Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The latest fad in drivel

Lately we've seen a new kind of maneuver by the apologists for religion, exemplified by David Berlinski (The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions), which seems to have captured the fancy of the editors of Harper's Magazine, among numerous other people who ought to know better, who have published a couple of essays by Berlinski.

The argument always comes dressed up in a lot of poetically charming but vague rhetoric so it's a little hard to tease out. One may end up seduced, but with a bit of an effort one realizes that 95% of what one has just read is fluff, and the rest of it is wrong. The essence of the case is that scientists act like they know everything, but in fact "we do not know how the universe began. We do not know why it is here. . . We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found. [Scientific theories] do not treat of any faith beyond the one that they themselves demand." And so, we are told, science if just one more fundamentalist belief system, which is only convincing so long as we accept a set of arbitrary premises and choose to accept its rules of evidence, whereas we are perfectly free to accept others. Science is a faith no different from any other, and it cannot address the great mysteries. Hence science and religion simply rule different domains, have nothing to say to each other, and science is helpless to disprove the validity of faith.

For some reason, the name of Richard Dawkins generally gets mentioned in these sorts of reflections, so I will invoke it as well. I can assure Berlinski and everybody else that Richard Dawkins is as well aware as anybody that in spite of the scientific knowledge we have gained, immense mysteries remain, including how the universe originated and why it is the way it is. Berlinski fundamentally misunderstands science, and he is scientifically illiterate, as evidenced by the grotesque howlers he makes whenever he tries to discuss scientific disciplines and theories.

The first and most basic misunderstanding is that mystery and ignorance are in fact the only concern of science and the only realm in which it operates.

Berlinski also fundamentally misrepresents religion. Religion is not defined by awe in the face of deep mysteries or investigation into what compels us to right conduct, but precisely the opposite. Religious people don't ask these questions, they answer them, and they have very specific, very concrete answers. Generally, they take the following form.

The universe was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, immortal sentient being. At one or more points in history, this being seized control of the minds of individual men (always men, the sexism is not mine) and caused them to produce texts, containing truths about cosmology and history; instructing us in how the deity requires us to behave, often including elaborate sets of very specific rules for conduct in the most minute affairs; how the deity demands to be addressed, and understood, and various rituals to be performed to demonstrate our obeisance; and what adventures we can expect to have after we are dead, in a realm which living people can never discover but which may be vaguely located somewhere in the sky. The history part includes numerous events which are ordinarily impossible.

Scientists spend their days investigating mysteries. They want nothing more than to be surprised, and can gain no greater prestige than to prove other scientists wrong. Priests, in contrast, spend their days telling people what to believe. New discoveries are by definition impossible for them, and, while they do indeed loudly proclaim that all the other priests who are not of their sect are not only wrong, but will be tortured for all eternity for their wrongness, they have no method of demonstrating it except to reiterate their own claims more loudly.

Science does have tools to prove religion wrong, and has done so on innumerable occasions. In order to rescue their God, priests must either continually reinvent him, and tuck him into smaller and smaller corners as the realm of the unknown retreats; or make utter fools of themselves by denying the incontrovertible truths that science has discovered.

Berlinski has it exactly upside down and inside out. As God is a human invention, so are the notions of The Good and the metaphysics which purport to come from God. Science has no problem at all explaining the sources of morality and meaning: they come from within us, they are products of our nature, as shaped by our evolution as social animals. That makes meaning no less meaningful and wonder no less wondrous than they seem when we imagine a deity. The deity is simply unnecessary.

Could some entity that is in some ways like what people have imagined God to be exist? Sure, its possible. But there is no particular reason to believe it. There might be giant intelligent photosynthesizing gas bags on a planet circling Tau Ceti, I certainly can't rule it out, but that's no reason to go around believing it. If we find them one day, then we will believe in them. In the meantime, it would be silly.

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