MisterPengo (misterpengo) wrote,


I like to check out the Templeton website now and then for science/religion news. It's an interesting outfit, science with a heavy focus on the relation between faiths in the world, and particularly the interplay between faith and science. Kind of an ecumenical organization (Foundation for a Better Life is another good one in that vein, more focused on daily living), though that hasn't stopped a some of the anti-theist science-heavy types from being angry at its very existence. Because if religious people can happily accept science with faith, the whole 'point' of science goes out the window for such people.

But anyway, recently they had a 'Big Question' series - asking some philosophers, theologians, scientists, and editorialists if science makes God obsolete. I've been reading through the responses (About half said no outright, and the rest were a mix between conditional 'no' and 'yes'), and figured I'd write up my thoughts on some.

Stephen Pinker's (On the 'yes' side) explanation starts out with..

Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral? Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.

The problem is that Pinker's reply isn't all that convincing if you follow it closely - and his rendition of the questions sought through God is squirrelly to say the least. 'Where did the world come from?' in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam yielded a reply of 'God' with only the vaguest, seemingly poetic description of mechanism, and from what I've read the same has held in Hinduism and (if they even bother to address it) all forms of Buddhism. In other words, if it was 'one of the deepest puzzles about origins', interest in detail certainly was minimal for a long time.

What is the basis of life? Odd way to phrase it. What is the purpose, perhaps - but the western religious response has largely been 'to enjoy life, but be moral - and to find joy in sacrifice'. As for morality, it's a common canard that the impetus in Christianity is 'be moral or God will punish you' - but that falls apart the moment you look at the development of moral and general philosophy in Christian tradition. Nearly all 'moral' acts in Christianity aren't called so because God will condemn everyone to hell for not listening, but because they were rules for the good, benefit, and even enjoyment of humans. 'Natural law'.

"How the mind arises from the body" is a vague reference to soul - but in the Bible and Koran, the 'how' is barely referred to. Now, theologians explored the question, but even in the Catholic Church the questions were and are debated - while other faiths have their own typically vague considerations, aside from (and even here, not wholly inclusive) 'you are more than your body'. So one more time, if this was the point of God, most people seemed to do well enough without probing the question too deeply.

What I'm getting at here is that Pinker's trying to set up a 'role for God' that he thinks his view of secular and rational advancement can knock down - but the roles he defined were for most faiths either touched on only in the most vague ways (Mind arising from body, origin of the world) or were largely in the realm of the nature anyway (purpose of life, why be moral). My response would be that God has largely been sought out as an ultimate explanation, and typically a justification for (and expectation of) religion. Confusing God and religion is a big mistake.

Moving on, one finds more wrong with Pinker's stance. For one, his reference to the '6000 years ago' origin of the universe question makes one thing clear: First, he's treating the 'God' question as a purely Judaeo-Christian one. Second, he's unaware that Saint Augustine (far in advance of science ~400AD and a prominent theologian) and others did not think Genesis was meant to be interpreted in the most utterly literal sense - one day for God can be a thousand years, or instant, or any other number. He's also forgetting that Thomas Aquinas argued from the utterly opposite direction - he took the universe to have been eternally pre-existing (yet still requiring an unmoved mover for its existence and order - go read your Aristotle to understand this). So off the bat, the knock against Christianity gets stunted.

The third problem with this criticism is subtle. "If God created the universe, where did God come from?" Now, this normally is supposed to play out the following way: "Well, God is eternal/just exists." -> "Then we can just say the universe is eternal/just exists! God isn't needed as an explanation!" -> "Damnit!" Now, the Big Bang presents some difficulty for the eternal universe claim, but let's think about this another way. We not only have a universe, and not just a seemingly fine-tuned universe, but also a rational universe. If you accept that we have access to reason, and that the universe is operationally rational (and your mind is, in turn, capable of 'truly' grasping rationality), you have to ask yourself whether such a universe can A) Be eternal, and if it is, does that mean there are eternal principles (Hint: Principles are immaterial things) that govern it, and B) If it's not eternal, what sounds more likely: That rational, fine-tuned universes pop out of nothingness and produce reason-capable agents, or that both the universe and its rational principles have an, in turn, rational source.

What I'm getting at here is that the cost of accepting the rational world, when you get right down to it, is either God or something so close to God that you can't keep theists from claiming it as such. Your alternatives are either giving up on a rational existence (In which case science gets moved to the religion pile, thank you) or true agnosticism (Popular atheist move: All attack, claim you have no need for defense. But someone eventually realizes you're all criticism, no suggestion, and calls you out.) In other words, the more successful science and technology is, the stronger the case for God becomes.

Moving on, the rest of Pinker's bit is relatively unsurprising. He argues 'evolution explains the appearance of design in nature', but forgets that evolution isn't a thing - you can't get yourself a handful of evolution. It's a process, and effectively a tool. Like anything else, it's something an agent can use to accomplish a goal. So evolution at most can disprove proposed mechanisms (abiogenesis, except for the origin of life), but does nothing to an ultimate agent, aka, God.

Now, on neuroscience, Pinker's coming very close to an out and out lie: He gives the options of "It's not really a problem" versus "It's a problem science can solve" versus "It's physical, but can't be solved by humans". What he's leaving out is a considerable number of people - and I'm talking guys like David Chalmers and Jaegwon Kim, agnostics at the least who aren't religiously motivated - arguing that conscious experience can't be solved by known physics. In other words, it has the hallmark a non-physical but real problem. But there's another point to repeat with consciousness; 'God' never provided a solution to this problem, which is why even Christians range in view from Jehovah's Witnesses 'You no longer exist after death, but God will resurrect you' extremes to 'Your soul exists but sleeps until resurrection' views to 'Your soul exists and is conscious but barring divine infusion has no experience' views to 'Your soul exists, is conscious, and has experiences' views. In other words, we're back to the function of religion/philosophy.

On morality and nature, Pinker fluffs a bit. Again, put aside the easy criticism that evolutionary psychology is dismissed by many, and has a tendency to produce 'just so' stories. The fact is that casting questions of morality and conscience as 'purely biological' cannot be done, unless it's because you're arguing that since the brain/body is always involved in human choices, it must all be biological in nature. Reflection, learning, environment, and all kinds of external (and internal but abiological) distinctions abound. Oversimplification gets us nothing here.

Lastly, we're at morality itself. What Pinker's referring to here is Euthyphro's Dilemma, an old Socrates question. It goes like this: Is what is moral, moral, only because the gods decree it? Or do the gods obey what is objectively good? If the gods obey what is objectively good, you can't appeal to them as the source of morality. If good is what the gods decree, isn't that arbitrary?

I'd like to do a full entry on this sometime, but some comments in passing: Remember that this is a question related to Socrates. One horn of the question was the fact that the gods disagreed amongst themselves, and frankly the myths didn't always paint even Zeus in the best light. Not only that, but the gods Socrates was dealing with were themselves spawns of others such as Zeus, in turn a spawn of Cronus, in turn a spawn of Gaia, who was spawned out of Primal Chaos. In other words the greek pantheon themselves were not the unmoved movers, the ultimate grounding of existence, but rather contingent (in addition to capricious) beings. So right away, the original question was directed at a different target than the Judeao-Christian God.

Now, that's not to say the question isn't pertinent to God. There are some traditional responses; one is to identify God with goodness either in whole or in part, such that there's no real dilemma. Another is to argue that some morality is by decree, some is universal. I think there's value in a few of these responses, but I'll give a brief consideration of my own: For the purposes of the dilemma, it's worth pointing out that all morality is related to nature and situation. For instance, it's wrong to electrocute someone, but it's not wrong to use defrillibators on a heart attack patient. It may be moral to give someone some of your food, but not if you know they're allergic to some ingredients of the food. It's easy to see how a change in nature and situation changes morality (If the person was somehow cured of their allergy, it would no longer be immoral to give them food containing once-allergic ingredients. But if you didn't know they were cured, it would be immoral even if no physical harm came to pass.) If we accept this, and accept God as the creator and/or sustainer of the universe, an interesting result occurs: God becomes the source of morality because God arranged nature, and arranged the (lesser, intelligent) arrangers of nature in turn. Even if one tried to do what Pinker does and argue that morality must be independent from God (And I'd, frankly, favor the views that see God as containing good), God still is the essential source of good because God is the source of nature. So even at this point we haven't dispensed with God.

But with Pinker, the real take-home lesson is: He's zeroing in only on the Judaeo-Christian thought of God, and even there he's failing. By the way he frames his questions (Ignoring the variety of thought on the 6000-year-old-earth view, casually ignoring developments in philosophy of mind, casting questions of conscience as purely biological, passing of Euthyphro's Dilemma as a decisive argument rather than a contentious one, etc), I'd guess his reply has more to do with politics than his viewpoint.

Reviewing the other responses:

Cardinal Schonborn has the most unusual response of the lot, focused specifically on reductionism and scientism in general. I was a bit confused at first, since he took a different tone than many, but I think his take on the discoveries of science is pretty strong. Essentially, 'No, unless you're turning science into philosophy, but most people are pretty lackadaisical about faith anyway'.

William Phillips gives a nice, straightforward response - no, because of personal reasons and the order he sees in the universe as a physicist. Nice, and what you'd expect.

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy is unusual, mostly because I'd have thought guys like him would get their heads chopped off in Pakistan. His take on God is pretty odd - he seems to be saying 'Your God can't do anything that violates nature', but suspiciously seems to forget the whole 'Even the traditional religions see God as outside of nature' aspect. The same goes for his talk about unpredictability in quantum physics - it doesn't necessarily apply. On the other hand, he goes on to speculate that God is entirely capable of miracles via chaos theory. On the other other hand, he talks about how the God of the medieval era of religions are gone - but that was the time when theologians were talking about God being outside of time and working concordant with, not in violation of, nature. I think he has a point about the 'old trust', but part of this may be because he's from a decentralized Islamic tradition that had some issues with science. Whereas the Catholic Church (and other organized faiths, frankly) have always recognized that there's a distinct difficulty communicating the faith to the faithful, and tried to draw a distinction between seemingly legitimate miracles and superstition. Also, Hoodbhoy sounds like the name of someone I'd blow up in Team Fortress 2.

Mary Midgley comes out with a strong no, though it's primarily because she's got a long-standing axe to grind against scientism in general - the whole 'selfish gene' concept of biology, and natural selection as the prime mechanism of evolution. She has some interesting points, but I've heard all this before, so it wears less on me.

Robert Sapolsky goes with another atheist 'no', resting on the grounds of 'because religion fills people with ecstasy'. He's apparently confusing God with religion again, this time from another perspective. He proves as much with the 'religion has enough blood on its hands to darken the sea, and it's not an aberration but the logical consequence' bit. I don't know about Robert Sapolsky, but between the 20th century and history in general, I'd throw my 'less bloody' vote to the religious over the secular any day of the week. Don't believe me? Open a newspaper, hit the crime blotter. Count up how many crimes on any given day are religiously motivated. It's part of the reason why atheists have tried to write Stalin, Mao, and others off as 'religious because it was a personality cult even though it was a cult that espoused atheism'. On ther upside, that's one impressive beard.

Christopher Hitchens providing a 'no but it should', with some bizarre "Haven't thought this through, have you Hitchens?" arguments. Apparently the fact that the Andromeda galaxy may one day collide with ours somehow proves there's no God - nevermind that this isn't a certainty, and if it does happen it will take place over a billion years from now, and we'd have who knows what technology by then. This before getting into questions of consciousness, the Christian answers of God's plan, etc. The 'there's no evidence' line is a common one, but nonsense - there's plenty of circumstantial evidence. In fact, there's a tremendous amount. But there could never be falsifiable evidence of God even if God certainly did exist, even if God became embodied (again). Think about it: How does God prove He's God, and not just a really powerful ET, or a meagerly powerful one capable of deluding you? Either way, he goes on to rant and rave a little more (I guess people enjoy this), and then draws an interesting line in the sand: Religion is theism, not deism. Forget that this is not true: It's interesting that Hitchens would say this. Because it's followed my recent experience that some atheists love to argue, but only if they have nothing to defend, and only if they can pick their enemy (anthropomorphic God who created the universe 6000 years ago). Put deism on the table, which is really theism with weak if any religion, and they don't want to play. Because there's no counter to deism other than 'Primal Chaos' - remember who liked that one?

Keith Ward is a heavier hitter in debates like this, and the one who seems to be actually addressing the issue head on (by talking about God, rather than religion, and also talking about science). Essential argument is that science does jack-all against God - what's really going on is a philosophical fight, dueling metaphysics, and metaphysical fights never have a decisive end. If anything, science bolsters the case for God because the discoveries there have knocked both materialism and physicalism through several revisions (with more pending, depending on how consciousness and quantum physics turn out.)

Victor Stenger is basically a more animated version of Pinker with a worse beard than Sapolsky. 'No evidence' lie when circumstantial evidence abounds, and God cannot be proven even if He exists. He also talks about how before quantum physics, the sheer fact that matter existed indicated creation (Then why did all the scientists of the time presuppose an eternally existing universe?) He rattles off 'the universe could have come from nothing' without mentioning A) If it did, many religious people will take that as proof positive that they were correct, because they've been talking about ex nihilo creation for awhile, and B) There is no known true vacuum. We've got background energy. Stenger's another guy who smacks of political motivation, but the most telling part of his essay is how he tries to assert ex nihilo creation as somehow atheistic, and ignores the preceding view of an eternal universe.

Jerome Groopman - more beards! do you have to draw a beard lottery if you get a PhD? - mixing up God and religion again, but otherwise going the Keith Ward route of 'No, no conflict, separate spheres, and nothing in God/religion countermands science'. I'd disagree with his description of the clash - I don't see the religious as anti-science. They're anti-philosophy that tends to be smuggled in by some scientists or politicizers. America has a strong religious tradition and we love science. Israel's cutting edge, but they have a heavy concentration of orthodoxy, even among the younger generation.

Michael Shermer wriggles on this one, and throws out an interesting pitch: How will we know the difference between God and a sufficiently advanced ET? For all we know an ET will be able to do everything God will do! But, that just boomerangs around to screw with Shermer. Consider: If technology (note: technology is not science) is capable of achieving all the miracles typically attributed to God, you haven't vindicated atheism. You've vindicated Intelligent Design. But you're still not an unmoved mover, or the source of all being and existence. Yet you've justified viewing that mover, viewing that ultimate source, as both a being, and an omniscent, omnipotent, even omnibenevolent agent. You haven't made God obsolete; you've come as close to justifying the existence of God as is possible.

Ken Miller. Not a fan of him, mostly because of his rhetoric, even if I hold skepticism of intelligent design. He draws a fair enough distinction between science and God, though the view that God cannot be part (but not wholly described by) of nature is his own. Panentheism views nature as wholly within God while God still lies outside of nature in part. Interesting end point for him.

Stuart Kauffman takes the ultimate middle ground, the emergentist route. Arguing that reductionist science cannot provide a complete account of the universe, but that God must become wholly naturalistic (within nature, rather than outside). Interesting contrast to Ken Miller and other views - so apparently even if you work within the naturalist framework, you're not getting rid of God because you still have to grapple with immaterial and eternal principles. Admittedly, Kauffman offers this up as a 'symbol', yet symbols represent something. Pantheism? That doesn't seem right, and he seems to know it. In the end, he's punting - God is still valid, but that Christian God has just got to go. His closing paragraph indicates he's not really familiar with even the much-maligned Old Testament God. Seems like the sort of person who'd go on about how 'God forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge! But knowledge is good!', only to blink when you tell them 'It was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was related to morality, not science.'

And that's all for now. Oh, I've also picked up GTA4 for the 360, yell if you want me to shoot at you.
  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened