Monday, December 1, 2008

Reaction #1: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make God Obsolete?

If you haven't looked at the John Templeton Foundation's "Big Questions" series, you are missing a chance to read responses to important questions by brilliant contributors. The articles are actually written at a more-or-less popular level, which means that they are surprisingly readable, though the downside is that controversial claims are frequently made on the basis of the contributor's notable authority, and then controverted by the next authority. The result is a pastiche of differing opinions set out by luminous intellects. My overall impression is that it is the Kantian view that antinomies arise at the limit of human understanding that is vindicated, and not any particular position. And as Kant long ago opined, that leaves those who frankly acknowledge that the expression of their point of view is done on faith who are on the strongest ground.

Philosopher Mary Midgley came the closest of all the contributers to expressing that view. "Belief--or disbelief--in God is not a scientific opinion... It is an element in something larger and more puzzling...the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of the world as a whole." (See the Templeton site for her entire comment.)

That said, I thought something was missing in the series and contributions: an explicit rationale for the opinion that science cannot supersede religious belief in God. So I had the temerity to offer one in the comments to the contributors' articles. There are some interesting lessons to be learned from the reaction that I got from others who jumped on my comments. So I thought that I'd share the experience with you, starting with the comment that put some rather nasty responses in motion.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
Jack King (09/17) concedes that science cannot address the existential doubt in Marcel's play (see my 9/15 comment). Perhaps it will help to make the underlying argument explicit: If faith provides a framework for answering existential questions and science cannot, then science cannot supersede religion. The core of the great religions expressly provide that framework (the Shema, the Eightfold Path, The Great Commandments, etc.).

The Marcel plot was a specific example to illustrate how it can be that a person must choose a meaning in response to a situation that cannot be better understood "scientifically," and where faith provides the only helpful way out. Then I pointed out that the facts of natural history are also beset with opportunity for existential doubt, and that more facts are not likely to change the need for faith--and just think of faith here as "belief where doubt is possible," to use William James's definition--in making up one's mind.

Last, I used the naturalistic fallacy to point out that the understanding of the world that science gives us cannot be turned into the moral and value systems that people use to make decisions. My conclusion follows: science cannot supersede religion. In reply to Mr. King's counterpoints, "science" does not "apply" itself; human beings working as scientists do. Science does not accomplish the greater good. People decide to use science to do good.

To drive the point home that science is contingent on the non-scientific value systems of its practitioners, I ask, will science still contribute to the greater good if a scientist gives atomic bomb technology to terrorists? Is that a terrible thought? Yes. Is that judgment scientific? No. Would the terrorist share it? No. Could the scientist be a terrorist? Yes. Mr. King should consider whether "science" has become his "god." If so, my faith says he can upgrade for free.

RE: Whole Series
John Cozijn
Values and ethics are not derivable from science--that would indeed be the worst kind of scientism. But what makes anyone think that religion has anything to contribute? Fall of man via a trick played by a talking snake, followed by a blood sacrifice that "saves" humanity from this Original Sin? Puh--lease!

Why is a prelate more qualified to offer "moral guidance" than a plumber? The entire history of the Church would seem eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight into moral problems or any other human dilemmas. And given that science has effectively overthrown its entire ontology, the pronouncements religion does make on such questions are invariably wrapped up in layers of obfuscating mumbo-jumbo.

This of course is the fundamental problem with Steve Gould's position of "non-overlapping magisteria," or NOMA, which just hands over the entire sphere of morality to "religion." The reality is that the world does not need men in dresses to pontificate or evangelical conmen to command others "how to live." Religion in the 21st century is surplus to requirements. We are on our own, so let's just grow up and start taking responsibility for our ethical and personal choices based on the best information about the world we can get (which is where science comes in).

No comments: