31 Jul 2009

God and Science Don't Mix - My Thoughts

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
— J.B.S. Haldane, “Fact and Faith” (1934)

"Last week, I [Lawrence M. Krauss] had the opportunity to participate in several exciting panel discussions at the World Science Festival in New York City. But the most dramatic encounter took place at the panel strangely titled “Science, Faith and Religion.” I had been conscripted to join the panel after telling one of the organizers that I saw no reason to have it. After all, there was no panel on science and astrology, or science and witchcraft. So why one on science and religion?

I ended up being one of two panelists labeled “atheists.” The other was philosopher Colin McGinn. On the other side of the debate were two devoutly Catholic scientists, biologist Kenneth Miller and Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno." [Science and God Don't Mix]

Krauss has some experience in defending science, especially biology, in the face of religious fundamentalists who see science as an atheist Trojan horse that will destroy their children's faith. He accepts Haldane's view that for science to work it must do so in an atheistic mode, in the sense that supernatural beings are left out of current theories. However, the two catholic panellists prove that it is possible to have faith and reason at the same time. But what was also striking was that neither Catholic was able to rationally defend the virgin birth apart from on metaphorical or symbolic grounds. This shows to me that to restate the science versus religion argument as one of reason versus faith is overly simplistic; it becomes somewhat of a caricature of the head versus the heart. Yet this latter play of opposites is possibly close to the truth.

The problem is not that a believer cannot be a scientist - after all, much of the history of science is filled with devoutly religious individuals - but rather that the rational part of the mind does not turn its scalpel towards the fideist part of the same mind. In this sense, I think it useful to categorize faith as an emotional state, very much like being in love. Humans enjoy (or are possessed by) numerous emotional states, some of which are short term whereas others are so long term as to appear to be inextricably part of that person. It is also not possible to be entirely rational whilst in a rage or overcome with fear. Love is also far from rational. It is impossible to argue with someone that the love they feel for their partner is somehow not real, an illusion. Cataloguing a list of flaws is also unlikely to diminish their love. As for human love, so for supernatural love.

Although the emotional state of faith, as of love, can switch on and off, the balance between a fideist state and rationalism seems more a continuum with some tipping point. The rationalism of the two Catholic speakers shows how far that balance can be stretched so that faith can be maintained whilst, in their minds, keeping some semblance of intellectual honesty. Yet again, this shows to me that we are dealing with two very different functions of our mind that, however, obviously interact. Changing one's basic state of mind is a major event for an individual. Testimonies from people who have flipped from being faithful to atheist or vice versa show how closely it resembles falling in and out of love. But it often takes a major crisis to precipitate this mental tectonic shift.

Krauss ends his article with,"So while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature." I still think that arguments for and against a metaphysical being are largely pointless. It is like trying to use the knife of reason to do an autopsy on a ghost. It is true that rationality does not require an atheist stance, but for the sake of truth it is worth using both science and rationality on this state of being we call faith. Treating faith as an emotional state also removes any truth about the propositions supported by being in such a state. It may also serve as the key to unlock those minds who are having real turmoil in somehow keeping their childhood faith whilst trying to reconcile it with either science or just life in general. People fall in and out of love all the time without being branded as 'loveless'. It is therefore possible to fall in and out of faith - just don't claim that it says anything about the universe apart from describing your state of mind.

A World Beyond Belief Aggregated