Monday, February 26, 2007

What partisans don't get

I watched the first morning of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, held last November near my home. Such smart people, but they don’t know how much they don’t understand. Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a nice talk where he pointed out several great scientists from Ptolemy on who invoked God for things they didn’t understand, but not those things they did understand. On the panel to discuss that talk was Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic and regular columnist for Scientific American. Shermer takes a different approach to things he doesn’t understand. He pretends he understands them as being trivial. In 2003 he wrote in Scientific American that transcranial magnetic stimulation reproduces all spiritual experiences. Really. Well, actually it’s not all of them. It might even be none given how other researchers have failed to reproduce these results. Such work was also doubted by John Horgan, who described his visit to this researcher in his book Rational Mysticism.

One of the themes of this conference is what might replace this tendency to attribute the unknown to God. In the part I watched it didn’t seem to occur to them that people from all parts of the political and religious spectra do the same thing – they pretend to know what they don’t know, whether they put that knowledge into God or into some hypothetical simplicity that lets human beings stay within whatever prejudice one prefers, whether with a self as psychology understands it or a self that is a delusion, whether in a reality that is purely physical or one that has a spiritual side.

So there is this tradition to attribute the unknown to God. Is it so different to attribute the unknown to something trivial instead, so nothing will intrude on the science we think is certain? I hear scientists mocking the former, but not even considering the latter.

It is true what Tyson was saying that even great minds have decided that God knows the rest, whatever they didn’t understand. For a good scientist, that’s not so much about physics or biology any more, but there is still consciousness to wonder about. Some treat consciousness as a trivial expression of the brain. Some like Susan Blackmore can write well about that possibility, but then Blackmore goes off into her training in Asian mysticism elsewhere.

Few scientists are so pluralistic. Watching the Beyond Belief 2006 conference is much like reading atheist blogs. It’s simply assumed over and over that there is no personal God. I had rejoinders every time someone claimed that, but this conference is not about examining possibilities or why someone as devoted to science as I am is also devoted to a personal God, not the traditional God, but the God I understand, who did not plan the universe or life or conflicts with science at all. That’s the only God I could believe in. I don’t know how close my God is to George Coyne, who said that the only people who think there’s a conflict between faith and science either don’t know faith or don’t know science. This conference has problems with both. People here say science means God is impossible. Whatever sense of connection one has with the universe is unrequited, they say. We should deal with that. That’s not science.

Essential to that view is the belief that so many spiritual experiences are meaningless, from conversion experiences, even those that last a lifetime, to prayer and other communications with God, to charismatic gifts, to ordinary daily experiences of following God. It’s one thing to say that all this is no different than believing in the Tooth Fairy, as juvenile-minded atheists of any age do. It’s something else to prove it. So partisans just assume it, just as fundamentalists assume that whoever disagrees with them is wrong.

I shudder to think how many pages it would take to document this trait of atheists and fundamentalists. I know that after I was sure such prejudice was theirs, I became as sure that subsets of liberals have the same problem, whether that be about denying mysticism, putting limits on New Age fantasies, pro or con, or being utterly tolerant toward everything as if all religions really are so true as to make criticism evil. Then there’s politics. I have to think that anyone who wants can see how narrow-minded partisans often are in either politics or religion.

Instead I’ve been thinking about what partisans are missing by being so partisan. I thought about that watch these videos from the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. Partisans certainly miss the intellectual weakness of their positions. I watched many scientists look at how Isaac Newton attributed the stability of movement of so many bodies in the solar system to God, while Laplace had further mathematics to find a physical solution to this problem, but with his own areas of uncertainty in which he looked to God. How is it so different to have faith in further physical solutions as opposed to faith in God? It’s true the former encourages people to look for those solutions, but nowadays I suspect they would anyway.

What is missing? I don’t think what’s missing about the universe is likely to matter so much. If it’s God who really does run the universe through physics, that’s a very strange God. Unless He changes the rules tomorrow, the distinction doesn’t mean much. Likewise with biology. Evolution is a fact. There’s no reason to think God directs weather. If He does He’s very strange about it.

Ultimate realities about the universe don’t seem to be what’s missing from atheistic science the most. What’s missing is about us. There is a God-shaped void in our brain. Evolutionary psychologists write about this, though I haven’t read one who actually uses the term, “God-shaped void”. Yet they describe our need for power, knowledge, love, and goodness, and how likely we are to seek that from hidden places, given how much our brain is biased toward hidden things evolutionary. Of course if such things are indeed the work of evolution, someday the genes responsible will be identified. That would be good, rather than having to talk about this in the abstract. However it turns out, atheists underestimate how easily God can be replaced.

Partisans in general never seem to appreciate the likelihood that their opponents are right. If it were just a matter of which restaurant in town is best, that wouldn’t matter much, but today partisans are fighting over the most fundamental truths of who we are and who the world is, trivializing both from whatever direction their partisanship comes. Religion Explained is a good book about why people are religious, by atheist academic anthropologist Pascal Boyer. I’ve seen it on the reading list at a number of atheist sites, but have the owners of those sites actually read it? Because Boyer attacks many simple reasons atheists give to put down religion, saying that the reason for religion worldwide is much more organic, which he describes atheistically, but nothing says there isn’t a God that fills our God-shaped void.

Whenever we reach the point of knowing the genetics of our God-shaped void explicitly, maybe it will be possible to be scientific about what best fills that void. Now it’s up to individuals. So atheists can claim that reason and being one’s own master is the best way to live, while others claim that God is vital, and there’s no way to really know. That’s one thing partisans don’t get, that there’s no way to know they’re right in their prejudice. They also don’t get that alternatives are just as likely to be as good, maybe better ways.

I don’t remember when it hit me that my basic belief is that God is whoever and whatever God is. I do remember realizing that is what has gotten me to where I am with God. When I first was moving toward God, I wondered if I would change 180 degrees. That’s not what happened. My conversion experience wasn’t like Paul’s. It didn’t tell me to switch sides. It told me I was going the right way, and that now it was time to add more. So how much would I have to compromise my science for this new thing? None, because the God I came to knew does not conflict with science. He doesn’t do physical miracles, but he does do mental ones I’ve experienced again and again.

Partisans don’t want to hear that. They want to mock the God of my understanding as so conveniently being complementary to science, as Isaac Newton’s God was to his science.
On one side partisans don’t understand the value of God. On the other side partisans don’t understand the value of science. Debates of atheism vs. fundamentalism are pure ignorance of something neither one understands, that science and religion really don’t conflict. I’ve given up listening to them, except this one at The Salk Institute last November. It had so many stars, but they don’t get it.

It’s really better for science to stick to science. It seems the courts will deal with intelligent design as that idea deserves. And faith is something many people don’t understand. My faith is not in spite of reason, but for things where reason is useless. It is a leap. It is trust. And if it turns out that trust is for something completely within my brain, the value of such a God is just as great for me in the present. Partisans of many types don’t understand that one.

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