Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Still two cultures: Reflections on Bird Sense

I've been busy writing for various book projects and a lecture course, so it's been a while. After enjoying The Soul of an Octopus, I've followed up with Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. And I'm mildly annoyed before finishing the preface!

Firstly, Birkhead refers to Thomas Nagel's paper about what it is life to be a bat. Birkhead is waving the flag of science (fair enough, it's a book on science and looks at what we know about animal perception, etc), but in the process he wants to relegate philosophy (how trendy). While science he thinks can tell us quite a lot about how animals perceive things by extending our perception using technology (his pragmatic approach), Nagel's understanding that we can't know exactly what it is like to be a bat is "subtle and pedantic." Is it too subtle for a scientist or science journo? That reflects badly on Birkhead.

As for pedantic, once more we see the view of science offering us a better way and relegating issues of meaning, significance, etc to the scrap heap. Actually, science contains a lot of subtly, and anyone who's tried to publish a paper will know about its pedantic nature. More than that, understanding perception tells you little about qualia, and claims of epiphenomena assume a lot. Nagel's gone a step further to challenge materialism. As well he might.

A second annoyance is the statement "our behaviour is controlled by our senses." Isn't it the case that our senses inform our behaviour? Control seems too strong a word. But then I'm being pedantic.

Thirdly, he argues that "natural selection ... provided a much better explanation for all the aspects of the natural world than the wisdom of God." Sigh. Anyone who's read any history knows that even Christians found much of Paley's natural theology as suspect. Darwin was reacting against this, after having formally embraced it. There's a world of difference between rejecting Paley's laboured design arguments, and complex pneumatological (Spirit), perichoretic (Trinitarian) and kenotic (self-emptying) arguments about creation/evolution. [Addition] He actually discusses Paley in more detail in chapter one, making the above statement all the more ironic!

I think Birkhead needs a history, philosophy and theology education. I'm expecting his science to be much better.