Thursday, July 13, 2006

Science & religion, the war and the tango   posted by Razib @ 7/13/2006 06:18:00 PM

In these debates about science & religion, evolution & Creationism, there are implicit assumptions lurking in the background. The primary one in relation to evolution, elucidated by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker and A.N. Wilson in God's Funeral, is that Darwin's theory resulted in the natural and necessary decline in religiosity for the elites. Dawkins went so far as to famously state that one could not have been an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin's theory of evolution. And yet one must ask, who is he to look into the mind of men like Pierre-Simon Laplace and declare them intellectually unsatisfied?1 I suspect Dawkins would find objectionable the assertion of a theist that even with Darwinian theory an atheist is fundamentally intellectually unsatisfied. In the end who knows the mind of a man but God himself?

If someone were to ask me whether the insights of modern science rendered theism implausible, I would have to affirm that. If someone asked me whether modern scientific insights (natural and social) rendered the likelihood of the plausibility of the distinctive truth claims of theism almost certainly false as a matter of necessity, I would have to affirm that. Nevertheless, I would also affirm that the vast majority of humanity would disagree with me, and that a substantial minority of scientists would also disagree with me (scientists as defined as Ph.D. holders in the natural sciences).

On the first count, just because one knows that modern science can do wonders does not imply that it is any more than a form of wizardy. Though the majority of humanity will take as valid most of science's truth claims because of the manifest reality of predictivity and applications in engineering, when those truth claims conflict at several removes of logical inference from other truth claims science is not necessarily going to win out. That is, if the inferences are subtle or extended enough then it is not a difficult feat to disregard unpleasant or unwanted implications. Contradiction is no great sin for the human mind, divided and modular as it already is.

The issue in the case of religious scientists is different, because one assumes that they have internalized many of the more subtle and "under the hood" aspects of the "scientific" worldview because of their participation in its culture. Yet the reality is that though scientists may operate as materialists in their vocation, they are not necessarily materialists in their metaphysics. Why not? As I note above, sometimes the integrated and contingent nature of particular inferences may escape people, but this is less likely with scientists. I think this explains why working scientists who are religious nevertheless tend to eschew the most blatant violations of the scientific world view like Creationism. Nevertheless, many religious scientists do not simply ignore or segregate their mental universes, they often attempt to make some connections between their faith and their science. But the connections they make are usually analogical or metaphorical, diffuse and more sentimental than concrete. A concrete application would be something like the theistic science that some Intelligent Design theorists propose.

One aspect of the religiosity of scientists is that it tends to be rather peculiar, or exhibit more heterodoxy than is the norm. Isaac Newton was a theist, but he was also personally a unitarian who believed that trinitarian theology was a pagan heresy. If one considers Albert Einstein religious, his God of Spinoza was equated with atheism until the 19th century when genuine godlessness could breathe free, and so set itself apart from pantheism. Physicist John Polkinghorne, a physicist and now a theologian and cleric, exposits a peculiar sort of Christianity, where like Newton he asserts the he goes back to the more Hebraic roots of the faith. Like the early Christians he emphasizes God's power in transcending materialism which dominates the world and opines that ideas like souls contradict the worldview of the early Christians and Hebrews, who seemed to accept only the corporeal self, later transcended by the possibility of resurrection by divine fiat. To me the ideas of many religious scientists are rather alien, and I don't quite know if many orthodox Christians would be wholly comfortable with them.

I suspect that a deep involvement in the scientific enterprise does increase the likelihood of irreligiosity, and atheism. But, I also believe it has a disruptive effect as a whole on the canalization toward a particular set of religious ideas constrained by cultural expectations. That is, scientists like Isaac Newton and John Polkinghorne wander into weird and unfamiliar religious territory because that is their nature, they are not the sorts to simply accept premises and not move with them toward logical conclusions, they are driven to explore, analyze and decompose systems. This, on average, results in a distortion away from the socially dictated set of axioms which define orthodoxy, especially in the case where those axioms pose local problems of integration with a scientific worldview. Also, I must add that figures such as the ~90% atheism of National Academy of Science members are likely not purely a function of their raw cognitive computational power rending asunder religious ideas, I also suspect that the social culture of science and selection biasing of individuals who devote themselves wholly and monomaniacally to their scientific work play roles in elevating the frequency of atheists in relation to the basal rate. I would bet that it is highly likely that many of the 90% are also individuals with a priori cognitive tendencies which make anthropomorphic deities and religious ritual particularly unattractive.

I bring this up because I believe that the triumphalism of atheist evolutionists and the terror of theistic Creationisms in the face of the "universal acid" is overstated. A mental parasite needs a good host, and most individuals are not particularly congenial hosts for evolutionary biology on a more than superficial level (i.e., they have read The Genetical Theory or something equivalent so that evolution is not simply another form of wizardy). Additionally, the novel and peculiar memetic constructs generated by some theistic scientists suggests even when parasitism is a possibility the mind can generate successful counter-responses. Creationists, like Duane Gish, who assert that if people believe they are animals they will behave like animals simply do not take into account that the manner in which humans behave is not contingent upon one pillar, their conceit that they are made in the image of God and singular in his Creation. Despite their constant attempts to "glorify their lives through God" my own experience is that most evangelical Christians live mundane lives where the impact of abstract or reflective ideas is less than that of the preloaded and preprimed software we all possess (thanks to evolution!). And for atheists who see in evolutionary theory the necessary refutation of theism, one must remember that the death of the gods has been prophesized for several thousand years now by various thinkers. At some point induction and empiricism must be considered so as to reconsider the model of human cognition that this mentality implies. If the lives of the gods and the sanctity of morals rested on one branch their existence would be tenuous indeed, but I do not believe that is so. Gods and morals are both safe for another day, so both militant religionists and militant atheists may claim both victory and defeat.

Addendum: Some of you might wonder, "What about Intelligent Design theorists?" As I suggest above, the deeper you get into the scientific culture the clearer are the contradictions between specific religious doctrines or assertions and the chain of inferences emerging out of science. Most scientists bend with the wind and rework some of their truth claims in ways that don't challenge scientific inferences head on, and try to balance the equation by suggesting that their faith has some numinous influence on their science (or, it may be more direct in inspiring or driving their search for truth). Nevertheless, some scientists like William Dembski (I'll call him a scientist even though his mathematical, theological and philosophical background doesn't intersect with the natural sciences) and Michael Behe do not bend with the wind, but attempt to rework science to be more in keeping with their orthodoxy. Or do they? Remember, Behe accepts common descent and macroevolution. My understanding is that Dembski does too, and his God is something of a clockwork genius or something to that effect. The deviations from Young Earth Creationist orthodoxy for these two is great, and Behe is and was a Roman Catholic so this was never a starting point for him. Nevertheless, some of these individuals, Dembski for example, do perceive a tension between their striving for societally accepted orthodoxy and their familiarity with the inferences from science. Like Dawkins and Peter Atkins Dembski avers that modern science is by necessity and operation materialistic and atheistic, but unlike them he isn't happy with this and wants to overturn it. His solution to this crisis? The various forms of Intelligent Design related to information theory he's been pushing all these years! If you read Dembski's online writings you'll note he isn't totally hostile or dismissive of Young Earth Creationists, even if he disagrees with their truth claims. One perceives that the orthodoxy of his youth has a deep resonance and power for him, so even if Young Earth Creationists are wrong he can not help by feel for them, and be with them.

My point is that the Creationism and Intelligent Design especially are particular responses by scientific individuals who attempt to juggle and reconcile their faith and their science. The reality is that the faith which they are so attached to derives from a pre-scientific age, and is mostly espoused by non-scientific mentalities, and so it is naturally going to periodically contradict scientific insights. The God of the scientists in general, as I allude to earlier, is usually more sophisticated than that. Some would wonder if it is really a religion in a convential sense, Freeman Dyson attends a church and yet I am not convinced that he is a theist. But a small minority of scientifically minded individuals wish to retain the God of the non-scientists, the God of the masses with which they identify and whose myths they cherish on a very deep level, and so they are attempting to reshape science into a more congenial form to mitigate their cognitive stress. That is actually one of my major beefs with Intelligent Design: it seems to me very close to being a concern and issue that cropped up at the intersection of high IQs, the raw realities of science, pre-modern religion and a conscientious drive to square all of life's circles. The evolution-Creation controversy need not be any such thing, as evidenced by the reality that in most of the rest of the world it is of little import, the masses accept evolution as deeply as here they reject, that is, rather superficially. But the motivations of a small minority of theistic intellectuals who wish to retain a pre-modern form of their religious beliefs has resulted in their "sicking" their co-religionists upon us, because by and large the intellectuals are of course the "brains" of the religious organism and it will dance to their tune. As I've said before, cognitively the leading Intelligient Design theorists would probably display fMRI patterns more like that of an atheist than a convential religionist, and that I suppose would distress them even more.

1 - And of course, Darwinian theory was rejected even de jure well into the 20th century by the secularist French. And some would assert even today they have no fully internalized as an intellectual culture Darwin's insights in anything more than a superficial manner.