Sunday, November 25, 2007

Faith and Science

This morning is not as cold as it's been but it's chilly and sort of gray out. I got a new jacket last week, and have been a little shy to wear it -- it's fur, and maybe it's too much. But I wore it last night and this morning when I walked the dog, and it's possible I'll get used to it. Back in the day nothing was too much, I guess I'm mellowing with the years.

Or maybe not.

Yesterday my friend and I played music for six hours straight. We ended up doing a bunch of Roy Orbison songs, and today my throat is a little sore. My fingertips are also kind of crunchy, but I have been picking up the guitar every day and playing a little, so there are at least some callouses now. He plays bass and I play guitar, and we stood there in his basement drinking sangria out of a box and playing old songs. It turns out I know a whole lot of Buddy Holly songs. And Merle Haggard, too, but he doesn't like to play that country stuff, we generally stick to old rock and roll, which is centered on the early Sun recordings but includes Elmo James and George Jones, if you know what I mean. I am thinking about getting some software so I can set up a kind of home recording studio; I recently watched a documentary about Les Paul and Mary Ford, and how they recorded everything in their house, and I think that would be fun. I've been writing songs again -- actually, yesterday while my friend was trying to burn me a CD I played some of my old songs, just by myself, and they sounded pretty good. Well, I've got enough going on already without that, but it's fun.

The New York Times had an opinion piece yesterday by a professor at Arizona State University, which I attended for two unimpressive years back in the sixties. This guy, Paul Davies, is a physicist, calls himself these days an "astrobiologist," which sounds cool but ... well, I'm not going to criticize his science, it looks like he's a person who takes a broad view of things, and I'm in favor of that, sometimes researchers narrow their field too much.

The piece is long, and I want to show you but don't want to paste the whole thing in here. Here's the start, which I think catches the gist of his case:
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do? Taking Science on Faith

First of all, he does overstate the case. Nobody thinks science is perfect, it's just the best we've got. As biological agents we are limited in our ability to be objective, we can only sense the world through human senses and interpret what we see from the point of view of human beings. The endeavor to improve measurement and analysis, and to design experiments that test important hypotheses, has been very successful, but it is not perfect. In the long run, all we are doing is making adjustments to the brains that nature gave us, programming the meatware.

I think he's wrong to contrast scientific belief with faith. True, they're different things, but not that different; scientific knowledge is based on carefully developed evidence, but every skeptic realizes that a leap of faith is required in order to believe that the empirical world exists at all. Without that grain of faith you'd be schizophrenic, living in your own self-absorbed universe, solipsistically doubting the existence of everything; I don't think any serious thinker would say that you could have science without faith.

It seems to me that the difference between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge has to do with intention, as contrasted with causation. The scientist finds that things are the way they are because something caused them to be that way. The religious believer finds that things are the way they are because somebody made them that way.

What would be the difference between a world that someone made intentionally and the exact same world without intention? I'm asking if an atheist and a believer walk around participating in the world, what will they see that's different?

The only difference will be the way they feel about it. Say, I have a drawing on my refrigerator that my daughter made for me when she was four. I look at that drawing with a certain feeling that you, coming into my kitchen, would not have, because I know her and I know she made the drawing for me. The religious believer feels like that in the world, has a sentimental connection to existence, a feeling that the world was intentionally made just the way it is, with love.

There would not have to be any difference in what the believer and the skeptic predict will happen next, no difference in understanding how the world works, so the pragmatist sees the distinction between faith and no-faith as meaningless, having no cash value. But there's the rub: meaning. If the world is made by an intentional being, then meaning is actually a property of the world itself. If that is the case, then the human intellect is an instrument for revealing meaning. The alternative is that meaning is something socially constructed by humans with brains, transparently experienced as a quality of the world, as part of the package we call "the human condition." I am talking about the difference between discovery and invention.

So maybe faith is the unskeptical acceptance of meaning as a quality of the world, intentionally put there by a divine creator. Wouldn't it be nice to walk around in a world brimming with true meaning, made with love? I can't really see anything to object to there, and I also don't see why that feeling would be incompatible with any aspect of science. Well, I don't personally choose to feel that way, but I'm saying it's fine if other people feel that way.

The problems begin when I insist that my daughter's drawing is better than some other kid's drawing, when I confuse my feeling of special significance with objective knowledge. Of course I feel that way, the drawing means something special to me, but the drawing on your refrigerator has special significance to you, and you might think your kid's drawing is better than my kid's. Because our own kids' drawings are special to us, we may reify our feelings and think they are objectively special, especially if we believe that meaning is a true quality of the world that is revealed to our minds, and that's a problem. Someone coming into my kitchen would sadly fail to see what I see in that drawing, which could be as bad as being blind as far as I'm concerned.

Similarly, if I believe with all my heart that my God created the world and gave it meaning, and you believe otherwise, we will each think of the other as deluded. And that is not a good basis for a friendship.

There's really nothing wrong with believing that God set up the big bang and the process of evolution, carefully designing the cosmological constants so that the universe would remain stable through human lifetimes and so on -- that's all fine, it doesn't change a thing. You can't prove that there is intention behind the world, or that there isn't, so you choose whatever makes you feel better. Either view may be correct, and either may be illusion -- you'll never prove it either way.

I am ignoring the ones who say that the world was literally made in seven days, 6,000 years ago or whatever they believe. They are free to believe that, but they are simply wrong. There is no point in arguing with authoritarians.

There have been religions that stopped just before the point we've come to, where the seeker learns to sense the presence of the divine in every moment, and discounts other thoughts as vanity and illusion borne necessarily by mortal nature. Unfortunately most people are not content with that. People want some intervention in their lives, they want a personal contact with the spirit world, they want an explanation for why things are the way they are and somebody to hold accountable for it all, they want to know that the world was made for their own happiness. Next thing you know, you've got competing deities, and worse, you've got explanations that conflict with empirical evidence, challenging good-hearted faith.

I don't usually talk here about my own beliefs, but I will say I personally am most comfortable with a flavor of panpsychism that keeps bringing me back to the teachings of Lao Tsu. My intuitions on this topic are pretty well described in THIS paper, if you're interested. I don't think consciousness could possibly be created in a brain, I think the brain exploits the subjective quality of the world by making it reflexive and giving it content; what's different about us is not that we're conscious, but that we're conscious of things. Intention, I'm afraid, presumes embodiment, and so I don't see that anything is gained by believing that a disembodied will lies behind the machinations of the universe; but that doesn't mean the universe is barren or uncaring. That's just what I think, I don't expect anyone else to walk down that road with me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
Off topic- kind of like everything the anons post here. I was thinking about that moron Adol Owen- williams and his Heil Hitler remark. I had two thoughts- one is that if the Republican party had any viability in Montgomery County- his remarks would have been denounced and he would not be head of the MC republican Men's club now. However, as Republicans are a non-entity in county elections- Dems aren't bringing it up and the Republicans are ignoring it or making excuses(not apologies)-they can't win anyway. OR Adol Owen-Williams is still angry over his treatment by Steve(NOW I AM A DEM-not)Abrams and the county Republican party. They didn't back him up after Steve assaulted him verbally and physically and so Adol said something usually guaranteed to bring out calls of disgust and anger. He is hoping this will be used against whatever losers the Republicans put up next time.
By the way in my websearch on this-I may have come across who one of the N. anons is- like our N. anon, this guy - Neal from Anne Arundel- was excusing the Hitler remark and pimping for the CRC on a Maryland political blog. He said something like "Your readers could do worse than check out the CRC website". I don't know- it would be hard to check out something worse than the CRC website- maybe Stormfront or the Phelps family blog?

November 25, 2007 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
Sorry, the guy wasn't named Neal - it was Mike. I may read his blog- although I might also decide to eat fire, walk on coals or watch football- none likely to happen. I don't want to point fingers at a non-existent guy- although there may well be a guy named Neal in Anne Arundel.

November 25, 2007 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On topic:

This is one of the most interesting pieces I have ever read on faith and science. It expresses very clearly a juxtaposition which I have sensed, but never explicated.

My own theology is not the same as Jim's. But he sets forth a very useful, humane, and, in my view, Godly, framework for understanding what we think and why we think it.

November 27, 2007 5:01 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Thank you for that comment, David. Sometimes, especially Sunday mornings, I write things here that are pure self-indulgence, expecting to have something juicier for readers by Monday morning, when everybody gets to the office and can settle down to some reading. I am often surprised when anyone actually reads these pieces, and so I thank you for reading it, getting it, and commenting on it.


November 27, 2007 7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My own theology is not the same as Jim's."

What is yours, David?

November 27, 2007 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I tried posting this earlier, but there were some web problems.

When you choose to identify yourself, I will be happy to engage in theological discourse with you.

In the meantime, I will simply say that I believe that there is a God and that the lodestar for my approach is found in Micah 6:8 --"What doth the Lord require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

I do not pretend to know the precise nature of God; I suspect that that is beyond our ability to fully understand. It is that humility that, for me, is the meaning of the phrase "to walk humbly with thy God." I operate on the assumption that God wants us to "do justly and love mercy."

To act otherwise would seem to me to be "ungodly."

November 28, 2007 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When you choose to identify yourself, I will be happy to engage in theological discourse with you."

Great. That way I can comment and don't have to worry about any argument out of you.

"In the meantime, I will simply say that I believe that there is a God and that the lodestar for my approach is found in Micah 6:8 --"What doth the Lord require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

I do not pretend to know the precise nature of God; I suspect that that is beyond our ability to fully understand. It is that humility that, for me, is the meaning of the phrase "to walk humbly with thy God." I operate on the assumption that God wants us to "do justly and love mercy."

To act otherwise would seem to me to be "ungodly.""

Great verse, David, but I think you misinterpret the phrase, "walk humbly." God has revealed things about himself in scripture and in creation so acknowledging his voice doesn't display an absence of humility. More humble to rely on God's word and realize that you may not perfectly understand his purposes.

Now, remember, no arguments from you.

November 28, 2007 1:35 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Anonymous, that you're so thrilled about the prospect of not being argued against acknowledges your awareness of the utter weakness of your arguments.

November 28, 2007 2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Randi.

I was joking with David. Your humorlessness is a little sad.

November 28, 2007 4:54 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 28, 2007 5:33 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Anonymous said "I was joking with David.".

Yeah, sure you were... Your transparent excuses are as weak as the arguments you're so thrilled to have unopposed.

November 28, 2007 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are free to interpret the passage any way you like, as am I. Since I am not a scriptual literalist -- that is, I do not see scripture as the absolute word of God -- I am comfortable understanding the wisdom of scripture in ways that make sense in light of centuries of human experience.

Ultimately, theological views are matters of faith. We are all entitled to our own faith.

I believe that the Golden Rule is the operative guidance to live a godly life. You are free to have a different view. This is America, thank goodness.

November 28, 2007 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You are free to interpret the passage any way you like, as am I."

Well, if you mean legally, yes. Still, I assume you'd like to know truth too.

I, myself, always am interested in what other people think and considering whether they may have some insight I've missed. Maybe I'm an exception, but it really doesn't bother me that others disagree with me.

"Since I am not a scriptual literalist -- that is, I do not see scripture as the absolute word of God"

Being a scriptural literalist and believing scripture is the absolute word of God are not the same, David.

November 29, 2007 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, David, did you watch the debate last night? Some you-tuber asked the candidates if they believed literally in the Bible. The next president, Mike Huckabee, gave the best answer.

November 29, 2007 7:53 PM  
Blogger David S. Fishback said...

Well, Anon, that is where we differ. Not only did Giuliani (in my view) provide the best answer, but he provided a very good answer. There isn't, however, much else about the former Mayor that I like.

November 29, 2007 10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Giuiani had a good response. Not that I have the same view, I just think he gave an honest answer. Say what you will about him, he sticks with his convictions and doesn't try to create false impressions.

I'm thinking the Huckabee-McCain ticket will smash Clinton-Obama in the general election.

Did you know that Americans always favor the war candidate even when they don't like the war? Find an example in history where it isn't true. Right now, although Democrats strongly detest the Iraq war, they solidly support Clinton, who voted for it, vs Obama who has opposed it from the beginning.

Woe to Democrats in the general election if they face a ticket with either McCain or Giuliani.

It'll be McGovern-Nixon deja vu!

November 30, 2007 12:47 AM  
Blogger Adol Owen-Williams, II said...

I can't help but notice that when some of you so called "blogers" choose to post an insulting or derogatory comment about someone you've never met, you conveniently choose to do so anonymously; that is the true sign of a thoroughbred pusillanimous coward! Might I suggest that you 20, 30, and 40 something year olds stop behaving like a bunch of preteen social retards. Stop prancing around all day in your underware in you mom's basement attacking complete strangers from a secret and safe distance via the PC you use the remainder of the day to watch porn when you are not anonymously insulting complete strangers. Why not go out into the real world and get a life?!

July 28, 2008 5:33 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Adol, I know how you feel, and I just thank my lucky stars no anonymous cowards ever say anything negative about me on the Internet!


July 28, 2008 6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
The only anon who posts here supported you- he may be the only vote you get if you ever run for anything.

I read in more than one news outlet about what you said and you should be ashamed. Further, someone who is supposedly an adult and thinks he deserves to be an elected official should know better than to use the word "retard". I have a very responsible position, have never watched porn and do not live in anyone's basement- can the same be said for you since this is your projection?
I do not need to know you to find your actions then and your use of the word "retard" now reprehensible and beneath contempt.

July 28, 2008 9:05 PM  

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