An opinion piece posted by Gary Gutting October 13 on the NYTimes website summarizes his series of interviews with philosophers on religion. Some of his findings echo themes we have touched on previously (see Miracles for example). While the author is “agnostic” and finds that to be the most defensible ground, he identifies areas of weakness for both atheists and theists (outnumbered almost 5 to 1 in his interviews), in the debate.
There have also been some interesting posts recently about what might be called the sociology of alternative beliefs. In recent weeks, I participated in a Linked-In exchange with the provocative title: Is there a lack of civility and empathy in the atheist community? Do you find many atheists come across as arrogant/ haughty/ belittling/ ostentatious/ offensive?
Last winter, Big Questions Online also carried an extensive exchange with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title: “Is Atheism Irrational?”
Along a corollary line, research was reported that those who believe in God are happier and healthier.
And a sharp controversy recently flared up on the question of why atheism may be male oriented:
There is nothing definitive about any of this material, as it is dealing not with truth claims per se, but with the demeanor of the combatants. Nevertheless, there may be lessons to be learned. Who would you like to spend more time with? Who would you trust most in a pinch? What is the better pathway to a better and happier life?
Last April, George Gantz submitted The Tip of The Spear in the FQXi essay contest titled “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?” A total of 155 essays were submitted and were rated by other essayists during an extended community comment period. The Tip of the Spear earned a 4th place rank, joining the 40 top-ranked essays in the final judging by a panel of experts, and was subsequently awarded a fourth prize at the announcement held on August 21.
The Tip of the Spear traces the latest findings of empirical science in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology and evolution to determine what the guiding principles are for the evolution of the physical universe and how they can help us in steering the future of humanity. The conclusion is that, while empirical science is the driving force to the advance of human civilization, the tip of the spear should be armed with our highest human empathic qualities – in a word, with love.
The winning essay, “How to Save the World” by Sabine Hossenfelder, challenges humanity to convert ideas into action: ” We fail to act in the face of global problems because we do not have an intuitive grasp on the consequences of collective human behavior, are prone to cognitive biases, and easily overwhelmed by data. We are also lazy and if intuition fails us, inertia takes over.” Her answer is to make the necessary information accessible to individuals. “To steer the future, information about our dynamical and multi-layered networks has to become cheap and almost effortless to use. Only then, when we can make informed decisions by feeling rather than thinking, will we be able to act and respond to the challenges we face.”
Last year I raised some concerns about the impact of technology on humans (see: Busted). These concerns remain, but in the interest of equal time, it is worth highlighting some of the potentially positive impacts of new technology. In a recent episode of EconTalk on The Sharing Economy, Russ Roberts, in a conversation with Mike Munger, highlights some potentially transformative impacts of technology. They conversation centered on AirBnB, Uber and ParkingMonkey. All three applications connect, through mobile devices, users with needs for lodging, ground transport or parking with potential suppliers, in simple, automated transaction platforms. The applications are potentially transformative in two ways – one economic and one social. On the economic front, the applications make it simple and nearly cost-free to connect under-utilized capital assets (e.g. vacant rooms in your house) with potential buyers – this has potentially immense economic benefits to consumers and suppliers but will be highly disruptive to incumbent businesses that will have to evolve to survive. On the social front, the three applications are also completely outside of the systems devised by government regulation to protect consumers, such as taxi cab licenses (“medallions”), local and state health regulations on lodging, and public access to parking spaces. As peer-to-peer applications, the “policing” is done by reviews by users and the private actions of the application operator (for example, Uber kicks out any driver that gets less than a “4.7” rating by its users), with no government involvement. All three applications depend on the trust of users and the trustworthiness of providers – achieved through transparency and consumer ratings rather than government oversight and regulation. In one sense, these applications are tangible demonstrations of the “democratizing” effect of technology – giving power to people to make prudent choices rather than relying on regulatory compliance. Moreover, the system rewards honesty, credibility and service – virtues that may need reinforcing after decades of self-preoccupation by members of Gen Me, Gen X, and Gen Y …
The FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute) is dedicated to exploring the foundations and boundaries of physics and cosmology. One of their programs is an annual essay competition. Last year, the contest posed the question “It From Bit, or Bit from It”, addressing whether information or energy/matter are more fundamental to the reality of the physical world. This year’s essay question posed quite a different challenge – “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”
The ISAS Forum has dealt with issues at the boundaries of science and spirituality, and the FQXi competition poses an intriguing question that intermingles the realm of empirical knowledge with considerations of value and purpose. The essay that George Gantz submitted, entitled “The Tip of The Spear”, is an effort to follow the latest findings of empirical science in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology and evolution to determine what the guiding principles are to the evolution of the physical universe and how they can help us in steering the future of humanity. His answer is that while empirical science is the driving force to the advance of human civilization, the tip of the spear should be armed with our highest human empathic qualities – in a word, with love.
You are welcome to read and comment on his essay, The Tip of The Spear, or any of the other submissions. The Essay Contest closes April 18, but remains open for comments and scoring until August 31st. George also gratefully acknowledges the review and comments he received from Justin Junge and Sylvia Shaw on a draft of the essay.
Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and writer, was the featured speaker for an RSA Event on March 31, 2014, titled “What happened to the Soul?” The event was held under the auspices of the RSA Project on Spirituality, Character Development & The Social Brain, examining the scientific and spiritual foundations of character development.
McGilchrist noted that in the current environment, reference to the human soul as a concept capturing the full range and complexity of human experience has largely disappeared from intellectual discourse, squeezed out of our language by reductionism and linguistic analysis. The human soul is a very deep concept that cannot be analyzed, specified or defined without losing much of its subtlety. Essentially, in the process of dissecting and analyzing this profound concept, western discourse has so narrowed it as to strip it of meaning. Yet, it remains important and useful – but only if appreciated in its full depth and nuance.
He offered this quote from American philosopher Eugene Gendlin: “We think more than we can say – we feel more than we can think – we live more than we can feel – and there’s much else besides.” The human soul is a symbol for “much else besides.”
And from Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore: “The small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure. The great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.” Understanding any part of the human soul is deep wisdom.
For McGilchrist, while the human soul may be resident in the physical body and brain of humans, this does not mean that it can be explained in material terms. Just as the water carries the wave, but is not the wave, so too, perhaps, does the brain carry the soul – but the soul is not the brain. The wave transcends the water, and the soul transcends the brain.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has embarked on a Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). The results of an initial DoSER survey was released February 17th at the AAAS annual meeting and researchers reported that “religious and scientific communities may be less combative than is commonly portrayed in the media and in politics.” Only 27 percent of those surveyed said that they viewed science and religion as being in conflict with each other, with the highest percentage being in the evangelical community. A survey by MIT researchers a year ago also found little conflict between science and church doctrine – they reported that only 11% of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution. However the MIT researchers also found a gap between official doctrine and individual beliefs – 48% of respondents in that survey reported believing that humans were created by God in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. The DoSER initiative will now hold a series of regional workshops for local science and evangelical leaders with the goal of building dialogue and understanding. A national conference will follow. As an AAAS article on DoSEr notes: “Ultimately it is the building of real relationships between scientists and religious communities that can provide the best bridges of understanding.”
This effort is an important acknowledgement by an esteemed scientific establishment of the need for improved dialogue with religious communities. In fact, as discussed in the earlier ISAS post, Science – Losing Credibility, the scientific community has been losing credibility in recent decades. We can hope that improved dialogue between scientific and religious communities will reduce the distrust and polarization that seems to dominate media coverage and public policy debates on science policy and funding and on public issues involving medicine, health and the environment.
Ian Barbour, a leader in the efforts to build dialogue between science and religion, died on December 24, 2013, at the age of 90. According to the TF Newsletter, he was “one of the founding figures in the academic discipline that studies the relationship between science and religion.” He was committed to the idea that “science and religion might converse at the level of the assumptions they share, and both might hold that the universe is rational and intelligible, awesome and wonderful. Such reflection might lead to … integration. Here, the expectation is that scientific and theological inquiry will profoundly inform one another.”
May we be fortunate enough to see his vision fulfilled in the not-too-distant future!
In the Big Questions Online forum this month, Kelly Clark posted an essay that takes aim at atheist claims of rational superiority. Under the provocative title “Is Atheism Irrational”, he borrows the line of reasoning from atheism that labels belief in religion as mental weakness, illusion, or “cognitive functioning gone awry” and applies it to findings that show a correlation between low empathy (in the form of autism) and a belief in atheism. The hypothetical (and ironic) conclusion is that atheism is no more rational than theism. He notes that “the vast majority of those who work on these topics are atheists or agnostics”, which explains why this finding may have been overlooked. In the comments, Roy Baumeister notes as well the correlation first observed by Freud that there is a “pattern of filial love correlating with religious faith,” which supports the idea that such psychological factors can influence one’s beliefs. Baumeister concludes: “A bit more gentle respect all around would seem appropriate. Thanks for your essay, which exemplifies that spirit.” My own concluding comment: “The bridge between science and religion, or theism and atheism, has to be built on a foundation of humility – something sorely lacking on both sides.”
This month’s Big Questions Online projects features a commentary by Dr. Robert Emmonds (guru of gratitude) on What Must We Overcome as a Culture or as Individuals For Gratitude to Flourish? Dr. Emmonds points out that while we live in a world dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, this pursuit seems to have morphed into self-entitlement. When material things come to us so easily, we begin to believe that that is what we deserve and we lose the ability to be grateful. But research consistently shows that feeling gratitude is essential for happiness.
We all have tendencies to self-preoccupation or even narcissism. Emmonds uses the example of the story (Luke 17:16-18) of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one of which returned to give thanks, as a reminder of how common ingratitude is. He also stresses that gratitude requires humility. Humility allows us to recognize “that everything good in life is ultimately a gift.
The comment section is worth reviewing as well as the essay. In Emmonds reply to my comment, he noted that he was introduced by a co-author to Swedenborg: “She shared with me Swedenborg’s insights that those who feel love toward the neighbor and a blessedness toward God are in a grateful sphere or heavenly state, and are thus in heaven. Also that it is through gratitude we have the ability to live in a joyful, peaceful state; in its paradoxical, elusive way, gratitude is the door to many heavenly gifts. But the door is low, and Swedenborg reminds us that we must humble ourselves to enter.” Well said.
In a recent interview on Philosophy Bites, a podcast from England, Eric Schwitchgebel reported on his study of the ethical beliefs and behaviors of ethics professors. He found that professors, philosophy professors, and ethics professors all behaved about the same in terms of not eating meat, voting and making charitable contributions. However, the ethics professors’ opinions on what constituted good moral behavior were far more supportive of those virtues.
It is difficult to say whether this is a sign of our times or simply a reflection of basic human nature, but the pattern of saying one thing and doing another is not unfamiliar. How often have we seen public officials convicted of graft or driven from office in scandal as a result of a failure to adhere to their own professed moral code? Or ministers and religious leaders who surreptitiously engage in behavior they decry as sinful in their public pronouncements?
Dr. Schwitzgebel speculates that ethics philosophers are so used to arguing on moral issues that they are probably better at rationalizing when it comes to moral behavior. Perhaps this is true as well of those who are well-versed in politics, public communications or theological inquiry. As we humans become adept at mental and intellectual pursuits by slicing, dicing and spinning arguments, our behaviors and private choices can lose touch with the simple notion of right and wrong.
We are all familiar with the idiom “the bigger they are the harder they fall.” Perhaps we need another one that points to the spiritual risks of facile argumentation: “the smarter they are, the deeper they fall.”
Dr. Jonathon Schooler has authored a discussion Does Belief in Free Will Make Us Better People? (in the Big Questions Online series sponsored by the Templeton Foundation) that succinctly summarizes the current state of knowledge and disagreement on this key metaphysical question. Dr. Schooler’s opening article notes that the lack of consensus leaves us on the position of having to make a choice – “each one of us is faced with deciding for ourselves where we stand on an issue that may have important consequences for how we lead our lives.” Increasingly, the evidence suggests that a belief in free will promotes pro-social behaviors and increases our sense of personal control and our general well-being. His conclusion is that a belief in free will, which is entirely consistent with our subjective intuition, is the better choice.
The comments in response to the article provide a thorough and expert overview of the three dominant perspectives on free will – determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism – and an exploration of the problems with definitions, uncertainties and unknowns that frustrate the search for consensus. The threads lead into issues the ISAS Forum has dealt with previously, including experimental philosophy, neuroscience and causation. Dr. Schooler in his closing words concludes that “people can have very different perspectives on the issue of free will, and that is as it should be at this time”, implying that more empirical data may clarify which answer is the right one. My own conclusion is that free will, as explained in Miracles, is a paradox where we are forced to make a choice (using, of course, our capacity for freely willing).
There is a prevalent misconception that our choices are directed by our thoughts. In fact, our choices are driven by our motivations – the things that we love. Often, our very rational mind is hijacked in support of that which we want to believe, as I noted in the essay on Cognitive Bias.
If our choices are driven by our motivations, then we should spend some time trying to understand those motivations and the reasons why we do them. As inscribed on the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know Thyself” is an important and useful goal. At the same time, how can we organize this self-reflection in a way that is most helpful in improving our choices and improving our lives? There are entire libraries of philosophy, psychology and theology devoted to this subject, but sometimes it is helpful to keep things simple.
Curtis Child’s video “Universal Categories of Love“, from his “Off the Left Eye” series on youtube, provides a clear and simple analysis of the motivational categories or loves which drive our choices – and which determine our behaviors, our morals and our ultimate happiness.
The Templeton Foundation’s Big Question Online Series posted a profound article this week summarizing the basis for concluding that quantum physics requires/proves the existence of non-physical agency. In the article “What Does Quantum Physics Have to Do with Free Will?”, Antoine Suarez made the case for concluding that the only coherent explanation for quantum behavior is metaphysical – there are phenomena outside of nature that have effects on things in nature. This approach resolves a number of the issues we have been dealing with in this forum including the problem of reductionism. <See Causation). Reductionism requires an immense “leap of faith” to believe that coherent, finely tuned and ordered natural phenomena can emerge from randomness. In fact, they do not. There is an ordering “force” at work, a propensity or disposition in the language of dispositional essentialism, that directs the emergence of higher level systems from lower level substrates, e.g. consciousness from processes in the brain, life from chemistry, chemistry from physics… There is a place for God, and for Love, in this kind of universe.
NOTE: The BQO article by Dr. Suarez was subsequently removed from the BQO website. Dr. Suarez’ theory is also presented in his book: Is Science Compatible with Free Will? Exploring Free Will and Consciousness in the Light of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience, (Springer: New York, 2013).
According to Stephen Post (BQO June 3, 2013) the act of loving is profoundly transforming. Studies show that showering others with our love frees us from self-pre-occupation and related negative feelings, increases our depth and enjoyment of life and improves our physical and mental health! In response to the questions posed, I offered this response:
One aspect of love that seems to be missing from the definition is that of “self-love”. Love has two poles – it can be self-directed or other directed. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, as you point out, doing good things for others brings extraordinary satisfaction, the consequence of which is a higher sense of self-worth and a more rewarding life. In this sense we can be called to do for others as a matter of enlightened self-interest or self-love. Without this reciprocity from the act of loving others, it is hard to see how a person would ever feel a motivation to love others! On the other hand, love which is focused first on self-satisfaction can be exceedingly negative and manifest as impulses for mere gratification or dominion. This is the inherent human evil that St. Paul and Luther warned about, is it not?
On question 1, doing acts of charity from an initially selfish motive (to look good, for example) may yield an inward warmth that can change a person and lead them to greater acts of love to the neighbor.
On question 2, it may be more accurate to say that experiencing the reciprocity of love may engender a sense of divine presence and expectation. We are led to an appreciation of God through the experience of Love.
Finally, I hope that it does not take 100 years for physics to appreciate the dynamic creative and life-giving power of Divine Love. Emanuel Swedenborg wrote about this 300 years ago, and physicist Ian Thompson has recently shown (Starting Science from God: Rational Scientific Theories From Theism, 2011) the deep connections between what is known of modern physics and what Swedenborg had to say about Divine Love.
The technical details and mathematics of modern physics may be mastered by only small number of scientists at elite academic institutions, but non-technical explanations continue to proliferate. This popularization of physics for the layperson would be welcome were it not for the fact that the foundations of physics are in such disarray. Three new books provide fresh perspectives on this conundrum and should perhaps be added to our summer reading lists. Neil Turok’s contribution is The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, in which he explores his solution to the ontological puzzle of what started the Big Bang – the Big Bounce. In simple terms, the idea is that our universe is one cycle of an endlessly repeating cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Jim Baggett, a physicist turned writer, takes a highly critical approach in Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Science. This work sounds like a polemic by a reformed string theorist who has thrown up his hands in disgust at the lack of progress, but apparently offers good explanations of the key problems and theories. Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin is a more inventive offering which points to the time-independent formulations of physics (since Newton) as a potential hindrance to deeper understanding. This approach may have merit – see the ISAS post on The Puzzle of Entropy for a discussion of one of the key time-dependent features of the universe. Happy reading!
Quantum physics is a century old and it has been an incredibly powerful tool for understanding and explaining physical behaviors at the smallest scale. As well established as it is, physicists have never been able to resolve its key paradox or to settle its metaphysical implications. These issues are explored in a June 2013 article in Scientific American title Quantum Weirdness? It’s all In Your Mind by Hans Christian von Baeyer. While the quantum paradox has many faces, the one cited by Baeyer is the thought experiment known as Schrodinger’s Cat. Under the traditional “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum physics, the quantum wave function, which represents probabilities of certain outcomes, is real, in which case Schrodinger’s cat in the experimenter’s box would be both dead and alive at the same time – until he opens the box (which serves to “collapse” the wave function probabilities into a single outcome). Another alternative, the “Many Worlds” interpretation, answers the paradox by saying, “Yes”, there is a universe in which the cat is dead and another universe in which the cat is alive. The experimenter can be in both until he opens the box. The newest interpretation, the “Quantum Bayesian” interpretation, borrows from probability theory and postulates that the probabilities (and the wave-function) are NOT real – they are just an expression of the experimenter’s belief. We may believe the cat is alive, or we may believe that the cat is dead, but it is not both. The cat really is one or the other – we find out when we open the box. After a hundred years of quantum physics, we still have the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat.
The account in Genesis 1:27 – “So God created mankind in his own image.” – is one of the most cherished concepts in the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. It has been one of the most common points of attack for critics, as well, for being anthropocentric (arrogantly putting humanity at the center of the universe) and anthropomorphic (attributing human qualities to something which arguably must be far beyond human). One of the problems may be due to the tendency we have to confuse form with purpose. It seems limiting to say that that humans in physical form look like God. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the purpose of humans and the functions of the various features of the human body are like attributes of God. This is the explanation provided by Emmanuel Swedenborg almost three hundred years ago, and this recent video produced by Curtis Childs for the Swedenborg Foundation beautifully exhibits these ideas and explains why they are so relevant today: http://youtu.be/bcCDiyIotI8.
April 17, 2013. Justin Barrett posed an interesting hypothesis in the Templeton Foundations “Big Questions Online” forum in March 2013 – that children are born with a propensity to believe in a transcendent intentional being (God). She notes that the “maturationally natural cognitive subsystems” with which humans are endowed, specifically the ones that allow us to understand intentional agency and recognize other minds, lead to a readiness for the conceptualization of God. Added to this is the inherent understanding children have that things, including natural phenomena, happen for a reason. Although the commentary and response in the forum is not extensive, the article itself is a good summary of what may be a consensus in the field. The article thankfully does not take a position on whether these findings prove or disprove the validity of such a belief in God. Atheists will say it is evident that belief in God is merely a trick of evolution. Theologians may respond by quoting from the gospels: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
April 11, 2013: We recently had dinner with a friend who mentioned that he had met a child of Professor Charles Townes. Professor Townes is now in his nineties. Remarkably, he is the only scientist to receive both a Nobel Prize (Physics-1964) and the Templeton Prize (2005), although Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn have also been graced with dual awards. While Professor Townes may not be well known, his public comments in the early ‘60’s that “science and religion are not unrelated, and should be honestly and openly interacting” generated considerable interest as well as antagonism. His views are as valuable today as they were then. “While science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other… Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science. In addition, to best understand either science or religion, we must use all of our human resources – logic, evidence (observations or experiment), carefully chosen assumptions, intuition, and faith.” (from his Templeton Prize acceptance speech).
March 22, 2013: I recently had the privilege of hearing Dr. Eben Alexander speak about his experiences, which he recounts in his NYTimes Best Seller, Proof of Heaven. I was profoundly moved. He spoke humbly, but emphatically from the heart about how his near death experience changed his life. As an eminent Boston neuroscientist and physician he had been convinced that consciousness arose in the brain and that God did not exist. But his visits to the heavenly realm in a period when his brain was shut down has given him a direct knowledge and conviction, beyond doubt, that there is a Divine Creator imbued with infinite love. Human consciousness does not arise from the brain but is itself part of the Creator’s eternal realm. We inhabit our brains and bodies for a time on our journey to be fully integrated with the Creator’s infinite love.