Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


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This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

A crisis for popular science

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Tania Lombrozo, cognitive scientist and regular contributor to NPR’s 13.7 science blog, recently asked a thought provoking question: “Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?”   It turns out her post asks readers to click through and comment on another article of her’s in the Boston Review, which the editors captioned, “Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?”  The way this discourse is set up seems to be a prime example of the serious, self-inflicted challenge that contemporary science popularizers and educators face.

Dr. Lombrozo’s piece in the Review is perfectly intelligble but structurally incoherent.  In the first half, she presents various explanations as to why 43 percent of Americans surveyed reject human evolution in favor of a “creationist” account.  Then, in the second half, she examines whether affirmations of faith in science can be as psychologically beneficial as affirmations of religious faith.  The two tasks the author undertakes aren’t necessarily related.  From a literary stand point, we have to ask, what is meaning of the piece as a unified whole?

If we to try identify the intent behind the first half of Lombrozo’s piece, we could choose to consider it as a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism.  Alternately, it is simply an account from her own experience as a scientist who explains how people arrive at explanations.  Here’s how she sums her explanations in one sentence:

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

Taking the author’s collection of explanations as evidence for the falsity of creationism would beget one giant genetic fallacy.  Offering six, seven, or a million explanations for how someone came to hold a belief does not falsify the belief itself.  Further, with a little tweaking, these same explanations could be applied to the explainer!  I am not defending the type of creationist belief Lombrozo wants to explain away.  Rather, I’m asking what those explanations have to do with the latter part of her article, which explores where existential satisfaction comes from.

In the privately published Boston Review, which caters to a specific political leaning and cultural outlook, it would make sense for Lombrozo to attribute mental shortcomings to those she disagrees with.  But Lombrozo has shared her musings on 13.7, a blog hosted by publicly sponsored NPR.  Why would she submit what amounts to a naturalistic pep rally, or a scientistic preaching to the choir, to this broader forum?

If the contributors at 13.7 are civic-minded proponents who advocate greater public understanding and acceptance of science–as at least one of them seems to be–they would do better not to assume their readers share their metaphysical prejudices.  As a thoughtful Christian and curious human being, I peruse 13.7 to see how the scientific community engages robust concepts and challenges from the humanities, philosophy, and culture.  In the many posts I’ve read now, I find the writers ardent in their defense of scientific integrity, but fairly sloppy or else standoffish as they steer around any logically plausible indicators of supernatural reality.  The dead zone where Lombrozo and her colleagues fear to tread inclines me to believe that these freethinkers operate a sort of faith-based church for mystical naturalists.

If a cohort of elite academics is going to muse on “Cosmos and Culture,” wouldn’t we all be better served by more frequent and  deeper interactions with rational, if non-naturalistic epistemologies and bodies of knowledge?  I know of a couple good places (here and here) where they could start.

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The authority of science

Cosmologist Sean Carroll garnered considerable buzz recently with his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.  Launching off of an interview with Carroll, LiveScience made a big splash with the headline: “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?”

A few days later, an AP story mined societal anxiety about growing fraud in science.  And in the year-end issue of my local university campus newspaper, the science columnist made an earnest and zealous attempt to distinguish scientific “education” from religious “indoctrination.”

Examining the language and underlying assumptions in popular science writing reveals an often narrow and uncritical school of thought that has an outsized, unwarranted, and perilous grip on our culture.

Let’s start with the LiveScience article on Sean Carroll.  If we take it seriously, and try to discern from its own contents whether science will “rule out the possibility of God,” we’ll be disappointed to find only an abundance of ungrounded suppositions and a string of logical fallacies.

The surest presupposition that pops up is a philosophical hard naturalism or materialism.  It is simply assumed that the natural world or matter/energy are all that is.  Accordingly, only “domains of science” are considered serious fields of inquiry.  “Theologians,” to say nothing of philosophers, are cast as attempting to “seize upon” as yet-unanswered sticky points and rhetorical flips.

A deeply rational theist like William Lane Craig–a cosmological rock star of sorts–couldn’t get billing in a pop science piece like this.  To do so would turn off those readers who’ve placed faith in science’s ability–given enough time–to answer everything; a faith in science-of-the-gaps if you will.

Folks like Carroll and LiveScience offer succor for those who hope to  ignore any kind of truth that is not empirically derived.  But there are non-empirical truths each of us take for granted everyday.  There are properly basic beliefs, such as the belief that one did not spontaneously come into being five minutes ago with memories implanted to give the false impression of living prior to that time.

And individuals have faculties beyond the senses.  The faculty of morality comprehends objective moral truths, and the faculty of reason allows one to know “A” is not identical to “not A.”  These ways of knowing reside entirely outside the “domain of science.”

Yet, science writing subsists on a de facto “verificationism,” a trust only of propositions that can be empirically verified.  Of course, the foundational proposition of verificationism fails its own test.

On top of naturalism and verificationism, the LiveScience writer treats theories like the multiverse as settled matters rather than metaphysical conjectures.  This kind of assumption thrives in columns that can’t take the space to unpack the ideas they reference.

And then there are the fallacies in the article.  Consider this passage:

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe.

This passage is simultaneously a tautology and an appeal to authority.  Notice cosmologists must “cast a role” for God.  The theory cannot escape the constraints of the theorist’s inborn bias.  And for the writer to qualify the theories “as such” only  undermines the idea the theories are actually “self-contained.”

As the piece progresses toward its end, the stubborn question of ultimate meaning is dismissed as a failure to see the universe itself as unique and not in need of an answer.  But Carroll offers no real reason beyond a lyrical twist.  Dr. Craig likens this cessation of reason to the taxicab fallacy: once the questioner reaches his destination (that God is not required), he dismisses the cab of critical inquiry, namely by abandoning the principle of sufficient reason.

There is an attempt to invoke the testimony of a psychologist to explain away religious phenomenon as arising out of psychological need.  This is classic genetic fallacy.  How one might come to have a belief has no bearing on the truth of the belief.

The consequences of letting such suppositions and fallacies thrive in the thought life of scientists and their admirers are considerable.  Look at The Aggie‘s piece on education and indoctrination.  The author fills a column with generalized disdain for the excesses of “evangelical religion,” perhaps not realizing that he is harboring a zeal equally in need of its own justification and defense.

A remarkable irony emerges when the columnist pegs “indoctrination” to Western culture.  It was in large part the values of Western Antiquity and the Bible that supported the critical thinking needed to produce modern science.

The collegiate composition is alarming in its take away that “Religion has no place in schools, and science has no place in churches, synagogues or mosques . . .”  This reminds of the woefully dismissive bumper sticker that reads, “I won’t think in your church if you don’t pray in my school.”  Simply a false dichotomy.  Sometimes it’s the laboratories and the halls of the academy that could use a little more critical thinking.

The Aggie column concludes with a call for an education that will produce “un-indoctrinated” citizens.  Here we have the error of Locke, that humans are tabula rosa and there is some pure Science that can properly inform the citizen.  The prescription also bears a whiff of the tyranny of tolerance.  All ideas are equally valid except the one that proposes to be true to the exclusion of others.  As with verificationism, it’s a paradigm that defeats itself.

We are in an age where science is upheld, unrealistically and with poor justification, as some final arbiter of knowledge.  Though some think we live in a postmodern society, the underpinning beliefs are still very modern indeed.  Just looking back to the twentieth century, we know all too well the tragedies modernity begot: eugenics, gulags, genocide, rampant pollution, spiritual alienation.  What a downer.

But the search for hope is unyielding.  Like a hokey Star Trek episode, the LiveScience article concludes by waxing lyrical, quoting an evolutionary psychologist: “We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics.”   Not even a scientist can avoid language invoking the agency of a creator.  He goes on to say that things like interpersonal relationships are what matter on the “human scale.”

Is there some grand, unifying worldview that best satisfies questions both on the cosmological and the “human scale?”  Look no further than the many ready witnesses who make a reasoned, coherent and consistent case for a God who is revealed in the Bible and intervenes decisively in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

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