigitation – a classic strawman argument. He sets up science as a cartoon bespectacled-people-in-labcoats caricature (the hoary old ‘science is cold and clinical and concerned only with mechanical things’ cliché) and then conjures up a whole lot of things that he says science can’t explain because… well, it just can’t. He divides the world (quite arbitrarily) into things that he considers are the domain of science and things that he considers aren’t, just as we saw biologist Francisco Ayala do a little while back. Also familiar is the call to emotion, which he continues in the next sentence:

Is this interaction of memory and emotion to be thought of as singularly physical and material in nature?

Um, sure, why not? All Mr Smart is doing here is drawing an arbitrary line that removes memory and emotion from the world of the ‘physical and material’ because he’s not comfortable with that idea, and he’s appealing to his reader on the same basis. Scientific examination does not know or care about this kind of discomfort which is precisely why it’s so reliable. We know with absolute certainty that memory and emotion can be altered and controlled by physical processes, and these things can be demonstrated scientifically. Mr Smart is either ignorant of the scientific explorations of these things, or is wilfully ignoring them. Either way it makes his opinion valueless.

Smart goes on to perpetuate another vacuous stereotype, referring to Philosopher Leon Kass’s ‘The Hungry Soul’:

Kass suggests there is a huge gap between the ethically sterile nature as it is studied by science and the morally freighted, passionate life lived by human beings.

It makes me really mad. Examining the world through science is, in Simon Smart’s painting of it, ‘ethically sterile’ and by inference, morally vacant and lacking passion. This, of course, is not an accurate representation of the truth, but instead is a bogeyman that religious thinkers are compelled to raise in order to reserve the domain of morality and ethics for religion. Whenever I encounter this argument these days I almost find it embarrassing for the person promoting it. It is perpetuated solely with the purpose of cementing it in the minds of less rigorous thinkers.

Mr Smart ends his article with a story about his daughter returning from hospital after a burst appendix and three operations:

She was frail and pale, and we immediately set about building her strength. As a family we ate together, cheered her recovery, took photos and gave thanks for doctors, nurses and supportive friends. It was a special moment, a coming back to life. It felt almost sacred. Or was that, as some would have it, just my brain chemistry messing with my head?

How many addled misconceptions are contained in that tale? Who engineered that ‘coming back to life’? Scientists! A process that was once the ‘domain of God’ – the mysterious, ineffable ‘miracle’ of life and death – is now commonly administered by rational thinkers. The fact that Simon Smart and his family even knew how to go about building their daughter’s strength is due to science. If they’d trusted that whole process to God, no matter how much fervent praying they did, I think we could quite reasonably conclude that their daughter would most likely now be dead.

Simon Smart has quite obviously allowed his brain to accept that science can acceptably achieve some ‘miracles’ (no doubt rationalizing the circumstances by allowing that God is in charge anyway) but arbitrarily forbidding it from others.

He resists the idea that brain chemistry ‘messes with his head’ because it simply doesn’t ‘feel’ right to him. He says elsewhere that:

…most of us resist being spoken of in such reductionist terms.

The fact is that the universe doesn’t care how much we ‘resist’ the idea.2This specialness that he thinks he has – a specialness that somehow elevates him above all other living things – is purely an invention of human thought processes (and peculiarly antiquated thought processes at that, as I have said). There is nothing that we see in the natural world that gives credence to this belief other than the human conviction that it is so. Mr Smart doesn’t want to think of himself as a mess of chemical and electrical interactions for the simple reason that he’s already formed the opinion that he isn’t. And that’s all it is: an opinion. The position is certainly not defensible via observation or rational appraisal.

Simon Smart is completely entitled to have an opinion, of course, but I just wish he wouldn’t attempt to pass his superstitious speculations off in the guise of logical argument, while simultaneously denying logic the right to examine those very same speculations.3

  1. This, as many biologists will tell you, is not necessarily so. Some animals have acquired simple preparations methods when eating food. Japanese macaques, for instance, like to wash their food before eating it, and have even adopted a preferential habit of doing this in sea water (rather than river water), presumably because they like the seasoning taste. []
  2. The argument via reductionism is problematic anyway. We already know that complex systems can arise from very simple sets of basic circumstances, so reductionism per se is not the QED that religions like to assert. To invoke particular ‘specialness’ in humans because they exhibit a high level of complexity requires the continual re-drawing of boundaries. As our description of living organisms becomes more detailed, religious appraisal of what constitutes this specialness is forced to make more and more compromises just to preserve God’s input. We see exactly the same thing in cosmology. []
  3. Mr Smart needs to spend some time reading (and making an effort to understand) beautifully written and coherent essays such as this one. []