Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Free-for-All on Science and Religion

Interesting article in the NYT. Excerpt:

Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that "the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief," or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for "progress in spiritual discoveries" to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book "The God Delusion" is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.

Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister.

She was not entirely kidding. "We should let the success of the religious formula guide us," Dr. Porco said. "Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know."

She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of “anti-Templeton”), the La Jolla meeting, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all. (Unedited video of the proceedings will be posted on the Web at tsntv.org.)


I think I might have to take back my claims that scientists aren't engaged in an atheistic conspiracy:
Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, "The First Three Minutes," that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless," went a step further: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."


There are a lot of criticisms of Dawkins here, too:
[His] take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is "brainwashing" and "child abuse") was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, who said he had "not a flicker" of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.
"There are six billion people in the world," said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. "If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother."

"People need to find meaning and purpose in life," he said. "I don’t think we want to take that away from them."


I've quoted most of it already, just read the rest yourself.

(Via Half Sigma.)

42 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Thanks for that JA. Interesting.

I like Steven Weinberg's stuff so I'm not surprised he's so outspoken on the subject.

jewish philosopher said...

People who do not believe in God are naturally attracted to careers in science since they believe that nature is all there is and therefore they are interested in the intensive study of nature.

However there is no connection between scientists' technological successes and their theological beliefs. Dawkins, for example, is actually an expert on animal behavior - why should I accept his opinions about God any more than I would accept a veterinarian's?

Scientists are correct that belief in God will distract people from science, however who decided that would be a bad thing?

It's pretty clear that atheistic fundimentalists are no more tolerant or rational than any others, and perhaps less so.

Ezzie said...

I think I've said this before, but to some extent, Science is much like other religions. There are plenty of people who are truly out to find "Truth", while there are plenty of nuts/fundamentalists who have an agenda. I've long found it to be hypocritical of some atheists to claim that religious fundamentalists are blinded by their beliefs, and that they are not because "they're only following the science", when everyone has their own biases. It's similar to the problem I have with the idea that "secular" countries wouldn't go to war because they don't have conflicting religious beliefs or whatever.

Jewish Atheist said...

I think I've said this before, but to some extent, Science is much like other religions.

Science is empirical. Religion is not. Scientists anywhere in the world can replicate the double-slit experiment or calculate the speed of light. There's near unanimity on evolution, relativity, quantum theory, gravity, etc. Theologians all over the world disagree about pretty much everything. How many gods there are, how old the universe is, how to get to heaven, whether there's reincarnation, etc.

Science simply works. Religion's simply a bunch of people making wild-ass guesses about the supernatural.

Ezzie said...

That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it. I'm talking about how people utilize it to shape their worldview.

Jewish Atheist said...

I don't see how you can discount it. Putting your trust in something empirically shown to be reliable is a lot different than putting your trust in religion. You referred to science as a religion ("just like other religions") and I was pointing out how it's different.

Half Sigma said...

Science is about looking at the data and then trying to figure otu the truth.

Religion is about figuring out the Truth beforehand, and then searching for data that confirms the Truth while ignoring the data, no matter how numerous, that doesn't.

skcorefil said...

"Science simply works. Religion's simply a bunch of people making wild-ass guesses about the supernatural."

A statement by someone who obviously hasn't spent enough time in a lab. Lab meetings resemble "a bunch of people making wild-ass guesses" quite a bit.

I'm actually finding it frustrating that the science journals articles I read all disagree with each other. Scientists also become invested in their hypotheses and tend to interpret data to support them. Given enough data, they have to change their minds or loose credibility, but there is lots of wiggle room in interpretation.

Jewish Atheist said...

skcorefil:

Sure, on the bleeding edge of science, it's like that, but on the big stuff, pretty much everybody agrees. There's no comparison to the differences between Christianity and Judaism or both of those to Hinduism.

Stephen said...

JA:
I thought you were saying one thing when I read the post: i.e., that scientists were aggressively setting out to destroy religion.

Now I'm reading your comments, and you seem to be saying something else: i.e., that faith is bullshit.

Is this the only song in your hymn book now? Must every post dig the same trench a little deeper? Are we supposed to learn something new from the same old recitation?

Maybe you should write a catechism. You ask the questions, and then you tell us the answers. Like Ms. Porco says, take religion as your model. Maybe you'll make a few bucks at it.

Jewish Atheist said...

I thought you were saying one thing when I read the post: i.e., that scientists were aggressively setting out to destroy religion.

Now I'm reading your comments, and you seem to be saying something else: i.e., that faith is bullshit.


First, I don't see why both can't be true. Second, I'm not saying "scientists" are setting out to destroy religion, but that one particular group of scientists is debating the best way to combat religion -- or even, if they should combat it. Third, I wasn't setting out in this post to talk about how faith is, as you put it, "bullshit." The post was about this interesting meeting of scientists and the conversation took a turn when Ezzie compared atheism to a religion. I was merely responding to him.

beepbeepitsme said...

There is no rule that scientists must be atheist, or agnostic. Many of them are, and many of them might be loosely defined as deists or pantheists, or a number of any other religions.

Some sientists, as part of their religious beliefs believe that as they explore the natural world that they are getting to understand "the mind of god." ( Some jesuit astro- physicists come to mind)

It isn't a problem that some scientists are religious or that some are not.

What is a problem is when religious scientists claim to be able to evidence the existence of god through their study of the natural world.

Institutions like "The Discovery Institute" come to mind - religious think tanks with a poltical agenda.

Science as a process of observing the natural world is "god neutral." That doesn't mean that scientists have to be "god neutral" though many of them might be.

Once science itself adopts a creed (either political, economic or religious), it ceases to be an objective exploration of the natural world and becomes the tool of the political, economic or religious belief system which is imposed upon it.

"Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed." Thomas Henry Huxley

r10b said...

Following beepbeepitsme for the 2nd blog in a row.?!

"People need to find meaning and purpose in life," he said. "I don’t think we want to take that away from them."

This is quite an astonishing (and condescending) comment for Prof. Ayala to make. It sounds as if he thinks science could make discoveries that could take away meaning, and when it does it should keep it hush hush. I must be misunderstanding Prof. Ayala since he recently stated,

"A scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. Science seeks material explanations for material processes, but it has nothing definitive to say about realities beyond its scope. Once science has had its say, there remain questions of value, purpose, and meaning that are forever beyond science's domain, but belong in the realm of philosophical reflection and religious experience."

I tend to agree with him on that point. People of faith and unfaith alike (if they care one way or another) should, to the best of their abilities, judge scientific theories on their scientific merits. Truth (God) has nothing to fear from truth (facts).

Jewish Atheist said...

This is quite an astonishing (and condescending) comment for Prof. Ayala to make. It sounds as if he thinks science could make discoveries that could take away meaning, and when it does it should keep it hush hush. I must be misunderstanding Prof. Ayala since he recently stated,

The Noble Lie is as old as Western thought. The elite have often thought the masses can't handle the truth. Politicians do it all the time. It should be noted that I disagree with Ayala.

r10b said...

Noted.

r10b said...

Re: The Noble Lie...

With people like Weinberg, Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Dennett, etc. among the "elites" I doubt the Noble Lie scenario is likely. The standard may fall to you!

Jewish Atheist said...

I don't get it.

asher said...

Yes,

"The universe is pointless" and they haven't got an agenda.

Think

CyberKitten said...

Of course a major difference between science & religion is that scientists at least *try* to validate any 'wild-assed' ideas they come up with.

Is it even theoretically possible to validate any religions ideas?

Ezzie said...

JA - I think you're still misunderstanding what I'm saying (and I thought that this was what the post's point was - sorry if I took it off-track).

My point was that we see how there are people who use science the same way people use religion - to pursue agendas. Weinberg's (Jewish?) statement proves that point, much as you noted in the post. I think that fundamentalism exists as strongly among atheists as it does among religious people.

Essentially, the problem is not that science uses science for science. It's when it uses it for theology.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

My point was that we see how there are people who use science the same way people use religion - to pursue agendas.

Ok. I still think the analogy is weak, though. Atheism is more akin to theism than to religion. Religion makes all sorts of absurdly detailed claims while both atheism and generic theism are simply (correct or incorrect) positions about a factual question.

Jewish Atheist said...

And I'm not sure what you mean about "using science to pursue agendas." Science seems to me a fundamentally different thing than religion. Science has no moral imperatives and I don't see anyone claiming it does.

R10B said...

I don't get it.

I pulled a John Kerry.

What I meant:

If the elite perpetrate the Noble Lie, then the mission of getting out the truth (bearing the standard) could fall to you.

Science seems to me a fundamentally different thing than religion.

I think the word "science" is sometimes used to mean "the scientific establishment" (or at least some part of it) which, being composed of people, does have a moral POV.

Are science and religion fundamentally different in that science can reveal truth and religion cannot?

Jewish Atheist said...

If the elite perpetrate the Noble Lie, then the mission of getting out the truth (bearing the standard) could fall to you.

I'm not too good at spin, so I probably would stick to "the truth" regardless of what the "elites" think. :-) I didn't become an atheist because I disliked Orthodox Judaism, but because I came to believe atheism is true.

I think the word "science" is sometimes used to mean "the scientific establishment" (or at least some part of it) which, being composed of people, does have a moral POV.

That's a fair point.

Are science and religion fundamentally different in that science can reveal truth and religion cannot?

I think the fundamental difference is that one can test whether science has found truth, whereas one must accept religion's claims on faith. There are of course exceptions on both sides, as in string theory which seems as of yet mostly unfalsifiable and some testable religious claims (which, like the age of the earth, etc., have generally been more false than true.) It's noteworthy that there are many who dismiss string theory as science because it fails to meet the criterion of falsifiability. Religion, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, retreating from falsifiability on all fronts. (Except for fundamentalism, which shuts its eyes and simply denies falsification.)

Ezzie said...

JA - I think r10b put a bit of what I wanted to say (such as science = scientific establishment) better than I did. It's one of those days, I guess... :P

This is why I can never run for public office. Everything comes out tongue-tied. (Of course, maybe that's why I *could* run... Oy.)

Jewish Atheist said...

This is why I can never run for public office. Everything comes out tongue-tied

Hey, as long as you're not an atheist. ;-)

CyberKitten said...

r10b asked: Are science and religion fundamentally different in that science can reveal truth and religion cannot?

That depends on what you mean by 'truth' - but if you mean things that are actually *real* then the answer to your question is...

Yes.

r10b said...

JA:

Religion, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, retreating from falsifiability on all fronts.

A disturbing trend, to be sure. But not everyone* who bucks that trend is a fundy.

*Contrary to the first reviewer, this author is not an ID(tm) proponent and does not believe it should be taught in schools.


cyberkitten:

What is real? Are things unreal till science explains them?

If so then you have faith in unreal things since on several occassions you have told me that certain aspects of Darwinism (for instance) are currently unexplained (presently contra-factual) yet you trust they will be explained sometime in the future.

Give me your definition of real.

Anonymous said...

"However there is no connection between scientists' technological successes and their theological beliefs. Dawkins, for example, is actually an expert on animal behavior - why should I accept his opinions about God any more than I would accept a veterinarian's?"

Yes, and Rav Elyashiv is an expert on Talmudic Law. Not much reason to think he knows anything about God either.

CyberKitten said...

r10b asked: What is real?

"If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain". [grin]. Sorry couldn't resist that one!

Real is whatever has at least a modicum of *evidence* to support its existence. So... no unicorns, no dragons, no ghosts & no God.

r10b also asked: Are things unreal till science explains them?

No. Things are unknown not 'unreal' (whatever you mean by that). Science can make something 'unreal' by explaining it away but it doesn't make things real by explaining them. Science may find evidence & proof that something exists - but it was (obviously) real before the proof - otherwise you would be proposing that the evidence for somethings existence actually *causes* that thing to exist.

Expecting Science to find out more about the Universe & that the Universe is constructed in a way that allows it to be understood is a faith position. I have no problem with that.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE anonymous


I agree that being an "expert" in one field does not mean they are an expert in another.

Frankly I think the world is full of so called "god experts" who claim that they KNOW about god.

I am presently satisfied that they only believe that they know about god.

So, "god knowledge" as far as I am concerned is not knowledge. It requires that you believe it to be true.

Why would an atheist believe some of the patently ridiculous claims of religion?

FlyingAxe said...

Jewish atheist, If you, as you claim, became atheist because you "believed" in atheism or found it to be true, then expect in future to become a theist. Because atheism cannot be "true" as it is not a positive statement. Unless you believe we have evidence that G-d does not exist (positive atheism). Well, I can assure you (and don't believe me, figure it out by yourself) that all the "evidence" of Dawkins and Douglas Adams and their friends is bogus. It can be applied maybe to Christianity, but for sure not to Judaism. I was a nothing (kinda maybe believing but mayb not) until 7 years ago, when I started reading Dawkins and became a hard-core (although not fanatical) positive atheist. Then, three years ago I actually started studying a little Judaism and talking with people who knew about it, and realized that all of Dawkins's arguments are BS.

It is different, of course, if you're an atheist because you do not find a positive reason to believe in existence of G-d. But your statement in which you say that "pure" theists are smarter than religious people makes me think the opposite. The statement is absolute nonsense, by the way, because the reasons that "pure" theists (such as deists) believe in G-d are more often than not ridiculous. We can know about G-d only from a religion, and we do as a matter of solid real fact know about the idea of G-d (capital "G") from a particular religion. Sort of the same was we have a phonetic alphabet as a result of a single invention.

David Linn said...

It seems like Dawkins gets thrown in to every debate along these lines as if to say that some one as smart as Dawkins can't be wrong. I think there is a certain level of intellectual dishonesty there that robs many in the debate of their own critical thinking. Furthermore, and correct me if I am worng JA, Dawkins sounds more like an agnostic than an atheist. This quote from Tume magazine's interview with Dawkins and Francis Collins particularly supports that monniker:

DAWKINS: To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God--it's that that seems to me to close off the discussion.

TIME: Could the answer be God?

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That's God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small--at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case.

Jewish Atheist said...

Flying Axe:

Then, three years ago I actually started studying a little Judaism and talking with people who knew about it, and realized that all of Dawkins's arguments are BS.

I was born into -- and educated in -- Modern Orthodox Judaism. It's not as if their arguments are new to me. I'm an atheist because the universe makes more sense to me in the absence of a God. As an empiricist, I'm always open to new data, and if I should have a convincing revelation or come across compelling evidence of God's existence, I'm prepared to change my mind.


David Linn:

It seems like Dawkins gets thrown in to every debate along these lines as if to say that some one as smart as Dawkins can't be wrong.

Just recently, I wrote a post entitled, "Richard Dawkins has lost my respect." I surely am not blind to the man's human frailties.

correct me if I am worng JA, Dawkins sounds more like an agnostic than an atheist.

He's probably the most famous -- and most vocal -- living atheist in the world. He was probably trying to make a point in that exchange.

David Linn said...

I know that he is a vocal and most famous living person that wears that monniker but a great deal of his writing and speaking certainly leaves a lot of room for G-d.

I just read your earlier post and tend to agree with the fact that Dawkins extremity and shoot from the hip style will turn off even those with whom he thinks alike.

My question re atheism vs. agnosticism is that I always understood that an atheist believes there is no G-d whil an agnostic has not made up his mind in that regard. Seems to me that you too may fall more comfortably under the rubic of agnosticism. Should you change the name of the blog ;)

Jewish Atheist said...

DL:

I and Dawkins believe there is no God. Being open to the possibility that we are wrong is not identical to being unsure, except in the way one must always be unsure of everything, just as one doesn't have to be entirely without doubt to be a theist. The standard for "atheism" that you seem to be advocating would exclude virtually everybody on the planet, as would such a standard for "theism."

David Linn said...

My misinterpretation could just be the product of a public school education :) What then is a good working definitional difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

Jewish Atheist said...

I'd say an agnostic is one who either believes it's impossible to know if there's a God or does not feel convinced one way or the other. An atheist is convinced there isn't, and a theist is convinced there is. Neither must refuse to examine new evidence or arguments or give up their ability to change their mind.

So I'm an atheist because I'm convinced there is no God. If God appears to me tomorrow and I'm confident I'm not hallucinating or being tricked, I'll change my mind and become a theist.

David Linn said...

"So I'm an atheist because I'm convinced there is no God. If God appears to me tomorrow and I'm confident I'm not hallucinating or being tricked, I'll change my mind and become a theist."

Do you mean to say that, for you, personal revelation is the only way you would "convert to theism"?

"An atheist is convinced there isn't, and a theist is convinced there is."

Would you agree that both positions require a level of "faith"?

"Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, "The First Three Minutes," that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless..."

I always found it hard to fathom how pointlessness could be proven by science. It seems unreasonable, even by scientific standards.

Jewish Atheist said...

Do you mean to say that, for you, personal revelation is the only way you would "convert to theism"?

No, that was just an example.

Would you agree that both positions require a level of "faith"?

No, but that's just a word-game anyway.

I always found it hard to fathom how pointlessness could be proven by science. It seems unreasonable, even by scientific standards.

He said the more it *seems* pointless, not the more it's proven pointless. I assume he means the evidence suggests that we aren't the goal of the universe, that in fact, there doesn't appear to be a goal.

David Linn said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Jewish Atheist said...

no prob. :-)