Monday, April 28, 2008

Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

The John Templeton Foundation asks this question - Does science make belief in God obsolete? - of scientists and religious leaders, with predictable results (mostly).

Here are a couple of responses:
Steven Pinker: Yes, if by...
"science" we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats.

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.

Start with the origin of the world. Today no honest and informed person can maintain that the universe came into being a few thousand years ago and assumed its current form in six days (to say nothing of absurdities like day and night existing before the sun was created). Nor is there a more abstract role for God to play as the ultimate first cause. This trick simply replaces the puzzle of "Where did the universe come from?" with the equivalent puzzle "Where did God come from?"

What about the fantastic diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of design? At one time it was understandable to appeal to a divine designer to explain it all. No longer. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace showed how the complexity of life could arise from the physical process of natural selection among replicators, and then Watson and Crick showed how replication itself could be understood in physical terms. Notwithstanding creationist propaganda, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, including our DNA, the fossil record, the distribution of life on earth, and our own anatomy and physiology (such as the goose bumps that try to fluff up long-vanished fur).

For many people the human soul feels like a divine spark within us. But neuroscience has shown that our intelligence and emotions consist of intricate patterns of activity in the trillions of connections in our brain. True, scholars disagree on how to explain the existence of inner experience—some say it's a pseudo-problem, others believe it's just an open scientific problem, while still others think that it shows a limitation of human cognition (like our inability to visualize four-dimensional space-time). But even here, relabeling the problem with the word "soul" adds nothing to our understanding.

People used to think that biology could not explain why we have a conscience. But the human moral sense can be studied like any other mental faculty, such as thirst, color vision, or fear of heights. Evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are showing how our moral intuitions work, why they evolved, and how they are implemented within the brain.

This leaves morality itself—the benchmarks that allow us to criticize and improve our moral intuitions. It is true that science in the narrow sense cannot show what is right or wrong. But neither can appeals to God. It's not just that the traditional Judeo-Christian God endorsed genocide, slavery, rape, and the death penalty for trivial insults. It's that morality cannot be grounded in divine decree, not even in principle. Why did God deem some acts moral and others immoral? If he had no reason but divine whim, why should we take his commandments seriously? If he did have reasons, then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Those reasons are not to be found in empirical science, but they are to be found in the nature of rationality as it is exercised by any intelligent social species. The essence of morality is the interchangeability of perspectives: the fact that as soon as I appeal to you to treat me in a certain way (to help me when I am in need, or not to hurt me for no reason), I have to be willing to apply the same standards to how I treat you, if I want you to take me seriously. That is the only policy that is logically consistent and leaves both of us better off. And God plays no role in it.

For all these reasons, it's no coincidence that Western democracies have experienced three sweeping trends during the past few centuries: barbaric practices (such as slavery, sadistic criminal punishment, and the mistreatment of children) have decreased significantly; scientific and scholarly understanding has increased exponentially; and belief in God has waned. Science, in the broadest sense, is making belief in God obsolete, and we are the better for it.

And here is one more, for balance.

Robert Sapolsky - the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University: No.

Despite the fact that I'm an atheist, I recognize that belief offers something that science does not.

Science isn't remotely about a scientist announcing truths or The Truth. It’s about stating things with a certain degree of certainty. A scientist will say, "In this experiment, I observed that A causes B; it didn't happen every single time, and my statistical analyses show that I can be X percent certain that this A/B connection didn't happen by chance." The convention in most scientific papers is that you don't report something until you're more than 95 percent certain. It is impossible with statistics to state something with 100 percent certainty.

Now, I'm not trying to be a postmodernist gibbering about how science is a purely subjective process and there are no objective truths. There are truths, and scientific knowledge produces temporary points of solid ground in pursuit of them. An observation must have predictive power and be capable of independent replication by others. And scientists must be willing to abandon supposed knowledge when a completely different explanation arises—"Hey, this is an orangutan jawbone stained dark, so Piltdown Man really isn't our grandfather." Far more often, scientists are asked to modify their knowledge: "Remember when you said that A doesn't cause B every single time? It turns out that A causes B only when C is happening." This increases the subtlety and nuance of science. As a surprising example, it turns out that the most iconic "fact" in the life sciences is only a temporary foothold: DNA doesn't always form a double helix, and those exceptions are mighty interesting.

So it doesn't even make a whole lot of sense to frame a science/religion fight as who has the truthier truth. But you can state it as, "Which approach gives you more predictive power and ability to change an outcome?" When stated this way, science wins hands down. There's no question that when faced with, say, a sick child, it's better to prescribe antibiotics than to invoke some ceremonial goat innards or to employ a fetish gee-gaw. Even in a country as throttled by religion as our own, the courts have consistently ruled that a parent cannot deny medical care to a sick child and instead substitute attempts at religious cures. That's not why belief resists obsolescence.

The next logical arena in the culture wars is the issue of whether religion or science is better for society. On this front, there's no question which approach has produced more historical (and contemporary) harm. Sure, science has come up with Lysenkoism, eugenics, lobotomies, and the people who methodically tested new uses for Zyklon B. But that doesn't even begin to nudge the scale from its one-sided tilt. And the argument that the likes of Torquemada are aberrations of religiosity is nonsense; they are the only logical consequences of some facets of religiosity. The blood on the hands of religion drips enough to darken the sea.

It might be argued that religious belief remains relevant because of the comfort it can provide. But this one doesn't do much for me. Solace is not benign when reality proves the solace to have been misplaced, nor are beliefs that reduce anxiety when the belief system is so often what generated the anxiety in the first place.

So why is belief still relevant? To this I'd offer a very a-scientific answer. It is for the ecstasy. I'm not talking about glossolalic frothing in the aisles, nor other excesses that most religions neither generate nor value. I mean those instances where you're suffused with gratitude for life and experience and the chance to do good, where every neuron is flooded with the momentness of feeling the breeze on its cellular cheek. A scientist or a consumer of science may feel ecstatic about a finding—that it will cure a disease, save a species, or is just stunningly beautiful—but science, as an explanatory system, is not very good at producing ecstasy. For starters, there are good arguments to be made for why science shouldn't do ecstasy. One reason is that scientific progress so often constitutes minutiae that lurch you two steps back for every three steps forward. It is also because of the content—the gratitude part of ecstasy is particularly hard if you spend your time studying, say, childhood cancer, or the biology of violence, or causes of extinction. By contrast, the potential for ecstasy is deeply intertwined with religiosity, where the mere possibility of belief and faith in the absence of proof is where it can be an ecstatic, moving truth.

This may seem an unfair tilting of the debate against science. After all, you wouldn't write an essay trashing the profession of commodities broker because it doesn't produce ecstasy. But building your life's explanations around science isn't a profession. It is, at its core, an emotional contract, an agreement to only derive comfort from rationality.

Science is the best explanatory system that we have, and religiosity as an alternative has a spectacular potential for harm that permeates and distorts every domain of decision-making and attribution in our world. But just because science can explain so many unknowns doesn't mean that it can explain everything, or that it can vanquish the unknowable. That is why religious belief is not obsolete. The world would not be a better place without ecstasy, but it would be one if there wasn't religion. But don't expect science to fill the hole that would be left behind, or to convince you that there is none.

Other voices include Christopher Hitchens, Stuart Kauffman, Michael Shermer, Mary Midgley, and Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., among others. Definitely worth checking out.

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