Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Scientists Speak Up

A friend sent me a link to this New York Times article, Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science:

Dr. Collins said he believed that some scientists were unwilling to profess faith in public "because the assumption is if you are a scientist you don't have any need of action of the supernatural sort," or because of pride in the idea that science is the ultimate source of intellectual meaning.

But he said he believed that some scientists were simply unwilling to confront the big questions religion tried to answer. "You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation," he said. "You won't understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions - and are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?"

I think Collins is intellectually bankrupt. And he's making the standard religious claim: "you will never understand X."

First of all, let's set the record straight. There is no meaning (not even of the intuitive kind) in religion. Religious people speak as though everything makes sense from a religious worldview. It doesn’t. When you ask “what is the meaning of life,” what possible answer would be acceptable?

I think that’s what Douglas Adams was trying to communicate. 42 is as good and as useful an answer as God. God explains nothing. And of what value would an answer be?

Suppose we learn that we exist in a simulation, and that the purpose of the simulation is to study how humans react to tragedy and meaningless loss of life. Should we revel in death and destruction, and accept them as the creator’s will? I think not. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the creator wants. What matters is what we consider to be ethically or morally correct, and morality doesn’t come from religion. So, Dr. Collins, it’s not that atheists are unwilling to confront the questions, it’s that religionists are unwilling to confront the answers.

Second, we will find an empirical basis for every one of our thoughts and feelings. We can already trace almost every facet of human mental state to physical states in the brain.

You may have heard about Capgras Delusion, and the case of David Silvera, a man who suffered a brain injury after a car accident. The accident damaged the link between his emotion center and the visual centers in his temporal lobes. He recognized his parents, but believed them to be impostors because they did not generate any emotional response when he saw them. He would flee from the house, but could be coaxed back by a phone call.

With hundreds of such cases demonstrating the physical location of brain function, why posit that there’s something beyond physics here? Once you remove those phenomena not linked to physical brain function, there's nothing left for a soul to explain. Physics seems to cover everything. And if we claim that we’re more than meat machines, why not claim the same of other physical systems? Why don’t stars have souls? Souls have equal explanatory power over both stars and humans.

Perhaps, when we precisely demonstrate the psychological and neurological basis for “meaning”, we will finally convince people that they’ve been living in a sort of fantasy world.

Still, empirically, God seems to be doing something for people. But what?

I think people want some reassurance that their morality has some basis beyond mere preference, and they want to know where their duties begin and end. To these ends, they create God in their own image. I think this is why religion fails to make people more moral. Religion is selected by one's morality, not the other way around. There are good believers and bad believers (cough!robertson).

What I strongly object to is the way religion manipulates people. Though there may be some people who lead better lives because of religion, there are as many whose good lives are led astray. Religion is a threat to us because it makes people less rational and more prone to mob or tribal behavior.

  • Religions ask believers to outsource their morality.

  • Religion tells you that this world is unimportant compared to the next.

  • Religion says you can't solve your own problems and you have to ask for God's help (thereby depriving millions of people of the credit for making their own lives better). It also gives people excuses for not doing the right thing (e.g., "Satan made me do it")

  • It claims that evil and suffering are part of the plan, and gives us excuses for doing nothing to remedy them.

  • Religions deliberately deceive people and encourage ignorance. Religions do this by declaring that certain thoughts and ideas are forbidden. In many religions, it is considered sinful to question your faith or to think critically.

  • Religions are scams. There are few religious orders that have taken and adhered to an oath or poverty, or that are truly pacifist. Most religious organizations are extremely wealthy.

  • Religions equate morality with a set of fixed rules, an ethical impossibility.

  • The list goes on and on!
To those who have been scammed by religion, I say "break free!"

Religious leaders have no qualifications to tell you what to do, and have no valid basis, historical or otherwise, for telling you that you can't solve your own problems. It really gets my dander up when I see ignorant, Iron Age, know-nothing clerics lecture good people on right and wrong.

Who cares if there's no God? We still have the choice and the good sense to lead a good life. We don't need to be tricked into doing the right thing as if we were petulant children. Critical thinking thinking is what's called for. Sapere Aude!


Robin Zebrowski said...

Excellent post. I'm applauding in my chair!

astro said...

Amen! ;)

Great post.

rob said...

I thought that by now someone would at least know what the itinerary is in both heaven and hell. The idea of being in a place that is all good all the time is what really scares me.

(I do love those Philly cheese steaks though)