the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

revisiting that old chestnut, the separate spheres of science and religion

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In any case, a most excellent book

In any case, a most excellent book

It always surprises me when I hear scientists who are otherwise extremely stimulating and admirable taking up the old S J Gouldian position on religion. I have in mind here V S Ramachandran, in his recent book The tell-tale brain:

When I make remarks of this nature about God… I do not wish to imply that God doesn’t exist; the fact that some patients develop such delusions doesn’t disprove God – certainly not the abstract God of Spinoza or Shankara [an Indian mystic philosopher of the eighth century]. Science has to remain silent on such matters. I would argue, like Erwin Schrodinger and Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion (in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense) belong to different realms of discourse and one cannot negate the other.

Mmmm. Always a bit of a problem when science is told what it ‘has to’ do. Or is it just me that doesn’t like being told that? I do, though, take Ramachandran’s point that science has nothing directly to say about the supernatural, the realm of the ‘non-evidential’. To say that there’s no evidence for the non-evidential seems rather beside the point. And yet…

The whole point of religion is supernatural agency, and this, it seems to me, involves these other-worldly agents acting in this world; answering prayers, performing miracles and so forth. After all, a god who does nothing is, arguably, not worth worshipping. Worshipping a god is, it seems to me, a quid pro quo sort of thing, though this is rarely made explicit. We expect something from these gods, they made us for a purpose, hence their obsession with us, their fatal flaw, it might seem. I’m talking about monotheistic gods of course, the ones without siblings or goddy communities to distract them from being our eternal lords and masters.

How these issues can be claimed to belong to different orders of discourse is beyond me. To me, as I’ve written, science is born of relentless questioning, with two aspects, curiosity and scepticism. And one of the biggest questions, obviously, is – how did we come to be here? It’s a question that science relentlessly explores – the origin of life, the origin of matter, the origin of universal laws and forces. It’s also a question that religion, particularly monotheistic religion, purports to answer. The answer being, a deity is responsible. A deity far too complex and ineffable for us to be capable of understanding or even beginning to explore.

I don’t see any difficulty in treating this as a theory, or more accurately a hypothesis, like any other, to be treated with the same sceptico-curious questioning as any other claim about our world and our experience.

I note that Ramachandran isolates religion ‘in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense’ as the only religious ‘type’ that’s beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. Or perhaps he means beyond scientific proof, as I’m sure he agrees that the areas and pathways of the brain associated with religious or spiritual feeling are well worth probing. In fact, quite a bit of headway has been made in recent years in neurophysiology and in experimental psychology, in teasing out the forces contributing to religious belief. So such belief does fall within the scientific ‘realm of discourse’ or purview. When I first encountered the concept of a god in Sunday School as a seven or eight year old, the first thing that came to me was a whole heap of questions. Questions in which, as always, you can’t disentangle curiosity from scepticism. Who? What? Where? Says who? Can you really be serious? What are you getting out of this? How can this idea be possible? Where did it come from? Why is he male? What do you mean that he’s our father – isn’t one more than enough?

I believe these to be scientific questions, but then maybe I have a broader definition of science than most. I certainly hope so. And maybe these questions can’t negate gods, or belief in them, but they can certainly make it hot for this whole bizarro world of ‘faith’.

The other side of Ramachandran’s argument, though, I certainly agree with. Whatever religious discourse is, it has no hope of negating science.

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Written by stewart henderson

January 31, 2013 at 6:08 pm

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