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Versus Science Versus Religion

The New York Times has been running an interesting (yes, really) series of interviews on philosophical and religious subjects. It's part of a broader series called "The Stone" (the philosopher's stone? I don't know...) and the interviewer is Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. The most recent is with Tim Maudlin, another professor of philosophy, whose specialty is apparently the philosophy of science. The subject: Modern Cosmology Versus God's Creation, and it's worth reading, but Maudlin ends up with the sort of statement that makes me groan:

As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act.  If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon.

"Direct experimental evidence of a deity"? Shall I laugh or cry? When I encounter statements like this I think of those earnest 19th century investigators who weighed dying people immediately before and after death, or with other physical experiments attempted to determine whether a soul had departed the body. I don't even know if those stories are true, but they certainly capture the determined obtuseness of those who believe the existence of God is a question to be studied and at least in principle resolved by the physical sciences. What annoys me is the serene superiority with which they give a confident answer to a question they have not understood.

But it has to be admitted that Christians set themselves up for some of this. There is of course the continuing rear-guard action against the idea that the earth is very much more than a few thousand years old, and was not created in six twenty-four hour days. There's also the more sophisticated attempt to appropriate certain ideas from modern physics in support of theology, such as the use of the uncertainty principle to allow space for the existence of free will. Although these ideas are interesting to play around with, I think it's generally a mistake to make them part of an argument for the existence of God or for some other theological insight. For one thing, to attempt, for instance, an argument for free will on the basis of the uncertainty principle is to give away much of the game in advance, by implicitly accepting the presumption that physics has any light to shed on the subject. For another, I strongly suspect that Christians who are not themselves scientists (of whom I am one) don't fully understand the ideas they're trying to appropriate, and thus risk (or insure) that they won't be taken seriously by those who do.

I am not one to make fun of simple conceptions of God. A six-year-old child, or an adult with the IQ of a six-year-old, may have an intuitive sense of relationship to God that escapes a theologian, and a spontaneous goodness that makes me feel ashamed. And anyway even the most sublime insights of theology are no more than glimpses into the endless mystery of God. But to venture into very abstruse and complex scientific and philosophical debate armed with a conception of God that does in fact resemble the skeptical caricature of a man in the sky only brings the faith into disrepute.

Beyond the superficial oppositions set up by fundamentalists on both sides, there are deeper questions to be pondered. The skeptic would do well to stop thinking of religion as primitive science and consider the philosophical questions: how did we get from nothing to something? how do we get from is to ought? The believer would do well to trust that all truth is of God, and be less anxious about the apparent challenges to belief from science. Both should try to understand where the boundaries between theology and science lie. At least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the "conflict between science and religion" doesn't really amount to very much, as long as each understands its proper function and limits. 

Not that the boundary is always easy to discern. There is one question that troubles me, and which I think about frequently. Since Catholics are not obliged to believe the creation account in Genesis literally, many of us glibly dismiss the whole question: "What does it matter whether the creation took six days or billions of years? The important thing is that God created it." Well, yes, but that really doesn't dispose of the matter. Never mind the time scale--unless we detach Genesis entirely from the physical world and history, we have a conflict between the pre-lapsarian paradise described there and the picture of millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw before mankind appeared, the savagery of which seems to have been our habit from that moment on. 

I discussed this problem at more length ten years ago in this Sunday Night Journal. I'm no closer to a resolution than I was then, and really don't expect one.


I Simply Do Not Believe This

Climate change is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy, sneezy, costly and dangerous, according to a comprehensive federal scientific report released Tuesday.

So says the San Jose Mercury-News apropos a new National Climate Assessment report. Perhaps the actual report is not as excited as the journalism, but from what I've seen of headlines today this piece is fairly typical.

I am quite willing to believe that the overall average temperature of the earth has gone up slightly in the past 100 years or so. I'm willing to believe that human activity is at least part of the reason. But it is abundantly clear that political and quasi-religious convictions are very influential on the climate-change activism side, and if I remain skeptical that the phenomenon is really so terribly serious and dangerous, that's part of the reason. I am not equipped to judge "the science" (when did that annoying term replace "the research"?), but anyone can see that there's a whole lot of emotionalism wrapped up with it, and that makes me skeptical.

"The science" may indeed show warming. But the specific evidence cited for warming's ill effects appears to be selected to fit the prediction. When we have an exceptionally cold winter, we're told that "weather is not climate," which is true. But when there is a drought in California, it seems that weather is climate after all. And you simply aren't going to persuade me that there has been a dramatic change in my local climate, because I have lived in it for some decades now, and there hasn't. Of course that says little about the global picture, but it illustrates the problem with the strategy of anecdotal alarmism. Around ten years ago we on the Gulf Coast had a spate of severe hurricanes, Katrina being the worst. We were assured that climate change was the cause, and that the storms would continue to grow worse and more frequent. Now we've had nine years of very much milder and fewer ones. That certainly doesn't disprove the warming argument, but it just as certainly doesn't support it.

Exaggeration and emotionalism do not belong in science, and they're counter-productive as a strategy when they produce dire predictions that aren't fulfilled. This article is not even a prediction, it's an attempt to paint the situation as verging on disaster now, when it plainly is not. Maybe the activists think apocalyptic talk is the only way to mobilize people. And maybe it works on some. But it isn't working on me. It only makes me skeptical--especially when the claims have become so broad that any severe weather at all, even a blizzard, is claimed as evidence for the theory.


The Mind Is Not A Computer

In Commentary, David Gelernter has a sharp critique of philosophical materialism as applied to the human mind that's very much worth reading. Materialism for many scientists has become a sort of religion, a dogma setting the bounds of permissible thinking. You can't really call yourself a Christian if you don't believe in God, and scientist-materialists would have it that you can't call yourself a scientist if you aren't a materialist--not, at least, if you allow non-materialist thinking to enter into your view of what constitutes objective reality. It's a frustrating position to argue against, because those who hold it believe that any fundamental disagreement is intrinsically irrational.

Yet it is hardly rational to attempt to account for reality while ignoring or explaining away the actual experience of being human, of being a being that wants, indeed desperately needs, to account for reality. It is an extremely mysterious experience, and people have been trying to figure it out for as long as there have been people. Our materialists are certainly not the first to deny that the experience has any meaning, but surely they are among the first to deny systematically that it even exists in any real sense. 

Gelernter, who is not some vague-minded humanities type but a professor of computer science at Yale,  focuses on the school of thought which takes the computer as an analog to the human being: hardware = body, software = mind. The actual experience of being that sort of being--i.e., human consciousness--is reduced to a more or less illusory epiphenomenon of the operation of the machine. 

Gelernter's critique is extensive and deep (barring a passing not-all-that-well-informed reference to the Catholic Church and heretics), and you should read the whole thing. Here's an important passage:

In her book Absence of Mind, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes that the basic assumption in every variant of “modern thought” is that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration.” She tells an anecdote about an anecdote. Several neurobiologists have written about an American railway worker named Phineas Gage. In 1848, when he was 25, an explosion drove an iron rod right through his brain and out the other side. His jaw was shattered and he lost an eye; but he recovered and returned to work, behaving just as he always had—except that now he had occasional rude outbursts of swearing and blaspheming, which (evidently) he had never had before.

Neurobiologists want to show that particular personality traits (such as good manners) emerge from particular regions of the brain. If a region is destroyed, the corresponding piece of personality is destroyed. Your mind is thus the mere product of your genes and your brain. You have nothing to do with it, because there is no subjective, individualyou. “You” are what you say and do. Your inner mental world either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. In fact you might be a zombie; that wouldn’t matter either.

Robinson asks: But what about the actual man Gage? The neurobiologists say nothing about the fact that “Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered prolonged infections of the brain,” that his most serious injuries were permanent. He was 25 years old and had no hope of recovery. Isn’t it possible, she asks, that his outbursts of angry swearing meant just what they usually mean—that the man was enraged and suffering? When the brain scientists tell this story, writes Robinson, “there is no sense at all that [Gage] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.”

Man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.

That last line recalls an exchange I had years ago: I was complaining about the artificial intelligence researchers who assume, with no actual evidence, that computers can ever think in the way that people do, and the person I was talking to replied: "You can only assume computers are people if you think people are computers." 

That assumption is one thing that Gelernter doesn't dwell upon, and it needs to be stressed. It needs to be insisted upon. In science and philosophy of all things no one should be allowed to get away with basing a sweeping claim about reality on an unacknowledged and unsupported assumption, and the materialist view of mind as a sort of secretion of the brain is exactly that. This needs to be said again and again: it is an assumption made in keeping with its proponents' philosophical views, and there is no evidence to support it. Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind.

As part of his critique, Gelernter has some rough words for the arguably insane ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who has a lot of followers among technologists. I had a few harsh things of my own to say about Kurzweil a few years ago, in a piece which, if I may say so, also seems worth reading. It contains a more detailed explanation of the fundamental flaw in the assertion that computers do or can "think" in the sense that we do.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

It's a three-year-old piece called "Singularly Mistaken."


Oddly Amusing

Richard Dawkins, generally lauded for his attacks on Christianity, discovers that some religions are still protected classes in the eyes of the enlightened world. I guess I find it amusing because it's two factions of the neo-Enlightenment snarling at each other, and especially because of the wildly inapplicable use of the weapon of first and last resort, "That's racist!". I don't think it's working as well as it used to. There was a time when I would have been angered at being called a racist; now I think I would just snicker.

I'm actually somewhat in sympathy with Dawkins here, first with "Islam is a race?!?" and second with his skepticism about the scientific achievements of medieval Islam. I realize they exist, but have always suspected that they're exaggerated at the expense of Christendom.


Hart On Dennett

In case you missed it in the comments on the previous post, here, courtesy of Rob G, is David Bentley Hart's extremely sharp, in every sense of the word, commentary on a book in which Daniel Dennett explains the phenomenon of religion to us, and advises us as to how to rid civilization of it. It's particularly enjoyable (and impressive) for its succinct demolition of the pseudo-scientific concept of the "meme," which is, in brief, an idea which takes on a life of its own. Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, takes this metaphor literally, and supposes that memes tend toward their own preservation in the same mechanistic way that genes are said to. From this the Dawkins school professes to be able to study culture as one studies biology. But

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one's conclusions will always be unable to command anyone's assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

It's a measure of the materialist's determination to stick to his dogmas that anyone would advance the "meme" idea in the name of science.


On Daniel Dennett

Found this in an old SNJ (I will be sorting through them for a while) and rather liked it (Dennett, if you don't recognize the name, is one of the aggressive atheists, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea). I had just read a piece in which he predicted that religion would soon wither away, now that we have science and stuff:

Does Dennett really think that unbelief is new, and that exposure to science automatically induces it? Does he really believe that indoctrinating young people in it will crush, within a generation, the human desire for the Absolute? Does he think that no one has ever lost his faith by ignorance and regained it by learning, or lost it by emotion and regained it by reason? Does he think atheism has languished only because no one has ever considered its arguments? Does he, in short, understand anything at all about the human soul?

You can read the whole post here.