Has science proved the irrationality of faith?

This post is prompted by listening to “The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special” – you can listen to it here.

It’s hosted by Professor Brian Cox (he of numerous TV series etc) and Robin Ince. The guests on the programme were Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock), cultural anthropologist and editor of the Sceptic Magazine Deborah Hyde and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.

Now it’s a sort of comedy come scientific education reality show .. sort of hard to categorise. However you define it, it’s popular – this is its 15th series. It’s an enjoyable listen, if trying a bit too hard to be funny.

The theme of this show was ghosts and “the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.”

This was no New Atheist rant against the dangerous irrationality and intolerance of religious faith. But (not far) under the surface, some very familiar themes were bubbling.

Basically the topic of ‘ghosts’ could just as easily have been ‘God’ or – as the blurb on the website says – the supernatural in general.

  1. Science and the measurement of reality

Cox began the show with a statement: We are here to investigate reality. When it comes to ghosts, there is nothing to investigate because they do not exist. For some sort of persistence of people after death to be possible there would have to be an “extension to the standard model of particle physics” that has escaped detection at the CERN Hadron Collider – something inconceivable at the energy scales that it is now able to measure.

His point goes beyond ghosts to any notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ – anything that would somehow interact with our bodies must be detectable. Cox asserts (his term) that they can be no such thing as an energy source that drives our bodies.  We are purely material, physical beings.

Similarly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that there was nothing he had encountered that defied his “complete knowledge of maths, physics and astrophysics.” Belief in ghosts etc was simply the ill-informed seeing mystery in things they did not understand.

Deborah Hyde commented that belief in the supernatural is the “default setting for human beings” and it takes “a lot of education” to come to understand things as they truly are. In the past it was “forgiveable” that people believed such things and it provides comfort in the face of the realities of life and death.

She added belief in the supernatural “plays into” human nature – “we don’t see the world as it really is.” We are finite and limited. We can’t see infra-red, electrons, gamma rays etc etc. Humans are enormously attuned to a very narrow range of stimuli (faces, movement) and tend to see the world through that (distorting) lens.

It is the genius of science, she implied, that has educated and set us free from the narrow psychological need to see the world in spiritual terms.

To this Tyson made an impassioned plea NOT to believe in or trust the hopelessly limited 5 senses of the human body. Science has access to dozens and dozens of sophisticated senses to measure all sorts of things the human senses have no access to. So successful has science been that it makes sense of the world, it transforms our cultures and has incredible explanatory power. So to believe in something spiritual beyond the human senses is not hard. But to believe in “some spirituality” beyond the vast modern day scientific apparatus is hardly tenable.

And going forward, anything seen as ‘spiritual’ will almost certainly one day be explained by advances in science.

To his credit, Bishop Nick Baines responded that Christianity says there is more to reality that what is measureable. It also deals in questions of meaning and purpose beyond the boundaries of science, but the overwhelming flow of the programme was that science is the gateway to knowledge and objectivity.

Nothing will stand in its way as an explanatory tool to understand all reality. The ‘spiritual’ and the ‘supernatural’ will eventually be squeezed out of existence by the onward march of the inquisitive scientific pioneer.

  1. Scientism

Now as I heard the show (and this is simply my take on it, my opinions are demonstrably falsifiable – just ask my family) this was an entertaining form of scientism – the belief that scientific enquiry forms the limits of our cognition and that any knowledge or belief claim that does not measure up to empirical enquiry is at best inferior and most likely a delusion.

It was a celebration of science, not only for what science can do but for what it is ‘disproving’. The whole ethos of the show is the elevation of experts sharing with us insights into the reality of the world; a top-down hierarchy of knowledge to be shared (in an entertaining way) with the masses.

Science deals in the trade of measurements, instruments and fact; religion is in the realm of unprovable opinions.

This is very much a modernist celebration of the advance of rational objective enquiry and the increasingly discredited and unbelievable world of subjective and credulous faith.

  1. A Conceptual Brick Wall

It seems to me that there is what I call a conceptual brick wall being built here; an inability to grasp that Christianity (I will focus on Christianity rather than the supernatural in general) believes in a God who created the material universe but who is distinct from that universe. He existed prior to it and will continue to exist if it ever collapses. He is not by necessity a material being but a Spirit who cannot be ‘measured’ in material categories.

  1. The ‘ghost’ of Immanuel Kant

kantThe ghost who was really present in the studio was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He wanted to ‘save’ religious faith from rational enquiry and tried to do so by redefining the scope of human reason.

Human reason was the basis of human knowledge, but it could only lead into knowledge of the empirical world. This was true objective knowledge.

That which does not belong to the material, spatio-temporal world (e.g. God, supernatural) cannot be comprehended by the human mind. So faith, for Kant, lay elsewhere, in man’s moral sense; in the realm of the subjective, as opposed to the world of ‘pure’ reason.

Brian Cox & co are disciples of Kant in their claim that knowledge only lies in the empirical world of scientific measurement. Yes, people may believe that there is something beyond the materialist view of the universe, but such claims are subjective (nonsense).

  1. Reflections

Kant’s ideas were a dead end philosophically. Christian truth is not confined to the realm of private subjective moral feeling. It is ‘public truth’, open to enquiry. Neither is it irrational. It has 2000 years of deep theological and philosophical tradition that has explored profound questions of existence. It is rooted in real historical events concerning the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course the Christian faith is not a total explanation of everything, but no belief system or worldview can ever be a total explanation of everything – including science.

Indeed, the Christian faith is not even really a ‘belief system’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘explanation’ of reality. It is a faith in a person – the resurrected Lord.

I guess my feeling in listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage were these:

  • These guys (Cox and Ince and guests) are very smart
  • They know it
  • They are also very confident
  • And that self-assurance is leaking over into an over-confident celebration of all things scientific whereby science itself seems to be the measure by which reality and life can be understood

I guess I am just not that confident.

We don’t live in Kant’s Enlightenment Age, intoxicated by the apparently infinite capacity of human reason and all the good it will do. We life in a post-modern world, rightly sceptical of those who confidently claim to have the keys to knowledge.

Yes the rise of science and human reason has led to unimaginable advances, but also to unimaginable brutality and a contemporary ‘culture of death’.

Rather than deGrasse Tyson dismissing the Bishop at one point “Yes, you can get all philosophical if you want”, it would have been good to have a hint of humility that maybe science doesn’t have all the answers. That maybe things that can’t be ‘measured’ – like love, forgiveness, truthfulness, character, compassion, hope, joy – are what really make life worth living.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Genes, God and Determinism

Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge has just written the latest Cambridge Paper on Genes, God and Determinism. How about this for good opening paragraph in which he says that the Third Reich borrowed its sterilization legislation from the USA.

Read and download the rest of the paper for free here 

For more than half a century (roughly 1880–1940) it was widely believed that heredity determined race, class, mental health, and intelligence. Eugenic legislation ensured the compulsory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of ‘physical and
mental defectives’ in the USA, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. As late as 1940, an academic review writer declared that feeble-minded people should be prevented from reproducing because feeble-minded families ‘are largely characterised by
promiscuity, desertion, illegitimacy, crime, unhappiness, ill health and other associated pathological conditions’.2 The writer was in no doubt that genes determined ‘feeble-mindedness’ and its associated pathologies. The Third Reich borrowed its sterilization legislation from the USA.3 The most extreme application of eugenics led to the gas ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Today such attitudes and practices are rightly viewed with horror. Surely the kind of genetic determinism that nurtured eugenics is a thing of the past? Yes and no. Today’s genetic determinism is more of a creeping, insidious, back-door kind of influence, absorbed by a process of cultural osmosis from the media, by the abuse of genetic language in daily speech, and unfortunately also from the inaccurate statements of some academics.

He argues that notwithstanding developments in contemporary genetics, “we should resist rhetorical narratives that portray humans as helpless pawns of their genes and their environments.”

Ruse: Christianity and Science (4) the limits of science

Picking up on the last post about Michael Ruse’s book, Science and Spirituality: making room for faith in an Age of Science

Ruse contends that the machine metaphor, even though it has great explanatory power scientifically, does not, and cannot, answer or explain at least four significant questions of life.

1) In terms of origins, life as mechanism does not speak to the question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ (Ruse includes a detailed philosophical discussion on the legitimacy of this question).

2) In terms of morality, the way things are cannot tell us about the way things should be or why should I be good? Despite machine-metaphor scientific explanations for how we think and act morally, Ruse points out that science cannot give any grounding for morality – why should I be good? – since morality ‘cannot be derived from the physical facts of the matter.’ 133.

3) In asking ‘What is consciousness?, he has a pop at Daniel Dennet’s contention that once you have identified the functions that the various parts of the brain play in consciousness then you have explained things.

‘Even a friendly reader might wonder if this is an argument, and if it is an argument, how is it making its case.’ 137. The whole point is that ‘the brain firing away in certain ways is not the same as feeling lovesick or delighting at the beauty of a Haydn quartet.’

4) In regard to purpose, (‘What is the point of it all?’) Ruse concludes that there is no place in science for ‘end talk’. Science does not address these sorts of questions. 147

What Ruse is saying here is nothing new. He’s a lover of science – he’s just pointing out that ‘scientism’ is a move beyond science to a faith system that claims all questions of life can be explained by understanding of the physical world.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Ruse: Science and Christianity (3) the triumph of the machine metaphor

A large chunk of Michael Ruse’s book Science and Spirituality: making room for faith in an Age of Science is taken up by the story of a metaphor – the metaphor of the world as a machine.

In contrast to Aristotle’s impersonal ‘unmoved mover’ and Plato’s ‘demiurge’, Christians during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards developed a scientific view of the cosmos as divine artifact – a machine perfectly designed by its maker.

Ruse traces the story through Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton to a point where a firm causal basis was proposed for understanding the world as one ‘of particles – atoms, corpuscles – endlessly moving in space – mindlessly, as one might say.’ And it was Descartes in particular who, reflecting on this new science, talked of the physical world as pure material substance which functions like a blind, unthinking machine (even if one made by God).

And from then the machine metaphor has continued as the dominant way of seeing both the physical and life sciences.

A chapter on ‘Organisms as Machines’ explores how for Darwin, the fundamental root metaphor was that of the world of organisms as if designed machines. Everything is embedded within this metaphor. Hands, eyes, teeth, noses, leaves, bark, roots are all as if designed, appearing so because of natural selection.

And this metaphor of mechanisms operating according to natural processes continues to be a defining characteristic of Darwinism. Ruse discusses Huxley, the mechanistic language underpinning modern genetic theory and evolutionary biology (Dawkins sees all life forms as ‘survival machines’).

And the metaphor has been extended into mankind as a ‘thinking machine’ – through Darwin and his diverse heirs (people like Freud, Skinner, Pavlov, Edward O. Wilson (evolutionary psychology), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ethicist Peter Singer and cognitive scientists who see the brain-mind as a computer and so on.

So you can see where this leads – it’s a short step to autonomous machine – the ”machine’ of the natural world works very well on its own, thank you.  So the ‘jump’ to the confident assertion that since we can increasingly understand how the machine works,  God is superfluous.

And it’s that jump that Ruse questions.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ruse: Science and Christianity (2)

Continuing an ad hoc discussion of some of Michael Ruse’s claims in Science and Spirituality: making room for Faith in an Age of Science.

Ruse makes an interesting and persausive point about the late Stephen Jay Gould’s (here appearing in the Simpsons) famous metaphor of the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ of faith and science.

This phrase is often taken to mean that Gould was happy to let science be science and faith be faith – the two operated in different spheres of meaning or something like that. [This actually is pretty close to what Ruse himself is arguing in this book, although he would not put it that way.]

Anyway, Ruse unpicks Gould’s image a bit to show that Gould, very much like Weinberg, Crick, Dawkins etc, had no time for the specific faith claims of Christianity.

Once Christianity trespasses into the realm of science you are into ‘unscientific’ claims about God, the Trinity, the Resurrection or ‘silly’ talk of miracles. The religious Magisteria Gould had in mind seems to have been more of a vague morality shorn of its theological roots than any acceptance of the supernatural.

To believe that God directs and creates through evolution is to invent a God who is “retooling himself in the spiffy langauge of modern science.” There is no higher reason why were are here apart from the fact that Homo Sapiens managed ‘to survive by hook or by crook.’ Our success as mammals is owed to the extinction of the dinosaurs, probably due to a comet hitting earth. So Gould quipped,

‘In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ruse: Christianity and science (1)

Over Christmas I had to prepare a review of a book for Evangelical Quarterly by philosopher of religion and author of numerous books on science, Michael Ruse. It’s called Science and Spirituality: making room for Faith in an Age of Science.

I won’t replicate the review here, but want to focus on some of the more provocative ideas Ruse suggests: provocative for both atheists and Christians that is. His argument is for the coexistence of Christianity (not spirituality as the title implies) and science – that they can exist together with integrity. So he draws fire from both ends of the spectrum

So here are a couple of starters for ten:

1) Science is utterly incompatible with creationism

= 6 day creation,  a young earth a few thousand years old. Such claims do not belong to traditional Christianity which has always said truth cannot be opposed to truth.

And here’s a pretty good put down:

‘Creationism, so-called, is an idiosyncratic legacy of nineteenth-century, American evangelical Protestantism.’ (8).

2) The dismissals of religion by many heavyweights of modern science (examples below) are ill founded.

Science has limits and these thinkers have transgressed them in their confident dismissals of the silliness, backwardness and unreasonableness of ‘religion’ – as well as often placing unwarrented faith in the ability of science to explain everything.

Ruse quotes among others major scientists: Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Steven Weinberg (‘Religion is an insult to human dignity’) and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix  (‘If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong’).

And how about this for another put down?

These are the heavyweights of science. Their populizers have no such claims to great achievement, but in their way they are even more important in forming the public’s opinion about science [and religion].

The underachieving populizers include Richard Dawkins (‘faith is one of the world’s great evils’) and Daniel Dennett (‘If religion isn’t the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress, what is?’).

I reckon Ruse is not on either Ken Ham’s or Dawkins’ or Dennett’s Christmas card lists.

Comments. as ever, welcome.