Toad in the Hole

March 13, 2005

Templeton, Schmempelton

I've had the juxtapositional frisson this past week of reading

1/ about the Templeton Prize of a gazillion bucks and how this year's went to yet another high-end physicist who says conveniently vague things about how religion and science are similar. It's kinda pitiful, if you look at it sociologically, that the various religions keep pointing to an ever-shrinking part of the unknown world and saying, "See? See??!! We're still in the vanguard! We're almost as smart as those other guys so we should still be in charge!"

Similarly (and see below) they point to areas of human behavior and various efforts toward freedom and justice, once they've followed actual radicals into some polite version of struggling, and say, "See? See??!! We're noticing this! So we should be in charge because we're moral!"

I'm seeing this in the enviro movement lately, of course.

2/ Richard Dawkin's compilation _A Devil's Chaplain_, in which he loses patience a few times and challenges (or slaps down) most of the "separate magisteria" compromise, which allows science to examine the factual and confirmable and religion to opine unchallenged both on what isn't known yet and on human morals. It's a fun read.

3/ Temple Grandin's newest book, _Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior_. The subtitle is much more self-aggrandizing than the actual content of the book. Grandin talks about what autism is like for her and mentions the experiences of other autistic people she knows or knows of -- and says that that's what she's talking about. She strays into generalization on occasion, like the statement that autistics are "visual" rather than "verbal" people, but she quickly and repeatedly makes it plain that she's speaking from her own experience, and waiting for more evidence to come from more autistics.

... I could be wrong. But for me, predicting animal talents is getting to be a little like astronomers predicting the existence of a planet nobody can see based on their understanding of gravity. I'm starting to be able to accurately predict animal talents nobody can see based on what I know about autistic experience.

There's yer Beginner's Mind, too.

I was discussing her online with an autistic woman, who mentioned Grandin's courage in coming out as an autistic, risking her job and status to do so. I hadn't been aware that she'd had to come out, that it was news.

My correspondent went on to say that it was courage like that, as well as the Internets, that had enabled her and many other autistics to speak of their own experiences, get listened to, and oppose some rather nasty "therapies" for autism that sound awfully familiar to those of us who know history. And that what she liked about Grandin was her "egalitarian" approach, that she said straighforwardly that she was recounting her own experience, not stating some general law. That in fact it was public statements like that -- as well as being able to correspond with each other and the rest of the public on the 'net -- that had allowed autistics to start finding out what they have in common, that autism has a wide spectrum of effects, that there are signs to look for and ways to help, or allow, autistic people have decent lives, careers, and respect.

(This might seem oxymoronic, given the "visual not verbal" thing, with which my correspondent agrees, but it seems to be connected with the need to express oneself without the social cues one uses in face-to-face conversation, and with which autistics typically have problems -- as well as the sheer sizer of the online population.)

Grandin's lectures, according to my correspondent, have this same egalitarian, down-to-earth tone. I've found that in several scientists, especially some that I've seen lately at the California Academy of Sciences member lectures. Tyrone Hayes, the guy doing studies about atrazine and frog development, comes to mind. If you ever get a chance to hear him, do so.

I'm thinking that there's nothing like a genuine scientific attitude to foster humility.

And I'm thinking that the Templeton Prize ought to go (if posthumously) to the advocates of closest approach I've ever seen of religion to science, expressed in the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free;
'Tis the gift to come 'round where we ought to be...

When true simplicity is gained,
To turn, to turn we will not be ashamed.
To turn, to turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come 'round right.

Posted at March 13, 2005 07:55 PM


Synchrini^W Snych^W Coincidence #1: I'm reading Grandin right now as well.

Coincidence #2: They're discussing the Templetons over at Pharyngula, as well as the recent Amy Sullivan piece in Salon, and I linked to this post in the latter thread. It was the Sullivan thing that made me choose.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 14, 2005 07:10 AM


No relation, I swear.

Posted by: Ron at March 14, 2005 03:33 PM