Thursday, August 15, 2013

Another Science & Religion Piece

In the August 19th issue of The New Republic Steven Pinker wrote a masterful essay entitled “Science is Not Your Enemy.” The essay is a defense of science that often veers into an attack on religion.

Pinker writes that science is committed to two ideals: The first is that the world is intelligible…In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. Part of the difficulty is that we humans are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief-faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Which leads us to religion. To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are mistaken… There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…

I agree with Dr. Pinker, but is this really what religion is all about? To dismiss religion because of ancient ideas many religious people have long outgrown is like dismissing medicine because doctors once rejected the idea of germs. Why assume that only science grows? The history of religion suggests that it too challenges outmoded thinking and offers new theories in its place.

Religion is one way people make meaning out of reality. While it is true that many religions insist on a worldview that is demonstrably false, this doesn’t mean the meaning making is any less at the heart of what these religions are doing. Good religion, just like good science, works with facts as we know them. Bad religion like bad science ignores the facts when they are inconvenient.

Based on evidence I consider irrefutable, I am a firm believer in evolution. Contemplating the unfolding of species over 13.8 billion years is awe inspiring, but when I ask my science colleagues about the meaning of evolution most of them draw a blank. There is no meaning to evolution. As Steven Weinberg once wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

But when I look at the universe through the lens of science I can’t help but make meaning out of what I see. I see evolution pushing toward minds capable of greater and greater levels of consciousness. Making meaning out of evolution is the work of religion.

Is meaning intrinsic to life? Yes, because we meaning makers are intrinsic to life. Humans are the way nature makes meaning no less than chickens are the way nature makes eggs (or is it the way eggs make chickens?).

Religion, no less than science, is a method. And religion, like science, also rests on two ideals. The first is that the world is meaningful, and we humans (at least on this planet at this time) are the means by which the universe makes meaning. The second ideal is that religion, no less than science, is hard. Religion at its best isn’t a matter of blind faith, but of careful investigation and introspection.

Religion’s method is contemplative inquiry, difficult practices that take years to master, and which allow us to study reality in such a way as to make meaning out of it. Often meaning is best articulated through myth, metaphor, poetry, art, and music. These should not be taken literally, and when they are good religion goes bad, and making meaning devolves into imposing belief.

Steven Pinker is correct: science is not the enemy, but neither is religion. Contra Jay Gould’s “nonoverlapping magesteria,” at their best science and religion are two overlapping human endeavors. Religion needs science to keep it from clinging to old maps that no longer accurately represent the facts on the ground. Science needs religion to avoid falling over the precipice of nihilism. Religion and science are not in opposition. On the contrary, they are partners in the human quest for truth, meaning, and purpose.

How do you understand the relationship between science and religion?


Erick Reynolds said...

Rabbi, I agree with your general position, but I think “philosophy” could be substituted for “religion” in your discussion. Pure science and pure philosophy, even pure religious philosophy, are not antithetical, but complementary. Science expands our knowledge for how to create life and explore the universe. Philosophical discussion explores why we should.

The friction is in the religious-social-tribal politics and power structures. Power bases and revenue streams built on followers believing in antiquated myths, legends, falsehoods, and outright con-games. These “religions” are like living organisms in that, when threatened by educated beings, their followers are like anti-bodies, attacking the threat to their core organism. These scientific beings, having been attacked, form their own political organism with followers that behave with a similar defensive mechanism.

Isn’t science amazing! There are so many handy analogies that can be applied to (and abused in) philosophy and political debate.

Fraser said...

"Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a religion whether it thinks so or not: Soviet "religion" and Moaist "religion are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer "religion", no matter how much they may try to disguise themselves by omitting religious and spiritual ideas from their lives." This is from 'The Denial of Death' by Ernest Becker who will have none of this crap about supposed modern scientific stances being more 'real' than religious ones. We are all trying to find ways to be more than a "thing that has an awareness of it's own splendid uniqueness in that it sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet, goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly to and dumbly to rot and disappear forever." (Ernest Becker again) He speaks against the cacophony of a thousand competitive voices trying to beat each other down.
I think we need a way to broaden and deepen our truths rather than continually engage in what Norman O Brown calls "sterile and ignorant polemics".
I agree with Rami's post 100%.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

There is no G-d!
There is no karma!

Sounds like Pinker and "Rabbi" Rami are expounding just another irrational belief system based only upon mere flimsy faith. Just two more self-righteous officious bozos on the bus thinking they have the answers claiming finality for their findings but (in the end) making understandable only the profound abstractions upon which "reality" is based.

Greg Rogers said...

Rabbi, I think you've missed the real point of disagreement.

Dualistic religion essentially treats "dumb matter" as fundamental. The universe is essentially a dumb place except for this little bit of consciousness we have which is plopped into our bodies from Heaven. Scientists in the Newtonian physics mode essentially believe the same thing except that they believe our consciousness can evolve from dumb matter. Yes, there are points of disagreement but I think there is much in common.

Non-dual or mystical religion treats consciousness as fundamental. The universe isn't dumb. Our consciousness evolves from a conscious world. Some quantum physicists and neuroscientists (Chalmers, etc.) believe this or at least are open to it as a possibility.

So the conflict isn't really between religion and science it is between whether you view the universe as a dumb machine or as a conscious organism. That is the real point of difference and I don't see how these two views are reconciled. They are two very different ways of viewing, experiencing and interpreting the world.

BTW: Enjoyed speaking with you in Colorado.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

"Part of the problem is people are prone to illusion, fallacy, superstition"

Of course Pinker excludes himself from this common human deficiency.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

I think Rogers has it wrong. The universe is not a "dumb machine" ---- people are. that possibility apparently has not been considered

Greg Rogers said...


I am reminded virtually every day when I leave the house how dumb people are. :-)

However, even the dumbest person is conscious and it is this aspect of humanity which is a pivotal issue.

Personally, I have a mystical bent and therefore vote with the "universe is conscious" crowd.

Erick Reynolds said...

Greg does a better job hitting on the same semantics dilemma I was referring to about "religion". There are people who are non-religious but explore spiritual ideas, beliefs, and philosophies. When there are criticisms against blindly following organized “dualistic” religion (as Greg defines it) based on mythical stories of God creating life and bestowing intelligence only on mankind in a dumb universe; it possible for atheist scientists and philosophical spiritualists to be on the same side of that criticism.

However, when debating the purity of science dogma that establishes anything not provable in the lab or by mathematical equations is not real; the scientific purists part ways with those open to the “mystical” philosophies of a universal intelligence or consciousness. As Greg points out, not all scientists are purists, as quantum physics and human mind research reveals hints of unconscious connections not yet understood. Unfortunately, mentioning universal intelligence (possibly more akin to “the Force” in Star Wars”), instead invokes the concepts of “intelligent design” which puts the debate back into “dualistic” religious debate and corresponding antagonisms.

Ultimately, as with many debates, this topic can have people talking past each other by using the same words but with different intended meanings.

Jason Norin said...

Nice post. I am a subscriber of an Australian internet service provider and for me, being able to use technology doesn't really affect my faith.