Science and Non-belief: How chance and necessity explain our world.
Presented by Taner Edis, Assistant Professor of Physics, Truman State University
Presented on Wednesday, January 9, 2008 in Grand Rapids, MI.
Join us for a fascinating presentation by Taner Edis who will be speaking on his book Science and Non-belief. Scientists have raised questions about religious belief since the earliest development of scientific thought. Over the centuries, as science has become ever more sophisticated and answered many of the questions previously in the domain of religion, more and more people have developed a skeptical point of view regarding religion. Today, many scientists are nonbelievers with a secular, science-based perspective. In Science and Non-Belief, physicist and acclaimed science writer Taner Edis examines the relationship between today's sciences and religious nonbelief. Complete with a historical chronology, an extensive annotated bibliography, and selections from primary sources, Science and Nonbelief is an indispensable and accessible reference work on the subject.
About the Speaker
Taner Edis is an Associate professor of physics at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Edis received his Ph.D. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (1994). He is the Associate Editor for Reports of the National Center for Science Education. Edis is also an accomplished author. His most recent book is An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus Books, 2007). He has also written numerous articles and reports for various scientific and skeptical journals including Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, The Skeptic Magazine, and The Humanist. Edis has also authored two other books: Science and Nonbelief (2006) and The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science (2002) and is the co-editor of Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (2004).
About the Event
Summary and Commentary for the 244th meeting of our organization; our 8th meeting as the Center for Inquiry- Michigan. This meeting was held on January 9, 2008 at the Women’s City Club in Grand Rapids, MI.
This was our first meeting of the new year. Our last gathering in December ‘07, was our annual Winter Solstice Party. Our next meeting will be on January 23, featuring Roger Brewin, Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana and editor of Religious Humanism Journal. This returning speaker will present to us: The Notorious Charles Darwin: Scenes from a Scientific Life, as he assumes the persona of the author of On the Origin of Species.
During Jeff Seaver’s welcome and introductory remarks made for this meeting, he noted that we had had about 125 events in 2007! We are certainly an active group, with our regular twice- per- month meetings, Movie Nights, 3- Beer Discussions, Women’s Group meetings, Tuesday Coffee Talks, Summer Retreat, Cottage by the Lake, On- Campus activities, Youth Group gatherings, Halloween, Solstice and Spring Fling parties, and more.
Today’s topic was: Science and Non-belief; How Chance and Necessity Explain Our World. It was presented by Taner Edis, Assistant Professor of Physics at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Dr. Edis received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (‘94). He is the Associate Editor for Reports of the National Center for Science Education. Edis is also an accomplished author. His most recent book is: An Illusion of Harmony; Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus Books, ‘07). Edis, it should be noted, spent 20 years in Turkey. He has also written numerous articles and reports for various scientific journals, including Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic Magazine and the Humanist. Taner Edis has also authored two other books: Science and Non-belief (‘06) and The Ghost in the Universe; God in Light of Modern Science (‘02). He is Co-editor of Why Intelligent Design Fails; A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (‘04).
Dr. Edis based his presentation on his previous book, Science and Non-belief, which notes that scientists have raised questions about religious belief since the earliest development of scientific thought. Over the centuries, as science has become ever more sophisticated and answered many of the questions that had been previously in the domain of religion, more and more people have developed a skeptical point of view regarding religion. Today, many scientists are non-believers with a secular, science- based perspective. Edis examined with us the relationship between today’s sciences and religious non-belief.
He opened by discussing with us the idea of science- minded nonbelief, which pertains to how religious doubt and disbelief were inspired by the naturalistic trend of science. While connected to the following, science- minded nonbelief is still different from the moral opposition to religion; the philosophical criticism of the gods, and distrust of appeals made to faith. Scientific institutions are not always allied with movements that oppose religion, even while science makes no use of theological constructs and non-theistic movements may make use of scientific naturalism to fuel their disdain for what religion claims to offer. In his book Science and Nonbelief (which I will quote from extensively throughout this summary), Edis writes that (212): although science does not demand nonbelief, science does end up supporting the naturalistic variety of nonbelief. On page 213 he writes: Active nonbelief in the Enlightenment tradition is closely tied to science, and today’s intellectual nonbelief continues to have no option but to embrace science. End quotes. But in the same paragraph, the author argues that too close of an identification with nonbelief for science is a political liability. He ends the main corpus of his book with: So if there is an alliance between science and nonbelief, it is an uneasy one. Intellectually, science and nonbelief are not just compatible- they largely support each other. Politically, however, the relationship is somewhat one- sided. Nonbelievers need science much more than science needs nonbelievers. And maintaining the prestige of science, not nonbelief, is the interest both groups hold in common. End quote.
Regarding scientific naturalism: by its very name, it is apart from supernatural claims and notions. In its most minimal sense, it does not hold to concepts of gods, souls and ghosts that operate in the world apart from natural causation. The old Cartesian dualism of mind and body no longer has merit. The mind is what the brain does and the brain may be examined by the modern tools of neuroscience to see how it functions. This functioning is a purely natural process that does not require any non-material force, energy or explanation. Looking into the structure of the universe or our own physical structures yields nothing supernatural, so those wishing to preserve something top- down, mysterious and supernatural for our physical reality thought to peer deeper still within; to a mysterious essence they identify as the soul. On pages 96-97, Edis wites: Material events can drastically affect the mind. Brain injuries, for example, can cause huge differences in conscious experience. Professor Edis also included in this section of his book how drugs, Alzheimer’s sufferers, radical personality changes, and other forms of mental deterioration that could be seen without any intervention or mitigation by ghosts, gods or a non-material soul. Regarding further the relationship between brain and mind, he writes: it is difficult to say, watching a patient whose brain damage alters her personality or conscious experience, that her soul lives on, unchanged, impaired only in its ability to express itself materially.
He writes: Dualists need some account of how the brain and soul interact, and Cartesian dualism, which insists that minds are utterly nonphysical, cannot provide such an account. More on this matter on page 104: ..it is clear that moral thought is built on a substrate of physical information processing put together by Darwinian variation and selection. What would a soul contribute to moral behavior- what is it supposed to do [on top of what the brain already does]? End quote. He also likened the sensation of a central place in the head for producing our unified experience of will to the idea of the will of the people rather than an individual central willer; a common collective from various portions of the brain and neural and cognitive sensations that we perceive as a single coherent conscious experience as a result of material brain processing.
We need a better sense of what the supernatural agent is and how it operates for it to be something that science may work with. However, the naturalistic approach is able to provide solid ideas of why humans are so susceptible to creating supernatural agents as causal forces in the world, by dint of modern cognitive science. We can now start to see how religion originates; how the human brain is built for such proclivities.
Dr. Edis noted (page 174) that: ...religious concepts are easy to learn, and they evoke a host of inferences appropriate to the category of persons. By contrast, he writes (page 209): The problem for nonbelievers is that their ideal of critical rationality is costly to realize. It takes a lot of effort to understand modern science or to engage in secular moral philosophy. End quote. Continuing from page 174: Like commonsense beliefs, religious ideas occur to most people naturally, without need for much reflection. Yet supernatural beliefs are also odd, since they violate some basic expectations. [...] (175): Cognitive scientists have found that concepts incorporating a single violation are optimal for memory and oral transmission. The oddness grabs attention, while enough default inferences can be made to avoid having to remember too many details. It appears that the typical human brain easily remembers and transmits stories about category- violating beings. End quotes.
He writes about how these category- violating agents do not just grab our attention and memory but will also very often be validated by experience. Thinking in terms of predator/prey scenarios—if one contemplates a potentially dangerous situation rationally, he may be killed or lose an opportunity to capture prey and so take himself out of the running for passing along his rational genes. Failing to detect real agents behind ambiguous stimuli is more costly than being oversensitive and attributing a purpose to complicated but impersonal events. We see agents and purpose everywhere. We are, as Dr. Michael Shermer notes, pattern- seeking/seeing storytelling apes. Our mechanisms are easily triggered by anxiety producing and uncertain events. I think of movies and TV programs involving so- called ghost hunters, where they must perform their hunts in dark, creepy and unfamiliar settings with lots of nooks and crannies, bends and twists, and closed doors and mysterious rooms. It quite simply primes one to experience supernatural agency as it trips our natural triggers for the perception of supernatural agency. His own comments on this note that (175-176): [f]olktales and religious beliefs alike are full of monsters, and worship of predatory, malevolent gods is as common as that of more beneficial spirits. The concept of supernatural agency is built on innate mental capacities concerning agent and predator detection. End Quote.
Gods and ghosts are the stuff of horror movies and folk tales as much as religions, Professor Edis asserted in his presentation to us. This summary- writer has never been able to, in his own mind, make a distinction between belief in God or gods and belief in werewolves, leprechauns and fairies. It all seemed the same to me; all equally implausible and undefined and unconnected with the natural experiences that were to be found in the world. It all awaited sufficient explanation and evidence to even be something of interest to me… something that has yet to be provided to my satisfaction by believers. In his presentation, Dr. Edis spoke of how, in looking at these beliefs, the naturalistic person may wonder why it is that so many things that violate the natural world’s workings are believed in, in addition to a supernatural Supreme Being. We seem to operate out of an intuitive dualism, so that even though a statue that may talk, or weep; a disembodied entity that one may converse with, etc. are all in violation of common experience and what we know about the world, belief in them persists. I will add here that Pascal Boyer, in his book: Religion Explained (which I highly recommend and Edis uses as a source in his own book), told of how a Western clergyman heard about a certain tribe’s supernatural beliefs and he scoffed heartily at the primitive minds that concocted such nonsense. But he had no difficulty afterwards, returning to his church and performing odd rituals, preaching on the truth of highly irrational claims and exhorting others to believe in notions that were no better supported or sophisticated those of the tribesmen he denigrated. The built in mechanism to generate supernatural entities appears to be wired into the brains of most people; but how this is manifested depends upon one’s culture and other factors of experience and one’s environment.
Next, Dr. Edis turned to the paranormal. While this is something that could be true, there is no support for the claims made by believers in the paranormal. Parapsychologists look to find a way to show that there is something to the mind- body dualism idea. They try to show that something non-material—a spirit, for instance, or some other supernatural force, is acting upon matter as an agent. What has been produced to bolster this belief has been of poor quality and remains utterly unconvincing to the scientifically trained, critically thinking, and naturalistically- oriented individual. Paranormalists have tried to legitimize their pursuit of paranormal abilities by use of laboratory experiments, but Edis writes (142): The [...] problem with the laboratory evidence for psychic anomalies is, however, that none of the feats claimed are impressive. They do not stand out from among the mistakes and spurious results that occur in a nonmagical but complicated world. End quote. He notes further that no compelling evidence has ever been produced after a century of effort in the search of such evidence for psychic powers or spiritualistic notions. Paraphrased from page 148 in regarding UFOlogists and parapsychologists: They tend to define their phenomena negatively- as something lacking an explanation- rather than present a well- developed alternative explanation. In other words, paranormalists do not have any theory to frame their investigations, and from a scientific point of view this is a serious handicap. He talks of how much paranormalists lean on anecdote and in his book he quotes the skeptic’s slogan (pg.135): The plural of anecdote is not data. Philosopher, David Hume, had noted that no collection of miracle stories can carry more weight than the reliable and continually repeated evidence that the laws of nature are never violated. Drawing heavily from S. Blackmore’s work, Edis notes (149) that: NDEs [near death experiences] are generated through a complex interaction of culture and our built- in tendencies because of the structure of our bodies and brains. They undeniably feel real, but they can be explained within the natural world. End quote.
However, Dr. Edis said in his presentation, because of how our brains have been built by evolution, naturalism is more counterintuitive for most of us. It seems more a matter of common sense to adhere to ideas of ghosts or other supernatural agency operating in the world. Even though everything that has been explained and understood about the natural world has come to us via science and a naturalistic approach (and notions of angels, ghosts, gods and spirits have produced nothing that have gained us any progress or made sense of the interactions between natural processes), the amazing complexity and order of the world and known universe impresses many people enough to look for something beyond or apart from a thoroughly naturalistic explanation. They view design as something that comes from above. This is the main thrust of the Intelligent Design Movement. It offers nothing of its own to explain any natural event, process or being, but only says that the world we see is too organized for it to have arisen from purely blind natural forces, so they hold to a top- down order for the creation and development of the universe and all that is within it. The top that the design is emanating from is, of course, a supernatural agent. In most religions, reality is pictured in this top- down hierarchical manner.
The naturalistic stance defends the bottom- up view instead. As Edis had it: Complexity, including life and mind, is assembled out of the lifeless and mindless substrate of mere physics, which gives a base description of nature. He showed how particles and natural forces flow up toward chemistry, where molecules are assembled and then to macromolecular life, which is the realm of biology. But all are interdependent on one another and test each other. There is no need- or even inkling- of some mysterious life force, magic or supernatural involvement in this process. Life is based purely on what is going on physically; its processes yield to naturalistic scrutiny. In the book I am quoting from by Edis, he extends this idea (29-30): The rules chemists use in their work are derived from physics; we need invoke no chemical souls to understand molecules. Biology, in turn, can be based squarely on the physical sciences. [...] Different sciences test each other and their results feed back into one another.[...] Even scientists who are personally religious work in a naturalistic context within their own disciplines, and take naturalistic theories to have the best prospect for further progress. It is no great strain to think that the success of naturalism in our sciences is due to our world being a bottom- up, godless, and ghostless place. End quotes.
In his presentation, Dr. Edis gave examples of radioactive decay and snowflake formation as demonstrating the interplay of chance and necessity. With the former, decay is completely random, yet yields a predictable half life that may be employed in temporal measurement, and with the latter, although we may explain the H2O structure of the snowflake by physical laws, we can never know what random environmental forces will affect the snowflake and therefore cannot predict its end form.
Another device he used as an explanatory tool was that of dice. We cannot predict the random outcome of a roll of dice but we may understand what type of dice are rolled (randomness, therefore, within physical laws).
Our presenter also discussed chaos theory and the role of disorder and chance in what we may observe in the physical universe. Disorder need not always be due to randomness and we may get disorder even in systems that lack randomness; physics examines the world at a level where disorder is abundant, even though at the macro-level, we see only order. Sometimes this order seems so perfect from our macro perspective that it appears to be designed, but this is a fallacy and mere artifact of the interplay between chance and necessity. Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in speaking of evolution, talks about how people see the product and infer design (of an intelligent type) while ignoring (or being ignorant of) the blind, natural processes that produced the apparent design.
More on the down- up approach of naturalists from Edis’ book (pg. 28): [...] the universe is made up of the sort of objects that scientists, particularly physicists, deal with. Furthermore, physicists describe the interactions of these objects in terms of combinations of random behavior and lawful patterns, without any purpose or personality. Naturalists tend to think that the complex, orderly, and interesting aspects of our world, including life and mind, are unthinkingly assembled out of this physical substrate. End quote. He also, at this point in his book, discusses the concept of cranes and skyhooks, proposed by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, where the former are built from the bottom up rather than, as with the latter, descending from above without any connection to the material world that we exist in. Dennett also introduced the idea of Darwinian evolution as being what he termed a universal acid which eats away at all supernatural beliefs; at any top- down conception of reality.
The bottom- up view does not regard complexity being fully formed by divine fiat or minds being guided by supernatural means, but instead looks to how complexity is assembled from simpler stages and processes. Darwinian evolution, Edis said, is the best example of how this occurs, as it combines random variation as the raw material that evolution may act upon, with selection. This two- part process may be rendered as chance and necessity. Evolution, what Edis wrote of as the intellectual centerpiece of modern biology, is a thoroughly non- directed and non- progressive process. Having natural mechanisms to explain organic processes was the key to forming the robust theory of evolution. Physicists, Professor Edis asserted, learned a lot about the bottom up manner of the natural world in generating complexity from simpler sources through biological evolution. Evolution showed that variations must be blind—not designed or purposeful or forward- looking toward a goal; but those random variations are selected non-randomly to produce better fit organisms to the environment. Like modern physical theories, Darwinian evolution, therefore, combines chance and necessity.
Natural theologists in the past went looking for God’s hand in the creation and development of the natural world. Natural theology was in trouble after Darwin made his mark. Quote from pg. 18: The story of sin and salvation, the unique place of humans in creation- many doctrines vital to Christianity- had to go back to the drawing board. And science finally had something weighty to say about how complex, intricate entities such as living things came about. No special creation was necessary; in fact, evolutionary biology explicitly avoided bringing any intelligent designer into its explanation of the diversity of life. End of quoted passage. More in this vein on page 71: Random variation goes beyond physical constraint, producing truly novel genes [...] so Darwinian evolution creates information, constructing entirely new, complex structures even though it is a mindless, directionless process. (And on page 72: Evolution is central to a detailed picture that modern science has put together of how order arises from chaos. Pages 73 and 74: If we look at nature with anthropomorphic eyes, its wonderful creativity also appears cruel, wasteful, and useless. No intelligent designer working to achieve any purpose humanly recognizable as good would do its work through natural selection. End quotes. Creationists, including the modern species known as Intelligent Design proponents, have too much invested in their top- down view of the formation of life to relinquish it easily, as their view serves as a template for the justification of social and personal morality. Naturalistic science- a relentlessly bottom-up view- becomes a threat then, to far more than an alternative opinion espoused by creationists but, in fact, to their entire worldview.
Religion posits a top down approach that offers no mechanisms or explanation for natural processes—while all the real work in explaining self- organization is done by a bottom- up approach. On page 89 Dr. Edis writes of how Richard Dawkins has repeatedly pointed out that: Darwinian evolution, with its blind mechanisms that take no account of morality or suffering, is just the sort of creative process one would expect from a world that is purely natural, indifferent, and mindless at bottom. End quote. On page 90 Edis writes: In a Darwinian world, nature is no longer infused with morality. Living things do not have created functions that are right and proper, and variation is not a deviation from an essence with overtones of corruption. End quote.
He also writes of how exaptation (an evolutionary process whereby one feature/structure is pushed into a new service due to changing fitness needs within different environments) denotes the interplay of chance and necessity. A structure that provides a reproductive/survival advantage for an organism at one time may become modified from the existing form to better fit a new environment, bestowing a new advantage upon the possessor of that modification. But there was no foresight and evolution does not create, out of whole cloth, entirely novel forms; it does not intelligently design optimal structures but instead works with what is available and does so strictly for the purpose of passing along genes into the next generation; not for any forward- looking and progressive goal. Contingency and accidents play a large role in evolutionary happenstance as well. The catastrophe at the C/T boundary that allowed insectivorous mammals to exploit environmental niches that had been dominated by dinosaurs, ultimately gave rise to we bipedal primates. This is not the approach that we would expect from a deity. Nor would we expect such agency to be in the business of the mass extinctions that took place in natural history long before there were humans, who might sin and require salvation, came along.
Next, Professor Edis turned to the subject he knows best; physics, and how it demonstrates this same bottom up approach and connectivity of theory and observation with the natural workings of the world. He spoke of how difficult what advanced physics shows us is to integrate with our comprehension of the world at the macro- level that we live- and have evolved- in. In Science and Nonbelief, he writes, on page 36: Today’s physicists contemplate a world full of random events, where space, time, and causality are very different than how we naively imagine them. [...]. Physics violates common sense… presenting us with a world where everyday cause and effect are not fundamental but emerge from a substrate of random events. [...] It undermines the common intuitions about order and chaos that supports religious beliefs. End quotes. He notes how mature sciences reach beyond what comes naturally to us, due to the structure of human brains. Religious concepts are, on the other hand, easy to learn and digest, and they remain closer to common sense ideas and folk science notions. Physics deals with how everything hangs together and is connected.
Quote from page 39: The structure of physics, and the strong connections between its concepts, is what makes physics so intellectually and practically powerful. It is not a list of formulas. End quote. He notes further that even the neutrino (once proposed to make sense of other experimental results) is now as real to physicists as rocks and apples. If we have independent lines of evidence supporting a claim, then it becomes more secure (evolutionists call this robustness.) Theory organizes ideas and establishes connections, rather than merely cataloging aspects of the natural world into separate facts as the natural theologians had, in what Edis likened to stamp collecting.
On page42, Dr. Ellis writes: All our natural sciences forge connections with one another; physicists borrow ideas from biologists or computer scientists as well as the other way around. And as this happens, the strongest naturalist view, that our world is fundamentally physical, becomes increasingly compelling. End quote. On page 43, he continues in this vein by stating: Modern physics pictures a fundamentally impersonal world, explaining everything in terms of combinations of chance and necessity. A soul would not be a minor exception but a disruption of the structure of physics, turning the bottom- up picture of naturalism upside down. And since the overall structure pf physics is so well supported and connects so many different phenomena, an exception will not be admitted unless there is very good reason. End quote.He goes on to write of how the burden of proof is on the claimant of supernatural agency acting upon the natural world in a top- down way, saying that extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence, especially if one is attempting to disrupt major scientific theory based on repeated observations of the natural world. Trying to shoehorn a supernatural cause into what we have yet to explain is the well- known God of gaps approach; however, this is vulnerable to progress in science, which continuously shrinks the islands of influence or potential use for such agency. Quoted from page 44: If a supernatural force was ultimately in charge of the physical universe, it would be very strange if the science concerned with the fundamental structure of the universe [physics] was not able to find any sign of such a force. End quote.
More on the difficulty of relating to what modern physics tells us about the peculiar actions at the quantum level: Quantum events appear to be random in just the way an ideal coin toss is. Quoted from page 48: So our fundamental theories describing microscopic physics are thoroughly alien to our everyday intuitions. Down deep, our world is a place where particles get created and destroyed with no cause, where interactions are random, and where there is no difference between forward and backward directions of time to distinguish between cause and effect. End quote. Some theistically- oriented people try to misuse quantum mechanics to bolster their claims of supernatural agency acting in the world. Some even believe that the randomness issue supports their views. However, he writes (pg.52) that within randomness is a bad place to seek supernatural agents. A unification of all the basic forces- capturing all interactions between fundamental particles in a single account—would still not produce detail about how the world worked. Perfect symmetry is featureless in the same way that a sphere looks the same from all angles. [...] the most basic laws of physics do not alone tell us what the world looks like. They only say what sort of dice to roll to generate the world. Our universe [pg.55] operates by a combination of elegant laws and sheer randomness- chance and necessity. In fact symmetry and randomness go hand in hand. End quote.
He writes of how (pages 62-63): non-believers have been slow to come to terms with the fundamental randomness of our physics. This is curious, as genuine randomness undermines any way of understanding the universe in purposeful, spiritual terms. After all, blind chance is just about the only thing more mindless than impersonal natural causality. [...] Modern physics shows just how our world is a place of chance and necessity, where no providence is visible. It enriches our understanding of how chance and necessity are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. And in so doing, physics continues to seriously challenge religious ways of viewing the world. End quotes.
Dr. Edis discussed the different ways that religion and science have tried to coexist. Earlier, when the Church had all the power, those with heretical claims could be effectively silenced; just two examples being Giordano Bruno who had been burned at the stake and Galileo, silenced and sentenced to house arrest. When science got more of a foothold and information could be spread farther and wider to the masses (who no longer were as dependent on the priest class as their sole source for ideas) science and religion vied for authority. One of the ways that, in today’s world, they strive to coexist is in adopting the NOMA tactic, after Stephen Jay Gould’s Non- overlapping Magisteria, where the spheres of influence for science and religion are to be kept separate but each acknowledged for its own particular role and explanatory significance. In this scheme, religion deals with issues of morality and meaning, that science is supposedly exempt from examining. However, (page 209): ...since today’s modern science attempts to explain how we value things or how we ascribe meaning to events, and does so in its usual bottom- up, naturalistic fashion, even reserving only morality and meaning to religion cannot work forever. [...] Intellectually, carving out separate spheres for science and religion is not easy. It is largely religion, not science, that comes under pressure, and religion has to retreat from all its distinctive fact claims. End quotes.
Scientific naturalistic inquiry is not an approach that calmly and freely shunts itself off to a quiet corner; throwing its metaphorical hands up and leaving interesting questions unexamined and only for religion to make pronouncements upon. On this, Dr. Edis writes (page 186): ...modern science is ambitious. It tends to ignore limits, asking questions philosophers and theologians would like to have reserved for themselves. End quote. He notes further that : ...modern science is [...] spectacularly successful. In the face of this success, trying to carve out a separate realm for religious truth, making it immune to scientific criticism, comes across as special pleading. [...] Compared to the tangible accomplishments of science, religious truths start looking like a second- class species of truth, if they are true at all. God turns into a cosmic Santa Claus. End quotes. On page 186 he writes, as to the issue of meaning: Rather than a mysterious dimension beyond science, they [scientific naturalists] consider meaning to be a construction by material brains interacting in a natural world. End quote.
Rather than adopting the successful naturalistic and scientific view [pg. 27]: Religions [still cling to and] are committed to supernatural beliefs such as life or mind requiring a non-material spark. Such convictions get in the way of investigating things. Moreover, religious influence can actively discourage certain areas of science, as evidenced in political controversies over matters such as genetic research today. Still, [ page 178: r]eligion in the modern world is less about magic and more about morality. : Religious believers must think religious concepts are true, but also limit how they act on their beliefs. [they do this via]: vagueness and untestability [and…..] they seek a context of absolute authority (in order to insulate religious claims from outside criticism.) End quote. On page 191 he expands these ideas: ...evolution, and naturalistic science in general, do not merely favor a rival moral vision, but undercut all attempts to read a moral vision out of the way the universe is constructed. End quote. And, on page 205: If we think of human morality as a way to negotiate the social world while pursuing human needs, then we can make sense of objective moral facts. Some ways of behaving are part of objectively good strategies in the social realm. And social reality is no less “out there” than wavelengths of light. End quote.
Western Europe has been almost completely secularized, but belief in the supernatural still abides and critical thinking, with a naturalistic bent, is far from absolute there. As Professor Edis expressed it: Western Europe has not so much chased the gods out of a universe of force and matter, as that they had become irrelevant to daily life. End quote. In the US, we are saturated with religious belief and belief is significant in the majority of our citizen’s lives. However, our scientists are among the least devout group within the larger population, and as scientists become more elite and accomplished, such as members of the National Academy of Sciences [page26]: we find an almost total rejection of spiritual beliefs such as a personal God or human immortality…it appears that among scientists who are leaders in their field, nonbelief is overwhelming.
More on the differences between here and Western Europe as well as thoughts on ethics that Edis wrote about included an indifference to religion rather than active non-belief. He also noted how, in the US in particular, nonbelievers are seen as morally suspect. However, in philosophical circles, : ethics is one of the most prominent areas of philosophical inquiry, and in those circles, moral questions are routinely discussed without any reference to theological commitments. End quote. Furthermore : ...secularists are confident that morality is independent of theology. Nonbelievers can be as moral as anyone else, and philosophical reasoning can discover objective moral facts without bringing in the divine will. In fact, secularists often say that secular moral thought does better than religious doctrine in developing a humane perspective on moral questions. Modern advances in human freedom, such as enabling women to flourish outside the confines of the home, have been achieved against the bitter opposition of traditionally devout religious people. End quote.
But even among the devout believers of the world there is no shared consensus on hardly any matters of faith. With science and naturalism, data regarding the natural physical world translate fluidly across the planet, no matter what type of culture they are gathered, tested, or examined in; religious “truths,” on the other hand, share no such consistency and repeatability across groups. Edis, in writing about how there is an embarrassment of riches for religious diversity, without agreed upon concepts, or any details regarding those few ideas that are shared: Vast numbers of people must be wrong about their truth claims with so little agreement between them all. How do they come to make the particular mistake they make? : What particular religious expression flourishes or withers, what seems plausible or outlandish, all depend on whether religions can muster the social forces to reproduce themselves. End quote.
If one simply examines religious claims as if an outsider to the familiarity of them, they are almost shocking in absurdity. On page 167 he writes: To outsiders, religious traditions often look strange, as they include what look like blatantly false representations of external reality. [...] The Christian belief that a virgin gave birth and became the mother of no less than the creator of the universe… for instance. Or the belief that a wafer and wine truly transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Jesus. Page 164: There might be a strong psychological basis for religiosity, but specific belief systems have to be learned, reinforced, and transmitted to the next generation. End Quotes.
Religious faith uses rituals to help bind the flock together. Page 177: Rituals broadcast social information, signaling willingness to cooperate. Without a genuine belief in gods who will punish non-cooperators, it is difficult to participate in the rituals and religious life of a community. So religion can help solve the problem all social groups face: to prevent cheating. Costly, hard to fake, publicly demonstrated commitment to the gods who know everyone’s secrets and will somehow punish cheaters is a good way to ensure cooperation. End quote.
There was discussion of how cohesive social groups that compete with other groups often use a umbrella of shared beliefs to differentiate themselves from the Other/Outsider, as an example of when group selection takes place. Religion comes from a root word that means to bind. Page 170: Religion, with its emphasis on morality, loyalty, identity, ritual demonstrations of group membership, and so on, will seem to be the device our species of ape evolved in order to keep groups together. Religion exists because it has a vital social function. End quote. Discussion of the Dawkinsian viruses of the mind and memes also are to be found in the book by Edis that I have quoted from extensively.
By contrast, [page 182]: secular ideologies and moral philosophies are always at a disadvantage when compared with religion, since they cannot harness the emotional intimacy of a relationship with a supernatural agent. Neither are they very good at addressing existential anxieties like the fear of death. Religion may be an evolutionary byproduct rather than an adaptation; nevertheless, human minds are strongly inclined toward the supernatural, and it is hard to see what else can replace a form of thought that does so much social and therapeutic work so easily. End quote.
For more information and articles on science and religion, and science and Islam topics, see Edis’ website: www2truman.edu/~edis/ One may e-mail the author/speaker at: .
Summary of this presentation synthesized by Charles LaRue.