Friday, December 22, 2006


Carbon Copy

There is a perceptive (read: compatible with my own views) article, "The carbon and the Christian" by Thomas Dixon, Lecturer in History at the University of Lancaster, in The Times Literary Supplement. It takes the form of a collection of mini-reviews of four recent books on the intersection (such as it is) between science and religion: Owen Gingerich's God’s Universe; Francis S. Collins' The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief; Todd Tremlin's Minds and Gods: The cognitive foundations of religion; and J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen's Alone in the World?: Human uniqueness in science and theology. Not having read any of these books, I cannot state that Dixon is doing their authors justice but his explanation of the landscape of the problem seems to me to be astute.

After giving the context of these books as the hyper-religiosity of America as measured against other developed nations, Dixon states:

... it is understandable that books about science and religion sell well and that they have a more tangible political impact than they do in Britain. In this American context, Richard Dawkins’s recent atheistic broadside, The God Delusion, also makes a little more sense. It is really a book to keep up the morale of that embattled 10 per cent of Americans who think God has nothing to do with evolution.

Although Dawkins of course has no truck with "irreducible complexity", one thing that he and his Intelligent Design antagonists agree about is that God’s existence or non-existence is, in Dawkins’s phrase, "a scientific fact about the universe".
As I've said before, that is poppycock, at least if Dawkins intends what he says to be taken literally. If so, I want to see his research proposal and his request for funding. Equally important is the strawman nature of Dawkins' argument:

Most theologians would want to reject Intelligent Design, along with the theology of The God Delusion, for exactly that reason. For them it is axiomatic that if we are going to talk about God at all, then God is not part of the natural order and should not be expected either to conform to the laws of physics or to feature as another entity in scientific accounts of life or the cosmos. Whatever theology is, it is not the attempt to provide empirical confirmation for "the God hypothesis". Many theologians consequently regard the whole area of science and religion with some suspicion. They fear that this is an academic field entirely built on an outdated view of knowledge that might be described variously as empiricist, scientistic, or foundationalist.
Turning to the books involved, Dixon notes that:
As a historian of science, Gingerich is well aware of the complexities involved in producing scientific and religious knowledge. The debates about Galileo’s support for the new heliocentric astronomy, as Gingerich explains, involved a mixture of empirical evidence, theoretical assumptions and rhetorical persuasion on both sides.
As is perhaps fitting for an astronomer, Gingerich raises the "Anthropic Principle," the claim that the universe seems "fine-tuned for carbon-based life." Dixon's response to this argument, though more erudite, is the same as mine:

I am almost always left feeling that the question is confused and the answer unconvincing. How do we know whether or not to be surprised by any given configuration of physical constants? Surely any combination is almost infinitely improbable? How, in any case, do we know that these constants are free to vary in the way these arguments assume they are, and are not simply fixed by nature or linked to each other in a way we do not understand? And should the actual existence of trillions of other universes, as opposed to their merely possible existence, really make us any less surprised about the existence and physical make-up of our own (supposing we were surprised in the first place, which honestly I wasn’t)? As Hume’s Philo put it, "having found, in so many other subjects much more familiar, the imperfections and even contradictions of human reason, I never should expect any success from its feeble conjectures, in a subject so sublime, and so remote from the sphere of our observation".
This ultimately cuts against Dawkins' position as well, particularly any claim that merely finding sufficient natural explanations for phenomena is the same as finding that non-natural explanations are ruled out. In contrast to both ID advocates and the likes of Dawkins, Dixon notes that:

It is suitable testament to Gingerich’s caution that his speculations on this subject are not presented as confirming any scientific or theological hypothesis but come in a chapter entitled simply "Questions without Answers".
Collins, on the other hand, apparently displays little of that circumspection, in that "he argues, with few of Gingerich’s caveats, that the Big Bang and fine tuning are indeed best explained by 'the God hypothesis'." This is not necessarily a bad thing, however:

The Language of God is aimed at those tens of millions of Americans who still believe that they must choose between the Bible and Darwinism. Collins’s primary ambition is to persuade his fellow Christians away from their commitment to either young-Earth creationism or Intelligent Design. He champions instead a version of theistic evolution which he calls "BioLogos", embracing both God and Darwinism. His attempt to show that there is a "satisfying, enriching, consistent" harmony between his scientific world-view and his personal "surrender" to Jesus Christ will probably persuade few theologians and even fewer scientific atheists. ... Yet this [guitar] strumming, sentimental Christian geneticist will do more to promote the acceptance of Darwinism in modern America than any number of polarizing and polemical atheistic tracts could hope to do.

But Dixon rightly calls "unwise" Collins' argument that the science is unable to explain the "Moral Law" within each human heart, and the emotional longing many feel for a God.
Neither altruism nor religious experience presents an insurmountable challenge to those seeking entirely naturalistic explanations of human nature, as exponents of the human sciences have been demonstrating for well over a century.
Indeed, the third book reviewed, Tremlin’s Minds and Gods, is intended as "an introduction to the cognitive science of religion." Dixon's reaction to the book tickles my lawyer's sensibilities:

Tremlin tells us that this new theoretical approach to religion "is already proving itself to be the most significant and fruitful approach to the subject ever undertaken". Throughout the rest of the book this disciplinary self-appreciation continues. The writings of Pascal Boyer, Robin Dunbar, Harvey Whitehouse, Tom Lawson, Bob McCauley, Dan Sperber and others in the field of cognitive science are regularly quoted and their research described as extremely valuable, fruitful, exciting and important, but never as contested, problematic, hard to interpret or even open to debate. I am afraid that my reaction to all this is the same as it is to people who phone me up to tell me I have won a free holiday, or who knock on my door to say that I can have a half-price kitchen, but only if I sign up today. If the product is any good, I ask myself, why the hard sell? Can’t I judge for myself how new, exciting and valuable the cognitive science of religion is without constantly being told?
Still, it is "a very clear introduction to the work of the [mentioned] theorists of religion," who argue:

... the origins and function of religion are to be explained not in terms of social utility or cultural transmission (indeed, "cultural relativism" and the "Standard Social Science Model" are among the villains of this story), but primarily in terms of individuals and their brains. Religion, for the cognitive scientist, is primarily about beliefs in supernatural agents, and these are beliefs that originally began "quite naturally in people’s heads" through the activity of the "Agency Detective Device" and the "Theory of Mind Mechanism". The former leads us to infer conscious agency to explain unexpected changes in our environment. The latter seeks to understand agents in terms of beliefs and desires. The result? An almost irresistible natural tendency, embodied in every single human brain in much the same way, to explain natural phenomena as the results of deliberate actions by thinking, feeling, supernatural agents.
Calling this "speculative," Dixon wonders "whether future experimental and theoretical work can pin these "devices" and "mechanisms" down with more precision, conceptually, anatomically and functionally, and as part of a disciplinary discourse which is less needlessly dismissive of cultural, social and philosophical approaches to understanding religion."

van Huyssteen’s book, an adaptation of his Gifford Lectures, offers an "actively interdisciplinary take on the naturalness of religion" that uses:

... scientific studies of the evolution of the human mind to reinforce and reinterpret Christian teachings about human uniqueness and the imago Dei ... by setting up an extended interdisciplinary dialogue between palaeoanthropology and Christian theology. The key idea is that the "image of God" should be thought of as something that emerges in flesh-and-blood human beings during the course of their evolution. On this account, language use, symbolic thought and religious imagination, along with bipedalism, a large brain and social morality, can all be seen both as fundamental to human uniqueness and also as entirely natural phenomena.
This demonstrates that "van Huyssteen’s approach to natural theology is to see how scientific accounts of human evolution appear when investigated from within a particular religious tradition," without an attempt to collect evidence to confirm "the God hypothesis."

Dixon notes that van Huyssteen and Tremlin both make reference to the same scientific ideas about cognitive evolution and "each book gives us is one part of the story of how religious understanding is produced."

The contributions of a historical tradition of religious writing are just as essential as the natural operations of the human brain. While Tremlin systematically overemphasizes the latter, van Huyssteen’s postfoundationalism avoids exclusive claims for either. What is interesting is that both authors resist the temptation to make hasty inferences from their observations about the naturalness of religious beliefs to a conclusion about either the truth or the falsity of those beliefs.
Contrary to what some on either side of the science/religion debate would have you believe:

... most of us assume that all our beliefs – the true ones as well as the false ones – are, among other things, products of an evolved brain. The fact that many writers about science and religion no longer assume that such an observation is a knock-down argument either for or against religious faith is surely a sign of progress in the field of science and religion.

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