The God Delusion

Renoir - Dance at Bougival - 1883In academic prose and especially college text books, there’s often the statement “the proof is left as an exercise to the reader.”

This blog entry was inspired by a Huffington Post article by Deepak Chopra. I hope it inspires thought and some mental exercise.

Richard Dawkins has written a number of influential books. He invented the term “meme”. Now he’s been taking on God as his adversary, or more accurately the God concept. It is certainly an ambitious project. Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins are both bloggers on the Huffington Post, and thus the battleground is set. But I found the opening salvo of this post to be very interesting.

Ultimately, Richard Dawkins can fight with religion all he wants and it will be only a sideshow. He is a color commentator sitting in the bleachers, not a player in the game. Skepticism offers critiques, not discoveries. Ironically, this is a shared fate with religion, which has ceased to play a progressive and vital role in modern society. […] The two are locked in a sterile embrace.[…]

This quote was read to me, and it was on my to-do list to blog about it for some time. But peering at the logged comments, I was amazed at the amount of passionate vituperative responses that Dr. Chopra’s entries had inspired in the comments section of several of his entries. Dare I step into the crossfire?

Sterile Science and Sterile Religion are apparently at war, and non-sterile passionate lively boisterous humans are picking up the ammunition and philosophical hand-grenades to toss at one another. But maybe dialog is really what we need?

In any case, I don’t have much sympathy for the ideas of a “God Delusion”. It represents a deeply uninformed view that Deepak rightly protests. It is a viewpoint that holds many of our best and brightest human beings in bondage. Science hit a wall some time ago in it’s grand project to create a theory-for-everything. But the wall was hit in the deepest philosophical underpinnings of science in ways that did not spread to the rank and file researchers. It is why there are so many books about Quantum Physics these days. The greatest physical Scientists of our times have always also been great Mystics. Einstein. Newton. For they were delving in to the mysteries themselves to find answers.

But what of our Spiritual Scientists? Like Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed? Perhaps the Spiritual truths are much more fundamental and dangerous than the physical truths. We think we can hold physical truth in our hands. But what is matter? What is time? What is energy? If we skip those questions, and say, well, look, you know what matter is. It’s, like, you know. That bit of dirt. And this bowling ball.

True, we do share a physical experience. At least it seems to be the case. But as far as we can tell, we also share an internal experience. A “subjective” experience. For the mystic, for the one experiencing the divine or the sublime, the question of whether there is a God or not is an empty question. Like Deepak says, the people engaging in such debates are really like the people in the bleachers.

An observer of a dance might debate the value of dancing. They might fight. But it’s much more interesting to be dancing than to talk about it. Where are you in the dance? The answer is left as an exercise to the reader.

4 thoughts on “The God Delusion

  1. Harold, are not you just playing with words here (as many do while trying to explore existential issues)? What is Sterile Science? I am afraid it would mean non-Science (I am no expert in Sterile or non-Sterile religion, though). And what is God, actually? For different people that means different things, often incompatible with each other. What is Spiritual Truth? And what is Physical Truth, but the way? There are no satisfactory definitions for all these concepts, and all the discussions in which different participants mean different things when saying the same word might be very interesting and heated, but hardly helping to achieve any more understanding on the subject of the discussion (although, sometimes side results of such intellectual battles might be very impressive).

    In its development Science hits a wall periodically, it is normal, not a crisis. And there are several important rules that scientists learned to follow: 1. that science does not deal with religious matters and does not decide on God’s existence – it is beyond its realm totally, while within its realm no mention or concept of God can ever take place; 2. that personal religious or religious-like views of a researcher should in no way influence his/her research (in accordance with the previous rule); 3. that science, while not being able to answer most of existential questions, can set definite limits of what is ever possible (those limits are absolute, but they are few and there are gaps between them). Scientific view of the World is, thus, limited (and will probably always be). Does it leave any place for religion, then? It is a personal question, not one that can be decided by philosophical discussions (which, as said already, rarely can decide anything). No traditional religion is compatible with the modern scientific worldview, absolutely. But both Newton and Einstein understood God not in the same way as their contemporaries. Another interesting question: does an idea of God require religion? Faith and religion are not the same. And what makes an idea of God necessary (outside of the scientific no-God land)?

  2. Hi Mark, welcome to my blog and thanks for writing a comment and posing such interesting questions. Thanks for the opportunity to go into more depth, though I won’t try to address all your questions. Here’s my ping to your pong.

    I like word play, but I’m not just playing. According to the American Heritage, sterile means “1. Incapable of reproducing sexually; barren; infertile.” Sterile Science is Science that doesn’t give forth life, doesn’t produce useful value to human beings. And value is the driving question here. What is value? What’s the point? Why are we here, where’s the value in our inquiry, in anything we do?

    When you ask what is Physical Truth versus Spiritual Truth, Science has traditionally shied away from questions tainted with Spirituality. Psychology is a relatively new science, but it often dances dangerously close to Spiritual and Religious topics. Just read the works of Karl Jung. But Psychology or even any of the so-called “soft” sciences like Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, etc. have not traditionally been given the same regard and respect as the “hard” sciences like Physics, Medicine, or Mathematics. But even with these uneasy truces around the gray between hard and soft, it almost seems as if someone drew a line between Science and Religion to divide the territory just like the Pope gave everything on one side of a line in the New World to Portugal and the other to Spain. At least this seems to have happened after the Church failed so miserably at managing the process of Scientific Inquiry at the time of Galileo.

    Some really good tools of inquiry, and some great traditions have been built over the centuries that define what many think of as “Science”. Though helpful, I question the politically defined firewall between Science and Religion. I’m thankful to Richard Dawkins for stirring up the debate more actively and to Deepak Choprah for stepping into the dialog. Science and Religion need to agree, or one or the other is false or flawed.

    The “wall” to which I referred that Science has hit, is not a wall to be climbed. It is a wall inherent in the very question. It is the wall of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and of Goedel’s theorum. A theory is just a map, and a map is never the same as the territory. No matter how fine a resolution map we make, there’s always more to see that doesn’t fit into our maps. Since we perceive the world through our theories and definitions and preconceptions, there will always be a limit to what we can know from where-ever we stand. And since we’re participants in this Universe, we always impact what we observe at some level.

  3. Hi Harold, though it is impossible to touch in a blog comment format all the questions arising from this discussion, I would like to add a couple comments.

    It is interesting that although I am almost (in some instances totally) in agreement with many of your statements, an overall picture looks very different for me. I do not think that the Science has hit any wall. It is human perception of what the modern science (mainly, physics) has revealed that hits a “wall”. The problem is psychological in nature: absorbed experience (especially, experience absorbed in early years) gets rigidified with age (and education!) and then affects person’s ability to internalize unfamiliar concepts. It is like always translating from another language to the mother tongue. Physics require a lot of imagination, but not all scientists have it (or do not have it flexible or developed enough). Heisenberg uncertainty principle is one such case; wave-particle duality is another. These are just illustrations of attempts to understand nature in old terms, which themselves are just abstractions, and not very old ones – they originate in classical Newtonian physics. Most of concepts intrinsic to modern educated people have their origins in the classical physics and thus are a couple centuries old. Too old and too outdated, though, to cope with today’s level of knowledge acquired by the Science. To remove the “wall”, one needs to learn thinking in new terms, accepting concepts of the modern physics as a base to view surrounding reality. That could also greatly assist social “sciences” to develop into real sciences, as at present they hardly can be counted as such.

    The problem with psychology is of this very nature – it has not matured enough yet to the level of a real science: along with psychological schools of thought that practice truly scientific approach there are those that treat psychology in a purely philosophical way and get equal weight and influence it the field. And there others that are even worse than that. It is like treating chemistry and alchemy as equally valid schools of the same science.

    This brings me to the concluding note on philosophy. Philosophy gets often confused with the Science, while it is not. Some branches of philosophy are getting close enough to a science and look quite science-like (logic, for example), but still, this is not science. Philosophy might be very useful as a “pre-science” – historically, many sciences have developed from philosophy. The main difference between both is that philosophy, unlike sciences, does not (and cannot) give reliable answers to any problems it deals with. It only guesses and tries developing procedures that increase reliability of the guesses made, but it lacks tools of proving or disproving its guesses and producing practically reliable, predictable and quantitative models – once these become available, you get a new science and one less field for philosophy to speculate about (although there are plenty philosophers around who prefer to ignore scientific developments and continue speculating in philosophical terms about subjects which should be lost for philosophy). Still, there are a lot of problems which sciences are not able to deal with (yet), and might not be ready for them for a long time – those remain in the realm of philosophical speculation. The walls separating science from philosophy are not political or artificial – they are simply current frontiers of the Science, and these frontiers have been pushed ahead quite fast in the last century. Relative slow down that is noticeable now mostly results from a need to digest recent developments and to get adjusted to them (and here we are back to the problem of psychological and, in a more broad sense, cultural adaptation to these scientific developments). Religion, in this scheme, has originated as an ancient form of philosophy, with a practical side added to it, and has since developed from that base into a relatively stable phenomenon that cannot get into an agreement with the Science by its very nature. But is it really needed, even for those who keep their faith – in a traditional sense of a Religion proper, not merely as a conglomerate of many cultural phenomena, some of them useful, that has little to do with the real faith?

  4. Thanks again, I wish I could have responded sooner. True Science, as you say, has hit no wall, because true Science transcends any human limitations. This was a metaphor about a certain rigidity in peoples thinking as you say. Maybe it would be more accurate for me to have said, scientists have hit a wall. But that seems a bit too graphic an image, and certainly not literally accurate.

    What I found most intriguing about your writing is how you are effectively touching on a philosophy of science. Perhaps it is in this philosophy where the “wall” has been hit. The physicists ask for more money to build bigger toy trains to run into each other. In some ways, they like hitting these walls. Hitting them harder and harder.

    If philosophy of Science is not a real Science, I think it’s a case of “Houston, we have a problem here.” Whether scientists or the general population see this or not, the entire edifice of Science rests on the foundation of the philosophies that made our current sciences possible in the first place. The scientific method, the concept of peer review, the very concept of Truth itself, these are all philosophical inquiries that form the basis of Physics and all the so called hard sciences. What is real?

    Our understandings of the Creation evolve and we build upon the wisdom passed down by our ancestors. We use the tools they have built for us, including the words and concepts we use. It may seem that the entire edifice needs to be torn down and rebuilt over and over, yet we still benefit from what we’ve been given and we still reuse the tools. I’m glad Microsoft wasn’t around 10,000 years ago when the letter “A” was invented. Imagine if we had to pay someone everytime we used the alphabet.

    Science means knowledge, and I supposed an immature field might not be considered a “real” field if all it has are guesses. A hypothesis is considered a guess until it can be proven. Philosophy comes from the Greek roots, phil is love, and sophia is wisdom. Love of Wisdom. Perhaps wisdom is not the same as knowledge, but do we really want to throw away wisdom for knowledge? Or put Knowledge up on a pedestal and spurn poor Sophia. Is that wise?

    When you write that philosophy can not give reliable answers to any problems it deals with, perhaps that is accurate at some level. But that may be more a problem with the questioner than with the philosophy itself (or religion).

    If when we say reliable, we mean repeatable, how useful is it to have a repeatable solution to the question, “Why am I here?” If when we say reliable, we mean quantifiably measurable, is that really a useful criteria for judging the accuracy, or validity, or usefulness of an answer.

    You can reliably expect a metal ball in a vacuum at sea level to fall 4.9 meters per the square of the seconds it falls. But how relevant are such easily measurable statistics when one asks of Life, what is my purpose?

    Speculation and guessing certain sound inferior to Science, but there’s fundamental problem with this way of looking at things, especially given the most modern evidence of how the world seems to have been put together. If we say that the abstract realms of thought such as consciousness, love, justice, God, or whatever are too fey a topic for earnest (or real) Science because they can not be easily repeatably measured with our nice scientific gadgets, we have a conundrum. Guessing and speculation have been enshrined at the top of the temple based on the uncertainty principle. Much of quantum mechanics ends up just being statistics because of an apparent randomness and unpredictability inherent in the very fabric of space and time and our place in that fabric.

    Rather than looking at Science and Philosophy and even Religion as separate, or at least as incompatible departments who vie with each other for the right of eminent domain in kingdom of human thought, what instead if we could see them all as part of the system of human understanding. If they can find a way to talk to each other as they look at the Universe and Cosmos from different angles, perhaps they’ll be able to better triangulate our real coordinates in this vast Matrix we seem to find ourselves in. And perhaps on then we can make real progress, not just on knowing if quarks are made of vibrating 10 dimensional strings or not, but also on the questions of human hunger, human suffering, human ignorance, and real human fulfillment.

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