Religion


CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers1 these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.2

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?3

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.4

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.

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Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.

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Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.

  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []

I am genuinely curious about how human minds work. I am particularly curious about how religious minds work, because they seem to be able to quite easily hold multiple contradictions simultaneously, and not have a problem with doing so. Religious people frequently attempt to argue using ‘logic’ when they have, by accepting a completely illogical premise (ie, the existence of a supernatural being who cares about the affairs of humans), abandoned all structures of logic. Perplexingly, they seem completely unable to understand the paradox inherent in this pursuit.

Take this opinion piece penned by one Simon Smart for the Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend. You should really read it to get the full flavour of its absurdity, but I will synopsize it for those who don’t have the time.

Mr Smart attempts to hijack the old maxim that ‘The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ and use it in the service of a religious argument. He is basically claiming that humans, unlike other animals,1 have rituals that surround food and this (somehow) means we are chosen by God. Or something. I’m sorry if I sound confused – it’s because I am.

Of course humans have complicated rituals involving food. We have complicated rituals involving everything. We have complicated rituals involving killing one another – is that God’s handiwork too? It’s banal to observe that humans do things that are different to other animals, and to infer that there’s something ‘miraculous’ about this is simply an awkward manifestation of 19th century thinking.

I have to snip a quote from Mr Smart’s daft noodling:

Imagine for a moment a dinner party of old friends. There’s a scientific way of analysing all that transpires at this dinner – plenty that the biochemists, anatomists, physiologists and neuroscientists could describe – regarding chemical processes of the body and brain that are astonishing in their complexity and intricacy.

But such a description wouldn’t even come close to telling us what’s going on. One guest can’t quite manage to lose the acidic feeling in his stomach as he tries and fails to forget the precarious state of his business. Another diner, perennially proud of her successes, feels an even warmer glow of satisfaction than those drinking the bottle of Grange she came armed with. The host, enlivened by the wine, smiles at his wife across the table and thinks how much he still loves her after all these years. Another, at the first mouthful of her favourite dessert, is lost in thought as she nostalgically recalls her childhood family kitchen.

You see what he did there? It’s a familiar piecer of religious prestidigitation – a classic strawman argument. He sets up science as a cartoon bespectacled-people-in-labcoats caricature (the hoary old ‘science is cold and clinical and concerned only with mechanical things’ cliché) and then conjures up a whole lot of things that he says science can’t explain because… well, it just can’t. He divides the world (quite arbitrarily) into things that he considers are the domain of science and things that he considers aren’t, just as we saw biologist Francisco Ayala do a little while back. Also familiar is the call to emotion, which he continues in the next sentence:

Is this interaction of memory and emotion to be thought of as singularly physical and material in nature?

Um, sure, why not? All Mr Smart is doing here is drawing an arbitrary line that removes memory and emotion from the world of the ‘physical and material’ because he’s not comfortable with that idea, and he’s appealing to his reader on the same basis. Scientific examination does not know or care about this kind of discomfort which is precisely why it’s so reliable. We know with absolute certainty that memory and emotion can be altered and controlled by physical processes, and these things can be demonstrated scientifically. Mr Smart is either ignorant of the scientific explorations of these things, or is wilfully ignoring them. Either way it makes his opinion valueless.

Smart goes on to perpetuate another vacuous stereotype, referring to Philosopher Leon Kass’s ‘The Hungry Soul’:

Kass suggests there is a huge gap between the ethically sterile nature as it is studied by science and the morally freighted, passionate life lived by human beings.

It makes me really mad. Examining the world through science is, in Simon Smart’s painting of it, ‘ethically sterile’ and by inference, morally vacant and lacking passion. This, of course, is not an accurate representation of the truth, but instead is a bogeyman that religious thinkers are compelled to raise in order to reserve the domain of morality and ethics for religion. Whenever I encounter this argument these days I almost find it embarrassing for the person promoting it. It is perpetuated solely with the purpose of cementing it in the minds of less rigorous thinkers.

Mr Smart ends his article with a story about his daughter returning from hospital after a burst appendix and three operations:

She was frail and pale, and we immediately set about building her strength. As a family we ate together, cheered her recovery, took photos and gave thanks for doctors, nurses and supportive friends. It was a special moment, a coming back to life. It felt almost sacred. Or was that, as some would have it, just my brain chemistry messing with my head?

How many addled misconceptions are contained in that tale? Who engineered that ‘coming back to life’? Scientists! A process that was once the ‘domain of God’ – the mysterious, ineffable ‘miracle’ of life and death – is now commonly administered by rational thinkers. The fact that Simon Smart and his family even knew how to go about building their daughter’s strength is due to science. If they’d trusted that whole process to God, no matter how much fervent praying they did, I think we could quite reasonably conclude that their daughter would most likely now be dead.

Simon Smart has quite obviously allowed his brain to accept that science can acceptably achieve some ‘miracles’ (no doubt rationalizing the circumstances by allowing that God is in charge anyway) but arbitrarily forbidding it from others.

He resists the idea that brain chemistry ‘messes with his head’ because it simply doesn’t ‘feel’ right to him. He says elsewhere that:

…most of us resist being spoken of in such reductionist terms.

The fact is that the universe doesn’t care how much we ‘resist’ the idea.2This specialness that he thinks he has – a specialness that somehow elevates him above all other living things – is purely an invention of human thought processes (and peculiarly antiquated thought processes at that, as I have said). There is nothing that we see in the natural world that gives credence to this belief other than the human conviction that it is so. Mr Smart doesn’t want to think of himself as a mess of chemical and electrical interactions for the simple reason that he’s already formed the opinion that he isn’t. And that’s all it is: an opinion. The position is certainly not defensible via observation or rational appraisal.

Simon Smart is completely entitled to have an opinion, of course, but I just wish he wouldn’t attempt to pass his superstitious speculations off in the guise of logical argument, while simultaneously denying logic the right to examine those very same speculations.3

  1. This, as many biologists will tell you, is not necessarily so. Some animals have acquired simple preparations methods when eating food. Japanese macaques, for instance, like to wash their food before eating it, and have even adopted a preferential habit of doing this in sea water (rather than river water), presumably because they like the seasoning taste. []
  2. The argument via reductionism is problematic anyway. We already know that complex systems can arise from very simple sets of basic circumstances, so reductionism per se is not the QED that religions like to assert. To invoke particular ‘specialness’ in humans because they exhibit a high level of complexity requires the continual re-drawing of boundaries. As our description of living organisms becomes more detailed, religious appraisal of what constitutes this specialness is forced to make more and more compromises just to preserve God’s input. We see exactly the same thing in cosmology. []
  3. Mr Smart needs to spend some time reading (and making an effort to understand) beautifully written and coherent essays such as this one. []

You know, I reckon that if Jesus could have looked forward in time to all the things for which he’d be responsible, he’d have stayed in the carpentry workshop and carved out a career making sideboards and nice nested table sets.

Still (briefly) on the topic of the disintegration of the world’s political and financial structures, I note that the media is carrying a story this morning about the Vatican’s concern about global financial markets. One such report here, from the Guardian.

Synopsizing: the Holy See released a document yesterday that called for a ‘world authority’ that could monitor and intervene in global financial affairs to help restore ‘the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics’.1 The Pope, apparently, is showing his solidarity with the #occupy movement.

Right. So would this be the same Vatican that is the richest religious institution on the planet that pays zero taxes, and has investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate?2 Would it be the same Vatican that continually uses its influence in politics?

Or could it be some other principled Vatican that I’ve not heard about?

  1. Yeah. The ‘spiritual’ in financial markets. I can really see how that fits like a foot in a glove. []
  2. This relates to a 1965 estimate, and is based on accumulated wealth, not operating profits. You may see people claiming throughout the interwebs that the Vatican barely scrapes by, pointing to various balance sheets, like this one that shows a (relatively) modest profit. Don’t be fooled. That’s like someone showing you what they earned at work – someone who never pays taxes, that is – while neglecting to disclose that they have their substantial life savings hidden under the mattress… []

As you know, Faithful Acowlytes, I am quite fond of Halloween, and I like to do something a little… ‘spooky’, for you all each year as the holiday approaches. This year I have spooked even myself. Before you click on the following link, a warning: this is NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED. Are you ready?

OK, do it.

See, I told you. Please compose yourself and we’ll reconvene in the comments for discussion.



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