This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 6th, 2008.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquires, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Tanner edits on science and nonbelief. Here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine.
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I’m pleased to have Professor Tanner edits back on point of inquiry. He was born and raised in Turkey. He’s an associate professor of physics at Truman State University here in Missouri and the author of Ghost in the Universe God in the Light of Modern Science An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam and Science and Nonbelief.
Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Tanner edits. Oh, thanks for having me on again.
Your book came out a couple years ago just when the New Atheists were starting their ascendants. While some scientists may be those who have the institutional interests of science is their priority. While they’ve taken exception with those people like Dawkins or Harris or Vik Stanger, who use science to kind of bludgeon religion. You seem to get the point of the new atheists, but you’re not just making another new atheists kind of argument.
Oh, yeah. What I’m trying to do is a little bit different in that there is a rather excessive argument that involves science and truth or falsity of various supernatural claims. But I cite that intellectual argument. There is also complications that arise from the fact that both science and religion are fairly extensive and powerful social institutions. And just because, say, for example, science may come down skeptically on supernatural questions doesn’t necessarily mean that there has to be an institutional conflict between science and religion that complicates matters. So that say, for example, when a very outspoken atheist and scientists like Richard Dawkins very publicly insist that science and religion are clashing, this is going to sort of upset the peace, upset the balance between the institutional interests of science and religion.
Right. There are big scientists in the history of contemporary science, Stephen Jay Gould and others who have come to kind of a detente between science and religion by saying, hey, quit the squabbling. The institutional interests of science can best be served by not going after religion. Let’s say that they don’t overlap and that a person can be religious over there and another person to be scientific over here. And those magisterium, those two worldviews never conflict.
Oh, yes. I mean, I happen to disagree with Stephen Jay Gould on this matter. I think when it comes down to earth, science and religion do make overlapping an incompatible claims in many areas. But you can certainly see the the motivation behind a claim like these non overlapping, not hysteria. Let me give an example. Many of us who do science also are based in institutions like universities where we have to teach science as well. And there are certain issues where in the science classroom you can rub up against religious sensibilities safer talking about physical cosmology or biological evolution. And in these situations, the thing to do very often is to try and steer an approach that would allow the students to retain much of their religious sensibilities while at the same time learning and accepting the science and for practical reasons. Very often you have to do this. There’s no getting away from it. Mm hmm.
But do you agree that the claim God exists is itself a scientific claim? It’s not just a kind of moral or theological claim, but that science has every right to investigate scientifically that kind of position?
By and large, yes, I agree in the sense that when you say God exist, you’re making a factual claim. And generally, if you’re making a meaningful statement about God as sort of a supernatural entity in chief, this is not some sort of free hanging claim. It typically is a claim that takes meaning in the context of other supernatural claims as well. And by and large, these are claims that tend to be open to investigation, very often by very recognizably scientific methods and also very often by means, which are pretty straightforwardly continuous with science.
Many people who were persuaded by the position that claiming God exists is making a scientific claim that should be investigated scientifically. Well, they just can’t get why science hasn’t therefore replaced religion. When you investigate the claim scientifically, you find no evidence. Why do people still believe in God? Well, one reason you give for science not replacing religion is that science is just it’s harder. Harder. You say religion maybe comes easy to people, that science, especially physics, is hard. Is that because we evolved to be kind of religious and not to be scientific?
I think that’s a large part. The answer, yes.
Our religion is something that comes more naturally to our kinds of brain rather than scientific thinking, which is something that’s very modern, very recent, and is something that most people have a lot of difficulty with.
You’re saying science is just relatively new in the history of our species. A few hundred years old.
Not very much. Tens of thousands of years old.
And the fact that science is hard is something that is, again, relatively easy to recognize. If you’re engaged in learning about science or teaching about science, say, for example, when I’m trying to get students to learn about physics, it’s pretty easy to recognize that most students will struggle with a form of abstract reasoning that’s required to really understand what’s going on. It takes a lot of training, and this is not because the subject at hand is especially complicated in many ways. Physics is about some very, very simple principles and relationships, but it just doesn’t come naturally to the human brain. And in fact, this is so at all levels, not just for, say, a starting physics student when I’m teaching quantum mechanics to fairly advanced students. One of the first things I tell them in class is to say that, hey, you’re going to have difficulty with this course because the human brain is just not wired to understand something like quantum mechanics correctly. It’s a struggle.
And mentioning quantum mechanics. We were talking about this last week when I had Bob Price on the show. Some scientific ideas, especially like the new physics, quantum mechanics, are actually being used to argue for religious worldviews or let’s say mystical world views being used to shore up the foundations of new wage and new thought movements like The Secret, the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know? Is the same true for some kinds of more traditional religion. Lots of fundamentalists seem to be using their special brand of science to prove in quotes God exists. I’m thinking outfits like Answers in Genesis, other groups like that.
Oh yeah. I mean, you take any sort of science today, there is bound to be some group, someone out there who’s trying to use it for their particular religious ends. And almost always the way they do this is by a rather crude distortion of the science at hand. In fact, quantum mechanics is pretty notorious for this because quantum mechanics is very difficult to understand. Our brains really are not built for it. So people make all sorts of efforts to try and find a more sort of conceptually friendly framework for understanding quantum mechanics.
And some of these are relatively easy to distort and take in a direction of a more mystical point of view in terms of actual physics. It’s completely useless, but it’s very easy to find people who are out there doing things like hawking quantum healing or somehow talking about the quantum physics being a basis for a kind of a spiritual reality underpinning material existence.
Right. The Dow of physics and all that. Yeah. This is something that you will find a handful of practicing physics will take this very seriously.
But this will be very much a small minority. By and large, the response of the community of physicists is just roll arrives. Mm hmm.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Science and Nonbelief through our website point of inquiry dot org. Tanner, you spend a great deal of the book going after intelligent design. But isn’t that whole project, just like that old boardwalk game whack a mole that no matter how successful you are in one particular debate, that ideas that these people who misuse science in that way will just pop up somewhere else? In other words, it’s kind of a useless fight, isn’t it?
In certain ways, yes. If you’re thinking about the goal of a fight against creationism and intelligent design as achieving some kind of political or cultural victory so that this all goes away. Yeah. Very often it looks like whack a mole. I mean, I’ve been involved with combating creationism, if you want, for quite some time right now. And it’s very hard to see in a positive trend in development, even with things like that.
Breathtaking ruling by Judge John Jones in Dover couple years ago.
Yeah. Do you get a legal victory here? A political victory there? But also, you have your defeat. And the thing is, the cultural basis for something like creationism is very strong in conservative religious countries such as the United States, such as Muslim countries. And that popular basis. Is there whatever victories you might have in keeping this thing out of, say, educational institutions? Is a rather limited victory. There’s certainly very much worth fighting for, but limited nonetheless, just because we don’t expect some sort of overwhelming decisive victory in arguing with creationists or intelligent design people doesn’t necessarily mean that this is just a political job or an intellectually worthless job either. Because the arguments do, in fact, change and are maybe about 10 years ago or so when intelligent design proponents were sort of first starting to be noticeable. Their arguments were rather interesting and different compared to more traditional creationist. It was worthwhile at that time to take this as an intellectually serious position, perhaps, and try and show exactly how this went wrong.
So you’re suggesting that science as an institution did not reject out of hand those initial intelligent design claims?
Not at all. It took them seriously.
Sure, because the intelligent design proponents, a number of them, had at least some kind of scientific basis for their ideas, for their claims. And a number of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and so forth find it worthwhile to take a look at these in a little bit more detail and see exactly how it went wrong. And I think in the process, we we learned a few things, not anything radical, but it was an interesting task. I mean, right now, the whole intelligent design movement has kind of degenerated into a political and religious movement with practically no intellectual substance. But it didn’t have to be like that.
Would you say it’s the same insubstantial intellectual arguments in all areas of the ideas movement or just in the United States? I know that in parts of the Muslim world, there’s an equivalent to an I.D. movement. Are they similarly insubstantial intellectually?
Pretty much if you’re thinking of intellectual substance in a term of having any sort of really convincing, say, scientific argument or no such thing exist to support intelligent design. And one of the things that was interesting about intelligent design originally was the claim of certain intelligent design proponents to have a rigorous mathematical procedure, to be able to detect intelligent design and to show that design was an explanation that was not reducible to combinations of chance and necessity. Now, that effort, as far as I can see, has completely failed. But it was interesting claim it to be.
It was worth exploring initiative, certainly. Yeah.
We could devote a whole show to the intelligent design arguments. Indeed, we have many times on when required. But I want to get to some of the other really interesting things in this big book of yours I liked most. When you get into discussions in your book about what some would term cosmic evolution. I’m not talking about the evolution of the cosmos, but like the question of whether or not there’s some cosmic significance to evolution. So people who buy into evolution, there are some of them who see some kind of mystical or kind of ultimate meaning in evolution. This is the question, is the universe becoming aware of itself through our own consciousness, which is one of the ways that new agers have framed it? Even Carl Sagan used phrases like that a time or two. You actually tackle the big doozy of consciousness and its implications in this book.
Yes, that’s one of the questions that you have to address.
If you’re talking about any sort of debate about science and the supernatural, because typically and and also the question, ultimate meaning, you know, that the consciousness has for some, it has implications about cosmic significance.
Yeah, this is somewhat inescapable if you’re talking about a rather broad ranging debate about the religion and the supernatural, because largely what distinguishes the supernatural, if you like, from any odd magical claim, is that typically this is something that has to have some kind of personal significance. The idea is typically that personality, consciousness, those mind like attributes of ourselves, are things that cannot be explained in terms of, for example, mere physics. And this is a fairly common and fairly basic claim that you see in many religious traditions. So the debate has to extend into areas of, well, what do we know about consciousness and where does it fit into the evolution of the cosmos, if you like? Mm hmm. And when you do that, at least my view is that you do have to see consciousness as a natural phenomenon. Certainly a very interesting natural phenomenon.
But nonetheless, I see no reason to get mystical about it.
So all these programs out there in consciousness, studies at some universities, or let’s just call them new age degree programs. That’s not the kind of consciousness you’re interested in exploring. You’re talking about, you know, really the function of the brain, you sloshing around in our noggin, giving us this sense of self and that there’s no reason to think there’s anything supernatural going on there.
Sure, sure. The kind of study of consciousness that impresses me to a certain degree is not the New Age handwaving, because that really has produced practically nothing except sometimes some rather irritating pseudoscientific arguments that mainstream science has to deal with as a matter of course. But nonetheless, mainstream science, I think, is facing a very intriguing and very much unsolved problem. When you’re talking about consciousness. But nonetheless, I think it’s a problem on which we are making steady progress and from many different directions, such as, say, people who work with questions about machine intelligence approach from one direction. People who work with neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience approach it another way. And I think it’s a very interesting, very fascinating field, which is, as I said, making real progress.
Tanner, you say something rather controversial to skeptics in this book, although big philosophers of science like Susan Hawk may agree with you. You say that there’s nothing unique about pseudo science to distinguish it from real science, what’s called the demarcation problem. Most skeptics say, oh, you could tell pseudoscience a mile away.
Well, yes and no. What I’m trying to get at is something that’s very uncontroversial among philosophers of science and indeed many scientists who give questions like the nature of science, some deep thought. And that is you cannot have sort of a set of rules that define what is science and what is not science. It’s really not quite as easy as that. And if you look at the wide range of beliefs that come under the heading of pseudoscience, it is very hard to find one sort of element in common between them that kind of makes them a pseudoscience rather than legitimate science.
And indeed, many things the scientific community thought were pseudo science at one time became science with more evidence.
Yes. I mean, it’s always a possibility. Keep that in mind. I do like to emphasize that nothing in science is written in stone. And in fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as a scientific method, especially if you have sort of implied capitalizations of scientific method. It doesn’t work that way. There are methods of science.
There are many methods of science. And these methods are things that we argue about all the time, whether something is a good method, whether something is a method that needs to be tweaked. These things have historically changed and are very likely going to be continuing to change. We don’t have one recipe for obtaining reliable knowledge that is here anti to work, because after all, what is going to work depends very much on what kind of universe we live in. And that’s what we’re trying to investigate in the first place.
If it’s not so cut and dry, as you argue, if your skepticism about hard line skepticism is well grounded. How can Rationals go about fighting pseudo science if it’s so hard to immediately distinguish it from real science?
Well, it’s hard to distinguish from real science in terms of whether it obeys some hard and fast rules or not. Nonetheless, sometimes seeing something as a pseudo science is not necessarily that difficult an operation. Many of us go about life using some kind of quick and dirty bullshit detector for many things, and many pseudosciences will set off most well-built bullshit detectors almost immediately. And I guess this is not because of a checklist that operates in our brain to see whether something is fishy or not.
But it’s more just like critical thinking or the spirit of science. It’s not Leighann Lord Leighann Lord. It’s not applying science, but more just kind of the mood or the temperament of science where you where you test stuff out.
And you have to keep in mind that just because you’re bullshit detector goes off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your bullshit data is infallible. But it is a very good reason to approach something with a good deal of caution. And sometimes you can make some very strong cases that something is very seriously pathological about a certain kind of enterprise, say, for example, creationism. In fact, if you take an extreme example, let’s take the most lunatic form of creationism available. The world was created in six days, 6000 years ago, version of creationism that’s so popular in the United States. One way you recognize that there’s something deeply wrong with this is that on the face of it, this claim is so bizarre compared to the rest of our background knowledge that any scientifically well educated person should have. So that’s a quick warning flag. And then if you get more into this, you look at the institutions who are promoting so-called creation science and you find that the way that these institutions are structured is not in a way that they would produce any knowledge we would call reliable. So there is a kind of an institutional pathology, which I think the word pseudoscience is a perfectly good label to make. But I don’t think pseudoscience labels any sort of logical category is more of an institutional label.
If you want to be really useful, Tanner, your book covers so much ground. One of the brief surveys you do is all the scientific ways that people worked hard to explain religion. Tell me about what’s called rational choice theory as one of these.
Yes, rational choice theory is actually kind of interesting. It’s more of a sociological and economics based approach to understanding religion. The idea here is this, that as with many economic approaches today, the notion is that people essentially know their interests, know their needs, know what they want.
And if there is a market of, say, products available to them, they go around, they shop around and they rationally choose the products that fit their needs.
So people who are. Religious chose that religion because it best works for them.
Indeed. So there are many people who are rational choice theorists and this is a sort of an intellectual current that’s particularly strong in the United States. That essentially takes an economic free market model and applies it to religion in the United States and does things like try to explain the very strong religiosity in a country like the United States by saying that, hey, the United States is the free market in religion. You have lots of difference of religious currents with many different sects. Everybody offering something slightly different. And if you’re in the market for something that’s going to satisfy certain types of psychological needs, somebody is going to have the product that you want and therefore you’re going to go for it. Now, this rational choice theory also comes with the implication that, well, the choices rational people are not being religious because they’re having a failure of rationality. They’re religious precisely because they are rational in this narrow economic sense of rationality.
Yeah. That neuroeconomics sense of rationality doesn’t suggest that what they’re being rational about is true, but just that their choices are rational in terms of working for them.
And so what we have is a kind of a pragmatic explanation of religion. And this is one of these things we do in life. All of us regularly we make pragmatic choices depending on what works for us. And we don’t always spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out whether something is likely to be true or not. That is something we tend to sort of leave, too. I don’t know academic experts in that particular field and so forth.
Rational choice theory is like the opposite of what’s called the secularization hypothesis, which says that basically the more advanced our societies get, the more non-religious, the more secular they become. But it’s automatic.
Yes. I wouldn’t so much call it an opposites, but it is a main competitor in sociology, religion of that kind of theory. And there the idea is that if you look at modern societies of the modern world, such societies are structurally different in many ways compared to, say, the agricultural peasant societies in which world religions have arisen and secularization theorists will point to certain features of the modern world that will tend to erode the plausibility of organized religions.
And they will point to examples like Western Europe, which definitely has secularized in contrast to the United States, and say, well, here is secularization modernization theory and action. We can see that the social mechanisms that reproduce religion are having trouble sustaining themselves and therefore religion is losing a good deal of its plausibility.
And recent polling data in the United States seems to at least suggest a trend in that same direction when you look at the rate of the unchurched doubling recently and now new data that for the first time in polling data history, over 10 percent of people are reporting that they are explicitly atheist or agnostic, not just that kind of more undefined category of unchurched.
Yes, you can definitely find, second, the rising trends in the United States as well. But one difficulty with this kind of sociology of religion is this. When you’re talking about either, say, rational choice or a secularization thesis where you’re trying to pull out is a very sort of long term overall social trend. But upon that, you’re going to have all sorts of fluctuations superimposed so that it may very well be that currently we are in the United States experiencing a second rising trend. But it’s very difficult to find out whether this data is part of an overall movement towards secularism or if it’s a fluctuation, say, for example, because of people reacting to the political influence of the religious right so strongly for the past couple of decades. So it’s really hard to make a Long-Term projection about what’s happening in United States just based on what’s going on recently.
Indeed, the turn of the century, people were making long term projections or even short term projections heralding the end of religion and see how they got that wrong. Exactly. You also touch on evolutionary explanations for religion in the book that religion comes from maybe group selection, that there’s some genetic basis for religiosity. We were touching on this earlier in our conversation.
Right now, these types of approaches to explaining religions scientifically would sort of complement more sociological approaches, because here we’re asking a question that doesn’t have to do with, say, the institutional self reproduction, the social structures of religion. But we are talking about the basic psychology that goes into supernatural perceptions of our environment. And therefore, the question becomes about what is it about human brains that make them so susceptible to seeing supernatural agents all around us?
And considering these supernatural agents so important in our understanding of our social world so that we actually tend to build our moral systems and group identity and so forth.
On top of these perceptions of supernatural agent and the argument goes something like a way back in our evolutionary heritage, it was advantageous for us to see ghosts everywhere, for us to see supernatural causes on the Serengeti or wherever.
In a way. But the argument actually right now, and it’s not quite resolved, the argument is actually rather complicated. There are a number of people who try and understand the evolution of supernatural and paranormal perception in humans in terms of exactly the line to describe that this was evolutionarily advantageous. One of the figures that’s important over here is David Sloan Wilson, and he says that religion is kind of a social glue.
It’s what keeps human groups together. And it’s because of this advantageous for humans in the context of his group selection theory.
So there are there are class of theories trying to explain the evolution of religion by saying that religion is adaptive in that religion does some useful work for human groups. Now, this does not necessarily mean, by the way, that’s something that’s adaptive, is something that you and I from a modern, liberal, secular point of view would recognize as being morally good, because zino phobia, the fear of strangers of the other, may have had an adaptive purpose in our evolutionary past, but no longer is it useful in this contemporary world. Right. See, some theories that explain religion as an adaptation will say that religion is very useful because it keeps human groups together and it has all sorts of positive consequences and so forth. But another type of adaptive theory might be something along these lines that, well, you have human groups together, but maybe they come together for the purposes of raiding and killing other human groups so that religion becomes a way of intensifying conflict. But nonetheless, as an adaptive advantage, because the group that has the titer religion that holds together is better able to slaughter a rival group, that religion only magnifies our natural, our evolved human evil. Yes. But again, you have to keep in mind over here that what I am describing is not something that is settled science. These are ideas that are floating around out there and pretty much. Everybody who works in the field of evolutionary explanations of religion recognizes that much of what they’re doing is exploratory is speculative and so forth.
Yeah, it’s new science. It’s some would even discard it maybe as fringe science. But you think that there’s a lot they’re worth looking into.
Yes. And and one reason is that, well, there’s a lot of speculation and an interesting and flourishing assizes, not just what’s in textbooks. And we need to recognize that as well.
So, Tanner, we just talked about the adaptive view of religion, that there’s some evolutionary payoff for people who are religious versus non-religious or skeptics. Right. But there’s also the byproduct view of religion. Tell me about that.
Oh, yeah. The idea over here is that just because something is a product of our evolutionary history, it doesn’t mean that it is a feature that will it directly adaptive and directly selected for. In fact, some of the evolutionary theories that I find the most intriguing personally are those that describe religion as a byproduct of other evolved capabilities of the human mind, in that the human mind is structured in such a way as to have certain default tendencies, if you like. So we look at objects and kind of automatically without having to think of it on the surface, classify these into, say, person or animal or object and so forth. And it turns out that if you look at the structure of how we tend to automatically reason about the objects we encounter in our lives, there are certain features of the human brain that tends to channel our perception into directions such that the notion of a supernatural agent has a particular salience for us. But this is not because the notion of a supernatural agent has been necessarily selected for directly. It just happens to be a consequence of other properties, of the architecture, of the human mind.
And this does not necessarily mean that just because something is a byproduct, it’s kind of optional or easy to say get rid of. It may be very strongly entrenched indeed. All it means is that it was not something that was directly subjected to Darwinian variation of selection.
The last thing I want you to touch on before we finish up is the virus theory of religion, that religion might just be a virus of the mind.
Sure, the virus theory has become somewhat popular for perhaps obvious reasons, especially among people who, well, don’t believe in a religion kind of popularized by people who have taken their cue from Richard Dawkins original ideas about Meems. This is an idea that right now is very speculative. And in fact, depending on who you talk to who’s doing research on religion, it can be difficult to get people to give it much, much respect. There are there are certain people, for example, Daniel Dennett, who think there is a lot to this idea as well. And the idea over here is this. It’s really the religion itself is somehow subject to replication and selection in its own right. And we should also take this point of view that human brains are the host of these religious ideas. And just because an idea proliferates and is successful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a successful for the host is just successful because it proliferates. End of story. I think that when you’re talking about these more memetic approaches to religion, they have the very least have a lot more development to do before they turn into serious theory of religion, because it’s very hard to get measurable units of culture.
Like, yeah, our genes in in genetics.
I mean, there are a whole host of technical problems about this whole sort of thing.
Nonetheless, I think the idea is very interesting and promising. So I hope people continue to work on it, though. Right now. You have to sort of classify it as a very undeveloped, sometimes rather handwaving argument.
Tanner, you get into so much more in the book, the role of morality in politics, many other ideas, but we have to finish up. So I want to ask you to end by telling me what you think about the future of nonbelief, where you’ve written science and nonbelief. Where’s it going from here? Do you imagine a time when religion is a thing of the past and everybody is a happy, science minded person instead?
I’m rather skeptical about that type of scenario. I mean, anything might happen far enough in the future. But if you try and make a reasonable extrapolation from our situation right now, I don’t think that’s in the cards. One thing that I think we need to be more impressed with is how naturally religion comes to a normal human mind and how unnatural, in contrast, scientific thinking tends to be when we’re talking about science minded nonbelievers. We are talking about a tiny segment of the population. And this is true not just in highly religious countries like the United States. It’s also true in very secularized countries such as those of Western Europe.
What we have in secularized countries is not so much the depth of the perception of supernatural agents all around us. It’s that organized religion has lost this ability to convince people. That’s very different than people becoming science minded skeptics and rationalists and so forth. It’s just religion sort of fading away by default. In fact, some sociologists involved in the sort of secularization theories of religion describe it as becoming religiously unmusical, rather unable to appreciate religion rather than actually having what you might call a rational critique of religion and rejecting it. One thing I would like to add on top of all this is that science and nonbelief is a rather complicated subject, which I have tried to address in the book. And it really doesn’t lend itself to an easy characterization. Like while science is always on the side of nonbelief, nonbelief always support science. There’s a certain degree of ambivalence and complication there as well, both in the history of science and unbelief and in the current relationship between science and nonbelief as movements and institutions. So it would be good for more nonbelievers to come to appreciate a bit more of this complexity, I think.
Thanks very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Tanner Adits, thanks for having me on.
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