At the Intersection of Science and Faith

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Alex Knapp

Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

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123 Responses

  1. Avatar Rick M says:

    science and religion aren’t natural enemies. They’re both attempts by people to explore, understand and know the universe around us.
    from the Forbes article

    I agree that religion is an attempt to understand the universe. But I’m not sure what religion brings to the table. The desire to understand his deity’s creation may have been Newton’s stated motivation but that didn’t determine what his usable conclusions about the nature of the universe were. We can witness the desire to attain knowledge in all peoples of various and no religion. Given the right environment, Newton and the other great theistic scientists would have made similar achievements without religion.Report

  2. Avatar Alex Knapp says:

    Given the right environment, Newton and the other great theistic scientists would have made similar achievements without religion.

    How do you know that?Report

    • Avatar wardsmith says:

      The cultural milieu that “raised” Newton allowed him many things, including the Irish monks who painstakingly copied thousands of books (read “How the Irish Saved Civilization”) <– revenue Amazon link here

      Throughout history the First Estate, religion has protected science (such as it was). The ancient Egyptians had "priests" who were the astronomers who could predict with stunning accuracy when the Nile floods would return. Those predictions fed millions and allowed Egypt to flourish for thousands of years. "Religion" contributed writing, reading, history, mathematics and much of the rest of the "giants" upon whose shoulders Newton stood.

      Science flourishing without religion would have been impossible.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        I suspect the reason why religion and science are so closely tied is that:
        1) essentially everyone was religious in the past, Atheists have always been rare, mostly because we’re so flammable.
        2) priests were one of the few groups in pre-industrial societies that had enough free time to devote to studying the world.

        In any event, even if it were true that there was something special about religion that fostered science, it’s pretty clear that science doesn’t need the help now?Report

  3. Avatar Rick M says:

    Chris/Alex, yeah, not a well thought out argument on my part. Sorry. I should have had more grounds than idle speculation. My impatience with religion and folks that fawn over it got me typing before thinking.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    And then there are the Galileos and Darwins who weren’t as quickly embraced because of religion.

    I could see religion and science not coming into conflict if only because they operate at such different ends of the spectrum. Empiricle induction starts at one place, deductive theology at the other, and so long as they don’t meet in the middle somewhere things run smoothly.

    But I’m not sure how one reconciles “faith,” or believing in the abscence of the requisite evidence with “scientific skepticism,” or witholding belief until the requisite evidence gives support to one or another conclusions.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Simple. I keep faith because it helps me be a better person. That’s an empirical observation. I’d keep faith even if there wasn’t a G-d.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        You’d pretend to believe something you didn’t believe because doing do would make you a better person?

        One of those is suspect, I think. If you don’t believe but you’re still a better person, I’d wager that the “faith” head-fake isn’t really necessary.

        But I probably just can’t comprehend how someone believes something they don’t believe, simply for instrumnetal purposes, while remaining concious that they are doing this.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          “You’d pretend to believe something you didn’t believe because doing do would make you a better person?”

          Hey, it worked for Pascal.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          no, I think you’re misreading me slightly. I mean if there were empirical proof that G-d did not exist, I would still choose to believe in him. I do not believe that such proof exists, as of this time. Therefore I may be believing in something that does exist. But G-d’s existence is not what the inherent “goodness” of my belief relies upon.Report

          • Avatar James K says:

            I am literally unable to process that statement. I try to consider the idea of choosing the believe in something you have good reason to believe doesn’t exist and all my brain gives me is DOES NOT COMPUTE!Report

        • Avatar Alex Knapp says:

          Have you ever lauged at your boss’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny?Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      That may be true in Darwin’s case, but Galileo’s work was more intimately connected to religion than even Newton’s. The Pope was essentially his patron. His arguments for accepting his work were religious arguments (read his letter to the Grand Duchess, for example).Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      To be fair, Galileo, Darwin, and Cantor are really the big three poster children here, and most people don’t even know who Cantor was.

      On the other side, you’ve got scads of scientists who either were religious or were supported by a religious patron.

      Galileo and Darwin do an awful lot of heavy lifting for the “Organized Religion hates Science” meme.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      Because faith is a philosophy and not a method.

      People who say “how can a scientist say that he believes in God?” are asking the wrong question. What they think he’s saying is “I believe in a magic sky ghost”. What he’s actually saying is “I believe that an objective moral system exists and that altruism is more than a highly-stylized form of selfishness”.

      Unless they are saying that they believe in a magic sky ghost, which somewhat calls into question their credentials as a scientist.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I would say that faith is an attitude, not a philosophy or a method, but my main disagreement is with the second paragraph. The fact is that modern science arose out of religion (and in this I include both the science of Arabia and the science of Europe, which is not surprising, since both were heavily influenced by the Greeks). In the West (that is, outside of the far East), religion taught us to look for an ordered, rational world due to the nature of its creator, and it is this view that led people to begin exploring with the assumption that they’d find order and reason in it. This is an oversimplification, of course, but the intellectual works that built the foundation of modern science were espousing basically that view.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        objective moral system is not compatible with empiricism. I can’t fucking measure whether something is good or bad. If I split Al Gore apart, I no longer have a good/bad person, I have a dead person. So good or bad is not a quality of matter, yes? Well, is it a force? Can I measure how good or bad a gunshot is? Will a good gunshot go slower? How can I measure it?

        a relative moral system, where good and bad are seen as perspective-based entities, and where G-d is seen as the person best able to persuade others of what’s right? That works.

        There are other things that work. But objective morality is an oxymoron for a scientist.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Instead of “objective moral system” see it as “a list of things that people can jail/kill you for doing/not doing without getting in trouble from the government (assuming the proper paperwork is filled out).”Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            … this too works. I think it stems from Rousseau, and his conception of a gov’t/society that people voluntarily choose to live under.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          Kim doesn’t that conflate two different ideas of “objective”? A utilitarian definition of “the good” is at least theoretically susceptible of being quantified, but in the realm of morality we’re usually more often using that word to refer to an inflexible, qualitative metric concerning an act, its effect, and its intent. These things are admittedly not susceptible of quantification but that doesn’t mean they are not susceptible of principled evaluation.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            oh. beg pardon. more focused on the science than on the utilitarianism of things (also, never heard of objective being used to indicate consensual thought).Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith says:

        As far as I can tell, most people who call themselves religious do believe in a magic sky ghost. If there is no magic sky ghost, where does an objective moral system come from?Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I think you can reconcile faith and scientific skepticism with two propositions. The first is that truth is singular, or to put it another way, truth is not false. If the truth of something can be determined by any means, it is true. So any valid means of finding the truth is compatible with any other means.

      Second, there are some things which are unfalsifiable. The scientific method can’t address them. You can argue about whether religion can address them, but they are beyond the capacity of science. Any once-and-done thing that can’t be duplicated is outside the realm of science, per se. We can make proposals based on reason or on observation of similar phenomena, but we can’t repeat them.

      The first principle gives us the compatibility of any methods of finding the truth. The second principle suggests areas where religion or science may be more effective.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        String theory is an area where religion may be more effective, then.Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          I dunno about that. (A lot of people write as if they understand string theory and don’t, and I don’t want to be one of them.) Certainly when science starts speculating on other universes which are outside our ability to observe, you’ve got to get a little nervous about using the scientific method.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            So for Hawking to posit that there was no God, he merely needed to further postulate that our universe [miraculously] popped into existence by itself. See, no God needed. Of course then you have to have a little faith in the ability of entire universes to simply popup. Fortunately for this one, another universe hasn’t decided to simply popup on top of us. Yet. 🙂Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            I was making a joke because of the well known problems with testability for string theory.Report

  5. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    You’re forgetting that chemistry and genetics were founded by priests and monks.

    Blaming religion for discrimination of Galileo et al. is kind of self-serving I think. Religion was everything back in the day, encompassing political and social structure, literature and the arts. It’s kind of like blaming “Democracy” for the Arizona shootings or the Vietnam War in some bizarre future where the abstract concept of “democracy” has become a pariah symbol.Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Two quick comments: First, Alex, I liked the post at Forbes a lot – more please.

    Second, I agree that there does not have have to be a disconnect between science and region, and will go one step further and say there isn’t a disconnect. I would argue that science never gets into street fights with religion; it gets into street fights with dogma. Religion and science are two separate fields, and can easily be held dear simultaneously. However, when dogma exists that says “The natural world is X, and that is how we know that my dogma is the One Truth!” it invariably gets backed into a corner when science proves X wrong. These are the moments that lead to religion vs. science squabbles.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Addition: These are the moments that lead to religion vs. science squabbles which end in diminution of religion and also to a potentially unhealthy inflation of science.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Maimonides said 1000 years ago or so, “The Bible is an analogy!”
      And this is why Judaism has had many fewer conflicts with science than Christianity.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        That’s not a very good explanation of the difference. Writing less than a century after Maimonides, a smart Christian dude wrote:

        “It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ, spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things. This is what Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i): “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils.” It is also befitting Holy Writ, which is proposed to all without distinction of persons — “To the wise and to the unwise I am a debtor” (Romans 1:14) — that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.”Report

      • Avatar Paul Crider says:

        And Origen, a Christian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen), said very similar things in the third century even as the New Testament was still being hammered out.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          true, but Origen wasn’t “foundational” in the way Maimonides was to the Jewish religion (aka “we liked that heretic” whereas Origen was the heretic you guys didn’t keep).

          also, you dont’ see much fundamentalism in Judaism (generally reserved for the Karaites). Because fundamentalist bible-following is HARD.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      Are the only fights when science undermines dogma?

      Are there no instances when science goes beyond science to infer a new dogma?Report

  7. Avatar Pinky says:

    Well, if I’m reading this right, Marchmaine was asking if science sometimes oversteps the bounds of science and tries to assert dogma, and Chris answered with examples of science correctly asserting scientific knowledge which sent ripples through the Western intellectual framework. I think you and I are citing examples that answer Marchmaine’s question.

    Eugenics predates Godwin. There was the whole milieu of nationalism, capitalism, and race theory that really sprung to life in the 1800’s.Report

  8. Avatar Ben says:

    To some extent the “is science compatible with religion” question isn’t fine-grained enough. Both are social institutions, and whether they come into conflict with each other is a function of the social practice of both science and religion at a particular time in a particular place.

    So there are a bunch of smaller questions that could be asked that give different answers. Has religion ever come into conflict with science? Clearly, yes. Does there necessarily need to be a conflict between science and religion? Clearly, no. If someone wanted to, one could chart the different ways science and religion had interacted and come up with some generalities. (One might be that scientists will try and schematize their findings so as not to conflict with general religious tenants; Descartes and Stephen Jay Gould would be the poster children).

    There’s one other question, though, that’s probably the most interesting: will science always remain compatible with religion? Assuming there’s no disproof of God or empirical evidence against any texts, what could science uncover that would necessarily make it conflict with religion no matter how its practiced?

    It seems like psychology and neuroscience is getting close to something along those lines. Evidence for the non-existence of things that seem central to most religious notions, like the self and free will, keeps piling up. There’s a lot of pop-psych crap about morality, but the evidence that there’s an innate module for morality tuned to small-group life is pretty strong.

    Extrapolate out a few years. Can religious belief and practice co-exist with a science that has pretty conclusively shown that each person is just a collection of drives with only the feeling of free will and a moral sense geared toward people and not God? Would that make religion change? Or science? Or would they just keep on like they been keepin’ on?Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      but we can measure the experience of feeling close to god! (and it seems the same among nuns and buddhist monks).
      [waits for the actual guys with degrees to come on and correct me, my knowledge of this is OLD.]Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      The report of the death of free will is greatly exaggerated. Even Wegner doesn’t make this claim. His experiments merely show that, under certain circumstances, we think we’ve initiated actions that we didn’t. This suggests that we may trick ourselves into thinking we’re freely acting when we’re not. It doesn’t say anything about the existence of free will generally, and I don’t know of any existing data, nor any possible neuroscientific or behavioral data, that would show that. Free will is a philosophical, not a scientific problem.

      Also, what is this “pretty strong” evidence for an innate morality module? Follow up question: what is the evidence for an innate anything module (I’ll exclude language, so we don’t get into an argument about generative linguistics, but anything else will do)? As Patricia Churchland might say, “The brain don’t work that way.”

      I don’t see psychology or neuroscience ever undermining religion. At this point, it’s pretty much a given that religious experience is going to happen in the brain. We might even be able to elicit it experimentally. This, however, does not say anything about possibly genuine religious experiences and where they might originate.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        “We might even be able to elicit it experimentally.”
        Chris, metastatic faith…dude, if you’ve experienced that let us hear that story!Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Bob, that’s not faith. It’s an empirical observation. I suppose there’s faith in every observation, but not where you are seeing it in this case.Report

          • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

            All faith (EV uses the term, “nonexistent reality”) begins with someone’s explication of the pneumatic/spiritual event, followed by the doctrization of the event, followed by
            followed by skepticism. Somewhere between the first and second, the spiritual event ‘enters’ society as an ordering force. E.V. argues that this phenomenon ‘entered’ society twice, first in the classical Greek discovery of ‘nous’, and second….As a result the result vis-a-vis the Enlightenment (skepticism) explodes in a vibrant cyclical explosion of perverse ideologies, the death of God, materialism, etc, etc, where we end up in a ‘madhouse’ because of the loss of a personal experience in, or belief in, a nonexistent reality. Hell, you can read beautifully written examples of the phenomenon on these pages.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              Bob, I don’t usually say this, even though I might think it, but that was pretty much gobbledygook, complete with non-words (“doctrization”), mindless repetition (“explodes in a vibrant cyclical explosion”), a laundry list of things that you don’t like, finished off with nonsense (“experience” of a “nonexistent reality”). I think you have a vague idea of what you’re trying to express when you go all Voegelin on us, but I do wish you’d do it in your own words, so that in addition to not coming off like you’re trying to be deeper than you really are, you’d actually make sense.Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith says:

        Free will is basically incompatible with causal closure, that everything has a cause-and-effect. The idea is that we think, feel and act as we do because of causes, not because of something that is independent of the material world. If there is something independent of the material world, how does it influence material events? And if nothing is independent of the material world, how can it be anything but part of the chain or network of cause-and-effect?

        I’m most surprised, though, that people need science to see this. Are people really so unobservant of their own lives that they can’t see this in their own behavior?Report

        • Avatar Andy Smith says:

          I would be very interested if someone here could provide an example of free will. Because I can’t find a single act in my entire life that looks like free will. All I see is behavior in response to desires, which in turn result from an extraordinarily complex interplay of external events and built-in constraints on my mind.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      Ben, I don’t think that’s a fair reading of neuroscience (that said, I’m not a neuroscientist, so I could be wrong). The science has allowed us to understand the mechanisms of the brain, but it hasn’t addressed the nature of the will. I don’t see how it could. I do know a little about the research into panic attacks. We’ve been able to locate which parts of the brain are active during a panic attack, which is a point on your “side”. But on the other “side”, we’ve been able to observe the way a person can change his brain chemistry by an act of will. What’s an act of will? Is it another part of the brain stepping in to override things, or is it something beyond the brain? Organic processes have a way of defying reduction.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        … and then there’s the fun of training your subconscious, until you are able to identify things faster than you can consciously see them. (well, you id that “one of these ten” are what you want)Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith says:

        Most scientists are like everybody else. They’re in huge denial about the issue of free will.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          Andy, Thanks for jumping in here. You’ve added tremendously to the dialogue, wow. Unfortunately (speaking of no free will) my wife made me watch a movie with her (in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles no less) so I didn’t get to play here. (The movie was actually quite good BTW although my guoyu isn’t what it used to be.)

          Maybe you could flesh out some of these thoughts for an OP of your own. The title, “Is there a free will?” would be intriguing enough although you’re welcome to improve on that.Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith says:

        As Dennett and many others have pointed out, there is hardcore reduction and softcore reduction . Processes in the brain are incredibly complex, far beyond our understanding of them at the quantum, molecular or even single cell level. That does not mean, however, that they don’t operate by cause-and-effect, like everything else. There is no reason to think that an “act of will” is anything other than a process set off by certain desires.Report

    • Avatar Alex Knapp says:

      Evidence for the non-existence of things that seem central to most religious notions, like the self and free will, keeps piling up.

      Check out Daniel Dennet’s Freedom Evolves. It’s not that neuroscience undermines free will. It’s that “free will” is underdefined.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        That’s why Dennett is a compatibilist.Report

        • Avatar Andy Smith says:

          Dennett’s argument is based on the notion of greater degrees of freedom. Animal behavior is more unpredictable than that of inanimate objects, and human behavior is more unpredictable than that of animals. But unpredictable basically means, contingent on more factors. That doesn’t mean the behavior is free, it just means that it’s origins are more complex.

          Any behavior can still be analyzed in terms of causes, and if you like, indeterministic events. The question is, where does choice come in? The weather is enormously complex, to the point where in any detail very far in advance it is completely unpredictable. Does this mean it chooses what it will be? Who does this choosing?

          The human brain is like the weather in this respect. Who does the choosing?Report

          • Avatar Andy Smith says:

            The sense of “I” is produced by the human brain in interaction with the environment. If free will were to mean anything, it would be that this “I” can make choices about how to act. But how is this possible when this “I” is created by the same processes that are creating all the actions?Report

            • Avatar Andy Smith says:

              From a review of Dennett’s book:

              “He uses an example from baseball (shades of the late Stephen Jay Gould!) to make his point. He says that a batter has a choice of turning away from a pitch that is going to hit him or allowing it to hit him, depending on which action will help his team. His action is not determined by the prior history of the universe, but by his own analysis in the moment. In a different game, he might make a different choice. This, and other similar arguments, lead Dennett to the conclusion that the more we know, the more varieties and degrees of freedom we can have. Thus, modern man has more freedom than did, say, the Neanderthal.”

              “His action is not determined by the prior history of the universe, but by his own analysis in the moment.” What is his own analysis in the moment based on, if not prior history? How does he know what will be better for his team except from prior history?

              “In a different game, he might make a different choice.” Different in what way? Exactly the same game, same history, same players, etc., in a parallel universe? If the player makes a different choice under those circumstances, one could say it results from some indeterministic event, perhaps a quantum event. But that does not make the action any freer. Is there some non-material process that makes the quantum choice? Science says no, that it is purely random, at least not determined or chosen by anything external to it.

              On the other hand, if the game is different in other respects, then a different action reflects different inputs.

              Dennett’s mistake is to conflate “greater degrees of freedom”, which I believe is a valid way of looking at the situation, to freedom of individual choice. The fact that the behavior of more complex lifeforms is less constrained does not mean that whatever identity emerges from all this complexity is actually making the choice. I think Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape gets this right. I have problems with some of Harris’ views on morality, but he is right about our lack of free will.

              What could free will even mean? That we can do things despite our desire not to do them? But why would we act in this way, except in response to some other, over-riding desire?Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith says:

                Meditators seek freedom by struggling with their desires. But this struggle is fueled by other desires, “I want to be free”, “I want peace”, and so on. The end result, hopefully, is a state beyond all desires. But even then one is not acting freely. One has just created, or realized if you prefer, an identity that is no longer limited to the desiring, behaving individual organism. Not freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Yeah, if you don’t know what free will means for Dennett, you need to read his philosophical rather than his popular work. Elbow Room is a good place to start. You’ll find that your objections miss the mark, and that it is one of his more sophisticated positions (that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot, but it’s saying something).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                My understanding of Dennett is that basically all his writing is intended by him as part of his formal philosophical oeuvre (perhaps with the exception of Breaking The Spell). I understand Freedom Evolves to be an expansion of the ideas he began in Elbow Room, not a popularization. He seems to make that pretty clear in the preface of my copy. Is Freedom Evolves really regarded as a popular work in the academic philosophical community?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Andy, Dennett gives a fairly detailed discussion of what free will is, in Elbow Room.

                Michael, whatever he considered it, it’s fairly obvious that it’s pop-science/philosophy, and little more. It’s much less sophisticated, at least, than the early work on free will.Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith says:

                I don’t think I’ve missed the point at all, but you’re welcome to explain briefly how I have if you think so.

                I agree with you about Ramachandran, superb work on qualia, though it doesn’t change the situation about free will.Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

              I don’t see how the “I”—consciousness, self-awareness—can easily be dissolved away as mere neuron function.

              And there’s the whole question of man as the beast that asks “why” [metaphysically speaking]. Or that we stare at sunsets when the other beasts don’t. These things serve no biological purpose.

              Yes, we can put them down to mere “desires,” but this tells us nothing about the nature of these desires such as for truth and beauty, and why they’re of a different order than the desires of the beasts.

              [This is a necessary prelude to the question of free will, since it is argued that “free will” is no more than the pursuit of desire.]Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith says:

                “I don’t see how the “I”—consciousness, self-awareness—can easily be dissolved away as mere neuron function.”

                That’s a legitimate argument. But if you’re going to make it, you have to explain how something that is not just more neural function can affect neural function.

                I’m not saying there is nothing beyond the processes of the brain. I’m saying, if there is, how does it affect that brain?

                “And there’s the whole question of man as the beast that asks “why” [metaphysically speaking]. Or that we stare at sunsets when the other beasts don’t. These things serve no biological purpose.”

                We do lots of things that originally served no biological purpose. The idea is that when something as complex as the brain evolves, it turns out to be capable of doing things that were not part of the original process that selected it. It also helps that much of the structure of the brain, like that of the internet and human societies in general, is of a particular kind that was not selected but simply the result of a growing system of communicating entities (small-world networks).Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                That’s a legitimate argument. But if you’re going to make it, you have to explain how something that is not just more neural function can affect neural function.

                My reply is that the burden of proof is on you to account for the desire for truth and beauty, an observed phenomenon, within your thesis of how man works. You appear to allow that perhaps you cannot.

                I have given Dennett only passing attention as I find his critics more cogent and interesting, but ascribing truth and beauty to “memes” ain’t gonna swing it. It’s a black box to put things in that don’t fit the theory.

                I’m not saying there is nothing beyond the processes of the brain. I’m saying, if there is, how does it affect that brain?

                Hylemorphic dualism, Aquinas: Man is indeed both body and soul.

                http://www.newdualism.org/papers/D.Oderberg/HylemorphicDualism2.htm

                [Off the reservation, as you wish to keep it in the physical. But you opened the door—graciously, and to yr credit—to the possibility of the transphysical, so I slipped this area of my own interest in.]

                As a Thomist, I’m comfortable that natural law would be comfortable saying that that which philosophy-theology postulates exists—the soul, the conscience, etc.—when manifested via the body, if measurable, can be measured. The skipped heartbeat of the Eureka! moment in solving a logical conundrum, the thrill of a sunset, the glowy feeling of “doing the right thing.” All of the things that do not exist for the mere beasts.

                The physicalist says we seek these moments because they feel good. But he cannot account for why they exist in the first place. These are not arbitrary conventions, “memes” we invented. They’re real.Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith says:

                I think there are two issues here we have to separate. One is how the experience of truth and beauty could emerge from physical processes–how in the sense of, how does this kind of neural activity result in this kind of experience? I certainly agree with you we have no understanding of that. But we don’t need to limit ourselves to those kinds of experiences. The experience of the color red will do just as well. We can’t explain that, either.

                The second issue is the evolutionary one. While we can’t explain the experience of the color red, we can explain how we can distinguish red and other colors, and also why or how this ability evolved. Your point, if I understand you, is that we don’t have this level of understanding of truth and beauty. I agree with you to some extent, but I think an evolutionary explanation–that is, an understanding of why we exhibit certain kinds of behavior in the presence of certain environments that stimulate what we call truth or beauty–is well within the possible.Report

              • Avatar Andy Smith says:

                These correspond more or less to the hard and soft problems of consciousness that David Chalmers makes. The hard problem is how we can experience anything, whether it be feelings of truth or beauty, or just the color red. A soft problem is how the brain distinguishes these experiences so that we can react to them in some appropriate way, and also how the brain evolved to do this.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Andy, I just ran across neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain’s work on aesthetics, which is a good catchall for what we’re discussing here. I wasn’t very interested in following up, but that’s the first place your intriguing comment sent me. I guess I’ll follow up afterall, so all I can say is thanks.

                It seems to me that aesthetics is that bridge between the physical world and transphysical, the abstract, the realm of what we’ll call consciousness. That the human brain’s physical reaction to these abstractions, are somewhat measurable is entirely consistent with Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic dualism, in fact A-T dualism wouldn’t work without it being true. Otherwise, we’d be into a dualism that consigns the physical and transphysical to separate and mutually exclusive spheres–a kind of dualism that seems rather more like primitive theology where the real world is alternately mundane and magical.

                So while I expect science to validate any truth of philosophy, metaphysics or natural theology, I think it’s merely playing catchup, measuring then attempting to explain the hyper-physical in physical terms, completion backwards, but with no predictive power, as it can study only the effect of the phenomenon of aesthetics on the human brain, not the phenomenon itself.

                I do understand we can quantify somewhat the effect of balance on the human being’s aesthetic sense: We like balanced Rosette windows, faces with even features.

                But a symmetrical sunset is boring, and take a look at the asymmetrical asymmetry of Islamic art:

                http://ignca.nic.in/images/ritu/ritu16c.gif

                And the simpler mind adores justice-as-fairness [heh heh], but as Plato notes, you don’t give a guy his weapons back if he’s out of his right mind. It would be fair, but not just.

                Nor wise. Wisdom is far more than fairness. There’s an aesthetic to it, even a necessary creativity, that goes far beyond mere balance.

                Well, I’ll leave off here. Again, thx for the exc and stimulating joint inquiry.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Tom, you might find neuroaesthetics, and Ramachandran in particular, interesting.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Thank you kindly, Chris & Christopher, for the recommendations. I shall pursue.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        …feel free to expand on free will…I’m all ears!Report

  9. Avatar Paul Crider says:

    I want to encourage this. But I can’t help but point out that maybe it was easier for old, dead scientists to fit religion into their world view because they knew much less about the world. More gaps for the God o’ the Gaps.

    I did think the block quote at the end of the Forbes piece was beautiful.Report

  10. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. I would not interfere with any one’s religion, either to strengthen it or to weaken it. I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life – hence it is a valuable possession to him.

    – Mark Twain

    Report