Posted by: Dan | February 11, 2007

‘Evolution Sunday,’ 2007

This weekend celebrates the 198th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, who profoundly influenced science and biology in particular, with his 1859 publishing of On the Origin of Species. Since then, science and religion have been profoundly at odds, with some arguing that one or the other is incorrect, or that they can be reconciled.

Case in point: ‘Evolution Sunday,’ run by the Clergy Letter Project, through which a wide body of congregations pause to acknowledge demonstatable scientific facts. The statement, signed by over 10,000 clergy members, states:

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

And kudos to them for acknowledging the basics of natural history, despite their refusal to apply logic and reasoning to the question of whether God exists, or whether mankind has simply created God in his own image (anthropomorphizing God; ascribing human characteristics to God).

As Red State Rabble notes though, the Discovery Institute, and ID proponents in general, strongly disagree that science and religion can be reconciled. For instance, Phillip Johnson has said (my emphasis):

They [scientists] have defined their task as finding the most plausible — or least implausible — description of how biological creation could occur in the absence of a creator. The specific answers they derive may or may not be reconcilable with theism, but the manner of thinking is profoundly atheistic.

I, for one, strongly agree with Johnson on this item. The detection of an agency such as God appears to rely heavily on superstition, imagined perception, and magical thinking. The methods of logic applied by theology and science are absolutely at odds – without going into much detail here, my thoughts on this are very akin to Carl Sagan’s in Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. For other books, I haven’t gotten to read Daniel Dennett yet, nor many others on theory of mind, the origins of altruism and religion, etc., but I plan to; and the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which I have read), nicely points out the silliness of theology.

Generally, however, the skeptical scientist lives on the assumption that everything in this world has an explanation rooted in physics and chemistry – we simply don’t always know the explanation, or the question is too big for the layperson to ‘wrap their head around.’ (e.g. can you truly fathom the geologic age of the Earth?). It is a tremendous challenge that faces scientists, to advance knowledge in the face of such complexity, but what’s the alternative? – an intellectually lazy attribution of God as a catch-all for the unexplained?!

People are free to believe whatever they want to believe, with whatever logic they see fit, but the skeptical scientist in me asks “so where’s this God of yours?”


Responses

  1. They [scientists] have defined their task as finding the most plausible — or least implausible — description of how biological creation could occur in the absence of a creator. The specific answers they derive may or may not be reconcilable with theism, but the manner of thinking is profoundly atheistic.

    Sure. The same could be said about any other science, such as the heliocentric model of the solar system. I am halfway through reading Andrew Dickson White’s book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Did you know that the works of Galileo and Copernicus were not removed from the Vatican’s list of banned books until about the 1820s or 1830s? Lots of other examples are listed as well. Did you know that many influential theologians of the pre-Columbian era considered it impossible that native peoples could be living on the opposite side of the globe from them (Antipodes)? This was because of Biblical statements about God or Jesus appearing in the sky where they were visible to the entire population of Earth.

    Hey, I went to a Darwin’s birthday party at a local museum of natural history last night, and I won a door prize: a Charles Darwin bobblehead figurine. Woo-hoo!

  2. Congrats on the doorprize!

    Very interesting faccts – thanks – they really underscore the completely antithetical grounds for assessing what constitutes “facts,” with religion founding its views on revelation, while science founds its views on demonstration.

  3. “I, for one, strongly agree with Johnson on this item. The detection of an agency such as God appears to rely heavily on superstition, imagined perception, and magical thinking. The methods of logic applied by theology and science are absolutely at odds ”

    Are you here positing that *most* people are irrational? Or at least most Americans, as a high number of people in the US believe in a *higher power*. Can science prove the existence of other people’s minds? Is logic a social convention?

    “Generally, however, the skeptical scientist lives on the assumption that everything in this world has an explanation rooted in physics and chemistry”

    How is this different than the Theist who posits that God is the explanation for the world and everything in it? How is your *assumption* any better than the theists’ ?

  4. Are you here positing that *most* people are irrational?

    Yes, or at least superstitious. As for the existence of “minds,” neuroscience works on the assumption that the “mind” is the product of chemical and physical processes in the brain. The idea that we have “minds” or “souls” separate from the physical body is a social convention. Is logic however? No – because it’s a way of thinking, a process; it’s not an abstraction or superstition.

    “Generally, however, the skeptical scientist lives on the assumption that everything in this world has an explanation rooted in physics and chemistry”

    How is this different than the Theist who posits that God is the explanation for the world and everything in it?

    Theism defies the laws of physics, chemistry, etc., does it not? Yet, have you ever actually seen the laws of the universe ignored? Anything every instantly appear in front of you? See anyone literally walk on water? Turn water into wine, or lead into gold, with a snap of their fingers? Anything that suggests miracles or prayer cure the deathly ill better than placebos (i.e. one in several million)? Those are all tenets of religion, or at least Christianity. Yet they involve the intervention of a deity that probably doesn’t exist. Theism relies on supernatural (non-natural) explanations.

    Science offers a different answer – that apparent miracles always have a benignly natural explanation. We might not know the answer each and every time, granted, because human knowledge is limited (despite our arrogant confidence to the contrary).

    Yet look at the predictive capacity of a priest or shaman versus a scientist or a doctor. Who would you rather trust your health to?

  5. “Yes, or at least superstitious”

    Would you agree that irrationality and superstition are distinct from one another? Further, how would you define *superstition*?

    ” As for the existence of “minds,” neuroscience works on the assumption that the “mind” is the product of chemical and physical processes in the brain. ”

    So can we trust this assumption given it was just the product of a chemical and physical process?

    The idea that we have “minds” or “souls” separate from the physical body is a social convention. Is logic however? No – because it’s a way of thinking, a process; it’s not an abstraction or superstition.”

    Is consciousness of one’s self unique to human beings? Is this IYO just the result of the chemical reactions in the human? Don’t other mammals have similar chemical neurotransmitters in their brains just like humans?

    Would you say that logic is immaterial or material?

    “Theism defies the laws of physics, chemistry, etc., does it not? Yet, have you ever actually seen the laws of the universe ignored? Anything every instantly appear in front of you? See anyone literally walk on water? Turn water into wine, or lead into gold, with a snap of their fingers?”

    And if I had, would you accept my testimony as credible evidence of the existence of God? Or would you, yourself have to empirically verify miracles in order to believe that they indeed exist? Would you then expect someone else to accept your testimony?

  6. Would you agree that irrationality and superstition are distinct from one another? Further, how would you define *superstition*?

    No, they can be inclusive. And do you really need me to define superstition for you?

    Is consciousness of one’s self unique to human beings?

    No, I’m not sure it is unique to human beings. Other animals do have similar neurotransmitters, and a number of animals have passed the so-called “mirror test,” where an individual recognizes him/her/itself in the mirror. This and other research clearly suggests that cosciousness has evolved from simpler processes.

    Would you say that logic is immaterial or material?

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. Logic is a process or method.

    And if I had, would you accept my testimony as credible evidence of the existence of God? Or would you, yourself have to empirically verify miracles in order to believe that they indeed exist? Would you then expect someone else to accept your testimony?

    No, you’re right, I wouldn’t accept such testimony – in such a circumstance, it would be anecdotal and highly subjective. There are varioius alternative explanations to such revelations that are more likely than such things actually happening. For instance, the brain can play tricks on us, and we constantly perceive the world around us intuitively, subjectively. Our perceptions are colored by what we expect to see.

    Yes, yes – the typical religious comeback is that scientists are not above such biased perceptions. True, but so what? Such a comeback completely misunderstands how science works. In the interest of time, I’d simply refer such a person to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revelations, supplemented with Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Both are good books – the former focusing on the role of bias and assumptions in the practice of scientific research, and the latter dealing with skepticism and superstition.

  7. Great post Dan. I’m a Christian myself (although more of the “Doubting Thomas” variety than anything else, and I may just be fooling myself and be a deist in reality) and the cognitive problems that stem from God not being necessary to evolution, physics, etc. Indeed, most times when I hear creationist/ID arguments they can be debated on the philosophical/theological level (usually unsuccessfully, however) but have no observation or empirical data to back it up. I think that for the majority of people, God is an unshakable hypothesis out of either personal experience, fear, tradition, etc. and stopping to actually read a book by Darwin, Dennett, Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, or anyone else is just too much to ask; they’re happier not thinking about it. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to think critically about these issues (I’d be less likely to suffer an aneurysm for one thing). In any case, if there has been any deity that has shaped life or physics or anything, I don’t think we’ll be able to detect that or prove it, and I’m sure the debate between those who believe in a god and those who lack such belief will be ongoing. Even so, like you mentioned, there’s a part of me that can’t look at the world in only reductionist terms, thinking that all we know from science is all that there is to reality/existence/etc. I think many people have this same internal struggle at some time or another and there’s nothing wrong with that, but what does irk me is when subjective, theological beliefs are put forward as scientific fact when they don’t hold water in the science arena. In any case, I have far more questions than I do answers, but thank you for your honest and even-handed take on the subject.

  8. Even so, like you mentioned, there’s a part of me that can’t look at the world in only reductionist terms, thinking that all we know from science is all that there is to reality/existence/etc.

    That’s actually the point of view of some family and friends that I’m very close with. And I sympathize, because it’s more comfortable and reassuring to think along those lines. I just don’t think it’s real.

  9. Further, how would you define *superstition*?

    I think the usual definition of superstition is other people’s religion.

    So can we trust this assumption given it was just the product of a chemical and physical process?

    What do you mean by “trust”? It’s a good starting point for experimentation, which can then provide evidence for or against the proposition.

    Is consciousness of one’s self unique to human beings?

    No, it is not. It is difficult to even addres such questions, since we, unlike Dr. Doolittle, cannot speak with the animals. However some work has been done, such as the ‘mirror test.’

    How is this different than the Theist who posits that God is the explanation for the world and everything in it? How is your *assumption* any better than the theists’ ?

    Once again, there are those pseky issues of evidence and experimentation. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Not all opinions are equally valid.

  10. Ivy,

    You seem to assert here that you have some evidence that animals besides human beings have consciousness:

    “No, it is not. It is difficult to even addres such questions, since we, unlike Dr. Doolittle, cannot speak with the animals. However some work has been done, such as the ‘mirror test.’”

    I am not sure how you can make a categorical statement in this case as you admit the whole area (at least at this point) is conjecture and guess. To you other point, Dan was asserting that the *mind* is simply the biological processes that go on in the brain and was citing neuroscience’s assumptions as evidence. This seems to be petitio principii .

    What sort of evidence would you accept?

  11. BBG,
    Actually, you brought up neurotransmitters.

    And questions, such as “What sort of evidence would you accept?” are really pathetic. How about some evidence? Any evidence? Anything objective whatsoever? You haven’t come up with any evidence for why the ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ are more than just the sum of physico-chemical neurological processes.

  12. You seem to assert here that you have some evidence that animals besides human beings have consciousness… I am not sure how you can make a categorical statement in this case as you admit the whole area (at least at this point) is conjecture and guess.

    Ooh, very slippery. You said consciousness of one’s self. Were you talking about consciousness, or about self-awareness? Would you care to define consciousness?

    And did you actually read what I wrote? I mentioned the mirror test. Why did you not respond to that? Why instead do you translate “difficult to even addres such questions” into “conjecture and guess“, words I didn’t write? Are you one of those annoying types who likes to make up the other side of the conversation, rather than engage in honest dialogue?

    Animals can be tested for self-awareness by holding up a mirror. If they are self-aware, they will realize that it is themselves and not another organism in the mirror.

    The Soul of the Ape

    … Although there were methodological problems with some earlier studies, it is now broadly accepted that chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans can recognize themselves in mirrors. Claims that dolphins and gorillas can pass this test are disputed. And all other species examined (including fish, dogs, cats, elephants and parrots) react to themselves in a mirror either not at all or as if the reflection is another animal…

    Elephant passes mirror test

    If you continue to be a ****** I will let the conversation drop.

  13. Dan,

    Not to trifle over who said what but, my question: Can science prove the existence of other people’s minds?

    Was answered by you thusly:

    “neuroscience works on the assumption that the “mind” is the product of chemical and physical processes in the brain. The idea that we have “minds” or “souls” separate from the physical body is a social convention.”

    Implicit in your *original* answer was the concept of neurotransmitters which you simply defined as chemical ….processes in the brain.

    The fact of the matter is, I will never convince you that mind is anything other than a biological interaction of synapses, dendrites, and neurotransmitters. Your naturalistic assumptions preclude it.

    Further you said:

    And questions, such as “What sort of evidence would you accept?” are really pathetic.

    Again, I think that evidence such as universal immaterial laws of logic, the empirically observable fact that most people live as if there is some meaning to life that transcends our temporal existence weigh heavily in favor of the veracity of theism. Ultimately though, I understand that this is a matter of faith. Even though I am fairly certain you will object, I believe you have faith in science while my faith is in God.

    However I should mention, the question was actually directed toward Ivy…

    Ivy,

    The results of the mirror test were inconclusive at best, and highly suspect at worst. Now, I wasn’t trying to put words into your mouth, a reasonable person (even after reading the wiki article) could infer that these are not matters of fact but rather conjecture and guess.

    Furthermore, I wonder why you left yourself a handy “opt out clause” ? And an ad hominem to boot.

  14. The fact of the matter is, I will never convince you that mind is anything other than a biological interaction of synapses, dendrites, and neurotransmitters. Your naturalistic assumptions preclude it.

    Fair enough. I would hazard a guess that the opposite is true of you, due to your religious assumptions?

    More interestingly though, you said:

    I think that evidence such as universal immaterial laws of logic, the empirically observable fact that most people live as if there is some meaning to life that transcends our temporal existence weigh heavily in favor of the veracity of theism.

    So, your observable evidence for the “veracity of theism” is that most people live as though there’s a God? That’s a circular argument though, and not empirical in the least bit. At least, however, you recognize that there’s an element of blind faith in your assumptions.

    Yes, however, I have faith that presuppositions that can be independently confirmed, repeated, or used to make experimental predictions, are to some degree accurate. And, as I said before, who would you rather trust your health to – a reductionist scientist or physician trying to treat the underlying causes of your maladies, or a faith healer? Simply put, I have faith that the doctor will do a better job of curing me, and therefore has a more accurate understanding of biology, and reality in general.

  15. Dan-

    Perhaps you missed the thrust of the argument. I am arguing that the contrary is impossible. Without God, your interest in migration and biology is ultimately meaningless. Nietzsche admitted so much, although I know from conversing with various atheists not all accept his paradigm.

    What I find interesting is this:

    And, as I said before, who would you rather trust your health to – a reductionist scientist or physician trying to treat the underlying causes of your maladies, or a faith healer? Simply put, I have faith that the doctor will do a better job of curing me, and therefore has a more accurate understanding of biology, and reality in general.

    Doesn’t this presuppose that you life (or mine) has some intrinsic value? Does this truly comport with a naturalistic worldview?

  16. The last box was my questions not supposed to be in quotes.

  17. Perhaps you missed the thrust of the argument. I am arguing that the contrary is impossible. Without God, your interest in migration and biology is ultimately meaningless.

    Ah, then I did misunderstand your point. The meaning of life is an entirely different topic, however, than what I brought up in this thread. But I thank you for acknowledging that your motivations for questioning the reductionist framework, that I speak of, relate to the desire for meaning in life, and not any scientific objection.

    For myself though, I don’t need God to have meaning in my life. I get plenty of meaning from seeing the smiling faces of my friends and family, and receiving their love and affection. I also get joy from studying science – joy, endless fascination, and the thought that discoveries in cell and molecular biology, or ecology and conservation, might positively impact the world that my descendents must live in.

    I don’t find that meaningless at all.

    So, of course I think that individual lives have some intrinsic value. I think, by your question, you might be confusing me with the creationist strawman – that naturalism and reductionism makes one a “nihilistic Darwinist.” Why don’t you actually get to know us atheists? We’re not as scary as you might think.

  18. Dan,

    If your last statement was a thinly veiled invitation for continued dialog , then I accept. So many times, these interactions end in ad hominems, or verbal assaults. I am not interested in that, rather would like to have a rational exchange.

    If the assumption that naturalism and reductionism leads one to nihilism is fallacious could you offer the ultimate destination for such a worldview ?

  19. I think that we’re getting a bit off-topic here, but I have no objections to where this conversation is going, so I’ll start a new thread later today. I will try to address the issue of naturalism/reductionism as it pertains to the meaning of life, contrasting it with nihilism, existentialism, and the like.

  20. […] Reductionism Lead to Nietzsche and Nihilism? My Evolution Sunday post initiated an interesting discussion with an individual who was quite honest about his […]


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