Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yet Another Reaction: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make "God" Obsolete?

In the last post I signed off till after the holidays, not realizing that there would be any more commenting to respond to on the Templeton Big Question site. But there was, and the response actually helped me push my understanding of the interface of "belief and unbelief" along. So it's worth sharing. And again, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

RE: Whole Series
Eugene Bucamp
Tracy Witha (09/19) claims that religious faith helps answer existential questions that science cannot. This is not true. There are in fact two very different kinds of existential questions, at least as I know them: the metaphysical ones and the ones arising from some form of psychological misery. Metaphysical questions exist in two varieties, those that are trivially absurd and those which we don't quite understand, let alone try to answer, and are likely absurd too. Both sorts we can ignore here unless someone gives an example worthy of consideration.

The second sort of existential questions, those that arise from some form of psychological misery, e.g., a medical condition, inadaptability to social intercourse, a serious conflict with somebody else. etc., most likely would not arise if not for the underlying misery. Hence, they would disappear if scientific progress could remedy the underlying condition. Though we are trying, it is true that we are not very good at it yet, but we can also note that science already remedies many cases of physical distress, something no religion does, which are also cause for psychological misery and hence a source of existential questions. Hence, science demonstrably does what Tracy Witham says it could not.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham

In considering Eugene Bucamp's comments of 12/16, I am led to the view that science (and research more generally) cannot answer an existential question. Two examples: 1. A young person wonders whether her life would be more productive of good if she became a teacher or an MD. In this case, a battery of tests and multiple research projects would be telling. Consequently, the question is instrumental; it asks how to achieve a goal, and science can help. 2. A young person wonders whether she should become a teacher to use her life to help others or become an actor to fulfill a personal passion. In this case, the question is existential because it asks what her life is to be about. It involves a choice between two values competing for primacy in her life, and science must wait till the choice is made to be of service.

It is obvious that the Ten Commandments, for instance, seek to tie a person's sense of what life is about to love of God and God's law, or as rendered in the New Testament, love of God and "neighbor," which is seen as fulfilling the law. Now one can clearly and truly speak of one's foundational value system as one's "God." This is apparent even in the atheistic writings of Sartre, for instance.

In that case, "God" remains relevant even for atheists, at least to the extent that they live according to well-formed value systems, systems that can be informed but not determined by science. Science cannot make "God" obsolete in this sense. In fact, "God" remains the most relevant question a person can ask, in this particular meaning of the term. Since the Foundation's Big Question HERE concerns God's continued relevance, not existence, this view carries the day.

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