Edge 272—January 23, 2009
IN THE NEWS
PUBLICO EDIÇÃO LISBOA
THE NEW REPUBLIC
THE SUNDAY HERALD-SUN (MELBOURNE)
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
An EDGE @ DLD Event
Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works. —Jerry Coyne
DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?
An Edge Special Event
"The real question," writes biologist Jerry Coyne in his New Republic article "Seeing And Believing", is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?
We no longer have President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain announcing in August 2006 their support for teaching Intelligent Design in pubic schools. That was a mobilizing moment for the champions of rational thinking such as Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance. The dilemma as Coyne notes is that against the backdrop of scientific knowledge available to us today, these three words are applicable not only to the texts that inform literal fundamentalists but also to the rarefied theological mumbo-jumbo of the most refined, liberal theologians.
But as Coyne points out:
In the next few days, Edge plans to publish a series of brief responses by selected contributors addressing these issues.
JERRY A. COYNE is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book is Why Evolution Is True.
THE REALITY CLUB: Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson, Daniel Everett, Daniel C. Dennett, Lee Smolin
There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists. What matters are the important questions science is dealing with, from the origin and future of the universe to the origin and future of life.
All this talk about science and religion gives the wrong impression, as it suggests reconciling them or not reconciling them is a big issue... it isn't. As I once put it to theologians at a meeting at the Vatican: theologians have to listen to scientists, because if they want to try to create a consistent theology (and while I have opinions about whether this is possible, but my opinions about this are neither particularly important nor informed) they at least need to know how the world works. But scientists don't have to listen to theologians, because it has no effect whatsoever on the scientific process.
Of course, if you believe in the scientific method and the scientific enterprise, you will have little patience for belief in revelation (whatever that is). Still, all of us, even the most extreme rationalists, harbor contradictory beliefs in our minds and we somehow muddle through. For me, the important line in the sand is not between those who believe in religion/God and those who don't; it is between those who are tolerant of others' beliefs, so long as they dont interfere with one's own belief system, and those who will not tolerate those whose belief system is fundamentally different. In other words, I'll settle for mutual tolerance, though I prefer mutual respect.. And now that we at last have a president who is both religious and truly tolerant, respectful, ecumenical, inclusionary—let's mute the religious wars for awhile and say a prayer (sic) of thanks.'
By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question, a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any prompting answered it for me. He had just returned from the inauguration and was filled with enthusiasm and optimism. Like so many young people today, he wants to leave the world a better place. Prior to his acting career he had studied molecular biology and after graduating coordinated science teaching for three middle schools in an urban school system. He described how along with his acting career he would ultimately like to build on his training to start schools worldwide where students can get good science training.
This reinforced for me why we won't ever answer the question that's been posed. Empirically-based logic-derived science and faith are entirely different methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you've abandoned the rules. There is no contradiction to be had.
Attempting to reconcile religion with science is a pointless exercise. You don't reconcile chalk and cheese; you put them in different categories.
As an atheist I am untroubled by the fact that I am moved by much of the Christian culture in which I grew up; the art, the music, the buildings, even some of the religious ceremonies. I see no need to apply scientific analysis to aspects of my life that provide great pleasure. However, interesting questions can be asked about the religious beliefs that others have and I don't share. How does belief work for them, how did it develop in their own lives, how did it evolve in previous generations and what is it for? These are all questions that we routinely ask of all aspects of biology and psychology.
The last question, applied in the sense of what is the current utility of religious belief to an individual, is important. In attempting to provide an answer, I part company with some no-nonsense colleagues who are also atheists.
If you live comfortably and are surrounded by good friends and endless opportunities for a stimulating and interesting life, then your need for belief in an omniscient and all-caring being is not great. But if you have a wretched life with nothing to be happy about, you may well want something to cling onto, some conviction that you can look forward to conditions that are never likely to exist in the real world.
It seems staggeringly insensitive to tell such people that they are fooling themselves and that, since they only have one life, they should get out there should enjoy it. No amount of science is going to help them to perceive the world in a way that is helpful to them. Science can be applied to relieving the conditions that oppress them—but that is a different matter. Telling them to be rational will only compound their misery.
I applaud Obamas's commitment to science and the key scientific appointments he has already made. But I should be distressed if a new deal for science led to a form of misplaced triumphalism and an assumption that we can provide psychological solutions for problems that are beyond our grasp.
Religion is philosophically incompatible with science. Open inquiry that allows the chips to fall where they may is incompatible with both the idea of 'god's revelation of truth' and religious hierarchies governing knowledge and its dissemination. I am an atheist. I believe that theology, which I hold an undergraduate degree in, is a waste of time.
However, none of this frees science from the obligation of dialog with religious people. Scientists belong to societies. No one practices science in a vacuum, culturally, financially or, even, religiously. It is important to maintain respectful dialog on what the proper relationship of science is to religion if for no other reason than the fact that the National Science Foundation is hugely subsidized by the taxes of religious people. This of course does not give taxpayers veto power over science, but it does mean that scientists neither can nor should regard religion as utterly irrelevant to their practice. A Jamesian pragmatist might claim that science is a societal activity that has an obligation to provide useful results to society, however broadly 'useful' is defined—the recognition of the obligation to the supporters of science is essential.
While science should not pretend that revelation has anything to offer us, it should not forget that it can manifest its own forms of 'revelation'. When scientists believe that they are marching towards Truth in some platonic sense, they are behaving religiously, not scientifically. The belief in Truth, as Rorty cautioned, can become the scientist's god and when it does it involves no less superstition than any other god. And many scientists share a belief in oracles, special people whose words are somehow more valuable and more likely to reflect Truth than that of other people's.
Science is a messy business conducted in messy places. Scientists are evolved hominids that have only used toilet paper for a brief period in their existence. Science owes its existence, health and results to the society that supports it. Scientists are not monks, after all, to be freed from worldly constraints for contemplation of their god, Truth. Their patrons include their opponents in modern societies. They must engage in dialog and not act as though only the true believers in science are worthy of dialog. No matter what jokes we tell over cocktails.
The upshot is although religion ought not to be causally implicated in the practice of science, any more than politics, religious people have a right to demand that scientists treat them with respect and that scientists are careful to construct their own 'canopy of epistemic humility', in the terms of historian of religion Mark Noll.
Belief in Belief
Jerry Coyne nicely dissects the urge of many people to persuade themselves that their religion can coexist peacefully with science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. And he shows just how hopeless this quest is. The question remains: why is this urge so strong, even in some people who have devoted their careers to science? I can discern more than half a dozen plausible reasons for belief in belief in God, and in some people these reasons are no doubt additive, not exclusive. I list them more or less in order, ranging from abject through feckless to noble-if-misguided:
(1) The fallacy of sunk costs: "I've already invested fifty years of my life in this position, and it would be excruciatingly embarrassing to acknowledge my error. In fairness to myself, I was entrapped in this view when I was too young to know better, and I've never been able to find a face-saving exit strategy."
(2) Err on the side of prudence: "I can conjure up enough uncertainty about these issues to excuse myself from drawing the invited conclusions, which might be mistaken, after all, and could, I suppose, do some harm to somebody. Where it doesn't itch, don't scratch!"
(4) What would my mother think? "People whom I hold dear, and who depend on me emotionally, would be heartbroken to learn of my defection. I'm going to carry this white lie to the grave, or at least until my parents are safely in their graves and my children and loved ones give me clear signs of being able to take such a confession with equanimity."
(5) Credal calisthenics: "It keeps me modest, and fosters a desirable habit of moral reflection that helps me do the right thing ‘without even thinking'. It's a method of self-purification that keeps me morally fit."
(6) We must fend off moral chaos: "I myself don't need God to tell me how to live, but some people really do. Religious belief puts the fear of God into some who would otherwise behave reprehensibly."
(7) Don't make waves: "I have more than enough substantive controversies that I would rather spend my energies on. Why discard alliances, make enemies, lose the affection of powerful friends and associates by raining on their parade?"
(8) Dumbo's magic feather: "Religious belief is a moral prosthesis: it strengthens the resolve and courage of many who want to be good but don't have the true grit they need. If I recant, I contribute to the dissolution of an aspect of the world that they truly depend on. I have no right to take away their crutch."
The answer to Coyne's question is yes. To see why consider that any attempted reconciliation between a believer of monotheistic religion and a scientist is bedeviled by a troubling asymmetry. No scientist would deny to someone who doesn't believe in natural selection the lifesaving benefits of medicines developed based on its premises.
The basic ethics of an open and free society are to be prepared to defend what you believe with reasoned argument from public evidence, be prepared to change your mind, and be tolerant of diverse views on questions the evidence does not suffice to decide. Religious faith that promises great gifts in a mythical hereafter as the reward for adherence to unverifiable claims contradicts these ethics. In fact it is science that practices the generosity and inclusiveness that religions teach, and for that reason will triumph, because ultimately human beings prefer to be reasoned with rather than coerced and manipulated.
However, many still feel the need for a community that shares their wonder at the existence and beauty of the universe, while offering solace for the pains of life and death. For this reason, the fact that there are liberal forms of religion that are consistent with science and these ethics is not to be denigrated, as Coyne seems to. Many former believers have given up monotheistic religions for the pantheistic or liberal reconciliation offered by Spinoza and Einstein, precisely because they recognize the weakness of the claims of revelation compared to science, but still wants to feel part of a community. We scientists, who are lucky to be members of the most inclusive and diverse community on the planet, should understand the need of others to be bound in communities with people who share their values and hopes, so long as they do not contradict the ethics of the democracy we aspire to build.
How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.
OAF OF OFFICE
STEVEN PINKER is Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought; chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.
OAF OF OFFICE
In 1969, Neil Armstrong appeared to have omitted an indefinite article as he stepped onto the moon and left earthlings puzzled over the difference between "man" and "mankind." In 1980, Jimmy Carter, accepting his party's nomination, paid homage to a former vice president he called Hubert Horatio Hornblower. A year later, Diana Spencer reversed the first two names of her betrothed in her wedding vows, and thus, as Prince Charles Philip supposedly later joked, actually married his father.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama "solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States," Chief Justice Roberts had him "solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully." When Mr. Obama paused after "execute," the chief justice prompted him to continue with "faithfully the office of president of the United States." (To ensure that the president was properly sworn in, the chief justice re-administered the oath Wednesday evening.)
How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama's vote against the chief justice's confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts's habit of grammatical niggling.
Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.
Among these fetishes is the prohibition against "split verbs," in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like "to," or an auxiliary like "will," and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was "to boldly go where no man has gone before"; it should have been "to go boldly." Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that "I will always love you" but "I always will love you" or "I will love you always."
Any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of English phrasing. The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive because it consists of a single word, like dicere, "to say." But in English, infinitives like "to go" and future-tense forms like "will go" are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to interdict adverbs from the position between them.
Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have "internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided," adding, "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech."
In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the "ain't" from Bob Dylan's line "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb "faithfully" away from the verb.
President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice's hypercorrection, then gamely repeated it. Let's hope that during the next four years he will always challenge dogma and boldly lead the nation in new directions.
[First published by the OpEd Page of The New York Times, January 22, 2009.]
Story, Sunday Magazine
What Will Change Everything?
The question this year received 151 responses. Some were brighter than others, some more practical than others, some very optimistic, others very, very frightening—not surprising, given the open nature of the interrogation. We chose some of the most remarkable excerpts. To read more—go to edge.org.
[ED. NOTE: Last year the German Weekly News Magazine Der Spiegel, ran a multi-part series (see above), featuring excerpts from the Edge Annual Question book, What We Believe But Cannot Prove, published in Germany by S. Fischer. We are pleased to announce that, begnning this week, Der Spiegel will begin publishing an ongoing series based on the Edge 2009 Question, What Wll Change Everything?, which will consist of a mix of responses from Edge contributors and notable German scientists and thinkers.]
ALBERT-LÁSZLÓ BARABÁSI: It is becoming a truism that we're living in the era of networks. Just about anywhere we turn, we encounter one. We have the World Wide Web and the internet; we have social networks, genetic networks, and biochemical networks. These things — web pages, genes, chemicals in our cells — are nothing new. What is new is that everybody's waking up to the fact that there is a network behind all of these systems, and we need to think about networks as a common feature of all complex systems. But I don't know if that's the way you see it.
JAMES FOWLER: Well, as a social scientist, I'm always asking, "Why do people do stuff?" So for me, what is most amazing about networks is that they completely transform the way we think about data. For a really long time, we've thought about individuals as though they were islands — a Robinson Crusoe model of social science. Being able to integrate information — not just about people, but about their relationships — is something that's completely new.
The rise of online social networks in the past few years has been very important in this respect. Now we can ask, "What's happening in that whole complex set of relationships that we could never learn by looking at just each individual?" ...
THE NEW REPUBLIC
January 21, 2008
Barack Obama's inaugural address was the first in a long time to resound powerfully enough to be worthy of marble. However, it was the first in the 220-year history of the custom in another way: its seasoning of black cadence. This was even more exhilarating in that the cadence played an integral part in the power of the oration.
Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people's race over the phone, which is proven in studies). Some blacks use all three; Obama is one of the many who wields mostly the sound. Listen to the way he often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would, with that preacherly hang-in-the-air. Or the way he often pronounces "history" as "historih," "ability" as "abilitih." His rendition of the word responsibility was indicative: with a cadence typical of Black English, capped by a final "ih." No President has ever intoned sentences in this way, because they were not black.
Contrary to the fabulistic notion that gets around here and there that Black English is an African grammar with English words, the sentence structure is basically a blend of regional British dialects that slaves heard from their masters and the indentured servants you learned about in grade school. The sound, however, is partly a legacy of the African languages the slaves spoke. Especially, the melodic quality of Black English, heightened in sermons and speeches, is a legacy of the fact that in many African languages, pitch is as important in conveying what words mean as accent. In the way he said responsibility, he was using language in a way that is warp and woof of the grammar of, for example, his father's native language Luo.arack Obama's inaugural address was the first in a long time to resound powerfully enough to be worthy of marble. However, it was the first in the 220-year history of the custom in another way: its seasoning of black cadence. This was even more exhilarating in that the cadence played an integral part in the power of the oration. ...
THE SUNDAY HERALD-SUN (MELBOURNE)
January 18, 2008
Quest for a sacred presence
We are drowning in information, discoveries, competing ideologies and values and personal options. Our psyches and souls are shaped by the explosion of technology and information that renders almost everything we learn almost immediately obsolete. Nothing seems permanent.
Anyone who watches Oprah or Jerry Springer knows the culture - long on openness, but short on trust.
We are a world suffering allergies. About a third of us are allergic to cat fur, peanuts, dust mites, seafood, selected chemicals or something else. There's a lot to fear.
The Edge, a website that regularly poses big questions, recently asked a select group of thinkers: What will change everything?
The scientists, philosophers and writers came up with some interesting answers.
Some argued that everything would change with the invention of cheap and powerful artificial intelligence that would improve itself.
Others opted for advances in molecular technology, discovery of intelligent life elsewhere, an end to war and human misery, mastering death, accidental nuclear war, a web-powered revolution, the breakdown of all computers and the invention of a laptop quantum computer.
A playwright suggested nothing needed to happen to bring about change; real changes, he said, had always happened, and always would.
Actor Alan Alda said: "I find it hard to believe that anything will change everything. The only exception might be if we suddenly learned how to live with one another. But, does anyone think that will come about in a foreseeable lifetime?
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 15, 2008
The MacArthur program, overseen by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner and directed by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has pulled together 30 brain experts, legal scholars and philosophers to study how experimental brain findings may alter traditional notions of guilt, responsibility and choice. They've launched 11 studies designed to come to terms with its potential as reliable evidence and its broader impact on the law.
So far, neuroscience has delivered few, if any, dependable courtroom insights into criminality. "This is baby science, first-step science, like genetics in the 1950s," says Dr. Gazzaniga, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, which studied the impact of neuroscience evidence in criminal law. "This should be used cautiously in the courtroom -- if at all."
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship • SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend • NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability • ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming • ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God • LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun • RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life • BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" • HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.
Praise for the online publication of
"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent
"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo
"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent
"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian
"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times
"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph
The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle
"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer
"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail
"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star
"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online
"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal
"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed
"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)
"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald
"Provocative" The Independent
"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times
"A titillating compilation" The Guardian
"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover
"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times
"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times
"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer
"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed
"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian
"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe
"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4
"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer
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