In The Times, Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, accuses Stephen Hawkins of doing bad theology while doing good science, when Hawkins purportedly said, “God did not create the universe.” This remark continues the scientist tradition of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who said to Napoleon that he had no need for God as an explanatory hypothesis.
Sachs rightfully says that science and religion can potentially offer different, non-competing understandings of the human situation, although in practice this separation seems limited to a few liberal Western theologians. Science describes and explains our world in physical terms, whereas religion uses faith and tradition to claim greater purposes. Or, as Sachs puts it, religion seeks to answer the ‘why’ question, where ‘why’ means an underlying purpose and design. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) , like Plato before him, greatly influenced later Western theologies, particularly Christianity. Aristotle spoke of four different causes: (1) material cause (physical object itself); (2) formal cause (emerging shape of the object); (3) efficient cause (physical cause of today’s sciences); (4) final cause (inherent purpose or design of today’s religion). With any event, science seeks the efficient causes – what prior events caused the event. The efficient causes of science are limited to our self-contained physical reality. On the other hand religions work with final causes – what were the underlying purposes or design that explain the event? For Jews and Christians, the answer to final causes usually means understanding the will of God, sought outside the mundane world of science.
However I would argue that religious people regularly proffer faith-based causes for physical events, contradicting well-founded scientific explanations. God caused this or that. Or that disaster came from God’s wrath and so on. Even in Western countries, the reasonableness of Sachs’ separation seems hypothetical only, with conservative religious leaders happy to interpret God’s physical intervention in the world. Unfortunately for most religions in Western societies, science has effectively replaced them as the trusted source of knowledge. Or, as sociologist, Steven Fuller, often comments, the public now blindly trusts science as was done with religions in the past, and, ironically, with less knowledge or involvement wit the public. This change of public loyalties is reflected in the continuing decline of church attendances, where any professed spiritualities are clearly divorced from religious observances and church attendances.
Now, let us go back to Jonathan Sachs’ argument with Hawkins. Sachs now enters the scientific discussion by suggesting that his theological commitment to God is a better scientific solution (though hardly presented as a falsifiable hypothesis) than multi-verses. He evokes Occam’s razor, the principle of parsimony commonly associated with medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1285-1349), to suggest that God is the simpler of the two equally competing explanations. By simpler we usually mean needing less assumptions. This principle is much admired in intellectual thought and, ironically, is often used by atheists to exclude God when discussing the evolution of life. Evolution without God is simpler than with God for the same explanatory power. So, Sachs is claiming that his commitment to an ineffable, all powerful creator-sustainer God is simpler than proposing the possible existence of multiple universes to explain how our universe happens to have six, apparently improbable, constants that are needed for development of life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensionless_physical_constant). In reality, this is the latest battle ground for the design (teleological) argument for God, now marginalised to the speculative realms of cosmology. Every day design arguments, like Paley’s watch, have been lost to science and therefore discarded.
Whether or not God is simpler than multi-verses is irrelevant to what Sachs is doing. On one hand he decries Hawkins for doing bad theology and then Sachs argues for his commitment to God by doing bad science. Using ‘God’ is like offering magic as an explanation for any scientific problem. It stops the conversation as God is outside the tool set of science, unmeasurable. Furthermore it is hard to believe that Sachs or any other theologian would simply walk away from his or her belief in God, if there was no scientific support. And he or she should, if God is put forward as a scientific alternative to multiple universes.
Jonathan Sachs should keep to his own advice and keep God in the realm of religious belief and faith and not try to re-engineer his characterisation of God as in any way scientific, measurable by the tool set of science. Do good theology and not bad science.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Australian ABC Science reports that neuroscience continues to link brain function and human moral behaviour with God’s involvement becoming more and more a fantastic speculation. This time it is magnetic effects on moral choices from Massachusetts Institute of Technology research with similar results to loading the brain while making moral choices. Under load and magnetism, apparently, we turn to choices based on outcomes more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Again this seems choosing between the utilitarian and deontological ethical systems.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Excellent joint article by a scientist and a philosopher on limitations of the hypothesis in the doing of science and some practical alternatives.
Alex McCullieNo comments
A Personal Rant
In a recent BBC Hardtalk interview with Stephen Sackur, Robert Winston, renowned British scientist and occasional Christian apologist, typecasts atheists as believing in the absolute and, therefore, unreasonable certainty of science. By implication many non-atheists take a more reasonable, nuanced view that scientific knowledge is probabilistic with some claims being more assured than others. Interestingly, Christians like Winston are quick to complain that critics generalise Christians as having a Middle Ages theology rather than acknowledge the ’new age’ Christian variants of today. Karen Armstrong has turned this claim into an industry.
Atheists typically reject beliefs in an ‘other’ (à la William James) reality extra to our physical world, especially one with ultimate influence or control. Also most atheists see science as our best shot at achieving reliable knowledge about our world rather than using the religious repertoire of personal revelations – imaginings, feelings, and guesses - and deference to traditional religious authorities. Scientists may admire Darwin or Newton but do not seriously use their data or conclusions as the basis for current research. This is typically not so in religious circles.
However being atheist does not mean being blind to the limitations of scientific endeavours: they are conducted by humans within social contexts and, therefore, subject to the same limitations as other human endeavours. However good science embraces attitudes of exploration; reproducible evidence and reasoning independent of personal faith; and welcomed public criticism and comment. Most importantly, unlike religious history, heretical namecalling should have no place in genuine search for knowledge. This does not mean accepting every new idea with substantial independent support from evidence and reasoning – not so open to new ideas that the brain drops out!
As a contrary example, most world-wide Christians, even today, accept the historicity of the physical resurrection of Jesus – reanimation of a dead body – and even apply that hope to the physical resurrection of all believers when God’s kingdom arrives in the future. All this is described in some clarity in the Christian bible. Remove the Christian faith – personal feelings and authority appeals - and its basis looks very shaky. In fact to non-Christians – religious believers or not – these claims, so fundamental to much Christian theology, look very fanciful and somewhat naive. Many Christians in western nations quietly walk away from these biblical claims though unwilling to publicly criticise these beliefs for fear of hurting fellow brethren.
So how do the claims of modern science look compared to religious claims of bodily resurrections?
Alex McCullie2 comments
A deliciously-named film, CREATION, is a dramatic recreation of Darwin’s anguish over the death of his 10 year daughter, development of a scientific theory challenging religion of the day, and the impact on this theory on his very devout wife. The film draws from Annie’s Box, a biography from Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great, great-grandson , and promises to be a powerful film about a great man – father, husband, and scientist – wrestling with the ultimate questions of personal meaning. Director Jon Amiel has a tremendous cast of actors (details linked below) including Paul Bettany and real-life partner, Jennifer Connelly. But let me mention a personal favourite – Toby Jones as Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bull-dog). Jones was excellent in Infamous as Truman Capote, one of my favourite on-screen character portrayals.
We have seen some tremendous books and documentaries on Charles Darwin over the last twelve months as part of the 200 year celebration of his birth (and 150 years since the publication of ‘On The Origin of the Species’). Darwin is certainly one of the great figures of science. CREATION fills in the portrait as only good dramatic film can do to give us a person we can love.
I had the opportunity to join an on-line chat between bloggers and Jon Amiel,the director, where he discussed the film and the humanity of Darwin as he struggled to publish his theory of evolution.
I would heartily recommend adding this to your viewing list.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Last night I attended an end-of-year concert for a friend’s six year old. The school, which hosted the event, had a chart called the Three-Storey Intellect promoting intelligent thinking for students. The concept comes from a quotation of Oliver Wendell Holmes:
There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. All fact collectors with no aim beyond their facts are one-story men. Two-story men compare reason and generalize, using labors of the fact collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, and predict. Their best illuminations come from above through the skylight.
In a newly-released book, Genesis Enigma, biological scientist Andrew Parker argues that the Jewish Book of Genesis and modern science have unexpectedly similar accounts on the origins of life. He goes on to suggest that the Genesis authors were divinely inspired to explain such similarities. I have not read the book: this is my summary from Amazon.
This book, however, raises important questions about whether or not to take such hypotheses seriously. More specifically, how do we separate important claims from spurious ones as ignorant (perhaps), non-specialist readers? This is what I do.
Do the claims make prima facia sense against existing knowledge?
My first stage is to do a quick check of the claims against my existing knowledge and my world-view or perspective. I decide whether it is worth pursuing the book and its claims any further. If so, then I list the issues that need to be addressed in considering the author’s claims seriously. I try to recognise that this is very much subject to my biases.
As a naturalist – all things come from physical causes – I immediately have doubts about Parker’s claims of divinely-inspired Genesis writers. So, admittedly, I start very sceptically. Also there are many cases where people seek to prove or disprove points from selective use of the wildly diverse texts of the Christian Old and New Testaments. It is a popular pastime to find ‘hidden’ numeric meanings in biblical texts and, for me, another reason I should be sceptical.
Most biblical scholars see the Torah (also the first five books of the Christian Old Testament) as an assembly of stories from different Jewish traditions and from neighbouring cultures. They were written and edited by multiple authors over hundreds of years to address religious needs of their specific communities, not as sacred texts. Very few scholars believe Genesis was authored by Moses or was dictated by God.
The original texts were written in Hebrew and then subsequently translated into Greek, Latin, Coptic, and English as well as other modern-day languages. There is no such thing as one version of Genesis, either today or throughout history. Each writing and translation was to meet particular ideological of the authors and theological needs of the communities. At least until the advent of printing, we are better seeing the history of scriptural texts as dynamic. In particular the book of Genesis has two distinct and contradictory origin stories, each representing two different historical traditions and exempified by their different portrayals of God.
I like to see if the book claims are consistent with or challenges existing knowledge and thought. Challenging current thinking is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can make you wary. Homeopathy is premised on the basis that substances and liquids have ‘memory’. So no matter how many times you dilute a substance in a liquid there will still have an effect from the ‘memory’ of that substance in the liquid. This is contrary to all our understandings from chemistry and therefore, quite reasonably, I am very sceptical about the efficacy of homeopathy despite claims by practitioners and patients.
Conservatively comparing claims with current thinking is not being narrow-minded or anti-progressive: it is prudential. The breadth of scholarly work itself can be diverse to the extent that is rarely is one view considered orthodox. Typically we talk of one or more mainstream views with still others sitting respectably outside of those positions. In biblical studies, for example, two well-respected religious scholars hold diametrically-opposed views. John Dominic Crossan believes the resurrection of Jesus never happened, while N.T. (Tom) Wright argues it did. Both scholars are highly qualified and operate well within the biblical studies community. If an author proposes a radically different hypothesis, then I like to know if the author is working within his or her scholarly community or just appealing directly to the general reader.
I usually like to see a number of things with new hypotheses: (1) properly conducted research through experimentation or use of independent historical data; (2) some explanatory models to incorporate the new data; and (3) submission to academic peer reviews via respectable scholarly journals. The more challenging is the claim, then the more demanding should be the evidence. Human wishful thinking is a powerful driver.
In Genesis Enigma, Parker is drawing from modern science and the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah. His comparisons and conclusions seem to have little support in the academic worlds of science and biblical studies. Even the publisher acknowledges that these are dramatic claims. Even though Parker is a well-qualified biologist, he appears unqualified in biblical research. I could find no evidence of his claims being reviewed by recognised scholars, qualified in the fields his covers. I generally place little weight in anonymous and potentially unqualified user reviews, found at Amazon.
What are the qualifications and experience of the author or authors? Are they relevant to the claims?
Being dubious about Parker’s claims of divine inspiration, I would quickly check his qualifications and academic experience in the biological sciences (considerable) and biblical research in the Torah in Hebrew (appears none).
Authors should be able to demonstrate a deep understanding to the material associated with any claims. In the case of Andrew Parker I would expect to find advanced qualifications with research experience in both the biological sciences and biblical studies, especially associated with the book of Genesis. In the case of Parker, he qualifies for the former but not the latter. Private independent study does not usually qualify for recognised expertise.
At this point I would not consider the Genesis Enigma book any further.
Our belief in magic continues to haunt humanity – religions, churches, sacred texts, and – now – crazy interpretations of scientific research. Recently the New York Times, copied and extended by the Sunday Age, produced fanciful religious-style speculations of serious empirical research – Large Hadron Collider project near Geneva. The Age article, in particular, makes a seemless transition from some science reporting, well requoting of the NYT article, to a mixing poetical story telling; crazy faith claims of near-death experiences; and stories of saints.
As soon as we find something unexplained in science, out come the gurus, gullibly quoted by unqualified feature writers, to spruke simplistic mixtures of new-age mysticism with traditional religious beliefs, ‘explaining’ the unknowns in such strange worlds as sub-atomic particles. Worst still, even renowned scientists leave their areas of expertise (while still being quoted with those same scientific qualifications) to declare evidences for god, free-will, consciousness or any other mystery, without the slightest shred of empirical evidence. This is speculation at its worst and most dangerous. One such scientist even won the lucrative Templeton Prize for his god-like imaginations, good for his bank balance and great PR for the religious Templeton organisation.
Do not believe that quotations from scientists actually support these ideas. We must remember that scientists often use god-type language to explain wonderous mysteries. But they do not mean anything like the Christian, Islamic or Jewish God. Even Einstein did this while strongly disbelieving in any sort of god. Scientists are excited and often mystified by findings at the frontiers of knowledge and then will use poetic language to describe those mysteries. Most are not seriously seeking answers from 2000-3000 year old writings of Middle Eastern desert tribesmen.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Despite the apologists explaining away (or attempting to explain away) any “wars” between science and religion, US film distributors have rejected latest Darwin film as too controversial. The producer, Jeremy Thomas, is quoted as saying:
“The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.
“It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.
“Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn’t saying ‘kill all religion’, he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.”
Read full article here.
I was watching a public Michael Ruse lecture in Australia hosted by Fora TV. It made me think about how Ruse, Francis Collins, and the late Stephen Jay Gould along with many scientists and liberal religious leaders see science and religion as working in separate non-conflicting fields of human knowledge and understanding.
Typically they characterise Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens as fundamental atheists, who are equivalent to religious fundamentalists. Both are seen as fringe groups outside the mainstream and majority thought. So the question that came to mind is how much of a religious fundamentalist do you need to be to see conflict between science and religion and what sort of populations hold conflicting views?
The Pew Forum regularly produce statistics on US religious beliefs – the home country of Michael Ruse and Francis Collins. According for Pew:
63% of the sample population believe that their scriptures are literally the word of God (33%) or non-literally the word of God (30%) in 2007/2008. Roughly 80% of the US population of 307 million (July 2009 estimate) are more than 14 years old. So we have around 81 million people believing that their respective sacred texts are literally the word of God. Sacred texts invariably contain miracles as God’s interruptions of the natural order. For Christians that includes Jesus’ virgin birth, healings and physical resurrection as part of those miracle traditions. It seems that these beliefs in the literal historicity of these miracle stories is in direct conflict with a scientific understanding of the world. So does Ruse classify these 81 million religious people as fundamentalists? Even the other 73 million religious people who see the texts as the non-literal word of God are likely to subscribe the some of the more important miracle traditions, again in conflict with science.
The Religious Tolerance website has polls results on beliefs of the resurrection of Jesus story. It seems that 60-90% of Christian clergy and laity believe in the actuality of Jesus’ resurrection over a 1997 to 2000 period. Again, an extraordinary number of US population who believe prima facie something that is contrary to our scientific view of our world.
Do Ruse and Collins see these people, millions I might say, as religious fundamentalists? And, if so, are they equivalent in numbers to the four outspoken atheists often named?
Alex McCullieNo comments