Monday, September 29, 2014

God and Science

When Newton discovered the laws of thermodynamics he did not conclude that therefore God does not exist.

When Kepler wrote down the formula for planetary orbits he did not continue to say that his work henceforth made it impossible to believe in God.

And yet, when Darwin discovered evolution, his followers insisted that you cannot accept the science and continue to believe in God.

Then, Darwin’s critics agreed: you cannot believe in evolution and still believe in God.

It's nice to see a meeting of the minds.

Now, with atheism on the rise among the American cognoscenti, a University of Washington biology professor David Barash gives his students something he calls The Talk. In it he tells his students that they cannot believe in evolution and believe in God at the same time.

You might wonder why a scientist would feel compelled to burden his students with his opinions on metaphysics, to say nothing about telling them what they can and cannot believe. You would be right to do so.

Barash tells his students:

… that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

It is big of Barash to tell his undergraduate students that they do not have to discard their religion. And yet, it’s only lip service. He continues to say that you cannot believe in science and believe in God at the same time.

And yet, since God cannot be measured or tested, it makes no sense to suggest that you can prove or disprove God’s existence scientifically. Perhaps he wants to recruit people to the atheist cause, but what makes Barash an authority on metaphysics?

Barash disparages the late Stephen Jay Gould, but Gould was closer to the truth. Following David Hume, Gould argued that religion set moral values and that science described reality.

Religion is about what you should or should not do. Science is about what is.

Moreover, why should we not believe that God created human beings through the process of evolution?

Barash summarizes the now commonly held view:

According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation.

This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms (everything that we know about biology and geology proclaims that the Earth was not made in a day).

In order to refute this argument Barash introduces what I would call a straw God. Anyone who believes in God believes, he says, that God is omnipresent and omni-benevolent. How can a benevolent deity, he says, have allowed so much suffering in the world.

Of course, the same deity has allowed much joy in the world, and no serious theologian has ever held that God is obliged to eliminate all suffering.

Finally, Barash arrives at his conclusion:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

One might also say that the universe and the humans who inhabit a tiny part of it are involved in an orderly, not a disorderly process and that this process is intelligible.

As Jacques Lacan once opined, if the planets were following Kepler’s law before Kepler discovered it, and if the law is an idea, where did that idea exist before Kepler wrote it down?If it existed, was any mind thinking it?

In a sense Barash has proved Hume’s point. If you want science to be the gold standard you must eliminate morality. In an amoral universe there is no reason to follow the precept of benevolence. One might say that, in such a universe, cruelty is the order of the day.

It should be noted that not all religions are the same. Not all of them place divine or even parental benevolence at the center of their moral universe.

But if follow Barash's version of science, how can we avoid the conclusion that human beings, if they want to live in harmony with an amoral natural world should act as though there are no rules? Amorality means that there are no rules. Immorality means that there are rules, but that you break them.

[I will note that I discussed the socio-cultural implications of amorality in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. There I also explained the importance of the principle of benevolence, as articulated in Judeo-Christian tradition.]

It’s well and good to debate metaphysical questions, but in the case at hand we can also ask what happens when these different principles are put into human practice. What if you create a perfectly amoral culture, one that rejects the practice of benevolence?

Can we not judge that culture by what it does and does not produce? Regardless of whether religion is going to show you the way to Paradise, it also produces cultures and communities. We are within our rights to ask whether these cultures provide a good life for its people.

In other words, we may judge religious values on pragmatic grounds. How well do they work, how much social harmony do they produce when they are practiced by a culture?

And we know, Judeo-Christian values have produced both good and bad.

And yet, what has atheism done for anyone lately? We are within our rights to examine the track record of atheist cultures, the ones that follow the principles of a supposedly scientific amorality and that reject benevolence. I am, of course, thinking of totalitarian Communism.

Judeo-Christianity has produced both good and bad. Atheistic cultures, such as they are, have produced nothing good, nothing of real value. They have merely succeeded in destroying millions of human lives in a very short period of time.

Barash has shown that when you make science omnipotent, you do what Hume thought you would do: you eliminate morality and produce a purely amoral culture.

It is fair to say that many atheists would disagree, but Barash’s view should still be taken seriously.

Some scientists would say that science should not be judged by the results of putting atheism into cultural practice. They would say that science is not in the business of producing communities.

This is true enough. And yet, if science is to rule our lives; if it is going to hold itself up as a higher authority, doesn’t it need to find a way to bring social beings together in community?

If science merely wants to destroy the attachment people have to their religious congregations, ought it not to be responsible for the ensuing anomie?

Of course, there’s more to social life than attending religious services. And yet, religion seems to function universally as a mechanism for producing social cohesion.  The truth is, you cannot have social cohesion without moral principles. You cannot have a community unless everyone is following the same rules. Where these rules come from and why people are inclined to follow them, we might leave open. And yet, we do know that they have not been handed down by science.


Charles A Pennison said...

Many of us humans like to believe there is a higher intelligence micromanaging the universe.

When our universe was just Earth, or just a 20 to 50 square mile of Earth, it wasn't hard to believe God was controlling everything. Now we know the universe is a big place, and may even be infinite. And there is the possibility that there are an infinite number of universes.

If God is controlling not only our universe, but all those other universes, then God is one busy and overworked dude.

David Foster said...

This professor probably thinks he's opening the students' minds by challenging their most deeply-held beliefs. Actually, relatively few of them are probably conventional believers in Western religions....a high % of them, especially among the women, will identify as "spiritual but not religious," and will believe in things like astrology, magical crystals, reincarnation, and a conscious Gaia.

Sam L. said...

I had a graduate physics prof who told us, "It's unfortunate, but the universe is not described by second-order equations." Translated: It's waaaaaaay more complicated that that.

Webutante said...

Many years ago when I was getting my bachelors in engineering and studying thermodynamics, and, especially fluid mechanics, I had a profound born-again 'God' experience through the study of energy equations, especially Bernoulli's equation..and how energy can't destroyed though it certainly can change forms and go towards entropy. It was such a profound aha! moment that now I can't image how anyone can't get it....of course energy in all its electromagnetic forms from thought---the Word---down through the spectrum of the electromagnetic field then to the densest physical matter are all energy vibrating at different, imo, precedes biology and all the nonsense related to evolution or creation....

Ares Olympus said...

re: And yet, religion seems to function universally as a mechanism for producing social cohesion. The truth is, you cannot have social cohesion without moral principles. You cannot have a community unless everyone is following the same rules.

Atheists have Humanism as their religion.

But in regards to "rules" that does seems to be the predicament - how does a society function based on the virtue of diversity, where moral relativism says other people's subjectively values can't be judged by your subjective standards?

The only conclusions I have is that its easy to misjudge other religions as having straw-gods, but its fair game if you also consider your own beliefs by the same unfair standards. But once you become a skeptic, what's left?

The sensible philosophers would say our ignorance is what we have in common, so we can look for signs of God, and see or mis-see, and not really know, and that's easy as long as you don't have to know, but once you have to make decisions on what you don't know, you'd better hope for some hidden divine connection whose wisdom is greater than yours.

Leo G said...

O/T - Paglia on fire again!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Newton had very little to do with thermodynamics.

Dennis said...

Leo G,
Thanks for the link. I have always enjoyed Camile, but there is something more fundamental happening here that we have not begun to understand.
"Instapundit" has at least one of these example every day about teaching women not to rape.

It took me a while, but I have begun to look at science as GOD's way of teaching us about that which is in our environment and what we have not yet begun to understand. I see no real reason to see science or a higher power as mutually exclusive. Admittedly I believe the meaning of life or the reason we are here is to learn to become a better soul. There are challenges we are meant to face in order to have a better understanding.
I suspect that is why a number of scientist who have quantum physics/mechanics as their field of endeavor are beginning to believe in a higher power.
What is the difference between the actions taken at the micro level and the macro level? There is a consistency here if one is capable of seeing it.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

God is utterly other. Beyond comprehension. And real. And immaterial. Trying to prove God through dogmatic empirical materialism (science as religion) is silliness that insults quackery. I have read Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris many times... both their books and articles. They miss the point entirely. What they despise is human ignorance, and then write at great lengths to exempt themselves from humanity. It's quite bizarre and hopelessly, self-evidently arrogant. I often wonder if one of them has ever encountered the thoughtful complexity of sound theological discourse. I doubt it, as they wouldn't be so contemptuous of those who believe in something transcendent... something greater than themselves. That which is utterly other. That which we call God.

n.n said...

Religion is a philosophy of morality. It is often accompanied by a faith, typically in a philosopher: God or gods, where the latter may be divine or mortal. God is believed to be an extra-universal entity, which set in motion the physics of our universe. He is presumed to implicitly intervene through the moral and physical laws he set forth.

Atheism is a faith-based ideology with a single principle: rejection of theism. It is not a religion. It does not have a moral foundation. Individuals will adopt or assimilate external religions or moral philosophies to guide their conduct.

Evolutionary creationism is not science. It is a philosophy of origin which is a logical but not scientific conclusion from observations of circumstantial evidence in a universal or perhaps extra-universal frame: the human ego. It cannot be observed. It cannot be replicated.

Atheism is a faith-based ideology which competes with theism. While agnosticism necessarily constrains its frame of reference, similar to science, and neither acknowledges nor rejects affirmative universal (e.g. evolutionary creation) and extra-universal (e.g. God) declarations.

So, there is no conflict between faith in an extra-universal entity and the physical processes of our system, especially within the constrained frame in time and space of the scientific domain.

Dennis said...


"the constrained frame in time and space of the scientific domain." Nicely stated. The failure to think outside the box of our own existence and even see the possibilities that might exist.

Anonymous said...

We should embrace trigger warnings, if only to satirize them.

Sample: TRIGGER WARNING: The following article may be offensive and traumatic to bratty, coddled, and spineless progs brainwashed by PC.