Tag Archives: Science

Evolution versus Creationism- Ships passing in the night

(and firing shots at each other)

Jonathan Morgan

TEvolution and origins concepthe Super Bowl was painful to watch, but at least everybody was playing by the same set of rules. And at the end, fans from both teams could sit down together and lament what a boring game it was. Debates between evolution and creation, on the other hand, are like watching one team play soccer while the other’s trying to play rugby. And they never seem to end in camaraderie. While Bill Nye and Ken Ham were civil enough on stage, social media was full of condescension.  For example, one guy at Buzzfeed said- “I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.” The culture wars rage on and frankly they’re getting boring. That’s understated, more frankly they’re dangerous. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to learn.

Before talking about culture wars, let’s talk about why these debates never go anywhere. In the debate last night there were all sorts of arguments made and evidence cited, but nobody was swayed. In order to understand why, we have to talk about epistemology, a very fancy (and stodgy) word for how we know what we know. To understand someone’s epistemology you don’t listen for what they believe, you listen to how they justify the things they believe. Why do you believe what you believe? That’s epistemology. Ken Ham, representing the creationists, was completely blunt about his epistemology: “The Bible is the word of God. I admit that’s where I start from.” His appeal is to authority. More specifically he accepts the authority of the fundamentalist tradition, which has only been around since the end of the 19th century. For Ham, and many others in the fundamentalist camp, authority is the ultimate decider of truth.

Authority isn’t in vogue these days, but don’t dismiss it immediately. Instead, think about it as the trust we give to people and institutions we respect. By that definition most of our beliefs are based on authority. We’re cognitive misers and trusting authorities saves us a ton of effort- think about how hard it would be to fact check everything! The question isn’t whether authority is good or bad, but which authorities to accept.

Bill Nye’s epistemology comes out the most clearly at the very end of the debate. When asked what evidence would change his mind, Nye replied- “any single piece of evidence.” Of course this is a rhetorical jab, but he’s also echoing the tradition of science which rests on empiricism. Nye’s referring to the epistemology of science, which (at least in ideal form) is grounded in experimental tests of evidence. The enterprise of science is built around a persistent communal refinement of questions, criteria, and evidence. It’s a complex and multifaceted enterprise, but when it comes down to epistemology it’s based primarily on empiricism.

If authority is “because we say so,” empiricism is “show me.”

These different epistemologies are the fundamental difference within this debate. Ham takes a particular interpretation of the Bible as the final arbiter of truth and Nye takes the scientific enterprise and empiricism as the means of knowing. This is the level of the difference, but of course this isn’t the level of the debate.

That’s why no amount of evidence either way is going to sway anybody. They’re two ships passing in the night. It’s a dog and pony show.

But that’s a little too benign of a description, because the whole debate simply fuels the culture wars. Far from coming to any sort of resolution, debates like the one last night promote the myth that there are only two ideological camps: science or religion.

I think Kurt Vonnegut’s advice is relevant:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If we pretend that the choice between either science or religion is a real choice, then it slowly becomes a real choice. The middle ground, that nearly all of us stand on, will begin to vanish.

There are all sorts of reasons that would be bad news, but I’ll give you three.

1) It’s a demeaning and patronizing view of religious believers- the vast majority of whom have no problems believing in the Big Bang and evolution. Remember, the fundamentalist stance is a recent minority position in the long history of Christianity.

2) That’s reason enough to be wary of such polarizing debates. But an even more serious danger is that such debates weaken science. Plenty of people would agree because they see last night’s debate as a way for Ken Ham to raise money for his ark. Those people are probably right, but that’s not the case I want to make. I see the danger as more significant than that.

Science needs sharp and serious philosophical critics. Above I described science as progressing toward pure knowledge through empirical investigations, but that’s a fantasy. Science is a cultural project interwoven with politics and money and philosophical assumptions. This isn’t to say I don’t love science- I think it’s amazing. My point is that science needs strong and critical conversation partners to keep it in check. Without such partners, I believe, science will actually be weakened.

Ham and creationists simply aren’t strong conversation partners. These debates present weak criticisms of science. That may seem harmless, but the impact is to water down more serious critiques. If you’ve heard a dozen trite accounts about the uncertainty of scientific evidence, you’re going to begin thinking all such critiques are trite. Furthermore, the polarized atmosphere of the culture wars promotes the idea that- you’re either for us or against us. In such a hostile space it becomes taboo to question, much less critique, science.

3) It’s only on the middle ground that we’re going to solve many of the challenges we face. We need both religious leaders and scientists working together to address the serious dangers of climate change. Global health initiatives advance by scientific and religious leaders working together. This middle ground is the hospitable terrain where most of us live and is the space where we face problems together.

I’d welcome a real debate that addressed the different ways we come to believe things. That’s the sort of conversation that defuses the culture wars, recognizes the other side without disparaging it, and can then begin moving towards some real solutions to very real problems. That sort of debate might never be televised, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have such conversations with each other. Because in the end, the culture wars are only as real as we let them be.

Misunderstanding Mindfulness

Jonathan MorganTibetan Buddhism

As a scholar of religion and science, it’s so disappointing, if not infuriating, to read an article like Dan Hurley’s piece in the New York Times, “Breathing In and Spacing Out.”  Hurley’s argument is that despite all the studies lauding the benefits of mindfulness, meditation isn’t always a good thing.  That’s an interesting case to make, but in the examples he treats meditation as if it’s an SAT prep course.  Is maintaining attention all that meditation is about?

If you substitute tomatoes for mindfulness the piece would read like one of the endless debates on the health effects of food: “Tomatoes are good for you… no, no, no they’re actually bad for you.”  But I’m not convinced that Hurley and the research he references are even talking about tomatoes – ahem, mindfulness – at all.  That may seem like a minor problem, but in an increasingly plural society this feigning of cultural appreciation is not only irresponsible, it’s harmful.

My point is that when Hurley, and the research he cites, strips mindfulness of its traditional religious ecosystem, he’s no longer talking about mindfulness meditation, he’s talking about maintaining attention.  This confusion of terms is particularly dangerous because it speaks with the authority of science.  It’s easy to do this with something like meditation, because it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of Western people.  But imagine if this was done with prayer or a religious practice that’s  close to you.  If I tried to strip, say, Christian prayer down to its essential elements and came away with something totally secular, would I still be talking about prayer?  Would you believe me if I went on to tell you about how “prayer” is related to this or that benefit?

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Is Science a Religion?

Jonathan Morgan

ScientistBefore you scoff, try to take the question seriously. If you’re willing to do that, then your first question should be: what do I mean by religion? But definitions are slippery — it really depends who’s doing the defining. There are plenty of definitions that make my question ridiculous: for example, religion is belief in supernatural beings. But this definition is science’s own definition of religion. Shouldn’t it raise some suspicion that the times science seems the furthest from religion is when science is defining religion?

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Pursuing Truth Together: On Dan Dennett, science, & what the humanities have to offer

Jonathan Morgan

conflictDebate between the humanities and science is nothing new, so Steven Pinker’s latest manifesto for science is no real surprise.  He argues for science’s rightful place at the table discussing questions about life, morality, and human nature.  That’s a reasonable enough request; but Pinker, unfortunately, goes overboard, instead arguing that science should be at the head of the table… maybe even the only one at the table.  What a boring dinner party.  And, like any polarizing argument, he’s garnered some very strong reactions.

In fact New Republic’s editor, Leon Wieseltier, placed his defense of the humanities directly within Pinker’s article.  He argues, like many within the humanities, against the hubris of science as the exclusive holder of truth.  Other, more pragamatic, critiques of Pinker argue that his condescending attitude only deepens the rift he is, supposedly, trying to bridge.

In the midst of all this mud-slinging, it’s refreshing to hear some voices that are reasonable and nuanced.  I was more than a bit surprised to find Daniel Dennett, who is typically as vitriolic as Pinker, as one of those voices.  In his recent piece on the Edge, Dennett urges the humanities to “join forces” with science, to drop defenses and quit making itself off-limits.  I don’t think this is just a Trojan horse attempt by science to infiltrate the humanities.  I think it’s a very reasonable appeal to drop the war-ladened metaphors all together, and to again take up the mantle of pursuing truth.

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Scientists as philosophers

Jonathan Morgan

SpaceThe end of summer is rapidly approaching, which means I’ve been catching up on my Internet movie watching (a luxury that classes and lab work don’t afford!). The last piece I watched was the most recent Issac Asimov Memorial debate. Asimov is best known for his science fiction novels- remember I, Robot, the 2004 Will Smith movie? That film was based on an Asimov story. But he was also an incredible scientist and thinker. A true polymath, Asimov wrote on everything from astronomy to Shakespeare, from chemistry to the Bible. If that wasn’t cool enough, he even has an asteroid named after him. Okay, that ends my Asimov shout-out.

The Memorial debate is hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in honor of Asimov.* The purpose is to debate pressing questions at the scientific frontier. This year the debate was about the concept of nothing. Neil deGrasse Tyson** lead a panel of physicists, philosophers, and other thinkers in a discussion about the beginnings of the universe and how to think about nothing.

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Meditation and Compassion

Jonathan Morgan

MeditationOne of the challenges of the scientific study of religion is to avoid reducing religion into only one of its parts. Evolutionary models suggest that religion may have helped early societies address the problem of people benefiting from the group’s resources without also contributing; but is religion’s only function to prevent free-riders? Psychological studies suggest that specific types of religious belief relate to our health; but if you focus solely on those findings, what parts of religion do you lose sight of? Do we risk ignoring some essential features of the very thing we hope to study?

The psychologist David DeSteno, at Northeastern University, is attuned to these concerns and designed a clever study to augment our understanding of meditation. In a recent piece for the New York Times[4] , he explains that his motivation stemmed from a concern that meditation studies focus on certain effects of meditation, but may lose sight of the heart of meditation. As he explains, the goal of meditation is not simply to enhance individual performance; it’s “supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

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