Religion and Science -- 8
posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM
Science has not replaced religion.
If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.
But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.
posted on 11.23.2006 at 10:59 AM
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects -- testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
Religion and Science -- 7
posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM
A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.
1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:
"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)
Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:
"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"
Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.
2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."
"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist
Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.
Odds on Existence of God
posted on 11.17.2006 at 10:23 AM
Every once in a while, it's useful to check up on the theists' logic. Here is Mahlon Marr (writing, alas, under the name Thomas Paine), responding, he thinks, to Richard Dawkins:
Let's meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation - the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design...and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.
This calculation is, shall we say, somewhat flawed.
First, we should note that believers have been looking for some dark, as-yet-unexplained corner of the universe in which to secrete God for many centuries now. It was once the creation of life for which there was "no scientific theory or evidence available," but then Darwin shed some light on that "mystery." Now they (and agnostics also) have fastened upon the initial moment of the Big Bang. (To be sure, this is a rather important subject, but so was the creation of life.) Light -- scientific light -- will eventually be shed here, too. As Dawkins writes: "Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem." He mentions a couple of possible answers -- "a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity" -- and then adds a prudent "or whatever." But even after such an answer arrives, there will undoubtedly remain new puzzles for scientists to work on -- leaving new dark corners into which indefatigable theists can try to stuff a God.
Second, given the track record of science in explaining the workings of the universe versus that of religion, it seems rather odd to assume that a supernatural explanation for the Big Bang is just as likely as a natural one.
Third, suggesting that God launched the Big Bang just raises the larger question of what or who launched god. So, instead of answering the question, by placing an Omnipotent Big Daddy there at the beginning of space-time you have simply raised a more difficult question
Dawkins would add a fourth response: that the universe tends to move from the simple to the more complex and therefore would not move from God, who seems astoundingly complex, to the germ of the Big Bang. We have debated this point below.
Did Einstein Believe in God?
posted on 11.02.2006 at 11:47 PM
Here's Richard Dawkins:
When Einstein said 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' he meant 'Could the universe have begun in more than one way?' 'God does not play dice' was Einstein's poetic way of doubting Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. Einstein was famously irritated when theists misunderstood him to mean a personal God. But what did he expect? The hunger to misunderstand should have been palpable to him. 'Religious' physicists usually turn out to be so only in the Einsteinian sense: they are atheists of a poetic disposition. So am I. But, given the widespread yearning for that great misunderstanding, deliberately to confuse Einsteinian pantheism with supernatural religion is an act of intellectual high treason.
But isn't this a bit unfair? Pantheism -- seeing god (or gods) in everything -- is not the same as atheism or even poetic atheism. It would seem to find some sort of divine purpose or meaning where atheists find mere matter -- however attractive.
Religion and Science -- 6
posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM
Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:
The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.
The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:
Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.
Relgion and Science -- 5
posted on 10.29.2006 at 11:31 PM
1. CONFLICTING-WORLDS MODEL. This "warfare" model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing, where one is right and the other is wrong. In this model, the findings of modern science are always a potential threat to one's faith and thus they must be carefully vetted against religious truths before acceptance; likewise, the tenets of religion are always a potential threat to science and thus they must be viewed skeptically.
2. SAME-WORLDS MODEL. More conciliatory in its nature, this position holds that science and religion are two ways of examining the same reality; as science progresses to a deeper understanding of the natural world it will reveal that many ancient religious tenets are true.
3. SEPARATE-WORLDS MODEL. On this tier science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement. Today it is the job of science to explain the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creation. Yet, religion thrives because it still serves a useful purpose as an institution for social cohesiveness and as a guide to finding personal meaning and spirituality.
Shermer, like Richard Dawkins, seems a natural partisan of the first and more aggressive model. However, he gives some credit to the third model. Too much?
The problem with attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism.
The Separate-Worlds Model is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science.
Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity
posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM
a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).
By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.
Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:
Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).
Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?
The Aesthetics of Science
posted on 10.15.2006 at 11:49 PM
Physicists, writes K.C. Cole in the Los Angeles Times, rely on "beauty" to judge their theories:
In physics, truth and beauty often walk hand in hand. Physicists describe theories as "ugly" or "beautiful," talk about ideas that "smell" or "feel" right. Often, aesthetic judgments lead to discoveries: as in Einstein's theory of gravity and Paul A.M. Dirac's discovery of antimatter. Aesthetics, French physicist Henri Poincaré said, is a "delicate sieve" that sorts the true from the misleading. Or as Dirac famously put it: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiments."
Is this just a shorthand -- a way of getting to the heart of things more quickly? Or is it a sign of the extent to which metaphysical notions -- wishes, prejudices, mysticism -- have infiltrated even science? Is there an "ugly" physics out there just waiting for some aesthetically uninclined scientist to discover?
Hymns to the Milky Way?
posted on 09.21.2006 at 11:05 PM
On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.
Is this possible to imagine? Might we be -- or might we want to be -- beyond such rites, God-driven or not?
How Strong This Itch Must Be
posted on 08.28.2006 at 11:00 PM
Obviously there is an anthropological lesson here:
** Something looks fantastically beautiful: Jesus must have died for our sins.
** Humans on occasion do each other a good turn: Some higher power must have endowed us with a notion of The Good.
When things get clear, must be a God. When things get fuzzy, same conclusion. When people behave well... When people behave poorly... The simple means God. The complex means God. Loveliness, horror.... The existence of love, the existence of pain... All, somehow, "prove" the existence of the divine.
How strong this itch must be.
Religion and Science -- 4 (at least)
posted on 08.27.2006 at 6:11 PM
This a putative comment by a nineteenth-century British clergyman:
O ye men of science, ye men of science, leave us our ancestors in paradise, and you may have yours in Zoological gardens.
And here is our man from the Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer, basically accepting the deal:
If you believe God created the world, it's reasonable to ask, How did he do it? What were the forces and mechanisms he used? Why not look to science and see that he started with the big bang, the force of gravity, inflationary cosmology, quarks and natural selection. Those were his tools. To that extent, science is not a threat, it's your best friend. It's the best tool you have for illuminating the grandeur of creation. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral. I mean, come on, that photo is an actual representation of the reality that God created, if that's what you believe. So why not embrace science rather than fear it?
They've been sold a bill of goods by people who like the warfare model of science and religion, particularly fundamentalists and militant atheists. Both sides want to force a choice and debunk the other side. But it need not be so. It's an incorrect interpretation promoted by extremists.
I've been moaning and groaning about this way of thinking since I started this blog. Guess this is because I do think science and religion are at war. How about this thesis? The further the telescopes look, the fewer the places left for God to hide. To find Our Father currently, based on accounts on this blog, it is necessary to rewind the entire Big Bang and then somewhere, back before electrons and quarks, when all that is (in our universe, at least) was compacted to the size of an ear bud or whatever, there He was, to say, "Poof."
The Danger of Astrology
posted on 08.26.2006 at 10:52 AM
For most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs....I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle.
Could we add to this list various political paranoias and conspiracy theories? Shermer's explanation for belief in astrology and other "goofy things" might also apply to more mainstream beliefs, no?
They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.
God and the Big Bang
posted on 08.24.2006 at 5:24 PM
Here's legit scientist Francis Collins:
The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.
It is worth pointing out the term "supernatural," which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term "magical." Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can't I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.
Harris' final point on this subject is an important response to those, like Atwood, who accuse atheists of dogmatism:
Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.
Curiouser and Curiouser?
posted on 08.23.2006 at 11:56 AM
"This is a mysterious universe, and the more we know about it the more mysterious it seems," the New York Times writes in a pretty little editorial on dark matter.
I wonder whether this is actually true. Is understanding gravity, as most of us do, but having no way to grasp the eleven dimensions of string theory really more mysterious than understanding what the sun and moon do, as educated Greeks did, but having no idea why the planets occasionally seem to zig or zag? Is the point that there are always going to be some things we, or our scientists, can get our minds around, and then, at the raggedy fringes, some we can't? Or are these forms of knowledge really accelerating beyond our grasp?
And then why do we continually try to squeeze even more primitive understandings -- Big Daddies in the sky -- into the holes that inevitably pop up in our increasingly sophisticated understandings?
Morality and Evolution
posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM
Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:
Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:
Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?
I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One
posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM
The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)
Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?
(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)
An Agnostic's Courage
posted on 08.16.2006 at 4:58 PM
Bishop Wilberforce: "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?"
Huxley: "If then...the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."
A couple of months later Huxley's beloved eldest son died.
Huxley is responsible for the neologism "agnoticism." In defense of his new creed he proclaimed:
In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
However, Huxley was anything but uncertain in his opposition to "that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else,...is the deadly enemy of science."
And when a friend implied, gently, after his son's death, that the biologist might miss the comforts of religion, Huxley's response could not have been more staunch and unbending:
Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier, I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me...and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit....If wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.
They're Not in Kansas Anymore?
posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM
Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.
Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.
How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:
The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.
Too Many Questions to Be an Atheist?
posted on 08.07.2006 at 9:39 AM
Here's Bill Moyers interviewing one of my favorite novelists:
BILL MOYERS: You're not a believer?
MARTIN AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more.
Pretty thoughts, as expected, but unexpectedly odd ones. In what sense would a cute, simple little universe (surrounded by what?) be more intelligible without "an intelligence"? (Wasn't it the apparent cuteness and simplicity of the pre-Copernican, earth-centered universe that supported the traditional notion of humans as God's chief concern?) Why should the universe be easily intelligible to two-eyed, one-brained us? How does the universe's lack of intelligibility increase the chances that there is "an intelligence" behind it? (The traditional religious argument was the opposite.) How might we have an "intelligence" that is "not a being"?
I love the notion that we'll need "eight more Einsteins." But hasn't the work of the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins we have already had been leading in one direction: away from a Prime Mover, away from a universe-designer, away from "some intelligence" (anthropomorphic or not)? Hasn't it been leading -- step by step -- toward a naturalistic, scientific understanding -- however difficult-- of an extremely large and complex universe?
"Atheism is a Religion"
posted on 08.02.2006 at 9:29 AM
While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because "atheism...is a religion." Here is her explanation:
MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?
MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.
MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."
I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.
"You Spin the Whirling Planets"
posted on 08.01.2006 at 10:15 AM
BILL MOYERS: In church on Sunday, we sang a 200 and some odd year old hymn, Franz Josef Haydn. With some contemporary words. And the words go, "God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain. Mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain."
Now the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know why-- how these things happen. We need the poetry don't we. Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion, and writing can give us?
Sorry, Bill (a fellow I usually respect), but isn't "God...filling the seas" -- as we would an inflatable pool -- also an "explanation," albeit a rather primitive one? Isn't it a stab at "knowledge," albeit, given what we know, a rather unconvincing one?
We're all for music, but isn't there less "poetry" and mystery in God molding mountains -- like some kid playing with clay -- than in the monumental, austere forces of (Newtonian) nature?
Religion and Science -- 3
posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM
Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.
Gould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:
the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.
So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.
Religion and Science -- 2
posted on 07.18.2006 at 11:20 PM
Leonard Lopate had an interview this afternoon with Francis Collins, a former head of the Human Genome Project, on "how he reconciles his scientific knowledge with his religious faith." Collins has a book out on the subject, entitled, The Language of God. Stimulating fellow:
God is outside of nature. Science studies nature. Its tools are designed to study nature. So it is totally inappropriate to take scientiific conclusions and draw any particular conclusions about God.
Great Moments in Religion: 1
posted on 07.13.2006 at 11:50 PM
Universe created on October 23, 4004 BCE. This is from A Geological Miscellany by G. Y. Craig and E. J. Jones:
James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC..., Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC [making their stay almost as short as some of my recent vacations], and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.
I should add that Ussher's chronology was widely accepted in England in 1859, when Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published.
The Origin of the Species
posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM
In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.
The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes
(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)
Religion and Science
posted on 06.30.2006 at 5:44 PM
And just one more from Edward O. Wilson, in which he fails to take the why-can't-we-all-be-friends?, it's-all-just-different-perspectives-on-the-same-thing position on faith and reason:
So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.
Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
Oddly, this is an argument based not, as you might expect from a scientist, on truth, on the wrongness of religion, but on consequences: religion being ungood for societies.
Medicine as "Belief System"
posted on 06.06.2006 at 8:56 AM
Is medicine just another "belief system"? Is one belief system as good as another? Alan Ryan, in the New York Review of Books (thanks, as often, to Arts and Letters Daily), includes these quotations from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism. The first refers to how the Asante people in Ghana explain illness:
People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.
Ryan's second quote from Appiah's book contrasts that with a modern Western view:
When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witch-craft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.
Appiah, as I understand it, is not calling for protecting each of these world views but for conversations between them. (Part of an interesting new pro-globalization backlash.) But still. How serious a conversation should I, can I have with someone who believes, say, in resurrection, or God sending plagues, or Karma, or heavenly rewards for suicide bombings, or witchcraft, or that the Bible, unlike the Da Vinci Code, is nonfiction?
And are we to allow that medicine, that science, is just another religion?
Adam and Eve in the New York Times
posted on 06.05.2006 at 11:59 AM
The New York Times ran a characteristically lucid article on the Science report that fig trees may have been the first cultivated plant. But, in the second paragraph the Times decides to have some fun:
Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves...
Fine. We're all for fun. But then the Times seems compelled to treat the Adam and Eve line as if it were more than just fun, as if it needs to be taken seriously, explained:
...in which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.
A few centuries ago considerable scholarly effort was expended calculating the dimensions of Noah's Ark and the date of Adam's creation (accepted answer: 4004 BC). Is the Times now to look for scientific and historical explanations of Eden? Or was the "grown wild" line added because it was feared the "new look in fig leaves" quip might, in the current climate, offend?
Turns Out Prayer Does Work
posted on 05.05.2006 at 8:12 AM
Forget that unpleasant study. The Cadillac News in Cadillac, Michigan, presents front-page evidence of the efficacy of prayer and faith -- evidence of the good, old-fashioned, anecdotal kind: A woman, Donna Sikes, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. While driving toward the hospital for surgery, she listens to "Infinite Power -- God's Plan for Miracle Living" by Gordon and Pat Robertson.
"The tape said to put your hand on where your sickness is so I did and I was in the spirit all the way down there and I said -- Jesus take it away, I'm all alone and I have no one to help me."
Sikes arrives at the hospital. MRI. Tumor gone. One Dr. Alicia Elmore "of Family Practice of Cadillac confirmed the mysterious disappearance of Sike's tumor and documented the case in a letter written to" Pat Robertson's "700 Club."
A Teleology of Disbelief?
posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM
Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.
Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.
Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?
The Blindingly Obvious
posted on 04.06.2006 at 10:56 PM
Interesting how much effort, nowadays, is going into proving what we ought already to know: Life evolved in part from climbing from the sea to the land. Prayer by strangers can't improve health. Next? A double-blind study of whether psychics can solve crime? Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe this -- the eradication of superstition -- is a slower process than we thought. Maybe you have to keep at it. Maybe disbelievers, not believers, should be calling for more of these studies.
Prayer Worthless! -- 3
posted on 03.31.2006 at 3:47 PM
Let's forget for a moment the "faith-is-not-something-that-can-be-investigated-by-science" talk that will inevitably follow reports on this study showing that prayer by strangers does not help before a heart operation. What does the fact that the study was done tell us about the moment in which we live?
1. That ours is a time when many people still take such ridiculous assumptions seriously enough so that money (including US government money) and energy are devoted to studying them.
2. That, despite all the talk of religious revivals and resurgent orthodoxy, the relentless assault of science and scholarship upon superstition continues.
Prayer Worthless! -- 2
posted on 03.31.2006 at 2:53 PM
A few additional notes:
-- $2.4 million was spent on this study to see if strangers praying for you could actually improve your chances when having heart surgery. Perhaps it was worth it just to get the headlines in the papers today (USA Today: "Study shrugs off prayer's power to heal"), but surely there is more worthwhile medical research to be done.
-- According to the New York Times, the US government has spent "$2.3 million on prayer research since 2000."
posted on 03.31.2006 at 1:55 AM
No fooling. We now have a study.The New York Times :
Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.
Surprised? How about this:
And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
Is this not further evidence -- sorry Ms. Bunting, sorry Mr. Archbishop of Canterbury -- that science ain't healthy for faith? Is it also a sign, and this is a bit surprising, that faith ain't healthy? (Thanks to Bret and Lauren.)
Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II
posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM
Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.
Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?
Thales and the Gods
posted on 03.23.2006 at 12:49 PM
Thales, who lived from about the 620s BCE to 546 BCE, may have been the first of the great Greek natural philosophers, which may make him the first of the great Greek scientists. He came up with a theory of earthquakes. He may have predicted an eclipse. He thought the primary element was water. Did Thales believe in gods?
Nothing Thales wrote, if he wrote, survives. Aristotle, perhaps based on Plato, attributes to Thales the view that "everything is full of gods." Here is the argument that Aristotle got Thales' view wrong -- that Thales probably believed (along with Sam and Dave) in soul; that he believed everything to be full of "soul," which he connected to motion; but that his natural philosophy was mostly devoted to making the gods redundant. It's an argument that would elevate Thales, a formidable figure to begin with, to a rather distinguished place in the history of disbelief. However, there doesn't seem any way to pin it down...
The Bible as a Theory?
posted on 03.21.2006 at 11:22 AM
This recent comment by the archbishop of Canterbury points to some of the jagged edges in the intelligent-design debate. His name is Rowan Williams:
"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."
Isn't the liberal, pluralistic perspective on intelligent design similar to that of the archbishop: Religion is fine; it just doesn't belong in science classes? (And, by this argument, John Barrow ought to decide if he's a physicist or a theologian, because they are two entirely different professions.)
Wouldn't a proselytizing nonbeliever argue, however, that, when it comes to the creation of the universe, the Bible does put forward a "theory"? Wouldn't this nonbeliever resist the idea that religion should be placed in a special reason-proof, science-proof "category" and, in fact, want intelligent design discussed in school so that it -- along with the notion that the universe was created in six days -- can be analyzed and, presumably, refuted, as the notion that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted?
New Genes -- II
posted on 03.20.2006 at 6:25 PM
Only one human invention can compare in its impact with the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago, and that's writing, which came along (also in the fertile crescent) a little more than five thousand years ago and which would not have come along without agriculture.
Writing's effect on religion was profound, beginning with the book, the word. The three Abrahamic religions mark, in important ways, the shift from oral to literate culture. And disbelief, in forms recognizable to us, may depend on the analytic ways of thought made possible by the objectification and manipulation of words through writing. Nonetheless, agriculture's effect was probably profounder.
Agriculture and religion?
-- Killing a stranger was not a particularly foolish move for a hunter-gatherer. But that sort of thing couldn't go on in the settled, dense villages and towns made possible by wheat, rice, cows and chickens. Hence the "Thou shall not"s of the new religions. (This point, I believe, is Jared Diamond's.)
-- Such bigger settlements, bigger societies, also required bigger, more powerful gods -- to preside over grander mysteries, to propound more far-reaching meanings, to enforce broader laws.
-- As humankind began to forgo foraging in favor of cultivation, it wasn't enough to have a spirit world that just existed, just swirled about; men and women began conceiving of the universe as having been "seeded," as having not only a "shepherd" but a "creator," as having a purpose and a direction.
-- Farming ain't easy. Its rewards are off in the future, its toil and trouble here now. Takes a Grand Super Ego to keep you and your husband and your kids at it.
-- The move from wandering to staying put, from living off the fruits of the earth, to sowing and reaping, was a traumatic transformation and our religious documents are haunted by it, as can be seen in their use of such significant and highly charged terms as the "garden" or the "wilderness."
Now this new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago indicates that adapting to agriculture may have changed not only our way of life but, though the time frame seems awfully tight, some of our genes-- perhaps including genes involved in brain size. That's damn profound. (It's also, not to forget, damn tentative at this point.) Could the new religions have required (or even themselves encouraged) larger minds than might have been encouraged by the old beliefs: shamanism, totemism, animism? What a blow that would be to cultural relativism.
Is it possible that the human brain -- and this really would be a kick in the head -- has continued to evolve, through, say, the Enlightenment?
The Origin of Bacteria
posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM
For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.
posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM
The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:
Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."
Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:
Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
God and Science
posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM
From a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species."
"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."
Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.
Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?
posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM
It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending in his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:
"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."
It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?
Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?
An Indifferent Cosmos
posted on 01.23.2006 at 6:38 PM
More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:
"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."
Is this really such a tough question?
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?