Science and Religion: A Sympathetic View of Religion

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

I received the following comment from Alhazen, concerning my recent post “Letter from a Former Student.” This response agrees (roughly) with the independence model regarding the science/religion debate. While I reject most of what Alhazen says here, I reprint his thoughts, without further comment, for my readers.

I am not commenting here on the nature of the relationship between a student and his teacher. I wholly salute the well-intentioned and honest transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes between the two. This relationship, in my view, remains sacred and private. However, I’ll be commenting on the nature of the lesson learned by the student from the teacher which, in a nutshell, is; what science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.

Science builds models of the world which, predict and can be utilized to engineer utilities. One obvious limitation of these models is that they tell you how and why within the confine of the model but inevitably hit two limits; first, the why of the fine structure of matter-energy and the fundamental laws of physics in the model prompting physicists to just say that they have found the universe to be so. And second, the why of the beginning or the Big Bang, prompting them again to say that there was just a beginning of time, space and matter-energy some 13.7 billion years ago.

“Laplace presented to Napoleon a copy of his work on the mechanics of celestial bodies. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of God and Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace drew himself up and answered bluntly, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Napoleon was greatly amused by this.

But of course, there is no need for God in the model. The model was designed in order to avert such a necessity.

However, nothing in the model can close those two gaps or dress those two wounds. Therefore, in my view, the true agnostic is not the one who is not sure if God exists or not but the one who is willing to not forget the gaps in the model, leaves them open and lives with courage with this unknowing.

Some scientists and philosophers escape from facing those two limits by claiming that such questions are not valid, which is true, but only in the sense that our model of the world was not designed to address those questions. However, those questions remain valid within themselves. Therefore, scientism which claims to answer all questions about the world is false in this sense.

Religion is also false by trying to answer questions about the natural world without evidence. However, the impact of religion upon man’s history goes far beyond providing an explanation of the natural world and should not be looked at from this angle. Bypassing logic and the established status quo, religion has had transformative effects on people. As an example I am familiar with, consider what the advent of Islam had done to the weak and scattered warring tribes of Arabia. With it, the tribes united to forge a great force of transformation in world history. The same can be said about many other religions. In this sense the philosophies of the enlightenment are religions, capitalism is a religion, communism is a religion and scientism too is a religion.

Man has always been creating myths to close the gap between his experience of the impersonal universe and his need for some kind of meaning.

Those myths have the power to forge together a large number of people’s thoughts, literature, and actions in order to lift the community from a stagnant status quo to a new level of being with people finding meaning in their struggle or efforts to achieve a better end; Enlightenment is from irrationality of the dark ages to the rationality of philosophy and scientific thinking. Capitalism; from feudalism to free labour. Communism; from ruthless capitalism to socialism which eventually led to capitalism with a human face as in welfare states. Scientism; from myths and miracles to science as the grand explainer.

There is a baby in the dirty tub water of religion; don’t throw it away with the dirty water. Find it, take it out and nurture it, and only then throw away the dirty water. I don’t know what or where this baby is, but tentatively it appears to be close to the mystic and dogma-free paths which I see in some religions.

How far will Republicans go to destroy democracy? And can they still be stopped?

I’ve recently been avoiding political posts because the situation in the USA is so dire and depressing. Democracy and the rule of law are under assault as never before and the prospects for our becoming a truly authoritarian state are real, as I’ve discussed previously.

Many of these ideas were recently summarized by Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University in “How far will Republicans go to destroy democracy? And can they still be stopped?” Belkin argues that Republicans no longer value democracy or the rule of law. Here are some highlights and a few of my reflections.

Democracy

Belkin begins by noting that Supreme Court has now approved hyper-partisan gerrymandering and effectively allowed (whatever the final ruling) the addition of a citizenship question to the census. Such actions have caused constitutional scholars like University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq to state “We don’t really know how committed the Republican Party is to the project of democracy.”  But, as Belkin puts it,

Unfortunately, the answer to Huq’s question is clear. The Republican Party is not at all committed to democracy, and GOP leaders and voters would happily tolerate alternative political arrangements … Republicans have abandoned any concerns they may have had for the integrity of our political system.

Unfortunately, the evidence for Belkin’s claim is overwhelming.

First is the GOP’s commitment to undermining free and fair elections. This includes tactics such as voter suppression, lying about voter fraud, gerrymandering, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of campaign finance law, the unlimited and unaccountable money flooding our politics, as well as the 50-year campaign that led to the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act.

Second, “the GOP is structurally committed to lying.” In other words, they must lie. Consider that

One of the first things that Newt Gingrich’s Republican House majority did upon assuming power in 1995 was to undermine evidence-based policy by killing the Office of Technology Assessment and slashing the funding of the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office.

Why? The reason is that Republicans must disavow factual evidence because to tell the truth would reveal their true motives. For example, the corporate wing of the party lies because it doesn’t want to admit that it cares only about tax cuts for the rich and corporate deregulation.

That’s why the 2002 handout to oil, gas and coal companies was called the “Clear Skies Initiative.” That’s why the 2009-2010 health care debate was framed in terms of “death panels,” as if private insurance does not ration care. That’s why the 2017 tax cut for corporations and elites was sold as a middle-class tax cut.

And the resentment wing of the party must lie to disguise its paranoia.

Gun enthusiasts cannot admit that they like firearms because they fear black people. “Pro-lifers” cannot admit that they oppose abortion because they are afraid of what would happen if women controlled their bodies. (If they truly supported life, after all, they would fight climate change). Anti-statists (of the Ruby Ridge or “Oregon standoff” variety) cannot admit that they oppose the public sector because they think government programs are for black people. Xenophobes cannot admit that they oppose immigration because they think brown people are dirty. (How often do you hear them oppose illegal immigration from Canada?) Religious extremists cannot admit that they oppose feminism and LGBTQ people because they are afraid of out-of-control sex.

The great danger here is that when a political party becomes structurally committed to lying, anything is possible as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes.

Third, the GOP is helping bring about the collapse of civilization due to climate change. In fact, some experts have concluded that we have already passed the point at which the civilzationaly collapse is inevitable. The GOP has done everything possible to bring about a result worse than genocide and they happily facilitate it. As Belkin puts it, “The collapse of civilization will be worse than genocide, yet the GOP is happy to enable it. If a political party is willing to facilitate an outcome worse than genocide, then why would it oppose authoritarianism? The answer is that it would not.”

The Rule of Law

While Trump and the GOP are obvious threats to the rule of law they are ultimately symptoms, not causes of the problem. (Aristotle long ago taught me the importance of the rule of (rational) law as opposed to rule by the irrational passions of people.) Instead, the real cause of ” Republican radicalism is the triangular relationship among capital (e.g., the Koch brothers), the right-wing media (e.g., Fox News), and resentment voters (whom Hillary Clinton accurately labeled “deplorables”), the latter being the roughly 40 percent of the public who still believe Trump is doing a good job.”

This implies that even without an unqualified, unfit, despicable figure like Trump in the oval office,

Fox News will continue to manufacture paranoia to motivate resentment voters to vote for capitalists who will head to Washington to lower taxes, deregulate the economy and undermine democracy. The GOP’s capital wing cares about tax cuts and deregulation and, thanks to Fox News, has an unlimited capacity to manufacture paranoia. Its resentment wing cares about making scapegoats suffer, and has an unlimited capacity for consuming paranoia. Neither wing cares about anything else. Not fairness. Not national interest. Not democracy. Not the rule of law.

Can these trends be halted at the ballot box? Belkin is pessimistic. For the even after wave elections in 1992, 2006, 2008 and 2018 Republican Party became more radical. Why?

Even the most mild-mannered Republican … must govern, once in office, as a radical, no matter how sweet their smile or how gentle their manner. They are just as captured by the triangular relationship between capital, right-wing media and resentment as their more explicitly frothy colleagues. Brett Kavanaugh, after all, hails from the genteel, country club wing of the GOP, yet it took no time at all for him to unveil his radicalism, in both style and substance, at his confirmation hearing.

The implication of all this “is that if Democrats fail to take dramatic action in 2021, it will not matter if they occasionally win elections, because Republicans will continue to control the country, even when they are not in power.” Consider the following:

  1. Thanks to gerrymandering, dark money and voter suppression, it will remain very difficult for Democrats to capture the levers of power. They will require wave elections to do so;
  2. Thanks to the GOP’s unprecedented willingness to obstruct, it will remain almost impossible for Democrats to pass laws, even when they win elections;
  3. Thanks to the theft of the Supreme Court, Justice Roberts and his colleagues will shred or sharply curtail the few laws that Democrats manage to pass. When a party has a tough time winning elections, even when it captures (far) more than 50% of the vote; when that party is not allowed to govern even when it wins at the ballot box; and when that party’s laws are shredded by stolen courts even when it manages to govern, that’s not democracy. That’s single-party rule.

Thus “If corrective action is not taken soon … democracy effectively will be dead. Under this scenario, the country could even experience a real or manufactured crisis, prompting lawless GOP leaders to suspend the Constitution. At that point, all bets will be off.”

What then must be done to save democracy from single-party authoritarian rule?

Thanks to demographic trends, it will soon be all but impossible for Democrats to win a majority in the U.S. Senate. There is, however, a reasonable remedy on the table, and one last chance to un-rig the system and restore democracy. If Democrats hold the House of Representatives in 2020 and manage to capture the White House and Senate, they can (according to the Brennan Center) add up to 50 million voters to the rolls if they enact an aggressive version of HR 1, the democratization bill that House Democrats passed as their first order of business upon returning to power this year.

The expanded version of HR 1 would need to mandate an automatic right to vote, automatic voter registration, election holidays and early voting; enfranchise ex-offenders; provide a quick path to citizenship for all law-abiding immigrants as well as statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; and ban voter suppression, dark money and gerrymandering. In order to pass such a law, Democrats would need to kill the filibuster. In order to give the law a chance to endure, Democrats would need to expand the Supreme Court, because the current court will not let Congress restore democracy.

While “A growing chorus of leaders and voters recognize that democracy is dying” Belkin argues that unles “the system can be un-rigged and the rule of law can be restored before it’s too late … we’re probably done as a democracy.”

Brief reflections

In previous posts I’ve made arguments similar to those above. There is no doubt that people seek power and the corporate wing of the GOP, using propaganda to control the resentment wing, desires all the wealth and power of society for themselves. Ironically, while this may serve their short-term self-interest, it will not serve their long-term interest, or at least the interests of their descendants. Unfortunately, most of them don’t care about the future so in the end greed will likely destroy us all. I hope I’m wrong, but fear I’m right.

(For more here are some of the best recent books on the today’s political situation.)

Letter From A Former Student

The pansy, a symbol of freethought.

After my recent post, “Outgrowing Religion,” I received the following from Jason, a former student who I admittedly do not remember. (I’ve taught approximately 10,000 students over a 30-year career.) Let me say that I have seldom been so moved by a correspondence. We often think our efforts are futile and then, seemingly ex nihilo, we find that somewhere in the long-ago past we had a positive effect on someone.

That being said, I don’t mean this post as a paean to my efforts on behalf of Jason’s education, but rather as a tribute to his open mind. For it was simply fortuitous that I was privileged to play the role of Socratic midwife for him. Had I not been there, someone else would have played that role or, alternatively, he would have come to most of his conclusions without any teachers. His desire for knowledge came from within.

While moved by this correspondence it also stands as a carefully and conscientiously crafted statement of freethought—the testament of one who thinks independently or freely, forming their opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority. It touches on many of the themes found in the great freethinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Russell, and Ingersoll. Here then is the correspondence.

Doc,

Many years have passed since I was seated in your intro to philosophy class. I recall being somewhat apprehensive to the ideas discussed. Being a young father and very Catholic, you, and especially you, can imagine how upsetting it was to hear that most of what I had based my approach to child-rearing was nothing more than moonshine. I recall you mentioning that the indoctrination of children might just be the highest form of child abuse. As disturbing as it was, I found the idea to be self-evident soon thereafter. Beyond the course and a couple of Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and Kurt Vonnegut books later, the curtain was lifted and my Sunday’s were spent fishing instead of at mass. I can honestly say my enjoyment of Sundays became instantly immeasurable. The church crowd has its invisible deities, and my small family has a lifetime of great family memories and photos to boot.

This set me on a path to learn a new language, abandon racism, embrace the gay community, rebuke ethnocentricity, demand logic and reason, and hone a particular disdain for religions and willful ignorance. Today, I am still amazed when I explain that for a miracle to happen, the laws of physics have to be suspended on a whim, and all of science fails—well at least the scientific method does. And my Christian brethren agree and explain that their Lord works in mysterious ways. So it goes.

Instead of biblical teaching, I employed my education in philosophy and anthropology to educate my child. Her mother and I are often in amazement when we watch has easily our daughter absorbs new information when she doesn’t have to reconcile it with a religious indoctrination. She graduated with a 4.7, was a stellar athlete, heavily engaged in charity work, a non-apologetic atheist, and never any trouble. Already, at the age of eighteen, her ideological compass points towards altruism and she is off to study environmental science in college, taking with her a set of principles that will suit her well, and perhaps one day save her life.

We have watched our Christian neighbors live in a state of self-inflicted torment with many of their children, and they continually blame secular society. I live in Texas, it’s to be expected. As for me and mine, we will continue to embrace rationality, the physical world, and the whole of humanity.

I’ll end with a quote that goes out especially to Jason from a former teacher,

To all freethinkers, past and present, whose independence of mind isolates them from the sympathy and understanding of their community, but whose courageous and unwavering devotion to the scientific method has liberated their community from the dark ages.
~ David Mills

Avoiding the End of the World

Hazan.png

Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham (Latinized as Alhazen c. 965 – c. 1040) was an Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist of the Islamic Golden Age.

I received the following correspondence from a reader (a retired Ph.D. in theoretical physics) who goes by the name Alhazen. It was a response to my post “Reflections on the ‘Real Possibility’ of the End of the World.” (I’ll provide my own brief replies at the end.)

I do not believe the world will come to a catastrophic end due to man’s activities. It is still possible to change course now or later.

The world now is mostly governed by people whose minds are dominated by cleverness, desire for material pleasures, greed, hatred, violence and cognitive biases of all sorts. These people are driving the world into destruction. This is the racist mind which enabled our ancestors’ groups to fight nature’s scarcity and each other for survival and is taken to its extreme capability with the help of modern technology. Let’s call this sort of mind the mundane mind.

What we see in the world now is a result of such a mind which is dominating the world.

[For example in] the 19th century a British officer introduced some wild rabbits which were imported from England into Australia for the purpose of enjoying sport hunting. There were no natural predators for rabbits such as foxes in Australia. As a result, the rabbit population spread throughout Australia like wildfire destroying in its wake many farmlands and ecosystems until the rabbit was declared a pest and was fought openly by man. Thus, the man who was aware of the destructiveness of rabbits became the artificial predator that kept them in check.

The mundane mind armed with high technology has become the new animal on earth who had no natural predators. And it is only logical to expect that it would tip the natural balance in its own favor to the point of possibly destroying its habitat and itself if left unchecked. Thus, the need to create an artificial predator (i.e. has not arisen naturally by natural selection). Fortunately, this artificial predator has been in existence since a few thousand years but has not been encouraged and nurtured as the mundane mind. It is the mind, which is driven by rationality and wisdom, love, generosity, empathy the search for peace and is alert to its cognitive biases. This is the stoic and spiritual mind which strives for eudemonic wellbeing and not for power and material gains. Let’s call this mind the super-mundane mind.

There are many ways of dying. But broadly speaking we can say there are ways that take too short a time to do anything about it and those that are extended, slow and take time for something to be done about it.

Now, the super-mundane mind is weaker and not as widespread as the mundane mind because the negative effects arising from the domination of the mundane mind in the world is not impactful enough to awaken the super-mundane mind on a wide scale.

The way I see it is that the world will not collapse suddenly and die. The world will gradually get sicker and sicker over at least many decades. During this period, the folly of the mundane mind’s worldview will be seen for what it is. The efficacy of the super-mundane mind’s ways of thinking will be gradually appreciated and adopted by more and more people and the culture associated with it will spread more and more in communities, schools, universities, pressure groups, and political parties. Positive remedial actions will arise everywhere and at all levels in the world and thus enabling the planet’s health to gradually improve until complete recovery.

Perhaps the following painting, “Rituals of Ecstasy” by the Jordanian artist Mohammad Awwad captures the final triumph of the super-mundane mind, as represented by the whirling Sufi dervishes, over the mundane mind as symbolized by factory chimneys and parched land;
https://emergeast.com/product/rituals-of-ecstasy/

Brief Reflections – I hope that the wise mind that Alzhazen describes will arise. Perhaps necessity really is “the mother of invention.” Maybe the shallowness of mindless materialism and consumption and the ecological destruction that follows from them will awaken us. But if humans can evolve to be a wiser, more gentle and intelligent species I’m all for it.

Yet I’m somewhat skeptical. I’d argue that in addition to low-tech solutions like education,  we need to high-tech solutions to transform our moral and intellectual faculties. We need to use genetic engineering, neural implants, and the like to become posthumans. I know this is risky and that we currently don’t have these capabilities, but at some point, we may have nothing more to lose. If we are going to destroy ourselves or be destroyed then we might as well use everything at our disposal to try to save planetary life.

At the moment we have either a terrible future or none at all unless we radically change humanity. None of our problems will be solved unless we transform ourselves. On this Alhazen and I agree.

________________________________________________________________________

Note – I have written about transhumanism in detail many times on the blog. Here are just a few entries:

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 5 – Transhumanism and Meaning

Transhumanism and Religion

Death Should Be Optional

Reflections on the (Real Possibility) of the End of the World

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

Combating the fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the recent UN report on the destruction of the ecosystem, and Jared Diamond’s and Bill McKibbon’s worries about whether the human race we will survive our current crises. I began these discussions about the end of life on earth like this:

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

I would now like to offer my own brief reflections on how we should respond to the ecological crisis. (For the moment I’ll ignore other existential risks like nuclear war, pandemics, asteroids, etc.) My initial response is “if the world is going to end, there is little I can do about it and if not’s going to end then I’m wasting my time worrying about it.” 

Of course, this assumes a (somewhat) fatalistic perspective. The earth and the life on it aren’t predetermined to end or not end. Its fate depends on the choices we make. So we can, collectively, do something about it. Will we? I don’t know. That depends largely on whether we can solve the problem of collective action. In the interim, I’m left where I began, doing what little I can to call attention to these issues while, at the same time, trying to enjoy my life and help those within my sphere of influence, primarily my family. 

I admit to having often wondered if, on balance, it would be better if humanity went extinct. (I’ve written on this topic many times.) An honest look at human history as well as the state of the world today reveals that it is regularly a terrible place. Yet there is something sad about it all just vanishing. After all, given long enough, maybe we can transform ourselves and bring about a heaven on earth. 

Yet I often feel that I live like those musicians who played on as the Titanic sank. I eat, read, write, watch TV, exercise, and enjoy my family all the while knowing that my life and perhaps all life will soon end. It just seems pointless to worry about things over which I have little control. What can I do about the fact that families are being separated at the US border and children placed in filthy camps; that radical economic inequality is a paradigm of injustice; that the environment and ecosystem are being poisoned, that tyrants continue to oppress, and so much more that makes a mockery of what human life should be? 

In the meantime, I try to love my family, stay healthy, enjoy the beauty that surrounds me, and do what little I can—like write this blog post. That may not be much, but for now, it’s the best I can do. Then again, maybe such acceptance and resignation is simply laziness or cowardice. In the end, I just don’t know the best way to live. 

And the meaning of life, if it has any, definitely remains beyond my comprehension. I wish I understood more, but I do not. I long ago resigned myself to my ignorance about the big questions, never wanting to claim to know what other ignorant people are so sure of.

So here’s to hoping that we, or our posthuman ancestors, somehow survive … and flourish. 

(Below are two brief TED talks on the subject and then two longer detailed ones about the multitude of environmental and ecological catastrophes that seemingly await us.)