Soul Made Flesh

One of the requirements for PZ’s neurobiology class is reading Carl Zimmer’s book Soul Made Flesh. While reading this book, I am continually struck by how religion resists change in science. Why? Science and religion don’t even address the same issues in a culture. Robert Boyle seemed to think they should be separated as well. Perhaps that is why he managed to make some significant advances in science and the scientific method. Any thoughts?


  1. #1 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    Science and religion don’t even address the same issues in a culture.

    I’d say that historically this is a tenuous statement. Both have, throughout history, made claims about the material world. As PZ notes below, it was scientists working from within a Christian paradigm (archaeologists, geologists, etc.) that eventually had to overthrow the assumptions they were carrying from their religious perspective in order to follow the date.

    Even over the past couple decades, look at the reaction to HIV/AIDS or to the HPV vaccine (or cancer in earlier decades). Both make claims about the nature of disease. While both may recognize these diseases as caused by viruses, there are very different worldviews underlying their approaches.

    I think you’re accepting the “separate magesteria” claim without recognizing that these two realms overlap…which also means choices between them are required.

  2. #2 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    oops…follow the data, not date. (stalking is bad)

    Too much beer (pirate day and all)..gotta go to bed soon so I can prep for a meeting with my diss advisor tomorrow.

  3. #3 Brownian
    September 20, 2007

    Well put, people.

    I’ve never understood the theists’ claim that religion answers anything satisfactorily.

    Seriously, ask any priest, rabbi, mullah, monk, bhiksu, or meth-addled crackpot the meaning of life, and, unless you’re congenitally incurious, you’ll be left with any number of further questions that must be answered before the first makes any sense. Push far enough, and they’ll invariable leave their holy texts or ‘divine’ inspiration behind and start making things up (watch for the telltale “I think the universe…” or “to me, God is….” To their (dis)credit, moderates usually jump right to the apologetic I-thinks. Well, thanks for the fucking insight, St. Augustine. Now that we’ve covered my immortal soul, why don’t you take another bong hit and we’ll get to diagnosing this lump on my elbow? No, no need to get someone with a medical background, I’ll be happy with the the first thing your mind shits out).

    For people that claim to be concerned with morality, meaning, life after death, and questions of those kind, it’s mind-boggling that so many theists seem satisfied with answers that demonstrate no more sophistication than an exhausted parent’s patronising “Because I said so.”

    If it’s true that science and religion cover non-overlapping magisteria, then the magisterium religion seems to address consists of questions that everyone pays lip service to, but most spend less time on than they do their picks for the office Superbowl pool.

    Cue fifty armchair theologians with fifty courtier’s replies (each involving unsupported claims that mutually exclude each other’s claims) in 5…4…3…2….

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 20, 2007

    Science and religion don’t even address the same issues in a culture.

    Besides the direct comparison of which issues that overlaps, at least in practiced religion, I would add that world views that are based on empiricism typically address more of these cultural issues.

    With regards to Boyle specifically, my impression is that it is hard to analyze and understand isolated historical situations. The context, meaning of terms and the difficulties are different and impossible to grasp fully.

    It is clear that Boyle and his contemporaries grappled with the difficulties of isolating empirical methods from previous philosophical and religious ideas and dogmas. But to separate out the influence of religion seems hard. Alchemy and astrology stems from religious roots, but how much remained at the time these ideas were abandoned, and how much did they contribute or detract from progress?

    It is much easier to assess the current situation. Obviously socio-religious movements such as hardcore creationism tries to counteract scientific progress under the pretext of addressing scientific issues. We can also see that softcore creationism (theistic evolution) or < href="">old dogmas (chain of being) consistently confuse and pervert science or its cultural context.

    That a statement might be unfalsifiable doesn’t change this.

    Moreover, we don’t demand falsifiability of every statement that connects with theory. Of course we would like to see that, but in practice we accept theories on a subset of falsifiable predictions.

    We can also see models (derived within a theoretical frame) based on likelihoods instead of statistical testing, which are provisionally considered even if there are no current complementary tests or tests with enough power. (AFAIK such areas as the concordance cosmology, methods in cladistics, et cetera.)

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 20, 2007
  6. #6 G. Tingey
    September 20, 2007

    BUT unfortunately, there is nothing new in any of this.

    I mean, does the Earth orbit the Sun? [Galilei]
    Are the stars other suns, and might they have planets? [Bruno]
    Does life change and evolve, and species go extinct over vast time periods? [We all know who]

    So far, every single time, the official religious viewpoint has been shown to be wrong, and yet people still listen to this non-factual superstitious rubbish.
    Will someone please explain why?
    Or is it that the “believers” have been brainwashed as children ( pace Dawkins’ “child abuse” comments) and have not broken out of the believeing mindset imposed on them at that time?
    It is certainly possible, as I can personally testify, having had a very narrow escape from such a fate myself, many years ago now.

  7. #7 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    The Catholic Church still has an official position in support of science – a position it has maintained for a few centuries, now.

    As long as the science doesn’t conflict with doctrine. Remember, there are plenty of bishops running around saying not only that condoms don’t help prevent the spread of HIV, but that they’re porous enough for the virus to pass through. That’s not in keeping with the science.

  8. #8 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    See, I think science doesn’t or shouldn’t address any issues at all.

    Nonsense. When science, the method, is turned to look at something like HIV and works to test whether or not anti-retrovirals work in treating it or whether condoms work on reducing its spread or whether or not the latest vaccine works, it’s dealing with issues in society. When science develops a vaccine for HPV, it’s dealing with issues in society. In communicating the results, to other scientists and to people in other fields, it’s dealing with issues.

    Science as a human activity cannot be removed from society. Even the questions asked, in certain fields more than others, will necessarily be tied to issues within a culture.

  9. #9 Felicia Gilljam
    September 20, 2007

    MAJeff, certainly. But science itself is not enough. Science can be used for good and bad. We are the ones who have to make a decision, using reason, empathy, whatever other skills we have. The scientific method alone cannot “address” an issue, it can merely provide a means to do so.

  10. #10 Ichthyic
    September 20, 2007

    Dorid, using that same quote from Fitzgerald:

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

    instead of your conclusion:

    Science advances because of first-rate intelligences.

    I would rather more logically conclude that science advances IN SPITE of “first-rate intelligences”.

    at least, as defined by your fitzgerald quote.

    IOW, yes it takes more intellectual effort to compartmentalize, and it’s an achievement when someone with the levels of compartmentalization exhibited by say, Francis Collins, can contribute to our level of scientific understanding. However, why saddle one with the handicap to begin with? surely the handicap of being forced to deal with compartmentalization is not necessary in order to “advance science”, and there is good evidence to show that such long term extreme compartmentalization can cause serious damage to the thinking process, again, as evidenced by the afore mentioned Francis Collins, if instead of reading his commentary on genetics research, you hear his ideology on “moral law”.

    You don’t somehow think that all good scientists are only so because they ARE able to compartmentalize, do you?

    what a scary thought.

  11. #11 Brownian
    September 20, 2007

    Since I see we have Mr. Zimmer himself visited this thread, I hope it wouldn’t be too fawning to say that Soul Made Flesh is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t think anything would top Parasite Rex, which I think should be read by everyone with any interest in biology, but I am blown away by how Mr. Zimmer weaves a fascinating science history with historical details that are little gems.

    Thank you Mr. Zimmer, please continue writing, my friends and I are devoted fans!

    I second your sentiment, Jason.

  12. #12 Ichthyic
    September 20, 2007

    It’s just that I respect someone’s right to have a different “reality” other than my own, as long as it doesn’t impede on others.

    I too respect other’s rights to decide to be handicapped, if they so choose, and feel pity for them if it wasn’t a choice.

    I don’t have to respect the choice itself, do I?

    should I respect the choice to become a crack addict?

    sure, I can respect a crack addict has rights as a person, just like myself. I hardly think I should be lenient of the choices made, though.

    any addiction is treatable.

  13. #13 Ichthyic
    September 20, 2007

    Because it makes life more adventurous?


    may you be cursed with an interesting life.


  14. #14 Ichthyic
    September 20, 2007

    I’m planning to embark on an expedition with three competing ideas in my head. You just don’t know you’re alive ’til those headaches start, man.

    I’m not nearly that ambitious, but I do plan on putting together an expedition to climb both peaks of Kilimanjaro…

  15. #15 Sastra
    September 20, 2007

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

    Yes, being able to hold two opposed ideas in the mind is the height of sophistication, especially when applied to the spiritual areas:

    God is a disembodied intelligence who loves us like a father — God is the Pure Actuality of Being, a Mystery beyond our ken. Which is it? It’s both!

    Prayer is asking God to step into the natural world in order to change what bothers you — prayer isn’t petitioning God, it’s seeking the inner strength to accept whatever happens. Which is it? It’s both!

    The power of the positive thinking changes the structure of the universe by tapping into the Consciousness which knits reality together and draws your wishes to you by magic — the power of positive thinking is simply having confidence in yourself and focusing on a goal so that you get what you want by working for it. Which is it? It’s both!

    Jesus was born of a virgin and died on the cross for our sins in the first century AD — the power of the Jesus story is metaphorical, expressing not historical truths but moral ones through symbol and story. Which is it? It’s both!

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, and is the most powerful means of ascertaining truth humans can experience — reason and science force us to see reality as it is, not the way we want it to be. Which is it? It’s both!

    See? It’s easy to reconcile science and faith, naturalism and religion. Take two conflicting ways of looking at the same thing, see the superficial similarity of addressing the same issue as deeply significant, get fuzzy on the distinctions, and claim they’re both right! The ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function, is the test of a first-rate apologetics.

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