Adam Ash

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Bookplanet: science looks at religion

The carbon and the Christian
Book review of
1. GOD’S UNIVERSE by Owen Gingerich
2. THE LANGUAGE OF GOD: A scientist presents evidence for belief by Francis S. Collins
3. MINDS AND GODS: The cognitive foundations of religion by Todd Tremlin
4. ALONE IN THE WORLD? Human uniqueness in science and theology (The Gifford lectures) by J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen
By Thomas Dixon/Times Literary Supplement

In the heyday of natural theology, the human eye was the great example of divine design – a wonderful symbol of vision and insight, as well as a marvel of optical engineering. God’s intelligence is apparently discerned these days in the E. coli bacterium – a wonderful symbol of diseases of the gut, propelled by an ingenious rotating tail. It is this “flagellum”, a bacterial outboard motor, that is used by proponents of so-called Intelligent Design as an example of the sort of “irreducible complexity” that they claim cannot be explained by Darwinism. It was recently reported that teaching materials promoting Intelligent Design had been sent to all heads of science at British secondary schools, but it is unlikely that they will have much impact here. Intelligent Design is a quintessentially American movement responding to a set of constitutional, cultural and religious dilemmas peculiar to the United States.

Opinion polls today consistently find that, when asked to say whether human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years, or by a process of evolution guided by God, or by an entirely natural process of evolution, about half the population of the US choose the first option, and most of the rest choose the second. In a country where the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools on equal terms with Darwinism is regularly debated, it is understandable that books about science and religion sell well and that they have a more tangible political impact than they do in Britain. In this American context, Richard Dawkins’s recent atheistic broadside, The God Delusion, also makes a little more sense. It is really a book to keep up the morale of that embattled 10 per cent of Americans who think God has nothing to do with evolution.
Although Dawkins of course has no truck with “irreducible complexity”, one thing that he and his Intelligent Design antagonists agree about is that God’s existence or non-existence is, in Dawkins’s phrase, “a scientific fact about the universe”. Most theologians would want to reject Intelligent Design, along with the theology of The God Delusion, for exactly that reason. For them it is axiomatic that if we are going to talk about God at all, then God is not part of the natural order and should not be expected either to conform to the laws of physics or to feature as another entity in scientific accounts of life or the cosmos. Whatever theology is, it is not the attempt to provide empirical confirmation for “the God hypothesis”. Many theologians consequently regard the whole area of science and religion with some suspicion. They fear that this is an academic field entirely built on an outdated view of knowledge that might be described variously as empiricist, scientistic, or foundationalist. Are such theological worries justified or allayed by this crop of new volumes about science and religion?

The books by Owen Gingerich and Francis S. Collins are both works written by scientists reflecting on their own Christian faith. Gingerich’s God’s Universe is the brief and elegant apologia of an emeritus professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University. As a historian of science, Gingerich is well aware of the complexities involved in producing scientific and religious knowledge. The debates about Galileo’s support for the new heliocentric astronomy, as Gingerich explains, involved a mixture of empirical evidence, theoretical assumptions and rhetorical persuasion on both sides. Although the heliocentric system seemed simpler than the geocentric in some ways, it contradicted several established physical assumptions (as well as some biblical ones), and, as Gingerich notes, Ockham’s razor is not a law of physics but “an element of rhetoric, in the tool kit of persuasion”. The history of science is one in which progress is made through the “persuasive coherency” of the new picture that is presented, rather than through simple knock-down proofs. It is at this general level of world pictures that Gingerich’s Christian faith generally finds its expression.

At times, however, Gingerich seems prepared to hitch his Christianity quite closely to specific scientific facts. He pays specific attention to the physical constants of the universe, which seem to be fine-tuned for carbon-based life. If the nuclear strong force were slightly weaker, for instance, no element heavier than hydrogen could be formed. If the Big Bang had banged only slightly more vigorously, matter would have been blown apart too fast for stars and planets to be formed. Gingerich approvingly repeats Fred Hoyle’s much-quoted remark that facts such as these suggest “that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature”. Gingerich is aware that some physicists prefer to explain physical fine-tuning on the hypothesis that our universe is just one of many in a “multiverse” or even a “megaverse”. And he acknowledges that to them the science looks the same but the worldview within which they interpret it is different.

When confronted with discussions of the Anthropic Principle (a phrase which is now used for almost any conceivable explanation of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe), I am almost always left feeling that the question is confused and the answer unconvincing. How do we know whether or not to be surprised by any given configuration of physical constants? Surely any combination is almost infinitely improbable? How, in any case, do we know that these constants are free to vary in the way these arguments assume they are, and are not simply fixed by nature or linked to each other in a way we do not understand? And should the actual existence of trillions of other universes, as opposed to their merely possible existence, really make us any less surprised about the existence and physical make-up of our own (supposing we were surprised in the first place, which honestly I wasn’t)? As Hume’s Philo put it, “having found, in so many other subjects much more familiar, the imperfections and even contradictions of human reason, I never should expect any success from its feeble conjectures, in a subject so sublime, and so remote from the sphere of our observation”. It is suitable testament to Gingerich’s caution that his speculations on this subject are not presented as confirming any scientific or theological hypothesis but come in a chapter entitled simply “Questions without Answers”.

There is less epistemological caution on display in Francis Collins’s The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief. But then, it is a different kind of book. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project when it announced the successful sequencing of the human genome in 2000. He is a geneticist and physician. He is also an Evangelical Christian. The title of his book is a reference to DNA, the language in which God wrote the “instruction book” of life, as Collins has it. His subtitle accurately reflects the empiricist tenor of the discussion. Collins even has a section onc osmology in which he argues, with few of Gingerich’s caveats, that the Big Bang and fine tuning are indeed best explained by “the God hypothesis”.

While God’s Universe is a collection of erudite lectures originally intended for a Harvard audience, The Language of God is aimed at those tens of millions of Americans who still believe that they must choose between the Bible and Darwinism. Collins’s primary ambition is to persuade his fellow Christians away from their commitment to either young-Earth creationism or Intelligent Design. He champions instead a version of theistic evolution which he calls “BioLogos”, embracing both God and Darwinism. His attempt to show that there is a “satisfying, enriching, consistent” harmony between his scientific world-view and his personal “surrender” to Jesus Christ will probably persuade few theologians and even fewer scientific atheists. And the song lyrics he composes and performs (despite admitting that his guitar skills are “only modest”), on themes such as his discovery of the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis, are really quite a surprise. Yet this strumming, sentimental Christian geneticist will do more to promote the acceptance of Darwinism in modern America than any number of polarizing and polemical atheistic tracts could hope to do.

From a more theological and philosophical perspective, however, Collins is unwise to base his Christian apologetics, as he does, on the supposed inability of science to explain the “Moral Law” within each human heart, and the emotional longing for God felt by many. Neither altruism nor religious experience presents an insurmountable challenge to those seeking entirely naturalistic explanations of human nature, as exponents of the human sciences have been demonstrating for well over a century. The latest attempt at a purely scientific account of the origins and function of religion is the subject of Todd Tremlin’s Minds and Gods, which is intended as “an introduction to the cognitive science of religion”. “Cognitive science” is a relatively new umbrella term, about a quarter of a century old, for a multidisciplinary approach to the human mind that combines evolutionary and anthropological speculation about its prehistoric origins, a computational understanding of the brain as an information processor, and an overarching philosophy of evolutionary naturalism.

There is no lack of ambition here. Tremlin states that the aim of his book is to provide nothing less than a “complete, detailed explanation of the relation of heavenly gods and earthly minds”. Nor is there any lack of confidence in the ability of cognitive science to deliver on this ambition. Tremlin tells us that this new theoretical approach to religion “is already proving itself to be the most significant and fruitful approach to the subject ever undertaken”. Throughout the rest of the book this disciplinary self-appreciation continues. The writings of Pascal Boyer, Robin Dunbar, Harvey Whitehouse, Tom Lawson, Bob McCauley, Dan Sperber and others in the field of cognitive science are regularly quoted and their research described as extremely valuable, fruitful, exciting and important, but never as contested, problematic, hard to interpret or even open to debate. I am afraid that my reaction to all this is the same as it is to people who phone me up to tell me I have won a free holiday, or who knock on my door to say that I can have a half-price kitchen, but only if I sign up today. If the product is any good, I ask myself, why the hard sell? Can’t I judge for myself how new, exciting and valuable the cognitive science of religion is without constantly being told?

Readers will judge for themselves. The volume is a very clear introduction to the work of the theorists of religion already mentioned, among whom Pascal Boyer has probably been the most influential. There are several steps in the cognitive-science explanation of religion. One key idea is that “religion” can be best explained as a system of beliefs about supernatural agents. On this basis, the origins and function of religion are to be explained not in terms of social utility or cultural transmission (indeed, “cultural relativism” and the “Standard Social Science Model” are among the villains of this story), but primarily in terms of individuals and their brains. Religion, for the cognitive scientist, is primarily about beliefs in supernatural agents, and these are beliefs that originally began “quite naturally in people’s heads” through the activity of the “Agency Detective Device” and the “Theory of Mind Mechanism”. The former leads us to infer conscious agency to explain unexpected changes in our environment. The latter seeks to understand agents in terms of beliefs and desires. The result? An almost irresistible natural tendency, embodied in every single human brain in much the same way, to explain natural phenomena as the results of deliberate actions by thinking, feeling, supernatural agents. This is all very interesting, if speculative, and it will be intriguing to see whether future experimental and theoretical work can pin these “devices” and “mechanisms” down with more precision, conceptually, anatomically and functionally, and as part of a disciplinary discourse which is less needlessly dismissive of cultural, social and philosophical approaches to understanding religion.

J. Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Gifford Lectures, now published as Alone in the World? Human uniqueness in science and theology, offer a different and actively interdisciplinary take on the naturalness of religion. Van Huyssteen uses scientific studies of the evolution of the human mind to reinforce and reinterpret Christian teachings about human uniqueness and the imago Dei. He is well aware of the potential pitfalls inherent in the field of science and religion. He has written extensively elsewhere about the need to develop a “postfoundationalist” rationality in which neither scientific empiricism nor theological tradition is given a foundational status. In this new book, van Huyssteen, Professor of Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts that commitment into practice by setting up an extended interdisciplinary dialogue between palaeoanthropology and Christian theology. The key idea is that the “image of God” should be thought of as something that emerges in flesh-and-blood human beings during the course of their evolution. On this account, language use, symbolic thought and religious imagination, along with bipedalism, a large brain and social morality, can all be seen both as fundamental to human uniqueness and also as entirely natural phenomena. Some of the earliest traces of the emergence of these human capacities are to be found in the remarkable cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere, which are depicted in the beautiful colour photographs that illustrate this book.

Alone in the World? demonstrates, by its very methodology, that the goal of theology is not the collection of evidence to confirm “the God hypothesis”. Rather, van Huyssteen’s approach to natural theology is to see how scientific accounts of human evolution appear when investigated from within a particular religious tradition. The fact that Wentzel van Huyssteen and Todd Tremlin both make reference to the same scientific ideas about cognitive evolution, especially as developed in works by Boyer and Steven Mithen, allows readers to make some direct comparisons. What each book gives us is one part of the story of how religious understanding is produced. The contributions of a historical tradition of religious writing are just as essential as the natural operations of the human brain. While Tremlin systematically overemphasizes the latter, van Huyssteen’s postfoundationalism avoids exclusive claims for either. What is interesting is that both authors resist the temptation to make hasty inferences from their observations about the naturalness of religious beliefs to a conclusion about either the truth or the falsity of those beliefs. The implication, but not the explicit conclusion, of Tremlin’s reductionist account is that religious beliefs can be not only explained, but effectively explained away by cognitive science. Van Huyssteen tends towards the opposite view – that the naturalness of religious beliefs argues, if anything, in favour of their plausibility and rationality. Of course most of us assume that all our beliefs – the true ones as well as the false ones – are, among other things, products of an evolved brain. The fact that many writers about science and religion no longer assume that such an observation is a knock-down argument either for or against religious faith is surely a sign of progress in the field of science and religion.

(Thomas Dixon is a Lecturer in History at the University of Lancaster, where he is organizing an international conference, "Science and Religion: Historical and contemporary perspectives", to take place in July 2007.)


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