Category Archives: Science & Religion

Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 5, 2016.)

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 4, 2016.)

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

A recent piece New York Times article, “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks,” reports on a new survey by the Pew Research Center which show public skepticism about improving the physical and intellectual life of the human species. As reported, “Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.” Of course a visceral sense of disgust—what philosophers sometimes call the “yuch” factor—isn’t a good reason to reject new technologies. Antibiotics, in vitro fertilization, and countless beneficial technologies also elicited negative visceral reactions before their use became widespread. And, in the social realm, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia also emanate from deep inside our ape-like brains.

The survey also “shows a profound distrust of scientists …” a particularly painful finding. The public seems unaware that science is the single best means humans have ever had to uncover the truth about the world, as well as being the primary source of human progress. Without science half the people reading this sentence would have died of childhood diseases, and those surviving would have had a short and painful life without clean water, dentistry, vaccinations, antibiotics, and an adequate food supply for billions. And this is to say nothing of planetary communication, computers, air travel, indoor plumbing, etc.

The survey specifically asked the public about three futuristic technologies: 1)using gene editing to protect babies from disease; 2)implanting chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think; and 3)transfusing synthetic blood that would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance. The finding weren’t surprising, but were nonetheless depressing: “The public was not enthusiastic … even about protecting babies from disease. Most, at least seven out of 10, thought scientists would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” I’m glad such sentiments were less widespread in the early part of the twentieth-century when childhood diseases were virtually eliminated.

The finding that was most interesting to me was that:

Religiosity affected attitudes on these issues. The more religious people said they were, the less likely they were to want genetic alterations of babies or technologies to enhance adults. The differences were especially pronounced between evangelical Protestants and people who said they were atheists or agnostics. For example, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants said gene editing to protect babies from serious diseases was meddling with nature. In contrast, 81 percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said it was not fundamentally different than other ways humans have tried to better themselves.

These results confirm what I have experienced teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades. When students maintain a religious, usually Christian, worldview, they overwhelming oppose scientific and technological progress and innovation; whereas when they don’t hold a religious worldviews, they are generally receptive to scientific and technological advance. The reasons for this are straightforward. If you believe an omnipotent super-being fashioned a good creation then there is little need to significantly modify it. Furthermore, if said super-being governs that creation and demands respect, then we best not meddle with either the creation or the super-being. On the other hand, if students believe that whether such super-beings exist or not it is up to human beings to determine their own fate, then they typically find ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds much less problematic.

The public also expressed the typical concerns about how such technologies meddle with nature, a version of the “let nature take its course” argument. Again, not surprisingly, it was religious believers who adopted this viewpoint much more often than non-believers. There is much that refutes this argument, but suffice it to say that almost everything about modern medicine is about meddling with nature; it is about not letting nature takes its course. Letting nature take its course means that when you contract an infection your immune system either destroys it or you most likely die. In the past, simple infections were potentially deadly and amputation was a common medical practice. So do you really believe that we shouldn’t meddle with nature? And does doing so follow from a belief in the gods? Why wouldn’t the gods want us to use our reason to improve the world?

In fact the results of these surveys are amazing if you think about it. The majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! I suppose either they believe we should not try to make things better—a truly astonishing claim—or they believe there is a better way than science to make the world a better place. And what way would that be? Would constant petitionary prayer to the gods eradicate cancer? Would fervent belief in Jesus or Mohammed do the trick? Of course many religious people accept using science to improve the human (and post-human?) condition, but there is something about religious belief that makes scientific and technological progress harder to accept.

But the most important point is this. While there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if one is serious about making things better, they should use scientific knowledge and its application as technology to do so, for those have been the most successful means of improving the human condition in the past.  Science is the primary reason we live longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before.

Religious Belief Might Bring About the End of the World

I recently did a book review of Phil Torres‘ important new book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. Here is a sample of my effusive praise for the book:

… Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science.

This praise was ever so slightly mitigated by my concern that the “secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology … We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial . . . [so]. . . consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion.”

Torres replied with a powerful response that I’ll reprint in full:

I would agree that the book doesn’t adequately deal with apocalyptic scenarios brought about by phenomena that are “non-religious” in nature. In one of the appendices, I do mention how eschatological beliefs imbue and animate strictly-speaking “secular” ideologies, such as Nazism and Marxism. The point of the book, though, is to specifically focus on the potential connections between religion and existential risks — to show that these two topics are mutually relevant, and therefore that the secular community and the x-risks community ought to be speaking to each other. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious terrorism is the leading motivator of terrorism today, and as I attempt to argue in a forthcoming Skeptic article, I think there are fairly robust reasons for thinking that apocalyptic terrorism — arguably the most dangerous kind — will actually increase in the future. (Several terrorism scholars that I’ve sent the paper to share my conclusion, as it happens!)

Furthermore, while human irrationality — the ultimate danger here — can take many forms, such as nationalism, radical anarchism, and so on, I take it that religion offers perhaps the most compelling instance of bad epistemology in the world today. It’s also an immensely pervasive social-cultural phenomenon that, according to Pew, is projected to grow this century. Reasons like this are why I focus on religion in particular. But the ultimate point here is a very, very good one: there most definitely are other phenomena that could nontrivially increase the probability of an existential risk. (Is North Korea motivated by religion? Arguably, yes, a “cult of personality.” But there’s a lot more to be said here about this ongoing, and possibly increasing, danger, that doesn’t immediately fit into the categories that I discuss.) As John mentions, we could be greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, territorial, and so on. So the point is definitely understood, and further exploration should be a focus of future work! In the last chapter of the book, I note that there are few shoulders upon which to stand when it comes to x-risks studies, simply because the field is a mere 20 years old, at most (in my estimation; starting with John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Once the field emerges a bit more from a “pre-paradigmatic” state, perhaps a more comprehensive analysis can be given.

In conclusion let me reiterate that Torres’ book is extraordinarily important.

The God of the Philosophers

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 12, 2015)

I have written multiple times on the paucity of religious belief among professional philosopher and scientists. A perceptive reader mused that modern science was primarily responsible for the decline. As he suggested, since the 17th century scientific explanations have come, for the educated at least, to replace supernatural explanations. Or, as a reader put it, “At no point has the bearded-dude-in-space explanation been helpful in explaining anything.”

I think my reader has it about right—the rise of modern science has been a primary reason for the decline of the influence of religion in western culture since the 17th century. Yes there probably are other factors—capitalism, modernism, and more—but with the rise of modern science in the last 400 years, naturalistic explanations have come to replace supernaturalism ones.

But my perceptive reader was also puzzled by the desire of the more educated and the sophisticated religious to defend their beliefs with more obtuse and abstract notions of gods. Of course their god is not a father in the sky they say, but rather the ground of being or fine tuner of the universe or something even more esoteric. What my reader wondered was what such theoretical deities have to do with the beliefs of typical religious believers? In other words, how does a proof of an abstract god square with the god most of the faithful profess to believe?

Little did my reader know that he has stumbled upon a problem that had baffled Christian thinkers from Pascal to Kierkegaard right up to the present time. How do we know “the god of the philosophers” is the Christian or any other God? For all we know this ultimate explanation or reason for everything—what the faithful call god—could be a ball of energy, a quantum flux, an unstable nothingness, a computer simulation, or something else.

Of course believers can always use faith as their trump card, like Kierkegaard did. Or they can appeal to personal experience, pragmatism, emotion or intuition. People generally believe what they want to believe and reason comes along for the ride, as Hume noted long ago.

But in the end we don’t really have to respond to all the subterfuges by which people deceive themselves. As human beings make the transition from human to posthumanity, when suffering and death have been defeated by science and technology, religion, at least in its current form, will be irrelevant. Superintelligences won’t find their answers in Jesus or Mohammed or ancient legends.  And then our descendents will have a better chance to answer the questions that now perplex us.

E. O. Wilson: Science Explains Religion

(This post was inspired by the thousands of comments and 66,000 facebook shares about my recent article in Salon: “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.”)

Edward O. Wilson (1929 – ) is a biologist, theorist, naturalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for general non-fiction. He is the father of sociobiology and as of 2007 was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most famous and important living scientists.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book On Human Nature, Wilson extends sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of human social behavior, into the realms of human sexuality, aggression, morality, and religion. Deploying sociobiology to dissect religious myths and practices leads him to affirm: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.”[i] Religion is a universal of social behavior, recognizable in every society in history and prehistory, and skeptical dreams that religion will vanish are futile. Scientific humanists, consisting mostly of scholars and scientists, organize into small groups which try to discredit superstition and fundamentalism but “Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog. The humanists are vastly outnumbered by true believers … Men, it appears, would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”[ii]

Other scholars have tried to compartmentalize science and religion—one reads the book of nature, the other the book of scripture. However, with the advance of science, the gods are now to be found below sub-atomic particles or beyond the farthest stars. This situation has led to process theology where the gods emerge alongside molecules, organisms and mind, but, as Wilson points out, this is a long way from ancient religion. Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards like long life, land, food, avoiding disasters and conquering enemies; whereas advanced religions make more grandiose promises. This is what we would expect after a Darwinian competition between more advanced religions, with competition between sects for adherents who promote the religion’s survival. This leads to the notorious hostility between religions where, “The conqueror’s religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield.”[iii]

The clash between science and religion will continue as science dismantles the ancient myths that gave religion its power. Religion can always maintain that gods are the source of the universe or defend esoteric arguments, but Wilson doubts the strategy will ultimately succeed due to the power of science.

It [science] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion … the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.[iv]

Still, religion will endure because it possesses a primal power that science lacks. Science may explain religion, but it has no apparent place for the immortality and objective meaning that people crave and religion claims to provide. To fully address this situation, humanity needs a way to divert the power and appeal of religion belief into the service of scientific rationality.

However this new naturalism leads to a series of dilemmas. The first is that our species has no “purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”[v]In other words, we have no pre-arranged destiny. This suggests the difficulty human society will have in organizing its energy toward goals without new myths and new moralities. This leads to a second dilemma “which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.”[vi] Ethical tendencies are hard-wired, so how do we choose between them? A possible resolution to the dilemmas combines the powerful appeal of religion and mythology with scientific knowledge. One reason to do this is that science provides a firmer base for our mythological desires because of:

Its repeated triumphs in explaining and controlling the physical world; its self-correcting nature open to all competent to devise and conduct tests; its readiness to examine all subjects sacred and profane; and now the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.[vii]

When the latter has been achieved biology will explain religion as a product of evolution, and religion’s power as an external source of morality will wane. This leaves us with the evolutionary epic, and an understanding that life, mind and universe are all obedient to the same physical laws. “What I am suggesting … is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[viii]  (Myth here means grand narrative.) None of this implies that religion will be fully eradicated, for rationality and progressive evolutionism hold little affection for most, and the tendency for religious belief is hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Still, the pull of knowledge is strong—technologically skilled people and societies have tremendous advantages and they tend to win out in the struggle for existence. This all leads to another dilemma:

Our burgeoning knowledge of human nature will lead in time to a third dilemma: should we change our nature? Wilson leaves the question open, counseling us to remain hopeful. The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[ix]

 


[i]
Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.
[ii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-71.
[iii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 175.
[iv] Wilson, On Human Nature, 192.
[v] Wilson, On Human Nature, 2.
[vi] Wilson, On Human Nature 4-5.
[vii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[viii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[ix] Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.