Reluctance to Let Go

There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue. It’s somewhat insulting — to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others — and certainly blatantly false as an empirical matter — I’ve both participated in and witnessed numerous such conversations that were extremely substantive and well-received. It’s also a bit worrisome, since whether a certain view is “true” or “false” seems to take a back seat to whether it is “moderate” or “extreme.” But people are welcome to engage or not with whatever views they choose.

What troubles me is how much our cultural conversation is being impoverished by a reluctance to face up to reality. In many ways the situation is parallel to the discussion about global climate change. In the real world, our climate is being affected in dramatic ways by things that human beings are doing. We really need to be talking about serious approaches to this problem; there are many factors to be taken into consideration, and the right course of action is far from obvious. Instead, it’s impossible to broach the subject in a public forum without being forced to deal with people who simply refuse to accept the data, and cling desperately to the idea that the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t getting any warmer, or it’s just sunspots, or warmth is a good thing, or whatever. Of course, the real questions are being addressed by some people; but in the public domain the discussion is blatantly distorted by the necessity of dealing with the deniers. As a result, the interested but non-expert public receives a wildly inaccurate impression of what the real issues are.

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

How great would it be if we could actually have serious, productive public conversations about the implications of these discoveries? For all that we have learned, there’s a tremendous amount yet to be figured out. We know the rules by which the world works, but there’s a lot we have yet to know about how to live within it; it’s the difference between knowing the rules of chess and playing like a grandmaster. What is “life,” anyway? What is consciousness? How should we define who is a human being, and who isn’t? How should we live together in a just and well-ordered society? What are appropriate limits of medicine and biological manipulation? How can we create meaning and purpose in a world where they aren’t handed to us from on high? How should we think about love and friendship, right and wrong, life and death?

These are real questions, hard questions, and we have the tools in front of us to have meaningful discussions about them. And, as with climate change, some people are having such discussions; but the public discourse is so badly distorted that it has little relationship to the real issues. Instead of taking the natural world seriously, we have discussions about “Faith.” We pretend that questions of meaning and purpose and value must be the domain of religion. We are saddled with bizarre, antiquated attitudes toward sex and love, which have terrible consequences for real human beings.

I understand the reluctance to let go of religion as the lens through which we view questions of meaning and morality. For thousands of years it was the best we could do; it provided social structures and a framework for thinking about our place in the world. But that framework turns out not to be right, and it’s time to move on.

Rather than opening our eyes and having the courage and clarity to accept the world as it is, and to tackle some of the real challenges it presents, as a society we insist on clinging to ideas that were once perfectly reasonable, but have long since outlived their usefulness. Nature obeys laws, we are part of nature, and our job is to understand our lives in the context of reality as it really is. Once that attitude goes from being “extremist” to being mainstream, we might start seeing some real progress.

  1. Brilliant.

    The first paragraph alone was well stated, but it just got better.

    Timely post.

  2. Three particles and three forces don’t explain free will, so we definitely do not know how our world works.

  3. They certainly shouldn’t be chased away from the table. However, in an intellectual debate it can be hard to take someone seriously they live their lives according to what is essentially an emotionally comforting fairy tale.

  4. @Sam Gralla: since “free will” is just a word, I guess you mean “the perception of decisions not entirely determined by something perceived as outside the ‘me'” – okay? Then my question is, what kind of “explanation” do you expect to be possible? It’s an (easy) exercise in rational thought (so, philosophy), that you can’t be sure about your thoughts – you might be tricked into thinking anything, without noticing it. So it doesn’t make any sense to even think about this possibility, since you can’t test it. Furthermore, the understanding of perception (thus of perception of free will) is deepened every day now by the cognitive sciences, such as quantitative psychology and neuroscience. Both rely heavily on mathematics and physics.

  5. Now a comment to the nice article: I agree with almost all statements made.

    However, when you say (just to take one example) “Life is a chemical reaction”, you should say instead that modelling life as a chemical reaction is the best theory according to some pragmatic rules governing the selection of theories among various alternatives. These rules are, e.g. Occam’s razor, predictiveness and similar rules to make sure one picks a theory with the most operationalizable predictions.

    I would like to advertise my own text “On Theories and Stories” here (click on my name over this comment to read it, the spam-filter has purged the link). Given the definition of “story” in that text, I would re-phrase your main wish for the future as: “I hope that more people choose stories that are compatible with scientifically chosen theories”.

    It is no problem if people believe in God or in souls or in free will. It is indeed a problem, if they mix up their beliefs with predictions and moral implications on other people. The fundamental arbitrariness of beliefs should teach us to be tolerant.

    Everybody can do something in the right direction: learn science, try to build up a story how the world works that fits in the scientific picture and communicate. Especially to (your) children.

  6. Sean, I think Chad Orzel’s point was that to those people who are still interested in the old framework, and are interested in having a discussion about how the old framework might work in harmony with the new framework, then inviting someone like you to that discussion, who then says, “What you want to talk about is boring, oh, and it’s also wrong” would be counterproductive.

  7. Just as there is empirical evidence that those who don’t think science and religion are compatible can make reasoned arguments, there is also empirical evidence that science and religion are compatible, in the form of the large number of practicing scientists who are also religious. Why is it you bring forward the empirical evidence of one while dismissing on epistemiolgical grounds the empirical evidence for the other? Isn’t dismissing the empirical evidence for the consistency of science and religion for philosophical reasons just as marginalizing as dismissing the evidence for the possible reasonableness of some those who insist science and religion can’t be compatible?

  8. Excellent post.

    “There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue.”

    A thought that popped in my mind is whether this idea subtly/subconsciously stems from examples in which various ‘movements’ in history seem to show preference towards the more passive movement leader Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others that are celebrated for peaceful/non-violent resistance…perhaps this conception makes people view New Atheists/Evangelicals as the non-preferred voices? They are the more assertive/extreme voices of the ‘movement’?

  9. Actually, we don’t KNOW any of these things… we THINK we know them, we BELIEVE we know them… we even HAVE FAITH that we know them (based upon constant assumptions we make and think secure), but it is not possible to KNOW that they are true, other than in a highly limited context. You can write that off as a metaphysical problem that we all choose to ignore, but metaphysical problems are ultimately very real and very deep.
    Yeah, our knowledge seems very wondrous (as EVERY generation thinks their knowledge is)… but it is also still hugely primitive.

  10. Unicorns are compatible with horses, too, there are some people who believe in both. The difference being that one is fictional. Just because there are people who can do science and can also believe in magic doesn’t mean that magic exists, it just means that being a scientist doesn’t make you infallible.

  11. “Actually, we don’t KNOW any of these things… we THINK we know them, we BELIEVE we know them… we even HAVE FAITH that we know them (based upon constant assumptions we make and think secure), but it is not possible to KNOW that they are true, other than in a highly limited context.”

    No, we TEST our knowledge against the world and the world responds as our best theories predict it should. Can we ever know everything — no, there will always be more to learn. But we can know an ever increasing amount of things with greater and greater certainty. And, compared to the world only several hundred years ago, our ever increasing amount of knowledge is truly “wondrous”.

  12. For some reason, I’m having difficulty getting my comment here. I’ll try again.

    “there is no supernatural intelligence”

    But how can knowing the particles and forces tell you that something supernatural doesn’t exist?

    “there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body…. How should we define who is a human being, and who isn’t?”

    But surely the moment of conception is when a new human life begins. Do you agree with that, Sean? That’s the best candidate for when a human being has its beginning. And I say this without any reference to religion, but to observations and facts. At that time, it has its very own complete genome, and it grows from a single cell, to multiple cells, which organize and differentiate themselves to form the more recognizable human form we are familiar with. Do you agree with that, Sean?

  13. Excellent post – Summarizes my thoughts very well. The Natural Philsopher’s Manifesto?

    Great response from Aaron to RK.

  14. Isn’t the problem (or part of it) that at each “higher” (for lack of a better word) level of complexity there arise completely new and unpredictable properties and rules? I mean, we may know the rules governing sub-atomic particles (for example) but that obviously doesn’t tell us anything about the rules governing human societies.

  15. Ummm. The incompatibility question isn’t resolved by asserting that religion is false or unpleasant. And saying you believe religion is false isn’t the position that’s being painted as “extreme.”

    The whole incompatibility issue was brought up to shut up or marginalize people who were either a) believing scientists or b) tolerant of various religious points of view aside from atheism. It’s actually a rich irony that those same people are now afraid of being marginalized.

    And if you are really concerned about the level of conversation in our culture, the way you rectify it is by engaging in conversation, in give-and-take with others. You don’t rectify that situation by telling people that their belief system is “incompatible” with the conversation itself.

    Those for whom philosophical incompatibility is a big issue–many of whom don’t seem to know what the term means–are only getting what they asked for: to not have to engage religion in conversation. So why should we care?

  16. Well said. Unfortunately as long as kids are taught from birth that there’s a god watching your every move along with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Great Pumpkin, the vast portion of the population will never cast off the blinders of religion. At least adults tell kids the truth about Santa Claus and the others as the child gets older. If only they did the same thing about their god.

    I doubt we will ever be free of religion until the enlightened can leave this planet and create a sane society elsewhere where we act like adults and take care of ourselves instead of kowtowing to a stern “father” and expecting him to save us when something bad happens.

  17. As a so-called “acommodationist” or compatibilist or what-have-ye… I don’t think the anti-compatible position is extreme (though, some pursue it with much less temperance and reason than they apply to their day jobs in the hard sciences – Jerry Coyne comes to mind).

    As to what is more important between an idea’s truth value and its “moderation”-value… I think that’s the wrong distinction. Unless the idea is approached moderately, it is difficult or impossible to have a meaningful discussion about its truth.

    Sean (if you’re reading this far down the comments) – I’ve never seen evidence of any kind of extremism or even any real intemperance from you in this discussion. I see somewhat more from the leading lights of the anti-compatibility crowd. And it’s rare that I will read the comment sections of their blogs at all any more. But you are right – extremism isn’t a feature of anti-compatibility. And I think we all – including other anti-compatibilists – could use more and better examples of a moderated discourse on the issue. So… don’t hide your light under a bushel.

  18. Unicorns are compatible with horses, too, there are some people who believe in both. The difference being that one is fictional.

    This is the main thing that I see from anti-compatibilists – the question is rarely answered in terms of whether compatibility is true – only in terms of whether religion is true.

    No, religion isn’t scientific. It cannot be arrived at by the scientific process. *And, for a person who believes that the only means of apprehending the truth is through science, it is therefore false*. The text inside the asterisks is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. It is this philosophy that is incompatible with religion. Not science. I subscribe to that philosophy. But I recognize that my deduction that religion is untrue is a result of my philosophical position, not a result of incompatibility with science.

  19. “There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior”

    I really wonder, how you became sure of that, isn’t at least, you should say we don’t know! . Is it Dogma?

  20. “There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue”
    Ok, but “religions should vanish” this sounds dangerous.

  21. Oran Kelley,

    This whole argument was not started by the people who think it’s incompatible. It was started by people who thought the so-called “New Atheists” were the ones who should shut up cause they were alienating the religious. It pretty much blew up with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book on it, but it had been a smaller argument since before, probably with Nisbet & Mooney vs. PZ Myers as the most visible of the feuds.

    Even the most “strident” (note the scare quotes) like PZ Myers and Dawkins say that they have no problem with scientists believing in religion or being religious, but mixing them is not a good idea. And, no one should be above criticism. So, Francis Collins can publish anything he wants, but if anybody makes a silly argument, they can’t tell their critics to shut up cause they’ll alienate their readers’ fragile little minds.

    I personally haven’t heard anything of substance from the “compatible” side. Every argument of them seems to boil down ultimately to “huh, there are religious scientists, therefore science and religion are compatible” (see #6). Disingenuous. Newton believed in alchemy, therefore, alchemy is compatible with physics?

    The fact is that religion pretends to be a way of knowing. By faith, which is considered a virtue. Science is just the opposite. Why can’t the “compatible” camp get past the simple fact that people can believe two contradicting things and keep them separate, without problem?

    Alas, we will still hear endlessly this argument. For one though, I’d like anyone who makes it to make more than one random post in one of these threads, and engage in a constructive argument, but it’s all they say, always, and never get back to the conversation.

  22. Rob Knop: “… there is also empirical evidence that science and religion are compatible, in the form of the large number of practicing scientists who are also religious.”

    Rob: what on earth is the point of trotting this out again? Even on the few blogs I follow regularly, it has been claimed and dealt with dozens of times. Yes, everyone knows that there are scientists who are also religious. It is obvious. It is undisputed. Repeating this for the umpteenth time is about as interesting as a creationist repeating that dogs do not give birth to cats.

    But in what sense does this demonstrate compatability? Only in a trivial, utterly uninteresting one. On this form of compatibility, where two things are compatible if someone believes/accepts/does/undergoes them both, then it is to a very good approximation true that EVERYTHING is compatible with EVERYTHING. (Excusez les majuscules.) Being a policeman or judge is compatible with being a criminal. Musical ability is compatible with deafness. Catholicism is compatible with pedophilia. And so on ad infinitum.

    To demonstrate compatibility in an interesting sense, you need to produce a consistent philosophy or rigorous procedure which covers both science and religion. And it is highly unlikely that you will be able to do that.

    All your statement shows is that people can accept things which are mutually incompatible (or at least not necessarily compatible).

  23. I though Chad Orzel’s commentary was rather off base. It is belittling to assume that an intelligent and respectful conversation cannot happen on this subject.
    In fact, the more those conversations happen, the better it will be for both sides.
    Conversations and even debates do not have degenerate into the inanity he illustrated.

    I do think we hurt our own when we rant about the foolishness of the “faithful”. I am as guilty on occasion too. Its an easy target. But in the end, we close more doors than we open toward our goal of trying to get people to think rather than fear and react. Labels are attached such as extremist and it makes communication even harder.

    We have entire sites (not this one) where ranting is chief source of entertainment. Those sites are openly saying they are entertainment at the expense of the god fearing. But in the end, however entertaining, the rants are not going to bring anyone into a thoughtful conversation.

  24. “I really wonder, how you became sure of that . . .”

    Because there is simply no evidence of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior. And, there is an increasing amount of evidence that our best theories, which in no way rely on these or other similar assumptions, succeed in explaining the world with greater and greater fidelity. Of course, one can never be “certain” of anything I suppose — but we can get close enough over time to clearly demonstrate that our best theories, and not outmoded myths, deserve to be accorded far, far greater weight.