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.

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162 Responses to Reluctance to Let Go

  1. Peter Morgan says:

    I suppose that many people will resist the temptation to engage with this.
    “As far as our immediate world is concerned, WE KNOW WHAT THE RULES ARE.” Not sure exactly what version of the Scientific Method this is meant to be. You dismiss by omission — I hope not by ignorance — many alternative accounts of the methodology and epistemology of Science. Realism has too many troubles, delineated already in the 1950s in terms of the critique of Positivism, to be able to make this statement hold absolutely.
    You’re right that to say that a view is “Extreme” or “Moderate” is just as narrow as to say that it is “true” or “false”.
    “we know what those interactions are, and how they work”. Better write the definitive book on quantum field theory right now. Your general approach appears to claim that no theories or models that we will discover in the future will make a difference to our understanding of what happens at human scales.
    “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.” Alternatively, our observations can be modeled by mathematics to varying, so far never perfect accuracy. Our job is to improve the accuracy of our models, to construct new types of models (perhaps to cross Lee Smolin’s valleys), to understand the relationships between old theories and new theories.
    The epithet “New Atheist” seems to make a claim to go beyond “Atheism”. The latter is relatively mild-mannered, and usually interestingly nuanced, but it seems that one can only establish one’s New Atheist credentials by asserting and defending statements that are intended to be inflammatory. On this crude characterization, New Atheism is by definition extreme. I find it relatively difficult to find interesting nuance in New Atheist positions.
    I imagine only 144,000 New Atheists will ascend to the higher state of truthiness. I wonder whether the truth will be Complex or Simple.

    Mike@10: “we TEST our knowledge against the world”. Yes, but when a theory can only match empirical results to 14 decimal places, all of them, which parts of the theory do we modify? If we decide, say, to try to use a discrete topology instead of a differentiable manifold, how much difference does such a change to the roots of our theories make to our world-view?

  2. Arun says:

    Problem is we all have different ideas about what constitutes religion.

    To give a very specific example, e.g., Swami Tadatmananda at Arsha Bodha Center –
    http://www.arshabodha.org/

    the first talk of his I attend, he says, “start with self-observation. For each action you do, ask why you do it. Practice this for a few months”.

    No mention of God, Soul, supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior.

    Now, where this practice will lead, Swamiji merely says – most of us are very ignorant about the roots of our behavior.

    Of course, being the Arsha Bodha Center, the ultimate goal is moksha, which to Mike, Sean, etc., is meaningless.

    But the first step above is not meaningless. The only thing you’re accepting on faith is that the effort of self-observation is not a waste of effort and time.

    Are there any commandments here? No, the teaching of this school is that religion is simply not necessary in order to be ethical/moral. Reason and empathy are a sufficient for any human with a normally functioning mind.

    Is this “religion” incompatible with “science”? Or maybe this is not “religion” at all?

  3. Mike says:

    Peter: “If we decide, say, to try to use a discrete topology instead of a differentiable manifold, how much difference does such a change to the roots of our theories make to our world-view?”

    Yes, but if we decide, say, to modify our theories by using religion, or pagan ritual knowledge instead . . . well, you know where I’m going.

    Arun: “But the first step above is not meaningless. The only thing you’re accepting on faith is that the effort of self-observation is not a waste of effort and time.”

    Agreed, self-observation is not a waste of time. Observation generally is not a waste of time. However, no amount of observation over thousands of years has produced any evidence of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior.

  4. blueshifter says:

    Wow. Standing ovation!

  5. Oran Kelley says:

    Andyo: Of course the general issue is old and pre-dates the whole neo-atheism phenomenon, but where I’ve seen the issue was strongly pushed by folks like Coyne and Benson over the last couple of years as a sort of killer argument against “accommodation.”

    The argument FOR compatibility is pretty simple: science and religion can be distinct, and insofar as religion refrains from making scientific claims, the two things are theoretically compatible.

    This doesn’t mean of course, that religious people never make scientific claims, or that religion is nice or true or anything aside from the bare fact that religion and science aren’t incompatible.

    The incompatibility arguments I’ve seen depend on a fundamental error that smijer spells out well. Believing that science is the only route to truth is not science itself. And, I’d argue that, even if one were to acknowledge that it isn’t science that is incompatible with religion but scientism, that scientism is illusory, since, as psychologists and the like will tell us, NO ONE operates as if this were true. We all accept other kinds of truth all the time.

  6. But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives.

    Allow me to apologize in advance for being pedantic here in light of an otherwise engaging and thoughtful post. That said, can we please stop using the phrase there’s no question that …? Yes, there is a question. Its answer may be obvious, but there’s still a question. Phrases such as there’s no question that …, no one can deny that …, etc. weaselly limit the level of discussion. Why can’t I ask the question? Why can’t I deny it? Again, the question may have an obvious answer and deniers may be crackpots, but use words that honestly reflect this; instead, try using phrases such as it’s obvious that … or only crackpots deny that….

    I think in a meta-level discussion about the negative aspects of limiting discussions, we should be walking the walk. Thank you.

  7. George Musser says:

    Well put, Sean. But if you feel that incompatibilists are disparaged as extremists, I have a parallel worry: that we compatibilists are said to lack moral fiber or intellectual conviction. I’m an atheist, but I genuinely – not just tactically – feel there is a legitimate metaphysical and social role for religion.

    George

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  9. Wg. says:

    “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.”

    Yes, I believe that’s what you just did.

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  11. Other Sean says:

    Sean:
    I think we can all agree to stand together against irrationality. But what about this “face up to reality” bit? To the extent this means banishing from our ontology things that no longer make sense, that seems reasonable. However, if the implication is that through science we have encapsulated fundamental reality less some minor details-this does seem extreme. Maybe I’m your case in point of a failure to let go, but it seems to work for me.
    Thanks for the post.

  12. MT-LA says:

    Well put, Peter Morgan.

    The following idea is probably not original. I don’t know whom to credit, and I certainly don’t know the rebuttal. But if this ain’t the place to air it out, then I don’t know what is.

    Every observable interaction between objects is the sum total of the staggering number of sub-atomic interactions between those objects. Conceptually, these sub-atomic interactions cannot be predicted; quantum mechanics works on probability as far as I’ve learned. True, if you drop an object, it WILL fall. But exactly how fast? If you drop a leaf in the river, it WILL move down river. But exactly what path will it take?

    If quantum interactions – by definition – involve some uncertainty, then isn’t this an avenue for a supreme spiritual force to exert influence? You say you KNOW THE RULES, yet you dismiss the minutiae that makes up those rules.

    And the human mind? Well, that place is just a seething cauldron of indeterminable chemical and electrical interactions. But fear not, little-minded religious people…Sean says we KNOW THE RULES.

    I usually have a reflexive urge to fight extreme theological view points, either from the religious or the atheist, since both claim to know the unknowable.

  13. Mike says:

    “If quantum interactions – by definition – involve some uncertainty, then isn’t this an avenue for a supreme spiritual force to exert influence?”

    Now, there’s an argument for you. If we don’t know everything (or even in principle “can’t” know everything), then any theory one wants to run up the flag pole “could” be right. Why stop at a spiritual force? Why not aliens exerting influence via some advanced technology? Why not . . . oh well, the possibilities are endless aren’t they?

  14. Mark P says:

    As I said in a comment on Chad’s blog, scientists can be religious because compartmentalization is common for humans. A person is not religious when he’s being a scientist, and he’s not a scientist when he’s being religious.

  15. MT-LA says:

    Mike – yes the possibilities are endless. Except for one possibility: the possibility that we KNOW the rules.

    Mike, do you have proof that “There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body… there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior.” Claiming to know that belief in a spiritual essence is wrong-headed is equal to claiming that aliens are exerting influence on us.

    This whole article revolves around the premise that science has effectively killed religion, and those who still have faith are reluctant to let go. My question is: When was the frakking funeral?

  16. Mike says:

    MT-LAP: “When was the frakking funeral?”

    There was no funeral, it was and continues to be death by a thousand cuts. Over the millennium, and more rapidly in recent times, each realm that religion dominated because humans had no better explanation has slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) been revealed to operate according to rules and laws that we can replicate and test everyday. In each and every case religion has been forced to concede ground, albeit reluctantly. Of course, we do not know all of the rules, nor do we know all of the nuances of the rules that we understand fairly well. But we’re making progress and that progress has not come by making extraordinary spiritual claims based on the remaining gaps in our knowledge.

    It’s extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof. If someone posits the existence of life after death or a spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body, or a supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior, then in light of our experience and the success of our best theories that do not rely on such extraordinary assumptions, it is incumbent on the one making the claim to provide evidence — any evidence at all — that can be tested and confirmed by others. Simply pointing to the lack of knowledge as a justification of such claims has no basis and should be wholly rejected. Unfortunately, in the real world the possibilities aren’t “endless”.

    As for my “proof,” all I can do is to repeat that there is simply no replicable evidence (none whatsoever) of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior. At the same time, there is an increasing amount of replicable 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 “absolutely certain” of anything — 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.

  17. MT-LA says:

    Mike – Science has made no inroads into morality. As far as I can tell, this is still the exclusive realm of religion. Science has made *some* progress in understanding why we do the things we do, but it has made no progress in describing WHY we should do something (or not do something).

    The claim being made by the author is that there is no god (big G or little g). This claim is extraordinary because, for the entire history of human civilization, man has believed in some form of a supreme being. Therefore, by your own logic “it is incumbent on the one making the claim to provide evidence — any evidence at all — that can be tested and confirmed by others. Simply pointing to the lack of knowledge as a justification of such claims has no basis and should be wholly rejected.”

    I have no proof of God; I have faith, but that is obviously a personal issue. More importantly, I never claimed to have proof, and I never even claimed that God exists. I merely posited the mechanism that a god may use to exert influence. You point to my lack of knowledge as proof that God does not exist, but you give no evidence at all to support your claims. All you do is mention (without enumerating) areas of thought that have been clarified (but I may point out, not EXPLAINED) by science.

    (I hope to continue this conversation, but I fear that my input for today will be finished. I’ll be back on tomorrow, so please don’t take my absence as conceeding the point…eech, even typing the word “concede” leaves a dirty taste in my mouth)

  18. goldy says:

    Sean said: “As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are.” (with the last clause in boldface).

    Sean, if by “the rules”, you mean the standard model and general relativity, then I have an issue in that while we know what the rules of those models are, there is evidence that at least the standard model is incorrect (e.g., recent results from DZero and MINOS). If the models are not correct (and it has been quite a wile since I’ve talked to a practicing physicist who thinks they are completely correct), then we do NOT know the rules. If by “the rules”, you do not mean the standard model and general relativity, then please explain what the rules are.

    Sean says: “there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior”

    If science and religion are incompatible, then I assume that this is a scientific statement. If so, please tell us on which experimental evidence you base this assertion. How has this statement been put to the test? If it is not a scientific statement, then it is a religious statement in that it is based on faith and not on experimental evidence. As a matter of fact, this statement mirrors my own beliefs. I BELIEVE that there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior, however, as a practicing physicist, I can think of no experimental test which gives this assertion scientific validity. If I am mistaken, please point me to a peer-reviewed publication which I will read in an effort to continue my education.

    andyo Says: “The fact is that religion pretends to be a way of knowing.”
    Do you really speak for all religion? It seems to me that I usually hear (during discussions with the theologically inclined, not from religious zealots on the street) that faith is important precisely because it is different from knowing.

  19. Tim says:

    I have some reservations about this article.

    First some minor points:
    Any article that says “religion” when they seem to mean “American Christian fundamentalism” is suspect.

    Either the author deliberately trying to paint all religions as being “as bad” as Christian fundamentalism from the perspective of compatibility with science, or the author genuinely cannot recognize the difference between the idea of religion in general and the specific expression by these conservative groups.

    Also any argument that claims that the reason why two groups of people can’t have a dialogue is because one group is just totally wrong is also suspect (if not necessarily incorrect).

    —– But moving on:

    I take the message that the author CLAIMS is the message of his article to be something like:

    “Why can’t we accept what has been proven empirically, and talk about that, instead of denying reality?”

    I can accept and resoundingly endorse that idea, and I’m sure this is the larger part of what most people who enjoyed this article are responding to.

    But then, for some reason, the author goes on to write an article about why religion and science are incompatible. “But Wait!” I cry, “That’s not what this article says it’s ABOUT!”

    That further step doesn’t follow without a certain key assumption

    The problem with the article comes in because of his implicit assumption that religion = denying reality. Further, this assumption is presented, not argued for, as if this equation is somehow uncontroversial even to those who would count themselves religious, or even just those who are willing to consider the idea of religious and scientific compatibility.

    That equation is much, much harder to prove than those in the “New Atheist” camp, to borrow the term, typically acknowledge. The argument typically runs “yeah, those guys are deluding themselves, and any apparently rational person who adheres to religious views is obviously simply compartmentalizing their irrational behaviors” <— Now, this is not an invalid line of reasoning so far is it goes, but it's not a very compelling one. It is a line of argument that depends on impoverishing the mental faculties of your opponent. (Which again, in specific instances, is a completely sound line of argument, as uncharitable as it may be, but when generalized to all religious persons it becomes somewhat suspect).

    So in the end, it seems he is essentially saying, "we should all take the view that science are religion are incompatible, because they're incompatible" which is not exactly the height of argumentative reasoning.

    So I would take and endorse and approve of the message the author claimed to be making, while wholly rejecting the argument he actually made.

    The article that these folks need to write is:

    "Why religion, by necessity, is a denial of empirically provable reality and rational thought."

    If they can manage that, then they'd actually have a reasoned argument for this claim.

    _______________________________

    There is another related class of argument, that he did make claim to within the article that is actually more forceful, related to the last idea above.

    This is the line of argument that goes, "Being scientists, we should reject that which we have no evidence for, and thus, reject the soul, the supernatural, God, etc."

    This is really a more persuasive and difficult argument to be sure, and may ultimately prove to be damning (pardon the pun in parlance).

    However, it does expose, I think, a problem in certain self-conceptions of the scientific project. If the scientific project didn't fundamentally involve and hope for the possibility of proving fantastic, unexpected, and improbable ideas in the pursuit, not only of understanding our world, but bettering it, than it would not be the estimable endeavor that we believe it to be.

    With that in mind, we who consider ourselves rational or scientific should not say "we reject that which we have no proof for"(as correct as that may sound to our ears at first) because then the consideration of new theories and further discovery is preemptively short-circuited, but rather we should say "we will examine our world, and our views, in pursuit of the proof that it is correct."

    — and then the question viz. religion becomes, "When should we reject something we have been unable to prove?"

    Surely, the inability to disprove an idea is no great reason to accept it, but an inability to prove something which is so sought after should lead first to an examination of what elements of it are forceful and whether they might have some evidence, even if it is lesser than their initial formulation, rather than an outright rejection of the whole system.

    _________________________________

    And I think from this you can gather that I have a scientifically reductionist view of religion, but one that hasn't yet turned me off to the idea entirely.

  20. tumbledried says:

    I do not believe that just because we’ve just started to figure out how to manipulate the fabric of reality, that we should let go of cultural codes of conduct, systems of morality and philosophy that have taken thousands of years to develop. To do otherwise seems slightly like hubris to me.

  21. onymous says:

    If the models are not correct (and it has been quite a wile since I’ve talked to a practicing physicist who thinks they are completely correct), then we do NOT know the rules.

    There’s a big difference between “we don’t know the rules below .01 femtometer or so” and “we don’t know the rules”. God is a relevant operator.

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  23. Brian137 says:

    …and our job is to….

    Wow – I’ve just been enjoying myself.

  24. erik says:

    Beautiful Sean. Discussion over. Period.

  25. DaveH says:

    Excellent post.

    @12 – ‘But surely the moment of conception is when a new human life begins.’

    Maybe just maybe there is no clear dividing line between life and non-life…

    @16 – It isn’t that religious belief systems are incompatible with conversation, but that religious belief systems are incompatible with science.

    @20 – How do you make meringue? Egg whites and sugar. Maybe some cream of tartar. Should we say you might need a magic ingredient to make meringue? Should we say we don’t know we don’t need a magic ingredient?

    Well, it’s the same with living creatures. We know how they are made, and
    there’s no magic ingredient.