Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday School

In a recent New Yorker magazine issue (Feb 9) was a quote from John Updike which perfectly frames the problem with science for those who prefer belief over reason:

"The non-scientist's relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos. Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God-bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century's revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know."

The fundamental needs of the human mind to avoid certain kinds of discordance are so great as to lead it away from itself. It's built in. Humans, in their self-awareness (and, paradoxically, in their lack of it) are able to ask questions the answers to which most simply can't handle. Nor recognize or admit it.

Once again we see the relationship between some kinds of blind belief and a large number of conservatives: they are of a piece. Inquiry is not part of the equation, except as it reinforces the need to believe certain things for one's own comfort, explicitly at the expense of reality. Their leaders are chosen specifically for that trait. 

Liberalism is another thing altogether. One can only wonder why they coexist, and which form of human thinking is the more evolved. Given the direction one moves based on one or the other, the answer seems obvious.



Anonymous said...

I don't see why science should have anything to say at all about religion. Science to my understanding deals with things that are testable. There is no test for God's existence. I'll admit I don't know anything about Updike, but I do know a blatant appeal to authority when I see it. If Updike wants to fault people for their beliefs that's fine but his argument about what science has to say about the validity of religion is disingenuous at best.

Sid Schwab said...

Actually, you couldn't be more wrong. Maybe you didn't follow the link.

If there's no test for gods' existence, there certainly are tests for many of the claims made by those who believe in him/her/them/it.

Anonymous said...

A few things about Pharyngula's(Mr. Myers) arguments.

1) He hedges his bets so to speak at the end acknowledging that science has no business trying to test the untestable as long as people realize that, in his belief no one can have knowledge of God.

2) why would it be an atheist world? the best he can hope for from his arguments is an agnostic world. Absence of proof is not proof of absence which I'm sure he knows.

3) I find Updike's appeal to authority no more impressive then Mr. Myers's appeal to ignorance. To answer his question yes people can have knowledge of God with out it being measurable. I think if God wants to communicate with individuals in a way that doesn't lend itself to measurement or validation that is within his ability. I feel like he is straining for a way to apply some measurement however slight onto religion, nothing he comes up with comes close to sticking in my view.

4) Last I don't understand why there is an attitude in a portion of the scientific or medical community that this world would be better off without religion. I believe the two can co-exist just fine. Dr. Sid do you think your religious patients would have been better off if they had just ditched their religion when they became ill, or do you think there is some use to it even if you can not reconcile it with your own beliefs?

Sid Schwab said...

I'd never suggest a patient "ditch" religious beliefs; as I've said several times in this blog and in my other one, I found religious belief to be a source of strength for most patients and/or families, and was glad for that.

I agree the two can coexist, especially in people of good will. Which is to say, when people keep some thoughts to themselves; the problem -- and, I think, the reason for the recent higher profile activism of some atheists -- is that religionists are making more and more attempts to impose their beliefs into the public square, to the detriment of us all. When creationism is seen as scientifically equivalent to evolution, when scientific method is absent from the resources of more and more kids, our future is jeopardized. When gays are prevented from marrying for no reason other than that the Bible supposedly says it's wrong, then our democracy is at risk. When we elect presidents who believe god wants them to invade countries, we die. When we use religious tests for our elected officials, we miss out on lots of brilliant people. And so it goes.

I have friends who are very religious. I respect them and their view. I find it fascinating that humans have a need to believe in magical answers to important questions, and think it's a very acceptable field of scientific inquiry.

And there was something much more profound to Updike's words. It wasn't at all an appeal to authority, whatever that is. It was a musing on the revelations of science and how they affect our world view, and the difficulty of reconciling those discoveries with the anthropocentrism of most religions. We love science for its ability to help our lives, and reject it for its ability to question our beliefs. I find that thought provoking, and quite in synch with much of what I've written. Which, of course, makes it especially brilliant.

Leigh said...

Updike makes no appeal to authority. He makes an appeal to the methodology of science, which is accessible to all.

While we can't all be scientists, we can all understand the way science works. And the way it works explicitly REJECTS an appeal to authority. Ideas in science are put forward with the expectation that many very smart people will do their best to disprove them. That's true even, or maybe even especially, if the person with the new idea is an eminent scientist. It's only after the idea gets thoroughly beaten up through testing, examination of evidence, and rigorous vetting that it is accepted by the scientific community.

THAT'S why we should listen to scientists and accept their consensus. They don't suffer fools gladly, and the process they use for their work is very good at winnowing out fools and cranks.

Isn't it at all reassuring to you that scientists are skeptics? I find that among the most comforting things I've ever learned.

As a person of faith, I can only wish that we applied more of that intellectual rigor to our acceptance of theological cranks. We'd have far fewer credulous believers giving money to creationists and IDiots, gay-bashers, dominionists, and other purveyors of bankrupt ideologies.

Jade said...

"There is not test for God's existence."

As if religious leaders/"scientists" all over the world wouldn't shout "I told you so" if there existed some experimental data proving the existence of God. Nothing infuriates me more than the claim that science has nothing to do with religion, that religion is "untestable", cannot possibly be experimented on, and then the same could be said of evolution (which actually can be tested), but evolution is false because of that fact.

Sid, keep writing I love it.

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