Saturday, January 24, 2009

Last Comments on Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

I exchanged comments on the Templeton Foundation's Big Questions site a few weeks back, again. It's been a good opportunity to think through this, well, big question. Having just checked out the site to copy the comments, I see that the "conversation" is winding down. In fact, it's beginning to look like I was the person most determined to get in the last word. Kind of embarrassing. But I'm done now, and maybe someone will come along and rescue me from taking "last place." :-)

You'll see that I used the quote from William James' Varieties that you see on the side bar.

RE: Whole Series
Eugene Bucamp
Let's go back to Tracy Witham's example (12/19) of the young person wondering whether "she should become a teacher to use her life to help others or become an actor to fulfill a personal passion," an example given, as he put it (01/10), to illustrate that "existential questions are not answered by science but can be answered by religion."

Witham may call this an existential question (I call this a moral question), but my point remains that Witham still has to show that belief in God helps. In my view, God does not exist, and values are formed in the crucible of our personal, social, and political relationships, through time, and so-called religious values are no exception. Like Witham put it, "human beings can decide what their lives are about." To claim that religion helps is to claim that it helps people find an appropriate response to moral problems. But how could we assess whether this is the case? As Witham contends, this is not a scientific issue, so presumably there is no way to do that. So we cannot assess Witham's claim, which is therefore gratuitous.

From a rational perspective, moral problems cannot be the object of any short-cut methodology. Science can help us guess to some extent what the near future will be, but it will never tell us all the consequences for all time of our actions now. This is the reason why we remain free. We are free because there is no rational methodology to tell us what our actions should be. Let me repeat that animals, small and large, as well as pre-historic man, including Australopithicus, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthal, and Homo sapiens have all thrived for eons without the support of the Ten Commandments. Witham may think religion or a belief in God can help, but he still needs to substantiate his claim, whereas we already know how science helps. Nobody really needs religion or a belief in God, but we are all free to soothe our anxieties as best we can.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
Few educated people would choose scripture over science as a means of understanding the origin of the universe and its features. By that measure, science clearly makes belief in God obsolete. On an emotional level, things are less clear. Nature does inspire awe, and an understanding of science helps further those emotions. But it does not tie the awe to a sense of devotion to something greater than oneself the way belief in God does. That leaves a huge void for religion to fill when we consider the crucial aspects of human life that outstrip any factual understanding of the world that science can--even in principle--offer. Hopes, fears, desires, hunches, metaphysical speculations, etc. go beyond the known facts and yet serve to motivate us. Moral sensibilities, emotional commitments, and competing cultural values add further layers of complexity that no understanding of the "facts" that science might give us can encompass. In William James' words (conclusion to The Varieties of Religious Experience) "our overbeliefs are the most interesting and important things about us."

In comments exchanged here with Eugene Bucamp, I had assumed it would be obvious that, historically and factually, belief in God provides an authoritative center by which the diverse points of view--the hopes, fears, desires, morals, etc.--that are not subject to science can be ordered. Thus, my point is extremely simple, and can be conceived by imagining a simple Venn diagram. Science cannot rule in the crucial sphere of human understanding where "overbeliefs" play a major role in human life. That sphere has traditionally been the sphere of religion. Now Bucamp might think that science can eliminate all overbeliefs in some hypothetical future omniscience. In that case, it will certainly make belief in God obsolete. But I think that overbelief is based on a confusion. I believe that human beings will always face existential questions that science cannot answer, leaving the door open for religious beliefs of all kinds--including Bucamp's seeming faith in science.


Under the Eagle's Wing said...

this may sound far too simple for a discussion of this nature, however the introduction of fear created the existential dilemma and the only source which seeks to fully placate our fears is found in the nature of religion. I believe religion existed before science and is foundational to our lives with or without science to provide insight and understanding. John

Tracy Witham said...

Hi John,

I too thought that a simple point about the difference between science and religion/God was exactly what was needed.