Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Science and Religion: The Loss of Nerve

The October issue of Scientific American has a brief review of several books on the relations between science and religion.

The authors of the books are Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biology), Owen Gingerich (Astronomy), Francis S. Collins (biology) , and Carl Sagan (physics).

In the brief review by staff writer George Johnson, he remarks:

"But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. "In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science."

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications--the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, "to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously." Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates--through spiritons!--and where it resides. "

"Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite."

"Sagan, writing from beyond the grave (actually his new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures), asks why, if God created the universe, he left the evidence so scant. He might have embedded Maxwell's equations in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ten Commandments might have been engraved on the moon. "Or why not a hundred-kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit?... Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?"

"He laments what he calls a "retreat from Copernicus," a loss of nerve, an emotional regression to the idea that humanity must occupy center stage."

Scientists who function with success in science and still cling to medieval ideas about an active and attentive god who responds to prayers of the devout are a fascinating species. We humans have the ability to compartmentalize our brains and believe intrinsically antagonistic ideas. We are the result of a million years of human evolution, and this ability may have provided an evolutionary advantage.

Today, any such primeval advantage is meaningless. Indeed the continued appeals to an anthropomorphic god short circuits our efforts to deal with the huge problems we face in a rational way. And "respect" for religion allows fundamentalists to follow their particular "holy book", whether the Bible or the Koran, adding to the craziness of modern life.

(See Sam Harris' books, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, for a devastating dissection of the dangers of respecting religion.)

Steven Pinker, the professor in the Department of Pyschology at Harvard University who has done ground breaking research on language and cognition, has written a good cover blurb for Richard Dawkin's new book The God Delusion:

"At last, one of the best nonfiction writers alive today has assembled his thoughts on religion into a characteristically elegant book. If you think that science is just another religion, that religion is about higher values, or that scientists are just as dogmatic as believers, then read this book and see if you can counter Dawkin's arguments. They are passionately stated and poetically expressed but rooted in reason and evidence."

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Another great reward of subscribing to The New Republic is the set on online commentaries and blogs dealing with the pressing issues of the day.

Not so long ago, the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution) discussed Ann Coulter's new best seller: Godless: The Church of Liberalism. (posted Aug 31, 2006)

A significant part of this new book deals with a spirited attack on godless biology and the evils of the liberal's god, Charles Darwin.

Some of Coyne's comments on this book are:

"Enamored of ID [Intelligent Design], and unable to fathom a scientific reason why biologists don't buy it, Coulter suggests that scientists are an evil sub-cabal of atheist liberals, a group so addicted to godlessness that they must hide at all costs the awful "truth" that evolution didn't happen. She accuses evolutionists of brainwashing children with phony fossils and made-up "evidence," turning the kids into "Darwiniacs" stripped of all moral (i.e., biblical) grounding and prone to become beasts and genocidal lunatics. To Coulter, biologists are folks who, when not playing with test tubes or warping children's minds, encourage people to have sex with dogs. (I am not making this up.) "...

..."First, one has to ask whether Coulter (who, by the way, attacks me in her book) really understands the Darwinism she rejects. The answer is a resounding No. According to the book's acknowledgments, Coulter was tutored in the "complex ideas" of evolution by David Berlinski, a science writer; Michael Behe, a third-rate biologist at Lehigh University (whose own department's website disowns his bizarre ideas); and William Dembski, a fairly bright theologian who went off the intellectual rails and now peddles creationism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. These are the "giants" of the ID movement, which shows how retarded it really is. Learning biology from this lot is like learning elocution from George W. Bush."

"As expected with such tutors, the Darwinism decried by Coulter is the usual distorted cardboard cut-out. All she does is parrot the ID line: There are no transitional fossils; natural selection can't create true novelty; some features of organisms could not have evolved and therefore must have been designed by an unspecified supernatural agent. And her "research" method consists of using quotes taken out of context, scouring biased secondary sources, and distorting what appears in the scientific literature. Judging by the shoddy documentation of the evolution section, I'm not convinced that the rest of the book isn't based on equally shoddy research. At any rate, I won't belabor the case that Coulter makes for ID, as I've already shown in TNR that her arguments are completely bogus."

What is especially striking is Coulter's failure to tell us what she really believes about how the earth's species got here. It's clear that she thinks God had a direct hand in it, but beyond that we remain unenlightened. IDers believe in limited amounts of evolution. Does Coulter think that mammals evolved from reptiles? If not, what are those curious mammal-like reptiles that appear exactly at the right time in the fossil record? Did humans evolve from ape-like primates, or did the Designer conjure us into existence all at once? How did all those annoying fossils get there, in remarkable evolutionary order?"

And, when faced with the real evidence that shows how strongly evolution trumps ID, she clams up completely. What about the massive fossil evidence for human evolution--what exactly were those creatures 2 million years ago that had human-like skeletons but ape-like brains? Did a race of Limbaughs walk the earth? And why did God--sorry, the Intelligent Designer--give whales a vestigial pelvis, and the flightless kiwi bird tiny, nonfunctional wings? Why do we carry around in our DNA useless genes that are functional in similar species? Did the Designer decide to make the world look as though life had evolved? What a joker! And the Designer doesn't seem all that intelligent, either. He must have been asleep at the wheel when he designed our appendix, back, and prostate gland." ...

..."What's annoying about Coulter (note: there's more than one thing!) is that she insistently demands evidence for evolution (none of which she'll ever accept), but requires not a shred of evidence for her "alternative hypothesis." She repeatedly assures us that God exists (not just any God--the Christian God), that there is only one God (she's no Hindu, folks), that we are made in the image of said God, that the Christian Bible, like Antonin Scalia's Constitution, "is not a 'living' document" (that is, not susceptible to changing interpretation; so does she think that Genesis is literally true?), and that God just might have used evolution as part of His plan. What makes her so sure about all this? And how does she know that the Supreme Being, even if It exists, goes by the name of Yahweh, rather than Allah, Wotan, Zeus, or Mabel? If Coulter just knows these things by faith alone, she should say so, and then tell us why she's so sure that what Parsees or Zunis just know is wrong. I, for one, am not prepared to believe that Ann Coulter is made in God's image without seeing some proof."

"Moreover, if evolution is wrong, why is it the central paradigm of biology? According to Coulter, it's all a big con game. In smoky back rooms at annual meetings, evolutionists plot ways to jam Darwin down America's throat, knowing that even though it is scientifically incorrect, Darwinism (Coulter says) "lets them off the hook morally. Do whatever you feel like doing--screw your secretary, kill Grandma, abort your defective child--Darwin says it will benefit humanity!"

"Unfortunately for Coulter (but fortunately for humanity), science doesn't work this way. Scientists gain fame and high reputation not for propping up their personal prejudices, but for finding out facts about nature. And if evolution really were wrong, the renegade scientist who disproved it--and showed that generations of his predecessors were misled--would reach the top of the scientific ladder in one leap, gaining fame and riches. All it would take to trash Darwinism is a simple demonstration that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, or that our closest genetic relative is the rabbit. There is no cabal, no back-room conspiracy. Instead, the empirical evidence for evolution just keeps piling up, year after year."


The only magazine I currently subscribe to is The New Republic , a slender weekly journal of ideas with very fine print and few pictures. They do have clever article titles, however.

Last week's issue contained a spirited call for American Evangelicals to rally to the cause of protecting God's creation. The title of the article is "Apocalypse Now: A Scientists Plea for Christian Environmentalism". The whole article is worth reading (abstracted from Edward Wilson's forthcoming book: "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth" ).

Biologist Wilson (emeritus at Harvard) includes the following stark paragraphs dealing with the enormous gulf between science and religion:

"It may seem far-fetched for a secular scientist to propose an alliance between science and religion. But the fact is that environmental activists cannot succeed without you and your followers as allies. The political process in American democracy, with rare exceptions, does not start at the top and work its way down to the voting masses. It proceeds in the opposite direction. Political leaders are compelled to calculate as precisely as they can what it will take to win the next election. The United States is an intensely religious nation. It is overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, with a powerful undercurrent of evangelism. We secularists must face reality. The National Association of Evangelicals has 30 million members; the three leading American humanist organizations combined have, at best, a few thousand. Those who, for religious reasons, believe in saving the Creation, have the strength to do so through the political process; acting alone, secular environmentalists do not. An alliance between science and religion, forged in an atmosphere of mutual respect, may be the only way to protect life on earth, including, in the end, our own. "

"Yes, the gulf separating our worldviews is wide. The Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--believe that the universe was constructed to be relevant to humanity. The discoveries of science, in unintended opposition, have reduced earth to an infinitesimal speck within an immensity of space unrelated to human destiny. The Abrahamic religions envisage a supreme ruler who, while existing outside the material universe, nevertheless oversees an agenda for each and every one of our immortal souls. Science can find no evidence of an agenda other than that fashioned by the complex interaction of genes and environment within parallel evolving cultures. Religious creation stories have a divinely engineered beginning and a divinely ordained ending. According to science, in contrast, humans descended from apish ancestors; our origin was basically no different from that of other animals, played out over geological time through a tortuous route of mutation and environmentally driven natural selection. In addition, all mainstream religious belief, whether fundamentalist or liberal, is predicated upon the assumption that humanity is not alone, and we are here for a life and purpose beyond our earthly existence. Science says that, as far as verifiable evidence tells, we are alone, and what significance we have is therefore of our own making. This is the heart of the agonizing conflict between science and religion that has persisted for the past 500 years. "

"I do not see how the difference in worldview between these two great productions of human striving can be closed. But, for the purposes of saving the Creation, I am not sure that it needs to be. To make the point in good gospel manner, let me tell the story of a young man, newly trained for the ministry and so fixed in his Christian faith that he referred all questions of morality to readings from the Bible. When he visited the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, he saw the manifest hand of God, and in his notebook he wrote, "It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind." That was Charles Darwin in 1832, early into the voyage of the HMS Beagle, before he had given any thought to evolution. And here is Darwin, concluding On the Origin of Species in 1859, having first abandoned Christian dogma and then, with his newfound intellectual freedom, formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." Darwin's reverence for life remained the same as he crossed the seismic divide that separated his religious phase and his scientific one. And so it can be for the divide that, today, separates mainstream religion and scientific humanism. And that separates you and me. "

I admire Wilson's efforts to reach out to the Evangelical community in the common high goal of slowing the destruction of the environment which supports all life on this small rock of a planet.

I notice that Wilson is not reaching out to the religious fundamentalists, who eschew political involvement in a world already condemned to eternal damnation, and see no point in worrying about the "environment" of Satan's home.