♦ Limits of science or religious “fog”?

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In the religion/atheism debate Christians often assert that they accept a scientific view of the world and the scientific method but that science has limits. “There are questions which science cannot answer. For these questions we must turn to religion”. But should science accept limits imposed by religion? And are there really separate areas of knowledge requiring the different methods of science and religion?

Evolution of religion and science

During human and social development every culture developed both supernatural and logical explanations of the surrounding world. Often the explanations were mixtures of the supernatural and logical, particularly when they were required to assist with practical activity such as navigation, building and agriculture. The rational, logical, approach developed into the scientific method. The supernatural approach was incorporated into the mythology, stories and religions of the culture.

Religions also incorporated teachings about morals, values, society, property and legal rights. Sometimes, but not always, religious mythology included concepts of supernatural gods which were given roles in the creation and management of the world. Theistic religions used their gods to explain things, to justify moral and legal positions and often to justify and promote wars. We can see the concept of a god evolving to incorporate the various roles mankind required of it ( In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions by Michael Jordan describes this with respect to war). God was a creation of man and the concept, together with the resulting institutions (churches) and dogma, was used by ruling groups to advance their specific interests. This man-derived purpose for gods continues today.

So today we have these two approaches to knowledge. The scientific based on empirical evidence producing a relative, but ever-improving, knowledge tested in practical experimentation. The scientific method has proven to be a powerful way of understanding reality as seen by the rapid progress of technology with the accompanied improvement in the quality of life. On the other hand religion is still largely based on supernatural interpretations of reality although its sphere of influence has been vastly reduced because of the advance of scientific knowledge. However, many religions still continue to advance explanations of the world, and its creation, and of human values, morals and social arrangements. They usually attempt to give legitimacy to their claims by using supernatural authority (God) and its earthly institutions and representatives. Religious teachings and dogma are in effect using supernatural claims to justify and impose human values and ideas without the normal testing of scientific method.

Those special questions?

Some of the questions claimed by religion are a bit like “When are you going to stop beating your wife? To ask: Why are we here?; What is the purpose of life? etc., in effect presuppose a god. They are not objective questions. They don’t need an answer.

A group of questions religion jealously guards for itself are those along the line of What is good?; What is evil?; How should people behave? These are questions science can consider, and it does. Science is investigating the evolutionary and neurological bases of human values and morals. We are getting a clearer idea of how our morals and concepts of good and evil evolved. We can also appreciate the relative nature of these values in different societies and at different times.

And of course questions relating to the origins of the universe, evolution of the cosmos, formation and evolution of life on earth (and possibly elsewhere) are all questions properly the province of scientific investigation. As is the big question itself – Was the universe created by a super-intelligent being?

Problems with the religious answers

A huge problem with religion attempting to claim for itself the answers to these sort of questions is the methodology used. There is no objective testing of hypothesis, rejection of theories inconsistent with reality, or development of theories as a result of new knowledge here. The religious answers are “revealed,” claimed to be derived from a supernatural god, but in practice originating out of human belief and imposed by religious (and sometimes legal) authority. God is being used by man to impose these answers.

Some people buy the argument for placing limits on scientific knowledge because they see it as an impersonal belief system with its own inflexible dogmas which will be imposed. In other words they see it as another alternative religion. Of course plenty of people will take scientific knowledge to support their own dogma (and don’t religions often do this?). But the scientific method itself is objective. It produces knowledge of reality which is always relative, incomplete, open to question, but continuously improving. For this reason it is a powerful objective method for revealing and understanding reality. It is a far more reliable way of understanding reality and humanity than a fixed dogmatic religion relying on supernatural authority to impose preconceived beliefs and values.

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21 responses to “♦ Limits of science or religious “fog”?

  1. freidenkeratheist

    A huge problem with religion attempting to claim for itself the answers to these sort of questions is the methodology used. There is no objective testing of hypothesis, rejection of theories inconsistent with reality, or development of theories as a result of new knowledge here. The religious answers are “revealed,” claimed to be derived from a supernatural god, but in practice originating out of human belief and imposed by religious (and sometimes legal) authority. God is being used by man to impose these answers.

    That’s right. The belief in an omnipotent supernatural God perpetuates a lack of objective thinking. One can’t question God. Even when confronted by some rather hairy questions such as the blindspot in the human eye: “God in his infinite wisdom would have put that there for a reason”. What reason? There is no room for *reason*, and so the cycle of blind faith continues ever onward. “Child-like faith” is deemed a good thing and encouraged by some theist leaders. One can hardly wonder why – without the anchor of objectivity people are much more easily led.

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  2. religionandatheism

    I will not here attempt to assert that religion must necessarily cover what science fails to, but I will respond to the idea that science is, at least in principle, omnicompetent. That, I’m afraid, is a fallacy.
    The first thing to say is that we live in an age more preoccupied and impressed with the scientific approach to investigating the world around us than any previous time in human history has been. It is easy to see why: scientific discoveries bring extremely satisfying solutions to a great many problems (e.g. immuno-suppresant drugs). It is an irony therefore that a) so little is done in the way of educating people about how science actually works and how it relates to the world, and b) that an increasing number of people find science a completely mysterious process they cannot get to grips with.
    In that kind of environment it is much easier to argue that science is omnicompetent (capable of everything) because fewer people will really consider the idea fairly or be confident enough to question whether such an impressive method of inquiry is capable of being flawed. Yet the idea that science is capable of providing one day a theory of everything, or that it will be able to account for all phenomena is at best a mis-ascribed intention. Thus, eliminative reductionists like Peter Atkins (a world-renowned physical chemist) are frequenly permitted to go unquestioned when they assert vociferously that one day science will know all!
    A wonderful response to this conviction has been put forward by the brilliant philosopher Mary Midgley in her book The Myths We Live By (Routledge, 2004). The following quote is taken from page 35:

    “Anyone who feels a longing to complete our knowledge in this way [by science alone] should try translating some simple historical statement into the deeper, physical truths that are held to underlie it. What, for instance, about a factual sentence like “George was allowed home from prison at last on Sunday”? How will the language of physics convey the meaning of “Sunday”? or “home” or “allowed” or “prison”? or “at last”? or indeed “George”? (There are no individuals in physics.) The meaning of all these terms concerns very complex, far-ranging systems of social relation, not the physical details of a particular case.
    For a translation, all these social concepts would have to vanish and be represented by terms describing the interactions of groups of particles moved by various forces… The sentence as it stands does not refer only to the physical items involved. Indeed, most of the physical details are irrelevant to it. (It does not matter, for instance, where the prison is or by what transport or what route George came home.) What the sentence descrives is a symbolic transaction between an individual and a huge social background of penal justice, power structures, legislation and human decisions. The words uses are suited to fill in that historical and social background. Without such concepts, the whole meaning of the sentence would vanish.”

    Midgley makes an excellent point here, about how the language of science is not able to encompass all avenues of even elementary human experience or reality. She does well to highlight the limitations of scientific reductionism, although elsewhere she does actually argue there is a very valid place for it in the canon of our understanding.

    The lesson is, beware if you think science will allow us to understand everything at some time in the future. The way we understand things through science is only one way in a whole spread of important approaches. And I should know: I’m a research chemist.

    AG, http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com

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  3. Hi AG, what a coincidence! I was also a research chemist before retirement a few years ago.
    I didn’t say science is “omnicompetent”. What I am saying is that religious claims to exclude science from investigating certain questions is unjustified. Further, humanity is, and will, investigate such areas and the scientific method will be used. (I’m not setting up “science” as an institution like a religion).
    Of course, science is more than reductionism – that tends to be used as a dirty word (I used to get that claim from one of our managers who wasn’t very supportive of science).
    I’m also not claiming that “science will allow us to understand everything at some time in the future”. One thing I have learned is that you can’t predict the future, although I am sure in a few hundred years time people will look back and see our current most advanced scientific theories as almost primitive myths.
    Peter Atkins may not express himself well or may overstate his position in debate. However, I do think inherent in humanity’s investigation of reality is an assumption that it is logical and therefore potentially knowable, otherwise we wouldn’t attempt to investigate reality. This doesn’t mean that we will ever know everything – I think it’s a safe bet that reality is infinite and infinitely complex, and of course men may never develop all the technological and mental skills required.
    “The way we understand things through science is only one way in a whole spread of important approaches.” – you will have to be specific here about the other approaches you mention. I think history shows that religion is not a very successful way of developing a useful (for humanity) way of understanding reality. What worries me is that they do seem to get away with “claiming” areas for themselves and, I disagree, science just doesn’t have the public support it really deserves. Just look at the opposition to evolution in the USA, which should have the highest degree of scientific literacy in the world.

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  4. freidenkeratheist

    Hi AG,

    It is an irony therefore that a) so little is done in the way of educating people about how science actually works and how it relates to the world, and b) that an increasing number of people find science a completely mysterious process they cannot get to grips with.

    There is a lot of work being put into making science more approachable to the general public. Foundations, charities and courses for this very purpose are springing up all over the world – podcasts, web-based resources etc, etc. It’s a very big movement that seems to be gaining momentum, especially in the USA.

    For a translation, all these social concepts would have to vanish and be represented by terms describing the interactions of groups of particles moved by various forces… The sentence as it stands does not refer only to the physical items involved. Indeed, most of the physical details are irrelevant to it. (It does not matter, for instance, where the prison is or by what transport or what route George came home.) What the sentence descrives is a symbolic transaction between an individual and a huge social background of penal justice, power structures, legislation and human decisions. The words uses are suited to fill in that historical and social background. Without such concepts, the whole meaning of the sentence would vanish.

    As I’m sure you are aware, it is chemical processes in our brains which give the sentence “deeper, physical truths”. George’s mother learned which prison he was staying at, where is was, and all other relevant details, and that meme was stored via chemical reactions in her brain. But so long as we (and other sentient life forms) have this ability to process, store and reference information nothing changes, regardless of whether you look at the world as a religious person or from a purely scientific point of view.

    The way we understand things through science is only one way in a whole spread of important approaches.

    What other approaches are you referring to?

    And I should know: I’m a research chemist.

    Great! I’m not, so I hope you don’t mind me picking your brain.

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  5. religionandatheism

    Hi again,

    I agree that a lot more must be done to bring accurate scientific understanding to the public. And I applaud efforts to achieve this. I do think, however, that along with that we should show people that science is not omnicompetent and that it is only one way of understanding the world around us. As for what other ways of understanding there are, I didn’t mention them only because it would be almost a tedious exercise, although I realise that maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Certainly, I think that art, music and literature are all ways in which information about our experiences can be transmitted between people and which can be drawn on as an invaluable very frequently in our lives. Now, it is true that scientist is able to investigate all of these things: for example, you can analyse the physics of sound waves in music, of harmonics and so on, and you can put a poet into a CAT scanner to see what goes on in his head when he’s writing or reciting literature or poetry. But really what that affords you is a scientific explanation, not an artistic or literary one. There are people who claim that the latter is, intellectually subservient to the former: that in the end an all-embracing scientific theory will be able to explain somehow good music or the emotional content of poetry. This is reductionism, and it is a kind of reductionism that is very unhelpful. There is a massive difference between understanding all of the content of the sentence “Romeo loved Juliet” in the poetic sense as opposed to the scientific. The latter might even be a good explanation on the neurological condition of Romeo, but it misses the point Shakespeare would have wanted us to receive through his writing, a form of knowledge that is not reducible to physics. Similarly, the sentence “George came home at last from prison on Sunday” can be understood in scientific ways. You can argue about memes and even the linguistic side of the statement, but ultimately there is a meaning in the sentence that is not reducible to rational models, since rational models cannot take account of the full meaning transmitted in such phrases as “at last” or “George” or “Sunday”. “At last” for instance is perfectly clear in intention and sentiment to anyone reading the sentence, but is not a thing you can describe or convey using equations relating to the motions of atoms or sub-atomic particles or the transfer of energy. Instead, we rely on implicit understanding based on experiences of life in other ways; prisons, law and Sunday, for example, are all concepts irreducible to the particular case physics suggests we work with, even though physics is an invaluable resource in a completely different way.
    AG, http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com

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  6. Hi AG
    A dictionary definition of reductionism:

    1: The analysis of complex things, data, etc., into less complex constituents
    2: (Often disparaging): Any theory or method that holds that a complex idea, system, etc., can be completely understood in terms of its simpler parts or components.

    Reductionism is just one (very important part) of the scientific method. In fact the method is holistic in that analysis is accompanied by synthesis to produce a picture of the operation of complex systems. Today, commercial interests often over-impose a synthetic approach (they need models they can use) without sufficient analysis (reductionism) – consequently these models often give poor predictions.
    However, you are using reductionism in the disparaging sense and I think you are setting up a straw man or putting words in others mouths (to mix metaphors). No one is trying to take away the beauty of art, the wonder of nature, etc. But yes, humanity will (and does) attempt to understand what is going on in the brain. Maybe we will one day want to use this knowledge to enable judgments by artificial intelligence – who knows.
    I have never understood a “theory of everything” (a badly named approach used in fundamental study of matter and cosmology) to apply in the way you describe. It is far more limited.
    However, the key point is the attempt by religion to not only limit a non-religious approach to understanding reality but also to try and “ring fence” some questions for themselves. As Dawkins says in The God Delusion – if there are questions which a scientific approach can’t answer, then religion certainly can’t answer them.

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  7. religionandatheism

    There are 2 different senses (at least) in which the term “reductionism” is used. The first, is the perfectly valid application of simpler explanations to account of complex systems. The second is the philosophical extension of that valid idea into areas it does not fit. Peter Atkins is a perfect example of this. The claim goes that one naturalistic theory is, in principle, possible that will account of the entirety not just of the natural world, but of all of what humans are able to perceive. Such a view prohibits, almost by default, the “why” questions of life, and encourages their interpretations in terms of “how”. A rather trite example of this is the example given frequently by John Polkinhorne: to the question of “why is the kettle boiling?” there are at least two answers possible. The first is “because the heat from the electric filament in the kettle is being transfered to the H2O molecules at a particular rate and, on account of their thermometric constants, the vibrationally excited state of the water molecules has the implication that all energy transfered from the heat results in evaporation”. Alternatively, the explanation can follow this line: “the kettle is boiling because I put it on to make some tea”. They are both valid explanations, but they are different in the meaning they convey. Material reductionism would have all questions, including the question making tea, reduced to physical principles. Thus, the only understanding admissible for why a person would want to make tea in the first instance would refer to their neurological state, and so on – whose underpinnings are found in physics. THAT kind of reductionism is not wholesome, because it opposes other, alternatively meaningful interpretations. Reductionism has its place, I agree. And, being a chemist, I appreciate that more than most. The problem is when the power of reductionist thinking (particularly that grounded in the sciences) gets ahead of itself and begins to dictate outside of its area of reach. Beyond that, I was certainly not intending on using “reductionism” as a pejorative term.
    AG, http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com

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  8. You’re right, it is a trite example. I’m sure that if humanity ever became interested in why you wanted to make some tea we could start up a few religions, produce some holy texts, have a few wars and produce a theology and revealed “truths” about this (e.g., Monty Python’s The Life of Brian). But would we be any closer to a real answer? On the other hand we could use evidence, reason, logic and experimental testing of hypotheses. If these later methods can’t answer the question (and I’m not saying that they necessarily could), there’s no way that religion could.
    I have taken on board your opinion of Peter Atkins. For myself, having already made one mistake (assessing Richard Dawkins on the basis of other’s opinions and reviews – see my post Putting Dawkins in his place) I will withhold judgment until I have the evidence. I have one of Atkins’ books on my “to read” list and look forward to the experience.

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  9. religionandatheism

    I’ve no idea how you managed to get from the reason for making tea to holy texts and wars. It is, in fact, evidentially substantial that people who want to make tea tend to boil kettles. But besides that, I sense you’re keen to avoid acknowledging that the natural sciences have no capacity to describe such things as desire (e.g. the desire to make the tea); science only contains sets of descriptors at the material level – the kettle/water/tea’s material makeup and energy state. That does not convey or explain what ordinary people do all the time: express the intention to make tea. Again, the impulse for making tea can be described by quantifiable biopsychology, and neurocognitive studies, but neither the descriptions found there, nor the conclusions (as valid as they may be scientifically) will carry the meaning that everyday language conveys: “I want to make some tea.”
    If you still disagree with me, I’m confident in predicting that you’ll very much enjoy Peter Atkins’ dogmatic assertions as to science’s omnicompetence. If you’re interested in a counter-argument, try Mary Midgley’s “The Myths We Live By” or Peter Medawar’s “The Limits of Science”. Both are very readable and relatively short books.

    http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com

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  10. Now this was an interesting post (and the subsequent comments). I don’t think there is any simple answer to this issue, and as I’ve seen in the comments thread it’s easy to complicate it all.

    Maybe I have ADD, but I prefer keeping things as simple and on-topic as possible, especially when staring into a giant void like this, so hopefully this won’t turn into an essay:

    -I don’t think asking the question “Why are we here” immediately leads to the argument a god exists. Because most religions have it in common people take for granted the idea that any supernatural force out there must be intelligent and self-aware. Could not ‘destiny’ be an unconscious physical force like gravity, something that obeys its own laws and exerts influence on us even if we are unaware of its workings?

    It’s easier to assume that if there is a higher purpose to existence it is commanded by a higher being, but I do not think it is a necessity.

    -I haven’t read anything by Dawkins yet, and since I’m currently stationed in Baghdad it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. So I can’t fully answer the quote you include in an above comment, but I will say that religion can provide answers. They just can’t be tested fully. That’s why it’s called faith, not science.

    And I can already imagine you’re going to attack the idea of faith, but so be it. I personally think there are some things in the universe that will never be answered or known. Religion helps fill in some gaps. Or philosophy, and I don’t think that even got mentioned in this thread.

    -I don’t think religion fences in some questions for itself. I just don’t think science can provide satisfying answers. And it’s not just that science takes some of the joy of mystery out of life, which it certainly does in some cases. Brain chemistry is a big one, the idea that our emotions are simply reactions to chemical levels in our gray matter. It reduces human existence to an erratic and random series of physical changes. No rhyme or reason.

    Which, I belive, is a major reason so many people turn away from science. In some ways it’s very foundation, the very idea of turning everything into chartable figures and numbers, takes the beauty out of the world. And especially out of being human; we are no longer masters of our own lives, we are puppets to chemical changes and social constructs.

    I’m not saying I have that view. I consider science an invaluable tool in understanding God’s wonder. But if the only answer you think worth listening to for the question “Why is the kettle boiling?” is about the chemical reaction of the heated water molecules or whatever, isn’t that a fenced-in argument?

    Back on topic, I don’t think science provides satisfying answers about the meaning of life, the question of why we are here because it does not try to. I am not a scientist, my BA is in Cinema (a liberal art), so my understanding of science is limited, I admit. But it seems to me science is more concerned with the “how” things happen than the “why.” Even if you answer “why is the kettle boiling” with “I wanted to make tea,” the purely scientific explanation of why I wanted to make tea is based on reactions to chemical changes in my brain, social standards I was raised in about how to slake thirst, etc.

    Science does not try to find the purpose behind an action or state, other than as a reactionary force to other physical, chartable actions or states.

    Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m expressing myself adequately here.

    I do not believe emotions are controlled solely by the workings of the body. There is something there we can not lay out in graphs and diagrams, the mind is intangible.

    Can I provide evidence for this? No, it’s faith. And if you want to say that is cause for not teaching this kind of stuff in a public school, I’ll agree with you. But any college worth it’s salt will have philosophy and theology courses. Young adults are more suited to the true depth of spiritual discussion anyway, which is what I’m concerned with. Teaching Sunday school stories to children can lay the groundwork for religion, yes, but I want to see people growing in their understanding of spirituality, not just adhering to a religion.

    This is getting too long now.

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  11. Hi Philip, I’ve been reading your posts and I like your thoughtful approach.

    I personally think there are some things in the universe that will never be answered or known. Religion helps fill in some gaps.

    Many instances of where religion has ‘filled’ these gaps in our understanding have later been shown to be wrong and I guess this is what makes people like myself hesitant to fall back on religious explanations. I personally feel we’re better off to say we have no explanation than to fill it with ‘faith’. Once you’ve filled a gap it becomes almost personally offensive for someone like me to say I want to study it further to find a natural explanation.

    Brain chemistry is a big one, the idea that our emotions are simply reactions to chemical levels in our gray matter. It reduces human existence to an erratic and random series of physical changes. No rhyme or reason… …takes the beauty out of the world

    But that shouldn’t really stop you from trying to get to the truth of the matter should it? If you ever get the chance read Dennett’s Breaking the Spell; he carefully examines the possible consequences of whether we even should try to discover the truth even if it makes us unhappy in the end. He (or someone else) also draws a parallel with listening to a symphony: when you hear it you are overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and some would say it might ruin any future experiences you have with it if you try to understand all the instruments and how they work but that the opposite is true; the more you understand about the complexity of an orchestra the more powerful you find the music because you have a better appreciation of what’s truly going on. From my own experience with a subject like biology or neuroscience the more I understand about the mechanisms the greater the awe I have. I suspect the ‘beauty’ that people fear they might lose is actually similar to the fear of a child losing a security blanket.

    But if the only answer you think worth listening to for the question “Why is the kettle boiling?” is about the chemical reaction of the heated water molecules or whatever, isn’t that a fenced-in argument?

    Again, I’d point you to the example of the orchestra; A scientist may find it interesting to look at the mechanisms of water molecules in the same way a conductor might be aware of every string but both of them can still ‘lose themselves’ to the experience of drinking coffee or soaking up music.

    Science does not try to find the purpose behind an action or state, other than as a reactionary force to other physical, chartable actions or states.

    Science has been really useful for showing why we find purpose in things. When I learn that the ‘purpose’ (or one of them at least) for my love for my wife was an evolutionary adaptation that is great for procreation and raising offspring it in no way changes the way I feel about her – in fact, counterintuitively, I feel it all the more. Perhaps because I feel the heritage of billions and billions of ancestors?

    I do not believe emotions are controlled solely by the workings of the body. There is something there we can not lay out in graphs and diagrams, the mind is intangible.

    Would it upset you if we find that they are? Have you tried to exhaust all natural explanations for our emotions or minds?

    I like the way you tackle these topics and would be interested to hear your thoughts on the questions I’ve raised.

    —–

    (Hey, Ken, I keep getting a “you are posting comments too quickly” message but I haven’t posted in a day or two)

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  12. Hello Damian, sorry I didn’t respond earlier but I didn’t know you had responded. (At first I thought I’d be receiving emails alerting me to responses on these comments, but nope).

    The first thing I would like to point out is that in my above post I mention that I don’t know if I’m adequately explaining where I am coming from.

    One problem I have in expressing myself is that ultimately I am working on a very simple idea: I believe there is more to life than the physical mechanics of the body, nature, etc. I believe there is a purpose or something greater than “eat, survive, reproduce.” The cartoon in this post is wonderful in bringing the idea out.

    The possibility does exist, I fully admit, that I am looking for more to the world because I want there to be more. I don’t want to be the outcome of billions of years of evolution with no use in life other than to pass on my genes to further the human race. (And in my own case I’m very unlikely to get married or have children, but that’s a personal matter.)

    My faith is based on what I’ve seen in the world and experienced in my life; my personal experiences lead me to believe there is a God. But I know humans find patterns where none are intended, and the idea is always in the back of my mind that I am inventing what is not there.

    The only way to truly find out is death, but I don’t believe it is my place to take that step. And I’m not that eager anyway :P

    Anyway, to respond to your questions:

    -I know how some people get locked into their dogma and refuse any other ideas because they think it will tear apart their faith completely, and they are unable to simply adapt their beliefs.

    This is why I prefer to keep my spiritual beliefs about God, Jesus, creation or whatever simple and pliable. If the universe if billions of years old rather than thousands that does not change my belief in God or my faith in Jesus. The Christian concept of salvation does not rely on believing the Garden of Eden story.

    If I ever become a theological writer (one of my dreams) I will push against blind dogmatism and try to show people how dangerous it is, not just for life in this world but also for spiritual growth. Dogma hinders Christianity.

    -I think I see where the analogy the symphony and opera comes in, but keep in mind all the individual instruments need intelligences behind them to make them work. They don’t play spontaneously or randomly, which is what I fear about chemicals in the brain affecting emotions. I’m afraid, but don’t want to just hide from, the idea that what makes us feel happy, sad, the sense of right and wrong, is based on an ultimately random series of events that led to the biological diversity today.

    The idea that our consciousness, our awareness of self and other, is just an evolutionary step above (below?) other animals creates an emptiness to me.

    Certainly it can be interesting to figure out exactly how our emotions work, but I think science, so long as it is grounded in the physical world (and not that I am advocating applying the scientific method to the supernatural; I know it is not a fit), cannot pierce some areas. And what I see with many people is that they reject the supernatural completely because they feel science has adequately explained things.

    Maybe time will prove me wrong. I’m admittedly ignorant of pretty much all the sciences (I majored in Cinema and spend my time working my right brain more than the left), so maybe even now a fuller understanding of why we react specific ways to specific situations is being realized.

    *

    Ultimately I have great respect for science and scientists. I think God wants us to understand the universe, else He would not have given us either the ability and curiousity necessary, or creation would be so much simpler and we would not have questions to ask. Recall the Greek(?) myth about how the men before humans were made of bronze or iron (I forget the actual details). God could easily have made us out of a single element, without the immense complexity just within our own human organism (and that excludes our interaction with the Earth and other species). But, for whatever reason, He made us as we are, and I feel He wants us to understand.

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  13. I like you a lot Philip. I like your approach to finding the truth of matters and I like your honesty.

    I can identify exactly with what you are saying because it sounds like you are at a stage that I was at only a few years ago (and I’m not saying that to make out that I’ve found the truth and that one day you’ll be as enlightened as me!).

    First of all, let me clear up my analogy of the symphony. When I referred to understanding the individual instruments I wasn’t trying to draw a comparison to our atoms or molecules. I was saying that having an understanding of how things really work doesn’t necessarily take away the beauty we perceive. You said, “the very idea of turning everything into chartable figures and numbers, takes the beauty out of the world” and I was saying that, from experience, the more I understand about the inner workings of nature the more beauty I find. When someone told me that there are something like 10,000 organisms in a single drop of ocean water it blew my mind. My life became far, far richer for being exposed to those “chartable figures and numbers”.

    You say that,

    The idea that our consciousness, our awareness of self and other, is just an evolutionary step above (below?) other animals creates an emptiness to me.

    I’d encourage you to explore those boundaries and try to define first what consciousness actually is and then where in nature (and in humans for that matter) it begins and ends. Is the emptiness you feel the same kind that people felt when Copernicus demonstrated that the earth was not at the centre of the universe?

    And what I see with many people is that they reject the supernatural completely because they feel science has adequately explained things.

    That’s true. Science really has nothing much to say about the supernatural. But it does have plenty to say when claims are made that the supernatural somehow “touches” the natural universe. Most claims of the supernatural in some way affect the physical world and so far none of those claims have been substantiated which has to make you wonder really. Think of a claim and then think of whether it in some way touches the physical universe; how should we test the claim? And if we shouldn’t, why shouldn’t we? Is this just a cover up?

    When having online conversations – especially about beliefs – it’s all too easy to turn it into a debate which kind of forces us to take a hard stance to defend what we should probably be questioning. Please don’t take my questions as attacks; they are merely questions that I found challenging when I held similar beliefs. I do think though that your approach to finding the truth is more likely to succeed than, say, those who dogmatically cling to myths that go against observable evidence. Question everything! :D

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  14. I don’t take your questions as attacks at all. You’ve been very polite and all of your questions have been fair. I’ve encountered other people online that are as dogmatic in their atheism or anti-religion as some Christians are, so it’s always nice to meet anyone interested in honest debate.

    To get to your questions:

    -I really should have elaborated earlier on about what I meant about “charting” the world. The only thing that concerns me about that is when it’s done to things that I view as making us human. I mentioned emotions and consciousness because the levels of said that we enjoy are what primarily seperate us from the animals.

    Figuring out how the planets revolve around the sun is hardly distressing to me; on the contrary, it is fascinating to learn. I honestly don’t understand any of the attacks on science that have been made by organized religion. Imprisoning Galileo? Even just house arrest, whiskey tango foxtrot.

    But when someone argues that the aspects of our mind, the intangible things such as dreams, feelings, thoughts, can be ascribed to purely or just predominantly physical happenings…that part starts to make the universe seem cold and pointless. That I react to a melody or image because of the chemical reaction in my brain. That’s where the mystery is deadened.

    If I have to reassess my understanding of the physical world that’s fine. Earth revolving around the sun, sun revolving around the Earth. It’s actually pointless in the end (ever read A Study in Scarlet?). But take what make us human and that can be diminished.

    -As the proprietor of this blog has said repeatedly, whatever is of the physical realm must be testable. I read an interview with a pro-religious person, and he said we shouldn’t try to recreate the resurrection of Christ. I forget his exact reason, but it was along the lines of it being such a significant act that we should treat it with reverence.

    I disagree completely. I’m willing to bet that even if science could advance to the point where we could reanimate bodies it wouldn’t match the sophistication described in the Bible, where Jesus was virtually made whole, no decomposition, no loss of his mind. Just the crucifixion wounds.

    One problem, though, is that whatever truly “supernatural into the natural world” events have taken place are usually just singular occurences. How do we test them after the fact?

    -An addition to what I said before about people relying just on science; if you described an unexplainable event (a miracle or what-have-you) to someone naturally skeptical or just apathetic to religion, they might try to explain it with scientific terms without actually investigating the manner or even truly understanding what science they fall back on.

    A simple example is when someone sees something that is abnormal, and the typical answer is that it was a hallucination brought on by fatigue or something.

    Is that so different than using God to fill in the gaps of uncertainty?

    I’m too tired to write much else now.

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  15. Wonderful post, wonderful comments, wonderful responses. (insert applause)

    I have several observations:
    But first: I must say that I believe (cannot prove in any way) that disaster avoidance is more important than optimizing system performance. Example: Making a huge number of people feel a little better part time due to their religious beliefs, does not come close to balancing a few people being killed due to religious differences. I believe that religious beliefs are a net loss for the world. (It’s a belief, not a statement of fact!)

    Also, I believe there are few things in the world worse than faith. Faith is what leads to disasters too frequently. Faith generally means believing in the unsubstantiated teaching of you upbringers. Faith in you leaders leads people to kill millions of others. Faith in you teachers leads you to accept the dogma of theirs, or their teachers, or their teacher’s teachers. Faith lead you to blindly accept random thoughts of others.

    Next, what it missing from all the discussions above is the notion of degree. There is a lot of talk about objectivity as if it is black and white. It is not. There are varying degrees of “objectivity” and “proof” and “science” and “belief. I would like to see more analog thinking, and less digital. The conversations will be more accurate if that is acknowledged.

    Next: I don’t think anyone ever can make even a vaguely solid argument for the position that science will ever answer every question. “What is art” is not a science issue. That is not interesting to me. What is interesting? If someone makes a claim that there is an infinitely powerful entity that DOES interact with the world, they best use scientific principles to demonstrate that. It the FSM does not interact with the world, confess to that, and accept that there is no degree of proof possible, and you are believing what you prefer to believe.

    I believe that science is the best methodology in existence today to determine what is, and what is not, physically existent. If someone makes a claim that there is a god, they either must show, using scientific methods, that one exists, or admit that the guy is hiding from us.

    Finally (I could go on for days, but will show some restraint), there are, as far as I can tell, no serious difference, in terms of degrees of proof, between any of the world religions. So while one may be tempted to believe that their Christianity, Islam, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever religion is “more true” than the others, there is no data to back that up.

    So religion just comes down to personal preference. Leave it at that. It’s a preference, or a belief, not really in the direction of “factual”.

    My rants (mostly venting) are here (this write is about as serious as I ever get):
    slingword.wordpress.com

    Thanks again for the great posts,
    Slingword

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  16. @slingback

    I really like your comment on disaster avoidance.

    But first: I must say that I believe (cannot prove in any way) that disaster avoidance is more important than optimizing system performance.

    As a tangent to the this discussion, I think that this concept is relavent in many areas. For example, the current financial system appears to be over optimised in places (too integrated) and not very resilient in the face of systemic shocks. In this case to avoid the serious economics consequences that we now see, it might be better for the system to be less efficient/integrated. The question is: what is the appropriate balance?

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  17. Gosh, it is so nice to read a debate like this – thanks guys! :-) I’ve nothing to add to it, but it’s been instructive & enjoyable to read; I’ll look forward to the next instalments ;-)

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  18. May I add one more point?
    It is my observation that not only do religious folks have dogmatic answers to the questions outlined, and those answer are bedded in supernatural reasoning, but those types of “answers” are frequently in opposition to one another.
    Of what use is a thinking methodology when it leads to a wide variety of answers?
    I see that as a valid reason to ignore them all, as proof that using supernatural sources does not lead to the truth, but leads instead to random answers.

    Thanks for the post,
    Slingword

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  19. Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything. There are Physics Foibles!! There are limits to science!!

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  20. There are limits to science!!

    Therefore Thor exists.

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