There have been several recent posts at Jerry Coyne’s site, related to the views of Neil deGrasse Tyson. They began with “Neil deGrasse Tyson goes all militant“, and there are followup posts here and here.
My personal take on the first of those posts was that I did not see Tyson as going all militant. In fact, I did not see his comments on religion as much different from what I have seen in other video talks, though he does raise some interesting questions.
In any case, those posts and the featured videos are worth reading and watching.
One of the questions that Tyson raises is about the apparent human tendency to appeal to Gods or to intelligent design. There are, I think, two aspects of this. One, I suspect, is that an appeal to Gods is an easy answer that turns away questions that you are unable to answer.
In the case of Newton, I’m not convinced that religion was the show stopper that Tyson takes it to be. I suspect that the show had already stopped. That is, Newton had reached the limits of his ability to concepualize the unknown, and was using religion to evade pressures to continue. It is easy enough to look at problems solved by Newton’s successors. However, our brains are not infinitely malleable. We cannot wipe the slate clean and start over at a new starting point. Newton’s successors had the advantage of starting with a cleaner slate, and adding to that only those parts of Newton’s work that they needed in order to continue.
The other relevant aspect of human nature is, I think, our tendency to think along the lines of design. And, as intelligent agents ourselves, that would leave us thinking along the lines of intelligent design. I see philosophy riddled with that problem. It cannot and will not resolve questions about the nature of mind, because it is caught up is a quagmire of an intelligent design kind of thinking. It’s not that they are saying that an unidentified deity designed us and our minds. It is that they tend to think of the mind as a product of design, and philosophy of mind is an attempt to describe that perceived design. But if there is no design, then such an approach is likely to fail.
In a way, this adoption of a design viewpoint might really be a natural part of top down analysis. And a top down analysis can be a powerful way of understanding things.
Here’s where my own approach to cognition is different. I, too, value the top down approach. So I also looked at cognition from a top down perspective. But I did not look for a top down understanding of how a human works. Instead, I looked for a top down understanding of the kind of problem faced by a human (or other biological organism), and I used top down thinking to study ways of solving that problem. And that’s what gave me an entirely different way of understanding cognition.