Tag Archives: Victor J. Stenger

Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Science and the folly of faith

Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger.

Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616145994
ISBN-13: 978-1616145996

Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history.

Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history.

Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region.

Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality.

The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 “Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion.

Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict.

An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict.

Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist.

Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75)

In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case -  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, “We are not pleased.””

“Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a “plea agreement” that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars.

As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history.

On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity.

Somewhat pessimistic!

Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.

Conclusions

If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.”

This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theoiry and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his previous books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.


* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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Fine-tuning fallacies

In Fiddling with “fine-tuning” I discussed the way theologians and philosophers of religion have used claims of fine-tuning of the cosmological constant erroneously. That they have taken the fact that the value of the measured cosmological constant is 120 orders of magnitude different to the value of vacuum energy used to explain it. This has been described as the “worst calculation in physics history.” But never mind, these apologists have just utilised the huge mistake to claim that the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10120! So there god must be responsible.

This is what happens when you use scientific knowledge opportunistically. Like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Because the problem with the theological approach is that there is no interest in understanding the world around us – just in using science to support any argument they can drag up to “prove” the existence of their particular god.

Mind you, some non-theists also find the fine tuning concept beguiling. And they can also uncritically accept some of the fine-tuning claims that circulate. The idea that many of the physical and cosmological constants in our universe are extremely delicately balanced to values necessary for life to exist. The so-called anthropic principle.

So, Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us will be very useful for anyone attempting to check out these arguments by actually considering the science. He describes the physical and cosmological background to the constants, or parameters as he prefers to call them, usually used in fine-tuning arguments. And then he considers, one by one, just how valid – or invalid – the fine-tuning arguments are.

Here I will just deal with two “fine-tuned” constants – the “Hoyle resonance” for carbon nuclei and the “nuclear efficiency.” I think they illustrate two common mistakes made in estimating the degree of fine-tuning.

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Hawking’s grand design – lessons for apologists?

I managed to get my own copy of  The Grand Design (co-authored by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) the other day. Talk about luck. I was on one of my rare visits to the big smoke and inquired at Borders. It had just come in that day and wasn’t yet on the shelves!

 

Victor Stenger

 

Obviously I won’t comment in depth until I have read the book. I get the impression that I may find the discussions of philosophy more interesting then the physics, though. And I guess it is the philosophical aspects of the book which have provoked the most criticism, or at least the theological criticism. (Mathematicians and physicists like Peter Woit, of course are making their criticisms – but hardly making the newspapers with them – see for example Hawking gives up).

However, I am aware the Victor Stenger is reviewing the book and look forward to his views. He has some standing in cosmology and philosophy, and his writing in these areas are excellent.

So far he has made only limited comments based on other reviews (see Hawking and the Multiverse). I feel he makes an important, point in his conclusion. It does seem obvious to me, but then again the extreme theological reaction to news of the book suggests it may not be to some others. Victor says:

So, at least according to the reviews, Hawking and Mlodinow haven’t said much that physicists and cosmologists haven’t already heard before. However, thanks to Hawking’s notoriety, at least more people will now have heard that science has plausible answers to how the universe came about naturally without the need for a creator. Hopefully this will include those theologians and apologists who continue to wrongfully insist that modern science has demonstrated a need for God.

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Fallacy of Fine Tuning

I just picked up in my browsing that Victor Stenger is working on a new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Its planned for publication early next year.

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