Department of Silly Inquiries


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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33 Responses

  1. jj says:

    I think the obvious reason he asked this question was because they were having a conversation about religion.

    I would suspect he would grant modern science has great downside insofar as it produces weapons of mass destruction. But he would grant this because it is a fact. It is logical for him to ponder if there are benefits or downsides to the existence of religion precisely because he doesn’t believe in it.Report

    • Will in reply to jj says:

      Horgan routinely comments on scientific developments on bloggingheads. I can’t say I’ve watched all of his dialogues, but I have yet to hear him raise a similar question with respect to scientific progress.Report

  2. Keljeck says:

    Watching this video has given me a new respect for Robert Wright.

    The man can keep his cool.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    jj, you took my words. I would expand your last sentence (since we seemed to start in the post by making wild assumptions about what Horgan might or might not say in other conversations about other things) to say that it is likely that Horgan believes that on balance — not unambiguously — science is of greater benefit to humankind than detriment, and actually wants to know what Bob or others would say about the same question applied to religion. How it follows from his asking this question about religion that he therefore must think that there has been no downside to science is a mystery to me. Horgan, for what it is worth, has a minor obsession with the history of warfare, so the likelihood that he wouldn’t acknowledge the downside of technological advancement if not scientific inquiry itself seems remote. Likely he considers it too obvious even to mention. If we’re speculating.Report

    • Keljeck in reply to Michael Drew says:

      But the question is not how Mr. Horgan would answer the question, or why he never asked the question unprompted in a diavlog that has nothing to do with the subject. The question is why the question isn’t asked in general.

      And I think that’s a good point.

      The question applied to either science or religion is stupid because there’s no way to answer it. Which was Robert Wright’s point in the video.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Keljeck says:

        The question being whether science has a downside and whether it outweighs the upside? It is absolutely asked, and the reason it doesn’t get a lot of attention is because the downside is utterly obvious, while at the same time the huge majority of those asked would say that the upside clearly outweighs the downside. It’s just a settled question — that’s why it’s “not asked” (though it is asked).Report

        • Will in reply to Michael Drew says:

          A settled question? Really?Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Will says:

            I think so — to such an extent that it doesn’t occur to Horgan to raise it himself often (you’re right about that). I understand the point that if we insist on doing cost-benefit analysis on religion (I don’t), we shouldn’t refuse to do it on other endeavors. But I think this question has largely been settled with regard to science — pending future events. I actually think the tragedy of the twentieth century essentially revolves around the question, and it is the implied concern of much of post-war philosophy and literature. It’s not unambiguous by any means. But I guess I’d turn it around — you seriously would consider giving back all that we have because of science in order to undo the destructive things that humans have done with it?Report

  4. matoko_chan says:

    Religion is the single greatest fitness enhancer for the left side of the bellcurve of IQ in existance.
    That is why relious belief is hardwired, and why it evolved in the EEA (environment of evolutionary advantage).Report

  5. Bob says:

    Well, the metric proposed in the question was clear, “lives saved” v “lives lost.” Can such statistics be gathered? No way. Because it is really asking to quantify a negative, “lives saved” is actually asking “how many people did not die because of ‘religious pacifism’?”

    But lots of important, worthy of contemplation, questions are asked that have no measurable evidence to help answer them. Is it really an unworthy question to ask, “on balance has religion, particularly monotheism, been beneficial or harmful?” And certainly the same unanswerable question is asked substituting “science” for “religion.”

    If this blog dealt with issues amenable only to quantifiable issues it would be very dull indeed.Report

  6. Michael Drew says:

    Also, what is Horgan’s “ilk” exactly? Wright elsewhere (or maybe in the excerpted portion) praises Horgan’s approach to the science-religion question as far more fair to the religious side than other of the New Atheists (what’s so new about them, anyway?). In what ways should we not conduct ourselves like Horgan other than posing the cost-benefit question in this debate?Report

    • Bob in reply to Michael Drew says:

      And the rest of the statement is pretty strange. It continues, “…are only interested in lobbing dumb hypotheticals at religious believers.”

      “Dumb hypotheticals” define religion.Report

  7. conradg says:

    I don’t mind that Horgan brought up this question , I simply mind that Horgan answers his own question as if it is obvious that religion has no benefits, compared to quantum mechanics, and that anyone who thinks otherwise must be daft. Bob tried pointing out that religion’s benefits are not in the same realm as those of quantum mechanics. But he didn’t go far enough in explaining them. Let me offer this: religion is the core force that builds civilizations, without which we would not have the foundations to develop science, much less quantum mechanics. Put another way, quantum mechanics cannot hold together a culture, a society, or build a civilization. The word “religion” literally means “to bind together”. It is not only the most effective means for building a culture and civilization, it is thus far the only one that has ever done so. Every civilization that has ever arisen on this planet has been based on religion, for better and worse. None have ever been based on science. So while religion’s direct benefits can’t be measured as tangibly as quantum mechanics’, QM is itself one of those things that could not have been invented without the civilizational foundations created by religion.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to conradg says:

      Quantum mechanics is indeed a very strange thing to cite as being a good example of how science benefits humanity. How about penicillin?Report

      • conradg in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Actually, QM has had a greater impact on the world, maybe even on medicine, than penicillin. Virtually all modern technology relies on QM, including modern medical technology. At least a third of modern economies depend on QM. So it’s not really weird to compare its benefits to those of religion. It’s just that QM doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It requires a massive civilization to develop such things, and those civilizations require religion to get organized and held together long enough to come up with things like QM.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to conradg says:

          You’re right about the scope of QMs’ impact. I just meant for immediate salience that most everyone could grasp, as Horgan suggested lives saved vs. lives taken as the metric for the value religion. To that end, it is clear that he does not suggest that religion has no positive value, as he explicitly proposes quantifying it.Report

    • Travis in reply to conradg says:

      On the contrary, every civilization that has ever arisen has been based on science.

      It is only through the development and transmission of scientific knowledge that the technology existed to create large crop surpluses – irrigation systems, the plow and the domestication of animals, to name a few. The existence of these surpluses, of course, is predicate to the specialization of labor and organized society.Report

      • Travis in reply to Travis says:

        That is not to say, of course, that religious beliefs did not play an absolutely vital role in the development of civilization, co-evolving as a cultural device for the division of labor and enforcement of morals.

        But all the religious beliefs in the world would not have meant a fig if our species hadn’t figured out how to design proper irrigation canals.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Travis says:

          And they might have, had they developed ways to cohere short of the invention of the divine. I think it’s an insoluble question whether that would have happened. It is an undeniable cudgel that those arguing for religion have in this debate that things happened the way they did. It doesn’t make a god or gods actually exist any more than they do, nor does it prove that human social cohesion was in fact dependent on the invention of deities. And to say that the cohesion, not the concept of the divine, is the crucial point is to concede the argument. If “religion” is going to mean only “bind together,” ie social cohesion, then we can certainly all agree that, yes, “religion” was necessary for technological advancement and science.Report

  8. conradg says:

    Science as a disciplined approach to life and culture didn’t exist until about the 17th century. Technology, however, existed long before science. Religious cultures were able to develp technology non-scientifically, even if their viewpoint remained unscientific and religious.. Agriculture, for example, was developed by cultures which looked upon agriculture as a religious matter, ruled over by Gods and astrological patterns they did not see as scientific forms of knowledge.

    No culture or civilization initially developed technology from a scientific viewpoint. That only happened in recent centuries, after the religious viewpoint had already established all the groundwork, including the scholastic anf philosophical foundations for empirical science.Report

  9. Travis says:

    The assertion that “science… didn’t exist until the 17th century” is patently false. Archimedes would beg to differ, as would the Babylonian astronomers who documented star positions, eclipses and such. Ancient Egyptians tracked Nile flooding to determine the best time to plant crops. There’s plenty more examples.

    A Roman citizen did not bend down on his knees and pray to Ceres that an aqueduct would get built. Skilled Roman engineers would design and construct an aqueduct according to engineering standards and plans that were based on empirical knowledge of the physical properties of water, materials science, hydrology and detailed localized surveys.

    That is applied science in action.Report

  10. Michael Drew says:

    This is a question that I have been reflecting on in the wake of this debate. Was all technological advance dependent on science, even if it was not thought of as science at the time? I think you could argue that it was, inasmuch as that progress involved essentially running high-stakes trial-and-error experiments using the accumulated feedback of the earth. Knowledge stored in the form of passed-down best practices is as much scientific knowledge as is recorded abstractly in the Principia or Origin of Species. Arguably, anyway. The opposite could certainly be argued.

    One thing that I do think is a very tendentious claim is that societal cohesion was uniformly dependent on coercive appeals to spiritual higher powers (ie religion). It is true that both were present. It is far from proven, and I don’t know how it would be provable, that the one was dependent on that particular other, and that no other basis for maintaining cohesion was possible or could have been sufficient.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      …And even if the enforcement of the worship of particular divinities was the only way that humans could ever have developed technology and science, it does not follow that God exists, or that we should be expected to concede for the sake of our debt to the concept or out of politeness to believers that He does, or moderate our lessened respect (if we have it) for those who believe in such a false concept.Report

  11. conradg says:

    First of all, Archimedes was not a scientist. He did not use the scientific method. He was a mathematician, using mathematical principles to prove mathematical theorems, but he did few actual “experiments”. There’s that famous example of measuring the circumference of the earth using the angles of the sun at two different locations to triangulate the dimensions of the earth, but this was an exceptional case. The ancient Greeks certainly could have developed science, but they didn’t, in large part because they wanted to keep mathematical reasoning “philosophical” and not dirty it with real world experimentation.

    Second, there were no “Babylonian astronomers”. There were Babylonian astrologers. They did not study the heavens with a scientific mindset, but with a religious one, looking not for natural causes, but for religious and mystical correspondences. That they were able to make very sophisticated observations and predictions does not make them scientists – quite the contrary, it demonstrates that religious and mystical people can makesaccurate observations and predictions in the pursuit of their astrological truths. No present day scientist acknolwedges astrologers as being scientists. Why would we recognize ancient astrologers as being scientific?

    And to Michael, I’m not suggesting that God exists because religion developed pre-scientific technologies. I’m merely suggesting that the civilizational foundations for science, including basic technologies themselves, were created by religious and mystical peoples and cultures, and never, in all of world history, has it been done in the opposite order. One would think scientists would consider this observational fact to be meaningful. Out of the thousands of disparate cultures created by human beings that one could call “civilized”, none were scientific or atheistic in origin. This has meaning. It tells us that religion is very, very important to the process of creating culture and civilization, and that science lacks this quality. I’m not knocking science, I’m just pointing out that it isn’t whole or complete in itself. We need religion to create the civilizational foundations for science. That seems to be an historical fact that one should not try to deny.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to conradg says:

      It doesn’t tell us that “religion is very, very important to the process of creating culture and civilization.” It tells us that pre-civilizational humans facing the state of nature were uniformly prone to supernatural and magical thinking to help make sense of the world and console them. Separately, humans eventually developed civilization. The former certainly was reflected in the latter, and I am not denying that it mat have played a role in some cases. What it does not show is that it was the crucial necessary condition you suggest. There were many necessary preliminary steps that we needed to establish before we had civilization; religion may have helped us in some of them. But it might not have been as crucial as you say (you don’t offer any evidence or references, you just assert it as fact) and other solutions might have done the trick just as well.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to conradg says:

      But in any case, this really has never been about denying the constructive contribution of religion. Horgan merely asked whther it saved or took more lives — and clearly was interested in any attempt at an answer. At some point, the question has to become whether God exists. Otherwise there is really no argument here at all.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …Which would be fine, wonderful even, if the church — all churches and analogues, that is — were simply a secular organization devoted to good works and had all the salutary benefits you enumerate. But that is not the case. At the heart of the Christian church is an idea that given its breathtaking ambition and ubiquity at some point everyone has to deal with: are we created, loved, and saved by a God who made us in his image? That (and more) is what I am asked to profess belief in when I go to church for a funeral, wedding, holiday etc. Between you and me, if we want to jettison the theological-ideological claims of the church and just focus on its effects on humanity, that works fine for me. I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind when they decide they are going to embark on an exploration of how religion and science interact.Report

  12. conradg says:

    Also, Roman citizens did pray for aqueducts to be built. So did the engineers who built them. The considered the arts of engineering to be Divine Gifts to mankind, and considered even the mathematical principles used to be part of the Divine Order. Not only the culture itself, but the engineers within it interpreted their feats in religious terms. They did not engage in a concerted “scientific method”, but saw their technological developments as part of a religious process, within a religious philosophical tradition. This is why their technologies were so crude and did not grow in the way that scientific technology did after the recognition of the scientific method in the 17th century. It took a much greater expansion of the philosophical foundations of technology and thought for that to occur – and again, most of that occurred within religious and theological circles. Duns Scotus and William of Occum were theologians, not secular philosphers. There’s simply no question, historically, that science grew out of religious philosophy and technologies that were developed by religious cultures and individuals seeking to understand how the Gods operated.Report

  13. conradg says:

    Michael, the point is that for pre-civilizational humans to get to the point where they can create what you would consider rational forms of civilized thought, they universally became religious and developed religious cultures in order to get there. If the question is, where would we be without religion, and how many lives has religion saved, the answer is obvious. All the lives saved one can attribute to science would not have been saved if religion had not created the civilizations that allowed science to be created in the first place.

    The question as to whether God exists has nothing to do with whether religion has been of benefit to mankind. You might as well suggest that if photons don’t actually exist, fire isn’t actually beneficial. Religion can work perfectly well, even if some of its assumptions about why it works aren’t proven, or provable, in the same way that we can’t actually prove the existence of photons.Report

  14. conradg says:

    Also, the notion that other routes to civilization might have worked neglects the fact that none of those alternative routes were ever taken. If they were even remotely possible, they ought to have appeared at some point in the tens of thousands of years of human development all over the world since the paleolithic. That they did not, or did not seceed in creating a civilizational culture, suggests very strongly that religion was not only necessary, but essential, for this process. It also suggests that it’s highly unlikely civilized mankind will ever fully get rid of religion.Report

  15. conradg says:

    “Separately, humans eventually developed civilization.”

    In what sense whatsoever was the development of civilization by religious people done “separately” from religion itself? Religion provided the binding power that held people together, that provided them with the means, the motive, and the orientation to build a larger social order, and to develop the technologies only possible for an organized group of people, a society. You cannot separate that from civilization itself. You can’t define religion merely as a bunch of wacko, irrational beliefs that have nothing to do with the social order created by them, and around them. Whether you think those beliefs are true or not, they served a very powerful and apparently irreplaceable purpose in creating virtually all forms of social order in the world. And social order is how civilizations come into being. It’s even how technology develops, which is why virtually all early technologies were considered mystical arts given by the Gods. In fact, even the accusation that religion is imaginary, “invented”, goes to show how powerful it is, and how intimately linked it is to the power of imagination and creativity which fueled the development of civilization, the arts, and technology itself. Technology is invented, is the product of imagination, and thus is naturally coincident with the imaginative fancies of religious mentalities. The modern, fundamentalist belief systems that oppose modern science might lead you to falsely assume that religion and technology are natural enemies, but this is simply not the case. Both are exercises of the human imgination, but only religion provides the social and intellectual cohesion necessary for the ongoing development of technology. If early man had not been religious, he would not have studied and observed the stars to begin with, nor kept records of the seasons, nor been able to make sense of the growth patterns of plants and animals. There would have been no reason to develop the engineering abilities necessary to build pyramids and cathedrals, or even, as many suggested, the economic system of capitalism itself, which is all about creating a surplus economy for the purpose of making offerings to the Gods. You take all this for granted, and want to separate it from “religion”, as if that is even possible. If you do separate it from religion, by imagining a world in which religion had never arisen in the first place, you must also take away all that would not be here without religion – which would be most everything we call civilization.Report