Two weeks ago I got involved in a discussion with two local
and very sharp “skeptics,” Mark and Paul, concerning science and religion. The exchange took place in the Wacco Bulletin
Board, a wonderful local online communication media for Sonoma and Marin Counties
here in California. An online
discussion had gotten started on science and God, and became dominated by some
impassioned arguments from the atheistic side. I sent in a reply, there was a
response, and I then made a second post, shifting from defense to offense, so to speak. At this point
the “skeptics” withdrew. Either it
had become too much work for them or I had “won” (to the extent such things are
ever won). The posts stand pretty well on their own and might prove useful to others involved
with the more aggressive atheists.
So I share. Here is part I.
Science and God, I am both fascinated and frustrated by the
subject. Since there is no
agreement about what God is, the debate seems to me in many ways a waste of
time. But because I do believe the
world is much stranger than modern skeptics seem willing to grant, and have had
experiences that fit spiritual explanations better than any physical one I have
yet encountered, I am annoyed by what seems to me undue certainty on their
side. So I’ll add some comments.
Mark asks about science and the brain whether there is any
evidence consciousness exists apart from the brain. There appears to be, (Dean Radin’s and Stephan Schwartz’s work are both highly suggestive. David Bohm offers one (possible) way to
free consciousness from encapsulation within the narrow physical body from the
perspective of a leading physicist.) but let’s assume for the moment there isn’t. What does that mean?
It might mean that in fact the brain manufactures
consciousness and when the brain goes, so does consciousness. Might be true. Based on my experiences I doubt it, but
Another possibility that fits the observed data: the brain
translates consciousness into dealing with this particular reality. It “filters” it, to use Aldous Huxley’s
terminology. If the brain is akin to a TV and
consciousness to the signal, the condition of the TV has a huge impact on the
way the signal is received, but the TV is not the signal. Is it true? Damned if I know, but it fits some of my conscious
experiences better than the first hypothesis. If I had not had those experiences I might not be so
intrigued by the argument, but I have.
Telling me this is just brain chemistry is making a
fundamental logical error. It is
one thing to say phenomena cannot violate laws of physics. It is another thing to say they are
predicted by those laws. Stuart
Kauffman goes into this issue in depth in his work – without invoking anything
that could be called supernatural.
Another possibility – consciousness is everywhere but needs
physical means to make an impact on the physical world. In the absence of life – defined for
the moment as when metabolism occurs and so it is possible to respond to the
environment in ways that make it possible to succeed or fail – there is no way
for consciousness to act on the environment. Consciouness is universal but needs bodies to act in a
physical way. This seems to me to
fit a number of theistic models, but not a traditional Protestant Christian
Another possibility – consciousness is an emergent quality
in the sense that it cannot be predicted from a reductive model of
phenomena. Stuart Kauffmann of the
Santa fe Institute has done very interesting work in this area, and Kauffman suggests a strictly scientific theory about the issue. Kauffman does research and publishes in
the natural sciences. It might be
that emergent phenomena can ultimately be reduced to simpler components, but we
have no means currently of doing so or even any very clear means for going
about it. If emergent phenomena
exist then something like Teilhard de Chardin’s conception of deity is possible.
Of course a skeptic could reply that we cannot measure
consciousness outside the body.
But we cannot measure it inside the body either. What we can measure are physical
correlates. For most of human
history radiation could not be measured.
Does that mean it did not exist until Geiger counters were
invented? How do we know that
other phenomena does NOT exist that we cannot yet measure? Again, it is the
absolute certainty of the skeptics – their deeply unskeptical attitude – that bothers
I have my problems with Deepak Chopra, and do not base my
arguments on his, but his quote l
from John Maddox, former editor of Nature, seems well chosen to make this
understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.
consists of, or how it should be defined, is equally
puzzling. Despite the
marvelous success of neuroscience in the past century,
we seem as far from
understanding cognitive processes as we were a century
My point is that the certainty with which certain people
make claims based on “science” seems way overblown. A little humility when talking about ultimate questions
would be in good order. Compared
to the competition, science is good at winnowing out bad theories. I think it has eliminated a number of
popular images of God from serious consideration. But that falls far short of eliminating all theories of a
higher dimension of conscious reality not arising from and limited to physical
Anyone who is well acquainted with the history of science
knows that it is the best way we have ever discovered as a species for
understanding the nature of physical reality, that is, that reality which we
can explore using measurement, prediction, and experiment.
But they also know it is a deeply human enterprise, and that
means that in the short run -sometimes a very long short run – it can be
blinded by people’s commitments to their theories and assumptions about the
very nature of reality. In 1912
Alfred Wegner had found enormous evidence that some continents were once joined
and drifted apart. His theories were dismissed, the
evidence he gave ignored or reinterpreted, because no one could find a
mechanism that enabled continents to move. Once they did, the field of geology was transformed and
Wegner’s evidence accepted. The
evidence was the same but the context in which it was evaluated changed. Some
of this evidence had been correctly interpreted (in retrospect) as early as
1596, and took over 350 years to be accepted.
In 1925 J. Harlan Bretz came up with what is now regarded as
the correct understanding of some of the strangest terrain on earth: the “scab
lands” of Eastern Washington, formed by floods of almost Biblical proportions. I saw this strange terrain myself when I taught at Whitman
College. His evidence was debunked
for decades even though there was no reasonable explanation for the features he
explained, such as very tall waterfalls at the head of a canyon- but the rock
behind the falls was of the same sort as the rock beyond them. At the age of 96 he received geology’s
highest award in 1976, after around 50 years of publicly arguing his case.
That we have nothing better than science – or even as good –
does not make it infallible. Given
this, it is absurd and worse than absurd to argue that science either proves or
disproves the existence of God.
Let alone the rather big problem that the nature of God, if God exists,
is not immediately obvious.
So-called skeptics do a good job of attacking a particular Christian
conception and a bad job of then extrapolating from that to claiming it covers
all possible senses on which a God can exist.
I have encountered similar degrees of certainty in Marxists,
Fundamentalists, and Libertarians – with equal merit in my opinion. But at least they do not call