What is a soul?

In a previous post titled The fog of religious language I said that sophisticated religious apologists tend to speak so vaguely and elliptically that it is hard to know exactly what they actually believe, and singled out Marilynne Robinson as one culprit. In an interview in the September/October issue of The New Humanist, she does it again.

Q: You use the word “soul” in your book. What do you mean by this?

A: There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession.

Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

The accommodationists’ best case (Part 2 of 3)

(See part 1 here.)

The problem with the attempts by theologians to argue that understanding the ‘mystery’ of human experience lies outside the realm of science is that tools to better understand how the brain works are already at hand, with ambitious plans to map out all the brain synapses. (Thanks to Machines Like Us for the link.) Since the brain is what creates consciousness, understanding how the brain works is the precursor to understanding how we think and experience. (Those who think that consciousness or the ‘soul’ exist independently of the brain are of course resorting to Cartesian dualism, that there is a mind-body split, an idea which no serious scientist takes seriously and which even Descartes found difficult to justify.)

Harvard scientists have embarked upon an ambitious program to create a circuit diagram of the human brain, with the help of new machines that automatically turn brain tissue into high-resolution neural maps.

By mapping every synapse in the brain, researchers hope to create a “connectome” — a diagram that would elucidate the brain’s activity at a level of detail far outstripping today’s most advanced brain-monitoring tools like fMRI.

“You’re going to see things you didn’t expect,” said Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology. “It gives us an opportunity to witness this vast complicated universe that has been largely inaccessible until now.”

A map of the mind’s circuitry would allow researchers to see the wiring problems that might underpin disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

“The ‘wiring diagram’ of the brain could help us understand how the brain computes, how it wires itself up during development and rewires itself in adulthood,” said Sebastian Seung, a computational-neuroscience professor at MIT.

Because the scientists of the NAS are well aware of what science is capable of, even the most accommodationist among them are likely to roll their eyes at the kind of arguments that popes and theologians roll out because they know that this is nothing but shameless special pleading. This is why I think the NAS statement is probably the best argument you are likely to get for accommodationism. You can read the full statement here but I will highlight the main excerpts that lays out the case, along with brief commentary on my part.

On page 10, they first explain how science works, highlight its successes, and why it progresses so well:

Scientific knowledge and understanding accumulate from the interplay of observation and explanation. Scientists gather information by observing the natural world and conducting experiments. They then propose how the systems being studied behave in general, basing their explanations on the data provided through their experiments and other observations. They test their explanations by conducting additional observations and experiments under different conditions. Other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies that may lead to more sophisticated explanations and predictions about future observations and experiments. In these ways, scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature…. In this way, the sophistication and scope of scientific explanations improve over time, as subsequent generations of scientists, often using technological innovations, work to correct, refine, and extend the work done by their predecessors.

On page 12, they begin the delicate, but necessary, task for accommodationists, of separating religious believers into two groups: those sophisticated believers who try and make their religious beliefs conform to established science (especially evolution) and those so-called ‘fundamentalists’ who try to make science conform to their religious beliefs and texts. The first group is seen as important political allies for science. They also bring in the idea that there exist scientists and theologians who believe there is no conflict between science and religion which, although true, is not really an argument for the compatibility of the two worldviews.

Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

In order to accommodate the interests of this group, the NAS needs to find some space for religion to maneuver while not interfering with science. So they resurrect the tired and untenable ‘two worlds’ model in which science and religion are supposed to provide answers to different questions.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

On page 15 they trot out a quote by Francis Collins, head of the NIH and former director of the Human Genome Project and perhaps the most high-profile scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, who says in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 6): “In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.”

You can see immediately the kind of wooly language and thinking that occurs when religious people enter the discussion. What exactly does Collins mean when he says that some things must be ‘examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul’? What I think he means is that you should leave out reason and stop using your brain, because he knows that reason is incompatible with religious belief. (I provided a detailed critique of Collins’s truly awful book some time ago.)

Next in this series: Continuing the examination of the NAS’s case.

Here we go again

We are going to see another round of discussions about whether the Bible is literally true. New computer simulations suggest the possibility that winds could have created a temporary land path over the Red Sea.

Of course, there is no independent scientific evidence that any of the Biblical stories earlier than about 650 BCE (which encompasses almost all the period covered the Old Testament) are true but religious people tend to be desperate these days and are likely to seize upon this as ‘proof’ that the Bible is true.

Of course, this leaves the sophisticated theologians, those who argue that the reason there is no evidence for god is because he exists ‘outside of space and time’ in a quandary. Does god act within our space and time or not?

What we will see once again is religious people saying that science has no relevance to religious beliefs, except when it appears to provide some support for it.

Update: The lead author of the paper has a Christian website. Why am I not surprised?

The accommodationists’ best case (Part 1 of 3)

I have written quite a lot about the conflict between those who say that science and religion are incompatible worldviews (referred to as unapologetic or new atheists) and those who say they are compatible (known as accommodationists).

I definitely belong to the first group. On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite body of scientists in the US, that has gone out of its way to make the accommodationist case. This is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that a whopping 93% of NAS members express “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God.” The NAS lays out its accommodationist case most clearly in a 2008 publication called Science, Evolution, and Creationism that is free and online.

Why would people whose own deep study of science has clearly resulted in disbelief go out of their way to assure religious believers that science does not exclude god? I suspect that they fear that if the public concludes that science is inherently atheistic, this will result in reduced financial support for science. Science in the US is heavily dependent on public financing allocated by the Congress and the White House, both or which are fearful of religious voters. He who pays the piper calls the tune and some scientists do not want to alienate those upon whom they depend for support of research.

That does not mean that I think these scientists are cynically saying things they don’t believe. There are many skeptics and unbelievers in both the scientific community and the general public who genuinely do believe that the case for some form of compatibility between science and religion can be made, and the NAS has them too. I think they are mistaken in this belief but the case they make for accommodationism is as good as anything you are likely to get anywhere. My point is that there was no imperative for the NAS to take a stand on either side of this issue. It could have simply advocated for good science and left this particular debate to its individual members to participate in. The fact that they felt obliged, as an organization, to weigh in on the accommodationist side is what I think reflects a political calculation.

I believe that the best case for accommodationism is that made by the NAS, because it consists purely of scientists. What you don’t want to do in these discussions is include theologians and other religious believers because they end up saying absurd things like ‘god exists outside of space and time’ or that ‘god works through the uncertainty principle’ or that ‘god must exist in order to produce something out of nothing’ or to ‘god is necessary to provide meaning to the universe and our existence’. Scientists generally cringe at such arguments, rightly seeing them as relics of outdated philosophical thinking that have no relevance in the light of modern science.

As examples of the woolly thinking that emerges when theologians get into the discussion, consider these statements by current Pope Ratzinger and his predecessor Pope John Paul II on the science-religion conflict. Popes don’t usually issue formal statements on such controversial topics until they have been thoroughly vetted by their top theologians, so these usually represent their most sophisticated thinking.

Pope Ratzinger, at a meeting on Monday, January 28, 2008 of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences tried to put limits to science by saying that it cannot address the ‘mystery’ of human existence.

Pope Benedict warned Monday of the “seductive” powers of science that overpower man’s spirituality, reviving the science-versus-religion debate which recently forced him to cancel a speech after student protests.

“In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it’s more important than ever to educate our contemporaries’ consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness,” he told scientists.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by “research into anthropology, philosophy and theology” to give insight into “man’s own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”, the Pope said.

“Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions,” he told a meeting of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Even earlier Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, titled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, also tried to put on limits to science by saying pretty much the same thing, invoking the mystery of human consciousness.

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.

The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake”… It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God… Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans. (my emphasis)

What these popes and other religious apologists are trying to do is shift the discussion away from empirical evidence and back to philosophy, where they think they have a chance of holding their own. They do not realize that while philosophy is undoubtedly invaluable in helping us think clearly and use language more precisely, it has become marginal to the study of scientific and empirical questions, even big ones such as the origin of the universe.

Next: What does the NAS actually say?

The tea party takeover of the Republican Party

Jon Stewart gets it exactly right when he says that the only difference between the tea partiers and the Republican establishment is that the tea partiers really believe the crazy stuff the leadership has been spouting for years and is determined to actually implement them.

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Does the existence of the universe violate scientific laws?

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I said that some religious people think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it. But they do not understand that energy comes in many different forms and that they all have to be included in the calculation. The fact is that despite all the matter that exists in the universe, the net energy of the universe is zero because the positive energy in the matter is canceled by the negative gravitational potential energy. So the appearance of an entire universe out of nothing need not violate the law of conservation of energy or any other law. Hence unless expressly forbidden by an as yet unknown law, there is nothing to prevent a vast, even possibly infinite, number of universes to have been created and exist simultaneously with ours, each with its own space-time and laws and matter distinct from ours.

This is known as the multiverse theory. In this scenario, given the large number of universes, it is not only likely, it is almost inevitable that one of those universes would happen to have the form of matter and the laws of science that eventually led to us. The so-called ‘fine-tuning’ argument that religious people sometimes invoke, that the properties of our universe seem to have just the right values to produce life like ours and thus suggests some deliberate design and hence a designer (which is, of course, our old buddy god) goes away, because those universes that did not have those properties would not have produced our kind of life forms. (There are other solutions to the fine-tuning problem that do not require multiverses.)

The problem is that we do not, at this time at least, know how to make contact with these other universes or have any direct evidence for their existence. But, as is usually the case with scientific theories, scientists are working on the problem.

[Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin] Rees, an early supporter of [Stanford physicist Andrei] Linde’s ideas, agrees that it may never be possible to observe other universes directly, but he argues that scientists may still be able to make a convincing case for their existence. To do that, he says, physicists will need a theory of the multiverse that makes new but testable predictions about properties of our own universe. If experiments confirmed such a theory’s predictions about the universe we can see, Rees believes, they would also make a strong case for the reality of those we cannot. String theory is still very much a work in progress, but it could form the basis for the sort of theory that Rees has in mind.

“If a theory did gain credibility by explaining previously unexplained features of the physical world, then we should take seriously its further predictions, even if those predictions aren’t directly testable,” he says. “Fifty years ago we all thought of the Big Bang as very speculative. Now the Big Bang from one millisecond onward is as well established as anything about the early history of Earth.”

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border. If string theory is right, the collider should produce a host of new particles. There is even a small chance that it may find evidence for the mysterious extra dimensions of string theory. “If you measure something which confirms certain elaborations of string theory, then you’ve got indirect evidence for the multiverse,” says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London.

Support for the multiverse might also come from some upcoming space missions. [Stanford physicist Leonard] Susskind says there is a chance that the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, scheduled for launch early next year, could lend a hand. Some multiverse models predict that our universe must have a specific geometry that would bend the path of light rays in specific ways that might be detectable by Planck, which will analyze radiation left from the Big Bang. If Planck’s observations match the predictions, it would suggest the existence of the multiverse.

Physicist Sean Carroll explains the multiverse theory in this three-minute video.

The point is not that we have shown that the multiverse theory is true because we haven’t. The point is that there is no shortage of scientific explanations for why our universe exists and has the properties that it has. Like Laplace, what we can say is that we have no need for the God hypothesis. People might want to believe in a god to satisfy some emotional or psychological need, but we do not need such an external agency to explain our being. As Steven Weinberg said, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”

Will religious people now give up on god as they realize that there really is no hope for finding something that only god or religion can explain? I hope so, but am not optimistic. Although religion has proved itself to be totally useless for anything except as a soothing or scary bedtime story for children and credulous and insecure adults, the desire to believe in a god is so strong in some religious people that they will find some other leaky boat to put their faith in, even as the waves of disbelief wash over them.

Hawaii Five-0

They are apparently making a new version of this hit TV show that ran from 1968 to 1980. I don’t know if it will reprise the theme music from the original, which was one of the best ever.

Ah, nostalgia! Too bad that the increased demand for commercial time is squeezing out opening theme music.