Things that gave me pause this week I

Last Friday at the airport, when I was queuing to board the plane, the man in front of me was reading the Economist. I couldn’t help but notice a double-page ad placed by the Templeton Foundation. The ad featured a set of interesting essays by a number of prominent scientists, philosophers and theologists on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”.

Then I came across a column by David Brooks titled The Neural Buddhists in yesterday’s NY Times Op-Ed pages. Ironically, it might be paraphrased as “The question of whether science makes belief in God obsolete is obsolete”.

Brooks writes:

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real. (…)

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. (…)

I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

In summary, Brooks suggests that “hard-core materialism” – i.e. the view that consciousness and all other mental phenomena can be reduced to neurobiological, chemical, and ultimately physical processes – is on the way out. He expects “Neural Buddhism” to take its place, yet oddly omits the explanation of what this new view would have in common with Buddhism (I can only think of the fact that Buddhism, too, does not believe in an “Absolute Creator God“).

To my ears, Brooks’ description sounds more like “materialism lite”: Instead of reducing the belief in God to neurobiological processes, the belief in culturally differing Gods is reduced to neurobiological processes and differing cultures.

If you asked me directly whether I believed in God, I would have to say I’m agnostic. At the same time, I do not believe in the purely materialist/reductionist explanation of mental phenomena (for reasons best explained another time). Finally, my – perhaps naive – impression is that any response to the initial question (of whether science makes belief in God obsolete) is purely an epistemological one, dependent on what the respondent conceives as a) knowledge and b) knowable. And that very much seems to be a matter of belief and cultural socialization. So I am inclined to concur with the answer given by William D. Phillips, Nobel Laureate in physics:

(…) A scientist can believe in God because such belief is not a scientific matter. Scientific statements must be “falsifiable.” That is, there must be some outcome that at least in principle could show that the statement is false. (…) By contrast, religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say, “God loves us and wants us to love one another.” I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. “She sings beautifully.” “He is a good man.” “I love you.” These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life.

4 thoughts on “Things that gave me pause this week I

  1. I just read a book recently that tackles the extreme materialism viewpoint and exposes some issues with it. It’s “Science and Poetry” by Mary Midgley ( One of the themes of the book is that our visions of the world, including the scientific vision, are encompassed by a more fundamental step which has to do with how we can imagine the world (I’m paraphrasing this, and not doing great justice to it). As such a fundamental split in views between idealism and materialism is flawed and the story is more complicated than that. There is a nice overview over here: It made me think a lot.

    Google books page for the book here:

    • Thanks Ian – that sounds very interesting! The title reminds of this Dirac quote: “The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.” I’ll order Midgley’s book, though 🙂

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