Sunday, April 27, 2008

Does science make belief in God obsolete?

 
The John Templeton Foundation has a website where "leading scientists and scholars" discuss the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" [A Templeton Conversation] One of these prominent intellectuals is Ken Miller and his answer is "Of course not."

One of our regular readers (Oldcola) left a comment on this site where he criticized the views of Ken Miller. His comment was initially posted intact but within a few days a heavily edited version replaced the original comment. The man responsible for editing the comment is Gary Rosen.

Apparently, the Templeton Foundation objected to the claim that they were soft on creationism, according to Oldcola. Oldcola requested that his edited comment be removed, and it was.

You can read an extended critique of Ken Miller's position on Oldcola's blog Coffee and Sci(ence) [Does science make belief in God obsolete?]. It's an excellent essay.

Incidentally, although it's not directly relevant to Miller's position, and it's not something that he clearly states, I find that theists of all sorts make the same false assumption when discussing the conflict between science and religion. They almost always assume that their atheist friends started life as theists and then lost their faith. Thus, they assume that there is something about science that disproves the default assumption; namely, that God exists.

While this might be true of many atheists, especially in the USA, it's not true of many others in Europe and elsewhere. Many atheists never bought into a belief in supernatural beings in the first place. This will be more and more likely as time goes on and the children of atheists have children of their own. When scientists like Ken Miller have to explain why science makes them go from being an atheist to a beleiver, it becomes much more difficult. Just look at the contortions that Francis Collins had to come up with.

Here's the point. It's up to theists to start making the case for the existence of God instead of just whining about those who have lost their faith. Let's say you've been raised in a home where superstitious beliefs are not valued. Then you start studying science seriously when you get to university. Is there anything about science that points to the existence of supernatural beings given that you haven't been brainwashed to believe in them as a child? I don't think so.

As Oldcola points out, many theists are simply afraid to abandon their comforting delusions. They believe science teaches us that the universe has no purpose—they are correct—and for them this depressing thought is sufficient to prove that science must be wrong. What they fail to understand is that the thought is only "depressing" if you've been brainwashed to to believe that there is a purpose in the first place.


14 comments :

  1. Is there anything about science that points to the existence of supernatural ....?

    That's inductivism. As a thought experiment try turning it around with some deductivism. Start from the notion of diety (assuming you can construct an intelligible concept of deity) and then asking yourself what you would expect to 'see'. You don't have any big commitment to theism or to be brainwashed from childhood to be able to engage in these little thought experiments.

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  2. I'd think playing that little thought game would be easy enough. Here's a short little list I came up with on the 'back of the envelope.'

    • Implausible things would happen in a non-random manner. Unless, that is, god doesn't care if you've prayed to him or not - something I've never heard any of the religions claim.

    • The universe would be a tidier place. Far be it from me to accuse the almighty of shoddy work, but from life to our solar system, it all seems terribly half-assed. Couldn't god have done 'it' without all the near earth asteroids zooming about, threatening to smack into us one day?

    • He'd leave a large wake. Any time a god or gods come down and begin to muck around in the material realm, you should see all sorts of fantastic, non-causal things. If it appears natural, it doesn't count; I could say "I'll make the sun rise at 5:29 in Fairbanks Alaska tomorrow." and no one would really take me seriously, eh? Why should god get the benefit of that doubt?

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  3. This will be more and more likely as time goes on and the children of atheists have children of their own.

    My goodness! You atheists have just figured that out? No wonder there are so few of you!

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  4. I suppose I'm a second generation atheist (maybe third on one side), but I never explicitly identify myself as such, because i never even heard the word "atheist" until I took a philosophy class in grade 12. If prompted, I'll say I have no religion, but that itself doesn't have a name to me. The word "atheist" sounds to me like a religion in itself, or at least some kind of organized group.
    To me, it seems as odd as always having to say that I don't believe in unicorns or the Easter Bunny. I'm as much an atheist as an a-unicornist, but we a-unicornists rarely talk about our lack of belief in one-horned horses. It's just a given.

    Science has nothing to do with it, it was just the way the world was presented to me as a kid, and I knew there were other people who believed in a god and went to church, so i thought about it, but didn't quite understand their motivations.

    When I was about 6 years old I thought we were "public" at home, because there were Catholic schools in our town, and protestant schools, but I went to public school, so I thought that was what our "religion" was called.

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  5. My goodness! You atheists have just figured that out? No wonder there are so few of you!

    Shhhh! They'll their be campaiging against contraception along with the Roman Catholics next!

    (BTW: Thanks KC for being a good sport and playing the game!)

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  6. No, science does not make belief in god obsolete, but it does make it as stupid as a rock to believe in god.

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  7. SLC

    Maybe I am missing something but I was unaware that Prof. Miller was once an atheist.

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  8. I asked a few US atheists who were scientists if science made them atheists. And the general response was that "atheists tend toward science" instead of "science turns people into atheists". I conjecture that science has little influence on the general question about belief in God.

    And I think John Leslie does a great job of evaluating the scientific evidence in cosmology.

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  9. Larry,
    Nothing in science makes belief in God impossible, or "complicated". If that was the case, then the fouding fathers of modern science (Newton, Lineus, Mendel, Pasteur, Bacon, Maxwell, Farady, Galileo) would not be scientists, or would not be Christians.

    The belief that science makes belief in the Judeo-Christian God impossible is a myth.
    Mats

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  10. mats says,

    Nothing in science makes belief in God impossible, or "complicated". If that was the case, then the fouding fathers of modern science (Newton, Lineus, Mendel, Pasteur, Bacon, Maxwell, Farady, Galileo) would not be scientists, or would not be Christians.

    Hmmm ... that's an interesting line of argument. Let's try it on and see if it fits.

    Nothing in Christianity makes racism impossible, If that was the case, you wouldn't have had so many racist founders of Christian sects.

    Nothing is Christianity makes murder impossible. If that was the case, you wouldn't have so many Christians on death row.

    Nothing in Christianity makes genocide impossible. If that was the case the Bible wouldn't have so many examples of genocide committed by God.

    Nothing in Christianity permits equality for women. If that was the case, the founders of Christianity wouldn't have been such sexists.

    Nothing in Christianity allows for tolerance toward gays and lesbians. If that was the case the disciples wouldn't have been homophobes.

    Nothing in Christianity forbids pedophilia. If that were the case we wouldn't have so many priests committing pedophilia.

    Isn't this fun?

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  11. Larry,
    thank you for the display of JTF's way of "conversation" and the appreciation of my response to Ken Miller.
    Gary Rosen didn't make it to announce censorship on their pages, yet, as he planned to do. Hmm...

    KC,
    Prayer doesn't work, JTF helped prove so by financing a study.
    The soft creationists tend to accept that god isn't omnipotent (no kidding, our local (France) JTF grantee, Jean Staune, discuss on that basis), so it seems natural to have a mess all around.
    But, weird things happen: people believe to astrology! Even some scientists consider it as science, say Mickael Behe (see Dover trial). That's fantastic, no? ;-)

    CL Hermit,
    I really don't understand why one would need to be scientifically literate to understand the stupidity of the scriptures.

    Mats,
    Your comment is quite interesting.
    Larry considered one aspect.

    I'll consider another one: science progressively replace the "revealed knowledge" by contradicting knowledge, making visible that religions simply lied as much as it was possible. Christian leaders either deny facts (YECs) or do accept that a large part of the scriptures, are myths (call them metaphors, allegories, or whatever you like, that's not truth anyway).

    Newton 1727, Linnaeus 1778, Mendel 1884, Pasteur 1895, Bacon 1626, Maxwell 1879, Faraday 1867, Galileo 1642. The numbers being the years of their deaths.
    That looks old story for me, and these guys didn't had a wide view of sciences as we do have today. I wonder which one would be theists today. The mystic ones, if any mysticism was left in their minds.

    But then, none of them experienced the acceptance of science by religious authorities as superior to describe natural aspects of the world than religion!

    Think about that. If a large part of the scriptures isn't the pretended "by god revealed truth" why someone would accept the rest of it as valid? One would need a huge amount of irrationality to consider religions as anything else than organized fantasies.
    Once religion is taken aside (including the three monotheist ones, thus christianity), what else could make one think that there could be anything else than nature? Make him be a theist? Except irrationality, I mean.

    Irrationality is an handicap, not very impairing if it is expressed in restricted domains. Excellent mathematicians may be convinced that they have at least a madrigal and be ruined at Las Vegas; they can still teach mathematics nicely. Excellent biologists may be convinced that they carry a soul, they can still teach evolution. I suppose Ken Miller is in this category.
    Problems appear each time the handicap (irrationality) is invited in the domain of work of the scientists; known examples being Behe, Beauregard, Dembski. And still, they can manage to do some work :-)

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  12. Larry said:

    < "Hmmm ... that's an interesting line of argument. Let's try it on and see if it fits." >

    Fits what? Whoever said in the first place that Christianity makes the evils you mentioned impossible? What is your point?
    There was only one founder of Christianity and that was Christ himself. Your belief that nothing in Christianity permits equality for women is wrong. Did you miss the part where St.Paul said that there is no male or female but both are one in Christ? As for homosexuality,that was a major sin,remember? So of course those that continued in that kind of behavior would not be tolerated in Christian communities. That's not a phobia,that's revulsion.

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  13. < "Here's the point. It's up to theists to start making the case for the existence of God instead of just whining about those who have lost their faith." >

    That's easy. We can start with the fact that not everything on earth is alive,and everything which is alive dies. So life is extrinsic to the natural world. Nature does not have life as a property intrinsic to itself. Life is super-natural,and is the same in essence as that other unknown quantity called "spirit".

    < "Let's say you've been raised in a home where superstitious beliefs are not valued." >

    [For example,natural selection,whereby nature is purported to have an attribute of thought.]

    Then you start studying science seriously when you get to university. Is there anything about science that points to the existence of supernatural beings given that you haven't been brainwashed to believe in them as a child? I don't think so." >

    Considering that most natural scientists thoughtlessly hold to the principle of naturalism,it wouldn't be suprising that science doesn't point to the existence of supernatural being.

    As Oldcola points out, many theists are simply afraid to abandon their comforting delusions.

    [Such as the God-given dignity of all persons,the necessity to help the poor,the reality of sinfulness,the threat of eternal damnation]

    < "They believe science teaches us that the universe has no purpose—they are correct—and for them this depressing thought is sufficient to prove that science must be wrong. What they fail to understand is that the thought is only "depressing" if you've been brainwashed to to believe that there is a purpose in the first place." >

    And yet! -- there is indeed a purpose of a sort,albeit a naturalistic one.
    There may not be a God who selects and determines,but nature does.

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  14. I gotta agree with you, Larry, about those racist Christians, to wit: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his acolyte Obama.

    DiverCity

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