hardly, the result of quantum mechanics is demonstrated by pretty much all the technology we use today. The public has an uninformed view of the principles of modern physics because the laws of classical mechanics don't apply. Classical mechanics or Newtonian physics is still considered true, but applies to inertial planes of reference. The only 'shattering' that has occurred is that all these laws are fixed within certain parameters and we're finding the limitations of those parameters, and the mentality people have that universe is that simple is broken.
In the end, a final answer may never be found, but to simply stop looking prevents us to grow.
aleet, ironically your last post demonstrates the lack of understanding of physics. Newtonian physics does only apply to non-relativistic states (i.e. when v<<c), however, classical physics can, and does deal with non-inertial frames of reference. Special relativity can be applied to relativistic states at inertial frames of references. General relativity can be applied to relativistic states in non-inertial frames of reference. All of the above are in no way related to quantum mechanics and are fully deterministic. This is what you are really concerned with. I suggest you actually take a course in physics rather than pieces together tidbits of information from popular television and films. I do, however, totally agree with your last statement.
By Hugo Meynell, For The Calgary HeraldMarch 29, 2009
Comedy Writer Ariane Sherine and Prof. Richard Dawkins pose in January beside a London bus for the launch of the advertising campaign: "there's probably no God. now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Photograph by: AFp-Getty Images Archive, For The Calgary Herald
A number of authors have recently made a stir by telling us that it is irrational, if not immoral, to believe in God or to be a Christian; among the most influential of these are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hichens and Sam Harris.
To the contrary, there are excellent reasons for maintaining that Christian theism is the proper result of a fully critical science and philosophy.
C. S. Lewis argued that scientific materialism is ruined by one fundamental inconsistency. Its proponents asked him to believe, in the name of science, that reason had arisen in the universe as a result of particles of matter moving randomly about over an enormous lapse of time. This is scientism, not science. Science, as Lewis said, depends on the assumption that reason is an absolute; furthermore, that matter in the remotest galaxies conforms to thought-laws excogitated by scientists in their laboratories here on Earth.
Science at once presupposes and demonstrates, as Bernard Lonergan has argued at length, that the universe is intelligible; and this is best explained by the existence of an intelligent will (God) underlying the universe, whose intelligence explains the fact that it is intelligible, and whose will explains why it has the particular kind of intelligibility that scientists progressively find it to have --in terms of oxygen rather than 18th-century phlogiston, in terms of relativity rather than a 19th-century luminiferous ether, in terms of the evolution of species rather than special creation, and so on.
The Christian revelation fits neatly into the evolutionary scheme, which presents us with levels of reality, each supervening as a higher ordering on the one below.
So we have the hierarchy of physical, chemical, sensitive-psychological (animal) and rational-psychological (human) realms. But human life has its problems: individuals are neither as happy nor as virtuous as they might be, while societies and institutions seem dogged by injustice and corruption. Christian theism posits a world view in which conscious creatures are invited to collaborate with their Creator, in such a way that they are brought to perfection.
This does not imply that Christians have nothing to learn from insights provided by other religious traditions. Teilhard de Chardin wrote of the "biosphere" (the realm of life), the "noospere" (that of mind) and the "Christosphere" (in which the possibilities latent in the lower spheres are realized); Lonergan may be regarded as supplying the intellectual nuts and bolts needed to justify Teilhard's mystical vision of the evolving world.
Not only is material-ism not a necessary consequence of science; but apparently it is not even compatible with it. Why are we right to believe scientists when they tell us about the aspects of the world in which they specialize? We do so on the assumption that they have been thoroughly rational in relation to the matters in question; that, in Lonergan's terms, they have been unrestrictedly attentive to the relevant data; intelligent in envisaging an adequate range of possible explanations; and reasonable in preferring as true the judgments which do best explain the data. If, as a consistent materialist must claim, our thoughts, words, actions and writings are determined only by the physical and chemical laws operating within our brains, then independent thought regarding the state of the universe becomes unattainable.
Thus scientists who believe in materialism are placed in the odd position of proving by their own principles that science is impossible.
Of course, attempting to explain the mental in terms of the physical is a regular heavy industry in contemporary philosophy, as we find in the work of John Searle, Donald Davidson, and Daniel Dennett. Such attempts generally do great credit to the ingenuity and intellectual resourcefulness of their purveyors; but it is easy to show that they all fall flat on their faces.
Richard Dawkins will have it that faith is "the great cop-out." But if the arguments which I have sketched are on the right lines, it is scientistic materialism, not faith, which is the cop-out.
Hugo Meynell is a retired professor of religious studies at the university of Calgary
An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology
By Douglas Todd, Vancouver SunApril 4, 2009
There are two major obstacles to a rich public discussion on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and what it means to all of us.
The most obvious obstacle is religious literalism, which leads to Creationism. It's the belief the Bible or other ancient sacred texts offer the first and last word on how humans came into existence.
The second major barrier to a rewarding public conversation about the impact of evolution on the way we understand the world is not named nearly as much.
It is "scientism."
Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can, like religious literalism, become its own ideology.
The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology and Ethics defines scientism as "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of natural science to be applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences and the humanities)."
Those who unknowingly fall into the trap of scientism act as if hard science is the only way of knowing reality. If something can't be "proved" through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it's irrelevant.
Scientism is terribly limiting of human understanding. It leaves little or no place for the insights of the arts, philosophy, psychology, literature, mythology, dreams, music, the emotions or spirituality.
In general, scientism leaves little or no place for the imagination, which Albert Einstein, after all, said is "everything."
Many people have been falling into the trap of scientism this year as commentators, including myself, have examined the legacy of Darwin, whose book, On the Origin of Species, was published 150 years ago.
While I am not at all persuaded by Creationists who believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, I also have trouble with those who claim science can only support the atheistic proposal that evolution is a result of pure chance.
Such people maintain orthodox science cannot contemplate the possibility that the evolutionary process may include elements of purpose. This is an example of scientism.
One of the scientists who appears to illustrate this view is Patrick Walden, who works at the TRIUMF Cyclotron Laboratory on the University of B.C. campus.
Walden had a punchy opinion piece published in Monday's Vancouver Sun in which he began by applauding my proposal that public schools and universities expose more students to Darwin's evolutionary theory.
While I greatly appreciate Walden's willingness to step out of the confines of academia and take on the role of public intellectual, I disagree with the second part of his commentary.
Walden was bothered by my recommendation that the education system and the media help the public learn there is more than one operative theory of evolution -- that there are at least 12.
Walden assumed I was challenging the general validity of Darwin's theory of evolution. I wasn't.
I think the proposal that humans evolved over billions of years from simpler life forms is a no-brainer.
However, I don't believe either Darwin or neo-Darwinists have yet devised a complete picture of how evolution happens, or what drives it.
I detected more than a hint of scientism when Walden declared that neo-Darwinism (which he called "the modern evolutionary synthesis") is the only theory accepted by respectable scientists.
Walden said four of the other scientific theories of evolution outlined by Phipps in his article in EnlightenNext journal, including biologist's Lynn Margulis theory of cooperation, are mere "additions" to neo-Darwinism.
Beyond that, Walden said the other seven proposed theories of evolution, some of which included philosophical and spiritual perspectives, are nothing more than "pseudo-scientific speculation." As such, he said, "they are nonsense."
In other words, Walden, whose viewpoint represents that of many
scientists, appears to believe that any discussion of evolution that does not uphold chance as the only driving force is ridiculous.
This is blinkered.
It defaults to atheism. And it assumes incorrectly that what we believe, and the way we live, is always based on provable "facts," which do not include conjecture, speculation or imagination.
Science has always had a speculative component, as we see with theories about quantum physics and the Big Bang and evolution.
Arguing that any theory about what drives evolution that is not essentially neo-Darwinistic is "nonsense" reflects blindness to the insights that have been offered by philosophy, cosmology and metaphysics, let alone the arts.
In addition to suggesting Walden's approach reflects scientism, I would also say it is a manifestation of "disciplinolatry," which is the conviction that one academic discipline contains everything that needs to be known about a subject.
Walden attempts to mock the idea that philosophy and even spirituality could be considered when trying to understand what fuels evolution. He acts as if I am arguing for Madame Blavatsky's 19th-century esoteric theories (and her anti-Semitic views) to
replace Darwin in public school science classes.
By creating this red herring, Walden ignores the great 20th-century thinkers who have embraced evolutionary theory while offering innovative non-atheistic understandings about how it happens.
They include Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Marshal McLuhan, John Cobb, Ken Wilber, Charles Birch and countless other scientists and philosophers who are not as easy to write off as the eccentric Blavatsky.
The truth is that many scientists are slowly becoming more open to at least discussing the possibility that elements of purpose, not just chance, are inherent in the evolutionary process.
They include the noted biologist Lynn Margulis, the first wife of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, and their science writer son, Dorion Sagan.
Walden appears to think highly of Margulis as an evolutionary theorist. But he fails to appreciate Margulis is willing to expand her mind beyond scientism.
Margulis and Sagan took part this year in an interdisciplinary conference on evolution with philosophers, scientists and theologians at the Vatican.
They have also contributed to books with spiritually inclined scientists and philosophers, including Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution (Eerdmans), edited by John Cobb.
Back to Darwin says the lively exchange Margulis and Sagan join in on in the book "presents a holistic case for evolution that both theists and nontheists can accept."
I would like to think Margulis and Sagan would also be willing to have some of the 12 theories of evolution discussed in public schools -- if not in biology classes, at least in courses on the history of science or the philosophy of science, as well as in classes on philosophy, world religions and metaphysics.
The general theory of evolution has been widely accepted by both atheists and thinkers with spiritual sensitivities.
Everyone would agree, however, that evolution is also a theory that is incomplete.
When more evolutionary scientists open up to the insights of philosophers and those from other disciplines, I believe their beloved theory will itself evolve. It will become more complex and more elegant.
Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful challenge science: Ha, you can't explain development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which materialists respond: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.
To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America's leading expert on religion's neurological basis, brings a fresh perspective. His book, How God Changes Your Brain, coauthored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience, with plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.
Based on brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, Sikhs and Sufis, along with everyday people new to meditation, Newberg asserts traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) these neural networks begin to develop quickly, a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."
Newberg argues religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to "imagine a better future." And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity to belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. "Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist,"Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.
But Newberg's research offers warnings for the religious, too. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain where empathy and reason reside. But, contemplating a wrathful God empowers that part of the brain "filled with aggression and fear."
It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.
For Newberg, this is not a critique of fundamentalism, a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It's a criticism of institutions that ally ideology or faith with anger and selfishness.
"The enemy is not religion," writes Newberg, "the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear--be it secular, religious, or political."
Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is comprised of pups, the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate, "but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain." So all human beings must ask: Which pack do we feed?
How God Changes Your Brain has a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts "an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about." But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn't about very much. Mature faith involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are more practical ways. "I didn't go to religion to make me happy," said C. S. Lewis, "I always knew a bottle of port would do that."
Religious discussion must come down to truth. Can we escape the wheel of becoming, or hear God's voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg's research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who "truly believe." But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief. His research on the varieties of religious experience leave him skeptical about the capacity of the mind to accurately perceive "universal or ultimate truth."
Yet, he told me, "To this day, I am still seeking and searching." And that is the most honest kind of science.
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”
Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”
The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.
And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[b]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?
Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.
And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”
That kind of belief will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins” — Eagleton’s contemptuous amalgam of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, perhaps with a sidelong glance at Luke 6:39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” — seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”
You won’t be interested in any such promise, you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”?
“Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence,” and he could have cited in support the words of that great bourgeois villain, Milton’s Satan, who, upon being reminded that he was created by another, retorts , “[W]ho saw/ When this creation was…?/ We know no time when we were not as now/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised” (Paradise Lost, V, 856-860).That is, we created ourselves (although how there can be agency before there is being and therefore an agent is not explained), and if we are able to do that, why can’t we just keep on going and pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails?
That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.
For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”
One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.
One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t. What they do believe, apparently, is that religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.
Of course, there is more than name-calling to their antitheism; there are arguments, and the one most often made insists on a sharp distinction between religion and science, or, alternatively, between faith and reason.
The assertion, generally, is that while “science is based on observation, religion is based on opinion” (RM Paxton) Or, in another formulation, science does not involve belief, it is “based on common observation” (Dave Goldenberg). Science “simply reports facts” (Bob W.) Or, in the same vein, “Science helps us to understand the world as it is” (Mark Grein).
In short, while science provides a window on the world, religion places between us and the world a fog of doctrine and superstition, and if we want to become clear-eyed, we have to dispel (a word that should be taken literally) that fog. This is the promise offered by Christopher Hitchens, who tells his readers (in “God is Not Great”), “You will feel better . . . once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (Thinkers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.)
Sounds good, sounds simple. Just free the mind of pre-packaged beliefs and take a good look at things. But is it that easy? Is observation a matter simply of opening up your baby blues and taking note of the evidence that presents itself? Does evidence come labeled as such – “I am evidence for thesis X but not Y”?
When Tony Eads declares that “the overwhelming weight of the evidence fails to provide any ground for believing there is a God,” is the evidence he refers to (he doesn’t actually present any) just lying around waiting to be cited as independent confirmation or disconfirmation of an equally independent thesis?
I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.
But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)
I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.
The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.
To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.
While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.
By the same analysis, simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes. And while there surely are facts, there are no facts (at least not ones we as human beings have access to) that simply declare themselves to the chainless minds Hitchens promises us if we will only cast aside the blinders of religion.
Indeed, there are no chainless minds, and it’s a good thing, too. A chainless mind would be a mind not hostage to or fettered by any pre-conceptions, a mind that was free to go its own way. But how could you go any way if you are not anywhere, if you are not planted in some restricted location in relation to which the directions “here,” “there” and “elsewhere” have a sense?
A mind without chains – a better word would be “constraints” – would be free and open in a way that made motivated (as opposed to random) movement impossible. Thought itself — the consideration of problems with a view to arriving at their solutions — requires chains, requires stipulated definitions, requires limits it did not choose but which enable and structure its operations. MB asks, “Why is it not possible to reason simply as a gratuitous exercise.” Why, in other words, is it not possible to reason without anything in mind? Just try it; you can’t even imagine what it would be like.
If there is no thought without constraints (chains) and if the constraints cannot be the object of thought because they mark out the space in which thought will go on, what is noticed and perspicuous will always be a function of what cannot be noticed because it cannot be seen. The theological formulation of this insight is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.
Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.
Some readers find a point of vulnerability in what they take to be religion’s flaccid, Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism. Religious people, says Delphinias, live their lives “in a state of blissfully blind oblivion.” They rely on holy texts that they are “to believe in without question.” (C.C.) “No evidence, no problem — just take it on faith.” (Michael) They don’t allow themselves to be bothered by anything. Religion, says Charles, “cannot deal with doubt and dissent,” and he adds this challenge: “What say you about that, Professor?”
What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.
The key event in that life is not the fashioning of some proof of God’s existence but a conversion, like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, everything visible becomes a sign of God’s love, and a new man (or woman), eager to tell and live out the good news, is born. “To experience personal transformation that in turn can truly move and shake this world, we must believe in something outside of ourselves” (Judith Quinton).”The kind of religion that moves me,” says Shannon . . . is the story of hope and love . . . not the idea that any particular story describes concrete historical ‘truth.’” “It isn’t about moral superiority,” says Richard. “It’s about humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. It certainly does not seem to be about comfort.”
So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.
One more thing. A number of readers chided Eagleton and me for daring to enter the lists against the superior intellects of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. E.R. Wood predicts that “if Fish debated Dawkins, Fish would lose by KO in every round.”
It would be hard to reply to that without seeming either defensive or boastful, so I’m happy to leave it to someone else. I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, “Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?” Darned if I know.
CAMPOS: The atheist's dilemma
By Paul Campos, Rocky Mountain News (Contact)
Published February 20, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.
Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins? That question occurred to me last week, while attending a lecture at which Fish, the well-known literary and legal theorist, did the thing he always does, which is to make the following point over and over again:
"No believer will find his faith shaken by evidence that is evidence only in the light of assumptions he does not share and considers flatly wrong."
Richard Dawkins is, I'm told by persons whose authority I accept on faith, a distinguished evolutionary biologist. He holds a chair at Oxford. He has won many prestigious academic prizes. By all conventional measures, Dawkins is an extremely intelligent man. So why does he seem incapable of understanding what Fish is saying?
June 23, 2009
Vatican’s Celestial Eye, Seeking Not Angels but Data
By GEORGE JOHNSON
MOUNT GRAHAM, Ariz. — Fauré’s “Requiem” is playing in the background, followed by the Kronos Quartet. Every so often the music is interrupted by an electromechanical arpeggio — like a jazz riff on a clarinet — as the motors guiding the telescope spin up and down. A night of galaxy gazing is about to begin at the Vatican’s observatory on Mount Graham.
“Got it. O.K., it’s happy,” says Christopher J. Corbally, the Jesuit priest who is vice director of the Vatican Observatory Research Group, as he sits in the control room making adjustments. The idea is not to watch for omens or angels but to do workmanlike astronomy that fights the perception that science and Catholicism necessarily conflict.
Last year, in an opening address at a conference in Rome, called “Science 400 Years After Galileo Galilei,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state of the Vatican, praised the church’s old antagonist as “a man of faith who saw nature as a book written by God.” In May, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, a Jesuit cultural center in Florence conducted “a historical, philosophical and theological re-examination” of the Galileo affair. But in the effort to rehabilitate the church’s image, nothing speaks louder than a paper by a Vatican astronomer in, say, The Astrophysical Journal or The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
On a clear spring night in Arizona, the focus is not on theology but on the long list of mundane tasks that bring a telescope to life. As it tracks the sky, the massive instrument glides on a ring of pressurized oil. Pumps must be activated, gauges checked, computers rebooted. The telescope’s electronic sensor, similar to the one in a digital camera, must be cooled with liquid nitrogen to keep the megapixels from fuzzing with quantum noise.
As Dr. Corbally rushes from station to station flicking switches and turning dials, he seems less like a priest or even an astronomer than a maintenance engineer. Finally when everything is ready, starlight scooped up by the six-foot mirror is chopped into electronic bits, which are reconstituted as light on his video screen.
“Much of observing these days is watching monitors and playing with computers,” Dr. Corbally says. “People say, ‘Oh, that must be so beautiful being out there looking at the sky.’ I tell them it’s great if you like watching TV.”
Dressed in blue jeans and a work shirt, he is not a man who wears his religion on his sleeve. No grace is offered before a quick casserole dinner in the observatory kitchen. In fact, the only sign that the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope is fundamentally different from the others on Mount Graham, the home of an international astronomical complex operated by the University of Arizona, is a dedication plaque outside the door.
“This new tower for studying the stars has been erected on this peaceful site,” it says in Latin. “May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God.” At that point, religion leaves off and science begins.
The Roman Catholic Church’s interest in the stars began with purely practical concerns when in the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII called on astronomy to correct for the fact that the Julian calendar had fallen out of sync with the sky. In 1789, the Vatican opened an observatory in the Tower of the Winds, which it later relocated to a hill behind St. Peter’s Dome. In the 1930s, church astronomers moved to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. As Rome’s illumination, the electrical kind, spread to the countryside, the church began looking for a mountaintop in a dark corner of Arizona.
Building on Mount Graham was a struggle. Apaches said the observatory was an affront to the mountain spirits. Environmentalists said it was a menace to a subspecies of red squirrel. There were protests and threats of sabotage. It wasn’t until 1995, three years after the edict of Inquisition was lifted against Galileo, that the Vatican’s new telescope made its first scientific observations.
The target tonight is three spiral galaxies — Nos. 3165, 3166, 3169 in the New General Catalog — lying about 60 million light-years from Earth, a little south of the constellation Leo. Sitting at a desk near Dr. Corbally is Aileen O’Donoghue, an astronomer from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who is interested in how these gravitational masses tug at one another, creating the stellar equivalent of tides.
“Exposing, 30 minutes,” she says. As Celtic ballads play in the control room, data is sucked up by hard drives, and a column of numbers scrolls down her computer screen. Dr. O’Donoghue, who was raised Roman Catholic, is the author of “The Sky Is Not a Ceiling: An Astronomer’s Faith,” in which she describes how she lost and then rediscovered God “in the vastness, the weirdness, the abundance, the seeming nonsensicalness, and even the violence of this incredible universe.”
In person she’s not nearly so intense. While waiting for an image to gel, she steps out on a balcony for a look at the unprocessed sky. The Beehive Cluster, one of the first things Galileo saw with his telescope, is sparkling in the constellation Cancer. Next to it is Leo, where Dr. O’Donoghue is looking for the gravitational tides.
“It’s the real sky that matters,” she says. She describes how she makes her undergraduate students go outside and look at the Big Dipper at different times of the night. “They come back and say, ‘It moves!’ ” — words Galileo legendarily muttered after he was forced to recant. “You can tell students that the Earth rotates, but until they see that with their eyeballs, they’re not doing science,” she said. “You might as well be teaching theology and Scripture.”
Back inside the control room she explains how the gravitational tides she is studying might be stellar nurseries. As one galaxy brushes by another, clouds of gas are stirred so violently that they give birth to stars.
In the Vatican Observatory’s annual report, at the point where a corporation might describe its business strategy, is a section delineating the difference between creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) and creatio continua: “the fact that at every instant, the continued existence of the universe itself is deliberately willed by God, who in this way is continually causing the universe to remain created.”
Theologians call these “primary causes,” those that flow from the unmoved mover. Sitting atop this eternal platform is another layer, the “secondary causes,” which can be safely left to science.
Dr. Corbally and Dr. O’Donoghue continue working through the night, collecting data on secondary causes — galactic tides, stellar birth. Sleep will wait until morning, and thoughts about primary causes for another time.
August 23, 2009
A Grand Bargain Over Evolution
By ROBERT WRIGHT
THE “war” between science and religion is notable for the amount of civil disobedience on both sides. Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight. Whether out of a live-and-let-live philosophy, or a belief that religion and science are actually compatible, or a heartfelt indifference to the question, they’re choosing to sit this one out.
Still, the war continues, and it’s not just a sideshow. There are intensely motivated and vocal people on both sides making serious and conflicting claims.
There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.
I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.
If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.
The believers who need to hear this sermon aren’t just adherents of “intelligent design,” who deny that natural selection can explain biological complexity in general. There are also believers with smaller reservations about the Darwinian story. They accept that God used evolution to do his creative work (“theistic evolution”), but think that, even so, he had to step in and provide special ingredients at some point.
Perhaps the most commonly cited ingredient is the human moral sense — the sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong, along with some intuitions about which is which. Even some believers who claim to be Darwinians say that the moral sense will forever defy the explanatory power of natural selection and so leave a special place for God in human creation.
This idea goes back to C. S. Lewis, the mid-20th-century Christian writer (and author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”), who influenced many in the current generation of Christian intellectuals.
Sure, Lewis said, evolution could have rendered humans capable of nice behavior; we have affiliative impulses — a herding instinct, as he put it — like other animals. But, he added, evolution couldn’t explain why humans would judge nice behavior “good” and mean behavior “bad” — why we intuitively apprehend “the moral law” and feel guilty when we’ve broken it.
Spirituality & Science The need for togetherness
Speech by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan,
President of the Bellerive Foundation
Symposium on Trade, Environment and Animal Welfare.
The European Parliament, Brussels, 26-27 September 1996
"The last of fools is he who indifferently asserts and denies...", prophetically wrote Dante, who probed all man's afflictions, at the dawn of the XIVth Century. Modern society is imbued with a tragic lack of self-confidence and afraid of appearing moralizing or oppressive. In this climate, absolute truth is seldom taken seriously.
The loss of biological diversity, for example, is acute. It's happening every day, with consequences that are unknown and affect directly the livelihoods of rich and poor alike. Unlike minor pollutions, the loss of species diversity and its genetic information cannot be retrieved or repaired. We are told that 25 percent of all species may disappear from the planet in the next 50 years - the space of two generations. Unspoiled nature is constantly on the decrease, while the need for it grows ever greater.
Though some leading scientists don't hesitate to talk about the "species crash", most contemporary science however is still dominated by reductionism and hyper-specialization. Sectorial thinking is very largely part of the problem in finding responses to urgent global issues. Science and technology should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
It strikes me that the response of organized religion is extraordinarily weak. And yet, is it not self-evident that, beyond the mere symbolic dimension, organized religion, together with science, has an enormous potential to spark an alternate or deeper consciousness?
The statement that nature and people will be liberated together or not at all is on the mark. On the one hand, the disintegration of the biosphere destroys the very foundations of civilisation. On the other hand, poverty, ignorance, oppression, and war are major causes of environmental degradation. For reasons such as these, democratic values and traditions of social liberation, tempered by a sense of measure and solidarity, are also part of the foundation of the ethic of sustainable living.
From the Club of Rome to Rio, by way of the Brundtland Report, we have been hearing the very lofty statements made by governments about the importance of sustainability. But we rightly have a sense of unreality about these declarations.
From an economic point of view, Dr. Freya Mathews, lecturer in Ecological Philosophy at Latrobe University, Australia, argues that "the principle of taking only what is necessary for the continuation of life of course inverts the guiding principle of capitalism, which is to make maximum use of resources of every kind, for the purpose of maximising profit." (IUCN - The World Conservation Union - report by the Species Survival Commission and Commission on Environmental Strategy and Planning, December 1993: Towards guidelines for ethical uses of wild species)
For this fundamental reason, any ethic of nature that sees no reason to elevate humankind above the rest of the natural world - and hence refuses to justify our harnessing of the biosphere to our own selfish ends - is going to be forced sooner or later to challenge the ethical and metaphysical underpinning of capitalism, and to question the validity of any notion of "ecological sustainability" premised on a capitalist concept of "development". Greenpeace and other leading critics have long argued that sustainable development is a contradiction in terms.
While it is fair to add that the old communist block's management of the environment has been spectacularly appalling, sustainability does indeed depend on a supposed tendency of self-interest to become far-sighted. To power real reform, a wider framework of motives is always needed; which will rarely emanate from bureaucrats, otherwise we may be lost in Franz Kafka's "Castle" - instead regeneration derives from non selfish motives that include enlightened ideals and a sense of outrage: what ended the savage wars of religion, the burning of heretics or the practice of slavery, was not just the wish for self-preservation. It was also the horror of the atrocities involved. Is this not what fathered the Nuremberg Trials or the Hague Tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia ?
In a world characterized by interdependence and all-encompassing global "civilisation", as well as by diversity and unique individuality, shared ethical principles governing the interactions of human beings and their world are essential, if the well-being of the larger community of life, upon which all depend, is to be protected. Thus, for instance, a multilateral free trade regime cannot stand alone: it must be integrated with such shared ethical principles. Indeed, the success of such a regime depends on a symbiosis created by the interplay of free trade principles and ethical foundations. What then are these ethical foundations and what, by particular example, are the perspectives of different cultures, faiths and value systems regarding sustainability ? Does sustainability have a claim to be universal? If so, which and why?
The idea of planetary trust and stewardship is recognized by Judaïsm, Christianity and Islam as well as many other religions. This is also explicit and implicit in major instruments of international law. It has, therefore, some claim to universality.
All monotheistic religions, however, as well as Hinduism and most schools of Buddhism including the Tibetan, recognise humans as having uniquely independant value, as in the tradition of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic stewardship of the earth. This might seem to place them at odds with any criterion of sustainability that departs from the anthropocentric goal of protecting diversity only to support uses, options, and aesthetic values for ourselves and for future generations. This anthropocentric interpretation is pointing less to the sacred presence of nature, than telling us what to protect in our practical environmental management.
Ancient wisdom, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Master Eckhart, St. Francis of Assisi, Ibn al A'rabi and mystics of all faiths speak of the family of man as a link in the chain of all beings on this earth. To anyone perceiving cosmic consciousness as the eternal living Reality, it is no great surprise that 2400 years ago, Chuang Tzu, one of the great ancient Taoists, anticipating the disembodiment of man and his possible imprisonment in technology, long before satellite TV and the World Wide Web, warned of the danger of the mechanisation of the spirit. The concept of living in accordance with the Tao (or Way) of nature complements the evolutionary and ecological axiom that human beings are part of nature and must conform human ways of living and dying to natural processes and cycles. This intertwined world of the improbable and the unrepeatable provides a habitat for millions of species of flora and fauna, animate and inanimate nature existing in complex symbiosis. Each life has its own sense, its own role, its own purpose; all is linked together; there is no superior, inferior or useless. In this infinitely diverse system, each life form is needed, each one equal in value for the whole.
Turning again to the contemporary applications of various faiths, a great many believe that God provides and, therefore, there will always be sufficient resources for their needs. Such a passive interpretation of religious texts and the essence of spirituality has a serious negative impact in highlighting the role humans play and the responsibilities we have in preserving a healthy resource base, not least because of the heightened pressure that increasing human population imposes on the natural world.
Another major area of potential religious controversy raised by a revitalised spiritual and ecological ethic is "animal welfare", which I prefer to call animal dignity: whether or not, and in what circumstances, is it ever justifiable for human beings to kill or injure a member of another species. But, the immediate moral challenge is the associated hardship, unecessary suffering, injury and stress rather than the act of killing in itself. All living beings, including humans, are part of a natural cycle of consuming and being consumed: it is incumbent on homo sapiens to find a proper place - a balanced position - within this cycle. The recent mad cow horror scare, shows just how overstepping nature's thresholds, turning vegetarian sentient beings into carnivorous ones, can very rapidly endanger our own health. And isn't it yet another scandal that the European farmer and tax-payer should be the ones to bear the cost for the ineptness, the lack of foresight and morals of governments? In a universe where change is constant and totality an open-ended process of evolution, choice and decision make the difference, and a sense of ethical responsibility is essential.
Creation is sacred. Life and nature need not be exploited to instill fear in our hearts. For the Hindus, we have entered the Kali Yuga, the dark age, while St. John's Apocalypse evokes the divine judgement for human sins through his vision of the final destruction of the earth. Though there is cause for apocalyptic rhetoric in the chemical and radioactive pollution of soil and water and the depletion of the ozone layer, the problem with cyclical or terminal Apocalypses is that they deeply imprint the mind with negative and destructive behaviour patterns. One is escapism: "God will judge, but we are the faithful who will escape. And really this isn't our home, anyway, since heaven is our kingdom". There is an "us/them" dilemma here, with a judgement on the others. What we need to do is formulate a language that draws people back into community and responsibility. Apocalyptic visions point the other way.
The imperatives for sustainable living on earth towards the 22nd century and beyond are all too well known:
Approach nature with awareness and humility.
Conserve the earth's life support system, biodiversity and beauty.
Treat all creatures with respect and protect them from unnecessary suffering and killing.
Minimize depletion of non-renewable resources and ensure sustainable use of renewable resources like water, soil and forests.
Develop and employ efficient, environmentally benign technologies for the generation and use of energy.
Adopt strategies of pollution prevention, waste reduction, and recycling.
Stabilize human populations at levels consistent with their quality of life and the carrying capacity of the earth.
Reaffirm the protection of human rights.
In the direct context of the World Trade Organisation and the clash between trade issues and the environment, the European Union should be the first to promote these principles as imperatives. Sadly, the track record in this respect is, bluntly, no cause for elation. On the contrary, if the trend continues, and follows by example the fate of the leghold trap regulation, I fear that the Singapore Conference of the World Trade Organisation, approaching fast in December, and what comes after, will create a wholly unsatisfactory polarisation of the issues, forcing a head-on collision which will be both detrimental to the development of the multilateral trade regime and to the urgent necessity of applying these principles to our predicament. Globe's role should be pivotal in this respect. The trade and environment / animal welfare debate raises dilemmas that penetrate to the core of life on the planet - biodiversity issues concern fauna and flora but do not exclude the human animal. Thus, to extract an example from my own, direct experience: the refugee problem so often derives from the degradation of habitat, the shrinking of biodiversity or the indiscriminate infection of the environment. Ever increasing numbers of people fleeing their homes do so because life has become insupportable at home. Some are the victims of genocide and ethnic-cleansing. Others may not be pushed out at the end of a rifle or with the threat of execution looming over them, but population pressure, regional conflicts, desertification and absence of work opportunities combine to encourage if not force them to leave. However the short-sightedness of western leaders is breathtaking. Refugees, according to the UN Population Fund, represent in excess of 20% of the estimated 100 million people who find themselves international migrants. Unable to cope with the social and political problems that such massive movements of people generate, the politicians have failed to clearly articulate, let alone initiate, policies that address the causes.
In May 1996, at the GLOBE General Assembly, Mr. Van Dusen Wishard reminded participants that "over fifty percent of the new wealth created in the world over the next decade will be created in Asia. Information technology, industrialisation and urbanisation in China, India, and Southwest Asia will be the primary global economic dynamic. Never in history has such a large proportion of the world's population changed its basic mode of living as rapidly as will happen in Asia in the coming decades. Hundreds of millions of farmers will become urbanised."
The ecological challenge seems unsurmountable, yet I would like to conclude on a hopeful note, calling for ecological applications of the latest technologies. Is man capable of the quantum leap that will enable him to take his destiny in hand? Sceptics will warn against the same old Faustian pact with the Devil, but post-modern science afficionados predict that the revolution of "artificial intelligence" will generate the greatest impetus to open minds since the Renaissance.They point out that the thought processes of artificial intelligence - no longer serial and linear but parallel and sequential - will anihilate the cul-de-sac in which our logic has become entrapped by Copernicus' centralised planetary geometry or the egocentric and unitary methodology of Descartes.
Spirituality and science - never has the need for togetherness been greater.
As we enter this radically changed environment of technological possibilities, we must remind ourselves, again and again, that ethics concern us all as individuals, for the individual, not the machine, is the carrier of life and civilisation. Each of us must rethink our underlying assumptions and goals, and demand the highest standards of ourselves. After all, we are such stuff as dreams are made on ...
God, religion, science
Tomorrow, Jan. 19, marks the official publication of Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s “Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion.” The title would seem to identify the book as an addition to the ever-growing body of studies that explore the relationships and tensions between religion and science, usually with the intent either of declaring one epistemologically or morally superior to the other, or of insisting (somewhat piously) that the two are compatible if we avoid extreme claims and counterclaims, or of triumphantly announcing that science is a form of faith, or of purporting to demonstrate that religion can be explained in naturalist terms as an expression of the instinct to survive and propagate.
While Smith rehearses these theses and shows limited sympathy for some of them (and disdain for some others), her object in the book is to interrogate and critique the assumption informing the conversation in which these are the standard contentions. The assumption she challenges — or, rather, says we can do without — is that underlying it all is some foundation or nodal point or central truth or master procedure that, if identified, allows us to distinguish among ways of knowing and anoint one as the lodestar of inquiry. The desire, she explains, is to sift through the claims of those perspectives and methods that vie for “underneath-it-all status” (a wonderful phrase) and validate one of them so that we can proceed in the confidence that our measures, protocols, techniques and procedures are in harmony with the universe and perhaps with God.
It is within the context of such a desire that science and religion are seen as in conflict, in part because the claims of both are often (but not always) totalizing; they amount to saying, I am the Truth and you shall have no other truths before me. But if religion and science are not thought of as rival candidates for the title “Ultimate Arbiter,” they can be examined, in more or less evolutionary terms, as highly developed, successful and different (though not totally different, as the history of their previous union shows) ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.
Thus the argument made by some champions of religion that were science to turn its naturalizing lens on itself, it would discover that “its theories reflect nothing more . . . than the biologically . . . shaped ideas and activities of mere mortal humans” is damaging only if science’s procedures come to nothing once the claim to transcendence of the human is abandoned or debunked. And in fact, says Smith, science and everything we appropriately value about it do very nicely even after such a debunking has been performed. For “what gives the cultural form (or set of ideas and practices) we call science its epistemic authority is not the putatively transcendent truth of its theories, but the fact that its models of the operations of the material-physical world enable us to predict, shape, and intervene in those operations more effectively in relation to our purposes.” (Richard Rorty often makes the same point.)
That is to say, we have certain problems, goals and difficulties with respect to the physical world, and of the models available to us for application and elaboration, science more often than not proves to be the most efficacious. Were our purposes otherwise — say, to deal with trauma, political hopes and fears, the project of community building — we might have recourse to other models and ideas from literature or philosophy or religion or even sports.
Once the shift is made from asking “what is and should be the ultimate ground of our actions?” to asking “what resources are available to us for dealing with these problems and opportunities?,” the question of which model or way of conceptualizing things is true or truer becomes, Smith observes, less urgent and less interesting. The inability of science to demonstrate its truth by standards not internal to its practices is not something to worry about because science “as a method is not the sort of thing that can be thought either true or false.” Rather, it works (with works being defined by our needs) or it doesn’t: “[L]ike using low-octane fuel or following a low-fat diet, the minimalism and self-restraint that defines it can only be thought more or less appropriate for the purposes at hand.”
What this means, among other things, is that the various projects we pursue and engage in may not all cohere in a single intelligible story. We may not be unified beings. In fact, Smith says, “the sets of beliefs held by each of us are fundamentally incoherent — that is, heterogeneous, fragmentary and, though often viable enough in specific contexts, potentially logically conflicting.” The potential for logical conflict, however, exists only under the assumption that all our beliefs should hang together, an assumption forced upon us not by the world, but by the polemical context of the culture wars. It is that context which generates the puzzles and (apparent) conundrums culture warriors hurl at one another, usually in the form, ”Well, if your philosophy tells you that facts are relative to belief systems, how come you don’t walk through walls or jump out of your apartment window?,” or (from the other side) “Well, if your philosophy tells you that religion and ethics are reducible to materialist evolutionary forces, why do you bother to be ethical at all?”
In short, if you believe this, how can you also believe that? The answer is that the realms of belief supposedly existing in a condition of opposition and conflict are, at least to some extent, discrete. What you believe in one arena of human endeavor may have no spillover into what you believe, and do, in another.
Thus, for example, you may have assented to an argument that calls into question the solidity of facts, but when you’re not doing meta-theory, you will experience facts as solidly as the most committed and polemical of empiricists. In doing so you will not be inconsistent or self-contradictory because the question of a belief in facts arises only in the special precincts of philosophical deliberation. In everyday life, we neither believe nor disbelieve in facts as a a general category; we just encounter particular ones in perfectly ordinary ways; and any challenge to one or more of them will also be perfectly ordinary, a matter of evidentiary adequacy or the force of counter examples or some other humdrum, non-philosophical measure of dis-confirmation. The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.
This last point is mine, not Smith’s (although I have reason to think she would find it agreeable). Her point, stated frequently and in the company of careful readings of those who might reject it, is that while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle. Nor are they epistemologically distinct in a way that leaves room for only one of them in the life of an individual or a society: “There is nothing that distinguishes how we produce and respond to Gods from how we produce and respond to a wide variety of other social-cognitive constructs ubiquitous in human culture and central to human experience.” Which is not to say that science and religion are the same, only that that their very different efforts to conceptualize and engage with very different challenges have a common source in human capacities and limitations.
Needless to say, not everyone will be pleased by this argument. Those strong religionists who believe that the overweening claims of science (or scientism) must be denounced daily will not be pleased by an argument that says nothing about redemption, salvation and sin, and gives full marks to science’s achievements. (Smith, a pupil of B.F. Skinner’s, has been a sympathetic and knowledgeable student of science for many years.) And those materialist atheists who see religion as the source of many of the world’s evils and all of its ignorance will not be pleased by an argument that finds an honorable place for religious beliefs and practices.
And some will be irritated by a book that does not take sides, but tells you what the sides are and how they make their (flawed) cases, and tells you, finally, that there needn’t be any sides at all. That’s what makes the book good.
Known among scientists as the renaissance man of evolutionary biology, Francisco J. Ayala has won this year's prestigious, and lucrative Templeton Prize for his life's work trumpeting the notion that science and religion are compatible.
After being named the winner of the world's largest academic award at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the California-based biologist and philosopher described the ever-polarizing approaches to life as merely two windows into the same world.
"I contend that science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction . . . if they are properly understood," he said.
While science looks at how the planets move, the composition of matter and the origin of species, religion focuses on the relationship between people and their creator, moral values and the meaning of life.
"It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that religion and science, and evolutionary theory in particular, appear to be antithetical," he said.
Ayala goes a step further, asserting that the theory of evolution is actually more in concert with a religious belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God than the tenets of Creationism and intelligent design.
"The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering and cruelty," he said.
"People of faith should not attribute all this misery, cruelty and destruction to the specific design of the Creator. I rather see it as a consequence of the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process."
The annual award worth one million pounds sterling -- about $1.5 million Cdn -- honours the person who best "affirms life's spiritual dimension."
But in a recent interview from Washington, the 76-year-old refused to discuss his own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.
"Whatever my answer is going to be will give reason to one side or the other to argue that the reason I take the position that I take is because I'm a believer or . . . I'm not a believer," he said.
"The position that I take with respect to the dialogue and the compatibility is independent of what my faith would be, therefore, it should be acceptable to people of faith and to people who are not religious."
Ayala said he plans to donate the entire prize to charity. Part of it will most likely go to the University of California, Irvine, where the evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist has spent the past 23 years teaching and doing research.
Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger Anthropologist Lionel Tiger on faith and sexual behaviour, why religion comforts us, and how churches act as ‘serotonin factories’
by Brian Bethune on Thursday, March 4, 2010 1:00pm - 37 Comments
Photographs by Stephanie Noritz
Montreal-born anthropologist Lionel Tiger, 72, best known for coining the phrase “male bonding,” has long been interested in bridging the gap between the natural and social sciences. In his latest work, co-authored with psychiatrist Michael McGuire, Tiger enters into the new field known as the cognitive science of religion. In God’s Brain, Tiger and McGuire argue that religious practice “brainsoothes”—alleviates the sharp edges of the human experience—far more than any other human activity.
Q: What do you mean by God’s brain?
A: One has to assume that religion was the creation of something and it’s not the elbow, it’s not the knee, it’s the brain. Or that the brain is the vehicle. What we’ve asserted is that people who believe in God essentially believe in a process that’s in God’s ownership, that is to say the brain itself. Our principal concern was trying to understand why this very strange behavioural syndrome recurs so consistently in so many communities with such regularity, complexity, often ferocity, but usually elegance and warmth.
Q: That’s how you became interested?
A: I thought it was an immense scientific question, and I was not content with simply saying it’s tradition, it’s culture, or fall into the trap of saying—as Richard Dawkins and others have said—if you believe in religion you’re a moron. It’s a very simple question, actually, but it’s a huge issue, particularly since it had now become such a public discussion with Richard’s book and other atheist polemics, and I thought the public was being badly served by bad analysis. As it happens we now have a host of data about what the brain does, and Mike McGuire, my co-author, was the guy who figured out what serotonin did in the brain. After his work on serotonin, the neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety, it seemed clear that brain function was deeply connected to social structure.
Q: The ubiquity of belief in all human societies, you argue, means religion is rooted in our brains. You see it originating about 150,000 years ago when we were coming out of Africa, and were smart enough to contemplate death?
A: Yes, we had developed enough cortical tissue to anticipate a whole series of things about the future. The utterly astonishing one, the defining feature of religions, is the notion of an afterlife. It’s really hard to deny that this is an act of marketing genius, if you were to look at this in a cynical sense. Nobody likes to die. The idea of an afterlife, for you and for loved ones, is very attractive. It seems to me wholly improbable—what’s the evidence?—and yet it works, it just works. If you’ve got a very bad idea in your head—death—which is causing stress, and you can put another idea which is a very good one in its place, then the level of serotonin—which fights depression and anxiety and makes people feel good about themselves and others—begins to build. And you begin an organization to sustain that. Since five billion humans seem to accept that there is a heaven or reincarnation or something after death, then I have to say this is something that comforts the species.
Q: The three ways you argue that religion soothes people—socialization, ritual and belief—how do they interact with each other?
A: You can’t have belief without some sort of ritual providing regularity and reinforcement. And if you think about rituals, again they’re utterly remarkable. People gather on a Sunday and they’re told that they’re really awful, they are virtually doomed to hell, they’re sinners. However, if they perform this ritual again next week and if they accept its importance in their lives they will be saved, as it were, until next week. The Catholics have done it in a brilliant manner with the confessional, and it’s dazzling how that works. But the point is that it’s a place to go for the individual and for the group, and it unites the individual to the group in an agreeable, warm-hearted way, unlike, say, paying taxes.
Q: It’s clear how socialization works, and how ritual supports belief, but are you also saying that the nature of religious belief means it long outlasts secular imitations?
A: Yes, those fail—all of them so far. All of the great religions came into being during the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture and pastoralism—hence “the Lord is my shepherd.” Later alternatives to a religious effort to deal with, to regularize, new crises, new ways of life—Marxism was one which basically failed because it had a very poor theory of human nature—couldn’t equal religious systems. There’s no good music, the buildings are office buildings like Queen’s Park, no answers to ultimate questions. There’s no glory to it. And so religion in the churchy sense has endured. Now the major national distinctions are not about economics but about religion. The Chinese may change that, although I know that they are very interested in finding a moral replacement for Communism. I was invited to a meeting in Beijing two years ago sponsored by the government which wanted to see if there was something else they could teach people in China other than to get rich or that Mao was a great leader. I think they’re still struggling with that.
Q: Despite the fact we are hierarchical animals, humans also have egalitarian impulses. You believe the religious variety—king and peasant bowing before the same God—has enormous appeal to us.
A: It has a profound effect on believers. When you go into a Catholic church, you’re a Catholic and nobody much questions—though they will subsequently if you want to marry their daughter—your equal importance in the eyes of God. And that’s a far more important feature of religion than we’ve ever estimated, partly because humans are so intensely hierarchical that we can’t even think of situations in which there isn’t a hierarchy. The idea of being equal before God doesn’t translate into human society. The Marxists said the state would wither away and there would be a community of equals, believers in Marxism if you will, but they couldn’t manage it because the party became an interest group and condemned the rest to poverty. The idea among humans of there not being a hierarchy is a very, very powerful one.
Q: You point to chimpanzee studies that show it’s not just humans that crave a decent social order.
A: We were very interested because it’s quite clear that the chimps, when things are quiet after breakfast, sit around and the dominant male, who normally tries to whip people into shape, is very quiet and just sits there and maybe people come up—“people,” forgive me, animals come up and groom him, and the kids play and the females interact with each other. It’s a time of social consolidation—everyone is part of the group. I was just at an Anglican service in the Caribbean. What was wonderful was the music because of course it had been Caribbeanized; the hymns had a beat and there were drums. And you could not help but feel enriched by it. Now, if you took it as a cognitive experience—and the sermon had all to do with veils and whatever—it was kind of incomprehensible, but what you did get was a sense of people hanging around, playing music for each other, being together, holding each others’ hands after the service was over. And unquestionably, if you were to do a brain assay—as Mike was able to do with chimps—as they left the church you’d see that they were thriving with serotonin, that there was no cortisol bothering them, things were good neurophysiologically, oxytocin was flowing, all the things that we now know are associated with pro-social, pro-survival activity.
Q: That’s why you call churches “serotonin factories.” You hint about possibly developing the brain equivalent of bodily exercise. Serotonin pills as a religion replacement?
A: I’m not sure we’ll ever learn to manage brain secretions in any manner, and it may be that we don’t want to, but at least we now know that the feeling of oceanic identification with others in an assembly—a church assembly or whenever—is not magical, it’s neurophysiological. We can identify the juices. I think that’s fantastic, actually. And Mike’s work on serotonin did generate Prozac and a whole array of medications.
Q: Despite increasing secularization, especially in the West, most people have not become flat-out rationalists. Do you think that for many environmentalism is a religion?
A: That’s absolutely right, and that’s interesting because it is finally the fruit of pantheism, a very, very old religious idea. For many people, not using more than four sheets of toilet paper is an act of moral purification.
Q: Perhaps the biggest conflicts between secularists and believers (and within faiths) arise from reproductive issues—abortion, stem cells, sexual behaviour. What lies behind religion’s profound interest in sex?
A: The deep sense of legitimate interference into sexuality that religions have reflects their rootedness in the basic biology of the species. That is to say—as we can see with some of these utterly daft politicians, or Tiger Woods, who think that sex is a sort of lyrical entertainment without social structures surrounding it—everyone is somehow afraid of sex because it’s so powerful and so wonderful and all the nerve endings are in just the right place and ready to be fired off practically until death. Religions understand that they have to mix in. And many believers welcome the guidance among the turmoil.
Q: That’s because religion eases stress, and what causes more stress than sexuality?
A: Well, precisely, and mate selection. I hope that in the book we were respectful of the fact that it’s not just mad Puritans that are interested in this; it’s a more general kind of issue about human affairs. We can’t just assume that any effort by religious people to intervene in private sexuality is one of those bad things that we’re now rid of, without acknowledging the complexity of the reproductive urge and its relationship to the future and to social probity, and to taking care of kids. I just read an article by an orthodox Jewish woman about how restrictive their sexual rules are—for example sex only 10 or 12 days of the month—but that people in this system are in fact very happy. And not only are they happy but they will have seven, eight, nine, 10 children. So in that regard, it’s working biologically in terms of reproduction.
Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?
A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.
Are we doomed if cells go bad?
By Susan Martinuk, Calgary Herald
May 28, 2010
Picture this: A scientist peering down at a clump of cells through a microscope, his hands held high over his head. In the Petri dish, one cell points a gun directly at the scientist. The caption beside the picture reads, "When good cells go bad."
That was a Far Side cartoon from long ago, but the creation of the world's first synthetic cell has many wondering if we are now moving into an era where good cells really can go bad.
Last week, genetic entrepreneur Dr. Craig Venter announced that his company had created the first selfreplicating synthetic cell or, as he puts it, "the first selfreplicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer."
Venter's group spent $40 million to copy the genetic code from a bacterium and transfer it to a computer that reassembled the code to produce an artificial or synthetic copy. It was then transferred back into a bacterium whose natural genome had been removed. Voila! The organism, nicknamed Synthia, is now controlled by a computer-generated genome. The significance of the feat is already being compared to splitting the atom or cloning Dolly the sheep.
But others are questioning whether this really is a new life form -- or just a darn good try that stops short of the creation of life.
As with most milestones, there's potential for good. New organisms could theoretically be programmed to fight cancer or produce drugs and vaccines. Venter is purportedly working with oil companies to develop organisms that draw oil from the ground and clean up toxic oil spills. But even when a new organism is being used to benefit mankind, there's still every opportunity for the Law of Unintended Consequences to rear its ugly head.
The dark side is the potential for human abuse and the creation of new pathogens (or alterations of old pathogens) that could be used in bioterrorism. In 2001, a genetically modified mouse pox strain was created that was 100 per cent lethal. The results of unleashing such altered pathogens into the human population would be catastrophic. As a result, some groups are calling for an all-out moratorium on all synthetic biology until international rules are in place.
Over the past week, many have referred to Synthia's creation as a Frankenstein moment. Others say that scientists are "playing God" as they tinker with new life forms. But it's not -- and they're not.
If anything, it's scientists being very human -- doing all they can to push technological boundaries and grab publicity. Venter's scientists even went so far as to publish their names on the new genome, as well as a web address (those who crack the code can send e-mails) and philosophical quotes.
Contrary to what many are currently hearing, this really isn't a new life form made from scratch. The genome was copied from a live cell and then inserted back into a live cell. It's only a baby step to the place where we can make new life from chemicals off the shelf.
But even if it isn't a quantum leap between good and bad, these baby steps in technological achievement are morally relevant because they have the potential to lead us to our Frankenstein moment. Therefore, this announcement should trigger an enormous ethical shift in biology -- and one for which we are not prepared. We still haven't adjusted our ethics and laws to govern the manipulation of genes and genetic experimentation that has been ongoing for about 30 years. Now we face a new task -- creating rules to govern the use of organisms that don't exist naturally.
Obviously, groups are calling for regulations and oversight. U.S. President Barack Obama has asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine the potential benefits and risks. But regulations don't matter much in the laboratories around the world. There are always scientists, somewhere, who are determined to go beyond legal boundaries and new laws aren't going to stop them.
Venter has already shown that he wants to play by his own rules. He was the leader of a private enterprise to sequence the human genome even while scientists from around the world were collaborating to accomplish the same task. We are truly entering a new era in biotechnology and, as Venter himself declared this week, "our imaginations" are the only limits.
Longer life, peace of mind with religion
By Misty Harris, Canwest News ServiceJuly 3, 2010
With apologies to Karl Marx, it seems religion is the Xanax of the masses.
A new Canadian study finds belief in God works much like an anti-anxiety drug, creating a buffer against defensive or distressed reactions to the mistakes we make. Building on previous research that demonstrated an association between religion and palliative brain activity, scientists say they're now able to show that one actually causes the other.
The study, to be published in the respected journal Psychological Science, provides a clue to why religious people tend to lead longer lives and enjoy better physical and mental health.
When people learn of errors they've made, the brain sets off what study co-author Michael Inzlicht calls a "cortical alarm bell." While this alert can be helpful in terms of self-correction, too much vigilance can lead to a frazzled state of mind.
Religion, and its accompanying sense of order, provide insulation against such distress.
"These brain signals occur within a few hundredths of a second," says Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. "Although that sounds trivial, (dampened alerts) over the course of a lifetime can translate into years in which a person enjoys greater equanimity and greater grace under pressure."
Alongside Alexa M. Tullett, Inzlicht conducted experiments in which people performed mental tasks while their brain activity was monitored using electroencephalography. Researchers watched specifically for changes in error-related negativity, which arises from the anterior cingulate cortex and is associated with defensive reactions to mistakes.
Among those participants with a strong belief in an active, involved God, being primed to think of religion before completing the tasks resulted in the cortical alarm bells being muffled, with error-related negativity decreasing. Among nonbelievers, however, error-related negativity was amplified in response to self-error.
"Religion seems to act as a palliative for believers. It buffers them against the pains of everyday living, it offers meaning, and it structures their understanding of the world," says Inzlicht.
There are interesting comments in the blog as well...
September 5, 2010, 5:30 pm
Mystery and Evidence
By TIM CRANE
There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”
This is a very natural way for atheists to react to religious claims: to ask for evidence, and reject these claims in the absence of it. Many of the several hundred comments that followed two earlier Stone posts “Philosophy and Faith” and “On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response,” both by Gary Gutting, took this stance. Certainly this is the way that today’s “new atheists” tend to approach religion. According to their view, religions — by this they mean basically Christianity, Judaism and Islam and I will follow them in this — are largely in the business of making claims about the universe that are a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world. And against the evidence, these hypotheses do not seem to fare well.
But is this the right way to think about religion? Here I want to suggest that it is not, and to try and locate what seem to me some significant differences between science and religion.
To begin with, scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. No-one can understand quantum theory — by any account, the most successful physical theory there has ever been — unless they grasp the underlying mathematics. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.
Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)
What is more, while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.
Yet another reason — and the one I am interested in here — is that most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it. Of course, educated people who know about science know roughly what Einstein, Newton and Darwin said. Many educated people accept the modern scientific view of the world and understand its main outlines. But this is not the same as being interested in the details of science, or being immersed in scientific thinking.
This lack of interest in science contrasts sharply with the worldwide interest in religion. It’s hard to say whether religion is in decline or growing, partly because it’s hard to identify only one thing as religion — not a question I can address here. But it’s pretty obvious that whatever it is, religion commands and absorbs the passions and intellects of hundreds of millions of people, many more people than science does. Why is this? Is it because — as the new atheists might argue — they want to explain the world in a scientific kind of way, but since they have not been properly educated they haven’t quite got there yet? Or is it because so many people are incurably irrational and are incapable of scientific thinking? Or is something else going on?
Some philosophers have said that religion is so unlike science that it has its own “grammar” or “logic” and should not be held accountable to the same standards as scientific or ordinary empirical belief. When Christians express their belief that “Christ has risen,” for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain “form of life,” a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation.
This view has some merits, as we shall see, but it grossly misrepresents some central phenomena of religion. It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.
Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science. This will become clear if we reflect a bit on what science involves.
The essence of science involves making hypotheses about the causes and natures of things, in order to explain the phenomena we observe around us, and to predict their future behavior. Some sciences — medical science, for example — make hypotheses about the causes of diseases and test them by intervening. Others — cosmology, for example — make hypotheses that are more remote from everyday causes, and involve a high level of mathematical abstraction and idealization. Scientific reasoning involves an obligation to hold a hypothesis only to the extent that the evidence requires it. Scientists should not accept hypotheses which are “ad hoc” — that is, just tailored for one specific situation but cannot be generalized to others. Most scientific theories involve some kind of generalization: they don’t just make claims about one thing, but about things of a general kind. And their hypotheses are designed, on the whole, to make predictions; and if these predictions don’t come out true, then this is something for the scientists to worry about.
Religions do not construct hypotheses in this sense. I said above that Christianity rests upon certain historical claims, like the claim of the resurrection. But this is not enough to make scientific hypotheses central to Christianity, any more than it makes such hypotheses central to history. It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses. So I disagree with Richard Dawkins when he says “religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”
Taken as hypotheses, religious claims do very badly: they are ad hoc, they are arbitrary, they rarely make predictions and when they do they almost never come true. Yet the striking fact is that it does not worry Christians when this happens. In the gospels Jesus predicts the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. It does not worry believers that Jesus was wrong (even if it causes theologians to reinterpret what is meant by ‘the kingdom of God’). If Jesus was framing something like a scientific hypothesis, then it should worry them. Critics of religion might say that this just shows the manifest irrationality of religion. But what it suggests to me is that that something else is going on, other than hypothesis formation.
Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.
Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.
This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.
Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.
None of these remarks are intended as being for or against religion. Rather, they are part of an attempt (by an atheist, from the outside) to understand what it is. Those who criticize religion should have an accurate understanding of what it is they are criticizing. But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.
I have suggested that while religious thinking is widespread in the world, scientific thinking is not. I don’t think that this can be accounted for merely in terms of the ignorance or irrationality of human beings. Rather, it is because of the kind of intellectual, emotional and practical appeal that religion has for people, which is a very different appeal from the kind of appeal that science has.
Stephen Jay Gould once argued that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” If he meant by this that religion makes no factual claims which can be refuted by empirical investigations, then he was wrong. But if he meant that religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world, then he was certainly right.
Tim Crane is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of two books, “The Mechanical Mind” (1995) and “Elements of Mind” (2001), and several other publications. He is currently working on two books: one on the representation of the non-existent and another on atheism and humanism.
November 4, 2010, 6:03 pm
The God-Science Shouting Match: A Response
By FRANS DE WAAL
In reading the nearly 700 reader responses to my Oct. 17 essay for The Stone, (“Morals Without God?“) I notice how many readers are relieved to see that there are shades of gray when it comes to the question whether morality requires God. I believe that such a discussion needs to revolve around both the distant past, in which religion likely played little or no role if we go back far enough, and modern times, in which it is hard to disentangle morality and religion. The latter point seemed obvious to me, yet proved controversial. Even though 90 percent of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10 percent — in which I tentatively assign a role to religion — that drew most ire. Atheists, it seems (at least those who responded here) don’t like any less than 100 percent agreement with their position.
To have a productive debate, religion needs to recognize the power of the scientific method and the truths it has revealed, but its opponents need to recognize that one cannot simply dismiss a social phenomenon found in every major society. If humans are inherently religious, or at least show rituals related to the supernatural, there is a big question to be answered. The issue is not whether or not God exists — which I find to be a monumentally uninteresting question defined, as it is, by the narrow parameters of monotheism — but why humans universally feel the need for supernatural entities. Is this just to stay socially connected or does it also underpin morality? And if so, what will happen to morality in its absence?
Just raising such an obvious issue has become controversial in an atmosphere in which public forums seem to consist of pro-science partisans or pro-religion partisans, and nothing in between. How did we arrive at this level of polarization, this small-mindedness, as if we are taking part in the Oxford Debating Society, where all that matters is winning or losing? It is unfortunate when, in discussing how to lead our lives and why to be good — very personal questions — we end up with a shouting match. There are in fact no answers to these questions, only approximations, and while science may be an excellent source of information it is simply not designed to offer any inspiration in this regard. It used to be that science and religion went together, and in fact (as I tried to illustrate with Bosch’s paintings) Western science ripened in the bosom of Christianity and its explicit desire for truth. Ironically, even atheism may be looked at as a product of this desire, as explained by the philosopher John Gray:
Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of the Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. (Straw Dogs, 2002).
Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as the Utopian novel “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just paid better attention to the science of reward and punishment. Skinner’s colleague John Watson even envisioned “baby factories” that would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages. And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist experiment an attempt at a society without God? Apart from the question of how moral these societies turned out to be, I find it intriguing that over time Communism began to look more and more like a religion itself. The singing, marching, reciting of poems and pledges and waving in the air of Little Red Books smacked of holy fervor, hence my remark that any movement that tries to promote a certain moral agenda — even while denying God — will soon look like any old religion. Since people look up to those perceived as more knowledgeable, anyone who wants to promote a certain social agenda, even one based on science, will inevitably come face to face with the human tendency to follow leaders and let them do the thinking.
What I would love to see is a debate among moderates. Perhaps it is an illusion that this can be achieved on the Internet, given how it magnifies disagreements, but I do think that most people will be open to a debate that respects both the beliefs held by many and the triumphs of science. There is no obligation for non-religious people to hate religion, and many believers are open to interrogating their own convictions. If the radicals on both ends are unable to talk with each other, this should not keep the rest of us from doing so.
Frans de Waal
Frans B. M. de Waal is a biologist interested in primate behavior. He is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology, and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, in Atlanta, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. His latest book is “The Age of Empathy.”
Washington - A new research has shown that meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain.
"This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation," said Fadel Zeidan, lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
"We found a big effect - about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent."
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers who had never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as focused attention. Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions.
Both before and after meditation training, study participants' brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging -- arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) -- that captures longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function.
During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on the participants' right legs. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120 degree Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period.
The scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant's pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said.
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.
The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.
"These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body," said Robert C. Coghill, senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
"Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing."
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects.
"This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications," Zeidan said.
The study has been published in the April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Water-pump system, Seljuk dynasty, 1206. A group of Muslim scholars says there is no inherent conflict between Islam and science.
By Steve Paulson
We may think the charged relationship between science and religion is mainly a problem for Christian fundamentalists, but modern science is also under fire in the Muslim world. Islamic creationist movements are gaining momentum, and growing numbers of Muslims now look to the Quran itself for revelations about science.
Science in Muslim societies already lags far behind the scientific achievements of the West, but what adds a fair amount of contemporary angst is that Islamic civilization was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. What's more, Islam's "golden age" flourished while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.
This history raises a troubling question: What caused the decline of science in the Muslim world?
Secularization is the best thing that's ever happened to religion.
That might seem like a shocking statement for both religious and secular people. But its implications become clear when we unpack new understandings of secularization.
Canada is often called one of the world's more "secular" countries. Observers like me use the term because Canada, especially B.C., has among the highest proportion of residents who say they have "no religion," i.e., don't attend a church, synagogue, mosque or temple.
But it's time to get beyond a narrow understanding of secularization. We need not restrict it to the separation of "church and state" and to describing how an increasing number of people are rejecting formal religion.
A growing collection of philosophers and theologians, including Canada's Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, maintain we have to move beyond understanding secularization merely as a process of "subtraction," "loss" and "disenchantment."
I support such thinkers' efforts to re-define secularization - as a social development by which religion loses its state-sanctioned authority and moral absolutism (as the Catholic Church once functioned in Europe and Quebec). Secularization is creating societies in which religion is treated as one option among many.
The word "secular" now has as many different meanings as "love" and "spirituality." Because there is a great deal of confusion about it, Britain's Guardian newspaper ran a five-part series on secularism in June.
At prestigious Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., professor Phil Zuckerman is starting this fall to offer a bachelor's degree in secularism. In Cambridge, Mass., Trinity College has a vibrant Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society.
These media and scholarly outlets are going far beyond the one-dimensional cheerleading for secularism led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who believe society advances only when religion is eradicated.
In contrast, I strongly endorse the emerging argument that secularization leaves open a great deal of room for new forms of religion and spirituality. Whether in Canada, India or Brazil, secular societies can be fertile places for spiritual expression in a pluralistic context.
One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor's A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive - as long as it leaves open a "window on the transcendent."
The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn't dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.
The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don't rely on political endorsement.
We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.
We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era's emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19thcentury sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.
The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.
It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the "historical Jesus" and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.
This so-called "critical method" wasn't an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.
In his new book, Spiritual Bankruptcy (Abingdon Press), philosopher John Cobb maps out some of the pros and cons of secularism.
Cobb believes the religions and philosophies that took root in the socalled Axial Age, about 500 years before Jesus of Nazareth, began as "secularizing" movements.
Early Judaism, Buddhism and Greek philosophy challenged the religious authorities of their day, condemning hypocrisy and superstition.
The fiery Hebrew prophets, who denounced injustice and royal hypocrisy at every turn, were profound secularizers, according to the refreshing definition provided by Cobb, director of the Centre for Process Studies in Claremont, Calif.
Secularization does away with taboos, Cobb says. "It does not give any privileged authority to tradition."
However, reforming movements often develop followers. And they can frequently turn a positive secularizing trend into a static religion or ideology, which tries to create divisions between "us" and "them."
The early Jesus movement was highly critical of Jewish leaders' strict adherence to religious laws. Later, however, Cobb says, much of the Jesus movement turned into what he calls "Christianism."
Some forms of Christianity became theologically and morally authoritarian. Such static religions often expect a place of privilege in society, says Cobb - as Christianity did in Europe and Latin America and Islam has in some Middle Eastern countries.
Dawkins et al. are not wrong to attack such dogmatic, power-hungry religious sects in the name of secularism. Many people justifiably rebel against hard-line forms of religions.
But it is not religion itself that is the problem. It is any ideology that becomes too doctrinaire; that has too rigid a definition of what is acceptable behaviour.
If we are called upon to resist dogmatic religion, we also need to oppose Nazism, fascism, state communism and other ideologies.
Indeed, Cobb believes that for many in the West the dominant ideology is the unrestrained accumulation of wealth.
That, he believes, is the current unquestioned, almighty "God."
Cobb says contemporary economic theory needs to be "secularized." It needs as much criticism as do the over-bearing religions of the past and present.
Like the 19th-century philosopher-psychologist William James and Charles Taylor, Cobb is trying to wed philosophy, theology, science and ethics to create healthy spiritualities within sustainable secular communities.
Canadians, especially residents of highly secularized British Columbia (where more people than anywhere else say they are not traditionally "religious"), should be at the forefront of this campaign. (For related reading, see the book I edited, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia.) As an active member of the United Methodist Church, Cobb believes "secularizing Christians" should use their minds and imaginations to challenge all religious and non-religious ideologies.
Indeed, Cobb may stun many when he makes the theological statement: "God is always secularizing."
Says Cobb: "God doesn't call us to 'religionize.' God calls us to 'secularize;' to take seriously the past, without being slaves to it. God calls us to bring out of each moment the value that can be achieved; in the name of truth, justice and beauty."
What Science Tells Us: Physical, Mental, and Emotional Benefits of Meditation
Although modern science is only beginning to discover the many-sided benefits of meditation, recent studies have made a number of important findings. "Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising,” says Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, “because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.”
“Everyone around the Water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress,” reported Time magazine in 2006. “But With the aid of advanced brain-scanning technology, researchers are beginning to Show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in Ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus, and improve memory.”
“Techniques for training and refining the attention, which have long been a central concern of many contemplative traditions, are deeply relevant to the cultivation of mental health,” writes B. Alan Wallace in Spirituality and Health magazine. “They open the door to an extraordinary sense of well-being that arises from a mind that is healthy and balanced.” “One of the most important domains meditation acts upon is emotional inte1ligence — a set of skills far more consequential for life success than cognitive intelligence,” says Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Many other researchers concur. “We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior,” said Eileen Luders, a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.
Recently discovered benefits of meditation are not just psychological, but also physical. Time magazine, July 27, 2003, said: “In a study conducted with Wisconsin’s Richard Davidson, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn [of the University of Massachusetts Medical School] gave a group of newly taught meditators and nonmeditators Flu shots and measured the antibody levels in their bl00d.... The meditators [had] more antibodies at both four weeks and eight weeks after the shots....The better your meditation technique, Kabat-Zinn suggests, the healthier your immune system.”
A recent study headed by Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School points to health—enhancing effects of meditation even at the genetic level. Scientists have long known that there are particular genes that predispose a person to specific diseases and health disorders. Now, reports ABC News, “It turns out peaceful thoughts really can influence our bodies, right down to the instructions We receive from our DNA, according to new study.” The Washington Post reports that researchers involved in the study “say they’ve taken a significant stride forward in understanding how relaxation techniques such as meditation, prayer, and yoga improve health: by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress.”
Joined: 07 May 2008 Posts: 2060 Location: TEXAS. U.S.A.
Posted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 7:37 am Post subject: Out of Body Experience!
I read an article on the subject of "Astral projection" also called 'Astral Travel" and 'Out of Body Experience", this article was very interesting but it was kind of new subject for me, I haven't have much knowledge in this subject before this article, author writes that some human beings have power to take their soul out of their body and have ability to travel in whole universe!?
They have ability to float in air like birds with their soul also without their physical body!!?, during this travel they have full consciousness they can feel and observe every things even they can see their own body lying on the bed!! interesting ha...
Further he wrote that some advance astral travelers can even visit city of their own choices like New York, London, Mumbai, e.t.c. through this Astral travel and they can come back whenever they want to without any harm to their body!!!??
There are some Astral groups in USA and Canada the members of this group meet on and off and share their experience between members.
As I noted above, I don't have much knowledge on this subject,
therefore I will appreciate if any reader give me more detail on this subject.
I also have few questions, which are as follows:-
- Why all human beings can't experience this kind of out of Body experience?
- Does Astral projection has any connection with meditation?
- Is this kind travel Ruhani travel or not?
- What scientists are says about this travel? i.e. are they accept it or denied it?
- Is any scientific research or study conducted in this subject?
October 4, 2011, 8:51 am
Why Atheists Need Fundamentalists
I’ve written before about the interesting symbiosis that exists between militant atheism and religious fundamentalism — the way the Richard Dawkinses of the world are always eager to insist that a cartoonish figure like Pat Robertson represents the truest form of Christian faith, and that any believer who disagrees with Robertson’s pronouncements on Haiti or Hurricane Katrina obviously doesn’t understand his own religion.
For a recent example of this tendency, consider the fascinating exchange between the prolific Catholic blogger Mark Shea and Jerry Coyne, the author of “Why Evolution Is True” and a Dawkins-esque critic of biblical religion. The subject is human origins, and specifically the debate over whether the Western Christian understanding of original sin — as the fruit of a primal disobedience by the human’s race first family — is compatible with the increasing scientific consensus around polygenism (that is, the theory that today’s human race descends from a larger population rather than a single couple).
Shea touched off the dust-up by arguing that there’s nothing particularly radical, at least from the perspective of the Catholic tradition, about interpreting the first books of Genesis as a “figurative” account of a primeval event, rather than as literal historiography that requires that two and only two human creatures were on the scene when mankind exchanged our original innocence for disobedience and shame.
To Coyne, this idea was absolutely outrageous: In a searing post, he accused Shea of trying to defend “the palpable lies of the Bible” with a lot of hand-waving about allegory and symbolism and myth, when anyone can see that the authors of Genesis were just making stuff up. It’s “nonsense,” Coyne wrote, to suggest that the Old Testament is somehow compatible with human evolution and polygenism: All you have to do is read Genesis itself, which never suggests “that Adam and Eve were anything but the ancestors of all humanity.” To argue otherwise — to “fabricate a huge population of humans, not directly related to Adam and Eve but living at the same time” — is just a crude “attempt to evade the blatant fictionality of the Genesis story by claiming that the book doesn’t say what it seems to say.”
It was a peculiar spectacle, to put it mildly: An atheist attacking a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally. On the merits, Coyne is of course quite correct that some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict what science and archaeology suggest about human origins. (For instance, the claim that Adam and Eve were formed from the dust of the ground and a human rib, respectively, not from millennia upon millennia of evolution, the suggestion that they lived in a garden near the Tigris and the Euphrates, not a hunter-gatherer community in Africa, and … well, you get the idea.) But then again some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict one another as well, in ways that should inspire even a reader who knows nothing about the controversies surrounding evolution to suspect that what he’s reading isn’t intended as a literal and complete natural history of the human race.
In Genesis 1-2, for instance, we have not one but two creation accounts, which differ from one another in important ways. In Genesis 1 God seems to create “man” as male and female simultaneously, on the sixth day before he rests from his labors. But then in Genesis 2 he creates Adam alone, lets him name all the animals and roam Eden long enough to get lonely, and only then creates Eve from Adam’s rib. Or again, in Genesis 1 we have God saying “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth” several days before he creates humankind. And yet in Genesis 2 we’re told that at the time God forged Adam from the dust of the earth, “no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up.” And so on.
The same pattern extends to the books that follow. As Coyne says, taken on its own the account of Eden and the Fall implies that Adam and Eve are the only human beings in the world, and the story of Cain and Abel makes no reference to further creations happening in the next county over. And yet then we have this:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
But where are these wives and cities coming from, if Genesis is supposed to be a just-the-facts account of the creation of the world? For that matter, who are all these people (not one or two, but plainly lots and lots of them) Cain is so worried will find him and kill him for his crimes? Coyne’s claim that the Bible offers “no evidence that Adam and Eve were anything but the ancestors of all humanity” only holds true if you engage in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 and then stop reading there. If you continue to Genesis 4 (which is just a few pages later!), the text strongly suggests that other human beings were somehow contemporaneous with the first family, and that the human race probably didn’t just descend from Adam and Eve alone.
Now one can draw two possible conclusions from these difficulties. One possibility is that the authors and compilers of Genesis weren’t just liars; they were really stupid liars, who didn’t bother doing the basic work required to make their fabrication remotely plausible or coherent. The other possibility is that Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race’s first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements — like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation — to make a theological and moral point.
One can take the latter view and still argue that evolution by natural selection creates challenges for the way Christian theology (though less so Jewish theology, I think) traditionally interprets the Genesis story. (I’ve aired versions of this argument myself: Here, here and here, for instance.) But that’s very different from arguing that either the Genesis story or evolutionary biology has to be a “palpable lie,” and implying anyone who accepts Darwinian evolution has to dismiss the first book of the Old Testament as the ancient equivalent of the Hitler Diaries. This is the view of many fundamentalists, of course. But it’s extremely telling that an atheist like Coyne insists on it as well.
November 3, 2011, 5:00 pm
Science, Faith and First Principles: A Response
By MICHAEL P. LYNCH
Does everything — even science — come down to faith?
This is a common, recurring thought in our culture. But its very persistence can seem a bit mysterious. After all, taken one way, it is easy to answer. “Science” isn’t a name for a collection of beliefs. It names a collection of methods for acquiring beliefs — methods that involve logic, observation and experiment. It is these methods that distinguish science, not doctrine. So in that sense, science is clearly not a faith — it isn’t a religion.
Nonetheless, the thought that science may still be based on something like faith remains. And there is a reason it hangs around. Like so many nagging questions, the idea that science is not free from faith contains a grain of truth.
In an earlier post, “Reasons for Reasons,” I noted that even science has its first principles. These principles — call them epistemic principles — tell us what methods and sources to trust. They are fundamental (“first”) precisely because you can’t defend them without relying on them. (Try giving a good argument for why logic is reliable that doesn’t use logic.) As some of the comments on that post reveal, the fact that it is difficult to defend first epistemic principles is what causes many people to think that even science is based on faith. Defending the principles of science by relying on them seems like no defense at all. So, some conclude, reasons run out and faith takes over.
Prioritizing scientific methods is liberating precisely because it frees one from appeals to authority.
This reaction is understandable. But it rests on a mistake. It is right that we can’t give epistemic reasons — evidence — for those fundamental principles that tell us what evidence to trust. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give reasons for those principles at all. Indeed, we had better. As I argued in the first post, dogmatism, or conviction without reason, is the enemy of the democratic enterprise. But the reasons we give can’t involve further appeals to methods for belief. We can’t give epistemic reasons for epistemic first principles. We have to give reasons of a different sort.
But what sort of reasons? A number of readers of that post suggested that the methods and principles of science are superior simply because they are more useful. It is only by relying on them that we can build bridges, cure diseases and so on. And of course that is correct. But this point alone won’t answer the skeptics about reason. First, skeptics about scientific reason are rarely if ever skeptical about it across the board. Their quarrel is with its use in certain domains. They aren’t going to say that we should never use observation, logic and experiment to figure things out. What they will argue is that these methods have a lower priority in some subjects than others. In some domains, other methods — such as consultation of sacred texts — trump.
Nonetheless, appealing to the utility of science is a good start: it is the right sort of reason, even if it is, by itself, insufficient. Even if we can’t give epistemic reasons for epistemic first principles, we can give what philosophers sometimes call practical reasons for employing the methods of science, and therefore for committing to the principles that give them more weight than others.
Here’s one example of what I have in mind. Scientific principles of rationality have certain democratic virtues that many of their rivals lack. One of the virtues of scientific rationality is that it privileges principles that — as we in fact just noted — everyone appeals to most of the time — just because we are built that way. Of course the fact that people can’t help but use methods like observation and logic doesn’t prove that those methods are always more reliable than others, or even reliable at all. (Just as the fact that people thought the earth was flat doesn’t mean it was). But it does mean that principles which privilege these methods — which give them more weight than others, no matter what the question — have an obvious virtue: they recommend methods that aren’t secret or the province of a few. They recommend methods that everyone can and does use. Indeed, it is this very virtue of scientific methods that was so celebrated in the Enlightenment. Prioritizing scientific methods is liberating precisely because it frees one from appeals to authority, from the thought that something is true because some person, religious tradition, or political party, says so.
But isn’t it just a matter of opinion that scientific methods are open and democratic in this way? Do we have any real reasons — other than personal preference — for thinking this is the case? I think we do. Here’s a brief thought experiment that makes the point. Imagine playing a game the point of which is to figure out, together with other players, what epistemic principles and methods to privilege on another world (call it Parallel Earth). Principles are privileged on Parallel Earth, let’s imagine, when they are taught in the schools, used to make decisions about grants and the like. In playing the game, you know that Parallel Earth will appear to be just like our planet. And you also know you will live on Parallel Earth after the game ends. But you don’t know two important facts: when playing the game, you don’t know what social and educational position you’ll occupy on Parallel Earth. And you don’t know what methods are going to be reliable on Parallel Earth. But you have to decide which methods to privilege on Parallel Earth anyway. 
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.
So how are you going to decide? Since, in playing the game, you don’t know which methods are actually going to be reliable (or if any will be), you can’t base your decisions on which methods we think will produce the truth. That’s out of bounds as far as the game is concerned. And yet since you also don’t know your future social position, it is unlikely you’ll decide on methods that would only be available to a few, or which would allow some people to have secret knowledge that no one else could ever obtain. After all, you might not turn out to be a member of the inner circle. Given the rules, it will make sense to endorse methods that build on abilities that everyone — just by being human — can appeal to. Methods that build on common experience are by nature non-secret, open to public revision and capable of being used repeatedly. That alone gives us a practical reason to privilege them, to give them more weight — independently of the question of whether they are reliable.
Of course, it would take more work to show in detail that scientific principles and methods would turn out to have more of these democratic virtues than other, competing principles. But it seems very likely that they do. And if so, we have an objective reason for favoring scientific principles of rationality over others — a reason that could be accepted no matter what your prior epistemic commitments. The first principles of science give weight to methods like observation and experiment. Because of their open public nature, they are the sorts of principles we would commit to even were we to abstract from their truth. These are the principles we would favor in an ideal state of social and epistemic equality. As such, our faith in them — our faith in reason, as it were — is not blind. It is an expression of our commitment to democracy itself.
 As many readers will recognize, this thought experiment is a modification of a very famous argument of political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls argued that the most rational principles of justice are those we would accept in an ideal state of equality — the “original position”. I am not defending that view here, but I am obviously extending the argumentative strategy.
[Because of an editing error, this footnote was omitted in an earlier version of this post].
“Scientism” has shown up in many of the hundreds of responses to my postings and articles on evolution in recent months.
What is scientism?
Scientism is the belief that the natural sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can, in itself, be a form of faith or ideology.
Scientism is “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science to be applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities),” according to The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology and Ethics.
I appreciate the intelligence of many who have responded — both critics and sympathizers — to the ongoing discussion I’ve been hosting about science and religion and, most recently, the 12 streams of evolutionary thought.
But I’ve often been struck by how some staunch defenders of science act as if it is the only valid way of knowing reality.
What about psychology, literature, philosophy, mythology, dreams, the visual arts, music, the emotions and spirituality?
What about the imagination, that most elusive and powerful mystery of existence?
Some writers would lead me to believe these other ways of knowing are irrelevant. I greatly respect the scientific method, with its emphasis on observable, measurable and empirical evidence. But some readers do not seem to accept there are limits to such knowledge.
They argue that knowledge is not knowledge unless it can be “proved” as fact through evidence. “Don’t muddy the waters” of evolutionary discussion with philosophy, said one respondent.
“Purpose … is an idea, not a theory. It cannot be tested or falsified,” said another defender of neo-Darwinism, which comes with a materialistic mindset.
Scientism over-stretches the power of science to explain absolutely everything. I would say just because purpose cannot be tested or falsified (actually maybe it could be in the right experiment) does not mean humans and other creatures do not sometimes act with purpose and direction.
At its most extreme, scientism is an ideology. It is a form of absolutism, not entirely unlike religious fundamentalism. In this vein, I have to say I agree with the reader who responded to my last piece on the 12 theories of evolution by writing:
“Let’s be clear: Science is a tool and, as such, it can only answer the question it is capable of answering. Origins is not one of those questions.”
I also agreed with the person who commented: “It is when science moves from explaining penultimate causes to ultimate values that the dust flies.”
In that vein, neo-Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, has to realize he is making a philosophical, metaphysical and even ethical statement when he makes his reductionistic argument that:
“We are survival mechanisms – robot machines blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
Maybe Dawkins doesn’t have the last word on the nature of existence. I urge him to continue to be a scientist, but to understand the fullness of life I’d welcome him to become more open to philosophy – and maybe even to some of the more sophisticated forms of spirituality.
(Spirituality is about much more than neo-Darwinists’ favorite foe: the intellectual straw man of Biblical Creationism.)
Science is a powerful and extremely important way of gaining knowledge. But it’s only one way. To fully comprehend the universe and our place in it, we need to also look beyond it.
“Your nature is the consciousness, in which the whole world wells up, like waves in the sea.” ~ Ashtavakra Gita
Consciousness is the greatest mystery ever encountered by humanity. Mystics of all traditions have described consciousness as the ground of being in which the dance of life unfolds. Each tradition has developed different approaches and practices to explore the nature of consciousness, the paths of meditation, inquiry, prayer, art, mantras and movement… Today the main lens through which our culture understands reality is science. For the past century science has viewed consciousness as something generated by the brain, yet there are major problems with this assumption. A new scientific paradigm is emerging which views consciousness as fundamental. Consciousness cannot be explained in terms of the existing laws of space, time, mass and energy. A new science has to be developed, a science that can accept consciousness as universal while investigating the connections between the existing laws and this new paradigm. We might not yet have a theory of consciousness, but the process of studying it holds the key to understanding the universe, while possibly bridging the gap between the mystic’s experience and the scientific observations. Join us to explore this great mystery of existence beyond dogma and doctrine, remembering that life is far more mysterious then we ever imagine!
Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose, CA Thursday October 22 – Sunday October 25, 2015 - See more at:
MAIN CONFERENCE REGISTRATION Thurs evening Oct. 22nd - Sun evening Oct. 25th (3 lunches Fri, Sat and Sun included)Early Bird Rate: $479 (until May 1st) Standard Rate: $579 (after May 1st) - See more at:
"Where for decades or even centuries, philosophy has focused on our representations and descriptions of the world, on human consciousness and cultural systems, many are now turning to the external features of the world that constitute the content of our experiences and the context of our social practices."
This is the very reason the medical team, physicians in particular, should be sensitive to a patient’s need to rely on his or her faith during a medical crisis. When a physician, as the lead team member, ignores or minimizes the importance of a patient’s faith, issues of trust arise and treatment barriers are created that become almost insurmountable for the medical team. Studies have shown that more than 80 percent of patients facing serious or life-threatening illness want their physicians to talk to them about their spirituality. Patients believed that these discussions would affect the doctors’ ability to encourage realistic hope, give medical advice and change their treatment. To put it plainly, patients tend to trust their physicians more when they show respect for their spiritual needs.
Conversely, a physician’s discomfort with conversations surrounding a patient’s faith often has much to do with the possibility of hearing words like “miracle,” “cure” or “hope.” These three powerful words can cause tension in the patient/physician relationship, further prohibiting either side from feeling empowered to implement the best medical treatment plan. Unfortunately, too many doctors turn their noses up at the idea of miracles. This is largely because they are systematically trained to believe only in verifiable facts and clinical data. What’s lost is realizing how incredibly short the amount of time spent in explaining the patient’s prognosis is when stacked up against the patient’s powerful investment of all those thousands of hours of hope.
This online course consist of 30 video sessions (presentations, dialogues, and meditations) featuring Deepak Chopra, Robert Thurman, Michael Murphy, Menas Kafatos, Francis Lucille, Rupert Spira, Peter Russell, Richard Miller and Catherine Pépin. These was recorded at Esalen Institute during the retreat “The Sutras of Science”.
Science and spirituality have been at odds since the time of Galileo because of dogma and lack of dialogue. Yet they are two primary lenses through which we can explore who we are and illuminate the mysteries of the universe, while attempting to solve the current problems facing humanity.
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Subject: Letter from Mowlana Sultan Mohammed Shah to H.E. Dr Zahid Hussain, President Arabiyyah Jamiyyat,
The Aga Khan’s diagnosis in a letter dated 4th April, 1952 to H.E. Dr. Zahid Husain President, Arabiyyah Jamiyyat, Karachi.
First of all I must thank you for so kindly praying for my health. The Almighty has graciously allowed me some further time to be able to serve the great cause which you and I have at heart. I had promised when I made the donation of Rs. 10,000 to send you my views and I take this occasion of doing so.
Of late in Pakistan various people have said that the downfall of the Muslim states during the last 200 or 300 years has been due to forgetting Islamic principles and this is a warning for the people of the new God-given state of Pakistan. Certainly I agree that we forgot Islamic principles in these three hundred years, but here great care must be taken to understand what Islamic principles we forgot and what Islamic principles we did not forget, for, it may be, that the stress is being hid in the popular mind on what we had not forgotten.
For instance, the Ulemas in Iran were ever more powerful, more influential, more believed in, more obeyed than in the early part of the 19th century during Fatehali Shah’s reign. The Shariat law was in every way being carried out, rites and ceremonies were exactly obeyed, the poor received regular help and assistance and Zakat was general Yet that was for Iran the most disastrous period because they went to war, foolishly trusting on prayers, against Russia and lost the whole Caucasus, Georgia and half Azarbaijan. It is generally said in Iran that the Ulemas assured the troops who had inferior arms that if the prayer Joshaun was read, they could face the superior armament of the Russians. Unfortunately they did and they were massacred and defeated and had to accept finally the humiliating treaty of Turkamanchia.
During the same 18th/19th centuries in Turkey and North Africa also, the rites, ceremonies and alms for poor were carefully carried out and yet those were the years of the disastrous wars with Russia and Austria with regular loss of territory. Only in India we can say that the downfall was due to the forgetting of our principles of rites and ceremonies and Shariat law, but here apart from such failures, the same forgetting of another fundamental Islamic principle, which had led to the downfalls in Iran and Turkey, also worked and was perhaps the principal cause. In North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, rites and ceremonies and the ordinary laws of the Shariat and poor relief were strictly observed and yet year by year throughout the 19th/20th centuries, independence was removed and Europe conquered in one form or other, Morocco being the last which was lost in our time for the same faults. There was another fundamental Islamic principle which the Muslim world during the last 300 years more and more forgot and they lost everything.
Islam is fundamentally in its very nature a natural religion. Throughout the Quran God’s signs (Ayats) are referred to as the natural phenomenon, the law and order of the universe, the exactitudes and consequences of the relations between natural phenomenon in cause and effect. Over and over, the stars, sun, moon, earthquakes, fruits of the earth and trees are mentioned as the signs of divine power, divine law and divine order. Even in the Ayeh of Noor, divine is referred to as the natural phenomenon of light and even references are made to the fruit of the earth. During the great period of Islam, Muslims did not forget these principles of their religion.
Under the Khalif Muavia and the great Omaiyyad Khalifs of Damascus, the Islamic navy was supreme in Mediterranean, better ships, better knowledge of wind and tide were placed at the disposal of the Muslim navy and thus the land conquests of half Western Europe rendered possible and easy. Even the historian Gibbon says that when the Turks conquered Constantinople, the Muslim artillery was far superior to any other in Europe, and far greater knowledge was known of the consequences of powder and fire than anything that the Greeks had at their disposal. This alone led to the rapid Turkish conquest of the Balkan Peninsula and Constantinople and coming up to Vienna. Just as under the great Omaiyyads they had almost reached Paris.
But at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, the European Renaissance rapidly advanced in knowledge of nature, namely all those very Ayats of God to which the Quran refers when Muslims forgot the Ayats, namely natural phenomenon, its law and order which are the proofs of divine guidance used in the Quran, but we stuck to our rites and ceremonies, to our prayers and fast alone, forgetting the other half of our faith. Thus during those 200/300 years, Europe and the West got an advance out of all proportion to the Muslim world and we found everywhere in Islam (inspite of our humble prayer, our moral standard, our kindliness and gentleness towards the poor) constant deterrioration of one form or another and the Muslim world went down. Why? Because we forgot the law and order of nature to which the Quran refers as proof of God’s existence and we went against God’s natural laws. This and this alone has led to the disastrous consequences we have seen.
Today public opinion in Pakistan is standing at a critical moment. If again we look upon Islamic principles as only rites and ceremonies and forget the real Ayats of God’s natural phenomenon, then not only Europe but China and India will go so far ahead of us that either we will become like North Africa, humble protectorates or we may have like Turkey to throw over much that is most valuable and precious in our mental outlook. To avoid this, what are we to do? Any fool can tell you of the disease but what is the remedy, how are we to save both teaching of Islam, knowledge of nature and our daily Islamic life of kindliness, gentleness and prayers? If the present method by which the Ulema being brought up on one line of studies and the scientific youth on a different one continues, then disaster will come because there will be a fundamental misunderstanding in the outlook of intellect and faith in the soul of the nation. We must learn from our enemies what saved Christianity for Europe.
It was the fact that, as the Universities at the time of the Renaissance and centuries that followed went forward with natural studies, at the same time, the same universities had faculties of divinity in which the priesthood was trained. The atmosphere of science permeated the atmosphere of Christian divinity studies and the atmosphere of the Christian divinity students permeated the atmosphere of the scientific studies; thus both grew and developed together.
Christianity adapted itself to science, though it is any thing but a natural religion being based on fundamental irrational principles which are the break up of natural law and order, while science accepted these extraordinary miracles as temporary breaks of the natural law of the universe.
Alas, Islam, which is a natural religion in which God’s miracles are the very law and order of nature, drifted away and still drifting away, even in Pakistan, from science which is the study of those very laws and orders of nature.
You, gentlemen, have a great responsibility. The only practical hope I see is that all your universities in Pakistan should have a faculty of Islamic religious and philosophical studies attached to ordinary curriculum for post-graduate students, who alone could be recognized as Ulemas. Something of the kind I know is being prepared in Egypt. A great Muslim divine, alas dead far too soon, the late Sheikh al-Maraghi, insisted in Azhar that natural laws should be taught according to the latest discoveries; but if we turn to Iran, Pakistan, North Africa, outside Egypt, we find that the Ulemas are being still brought up on the same old lines and the modern students on a totally different line. There is no unity of soul without which there can be no greatness.
My voice alone is the voice of an old sick man in the wilderness, but you members of the Jamiyyat are not old members and sick men. Insist, you who have taken up the study of the language of the Quran, to make the spirit of the Quran also the spirit of Pakistan. Remember that in the great first century they knew more about sea and wind than Europe ever did for hundreds of years to come. Today where are you? Unless our universities have the keen graduated Ulema school for men brought up in the same atmosphere as the science students, realizing the fundamental truth that Islam is a natural religion of which the Ayats are the universe in which we live and move and have our being, the same causes will lead to the same disastrous results.
You, members of the Jamiyyat should bravely request the enlargement of our universities and the increase of their numbers on Aligarh lines, and insist on post graduate degrees for Ulema, just as there is for scientists brought up in the same way. I influenced my friend Mohsenul Mulk to do something of the kind in Aligarh. Alas, he died and after his death my direct influence on the powers of Aligarh got less and less, though something of the kind to which I here refer did come up in Aligarh. It did not go the whole way as it would have gone, still if Mohsenul Mulk had lived and I had been able to continue my influence, but it was an improvement and it has given you Pakistan. Without Aligarh no Pakistan would have come, but to live we want many Aligarhs with science and religious philosophy and education blended in one atmosphere realizing that God of the Quran is the one whose Ayats are the universe.
This is my most important message to you, brothers of Jamiyyat. If your prayers have given me life enough to write this letter, your prayers have done some good.
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