Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Moral Argument for God

I recently listened to an interview with Francis Collins on Point of Inquiry, concerning his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  Francis Collins is an icon of the "scientist who is also Christian" (along with Ken Miller).  He's a converted atheist, now evangelical Christian, but is pro-evolution, director of the NIH, and the former director of the Human Genome Project.  I was immediately struck by two things:

  1. he was converted to Christianity primarily by the arguments in Mere Christianity, by C.S.Lewis.  In this book, one of the main arguments centers around the Moral Law, it's universality and internal (to the human) nature of it.  I'll go into that more later.
  2. he is obviously a very smart guy, so his opinions (especially on evolution) need to be taken seriously (at least once).  So when he claims that the Moral Law cannot be the product of evolution, one had to at least not write that comment off immediately.

So, I went back and read Mere Christianity, which I had done in college some years back. I had an immediate visceral reaction against it, as he laid out these philosophical arguments that seemed much more like word games and bald assertions than anything approaching truth.  I admit that I am steeped in the methods of science, and find arguments that claim surety yet are not testable to be empty.  In reading Francis Collins' book, I have found that his arguments are essentially identical to Lewis', but couched in more modern scientific language.  (As a footnote, I was, pleasantly surprised to see that Lewis lumped evolution with gravitation in describing laws of nature.)

Moral Law and the Argument for God

The definition of Moral Law here is:

"denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty" [pg 24,  Collins quoting from Lewis)

The argument for God based on the Moral Law takes on three components.   The three components of the argument are the following:

  1. Moral Law is universal to all human cultures.
  2. Moral Law includes pure altruistic behavior (think Mother Theresa or Oskar Shindler here), which cannot be explained by evolution
  3. Moral Law is internal to humans.

(There is a fourth point, which Lewis ties specifically to Christianity, which is that we often choose not to obey this Moral Law.  This sets up the idea of free will, and the idea of sin.)

Why is altruism a problem for evolution?  Collins writes:

Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning. It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: it may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without any evidence of benefit. And yet, if we carefully examine that inner voice we sometimes call conscience, the motivation to practice this kind of love exists within all of us, despite our frequent efforts to ignore it.

He outlines three common evolutionary arguments for the origin of Moral Law:


  1. One proposal is that repeated altruistic behavior of the individual is recognized as a positive attribute in mate selection. But this hypothesis is in direct conflict with observations in nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite—such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own future offspring.
  2. Another argument is that there are indirect reciprocal benefits from altruism that have provided advantages to the practitioner over evolutionary time; but this explanation cannot account for human motivation to practice small acts of con- science that no one else knows about.
  3. A third argument is that altruistic behavior by members of a group provides benefits to the whole group. Examples are offered of ant colonies, where sterile workers toil incessantly to create an environment where their mothers can have more children. But this kind of "ant altruism" is readily explained in evolutionary terms by the fact that the genes motivating the sterile worker ants are exactlythe same ones that will be passed on by their mother to the siblings they are helping to create. [pg 27-28]

So, if you accept these points, then Collins writes:

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”

Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and de- manded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me? [pg 29]

An Analogy

When I read arguments of this sort, especially the last quote from Lewis, I am offended by the confidence of the language from a totally flimsy and untestable statement:  "The only way in which we could expect [a controlling power] to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way" [emphasis mine].  Really?  How do you get that?  How can you test that claim?  How do you know what options are open for a controlling power?  Aren't you already assuming that there is something inside us, beyond natural law (i.e. dualism), in order for this to be true?

I'd like to propose an analogy.  I am not sure how far this will go, and where it will break down (as all analogies do), but I think it makes a point.  There is a universal law, which I will call the Eating Law.  According to this law we as humans have an internal voice telling us that we want to eat fatty foods.

  1. The Eating Law is universal to all human cultures.  We differ on the specifics, but we all have the voice telling us what we want to eat (i.e. pringles, Big Macs,  etc...)
  2. Eating Law includes pure gluttony as a behavior (think people who eat themselves to obesity and death) which cannot be explained by evolution.  how could behavior that reduces life expectancy, mating probability, and health possibly be selected for?  There are people who eat so much they can't even move!
  3. Eating Law is internal to humans.  We can look at the eating behavior, but we'll never be able to observe the actual urge to eat fatty foods.
  4. We often choose not to follow this law (i.e. we choose to eat salad instead of Big Macs)

This is not simply hunger, which we can see in other animals.  It is an urge to eat, even when you're not hungry, fatty foods.  Now, re-read Lewis:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”

Now, we have two such laws, the Eating Law and the Morality Law. Which one is the message from the creator?  How could we test this?  I could probably come up with more examples of universal tendencies which take the form of internal messages to humans, but I don't need to.  Coming up with just one is enough to show how this argument is completely empty.

I am perplexed that someone as smart as Francis Collins can't see this.  I am further perplexed that someone would be "shocked by the logic of this argument".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

I've recently found, which has a lot of very interesting talks about science and religion, so it got me thinking again.  Some of the more interesting talks are:

First off, I need to point out that I am an atheist as well as a scientist.  Did my learning of science undermine my religion (I was raised Roman Catholic)?  Was I jaded about religion before learning science?  Does science promote atheism?  These are some of the questions one needs to consider with respect to these ideas.  Given my one data point, I can only state a correlation, not a cause-and-effect: that as I got older, and learned more science, I got less religious.  However, I can point out several observations I've made about the interplay between religion and science.  I think some of the hard-line atheists, in their own personal zeal, make claims about science that are overreaching and not entirely correct.  I also think that the accommodationist perspective, stating that science is perfectly compatible with religion is also not correct.  Here are my main thoughts.

Science is in conflict with some religions

If you believe that the world is 8000 years old, then you are wrong.  Almost all branches of science, from physics, chemistry, biology and geology, agree that the Earth is billions of years old.  There really is extremely little wiggle room there.  Of course, one can always say that God made the world appear billions of years old, but in fact it really is only 8000 years old.  If you do that, then you could just as easily state that the world was made yesterday.  Further, it is a challenge to think of a reason why this deception would be need to be done.  Finally, from a scientific point of view, it is content-free (CF): it makes no measurable predictions, does not suggest the next measurements to be done, nor is it testable in any way.  Science has demonstrated, historically, that CF statements have always turned out to be the equivalent of nothing.

If your religion depends on insisting that the world is 8000 years old, then science is in direct conflict with it.  Those religions that have put themselves in the cross-hairs of science, by making specific statements about the universe, are making the error of making the religion able to be falsified.  Historically speaking, this is exactly what has always happened with testable religious claims: science shows them to be wrong.  The religion then has two choices

  1. reject science (usually hypocritically at the same time reaping all the benefits of science, such as longer life, better health, and increased technology)
  2. call those statements metaphorical, and remove the testable part of the religion that was rejected by science

Most liberal religious faiths have tended to choose (2).  The Catholic Church, for instance, has a pro-evolutiuon stance and is in-line with science on many things (a departure from historical behavior).  In choice (2), the Genesis creation story is allegorical and not literal, and thus not in conflict with modern biology, especially evolution.  They merely state that God had a hand in the process, perhaps, for example, injecting souls into humans some million years ago.  The conservative religious faiths which believe in the literal Genesis story, with creation in 7 days about 8000 years ago,  try to replace evolution with creationism (in the form of, so-called, intelligent design).  They are just plain wrong.  Further, because they've stated that their religions depend on evolution being false, they have thus made it possible for science to demonstrate they are wrong.  They have then created the conflict between their religion and science.

Other religious claims that are testable, and shown to be false, include:

  • faith healing
  • intercessory prayer
  • special creation

Science is not in conflict with some other religions...but with a caveat

There are many scientists who are religious.  Some relatively famous modern ones include Ken Miller, a Catholic biologist from Brown University who testified in the Dover Evolution vs Intelligent Design trial, Francis Collins, the geneticist, and the physicist Freeman Dyson.  In each of these cases, we have to be careful in defining their belief.  Conservative Christians will often point to highly prominent scientists (such as Albert Einsten) who are religious as evidence of no conflict between science and religion.  However none of these people support the anti-science agenda of the conservative Christians, and most believe in a vague, impersonal "God", such as  "God" representing the mystery in the universe.  A far cry from the person-like entity described in the Bible, but by using the same word (God), these scientists have inadvertently played into the hands of people who would like to misuse the belief for their own purposes.

What is comes down to, as you look at religious scientists (which represent a very small minority), there are two types:

  1. scientists that are in fields far away from the "big-picture" questions (like, say, material science) and can thus maintain two opposite viewpoints at the same time.  People are very good at compartmentalizing their thinking.
  2. scientists who have scientifically untestable religious beliefs.  this includes the "God=universe" belief, or some vague spiritual belief.  Ken Miller falls into this category too...when asked whether Jesus had a Y chromosome (which could test for the virgin birth, for example), he says that he just doesn't have any data on that.  Even though some of his tests are, in theory, testable they aren't testable right now and perhaps, practically, never.

But shouldn't science stay out of religious issues?  Don't they speak about different things?

Stephen J. Gould (the great) used to refer to "non-overlapping magisteria" when speaking about science and religion.  Freeman Dyson refers to science and religion as "two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here."  I have already touched on part of the problem with this: where religion is testable, it has been shown to be false. All that is left are the untestable parts.  To me, this content-free religion is the same as not believing in anything.  Perhaps it gives someone comfort to believe in a vague, impersonal spirit "out there", but I dislike using the word "God" when referring to the mystery and wonder of the universe itself. Using this word communicates something very different to different people, and implies something that I believe is unwarranted.

Richard Dawkins, in one of the point of inquiry interviews, shows that this non-overlapping magisteria is really a farce.  He puts it this way...imagine if, at some point, we uncover archeological evidence with some molecular biology that gave you evidence for, say, the virgin birth of Jesus.  Do you think that the Christian religions in the world would say, "Oh no!  Non-overlaping magisteria!  We can't use science to speak about religious issues!".  Of course not!  They'd be screaming it from every church.  It's only because there is no evidence for any religious claims that we posit the non-overlap of religion and science.

So, in a nut-shell, where religion and science meet, religion either directly agrees with science (in which case it is redundant) or it is wrong.  Most of the testable religious claims have been shown to be wrong.  Where they don't meet, religion is content-free.  If someone decides to find comfort in that, then that is their issue, and science can't really speak to it.  I just don't find any value in it.

Religious vs Scientific Thinking

At its core, however, religious thinking and scientific thinking are nearly opposites.  Religious thinking relies on anecdotes, statements from authority, faith without evidence, and mistakes of causation from correlation.  Each of these mistakes arise from common human failings of reason and perception, for which the scientific methods have been developed to avoid.  To do proper science one does not rely on anecdotes or authority, other than nature as the final arbiter.  Evidence is everything, and certain knowledge is never achieved in science (as opposed to religion).  So it is no wonder that the more scientific you are, the less appeal religion tends to have.  But it also makes you less susceptible to the various guises of pseudoscience and less susceptible to being hoodwinked by cranks and quacks.

It is my opinion, then, that the best remedy for religion is simply to teach as much science as possible and let the religion problem work itself out as a result.  I don't think that the in-your-face strategies of the new atheists, such as Dawkins, are particularly effective at reducing religion.  It has a purpose for rallying the troops, bringing closeted atheists out, so I wouldn't dissuade him from this approach if he feels that that is the primary outcome he wants.  I also don't think we should compromise and say there is no conflict between science and religion, which leads to pandering for political reasons with the truth as a casualty.  There are fundamental conflicts between many religions and science, and those should be pointed out even if it is uncomfortable for those believers.  Science isn't in the business of making people feel comfortable with their beliefs.  Thats the role of religion.