Mike the Mad Biologist

In fact, I happen to be one of them. Admittedly, my religion (Judaism) and theological beliefs are very different from theopolitically conservative Catholics and Protestants. But ScienceBlogling Chad Orzel makes a really good point about religious scientists (and I thought all he did is teach physics to dogs):

…it is not in any way an “unconscionable” political statement for professional scientific organizations to state that science and religion are compatible. It’s a statement of fact, an acknowledgment that in the real world, there are numerous examples of people who are both personally religious and successful, even prominent scientists…

How do these people deal with the philosophical contradiction inherent in there beliefs? I have no idea. I don’t really care, either, any more than I care how philosophers resolve Zeno’s paradox. Religious scientists exist, and I can move from one side of the room to the other in finite time….

There is nothing unconscionable, in my view, in professional organizations stating publicly that these people exist. What would be unconscionable is the reverse– a public statement that science and religion can never be compatible amounts to a denial of the existence of the many men and women who find some way to reconcile science and religion in their own lives. I find that sort of rhetoric deeply insulting even on blogs, let alone from a professional organization.

While I’m not as insulted by the rhetoric as Chad is (trust me, anti-Semites are far worse than the occasional obnoxious atheist), what has always struck me is the unwillingness of some atheists to honestly attempt to understand how religious scientists hold the views they do (along with the recognition that ‘religious’ is not the adjective of Religion–there are many different religions). I don’t mean this in any conversionary way (we Jews aren’t an evangelical religion), but, if nothing else, understanding why someone might be religious and a scientist would help refine atheists’ arguments.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul W.
    January 8, 2010

    Mike,

    I think a lot of atheists are willing to try to understand how people can be scientists and be religious, too.

    A big problem is the Courtier’s Response. People often criticize outspoken atheists for being naive about theology, and then fail to explain what they’re naive about.

    My own impression, from reading theology here and there, is that the Courtier’s Response is extremely common because theology is a mess—if anybody speaks up and actually says what they consider good theology, most other theists will not agree.

    Another (huge) problem is that the people who dis Dawkins et al generally don’t address the basic science most relevant to most religion, e.g., cognitive science and neuroscience. It’s pretty evident now that the mind does not work the way people assumed it did for thousands of years—there is no dualistic soul, or if by chance there is, it’s not much like most orthodoxy assumes it to be.

    I recently read Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God and was apalled. It’s basically an extended non-argument for apophatic theology, dissing other views but never justifying her own, and not addressing the scientific doubts about it.

    If you want to explain why you are religious and a scientist, go for it. Some of us at least are all ears.

    (BTW, have you read Dennett’s Breaking the Spell? I think it does a better job than The God Delusion of addressing the issues I’m talking about. For me, the nail in the coffin of most kinds of religion is not evolution per se, but the science of the mind—it appears that religion can be explained perfectly well naturalistically, which undermines the supernaturalism that underlies not just orthodox religion, but almost all heterodox religion as well.)

  2. #2 BaldApe
    January 8, 2010

    As I have said elsewhere, two sides in the accommodationist debate are talking past each other.

    One side says that you can’t have a worldview based entirely on physical evidence and still believe in the supernatural. That is a philosophical statement with which I agree, and many others don’t. The way they resolve that conflict for themselves is their own business.

    The other side is trying to promote science literacy, and doesn’t want to alienate believers who might otherwise be reasonable about accepting scientific evidence.

    It’s like the dilemma I face as a science teacher. Sometimes, when I talking about the formation of the Earth, some kid says “What about Adam and Eve?”

    The thing is, some of those kids have been told by their pastors that if they believe their science teacher, they are going to Hell. I have to be respectful of beliefs that I frankly find kind of silly. But it’s not my job to bring them to some kind of philosophical consistency, I’m supposed to teach them some science.

  3. #3 Eric
    January 8, 2010

    Saying “There are scientists who are religious” is not a response to “Religion and science are not compatible.” The fact that a person is capable of holding two distinct beliefs is not evidence that the beliefs are compatible.

  4. #4 mk
    January 8, 2010

    …it is not in any way an “unconscionable” political statement for professional scientific organizations to state that science and religion are compatible.

    It may or may not be “unconscionable” but it is unnecessary.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 8, 2010

    You and Chad are conflating the logical incompatibility of science and religion as world views–which seems to be pretty clear cut–with the ability of some individuals to simultaneously hold logically incompatible world views in their minds–which is quite common.

    I have no problem with either of these uncontroversial facts about reality. The problem, of course, is when personal or social accommodation turns into logical accommodation, which is absolutely unconscionbale, being based as it is upon a flat-out lie.

  6. #6 oyunlar
    January 8, 2010

    Hi idrees, i had this problem after I installed it on my Mac. So i thought it would never work. Now, a few days later it works all of a sudden

  7. #7 Frank Cornish
    January 8, 2010

    Chad aside, the issue is often that those who say that people can be religious and scientists at the same time are telling the atheists that they should shut up and let them do all the talking. I agree with Paul W, and will discuss the issue anyone who is both religious and a scientist, but it really is a disservice to use the fact that there are religious scientists as a selling point to people who have problems with evolution and cosmology. It’s a wink and a nod, and it is not being honest to the people like yourself who are religious.

    As to the courtier’s reply, the problem is that some sectors of the religious camp simply dismiss flat-out anything that Dawkins and Stenger write because Dawkins is a biologist and Stenger is a physicist they have no business digging into the question at all, and they are going to necessarily get everything wrong because they don’t have advanced doctorates in theology.

  8. #8 Min
    January 8, 2010

    Creationism aside, I think that a major clash between science and religion results from confusion of terms. For instance, does prana exist? It is usually translated as energy, and I have heard physicists argue against it because it is plainly not the same as physical energy. OTOH, the same physicists cannot heat up their hands by sending prana to them. ;)

  9. #9 Tex
    January 8, 2010

    if nothing else, understanding why someone might be religious and a scientist would help refine atheists’ arguments.

    I began life as a nominally religious person, and so did most of the other non-believing scientists I know (at least those who grew up in the US). I believe that we already have a pretty good idea why people, including some scientists, are religious. Additionally, some religious scientists do state their reasons publically, such as seeing a waterfall with three cascading parts.

    None of the ideas I grew up with as a mainstream protestant hold up to even mild scrutiny, and so far none of the explanations from religious scientists do either. However, I agree with Paul W. that if you or another scientist wants to expound your reasons here, we will be glad to listen.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 8, 2010

    I was about to say what CPP just said.

    Which is kind of embarrassing.

  11. #11 Katharine
    January 8, 2010

    Here’s why you’re getting criticized:

    Many people are religious but otherwise scientific. This behavior, however common it may be in the scientific community to a certain percentage of scientists, still does not hold up under logical observation and the application of scientific standards to your theology. The likelihood of your beliefs, or any other religious scientist’s beliefs, being true is about the same as the likelihood of a teapot on the other side of the sun from Earth.

    No, religion and science are NOT compatible, really. What we’re pointing out is the incredible inconsistency in the beliefs you hold.

  12. #12 CDRealist
    January 8, 2010

    I think religiosity (strengh of religious feeling, rather than which religion) is biologically based. I’m an atheist, but my atheism is probably as genetic as someone else’s belief in god. So while I feel strongly that religious people are completely wrong, I know that it is probably impossible for me to feel otherwise, so I can’t feel superior to a believer. I just thank god that I was born an atheist.

  13. #13 Sven DiMilo
    January 8, 2010

    Yes, There Are Religious Scientists, and They Aren’t the Enemy

    *rolls eyes*
    Depends on the battle, doesn’t it?

    Criticism of the NCSE is not that they should be pushing atheism, it is that, as an organization dedicated to science education, they should not be taking any position on the philo-/theological question of whether science and religion are “compatible,” however you wish to stubbornly insist on defining that last term.

  14. #14 tbell
    January 8, 2010

    Dear Mike,
    I respectfully challenge you to give us the reasons you personally believe religion (or better, your religion) is true. Do you have any evidence, or specific experience, or arguments to prefer religion (or your specific religion) over non-belief?
    This might take the form of a) observational data, b) personal revelation, subjective experience, c) logical arguments, d) something else I haven’t thought of.
    Please note, the challenge is about the truth status of the religious belief, not about the utility, so arguments about how religion provides meaning, or is comforting, or otherwise admittedly useful are not my point. Also, I’m not interested here in why you (or anyone in particular) attends temple, or is part of a religio-social group. I think we all understand why people have those affiliations.

    I hope I”m not poisoning the discussion in advance by stating that I suspect it is unlikely that any of the arguments you provide will be amenable to scientific investigation. I certainly am not insisting that they do. However, this is the key point of the claim that science and religion are not compatible in the philosophical sense. Nevertheless, I would dearly love to see you, or any religious scientist honestly and directly rise to the above challenge. Even if it comes down to the bold statement “I have no reasons to believe, I just believe”. If fact, if you were willing to cop to that, my respect for you would not diminish one whit. If anything, I’d think you had balls. (And actually, I already have respect for you as an honest and committed thinker).

  15. #15 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 8, 2010

    I was about to say what CPP just said.

    Which is kind of embarrassing.

    I’m sure I said it much better than you would have, so it’s a win/win.

  16. #16 Josh
    January 8, 2010

    Pointing out that there are scientists who are religious is like pointing out that there are doctors who smoke. Understanding atheists’ arguments might refine your beliefs. It would certainly lead to a drop in strawman homicide rates.

  17. #17 Russell
    January 8, 2010

    “Religion” encompasses a variety of practices, not always entailing positive claims about the nature of the world. Since Mike hasn’t said, I have no idea whether his Judaism entails some belief in a creator god, or is more philosophic in nature.

    But given any god or demon or spirit or alien or cryptic creature that some religion or following asserts, one can either think about and investigate that claim in a rational and critical fashion based on data and evidence, or approach it in some other fashion. And that is where the conflict arises. Yes, the research scientist can spend Monday arguing against Deepak Chopra’s latest article, and Tuesday praying to Jesus, despite that fact that his beliefs in Jesus, heaven, hell, and salvation are every bit as baseless as Chopra’s woo. And then on Wednesday, the same scientist can move to explain why praying for an ill patient’s recovery isn’t irrational in exactly the same fashion as applying some quack treatment. It often boils down to the latent notion that religious-based assertions are supposed to be exempt from the kind of investigation that gets applied to medical treatments. Or at least, that scientists apply to medical treatments.

    From there, it goes to gnat straining pretty quickly. ;-)

  18. #18 MattXIV
    January 8, 2010

    My own impression, from reading theology here and there, is that the Courtier’s Response is extremely common because theology is a mess—if anybody speaks up and actually says what they consider good theology, most other theists will not agree.

    This is hardly unexpected since the range of potential theisms is essentially unlimited. The fact of the matter is that different bases for theism have different counter arguments, since they have different logical flaws (from the atheist point of view of course). A believer in the primacy of revealed knowledge, such as a Biblical literalist, is a theist for entirely different reasons that a deist whose conception of causality demands a First Cause – the latter’s theology doesn’t even involve the notion of faith while the former’s revolves around it. If you’re going to want to pick out the flaws in arguments for theism, there’s quite a variety of them to learn to address. The Coutier’s Reply is frequently deployed as a strawman to avoid addressing the full diversity of arguments and instead focus on those associated with contemporary orthodox Christianity. Thus, we see the argument that faith is incompatible with science, which is quite true, being incorrectly being treated as a general anti-theism argument when it is rather specific to Christian theology. To determine say whether god exists, one first must answer the question, “What is god?”, but every set of theistic beliefs has a different answer to that question. It is impossible to formulate a general argument for atheism (what common attributes can one attribute to members of an empty set?), but rather only specific arguments against particular theisisms.

  19. #19 Laura
    January 8, 2010

    Thank you, Greg!
    This is the most encouraging article I’ve read on Scienceblogs.
    I’m Catholic. We essentially accept and appreciate scientific explanations of the physical world. In fact, areas such as evolution and astronomy actually reveal which books in the Bible were not meant to interpreted literally. The issue of miracles may seem unscientific since it infers a god of the gaps.
    I can’t offer testable evidence in the manner required to establish a scientific fact. But OTOH, each advancement mankind achieves slowly reveals the underlying complexity. It’s fascinating to continually discover a glimpse into how and why the physical world is the way it is.Wouldn’t be reasonable for God to make something that could create itself? My human mind struggles to comprehend the vastness and acceleration of the universe. In studying evolution, I realize how life forms develop over such a long period of time, it’s nearly impossible to imagine.
    When we send the message that science is not just incompatible with religion, it will disprove it, people close their minds to it out of fear. Because the majority of human beings believe in God (or some version of supreme being), many feel they are being presented with a choice between faith and a good science education. This impression is false. It has resulted in bizarre scenarios, where school boards have tried to mandate “teaching the controversy.” There is NO controversy when science is taught in science class and religion in Sunday school or religion class.
    I’ll probably regret commenting, but I want to express my support.Thanks for posting this!

  20. #20 Russell
    January 8, 2010

    The problem, Laura, is that your bifurcation of the world between what should be approached with reason and what should be excepted from that works as well for someone pushing quack medicine as it does for someone defending the Catholic faith. “We accept science for medicine that works on the physical level, but qi works differently.”

    The term “physical,” in both cases, is just a convenient word to cover over the special pleading. Science doesn’t start by excluding some portion of the world and setting it off limits. To the extent that your god isn’t studied in a way that might be called scientific, it’s some combination of a) people refusing to do so, and b) your god hiding himself from those who would do so. That’s very convenient for your theologists, but still leaves no room for the rational person to believe.

  21. #21 Russell
    January 8, 2010

    Let me sharpen that last comment. Instead of writing “leaves no room for the rational person to believe,” I should have written, “leaves no room to believe rationally.” This isn’t about dividing people into those who are rational and those who aren’t. We’re all some of each, some days more than others, and on some subjects more than others. It’s about how people go to shield their favored beliefs from the examination to which they would be put were it being treated honestly and critically.

  22. #22 Pierce R. Butler
    January 8, 2010

    … the unwillingness of some atheists to honestly attempt to understand how religious scientists hold the views they do …

    Very few religious scientists have offered explicit explanations for any atheists “to honestly attempt to understand” – and none of those explanations I’ve read (not many, to be sure) have held together logically or evidentially.

    Whatcha got?

  23. #23 Adrian Morgan
    January 8, 2010

    As has been pointed out many times, the relevant claim is that religion and science are incompatible when examined in sufficient detail. This claim is not in the least bit challenged by the existence of religious scientists, but rather asserts that religious scientists have not sufficiently examined the implications of their worldview.

    I would put myself on the accomodationist side, for the simple reason that accomodationists seem to be the side telling people to think for themselves, and I like that. Accomodationists tell people to examine science and religion for themselves and to reach their own conclusions about whether/how they can be reconciled. Pointing out that many scientists are religious gives people a place to start when exploring that question, and serves as an antidote to prejudices that people might have picked up from other sources.

    The other side of the accomodationism debate seems more interested in giving people a definite answer rather than encouraging people to examine the question, and that I don’t like so much.

  24. #24 Paul W.
    January 8, 2010

    Adrian, I understand your point, I think, but it only goes so far.

    If we’re talking about antidotes to prejudices, I think it works just as well the other way.

    I know that when I came to doubt religion, I doubted my own judgment because I thought that if science and religion were incompatible—as they seemed to me—surely that would be well-known and frequently discussed. But from where I stood (as a kid reading science textbooks and going to Catholic sunday school) it wasn’t. It appeared to me, given my limited sources of information, that science and religion must must be compatible, or surely someone would have pointed out that they weren’t, or at least acknowledged that the issue was very controversial.

    But of course, the sources I had in hand didn’t say anything of the sort. Which is one of the ways that religion entrenches defends itself—it makes the voicing of dissenting opinions seem rude. It makes the downplaying of conflicts a rule of polite behavior. And it makes people doubt their own judgment when they see conflicts that other, more knowledgeable people seem not to, because the conflicts are so thoroughly and systematically dowplayed.

    It was a revelation to me that many very smart and very knowledgeable people saw things the way I did—they didn’t see how to reconcile science and religion, either, and they had clearer arguments that it wasn’t even possible.

    Once I realized that, I went ahead and acknowledged to myself that I couldn’t believe in religion. I was an atheist, and it wasn’t just a crazy kid going against adult judgment—it was a smarter-than-average kid seeing what many top scientists and philosophers also see as a fundamental conflict.

    Cool. What a relief. I’d kinda thought I was crazy.

    I think it’s bad enough that we downplay the significance of evolution and neuroscience—the fairly clear and very interesting scientific fact that the mind isn’t the kind of thing that religion generally says it is.

    It’s adding insult to injury to go beyond such convenient lying by omission to actively say that “science and religion are compatible,” as though that statement were true, or even could be true in any simple or obvious sense.

    I don’t want other people stuck in the position that I was in. If they have doubts about religion, they should know that that’s entirely respectable position, and quite common among people who know a lot of science and philosophy. Religion shouldn’t get affirmative action by suppressing dissent, and grossly overstating the empirical evidence for “compatibility.”

  25. #25 qbsmd
    January 8, 2010

    what has always struck me is the unwillingness of some atheists to honestly attempt to understand how religious scientists hold the views they do

    I was going to point out that you neglected to link to the post where you explained your views. I see that I’m only echoing the sentiment of others.
    I am always interested in seeing how religious scientists hold their views; I believe that in order to be non-dogmatic, I have to challenge my own beliefs, and not just read things I agree with. If anyone in the world will change my views about religion, it will be a religious scientist.
    It is rare to hear such an explanation; as mentioned, Francis Collins makes a very weak case. Ken Miller also wrote a post on the issue, which iirc was basically that science hadn’t falsified his beliefs yet because of quantum indeterminacy. When challenged, he backed down, saying that those weren’t necessarily his beliefs, only possible beliefs.

  26. #26 Nemo
    January 9, 2010

    A believer in the primacy of revealed knowledge, such as a Biblical literalist, is a theist for entirely different reasons that a deist whose conception of causality demands a First Cause – the latter’s theology doesn’t even involve the notion of faith while the former’s revolves around it.

    A doctrine of divine revelation is what makes religion, religion. Deism isn’t religion at all, but philosophy — albeit a philosophy inspired by religion, that would never have existed without religion.

    No one actually believes in God for philosophical reasons. They only turn to philosophy when their faith fails them.

  27. #27 llewelly
    January 9, 2010

    For those of us(0) who were raised believing in conservative religions, the recognition that science and religion are philosophically incompatible(1) has huge advantages. It enables a transformation of our ethics, our self-image, and our treatment of other people – not just how we understand the universe around us. Some religions are much more harmful than other. It’s easy to say, “everyone knows that”, but what is often left unsaid is the implication: for those of us who come from a harmful religious background, there is great benefit to anything that enables us to reject that harmful religion. This incompatibility is one of those things. It seems to me that many of you who practice liberal religions lack the background to understand how recognition of the incompatibility of science and religion can be enlightening and enabling.

    For people who come from liberal religions (ironically this includes Dawkins), I doubt the same recognition has any benefit beyond a modest bit of philosophical tidiness; most liberal religions have few of the self-destructive and harmful practices of the conservative religions. Arguably, recognition of the incompatibility comes with a significant disadvantage; it makes one less compatible with the religious community one is a member of. For me this helps explain why so many liberal religious people prefer not to examine this incompatibility.

    (0) Forgive my elision of qualifiers. I have encountered many people online who say they were raised in conservative religions, and were moved to atheism by the words of Dawkins, Dennet, or Hitchens – the very people who maintain science and religions are philosophically incompatible. My representation of those of us who were raised in conservative religions is based on my own experience and on what I have read online. Some people people who were raised in conservative religions and then moved to either liberal religions or atheism will differ.

    (1) Of course, philosophically incompatible does not imply functionally incompatible. It is not the normal habit of anyone’s brain to obsessively examine every one of its conclusions and test them for compatibility with all of the brain’s other conclusions; testing large numbers of conclusions for compatibility is quite difficult, and testing all possible combinations is beyond the computing power of anyone’s brain, as the number of (pairwise) combinations grows as the square of the number of conclusions.

  28. #28 Grant
    January 9, 2010

    testing large numbers of conclusions for compatibility is quite difficult, and testing all possible combinations is beyond the computing power of anyone’s brain

    Leaving aside your main argument, you might not want to put this forward again!: this is essentially what your brain does all the time in pattern recognition, etc. You “calculation” ignores parallel processing and clever “indexing” schemes (think: associative memories) that enable patterns to be mapped onto other patterns much less than exponential time ;-)

  29. #29 Russell
    January 9, 2010

    Grant, let us know when you come up with a proof that set theory is consistent. Even if you ignore quantification and generalization — though why would you, given natural language? — simple boolean satisfiability (3SAT) is NP complete.

    The incompatibility between science and religion is only superficially and occasionally one of conclusions. Yeah, some fundamentalist Christians want the earth to be 6,000 years old, while every science from geology to archaeology says it is much older than that. The more general incompatibility is methodological. Even the “sophisticated” Christian who accepts evolution and other conclusions of science still believes on faith and rationalizes around that.

  30. #30 Human Ape
    January 10, 2010

    Religious scientists are a disgrace to their profession. In a world of out-of-control religious insanity, we don’t need scientists who believe in magic god fairies.

  31. #31 Russell
    January 10, 2010

    Keep in mind that “religious” is a very broad term, and there are some who practice a religion without belief in gods, angels, sprites, demons, or any other kind of mythical creature.

  32. #32 Katharine
    January 10, 2010

    Laura, you still ignore the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of your deity.

    You conveniently ignore scientific, rational thought when it comes to explaining whether your deity exists.

    Inconsistency is not compatible with scientific thought.

    This is part of what we who think science and religion are incompatible are talking about.

  33. #33 Russell
    January 11, 2010

    Katherine:

    Inconsistency is not compatible with scientific thought.

    Sure they are. People are full of inconsistencies. Even science has a few. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to resolve inconsistencies. QM and general relativity are not fully consistent, but that doesn’t make it easy to figure out the right resolution between them. There is even research that looks at how to work with inconsistent knowledge in AI systems, because these may need to work with inconsistencies in smart ways.

    It’s irrational, of course, to refuse to think rationally about a subject and ignoring the lack of evidence for what one wants to believe. And that’s so, even if no inconsistencies result from that belief. A “sophisticated” Catholic can avoid the conflicts with science that fundamentalist belief brings. But it is no more reasonable. As Katherine points out, what the Christian needs to be reasonable isn’t merely rejecting what conflicts with science, but looking at their core religious beliefs the way they would look at other questions. The problem is faith.

  34. #34 Shirakawasuna
    January 11, 2010

    The most common complaint I see about organizations claiming religion-science compatibility is that it’s extremely superficial and misleading. I’m going to have to assume that Chad Orzel is very new to this discussion, as the ‘other side’ always agrees that there are religious scientists and points out how this doesn’t address the real question: to what extent can you be consistent, religious, and scientific? I would say that some people pull it off through compartmentalization, but then that leaves issues for what it means to be consistent. Many people put religion in one part of their lives or ‘ways of knowing’ and science in another, but how justified are these separations and do they truly not overlap? At some point, unless you have the vaguest, least-impacting religion imaginable, you must at least notice that you have both a religious opinion of your beliefs (X theological character exists) and one based on the rigors of science (X theological character has no more empirical evidence in their favor than the Chupacabra).

  35. #35 Paul W.
    January 11, 2010

    The conflict between science and religion is not just a problem with fundamentalism and literalism—it’s with absolutely mainstream orthodoxy, e.g, supposedly “moderate” Catholicism and “moderate” Protestantism, and even the little bits of orthodoxy left in almost all heterodox religion that almost anybody believes in.

    Almost all religion, both Eastern and Western, presupposes something supernatural—which is contradicted by modern science. This includes most religions whose apologists claim they have no supernatural commitments.

    In particular pretty much any religion any presupposes something like a substance dualist soul or some transcendent source of wisdom that is scientificaly very implausible.

    Substance dualism is pretty well dead among cognitive and brain scientists and philosophers of mind. It just makes no sense anymore.

    Transcendent wisdom—e.g., mystical states where you intuit the ultimate oneness of everything—is equally implausible. Everything may well “be one” in some deep sense below the level of fundamental physics, but that’s pretty clearly something you can’t find out by mystical intuition.

    Essentially all religion presupposes a kind of magical mind that can directly experience or intuit something like the Presence of the Divine or the identity of Brahman (stuff stuff) and Atman (mind stuff).

    But a computer can’t do that. It can’t introspect below it’s high level functional organization, down to the cellular level, below that to chemistry and physics, and below that to the mysterious stuff that connects minds and matter. That stuff is not available to introspection, and there’s no reason to think we have any ability to actually perceive it by any ESP-like supersense.

    (How could that work, given our basic nature as evolved meat machines? How could it evolve, without a suitable fitness landscape to sort out accurate perception from hallucination?)

    The big conflict between science and religion is not about evolution. It’s about the nature of minds and morality—the central topics of religion, which science shows religion has gotten systematically wrong all along.

    That is why any kind of orthodox religion is generally profoundly anti-scientific, and most heterodox religion is too.

    Without either revealed truth or transcendent intuition, it’s not clear that what’s left is rightly called religion.

    For example, a few people manage to practice certain austere forms of Buddhism in such a way that they don’t accept any transcendental nonsense—they realize that meditation is all in their heads, and can’t transcend the physical limitations of brains to yield deep knowledge of anything outside (or underlying) their heads.

    But that doesn’t seem to me like religion. It’s a fine thing, but it’s more a self-help and mind control discipline than religion.

    At the social level, religion has always been about special access to knowledge or wisdom—either in the form of outright divine revelation through prophets, etc., or in the form of transcendent experience yielding true knowledge, however ineffable. That has always been intertwined with social and power relations—e.g., supposedly prophetic or spiritually adept telling people how the world is and what to do about it.

    Anthropologically, anything that doesn’t serve that kind of function is not clearly religion; it lacks the authority to serve that kind of social role.

    Things like Reconstructionist Judaism are interesting.

    My understanding is that most such theologically ultra-liberal “religion” does generally have a mystical core that is implausible in light of modern science. It may not be dogmatic about it—any particular adherent may not believe any particular thing, and just be there to be part of a community, etc.

    Still, I think that part of what makes such things work is generally that many of the people involved do believe that there is some scientifically implausible transcendent spiritual thing at work, somehow or other.

    For example, I know of one Unitarian group that is mostly atheist materialists, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that those people are not very attached to the idea that what they’re doing is actually religious. They’re okay with the idea that it’s a group of people that gets together to talk about philosophy, do good works, and be pleasantly social.

    I’m curious whether the same thing happens in reconstructionist Judaism.

    Maybe not, because Judaism has always been less about specific belief than the Christian tradition that
    Unitarianism came out of, but I wonder. It seems to me that Judaism has always been about belief to a greater extent than a lot of people admit—e.g., the implicit belief that the scriptures are a good starting point for midrash, with some divine inspiration in there somewhere, somehow, or just the idea that there’s some transcendent spiritual thing going on when people get together and do their Talmudic reasoning.

  36. #36 Russell
    January 11, 2010

    I’m going to disagree with Paul. It’s pretty easy to make the supernatural compatible with science. One merely insists that the gods, for reasons of their own, keep themselves hidden from all objective tests. VoilĂ ! No conflict. Note that this tactic is well practiced in the Christian tradition. “God will not be tested.”

    The more fundamental conflict comes in ardently believing what one has merely presupposed, and the concomitant rationalizations around that. Such as the tactic just discussed. That is not rational. We would laugh that out of the physics seminar. It ought to be laughed out of the theology seminar. And the question is: what is left of most religion, once that is done? The answer for many religion, including Christianity and Islam, is “nothing.”

    The answer is less obvious for Judaism, because there Jews who both consider themselves Jewish, while holding no metaphysical beliefs. I shouldn’t pretend to speak for them, but to the extent that I understand, their religion is more a matter of living in a historical and inherited culture, than it is fideistic.

  37. #37 Laura
    January 11, 2010

    LOL
    Just came back to see the responses and had to smile.
    Wow! Atheists are quite enthusiastic preachers!
    Science disproves the existence of god! Always,with a small “g”, as per the non-existent doctrine. Is it a sin to conform to proper grammar? Atheists are surprisingly enthusiastic preachers!Just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses opening their version of the Bible to affirm their beliefs are correct, you guys are equally certain there is no God.

    What makes music enjoyable? You can see it written on a sheet, but that doesn’t convey how pleasant the melody is. The frequency and decibels are measurable. A scientist can have a favorite song, and it wouldn’t make him illogical.
    Substance dualism is false because neurology says so?
    There is an important distinction between religion and theism. Forget doctrine, the Bible, or a certain philosophical approach. Falsifying any particular faith is like shooting fish in a barrel.Why couldn’t the Big Bang have a Big Banger? If you were to compare a dime with a nickel or penny, it is worth less if judged by size and weight.
    Is the question if a scientist can be religious? The comments mostly say unless you prove to ME that God exists, then YOUR belief is irrational. Is the question how does one embrace critical thinking and faith? I explained how I find no conflict. Well, I thought I would regret taking the bait. Any speculation about what exists outside the known universe, cannot be quantified. A supreme being creating the universe with precise physical laws, is no more absurd than the multi-verse or string theory.
    What piece of compelling evidence would convince you (the atheists) to change your opinion? Put your big nickel down!

  38. #38 Russell
    January 11, 2010

    Laura:

    The comments mostly say unless you prove to ME that God exists, then YOUR belief is irrational.

    Actually, the other way around. You need to prove to yourself that your god exists. But in doing so, you need to use the same critical faculties that you would in considering any other such claim, from ghosts to chupacabras. The way you convince others of your rationality is to explain what convinced you.

    What piece of compelling evidence would convince you (the atheists) to change your opinion?

    It’s not hard for a person — and the Christian god is supposed to be at least that — to show that they exist. The usual manner is to show oneself and say something. Since your god is quite powerful, he can do that in all sorts of ways, from writing in the heavens to inscribing a verse of the Bible on the inside of each person’s skull. The latter would be visible only after death or during brain surgery, but would be all the more convincing of its authorship because of that.

    Even if your god wants to communicate entirely through chosen prophets, they could demonstrate their ability to predict the future, for example, by predicting ahead of time an essentially random sequence. My favorite challenge is the last digit of the DOW for the next ten closes. Do that, and I will believe you are in touch with someone who knows much more than we do, and in ways we don’t.

    It’s easy to think of all sorts of hard evidence for a god. The problem isn’t imagining it, but explaining why there is none. Relevant to that is that gods past once revealed themselves in such ways. Your god (and yes, that spelling is correct, since it is an improper noun in that context) once did such things, according to your religion’s myths. Why, no more?

  39. #39 tbell
    January 11, 2010

    @ Laura, there seems to be the usual confusion and about what atheists claim vis-a-vis the religious…
    All an (small a) atheist claims is that which every rationalist claims, and that is that we shouldn’t believe things without evidence. Since I have no evidence that there is a god, i don’t see any reason to believe in one. It’s just that simple.
    The reason science and religions that have any theistic, or otherwise supernatural content are asserted to be incompatible is that science limits itself to observables. If you are making claims without reference to any observables, you are not doing science.

    You say you have explained how you found no conflict between critical thinking and faith, but in reading your post (forgive me if I misinterpret) I note that you first assume that God exists, and then sketch an idea of how that might be possible, with some reference to the complexity of the universe. That’s a perfectly reasonable step in science, postulating the existence of something. However, the next step is to ask how we could possibly test it, or is there any evidence. Because there are in fact an infinity of hypotheses, and we just don’t spend any time on the ones that don’t have any evidence.

    If you think that the complexity of the universe is evidence for a god/God, you may not yet appreciate how much complexity science already knows that perfectly natural processes can generate. But as of now, pointing to the complexity of the universe and saying science can’t explain it, so god/God might have done it, is just handwaving. It’s the old God of the gaps argument, and we’ve all heard and dismissed it before. It is simply not a serious argument.

    An honest person of faith should just come right out and admit that they have no evidence for a God that they can point to. I would respect that so much more than the endless train of specious arguments that get tossed out. A really honest person of faith might also admit that they have no more evidence for their particular religion than for any other religion that they might have been born into or otherwise chose.

    An honest skeptic can admit that they have no evidence that God doesn’t exist, other than a complete lack of any positive evidence for a god/God.

    These two positions are still not ones of parity though, not if your goal is clear thinking, and this is because of the problem that there are an infinite number of theistic or supernatural hypotheses.

    Anyway, to get to your last point, here’s my big nickel (though I’m sure various philosophers and science-fiction authors have come up with better examples):

    Evidence that (might) convince me of the existence of a god(God)…(I say might, because it might be really really hard to tell the difference between a god and say an all powerful alien who was just trying to fool me):

    -matter/objects being created out of nothing, water changing into wine etc. In some sort of repeatable fashion

    -novel information being fed to us from an outside source (like say new mathematics, or a cure for human diseases)

    -most of the biblical miracles could work, if they could be replicated and we knew we had some good stage magicians sussing out fraud. Most of the miracles in non-Christian traditions would work too.

    -proof of a soul, communication with the dead, etc. would be really handy. Again that might take the form of either novel information, or some sort of physical evidence (even if it is a physics we don’t yet know about)…

  40. #40 Russell
    January 11, 2010

    tbell, yes, the evidence available to us is limited to what we observe. But that doesn’t put the gods off limits! Except for the clockwork god of the Deists, virtually every god imagined has made himself or herself observable in various ways. Religious myths are full of gods walking the earth, sending lesser gods to speak for them, wrestling with their believers, making prophecies, directly or through others, healing the sick, raising the dead, devouring the living, and otherwise making themselves observable in all sorts of ways.

    And there aren’t many Deists. The notion that a god is beyond empirical test because somehow unobservable simply doesn’t comport with the gods in which people believe, from Jesus to Allah to Krishna. Catholics don’t travel to Lourdes because their god can’t be seen. They go there because they believe in miracles.

    Well, then. Let’s see a Christian preacher bring back an amputated limb! There would be a piece of evidence. And quite observable.

  41. #41 Paul W.
    January 11, 2010

    Russell,

    I’m going to disagree with Paul. It’s pretty easy to make the supernatural compatible with science. One merely insists that the gods, for reasons of their own, keep themselves hidden from all objective tests.

    I’m not sure whether or how you’re actually disagreeing with me.

    One of my claims is that if you really understand cognitive science and neuroscience, there’s actually good scientific reason to disbelieve in souls. The things that most people think that souls do are actually done by brains.

    That undermines a whole lot of mainstream and theologically liberal religion, not just particularly orthodox religion like fundamentalism.

    Without souls, you don’t get an afterlife, and you don’t get the kind of nondeterministic free will that gets God off the hook for the problem of evil.

    You also don’t have a plausible Eastern-type story as to how mystical states could break through the usual “illusion” of reality and reveal that mind-stuff is identical to universe-stuff, such that material reality is an illusion created by Mind, or Mind = universe, or most of those other kinds of bizarre “truths” that the “spiritually adept” are prone to come up with.

    Instead, you realize that your mind is a function of meat, and will stop existing when the meat falls apart. That mind does not have any privileged access to Deep Truth about the Ultimate Nature of Reality—we can only know truths by perception, a very limited degree of introspection, and the very hard work of reasoning things out from evidence.

    Of course, you can spin some unfalsifiable story about how these things are somehow illusions, and science is missing the boat. You can always construct a conspiracy theory of reality such that minds only appear to be computational processes running in computers made out of meat.

    But that is the same kind of thing Young Earth Creationists do, when they claim that the universe only appears to be billions of years old, and God or the Devil put the fossils there and the started up the starlight 6000 light years away, coming at us, so that we could see stars that are vastly further away than that.

    And all of those things are unscientific. It is antiscientific to say that we have orthodox dualistic souls or transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, for the same basic reason it’s false to say that the universe is 6000 years old—the relevant science pretty clearly says otherwise.

    Any religion that clings to any of those ideas, including souls and transcendent mystical insight, is in conflict with modern science.

    And that includes supposedly “moderate” religion and most theologically liberal religion as well.

    Too few people realize that. They think it’s just the Young Earthers and IDers who are science deniers.

    Religion much more generally relies on science denialism—denial of the facts of cognitive science and brain science.

    That’s the dirty secret of accommodationism. The accommodationists make it sound like most people are scientifically reasonable, and only the fundamentalists accept religious dogma over scientific fact.

    Nonsense. Almost all religion is in conflict with scientific facts, and most people are just ignorant of the relevant science and miss the conflicts. (Not just religious people, but many irreligious scientists in other fields as well.)

  42. #42 qbsmd
    January 12, 2010

    I’m going to disagree with Paul. It’s pretty easy to make the supernatural compatible with science. One merely insists that the gods, for reasons of their own, keep themselves hidden from all objective tests. VoilĂ ! No conflict. Note that this tactic is well practiced in the Christian tradition. “God will not be tested.”

    Posted by: Russell

    It’s ironic that you’re posting under “Russell”, given that that’s the exact argument that the well known Russell’s Teapot argument addresses.
    It still depends on how you define “compatible with science”. Of course you can create a belief system that is compatible with the RESULTS of science, for example, deism. These still aren’t compatible with the METHOD or underlying philosophy of science.
    If someone has a belief system with supernatural elements, even if it is compatible with the results of science, they have no justification for believing it. The epistemology that person subscribes to would be incompatible with the skepticism on which science is based.

  43. #43 tbell
    January 12, 2010

    the thread looks dead, but i’d like one last stab at it.

    I agree that insisting on the incompatibility of science and relgion is a bad tactic, both because it can be misunderstood (and in this case, I think you have misunderstood the complaint, because i’m willing to grant almost everything in your post about people being religious and also doing science), and because it immediately puts people on the defensive…

    however, i’d like to see follow through on your final statement: “…if nothing else, understanding why someone might be religious and a scientist would help refine atheists’ arguments.”

    I’d like to understand how someone personally reconciles theistic beliefs with what we know about the natural world.

    I never seem to get a straight answer. I only seem to get pseudo-scientific answers like the appeal to complexity.

    Some straight answers might look like this, i’m sure there are others:
    “I don’t try to reconcile religion and science. I simply never hold those beliefs up to scientific scrutiny.”

    Or, “my religion doesn’t have any theistic or supernatural beliefs, it is actually just part of my cultural tradition and community and mainly deals with philosphy and ethics” (in which case one wonders why we are calling it a religion.)

    or “actually, I do believe there is some evidence amenable to scientific investigation regarding my beliefs and it is X,Y,Z.”

  44. #44 Paul W.
    January 14, 2010

    Like tbell, I’m curious about your religious beliefs or lack of same.

    I read your “What About Judaism’s Sins Against Science?” post, and was struck by how much you were saying what your religion isn’t, rather than what it is.

    What is it?

  45. #45 Anonsters
    January 14, 2010

    Yeah, the “reason-only, let’s banish all people with religious beliefs from science” crowd wins the day on this one, I’m afraid. Especially when you consider how much better off science would have been, and would now be, if we could just prevent these types of cranks from getting involved in our pristinely rational enterprise of science:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton

    That’s right, folks. Isaac Newton > you.

    And he was religious.

    I win.

  46. #46 tbell1
    January 15, 2010

    @ anon: Is your argument that Newton’s science benefited from his religious belief? Or is it just an observation (one that has already been granted) that people can do science and religion?.. because that’s not what was of interest. I’m still trying to work out whether they are reconcilable in a deeper sense.

  47. #47 Anonsters
    January 15, 2010

    @tbell: It was more an observation that there have been, and are (probably) presently people a lot smarter than anyone who will ever (and I do mean EVAR) grace the commentariat of this blog who simultaneously accept(ed) some religious beliefs and were/are scientists, too.

    The heads of which said smart people do/did not thereby explode in a pulpy mess.

    Which suggests to me that perhaps all those who do like to rattle on about how inconsistent religion and science are probably need a heavy dose of humility. Or possibly chloroform. I’d settle for the former (for all concerned).

  48. #48 Katharine
    January 16, 2010

    Anonsters, I’d categorize your argument as a sort of appeal to authority.

    Isaac Newton, after all, was only human.

  49. #49 Katharine
    January 16, 2010

    “Sure they are. People are full of inconsistencies. Even science has a few.”

    I think you may be mistaking “it is possible for people to both have moments of rationality and moments of inconsistency” with “it’s okay to be inconsistent in science”. The former is true, albeit a human weakness, and the latter is false.

  50. #50 Katharine
    January 16, 2010

    “It’s pretty easy to make the supernatural compatible with science. One merely insists that the gods, for reasons of their own, keep themselves hidden from all objective tests.”

    But this presupposes the existence of a supernatural. By definition, if it is outside the realm of objective testing, it is unfalsifiable.

    Frankly, there is no evidence for a supernatural, which leads me to conclude that the only reason anyone thinks it exists is because it makes them feel better, the wusses.

  51. #51 Katharine
    January 16, 2010

    I suggest that if something is unfalsifiable, it is nonexistent.

    “What makes music enjoyable? You can see it written on a sheet, but that doesn’t convey how pleasant the melody is.”

    Oh, Laura, Laura, Laura. Let’s dissect this carefully.

    Part of why music is so enjoyable, neurology has found, is that because the most euphonic – as opposed to cacophonic – music has been found to replicate human speech.

    “The frequency and decibels are measurable. A scientist can have a favorite song, and it wouldn’t make him illogical.”

    Because this is outside the bounds of is or is not questions. This is inside the bounds of ‘hey, I like this’ or ‘hey, I don’t like this’.

    “Substance dualism is false because neurology says so?”

    Substance dualism is the belief that the mind is not made of the same stuff as the brain. It has been established that the mind is the collective interaction and components of certain parts of the brain. I can see you’ve never read much neuroscience. By the way, I’m a neuroscience student. Yes, substance dualism is patently false, not only because neuroscience says so, but because biology and scientific principles say so.

    “There is an important distinction between religion and theism. Forget doctrine, the Bible, or a certain philosophical approach. Falsifying any particular faith is like shooting fish in a barrel.Why couldn’t the Big Bang have a Big Banger? If you were to compare a dime with a nickel or penny, it is worth less if judged by size and weight.”

    Why does the Big Bang HAVE to have a Big Banger? Why can’t you be content to wait until we figure out why it happened? Are you that uncomfortable with uncertainty?

    “Is the question if a scientist can be religious? The comments mostly say unless you prove to ME that God exists, then YOUR belief is irrational. Is the question how does one embrace critical thinking and faith? I explained how I find no conflict. Well, I thought I would regret taking the bait. Any speculation about what exists outside the known universe, cannot be quantified. A supreme being creating the universe with precise physical laws, is no more absurd than the multi-verse or string theory.”

    Personally, I find the idea of a multi-verse or string theory to be something that I prefer to not touch until proven, precisely because even if totally unverified, much of the speculation on it seems to remain within scientific bounds and restrains its suppositions to the material. On the other hand, the presupposition of the existence of a supernatural is tantamount, in my opinion, to saying ‘Uh, well, there’s an invisible pink unicorn! It’s just undetectable by your silly technology.’ So you just think YOUR deity exists. By your logic, I could also say that Kerplop, the great squid deity who fashioned the universe out of ink, exists and that he, in fact, created YOUR deity and is superior in power. Yet you think Kerplop does not exist. I also don’t think Kerplop exists, but nor do I think your silly deity exists. Do you see how your logic totally fails?

    “What piece of compelling evidence would convince you (the atheists) to change your opinion? Put your big nickel down!”

    Actual objective evidence, not crap.

  52. #52 Katharine
    January 16, 2010

    In fact, supposing your deity exists, how did your forebears detect its existence? Because if it’s outside of objective detection, it very obviously can’t, well, appear or make things happen.

    I mean, really, are you that desperate to hold onto a silly bit of cultural faff?

  53. #53 Anonsters
    January 16, 2010

    “It has been established that the mind is the collective interaction and components of certain parts of the brain.”

    O RLY?

    As it happens, I have studied, and continue to study, the philosophy of cognitive science, which as it happens does involve reading the neuroscience (among other) literature, and the literature establishes no such thing.

    “Yes, substance dualism is patently false, not only because neuroscience says so, but because biology and scientific principles say so.”

    I don’t even know where to begin with that. But let’s start with some questions. What biology, exactly, tells you so? And which “scientific principles” do you specifically refer?

  54. #54 Anonsters
    January 16, 2010

    #5 basically asserts the following four propositions:

    1. The logical incompatibility of science and religion “as world views” is an “uncontroversial fact[] about reality.”

    2a. Some people are able to simultaneously hold logically incompatible world views in their minds.
    2b. (2a) is also an “uncontroversial fact[] about reality.”

    3. Personal or social accommodation of incompatible world views is ok.*

    4. Logical accommodation of incompatible world views is not ok.

    [*Exegetical Note to Justify Stating the Proposition This Way: The argument went that "[t]he problem … is when personal or social accommodation turns into logical accommodation.” The argument asserts that personal or social accommodation is distinct from logical accommodation. The problem is when the former turns into the latter. Therefore, there is no[t as much of a] problem with the former.]

    You must, then, believe either (A) that personal or social accommodation of logically incompatible world views does not of itself require logical accommodation, or (B) that people who personally or socially accommodate logically incompatible world views forswear consistency in their beliefs.

    (A) is false. Any accommodation of two logically incompatible world views will necessarily entail logical accommodation of those world views, at least for the accommodator.

    (B) grossly violates the principle of charity.

    Therefore, you’re going to have to give up one of the numbered propositions. You will clearly not want to give up on what you have stated to be “uncontroversial facts about reality,” which disqualifies (1) & (2), and giving up (4) will require you to give up logic. Thus, you’re going to have to give up (3).

    This is pure speculation, but I suspect that you will not be comfortable giving up (3), either.

  55. #55 Zubin
    February 22, 2010

    Religion in general impedes the progress of science. We can only look to history to see how accomplished religious scientists whose scientific works were negatively affected by religion. Kurt Godel is one example. Another is the brilliant mathematician, Ramanujan, who became ill from religion induced malnutrition and died at age 32. For all we know, Ramanujan could have made decades worth of progress if he had not died so early in his career.

    Religious moderates tend to simply be apologists and, sure they can perform on a normal level, but it seems that they simply enable religious extremists and thus only make things worse. Religiosity is extremely rare among elite scientists.