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?

Thursday, August 08, 2013


After talking with a rabbi friend of mine earlier today about the relationship between religion and science, I read this quote from Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

Certainly not all scientists are this nihilistic, nor does the fact that science cannot answer questions about morality and meaning (the lack of which is, I assume, why the universe seems pointless) prove there is no morality or meaning. It just “proves” that if you are looking for morality and meaning don’t use the tools of science, at least not the sciences Steven Weinberg uses to comprehend the universe.

My rabbi friend wants to make religion the antidote of pointlessness, but that may not help since religion yields a variety of moral and meaning systems without any way to objectively judge which is actually true.

Maybe the problem lies with Weinberg’s assumption. Let’s assume that life prior to the evolution of humans is intrinsically amoral and meaningless. Let’s further assume that humans are the way nature makes morality and meaning, and that religion and philosophy are the ways we do this. Since humans are part of nature, and since humans produce a variety of moralities and meanings it is wrong to say that nature is amoral or meaningless, and more accurate to say that nature is multi-moral and multi-meaning.

This, of course, leads us to relativism where no morality is better than any other, and no meaning is any more true than any other. And that can lead us back to nihilism. So maybe the only way we can assume a universal morality and meaning is to assume a force outside of nature that imposes such. Which leaves us pretty much were we are today: competing morality/meaning systems each claiming to be the one true standard of the one true God.

Your thoughts?