Monthly Archives: January 2014

Science & Religion: A Dialogue

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry (France, early 15th century)

I was thinking more about the science/religion question.

Science is nearly certain about its basic truths—atomic, gravitational, evolutionary, quantum, relativity theories. If we add truths from logic and mathematics we appear to know even more. (Yes, we may live in a simulation or the gods may be playing with our minds, but other than that we can be as sure of well-established scientific theories.)

Let’s say that what we know that the scientific and mathematical truths mentioned above represent 1% of all possible knowledge; in other words, that we are 99% short of omniscience if we believed these things and they were true. Yes there is no way to calculate this, but the argument doesn’t change if we know 10% or 0.0000001% of all there is to know. Unless one is a full-blown epistemological skeptic, we have some small bit of knowledge. Now for the theologians the less we know the better, for that leaves more room for the unknown which, according to them, leaves more room for their gods.

Now the question is: Is it better to live believing these relatively certain things, proportioning our assent to the evidence about other propositions, and being skeptical of speculation; or is it better to engage in metaphysical speculation, affirming without evidence that reality is good, say because of gods? Now let’s follow the conversation of two thinkers on this question:

Theologian – “there is so much you don’t know  so there might be gods or souls in there or out there somewhere. Moreover we might as well talk about all we don’t know–say about whether hope is justified and whether life is meaningful—since these topics are of such great importance to people. And people like the comfort we provide when we describe the mysterious in a favorable light. ”

Scientist – “let’s not go beyond  what we know beyond a reasonable doubt and posit supernatural explanations for that is just speculation. Instead let’s use the only method that has ever provided humans with any knowledge at all and accept what we don’t know rather than speculating about the favorable or unfavorable light we might shine on what we don’t know.”

Theologian – “But people can’t live with that kind of ambiguity. Besides I feel confident that there are gods and they are good.”

Scientist – “Some people can’t live with ambiguity, but a lot of people do. Besides believing things without sufficient evidence is often harmful because one’s beliefs affect others. You have an obligation only to believe those things for which there is sufficient evidence.”

Theologian – “Why? We have to accept all sorts of things without sufficient evidence and I chose to accept there are loving gods, that life makes sense, that I am immortal, and that these hopes are justified.”

Scientist – “There is nothing wrong with optimism about things you don’t know, as long as you keep them private. But when you try to influence the public realm, you are open to the criticism that your ideas are not sufficiently supported.”

Theologian – “Well I’d rather be wrong and at least have speculated about the good nature of reality beyond what I know, than limit myself to your relatively certain but unimportant truths.”

Scientist – “Well I’d rather have my limited amount of truths about which I can feel really confident, and then try to learn a little bit more with each generation. I can live with ambiguity.”

Theologian – “I don’t see how you can live like that, but I suppose we are just different kinds of people.”

Scientist – “I don’t see how you can live like you do either. I suppose we are different. And as long as you want to believe whatever in private ok. But don’t try to bring your religious beliefs into our sciences classes.”

Theologian – “But your beliefs–in heliocentrism and evolution—have invaded theology. So you necessarily bring your scientific truths into religion. After all it was Galileo who started all this and now Darwin. You affect us as much as the reverse.”

Scientist – “Well we’re sorry but it turns out Galileo and Darwin were right. And you can either reject obvious truths like the fundamentalists do or modify your religious beliefs.”

Theologian – “That’s what we sophisticated theologians do; we’re not geocentrists or anti-evolutionists. We accept those things with our sophisticated theologies.”

Scientists – “Ok. This means that your beliefs will slowly become more like those of science. And as knowledge grows you’ll have fewer gaps for your gods.”

Theologian – “I’m no “god of the gaps” theologian. I identify my god with the anti-entropic life forces that grounds being by attracting it toward higher levels of being and consciousness.”

Scientist – “That sounds cool but I think you might be talking about cosmic evolution.”

Theologian – “I am.”

Scientist – “Then your theology is being modified by science.”

Theologian – “Of course. Just like Christianity was modified by its encounter with Greek philosophy.”

Scientist – “Sounds like your beliefs will evolve based on our scientific understanding of the world.”

Theologian – “Yes.”

Scientist – “Well then you’ll just have to wait for us to figure things out.”

Theologian – “As long as you don’t know everything there will still be a place for the gods.”

Scientist – “Weird. So you will stand on the sidelines for millenia—perhaps as we become ex-humans—and continue to modify your speculations based on what we discover.”

Theologian – “Of course because none of us can put into words what explains all this.”

Scientist – “Suppose we someday explain everything or almost everything?”

Theologian – “You just can’t.”

Scientist – “But we’ll explain more and more and if there is no room for your gods in those explanations then will you give up believing in them?”

Theologian – “I don’t think so. ”

Scientist – “Ok. I have to get back to work actually figuring something out.”

Theologian – “And even if you explain everything we want to know what explains that!”

Scientist – “When we have explained enough nobody will listen to you anymore. Like I said I have to get back to work.”

Philosophers, Theologians, and Scientists

Rereading all the controversy created by John Haught’s attempt to not make public his debate in 2011 with Jerry Coyne, reminded me of something I was told by my graduate school mentor Richard J. Blackwell more than 25 years ago. Professor Blackwell held an endowed chair in the philosophy department, but had also done advanced graduate work in physics. In addition he directed the graduate department program in philosophy of science, and he had written extensively on the topic. In short he had been around both philosophers and scientists for all his life.

He told me the main difference between philosophical and scientific conferences and talks was how acrimonious the former were compared to the latter. He thought the main reason was, and I’m quoting almost verbatim, because scientists were (mostly) interested in what’s true while philosophers (mostly) wanted to be right. While he did not extend his arguments to theologians, I assume the argument would be even more applicable to them. No wonder Haught got so upset with Coyne’s critique of religion. Lacking empirical or mathematical evidence for one’s proposition, one can only try to convince their opponent with anecdotes of personal experiences and one’s own persuasive powers. And when these fail, one becomes frustrated.

John Haught: “The Atheist Delusion”

In a 2007 interview with Steve Paulson for Salon titled “The Atheist Delusion,” the Georgetown theologian John Haught made a number of problematic or obviously false claims. For example, he says: “The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity … The implications should be nihilism.”

This is more than problematic, it is manifestly false. Nihilism no more follows automatically from atheism than does meaningfulness from theism. As I argue in my recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives, both nihilistic and non-nihilistic views can follow from either atheism or theism. Most importantly, the view that theism does not guarantee meaningfulness is the generally accepted view among contemporary philosophers, of whom only about 15% are theists. The majority of the remaining 85% of philosophers are not nihilists, as Haught’s argument implies they would be.

Next Haught suggests that theism justifies hope, whereas atheism cannot:

What I want to show in my own work—as an alternative to the new atheists—is a universe in which hope is possible … You (atheists) can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? …  But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.

Again it is simply false to say that atheism implies hopelessness, as it is false to say that theism implies hopefulness. (What of the hell fires awaiting the damned?) It is also patently false to say that theism (necessarily) justifies confidence in truth, goodness, beauty, meaning, and reason. (Is there anything else Haught wants to add? How about confidence that I will shoot 65 the next time I play 18 holes of golf? Does theistic belief justify that?) It is true that it gives some people such confidence, but it is not apparent to others that all this follows from theism. Why else do nearly the entire populations of Scandinavia and Western Europe, as well as nearly all contemporary philosophers and members of the National Academy of Sciences reject theism? Do they all reject hope, meaning, reason, beauty, and goodness? No they do not.

In response to the interviewer’s query that many claims about the gods—that they interact with nature, create the world, or respond to intercessory prayer—are questions about nature and thus scientific questions, Haught responds:

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call “layered explanation.” For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it’s boiling, one answer is to say it’s boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that’s a very good answer. But you could also say it’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it’s boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn’t contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They’re just different levels of understanding.

This argument is so weak that even a good undergraduate philosophy major would destroy it. (I’m assuming that most Georgetown undergrads are either sympathetic to it or afraid to challenge it.) First, note that all three of Haught’s levels of explanations are open to scientific explanation. So Haught’s levels do not imply there is some supernatural level of explanation. His argument thus reduces to: I think there are deeper levels of explanation than scientific ones. He can believe this if he wants, but there is no evidence to support this. In fact, every shred of evidence suggests the opposite: supernatural beliefs are not predictive or explanatory as are scientific ones. Moreover, he doesn’t want science encroaching on this territory. (If it did, we could dispense with theologians!) He is correct that his obscurantism doesn’t conflict with science though. And that’s because his claims are empty; they don’t say much other than “I think things are mysterious.” If so, let’s shed the light of reason on them, removing them from the realms of ignorance and superstition.

In response to a query about demanding evidence for a god’s existence, Haught provides more fodder for undergrad philosophy majors to practice their critical thinking skills:

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself—that evidence is necessary—holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview—it’s a kind of dogma—that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

I assume that the non-scientific kind of evidence Haught refers to are subjective religious experiences. But surely he knows that those experiences only provide weak subjective justification—justified to those who have the experience—not strong objective justification—justified for everyone, including those who don’t have the experience. Does this imply that science accepts the dogma: “that science is the only reliable way to truth?” No. It implies rather that science is the only reliable way to objective, verifiable truth because it is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science certainly recognizes that people believe all sorts of things—some of which may turn out to be true.

Now if it becomes possible for introspection to uncover truths available to all, then great. But for now, there is disagreement about what subjective, intuitive, introspection reveals. (It reveals for example that the earth is flat and does not move.) This suggests that subjective experience is not a reliable method for finding truth. And believing this does not depend on faith or dogma; it depends on the evidence that science works, that it is the only method for uncovering truth that humans have ever found, whereas people’s guesses about the existence and nature of the supernatural realm vary widely.

Finally, that science doesn’t find what Haught wants it to find (reason to believe in layered explanation that includes the supernatural) does not support his contention that science is dogmatic; rather it suggests that his beliefs unlikely to be true.

Haught continues his attack:

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.

Haught is correct that one cannot necessarily rule out the existence of gods, anymore than it can rule out the existence of gremlins, witches or the flying spaghetti monster. But science doesn’t work like this. It doesn’t invoke gods because supernatural explanations have not been fruitful in advancing human understanding. (In fact, they have stood in the way of that understanding.) Still, science is provisional, and if evidence appears for the reality of gods or the efficacy of prayer, then science will change its mind. The lack of belief in unseen forces that do not predict or explain is not a faith; it is just not believing in things for which there is no evidence. It is believing in the invisible that takes faith.

Haught continues to advance mysticism:

… The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

This is Haught at his strongest, and its not that strong. Life is mysterious and language and equations cannot completely describe it (yet).  But this doesn’t imply that god and jesus are behind everything; it implies that theologians don’t really understand what they claim. Perhaps nothing is “behind” everything. And the solution to the problem of not understanding is not to make things up or advance wild conjecture but to continue to try to understand them or use technology to increase our intelligence (intelligence augmentation) or build machines that help us to understand (computers and artificial intelligences.)

Finally, Haught cannot help but invoke subjective mental experiences to make his case:

I think science, especially neuroscience, does a very good job of saying what has to be working cerebrally and in our nervous systems in order for consciousness to be present. And it can also do a very good job of pointing out what has broken down physically and chemically if my brain is failing to function — for example, in Alzheimer’s. But it doesn’t have the complete explanation. Many cognitive scientists and brain scientists are saying the same thing. They’re almost in despair at times about whether we’ll ever be able to jump from the third-person discourse of science to the first-person discourse of subjective consciousness.

I don’t pretend to know how to solve the mind-body problem. But invoking mystery doesn’t help much. Needless to say almost all philosophers and neuroscientists accept either a reductive or non-reductive physicalism regarding these questions. But all this nicely summarizes the essence of Haught’s thinking which I would summarize like this: “There are things that science can’t yet explain or doesn’t yet understand completely … thus (my) god is real.” That’s like saying that since I don’t understand how the magician sawed that woman in half, the explanation must be supernatural. It’s really all so pathetic.

Why can’t humans grow up, work to make a good world and dispense with the gods? Gods who are either non-existent, indifferent, or malevolent. And if by chance they’re real and good, we still can’t count on them to help much. Let us face the world as adults, reject friendly sky parents, and transform reality for the better.

Should You Move Out of the USA if Possible?

The good advice (original title: Le bon conseil), by Jean-Baptiste Madou.

(Update July 21, 2019 – The situation is getting worse. I encourage anyone with the means to seriously consider leaving the country.)

(Update June 30, 2018 – This situation is getting progressively worse. The fascism/authoritarianism in America is increasingly apparent. The executive and judicial branches are merging and if control of the legislative branch remains with the Republicans then the final checks on the corruption and cruelty of the tyrants will be gone. I urge all young readers to either fight the oppression or seriously consider moving from the USA.)

(Update 2017 – There is now more reason than ever to leave the USA. I would encourage all my readers with the means to consider this carefully, subject to the caveats below. But if the Mueller investigation is undermined or ignored, as I’m assuming it will, then the rule of law will have been undermined. And that would be the real canary in the coal mine.)

There are many considerations here: one’s age, occupation, income, family status, foreign language abilities, potential destination, etc. Clearly moving to Central Africa would be unwise but what about moving to a country notably better in terms of happiness? One could consult the UN’s World Happiness Report where the US was ranked #17 and move to a happier country like Denmark or Norway or Sweden. Or one might move to one of the most democratic countries as rated by the Democracy Index. (The happiness and democracy lists in large part overlap.)

But it isn’t that simple. If one didn’t speak the language of the destination country then one would be isolated after moving there. So for our purposes let’s consider English-speaking developed countries, the kind that a US citizen would most likely consider like Canada, England, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand. Suppose you were a young married couple with a newborn considering such a move and you could get a job transfer to one of these countries. Would it be wise to do so?

In some respects, it obviously would. The chances your child would be the victim of sexual assault, gun violence or incarceration would drop dramatically. If you were concerned about economic equality or a strong social safety net, all of the above countries would be more aligned with your values than in the USA’s “winner-take-all” society. Still, suppose you had to leave an extended family in the move? Would it be worth it then?

Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose you lived in one of the worst countries in the world surrounded by a loving family. Now suppose you had the chance to move to Denmark, the world’s happiest country in the 2014 survey, where you had a good job waiting. Suppose also that you spoke Danish fluently. In that case, moving to Denmark is an obvious choice, and your loved ones would likely encourage you to move.

Now suppose you had the choice of staying in a country with your loved ones or moving to a country you thought was a bit better to live in, but to which your extended family could not move. In that case, most would probably stay put. The benefits of the support and comfort of grandparents, aunts, and uncles, would probably outweigh moving to a slightly better country. Of course, this might depend on how often you could see your extended family. If you could see them quite often, it makes more sense to move than if you could only see them occasionally.

Still any calculations on such matters depend on whether you are a single, married, married with children, etc. For example, if one has no family, then the choice is pretty straightforward, go to the best place. Or if one was married with children and could bring their family but not their extended family, that is much better than bringing no family at all.

Yet all of this depends on your best estimate of a country’s future. In the case of the USA, increasing social corruption and political dysfunction (especially of the Republican party) make the future seem bleak to me but, on the other hand, it is nearly impossible to predict future trends. In the end, we make life’s decisions with imperfect information; that is the state of the world that we must accept. And all advice is imperfect too.

With that caveat in mind, I would advise all young people (and others as well) to seriously consider emigrating from the US if they have the chance, especially if all or some of their loved ones could accompany them. After observing trends over the last 50 years, I believe America will increasingly become a worse place to live, except for the very wealthy. Even the wealthy though suffer from living in a country with high levels of violence, social instability caused by wealth inequality, the hatred of the US by others around the world, our denigration of science and other expertise, and our increasingly lax environmental regulations which put us all at risk. To have a better life, seriously consider moving.

Summary of Samuel Sceffler’s, Death and the Afterlife

In the recent book, Death and the AfterlifeSamuel Scheffler offer two imaginative thought experiments in an attempt to understand our attitudes toward death and meaning.

In the first, the doomsday scenario, we are asked to imagine that we will live out our normal lifespan, but that thirty days after our deaths an asteroid will destroy the earth and all life on it. Needless to say, most of us would find this a depressing prospect, independent of the fact that we would not die prematurely. Scheffler argues that this shows that the lives of others who live on after we die, what he calls the “collective afterlife,” matter more to us than we ordinarily think and that our individual survival matters less to us than we normally suppose.

In the second, the infertility scenario, we again live out our normal lives but must do so with the knowledge that the species is infertile. With the last human death, humanity dies out. Scheffler argues that this knowledge would demoralize us, undermining our attempt to live happy lives. Again we see that the collective afterlife is more important to us than we usually realize.

Scheffler then contrasts the relative calm we feel about the fact that all those now living will one day be dead, with the horror we experience thinking about either of the above scenarios. This suggests that the fact that we and those we love won’t exist in the future bothers us less than that some unknown people won’t exist in the future. As Scheffler says:

the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.


But is it true that we really care more about potential people in the future than our loved ones now? This idea was challenged in a piece in the January 02, 2014  edition of the Boston Review by Mark Johnston entitled, “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme? Johnston asks us to imagine that the population of our tribe is half of humanity, and our tribe is also infertile. Would we really prefer the death of our tribe if we knew that the remaining half of humanity will repopulate the planet to its previous levels in a few generations, and then all of them will die a few generations later? Johnston thinks most of us would answer no to this question, and that his thought experiment belies Scheffler’s claim that we care more about unknown future persons than our present loved ones.

Johnston also argues that it is not just any future for humanity that matters to us, but rather valuable ones. Thus a future in which gangs fight for cosmic space or we are food for aliens is not better than one in which we all perished. Johnston prefers we perish rather than suffer such terrible fates. This leads him to consider whether our lives have meaning if
a) humanity has any future or; b) humanity has a valuable future. The problem with either of these is that if value depends on the future, then value will eventually be undermined—since the universe will ultimately end.

To avoid such a depressing conclusion Johnston advises us to value our lives now rather than holding them hostage to some future. And we should not be demoralized by the thought of our own or humanity’s death: “The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future.”


I challenged Johnston’s views in my recent book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. There I argue that what I call complete meaning is not possible without (individual/collective) immortality. That is not to say that mortal beings can’t live meaningful lives, just that they would be completely meaningful only if they possessed both infinite quantity and quantity—only if they didn’t end. In my view this is possible because future technologies may make death optional and grant us immortality if we so choose.

This argument for immortality provided by future technologies is buttressed by Scheffler’s insight that we care about the future of our descendants. We care about the future because if there is no future then life is (nearly) pointless. Johnston is right that futurity can’t provide meaning if there is no future, and in that case all we can do is value the present as he counsels. But if there is a future of value and meaning—brought about by science and technology—then our role in bringing about that future gives life meaning. As for the eventual death of the universe, this too is uncertain given considerations of the multiverse, and the possibility of advanced intelligence determining the fate if the universe when they become sufficiently powerful.

Without the prospect of a good and lasting future for our descendants, there is little or no meaning to our present lives. This is what Scheffler’s thought experiments so beautifully and artfully illuminate.

Death and the Afterlife