What is “Mythos” and “Logos”?

The terms “mythos” and “logos” are used to describe the transition in ancient Greek thought from the stories of gods, goddesses, and heroes (mythos) to the gradual development of rational philosophy and logic (logos). The former is represented by the earliest Greek thinkers, such as Hesiod and Homer; the latter is represented by later thinkers called the “pre-Socratic philosophers” and then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (See the book: From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought).

In the earliest, “mythos” stage of development, the Greeks saw events of the world as being caused by a multitude of clashing personalities — the “gods.” There were gods for natural phenomena such as the sun, the sea, thunder and lightening, and gods for human activities such as winemaking, war, and love. The primary mode of explanation of reality consisted of highly imaginative stories about these personalities. However, as time went on, Greek thinkers became critical of the old myths and proposed alternative explanations of natural phenomena based on observation and logical deduction. Under “logos,” the highly personalized worldview of the Greeks became transformed into one in which natural phenomena were explained not by invisible superhuman persons, but by impersonal natural causes.

However, many scholars argue that there was not such a sharp distinction between mythos and logos historically, that logos grew out of mythos, and elements of mythos remain with us today.

For example, ancient myths provided the first basic concepts used subsequently to develop theories of the origins of the universe. We take for granted the words that we use every day, but the vast majority of human beings never invent a single word or original concept in their lives — they learn these things from their culture, which is the end-product of thousands of years of speaking and writing by millions of people long-dead. The very first concepts of “cosmos,” “beginning,” nothingness,” and differentiation from a single substance — these were not present in human culture for all time, but originated in ancient myths. Subsequent philosophers borrowed these concepts from the myths, while discarding the overly-personalistic interpretations of the origins of the universe. In that sense, mythos provided the scaffolding for the growth of philosophy and modern science. (See Walter Burkert, “The Logic of Cosmogony” in From Myth to Reason: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought.)

An additional issue is the fact that not all myths are wholly false. Many myths are stories that communicate truths even if the characters and events in the story are fictional. Socrates and Plato denounced many of the early myths of the Greeks, but they also illustrated philosophical points with stories that were meant to serve as analogies or metaphors. Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, is meant to illustrate the ability of the educated human to perceive the true reality behind surface impressions. Could Plato have made the same philosophical point in a literal language, without using any stories or analogies? Possibly, but the impact would be less, and it is possible that the point would not be effectively communicated at all.

Some of the truths that myths communicate are about human values, and these values can be true even if the stories in which the values are embedded are false. Ancient Greek religion contained many preposterous stories, and the notion of personal divine beings directing natural phenomena and intervening in human affairs was false. But when the Greeks built temples and offered sacrifices, they were not just worshiping personalities — they were worshiping the values that the gods represented. Apollo was the god of light, knowledge, and healing; Hera was the goddess of marriage and family; Aphrodite was the goddess of love; Athena was the goddess of wisdom; and Zeus, the king of the gods, upheld order and justice. There’s no evidence at all that these personalities existed or that sacrifices to these personalities would advance the values they represented. But a basic respect for and worshipful disposition toward the values the gods represented was part of the foundation of ancient Greek civilization. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the city of Athens, whose patron goddess was Athena, went on to produce some of the greatest philosophers the world has seen — love of wisdom is the prerequisite for knowledge, and that love of wisdom grew out of the culture of Athens. (The ancient Greek word philosophia literally means “love of wisdom.”)

It is also worth pointing out that worship of the gods, for all of its superstitious aspects, was not incompatible with even the growth of scientific knowledge. Modern western medicine originated in the healing temples devoted to the god Asclepius, the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine. Both of the great ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen are reported to have begun their careers as physicians in the temples of Asclepius, the first hospitals. Hippocrates is widely regarded as the father of western medicine and Galen is considered the most accomplished medical researcher of the ancient world. As love of wisdom was the prerequisite for philosophy, reverence for healing was the prerequisite for the development of medicine.

Karen Armstrong has written that ancient myths were never meant to be taken literally, but were “metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.” (A History of God) I am not sure that’s completely accurate. I think it most likely that the mass of humanity believed in the literal truth of the myths, while educated human beings understood the gods to be metaphorical representations of the good that existed in nature and humanity. Some would argue that this use of metaphors to describe reality is deceptive and unnecessary. But a literal understanding of reality is not always possible, and metaphors are widely used even by scientists.

Theodore L. Brown, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has provided numerous examples of scientific metaphors in his book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. According to Brown, the history of the human understanding of the atom, which cannot be directly seen, began with a simple metaphor of atoms as billiard balls; later, scientists compared atoms to plum pudding; then they compared the atom to our solar system, with electrons “orbiting” around a nucleus. There has been a gradual improvement in our models of the atom over time, but ultimately, there is no single, correct literal representation of the atom. Each model illustrates an aspect or aspects of atomic behavior — no one model can capture all aspects accurately. Even the notion of atoms as particles is not fully accurate, because atoms can behave like waves, without a precise position in space as we normally think of particles as having. The same principle applies to models of the molecule as well. (Brown, chapters, 4-6)  A number of scientists have compared the imaginative construction of scientific models to map-making — there is no single, fully accurate way to map the earth (using a flat surface to depict a sphere), so we are forced to use a variety of maps at different scales and projections, depending on our needs.

Sometimes the visual models that scientists create are quite unrealistic. The model of the “energy landscape” was created by biologists in order to understand the process of protein folding — the basic idea was to imagine a ball rolling on a surface pitted with holes and valleys of varying depth. As the ball would tend to seek out the low points on the landscape (due to gravity), proteins would tend to seek the lowest possible free energy state. All biologists know the energy landscape model is a metaphor — in reality, proteins don’t actually go rolling down hills! But the model is useful for understanding a process that is highly complex and cannot be directly seen.

What is particularly interesting is that some of the metaphorical models of science are frankly anthropomorphic — they are based on qualities or phenomena found in persons or personal institutions. Scientists envision cells as “factories” that accept inputs and produce goods. The genetic structure of DNA is described as having a “code” or “language.” The term “chaperone proteins” was invented to describe proteins that have the job of assisting other proteins to fold correctly; proteins that don’t fold correctly are either treated or dismantled so that they do not cause damage to the larger organism — a process that has been given a medical metaphor: “protein triage.” (Brown, chapters 7-8) Even referring to the “laws of physics” is to use a metaphorical comparison to human law. So even as logos has triumphed over the mythos conception that divine personalities rule natural phenomena, qualities associated with personal beings have continued to sneak into modern scientific models.

The transition of a mythos-dominated worldview to a logos-dominated worldview was a stupendous achievement of the ancient Greeks, and modern philosophy, science, and civilization would not be possible without it. But the transition did not involve a complete replacement of one worldview with another, but rather the building of additional useful structures on top of a simple foundation. Logos grew out of its origins in mythos, and retains elements of mythos to this day. The compatibilities and conflicts between these two modes of thought are the thematic basis of this website.

Related: A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

Einstein’s Judeo-Quaker Pantheism

I recently came across a fascinating website, Einstein: Science and Religion, which I hope you will find time to peruse.  The website, edited by Arnold Lesikar, Professor Emeritus in the  Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Engineering Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, contains a collection of Einstein’s various comments on religion, God, and the relationship between science and religion.

Einstein’s views on religion have been frequently publicized and commented on, but it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive assessment of Einstein’s actual views on religion because of the tendency of both believers and atheists to cherry-pick particular quotations or to quote out of context. Einstein’s actual views on religion are complex and multifaceted, and one is apt to get the wrong impression by focusing on just one or several of Einstein’s comments.

One should begin by noting that Einstein did not accept the notion of a personal God, an omnipotent superbeing who listens to our prayers and intervenes in the operations of the laws of the universe. Einstein repeatedly rejected this notion of God throughout his life, from his adolescence to old age. He also believed that many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible were untrue.

The God Einstein did believe in was the God of the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza conceived of God as being nothing more than the natural order underlying this universe — this order was fundamentally an intelligent order, but it was a mistake to conceive of God as having a personality or caring about man. Spinoza’s view was known as pantheism, and Einstein explicitly stated that he was a proponent of Spinoza and of pantheism. Einstein also argued that ethical systems were a purely human concern, with no superhuman authority figure behind them, and there was no afterlife in which humans could be rewarded or punished. In fact, Einstein believed that immortality was undesirable anyway. Finally, Einstein sometimes expressed derogatory views of religious institutions and leaders, believing them responsible for superstition and bigotry among the masses.

However, it should also be noted that Einstein’s skepticism and love of truth was too deep to result in a rigid and dogmatic atheism. Einstein described himself variously as an agnostic or pantheist and disliked the arrogant certainty of atheists. He even refused to definitively reject the idea of a personal God, believing that there were too many mysteries behind the universe to come to any final conclusions about God. He also wrote that he did not want to destroy the idea of a personal God in the minds of the masses, because even a primitive metaphysics was better than no metaphysics at all.

Even while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein described God as a spirit, a spirit with the attribute of thought or intelligence: “[E]very one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” In an interview, Einstein expressed a similar view:

If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.

Distinguishing between the religious feeling of the “naïve man” and the religious feeling of the scientist, Einstein argued:  “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

While skeptical and often critical of religious institutions, Einstein also believed that religion played a valuable and necessary role for civilization in creating “superpersonal goals” for human beings, goals above and beyond self-interest, that could not be established by pure reason.  Reason could provide us with the facts of existence, said Einstein, but the question of how we should live our lives necessarily required going beyond reason. According to Einstein:

[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. . . . Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. . . .

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.

Einstein even argued that the establishment of moral goals by religious prophets was one of the most important accomplishments of humanity, eclipsing even scientific accomplishment:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

Einstein’s views of Jesus are particularly intriguing. Einstein never rejected his Jewish identity and refused all attempts by others to convert him to Christianity. Einstein also refused to believe the stories of Jesus’s alleged supernatural powers. But Einstein also believed the historical existence of Jesus was a fact, and Einstein regarded Jesus as one the greatest — if not the greatest — of religious prophets:

As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus. . . .No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein, while remaining Jewish, expressed great admiration for the Christian sect known as the Quakers. Einstein stated that the “Society of Friends,” as the Quakers referred to themselves as, had the “highest moral standards” and their influence was “very beneficial.” Einstein even declared “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Now Einstein’s various pronouncements on religion are scattered in multiple sources, so it is not surprising that people may get the wrong impression from examining just a few quotes. Sometimes stories of Einstein’s religious views are simply made up, implying that Einstein was a traditional believer. Other times, atheists will emphasize Einstein’s rejection of a personal God, while completely overlooking Einstein’s views on the limits of reason, the necessity of religion in providing superpersonal goals, and the value of the religious prophets.

For some people, a religion without a personal God is not a true religion. But historically, a number of major religions do not hold belief in a personal God as central to their belief system, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, many theologians in monotheistic faiths describe God in impersonal terms, or stress that the attributes of God may be represented symbolically as personal, but that God himself cannot be adequately described as a person. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argued that although God had been described allegorically and imperfectly by the prophets as having the attributes of a personal being, God did not actually have human thoughts and emotions. The twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich argued that God was not “a being” but the “Ground of Being” or the “Power of Being” existing in all things.

However, it is somewhat odd is that while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein saw God as a spirit that seemingly possessed an intelligence far greater than that of human beings. In that, Einstein was similar to Spinoza, who believed God had the attribute of “thought” and that the human mind was but part of the “infinite intellect of God.”  But is not intelligence a quality of personal beings? In everyday life, we don’t think of orbiting planets or stars or rocks or water as possessing intelligence, and even if we attribute intelligence to lower forms of life such as bacteria and plants, we recognize that this sort of intelligence is primitive. If you ask people what concrete, existing things best possess the quality of intelligence, they will point to humans — personal beings! Yet, both Spinoza and Einstein attribute vast, or even infinite, intelligence to God, while denying that God is a personal being!

I am not arguing that Spinoza and Einstein were wrong or somehow deluding themselves when they argued that God was not a personal being. I am simply pointing out how difficult it is to adequately and accurately describe God. I think Spinoza and Einstein were correct in seeking to modify the traditional concept of God as a type of omnipotent superperson with human thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, it can be difficult to describe God in a way that does not use attributes that are commonly thought of as belonging to personal beings. At best, we can use analogies from everyday experience to indirectly describe God, while acknowledging that all analogies fall short.

 

What Are the Laws of Nature? – Part Two

In a previous post, I discussed the mysterious status of the “laws of nature,” pointing out that these laws seem to be eternal, omnipresent, and possessing enormous power to shape the universe, although they have no mass and no energy.

There is, however, an alternative view of the laws of nature proposed by thinkers such as Ronald Giere and Nancy Cartwright, among others. In this view, it is a fallacy to suppose that the laws of nature exist as objectively real entities — rather, what we call the laws of nature are simplified models that the human mind creates to explain and predict the operations of the universe. The laws were created by human beings to organize information about the cosmos. As such, the laws are not fully accurate descriptions of how the universe actually works, but generalizations; and like nearly all generalizations, there are numerous exceptions when the laws are applied to particular circumstances. We retain the generalizations because they excel at organizing and summarizing vast amounts of information, but we should never make the mistake of assuming that the generalizations are real entities. (See Science Without Laws and How the Laws of Physics Lie.)

Consider one of the most famous laws of nature, Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. According to this law, the gravitational relationship between any two bodies in the universe is determined by the size (mass) of the two bodies and their distance from each other. More specifically, any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is (1) directly proportional to the product of their masses and (2) inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  The equation is quite simple:

F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\

where F is the force between two masses, G is a gravitational constant, m1 and m2 are the masses of the two bodies and r is the distance between the center of the two bodies.

Newton’s law was quite valuable in helping predict the motions of the planets in our solar system, but in some cases the formula did not quite match to astronomical observations. The orbit of the planet Mercury in particular never fit Newton’s law, no matter how much astronomers tried to fiddle with the law to get the right results. It was only when Einstein introduced his theory of relativity that astronomers could correctly predict the motions of all the planets, including Mercury. Why did Einstein’s theory work better for Mercury? Because as the planet closest to the sun, Mercury is most affected by the massive gravitation of the sun, and Newton’s law becomes less accurate under the conditions of massive gravitation.

Einstein’s equations for gravity are known as the “field equations,” and although they are better at predicting the motions of the planets, they are extremely complex — too complex really for many situations. In fact, physicist Stephen Hawking has noted that scientists still often use Newton’s law of gravity because it is much simpler and a good enough approximation in most cases.

So what does this imply about the reality of Newton’s law of universal gravitation? Does Newton’s law float around in space or in some transcendent realm directing the motions of the planets, until the gravitation becomes too large, and then it hands off its duties to the Einstein field equations? No, of course not. Newton’s law is an approximation that works for many, but not all cases. Physicists use it because it is simple and “good enough” for most purposes. When the approximations become less and less accurate, a physicist may switch to the Einstein field equations, but this is a human value judgment, not the voice of nature making a decision to switch equations.

One other fact is worth noting: in Newton’s theory, gravity is a force between two bodies. In Einstein’s theory, gravity is not a real force — what we call a gravitational force is simply how we perceive the distortion of the space-time fabric caused by massive objects. Physicists today refer to gravity as a “fictitious force.” So why do professors of physics continue to use Newton’s law and teach this “fictitious force” law to their students? Because it is simpler to use and still a good enough approximation for most cases. Newton’s law can’t possibly be objectively real — if it is, Einstein is wrong.

The school of thought known as “scientific realism” would dispute these claims, arguing that even if the laws of nature as we know them are approximations, there are still real, objective laws underneath these approximations, and as science progresses, we are getting closer and closer to knowing what these laws really are. In addition, they argue that it would be absurd to suppose that we can possibly make progress in technology unless we are getting better and better in knowing what the true laws are really like.

The response of Ronald Giere and Nancy Cartwright to the realists is as follows: it’s a mistake to assume that if our laws are approximations and our approximations are getting better and better that therefore there must be real laws underneath. What if nature is inherently so complex in its causal variables and sequences that there is no objectively real law underneath it all? Nancy Cartwright notes that engineers who must build and maintain technological devices never apply the “laws of nature” directly to their work without a great deal of tinkering and modifications to get their mental models to match the specific details of their device. The final blueprint that engineers may create is a highly specific and highly complex model that is a precise match for the device, but of very limited generalizability to the universe as a whole. In other words, there is an inherent and unavoidable tradeoff between explanatory power and accuracy. The laws of nature are valued by us because they have very high explanatory power, but specific circumstances are always going to involve a mix of causal forces that refute the predictions of the general law. In order to understand how two bodies behave, you not only need to know gravity, you need to know the electric charge of the two bodies, the nuclear force, any chemical forces, the temperature, the speed of the objects, and additional factors, some of which can never be calculated precisely. According to Cartwright,

. . . theorists tend to think that nature is well-regulated; in the extreme, that there is a law to cover every case. I do not. I imagine that natural objects are much like people in societies. Their behavior is constrained by some specific laws and by a handful of general principles, but it is not determined in detail, even statistically. What happens on most occasions is dictated by no law at all. . . . God may have written just a few laws and grown tired. We do not know whether we are living in a tidy universe or an untidy one. (How the Laws of Physics Lie, p. 49)

Cartwright makes it clear that she believes in causal powers in nature — it’s just that causal powers are not the same as laws, which are simply general principles for organizing information.

Some philosophers and scientists would go even further. They argue that science is able to develop and improve models for predicting phenomena, but the underlying nature of reality cannot be grasped directly, even if our models are quite excellent at predicting. This is because there are always going to be aspects of nature that are non-observable and there are often multiple theories that can explain the same phenomenon. This school of thought is known as instrumentalism.

Stephen Hawking appears to be sympathetic to such a view. In a discussion of his use of “imaginary time” to model how the universe developed, Hawking stated “a scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds. So it is meaningless to ask: which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.” (A Brief History of Time, p. 144) In a later essay, Hawking made the case for what he calls “model-dependent realism.” He argues:

it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If two models agree with observation, neither one can be considered more real than the other. A person can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. . . . Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that diversity is acceptable, and none of the versions can be said to be more real than any other.

Hawking concludes that given these facts, it may well be impossible to develop a unified theory of everything, that we may have to settle for a diversity of models. (It’s not clear to me how Hawking’s “model-dependent realism” differs from instrumentalism, since they seem to share many aspects.)

Intuitively, we are apt to conclude that our progress in technology is proof enough that we are understanding reality better and better, getting closer and closer to the Truth. But it’s actually quite possible for science to develop better and better predictive models while still retaining very serious doubts and disputes about many fundamental aspects of reality. Among physicists and cosmologists today, there is still disagreement on the following issues: are there really such things as subatomic particles, or are these entities actually fields, or something else entirely?; is the flow of time an illusion, or is time the chief fundamental reality?; are there an infinite number of universes in a wider multiverse, with infinite versions of you, or is this multiverse theory a mistaken interpretation of uncertainty at the quantum level?; are the constants of the universe really constant, or do they sometimes change?; are mathematical objects themselves the ultimate reality, or do they exist only in the mind? A number of philosophers of science have concluded that science does indeed progress by creating more and better models for predicting, but they make an analogy to evolution: life forms may be advancing and improving, but that doesn’t mean they are getting closer and closer to some final goal.

Referring back to my previous post, I discussed the view that the “laws of nature” appear to exist everywhere and have the awesome power to shape the universe and direct the motions of the stars and planets, despite the fact that the laws themselves have no matter and no energy. But if the laws of nature are creations of our minds, what then? I can’t prove that there are no real laws behind the mental models that we create. It seems likely that there must be some such laws, but perhaps they are so complex that the best we can do is create simplified models of them. Or perhaps we must acknowledge that the precise nature of the cosmological order is mysterious, and any attempt to understand and describe this order must use a variety of concepts, analogies, and stories created by our minds. Some of these concepts, analogies, and stories are clearly better than others, but we will never find one mental model that is a perfect fit for all aspects of reality.

What Are the Laws of Nature?

According to modern science, the universe is governed by laws, and it is the job of scientists to discover those laws. However, the question of where these laws come from, and what their precise nature is, remains mysterious.

If laws are all that are needed to explain the origins of the universe, the laws must somehow have existed prior to the universe, that is, eternally. But this raises some puzzling issues. Does it really make sense to think of the law of gravity as existing before the universe existed, before gravity itself existed, before planets, stars, space, and time existed?  Does it make sense to speak of the law of conservation of mass existing before mass existed? For that matter, does it make sense to speak of Mendel’s laws of genetics existing before there was DNA, before there were nucleotides to make up DNA, before there were even atoms of carbon and nitrogen to make up nucleotides? It took the universe 150 million years to 1 billion years to create the first heavy elements, including atoms of carbon and nitrogen. Were Mendel’s laws of genetics sitting around impatiently that whole time waiting for something to happen? Or does it make sense to think of laws evolving with the universe, in which case we still have a chicken-egg question — did evolving laws precede the creation of material forms or did evolving material forms precede the laws?

Furthermore, where do the laws of nature exist? Do they exist in some other-worldly Platonic realm beyond time and space? Many, if not most, mathematicians and physicists are inclined to believe that mathematical equations run the universe, and these equations exist objectively. But if laws/equations govern the operations of the universe, they must exist everywhere, even though we can’t sense them directly at all. Why? Because, according to Einstein, information cannot travel instantaneously across large distances – in fact, information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Now, the radius of the universe is 46 billion light years, so if we imagine the laws of nature floating around in space at the center of the universe, it would take at least 46 billion years for the commands issued by the laws of nature to reach the edge of the universe — much too slow. Even within our tiny solar system, it takes a little over 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth, so information flow across even that small distance would involve a significant time lag. However, our astronomical observations indicate no lag time — the effect of laws is instantaneous, indicating that the laws must exist everywhere — in other words, laws of nature have the property of omnipresence.

What sort of power do the laws of nature have? Since they direct the operations of the universe, they must have immense power. Either they have the capability to directly shape and move stars, planets, and entire galaxies, or they simply issue commands that stars, planets, and galaxies follow. In either case, should not this power be detectable as a form of energy? And if it is a form of energy, shouldn’t this energy have the potential to be converted into matter, according to the principle of mass-energy equivalence? In that case, the laws of nature should, in principle, be observable as energy or mass. But the laws of nature appear to have no detectable energy and no detectable mass.

Finally, there is the question of the fundamental unity of the laws of nature, and where that unity comes from. A mere collection of unconnected laws does not necessarily bring about order. Laws have to be integrated in a harmonic fashion so that they establish a foundation of order and allow the evolution of increasingly complex forms, from hydrogen atoms to heavier atomic elements to molecules to DNA to complex life forms to intelligent life forms. The fact of the matter is that it does not take much variation in the values of certain physical principles to cause a collapse of the universe or the development of a universe that is incapable of supporting life. According to physicist Paul Davies:

There are endless ways in which the universe might have been totally chaotic. It might have had no laws at all, or merely an incoherent jumble of laws that caused matter to behave in disorderly or unstable ways. . . . the various force of nature are not just a haphazard conjunction of disparate influences. They dovetail together in a mutually supportive way which bestows upon nature  stability and harmony. . .  (The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, pp. 195-96)

There is a counterargument to this claim of essential unity in the laws of nature: according to theories of the multiverse, new universes are constantly being created with different physical laws and parameters — we just happen to live in a universe that supports life because only a universe that supports life can have observers who speculate about the orderliness of the universe! However, multiverse theories have been widely criticized for being non-falsifiable, since we can’t directly observe other universes.

So, if we are the believe the findings of modern science, the laws of nature have the following characteristics:

  1. They have existed eternally, prior to everything.
  2. They are omnipresent – they exist everywhere.
  3. They are extremely powerful, though they have no energy and no mass.
  4. They are unified and integrated in such a way as to allow the development of complex forms, such as life (at least in this universe, the only universe we can directly observe).

Are these not the characteristics of a universal spirit? Moreover, is not this spirit by definition supernatural, i.e., existing above nature and responsible for the operations of nature?

Please note that I am not arguing here that the laws of nature prove the existence of a personal God who is able to shape, reshape, and interfere with the laws of nature anytime He wishes. I think that modern science has more than adequately demonstrated that the idea of a personal being who listens to our prayers and temporarily suspends or adjusts the laws of nature in response to our prayers or sins is largely incompatible with the evidence we have accumulated over hundreds of years. Earthquakes happen because of shifting tectonic plates, not because certain cities have committed great evils. Disease happens because viruses and bacteria mutate, reproduce, and spread, not because certain people deserve disease. And despite the legend of Moses saving the Jews by parting the Red Sea and then destroying the Pharaoh’s army, God did not send a tsunami to wipe out the Nazis — the armies of the Allied Forces had to do that.

What I am arguing is that if you look closely at what modern science claims about the laws of nature, there is not much that separates these laws from the concept of a universal spirit, even if this spirit is not equivalent to an omnipotent, personal God.

The chief objection to the idea of the laws of nature as a universal spirit is that the laws of nature have the characteristics of mindless regularity and determinism, which are not the characteristics we think of when we think of a spirit. But consider this: the laws of nature do not in fact dictate invariable regularities in all domains, but in fact allow scope for indeterminacy, freedom, and creativity.

Consider activity at the subatomic level. Scientists have studied the behavior of subatomic particles for many decades, and they have discovered laws of behavior for those particles, but the laws are probabilistic, not deterministic. Physicist Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the physics of subatomic particles, described the odd world of subatomic behavior as follows: “The electron does whatever it likes.” It travels through space and time in all possible ways, and can even travel backward in time! Feynman was able to offer guidance on how to predict the future location of an electron, but only in terms of a probability based on calculating all the possible paths that the electron could choose.

This freedom on the subatomic level manifests itself in behavior on the atomic level, particularly in the element known as carbon. As Robert Pirsig notes:

One physical characteristic that makes carbon unique is that it is the lightest and most active of the group IV atoms whose chemical bonding characteristics are ambiguous. Usually the positively valanced metals in groups I through III combine chemically with negatively valanced nonmetals in groups V through VII and not with other members of their own group. But the group containing carbon is halfway between the metals and nonmetals, so that sometimes carbon combines with metals and sometimes with nonmetals and sometimes it just sits there and doesn’t combine with anything, and sometimes it combines with itself in long chains and branched trees and rings. . . . this ambiguity of carbon’s bonding preferences was the situation the weak Dynamic subatomic forces needed. Carbon bonding was a balanced mechanism they could take over. It was a vehicle they could steer to all sorts of freedom by selecting first one bonding preference and then another in an almost unlimited variety of ways. . . . Today there are more than two million known compounds of carbon, roughly twenty times as many as all the other known chemical compounds in the world. The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon. What distinguishes all the species of plants and animals is, in the final analysis, differences in the way carbon atoms choose to bond. (Lila, p. 168.)

And the life forms constructed by carbon atoms have the most freedom of all — which is why there are few invariable laws in biology that allow predictions as accurate as the predictions of physical systems. A biologist will never be able to predict the motion and destiny of a life form in the same way an astrophysicist can predict the motion of the planets in a solar system.

If you think about the nature of the universal order, regularity and determinism is precisely what is needed on the largest scale (stars, planets, and galaxies), with spontaneity and freedom restricted to the smaller scale of the subatomic/atomic and biological. If stars and planets were as variable and unpredictable as subatomic particles and life forms, there would be no stable solar systems, and no way for life to develop. Regularity and determinism on the large scale provides the stable foundation and firm boundaries needed for freedom, variety, and experimentation on the small scale. In this conception, universal spirit contains the laws of nature, but also has a freedom that goes beyond the laws.

However, it should be noted that there is another view of the laws of nature. In this view, the laws of nature do not have any existence outside of the human mind — they are simply approximate models of the cosmic order that human minds create to understand that order. This view will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Religion as a Source of Evil – Part 2

In a previous post, I critically examined the claim of contemporary atheists that religion, and more broadly a lack of reason, has been a predominant cause of evil in history.  In response, I argued that evil in religion was an expression of deeper causes rooted in human nature, so abolishing religion would not address the fundamental problem of evil.  In addition, I argued that reason itself could not be a solution to evil because reason was too easily used as a tool of self-interest.  However, even after accounting for the deeper causes of evil, there remained a difficult question: what good is religion if it does not actually make human beings better?

This question faced one Christian pastor who was horrified by the easy accommodation of Christian churches in Germany to the Nazi party in the 1930s: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer’s response to the tragic development of Christianity in Germany will be examined briefly here.

Contrary to the claims of many atheists, the Christian churches in Germany were not exactly steadfast allies of the Nazis.  Leading Nazis despised Christanity because of its alleged superstitions and it’s compassion for the weak, and in the long term Hitler wanted to abolish Christianity.  However, Hitler knew he could not undertake too many battles at once and he did not want to cause division and turmoil in Germany while he needed national unity.  On the other hand, the Christian churches, while opposed to a number of elements of Nazi doctrine, wanted to survive, and largely agreed with Hitler’s policy of restoring German greatness.  So both sides struck a bargain, in which the Nazis permitted the continued existence of the churches as long as they did not challenge the secular authority of Hitler and the Nazis.  Moreover, a “German Christian” movement arose which attempted to reconcile Christianity and Nazism.

A number of leading Christians rebelled at this corrupt bargain, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the founders of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.  Bonhoeffer initially attempted peaceful resistance to the Nazis, later fled to the United States, but then returned to Germany in 1939.  Bomhoeffer made contacts with anti-Nazi resisters in German military intelligence, some of whom were involved in various assassination plots against Hitler.  When this underground movement was discovered, Bonhoeffer, already imprisoned by the Nazis, was hanged in April 1945.

In historical retrospect, Bonhoeffer is recognized as being one of the few Christian leaders in Germany who bravely resisted the Nazis and was willing to sacrifice his life for his Christian ideas.  As such Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to many, but it’s impossible to recognize the other side of the Bonhoeffer phenomenon — the fact that he was a definite minority, that most German Christians went along with the Nazis willingly and even participated in some of the Nazis’ greatest crimes.  This problem plagued Bonhoeffer’s conscience and provoked him to write a number of letters and essays espousing a newly reformed Christianity he called “religionless Christianity.”

Fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s argument was a concept he adopted from Karl Barth, that of “religion as idolatry.”  Idolatry, according to Barth and Bonhoeffer, occurs when human beings reject the “infinite qualitative distinction” between the absolute goodness of God and the flawed nature of man, and instead worship a god that is created in the image of man.  Under idolatry, human beings worship themselves, their nations, their political parties, and their churches, claiming that these human organizations speak for God or are carrying out God’s will, even when the greatest of crimes are being committed.  In his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer noted, “. . .my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here.  The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”

It is important to note that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” was not  a rejection of faith in God and Christ but a rejection of attempts to claim divine status for ordinary humans and human institutions.  In Bonhoeffer’s view, we don’t need the institutions of religion, which are easily subverted and perverted for evil purposes.  We simply need faith in God, worship, and prayer.  The church itself is secondary and not nearly as important as the individual’s relationship to God.

For Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianity” was in part an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.  With progress in the sciences and technology making the universe more understandable and life easier to endure, human beings no longer needed God to explain certain mysteries or to cope with suffering.  According to Bonhoeffer, man was “grown up” and could solve many of his problems with technology.  It was no use invoking a “God of the gaps” to account for the remaining problems of humankind, because science could well eventually solve many of those problems as well.

What science and technology could not solve, however, was mankind itself and its tendency to evil, especially when acting in social organizations.  The Nazis excelled with science and technology — they built cutting-edge weapons such as jets and rockets, and their extermination camps were highly efficient in murdering millions at the lowest possible cost.  Man could conquer nature, but how was man to conquer himself?  Christianity in Germany should have been able to address this problem, but the churches only sought self-preservation, and the worship of God was perverted into worship of the German nation and the Fuhrer.  The core meaning of Christianity was lost.  Only the shell of Christianity, in the form of the rituals and the churches, remained.

What was the core meaning of Christianity?  In Bonhoeffer’s view, Christianity was fundamentally about attaining a new life by existing for others and participating in the sufferings of Jesus.  In Bonhoeffer’s words:  “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. . . . The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life.  Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”

Bonhoeffer’s view of the future of the Christian Church was quite radical.  In his notes for a book he was writing while in prison, he wrote:

The church is the church only when it exists for others.  To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need.  The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.  It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil.  It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.  It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.

Bonhoeffer’s views would probably appeal today to people who reject the label “Christian” and instead call themselves “followers of Jesus.”  These people are unhappy with the narrow-mindedness of many Christian churches and their involvement in politics; many of these “followers of Jesus” do not even go to church.  But they are drawn to Jesus’s teachings and the example of his love and self-sacrifice.

As for myself, I find a lot of merit to Bonhoeffer’s view of “religionless Christianity.”  But I also see several obstacles to its widespread adoption.  For one, Bonhoeffer’s vision does not appeal to those outside the Christian faith.  Bonhoeffer was fairly insistent that the Christian faith was not just another religion, but in fact a replacement for all religions.  God revealed himself in Christ, and that was that.  Second, the question of what God requires of us when we face particular political and social controversies is not going to be clear all the time, or even most of the time.  People of legitimate and honest Christian conscience may find themselves on opposite sides when faced with questions of war, the duties of the citizen to their government, the proper economic policy, the justice of the laws, etc.  At best, Christ provides general guidance, not specific guidance, and even good Christians may find themselves on different sides of an issue because of different views on the specifics of policy.   Finally, the notion of living for others and suffering with Christ is a noble goal, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people.  We rightly honor Bonhoeffer for following Christ in martyrdom, but how many of us are really willing to become martyrs?  Few, I bet.  Still, even if we only emulate Christ partially and imperfectly, I suppose that is better than nothing, and considerably better than emulating the wrong person.

 

Religion as a Source of Evil

That religious individuals and institutions have committed great evils in the past is a fact not disputed by most intelligent persons with a good understanding of history.  What is disputed is the question of how much evil in history religion has actually been responsible for, and how to weigh that evil against the good that religion has done.

A number of contemporary atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens focus intensely, even obsessively, on the evils committed by religion.  The message of their books is that not only is religion mostly evil, but that most of the evils committed by human beings historically can be attributed to religion and, more broadly, to a deficiency of reason.  They point to the role of religion in slavery, massacre, torture, ethnic conflict and genocide, racism, and antisemitism.  In response to the argument that secular regimes under the the Nazis and Communists have also been responsible for these same evils, Harris and Hitchens point to the willing collaboration of religious authorities and institutions with the Nazis.  Both authors also argue that secular dictatorships suffered from a deficiency of reason similar to that of religious faith.  A greater commitment to reason and to evidence as the basis for belief, in their view, would do much to end evils committed by both religious and secular movements and regimes.

There is a good deal of truth to these arguments.  The world would be much improved if superstitions and incorrect beliefs about other human beings, ethnic groups, and societies could be eliminated.  But ultimately Harris and Hitchens do not seem to understand, or even take interest in, the deeper causes of evil in human beings.

The problem with viewing evil as being simply an outcome of irrationality is that it overlooks the powerful tendency of reason itself to be a tool of self-interest and self-aggrandizement.  Human beings commit evil not so much because they are irrational, but because they use reason to pursue and justify their desires.  It is the inherent self-centeredness of human beings that is the source of evil, not the belief systems that enable the pursuit and justification of self-interest.  Individual and group desires for wealth, power, influence, fame, prestige, and the fear of defeat and shame — these are the causes of social conflict, violence, and oppression.

Harris and Hitchens point to Biblical sanctions for slavery, and imply that slavery would not have existed if it were not for religion.  But is it not the case that slavery was ultimately rooted in the human desire for a life of wealth and ease, and that one path to such a life in the pre-industrial era was to force others to work for one’s self?  Is it not also the case that human conflicts over land were (and are) rooted in the same desire for wealth, and that violent conflicts over social organization have been rooted in clashing visions over who is to hold power?  Religion has been implicated in slavery and social conflicts, but religion has not been the main cause.

It is worth quoting James Madison on the perennial problem of oppression and violence:

 As long as the reason of man continues [to be] fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. . . .

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preëminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to coöperate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.  (Federalist, No. 10)

In Madison’s view, religion was but one source of conflict and oppression, which was ultimately rooted in the problem of differing opinions among humans, arising out of human beings’ inevitable fallibility and self-love.

A number of contemporary science experiments have demonstrated the truth of Madison’s insight.  On contentious issues ranging from global warming to gun control, people of greater intelligence tend to be more passionately divided on these issues than people of lesser intelligence, and more likely to interpret evidence in a way that supports the conclusions of the groups to which they belong.  Higher intelligence did not lead to more accurate conclusions but a greater ability to interpret evidence in a way that supported pre-existing beliefs and group preferences.

Sam Harris himself displays tendencies toward extreme intolerance in his book that would make one leery of the simple claim that an enthusiastic commitment to reason would do much to end violence and oppression.  In his book The End of Faith, Harris declares that “[s]ome propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52-53); he calls for imposing a “benign dictatorship” on backward societies as a means of self-defense (pp. 150-51); and he defends the use of torture on both military prisoners and criminal suspects in certain cases  (p. 197).  Harris even writes dreamily of what might have been if “some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East.  We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.” (p. 109)  One can just imagine Sam Harris as the leader of this great “kingdom of Reason,” slaughtering, oppressing, and torturing ignorant, superstitious masses, all for the sake of lasting peace and progress.  Of course, there is nothing new about this dream.  It was the dream of the Jacobins and of the Communists as well, which was a nightmare for all who opposed them.

Edmund Burke, a keen observer of the Jacobin mentality, correctly noted why it was mistaken to believe that abolishing religion would do much to eliminate evil in the world:

 History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same

‘troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.’

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the Gospel,—no interpreters of law, no general officers, no public councils. You might change the names: the things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names,—to the causes of evil, which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. (Reflections on the Revolution in France)

Nevertheless, even if we accept Burke’s contention that the evils of religion lie in human nature and not in religion itself, there remains one  question:  shouldn’t we expect more of religion?  If religion doesn’t make people better, and simply reflects human nature, then what good is it?

To that question, I have to say that I honestly do not know.  History offers such a superabundance of both the good and ill effects of religious beliefs and institutions that I cannot fairly weigh the evidence.  In addition, widespread atheism is still a relatively new phenomenon in history, so I find it difficult to judge the long-term effects of atheism.  It is true that atheist regimes have committed many atrocities, but it is also the case that atheism is widespread in modern European democracies, and those countries are free of massacre and oppression, and have lower crime rates than the more religious United States.

Perhaps we should consider the views of one Christian who personally witnessed the catastrophic capitulation of Christian churches to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and decided to become a dissenter to the Nazi regime and the German Christian establishment that supported the Nazis.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two, proposed a newly reformed Christianity that would indeed fulfill the role of making human beings better.  I will critically evaluate Bonhoeffer’s proposal in a future post.

Belief and Evidence

A common argument by atheists is that belief without evidence is irrational and unjustified, and that those arguing for the existence of God have the burden of proof.  Bertrand Russell famously argued that if one claims that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, the burden of proving the existence of the teapot is on the person who asserts the existence of the teapot, not the denier.  Christopher Hitchens has similarly argued that “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens has advanced this principle even further, arguing that “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”  (god is not Great, pp. 143, 150)  Sam Harris has argued that nearly every evil in human history “can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence” and that “We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.”   (The End of Faith, pp. 25, 48)

A demand for evidence is surely a legitimate requirement for most ordinary claims.  But it would be a mistake to turn this rule into a rigid and universal requirement, because many of the issues and problems we encounter in our lives are not always rich with evidence.  Some issues have a wealth of evidence, some issues have a small amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence, some issues have evidence compatible with a variety of radically different conclusions, and some issues have virtually no evidence.  What’s worse is that there appears to be an inverse relationship between the size and importance of the issue one is addressing and the amount of evidence that is available.  The bigger the question one has, the less evidence there is to address it.  The questions of how to obtain a secure and steady supply of food, water, and shelter, how to extend the human lifespan and increase the economic standard of living, all have scientific-technological answers backed by abundant evidence.  Other issues, such as the origins of the universe, the nature of the elementary particles, and the evolution of life, also have large amounts of evidence, albeit with significant gaps in certain details.  But some of the most important questions we face have such a scarcity of evidence that a variety of conflicting beliefs seems inevitable.  Why does the universe exist?  Is there intelligent life on other planets, and if so, how many planets have such life?  Where did the physical laws of the universe come from?  What should we do with our lives?  Will the human race survive the next 1000 years?  Are our efforts to be good people and follow moral codes all in vain?

In cases of scarce evidence, to demand that sufficient evidence exist before forming a belief is to put the cart before the horse.  If one looks at the origins and growth of knowledge in human civilization, belief begins with imagination — only later are beliefs tested and challenged.  Without imagination, there are no hypotheses to test.  In fact, one would not know what evidence to gather if one did not begin with a belief.  Knowledge would never advance.  As the philosopher George Santayana argued in his book Reason and Religion,

A good mythology cannot be produced without much culture and intelligence. Stupidity is not poetical. . . . The Hebrews, denying themselves a rich mythology, remained without science and plastic art; the Chinese, who seem to have attained legality and domestic arts and a tutored sentiment without passing through such imaginative tempests as have harassed us, remain at the same time without a serious science or philosophy. The Greeks, on the contrary, precisely the people with the richest and most irresponsible myths, first conceived the cosmos scientifically, and first wrote rational history and philosophy. So true it is that vitality in any mental function is favourable to vitality in the whole mind. Illusions incident to mythology are not dangerous in the end, because illusion finds in experience a natural though painful cure. . . .  A developed mythology shows that man has taken a deep and active interest both in the world and in himself, and has tried to link the two, and interpret the one by the other. Myth is therefore a natural prologue to philosophy, since the love of ideas is the root of both.

Modern critics of traditional religion are right to argue that we need to revise, reinterpret, or abandon myths when they conflict with new evidence.  As astronomy advanced, it was necessary to abandon the geocentric model of the universe.   As the evidence for evolution accumulated, it was no longer plausible to believe that the universe was created in the extremely short span of six days.  There is a difference between a belief formed in the face of a scarcity of evidence and a belief that goes against an abundance of evidence.  The former is permitted, and is even necessary to advance knowledge; the latter takes knowledge backward.

Today we have reached the point at which science is attempting to answer some very large questions, and science is running up against the limits of what is possible with observation, experimentation, and verification.  Increasingly, the scientific imagination is developing theories that are plausible, but have little or no evidence to back them up; in fact, for many of these theories we will probably never have sufficient evidence.  I am referring here to cosmological theories about the origins of the universe that propose a “multiverse,” that is, a large or even infinite collection of universes that exist alongside our own observable universe.

There are several different types of multiverse theories.  The first type, which many if not most cosmologists accept, proposes multiple universes with the same physical laws and constants as ours, but with different distributions of matter.  A second type, which is more controversial, proposes an infinite number of universes with different physical laws and constants.  A third type, also controversial, arises out of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics — in this view, every time an indeterminate event occurs (say, a six-sided die comes up a “four”), an entirely new universe splits off from our own.  Thus, the most extreme multiverse theories claim that all possibilities exist in some universe, somewhere.  There are even an infinite number of people like you, each with a slight variation in life history (i.e., turning left instead of turning right when leaving the house this morning).

The problem with these theories, however, is that is impossible to obtain solid evidence on the existence of other universes through observation — the universes either exist far beyond the limits of our observable universe, or they reside on a different branch of reality that we cannot reach.  Now it’s not unusual for a scientific theory to predict the existence of particles or forces or worlds that we cannot yet observe; historically, a number of such predictions have proved true when the particle or force or world was finally observed.  But many other predictions have not been proved true.  With the multiverse, it is unlikely that we will have definitive evidence one way or the other.  And a number of scientists have revolted at this development, arguing that cosmology at this level is no longer scientific.  According to physicist Paul Davies,

Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

Likewise, Freeman Dyson insists:

[T]he multiverse is philosophy and not science. Science is about facts that can be tested and mysteries that can be explored, and I see no way of testing hypotheses of the multiverse. Philosophy is about ideas that can be imagined and stories that can be told. I put narrow limits on science, but I recognize other sources of human wisdom going beyond science. Other sources of wisdom are literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy. The multiverse has its place in philosophy and in literature.

Cosmologist George F.R. Ellis, in the August 2011 issue of Scientific American, notes that there are several ways of indirectly testing for the existence of multiple universes, but none are likely to be definitive.  He concludes: “Nothing is wrong with scientifically based philosophical speculation, which is what multiverse proposals are.  But we should name it for what it is.”

Given the thinness of the evidence for extreme multiverse theories, one might ask why modern day atheists do not seem to attack and mock such theorists for believing in something for which they cannot provide solid evidence.  At the very least, Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” would seem to invalidate belief in any multiverse theory.  At best, at some future point we may have indirect or circumstantial evidence for the existence of some other universes; but we are never going to have exceptional evidence for an infinite number of universes consisting of all possibilities.  So why do we not hear of insulting analogies involving orbiting teapots and flying spaghetti monsters when some scientists propose an infinite number of universes based on different physical laws or an infinite number of versions of you?  I think it’s because scientists are respected authority figures in a modern, secular society.  If a scientist says there are multiple universes, we are inclined to believe them even in the absence of solid evidence, because scientists have social prestige, especially among atheists.

Ultimately, there is no solid evidence for the existence of God, no solid evidence for the existence of an infinite variety of universes, and no solid evidence for the existence of other versions of me.  Whether or not one chooses to believe any of these propositions depends on whether one decides to leap into the dark, and which direction one decides to  leap.  This does not mean that any religious belief is permissible — on issues which have abundant evidence, beliefs cannot go against evidence.  Evolution has abundant evidence, as does modern medical science, chemistry, and rocket science.  But where evidence is scarce, and a variety of beliefs are compatible with existing evidence, holding a particular belief cannot be regarded as wholly unjustified and irrational.

 

Christopher Hitchens: An Excess of Errors

I recently finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

In some parts, the book is delightful, and I admire the author’s courage.  Although the social penalties for atheism are much less in contemporary democratic societies than in other societies, past and present, there is also personal courage in facing up to the possibility that there is no God and no afterlife, which can be a distressing and demoralizing experience for many.  The author’s main points about the inaccuracy or falsity of religious beliefs about cosmology and history, as well as the persistent use of religion historically to rationalize evil behavior (such as the trading or keeping of slaves) have been made by others, but the author’s arguments are not entirely unoriginal, and I definitely learned some new things.

Having said that, I also need to say this: god is not Great is filled with many errors — in many cases, obvious, egregious errors that should not have gotten past the editor’s desk.  (Do publishing houses even bother editing and fact-checking any more?)  Now, it is not unusual for even great scholarly books to have some errors of fact.  But when the errors are so numerous, and so significant, it can greatly undermine the case the author is making.  Frankly, I think Hitchens understands religion about as well as a fundamentalist understands evolution.  In a few cases, Hitchens does not even understand some basic facts of science.

Let us review the errors.  (Page numbers are from the paperback edition, which appear to be similar to page numbers in the hardcover edition, except for the afterword that was added to the paperback).

p. 5  – “We [atheists] do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed and violence than the faithful.  (In fact, if a proper statistical query could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way).”  – Actually, according to The Handbook of Crime Correlates (pp. 108-113), while there is some variation in studies, the majority of social science statistical studies have concluded that religious believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  This is by no means a slam-dunk, as a minority of studies point the other way, but I find it remarkable that Hitchens thought that nobody even bothered to study this issue.  Although the Handbook came out after Hitchens’ book was published, the studies cited in the Handbook go back decades.

pp. 7, 63  – Hitchens acknowledges the intelligence and scholarship of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman, but argues “there are no more of them today and . . . there will be no more of them tomorrow.”  The reason for this, he writes, is that “Faith of that sort — the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason — is now plainly impossible.”  Actually, there are numerous intelligent and accomplished modern theologians who have incorporated faith and reason into their world views, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth.  Pope John Paul II pursued graduate study in philosophy and incorporated insights from the philosophy of phenomenology into his doctoral dissertation.  Did Hitchens ever hear of these people and their works?  A quick Google search confirms that Hitchens did know of Niebuhr, which indicates to me that Hitchens was being dishonest.

p. 7 – “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was far from being a nebulous humanist.  In fact, Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas were fairly conservative and Bonhoeffer insisted on the need for total devotion to God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer once wrote.  Also, Bonhoeffer was not hanged for simply refusing to collude with the Nazis, but for actively opposing the Nazis and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.

pp. 12-13 – “there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it.  I would be quite content to go their children’s bar mitzvahs to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.  And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone.  But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.”  Let’s leave aside the curious claim that Hitchens has religious friends who all happen to be grossly intolerant (unlucky him).  What is the evidence that religion in general is hopelessly intolerant, including the Jain religion?  Jainism, which Hitchens doesn’t bother discussing in any detail, places nonviolence at the very center of its beliefs.  Jains are so nonviolent that they practice vegetarianism and go to great lengths to avoid killing insects; some Jains even refuse to eat certain plants.  Jainism influenced Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, which in turn influenced Martin Luther King Jr.s’ own nonviolence campaign.  Yet somehow those Jains just can’t leave Hitchens alone.  What a bizarre persecution complex.

pp. 25, 68 – Hitchens argues that the ancient works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost under Christianity because “the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”  Actually, the works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost for centuries in Western Europe, primarily because of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, which negatively affected education, scholarship, libraries, and book-making in general.  In the east, the Byzantine empire, though a Christian state, preserved the works of Aristotle and incorporated Aristotle’s thoughts into Byzantine philosophiesMonasteries in the Byzantine empire played an important role in preserving and copying books of the ancient Greeks.  Attitudes of Christians in Western Europe toward the philosophies of ancient Greece were mixed, with some condemning and suppressing Greek works, and others incorporating Greek works into their scholarship.

pp. 46-47 – “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  Historically, medicine was not an alternative to prayer and devotion to God but a supplement to it.  The earliest hospitals were established in religious temples devoted to gods of healing.  While medical knowledge was primitive compared to today, even the ancients had some practical knowledge of surgery and anesthesia.  Many modern-day medications, such as aspirin, quinine, and ephedrine, have their roots in plants that the ancients used for healing.  The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, is famously known for his oath to the gods of healing, which calls for adherence to ethical rules in the practice of medicine.  And historically, both Christianity and Islam played major roles in the founding of hospitals and the study of medical science.

p. 68 – “[E]ven the religious will speak with embarrassment of the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity: measuring the length of angels’ wings, for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin.”  The notion that theologians debated about how many angels danced on the head of a pin was actually an invention of post-medieval satirists who wanted to criticize theology.  Historically, theologians generally held that angels were incorporeal, or purely spiritual beings, and as such did not have “wings.”

p. 144 – While discussing persons who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials, Hitchens argues, “travel from Alpha Centauri . . . would involve some bending of the laws of physics.”  Actually, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own, a little over 4 light years away.  While I think it is most unlikely that extraterrestrials have visited earth, travel to or from Alpha Centauri would not require any bending of the laws of physics, only some incremental improvements in existing technologies based on the current laws of physics.  The travel would probably take decades, but would not be impossible.  Either Hitchens is arguing that interstellar travel is inherently impossible or he is claiming that advances in technology require “bending” the laws of physics.  Whatever he believed, it doesn’t make sense.

p. 181 – “As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran.”  Among the countries ranked highest in modern-day slavery are several Islamic counties, but also China, Russia, Thailand, and Haiti.  It would be odd if these countries cited the Koran as a justification for slavery.

p. 192 – Pointing to the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens argues, “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.  The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be.”  Among the worst practitioners of genocide in the past hundred years were atheists, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot.  It is not clear whether Hitler was an atheist or a deist, but he was certainly not “devout.”  Finally, the majority of social science studies have shown that those with orthodox religious beliefs are less inclined to commit crime.

p. 232. – Hitchens attempts to argue that atheist totalitarian regimes are actually religious in nature: “[T]he object of perfecting the species — which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse — is in essence a religious one.”  Actually, a major point of most religions is that perfection on earth is not possible, that perfection is only found in an other-worldly place called heaven or nirvana.  The communist critique of religion is precisely that it makes people satisfied with their lot on earth, waiting and longing for a world that never comes.

p. 279 – Hitchens makes a reference to “Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission.”  The correct terminology is “nuclear fission,” not “thermonuclear fission.”  “Thermonuclear” refers to the use of very high temperatures to cause the fusion of atomic nuclei, not fission.  It is possible to use a thermonuclear process involving hydrogen and boron to cause the fission of boron atoms, but this is not what Iran is currently doing.

p. 283 – “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”  After dismissing religious stories as fictional, Hitchens argues that we can obtain ethical guidance from . . . the fictions of literature and poetry.  Never mind that religious texts are also powerful sources of literature and poetry, that Jesus used parables to illustrate ethics, and that Church Fathers often interpreted the myths of the Bible allegorically.  Only secular sources of fiction, in Hitchens’ view, can be used as a guide to ethics.  Why is not clear.

Well, that’s it.  Reading Hitchens’ book was occasionally enjoyable, but more often exhausting.  There’s only so many blatant falsehoods a person can handle without wanting to flee.

 

Two Types of Religion

Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.

In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion.  These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.

“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.”  The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well.  Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions.  However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.

Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers.  The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea.  These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.

There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.

Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God.  Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.  (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)

Faith is central to revealed religion.  Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology.  Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.

The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion.  (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.)  Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars.  It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.

Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue.  In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity.  In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions.  In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything.  In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.

As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions.  Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems.  It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions.  And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.

The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions.  Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system.  For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given.  The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason.  Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings.  The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being.  Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.

There are many virtues to philosophical religion.  While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions.  Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.

However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions.  The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side.  But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here).  One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness.  Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living.  When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.

Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity.  I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living.  At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy.  I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science.  I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.

A Living, Intelligent Universe

A fascinating article in the December 23, 2013 issue of The New Yorker discusses the latest research on the behavior of plants, and the disputes among scientists as to whether this indicates that plants have intelligence.  In brief, the article summarizes research indicating the following:  Plants can sense light, moisture, gravity, and pressure, and they use these inputs to determine an optimal growth path.  In addition, plants can sense a variety of chemicals and microbes in soil, as well as chemical signals from other plants.  One scientists estimates that an average plant has three thousands chemicals in its vocabulary.  When plants are attacked or injured, whether by insects, animals, or humans, they produce an anesthetic.  In fact, many of the chemicals we use today, from caffeine to aspirin and other drugs, were originally developed by plants as defense mechanisms against attack.  Plants under attack will also emit a chemical distress signal to other plants, which prompts the other plants to initiate their own defense mechanisms (for example, plants will produce toxins that make them less tasty or digestible to animals, or they will emit signals to predator insects who will attack the plant-eating insects).  Plants compete with other plants for resources, but they also cooperate with each other to an amazing degree, sharing resources with younger or weaker plants.  In fact, trees employ an underground fungi to exchange resources as well as information.  Scientists have jokingly referred to this exchange system as the “wood-wide web.”

Most of these observations regarding plant behavior are not disputed among scientists.  What is disputed is the issue of whether or not this behavior constitutes intelligence.  There is a consensus that plants do not have a central organ that performs the functions of a brain, and it is agreed that plants do not have the abstract reasoning skills that a human being would have.  However, a number of scientists argue that such a definition of intelligence is too restrictive.  They propose that plants do have intelligence, defined as “an intrinsic ability to process information from both abiotic and biotic stimuli that allows optimal decisions about future activities in a given environment.”  Or more simply, says one scientist, “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.”  In fact, this same scientist is currently working with a computer scientist to design a plant-based computer, “modeled on the distributed computing performed by thousands of roots processing a vast number of environmental variables.”  Such an attempt would build upon previous efforts to construct computers based on the information processing capabilities of slime molds and DNA molecules.

What is fascinating about this new research is that it continues a trend in human knowledge in which our initial criteria for intelligent life has had to be gradually expanded to include more and more species formerly regarded as mindless.  This raises the issue: is there in fact a clear dividing line between mindless matter and intelligent life, or is there simply a continuum, with human beings having the most advanced intelligence, animal and plant life having a more primitive intelligence, and the fundamental components of matter (molecules, atoms, physical forces, etc.) having a very primitive form of embedded intelligence.  In this view, the components of matter do not have consciousness in the same way that humans or animals do, but they do “know” how to do certain things.  In the case of the components of matter, they may “know” only how to do one or two things, such as form combinations with other components of matter.  But even this primitive knowledge is a form of knowledge nonetheless.

Viewing intelligence as something inherent in all things is part of the theory of hylozoism, which posits that the entire universe is in some sense alive.  Hylozoism goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers and has been proposed at various times by different thinkers since then.  The Renaissance friar and scientist Giordano Bruno was a proponent of hylozoism, among other heresies, and was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church.

Is viewing the universe as alive and intelligent outrageous?  Consider the definition of “intelligence” put forth by the scientists studying plant life: the ability to “process information” or “solve problems.”  This definition actually encompasses many or most of the functions of the physical laws of the universe, according to many physicists.  In their view, the universe can be conceptualized as an information-processing mechanism, a vast computer.  In fact, the 19th century English mathematician Charles Babbage, who built the first mechanical calculating device and is widely known as the “father of the computer,” believed that the universe could indeed be conceptualized as an immense computer, with the laws of the universe serving as the program.

This view of universal intelligence is not the same as the traditional view of an omniscient and omnipotent being standing above the universe and directing all of its affairs — which is why Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.  But the view of a universe with an embedded intelligence existing in all things is an intriguing alternative to the view that sees a sharp distinction between intelligent beings — divine or human — and allegedly mindless matter.  Rather than viewing the universe as something mindless that is acted upon by an external intelligence, perhaps it is better to conceive of the universe as having an inherent intelligence that grows more complex over time.