Tuesday, February 17, 2009

False Divisions

I recommend Bioephemera posts often enough to be mistaken for that blog's unofficial spokesperson, but I'll continue to do so, and without reservation. It's an exceptionally well-written and thoughtful blog...plus it has a lot of really cool things to look at!

I encourage HH readers that are interested in the ongoing debate between science and religion to read Jessica Palmer's recent essay, "Taking Darwin's name in vain." Jessica offers a reasonable take on a complicated, fraught issue. I include her particularly quotable conclusion below.
"There's danger in thinking that just because something is or was evolutionarily adaptive, it is good for us. Science can shed great light on why humans might perceive things as good or bad, but it can't tell us what is good or bad. That's a question with which we have to constantly struggle, just as Darwin struggled with the existence of God.

One of the difficult realities evolutionary theory has made clear to us is that the human mind is not optimized for truth. It's optimized for survival. We routinely embrace adaptive fictions. If we want to use our understanding of evolutionary processes to improve society, we must accept that evolution did not bestow upon us a dispassionate, non-spiritual, strictly evidence-based worldview. We're passionate, spiritual, emotional, irrational, subjective creatures who are poorly equipped to imagine incremental change taking place at an invisibly tiny scale over millions of years - because we evolved this way! Getting the human mind to run the scientific method as its primary OS is a bit like getting a Nintendo to run Linux: we should be impressed that it can be done, not complaining that it's hard. And when people express deep spiritual reservations or conflicted feelings about the religious implications of evolutionary theory, just as Darwin did, scientists have to understand that it's not just because they're ignorant or obstinate. It's because they're human."
Read the essay here.


Josh Dooley said...


Thanks for the link! The article was very interesting, but I have serious doubts about the idea of accepting both science and faith as two parts of an ever developing picture.
Science is decided by what can be seen and what can be proven. Faith is decided by...?
I guess my question is this: When trying to determine the difference between good and bad, why should we settle for anything less than a scientific method? I think, in fact, that when religion acheives positive ends, it only does so because it follows the same methods as good science.
We hypothesize via holy texts and prophecies what we belive to be right action and solid belief. We can then observe (critically) which actions have a positive or negative net result (through the grandest possible empirical experiment), and we can then label those actions as good or bad. Religion, in practice is no different from evolutionary science in that old articles of faith are sloughed off as readily as gills, flippers, or baby teeth. For example, a society might learn that killing people for wearing clothing made out of two different fibers has a negative effect on hope, health, and morality. So, the "faithful" might start to ignore that particular article of faith.
The reason scientists do well to fear religion is because religion has a long history of calicification. Religion is like the T-Rex of science. When it feels that it has reached the apex of its evolution, when it decides that it has gathered enough zealots and faithful to itself, then it procedes to devour everything in its path. It destroys everyone who questions, and (worse) it quashes the questions.
Then, eventually, a meteor comes and kicks up enough dust to kill of the worst religion has to offer and it goes dormant again (maybe a crusade, a plague, or a revolution). It goes back to its roots, asking questions again, exploring faith and morality, regaining strength by producing things of value again.. and it evolves --- but, as people who ask the right questions know, not all evolution is good, and soon enough we're all stuck with another T-rex.

Hungry Hyaena said...


I find it curious that you have trouble accepting science and faith as partners in human progress, especially because I totally agree with your assessment of calcified belief. Indeed, religion does have a long history of stubborn insistence on this or that truth, but it also has a long (and less storied) history of non-violent renewal and adaptation.

It is a mistake to assume that all religious people are literalists, that all church, synagogue, temple and mosque regulars believe in the supernatural miracles and creative God that their respective sects and tribes ascribe to. And even among those that do accept the narrative accounts of Moses or Muhammad as fact, there are believers willing to revise out-moded concepts and commandments. (I'm thinking especially of the recent influence of Christian evangelical environmentalists or the surge of inter-faith outreach by the Muslim community.)

With respect to your question, I think that the scientific method can help us determine some of what is good and bad (certainly at the cellular level), and I feel that science, as a whole, can and does help usher humanity along a generally progressive path. But, like religion, science has been misused to justify wrong-headed philosophies and even genocide.

At their respective best, both science and religion (re)awaken or invigorate our capacity for wonder. Each makes use of a different approach, but they are complementary. As Albert Einstein famously said, "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." Where science seeks to demystify, and to build on each subsequent revelation to learn more, religion aims to make sacred that which is taken for granted, to make the ordinary again extraordinary. Both, however, offer frameworks of engaging our astonishing existence and experience. Both are compelled by curiosity and wonder.

As I wrote in the comments section of Bioephemera's original post,
"But what of those people who choose to reside in the question, to treat faith as an adventure and ongoing conversation, much in the same way a curious, impassioned scientist treats her vocation? There is more overlap than both sides might expect (or accept), and I wish that more conversation, even more debate, were had between those skeptical believers and agnostic scientists."

Josh Dooley said...

History is long and full of powerless people setting too much stock in deadly ideas. Science has, often enough, provided the neccessary tools for destruction, but religion has almost always provided the "reason."

Maybe I'm approaching this from the wrong standpoint. Maybe the questions simply aren't worth asking because we never seem to put any more stock in the answers than is convenient at the moment.
Or, maybe the problem is that people allow the unprovable and unknowable to effect their reason when it should only effect their whimsy...

Whatever the case, while I agree that wonder is important, I remain unconvinced that there are not more positive places to find it. And, I remain further unconvinced that the positives that would be lost in the direct abandonment of religion could not be found elsewhere. It is a very blunt instrument that is used for very delicate work.

Hungry Hyaena said...


As you write, history is chock-a-block with "deadly ideas" and, considering the longview, religion has "almost always" been culpable in the tragedies and sorrows birthed by those ideas. But considering the last two hundred years, the great horrors that come to mind are secular and scientific in nature and justification. It seems that humans are intent on carrying out terrible acts, no matter the motivating ideology or rationale. The "reason" can be whatever we want. (As Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, "What a wonderful thing is is to be a rational creature, for we can reason anything that we like.")

I do think that you're right, however. The root causes of fundamentalism are xenophobia, fear of social evolution and, as you put it, "people [allowing] the unprovable and unknowable to effect their reason."

But I think it is a mistake to reject religion because humans have so often misused or misunderstood its core value and its universal appeal. Religion is only a "very blunt instrument" when used by very blunt minds. So, too, can science be embraced by dogmatic individuals, intent on a narrow worldview that rejects wonder.

As I see it, there is no better argument for middle-ground than the failure of the Enlightenment's scientific, secular world view to produce holistic happiness. Despite myriad medical and technological breakthroughs unimaginable without the Enlightenment, study after study suggests that the "Third World" is generally happier than the "First"? Although the skeptic in me suspects that the test creators are looking for that result, I give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they are methodologically rigorous (or as rigorous as they can be given the rather open-ended arena they operate in). Assuming that is so, the results suggest that our secular world view, given as it is to material wants and values, inevitably results in our understanding humans and ideas to be, like everything else, commodities. Worse yet, its warped concept of individualism leads us to isolate ourselves and our immediate families from the wondrous hub-bub all around. As we've seen in recent decades, the result of this societal shift is a crippling rate of depression and, in turn, a culture of distraction and fleeting entertainment built to help us zombies stumble on, forever almost content.

But then I open an article by a deeply religious - indeed, evangelical - scientist like Francis Collins or the theologian and molecular biophysicist Alister McGrath, and I'm all like, 'Oh, yeah, Gould's magisteria can and should bleed across the membrane.' In the middle, neither science nor religion are blunt instruments, but liberating pursuits.