Sunday, November 27, 2005

Prometheus: Tom Yulsman on Religion and Science

Here's an interesting thread if your interests include the question of whether or not religion and science are compatible.

Apparently Roger Pielke Jr., Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was impressed by this piece in the Denver Post: "Science and religion face off - The two really aren't incompatible". The author, Tom Yulsman, is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In a nutshell, in his Denver Post piece Yulsman argues that science and religion are not incompatible. He invokes Stephen J. Gould's nonoverlapping magisteria, then goes on to point out that we don't need Gould to show that science and religion are compatible because millions of people, including many scientists, experience no conflict between the two. He cites the likes of Einstein, Hawking and Primack, Einstein by way of his Spinoza quote, Hawking via his "mind of God" comment, and Primack by his likening of the big-bang afterglow to the "handwriting of God".

Yulsman concludes by noting that the religious views of these distinguished ones differ wildly from those of people who think that humans co-existed with dinosaurs, and with those whose god is a bearded white guy on a cloud. That would include the huge proportion of Americans who say they believe a god created mankind in its present form some six or ten thousand years ago.

So far so good, and I agree completely with Yulsman that Intelligent Design is "motivated not by a desire to seek empirical truth about nature but by a pre-determined Christian agenda."

Then come the thread's comments.

Eli Rabett thinks that Yulsman is taking an easy out and confusing religion with awe. Eric Wilcox agrees, and writes that the greater challenge is in convincing religious people that evolution is not in conflict with the biblical special relationship between God and humanity or the lessons in morality that follow.

Next, Yulsman defends himself against Rabett's charge that he's confused religion and awe by writing that it was Einstein who described his experience as a "cosmic RELIGIOUS experience." At this point I think he's splitting hairs because there clearly is a difference between Einstein's "religious" experience and the religious feelings of American fundies. "Religion" is like any other word - you have to define it. I think the definition relevant here would have Einstein experiencing awe as compared to fundie religion, which "religion" seems more relevant to the discussion. Whatever. Moving right along...

Next comes David Roberts of Grist Magazine, who asks, "So what?", and points out that the beliefs of the majority of US christians are *not* compatible with science, and suggests that Yulsman pick sides.

Next, Pielke responds to Roberts by, essentially, saying that Roberts' thinking is too black and white, and that Yulsman has taken sides by dividing the world into those who think science is compatible with religion and those who do not, and by then placing himself on the side of those who do.

Roberts responds that Pielke and Yulsman are dividing the world alright, but they're doing it along theoretical lines about what is possible rather than by what is actual. Roberts seems to want Pielke and Yulsman to get more "in their face" with fundies and like folk, saying it is they who are thrusting the arguments on science, not the other way around, and asking whether we shouldn't rise to the occasion.

Next, Yulsman responds to Roberts, apparently having taken offense at Roberts' comments about "vaporous" religion, choosing sides and rising to the occasion. Yulsman's apparent offense might have been sparked by Roberts' unfortunate use of the term "vaporous" in describing awe-religion. I don't think Roberts intended to insult; rather, he simply used a descriptive term that can convey negativity. Maybe "ethereal" would have been a better term. Whatever... Yulsman goes on, apparently having interpreted Roberts as implying that he (Yulsman) should give up his religious beliefs and abandon his core values. Yulsman concludes by commenting that his "vaporous" and "theoretical" religion seems pretty real to him when he reads Torah.

At this point, I think Roberts gave up hope of further dialog, as I think I would have, too. No offense, but what more could either of them have written in the moment? That conversation probably needed to move to the bar for a beer.

Finally, Kevin Jones weighed in with a comment that was particularly interesting to me because he apparently doesn't have any use for Richard Dawkins, who is one of my heroes for having sparked memetics. Jones also thought Yulsman's piece was a bit weak. Jones' first paragraph seems to agree with Grist's David Roberts with respect to the nature of awe-religion. Roberts wrote "vaporous" whereas Jones wrote "warm and fuzzy", but I think they mean pretty much the same thing. Jones also seems to not have much use for Stephen Jay Gould's nonoverlapping magisteria, but doesn't seem as hostile to Gould as he is toward Dawkins.

Jones refers the reader to a review of the book, "The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism", by Phillip E. Johnson, the christian lawyer whose book is one of the foundations of the ID movement. The review Jones refers to is by Catholic theologian and priest Edward T. Oakes, who considers some of the people I hold in highest esteem, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, to be sleight-of-hand artists and masters of ledgerdemain who dupe the public with the trick of persuading the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.


I'll have to go back and try to make more sense of Oakes' review, which concludes with a quote from a contemporary of Darwin, Cardinal Newman, which includes the following: "I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design."

So, having spent my morning on this interesting exchange, what do I come away with?

I've reinforced my belief that there is a possibly infinite variety of ways in which the necktop computer can be configured with internally self-consistent programming, and that frequently such configurations are externally incompatible, sometimes violently so, with those of others. (There's no violence in this thread, of course, but just look around for many examples of physical violence associated with incompatible worldviews.)

I've also reinforced my confidence in the relevance of the quote at the top of my blog, "For every expert there's an equal and opposite reexpert."

I've learned some things from this thread, too, which is why I read Promethius from time to time. Thanks Roger!

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