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What I Believe — Science & the Power of Humanity

I believe in the power of science and humanity. Specifically, I believe that biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the environment, although I think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that the environment is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists give it credit for. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive an SUV because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink (in both meanings) as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.

I don’t know why the God question is so interdigitated with political and economic issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl.

This is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the consequences of what we are doing.

I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God — any God will do, except the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in god have had enough of this rhetoric. This is America. We are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.

Religion and politics should be treated as separate entities. Religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the capitol. Don’t go to church to politic, and don’t go to the capitol to preach. That’s a non-overlapping magisterium I can live with.

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Homo religious

Did humans evolve to be religious and believe in God? In the most general sense, yes we did. Here’s what happened.

Long long ago, in an environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. And as a social primate species we also evolved social organizations designed to promote group cohesiveness and enforce moral rules.

People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect A to B to C, and often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. This is called association learning. But we do not have a false-pattern-detection device in our brains to help us discriminate between true and false patterns, and so we make errors in our thinking: a Type I error is believing a pattern is real when it is not (a false positive) and a Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is (a false negative). Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume it is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error, but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Thus, there would have been a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. I call this process patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents who may mean us harm). This, I believe, is the basis for the belief in souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

People are religious because we are social and we need to get along. The moral sentiments in humans and moral principles in human groups evolved primarily through the force of natural selection operating on individuals and secondarily through the force of group selection operating on populations. The moral sense (the psychological feeling of doing “good” in the form of positive emotions such as righteousness and pride) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good either for the individual or for the group; an immoral sense (the psychological feeling of doing “bad” in the form of negative emotions such as guilt and shame) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were bad either for the individual or for the group. While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved human universal. The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of the moral sentiments evolved as a form of social control to insure the survival of individuals within groups and the survival of human groups themselves. Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, and God as an explanatory pattern for the world took on new powers as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

Thus it is that people are religious and believe in God.

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The Natural and the Supernatural

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: one deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created around 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life. Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: subjects in the non-prayed for group did just as well (or poor) as those in the prayed for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs; i.e., a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people keep them separated in logic-tight compartments, even scientists. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40 percent of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP, and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any God explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A God definable by science is not a God at all.

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I Want to Believe

Opus 100: what skepticism reveals about science
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In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons entitled “The Springfield Files” — a parody of X-Files in which Homer has an alien encounter in the woods (after imbibing 10 bottles of Red Tick Beer) — Leonard Nimoy voices the intro as he once did for his post-Spock run on the television mystery series In Search of…: “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.” (continue reading…)

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Sacred Science

Can emergence break the spell of reductionism and put spirituality back into nature?
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In the early 17th century a demon was loosed on the world by Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei when he began swinging pendulums, rolling balls down ramps and observing the moons of Jupiter — all with an aim toward discovering regularities that could be codified into laws of nature.

So successful was this mechanical worldview that by the early 19th century French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace was able to “imagine an Intelligence who would know at a given instant of time all forces acting in nature and the position of all things of which the world consists… Then it could derive a result that would embrace in one and the same formula the motion of the largest bodies in the universe and of the lightest atoms. Nothing would be uncertain for this Intelligence.” (continue reading…)

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