September 23, 2010

Belief, Science, Survival

UPDATE, April 6, 2011
The following is my reply to a number of constructively critical comments made in response to my September 23, 2010 blog post "Belief, Science, Survival" (original post and comments are below) by my good friend and published author Craig M. White.  To understand the background behind what follows, you are invited to look at this brief post and the comments that follow by Craig, another friend, Kevin Graham, and me.

I have known Craig for many years, having worked with him in Washington and in Africa in the US Refugee Resettlement Program.  I have the greatest respect for Craig’s scholarship, and his views regarding human affairs and the “bigger questions” of Life.  Rather than reply as a comment to a string of Craig’s posts, I am making a new post so that Craig’s, Kevin’s and my views might be shared more widely and thereby bring more of you into the discussion.  The issues Craig and I are discussing – the nature of “truth” and evidence, responding to the complexities of our Universe and Life, the need or lack of need for a creator God – are not wasteful mental wheel-spinning.  They are questions that are at the core of each of our very being.  We all think about them quite often, fleetingly or in incomplete snatches.  Yet rarely do we have, find or take time to give them serious consideration or sort out exactly what it is we believe in or accept as truth.  Reading the original post, its comments and the following is an opportunity to do so.

There are no right or wrong answers to the questions we raise.  There is, however, one future ahead of Humankind.  The course we take to that future will depend on what we accept as truth and what actions we take as individuals, nations and as a species based on that truth.  It is likely that the world’s powerful and wealthy will lead us.  But we, each of us, now and into the future, can influence where Humankind ends up.  Join us in trying to influence what direction we shall take.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Thank you, Craig, for your kind and incisive comments on my blog post "Belief, Science, Survival."  I very much agree with you, comprehending and accepting scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary time and events is not easy.  Within the scientific truth regarding our Universe there are huge gaps in our knowledge, great possibility for error, and significant on-going scientific debate and revision.  One obviously must somehow address these and other shortcomings of science and secularism before committing to such a truth.  Rather than respond to each point in your comments, most of which I have already addressed or referred to in the writings of others elsewhere in my blog,1 let me address the major aspects of scientific knowledge you draw attention to and claim have serious shortcomings.  Shortcomings you believe make science no more convincing than the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity.

Our Universe is dynamic.  Genetic mutation, variation, agency and emergence as they have appeared in the Life of our biosphere add to the complexity of this dynamism.  As long as the Universe and Life remain in process, scientific knowledge about objects and processes must remain provisional.  As you know, this tentative truth is comprised of descriptions and explanations arrived at through observation, experiment and other methods that have produced a huge body of credible knowledge that continues to withstand repeated challenges.  Contrary to your assertion, that which is unknown to science (the gaps and subjects still being debated) does not detract from what is known and make it less credible.

Science does not claim to possess total, perfect, final or absolute truth about anything.  In fact, some of that which is currently unknown about our Universe and Earth and its Life is regarded by science as possible or probable postulates based on credible truths provisionally in hand.  Scientific truth, therefore, is a combination of the provisionally known, postulates about certain unknowns (the gaps, what existed before the Big Bang, etc.), and complete ignorance about all the rest.  Odd, you say, science admits that that which is completely unknown and having no postulates is part of its truth.  Yes.  This “rest” of the unknown has yet to undergo scientific investigation, testing and postulation.  Regarding the unknown, consequently, science does not default to inferences about a supernatural creator God who purportedly understands and controls all.  It prudently submits to scrutiny that which it knows for the time being, rationally postulates about the unknown based on what is known, and leaves the rest for later.  That a truth is incomplete does not make it false or necessarily unacceptable.

That which existed before the postulated Big Bang, the actual gaps in scientific knowledge, and the staggering complexity of what science has revealed about our Universe, Earth and Life should not cause alarm or lead us to a supernatural belief for a remedy.  In much of human history and prehistory our species has done, and in some parts of our current world continues to do, just this – behave superstitiously out of fear or ignorance.  Though others make no distinction between superstition and informed, reasoned belief, I do.  I do not take your views to be superstitious.  Clearly they have been arrived at through an on-going courageous, informed and concerted effort.  That both of us take the same approach to our Universe and Life yet arrive at different yet respectively satisfying conclusions is what interests me most.  You find my conclusion as incredulous as I find yours.  How can that be?  Is one of us wrong?  Is one of us misreading the Universe and Life?  Is one truth truer than the other?

Gaps and complexities do not diminish or discredit the explanatory power of science nor make speculation, postulation and hypothesizing about such unknowns and complexities a waste of time as many (not including you) believe.  They certainly do not demand a “fix” in the form of a gap-filling creator God to explain it all, which you do seem to believe.  In fact, I think having addressed such questions as postulates or left them unanswered strengthens the explanatory power of science.  Nevertheless, your statement “a theogenic model of the universe makes intuitive sense” cannot be dismissed.  However, making intuitive sense by accepting a supernatural creator God pales in explanatory power when compared to the scientific postulate of the origin of our Universe based on other aspects of the Universe that are known.

By not claiming to explain beyond that which can be substantiated by demonstrable, testable evidence, science is prudent.  The postulates of science are informed, reasoned and evidentially supported but nevertheless unconfirmed explanations.  Requiring that science explain everything once and for all time, the observable and the unknown, in order to be acceptable as a valid truth is, well, unreasonable.  One cannot describe, demonstrate, or test all of that which is unknown.  The practitioners of science do, however, embrace and address the unknown by making observations, conducting experiments, making analyses, producing descriptions and models, asserting hypothetical and theoretical explanations, and submitting these findings to widespread, rigorous and repeated scrutiny.  In theology there is no unknown for all is known by God.

I am very much aware that you and many others accept the major findings of science, including evolution, as part of a truth that includes the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, designer, personal, creator God.  In contrast to the provisional truth of science is the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions.  For its adherents, all that is - that which is known and unknown - is accepted as a whole, comprehensive and final truth as provided by God as documented in sacred texts.  Abrahamic canonical texts, for example, are considered by the respective believers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to be authoritative scripture containing the evidence of their truth.  That is to say, they are documents that are sacred and venerated because they contain divinely or supernaturally inspired truth.

Contrary to your assertion, Craig, that there is evidence supporting Christian faith, the canonical texts you cite do not contain unequivocal, demonstrable, testable evidence of the existence of a creator God that has been conclusively and universally established.  The anecdotes found in these texts and variously repeated, with revision, do not reach this standard of evidence and consequently have not attained the same level of acceptance as have the basic understandings of science.  For example, the fact that scientific knowledge has evolved from geocentrism, to heliocentrism to our current understanding of our place in our galaxy and Universe does not discredit science’s current understanding of our place in our Universe and compel us to accept a creator God as behind it all as an equally viable explanation.

I claim no expertise in theology or scholarly knowledge of the assertions and evidence found in religious canonical texts.  I therefore welcome key specific citations of such evidence if you would kindly provide them.  I am, however, somewhat familiar with the assertions and evidence for a creator God found in the Masoretic Text, Tanakh, Torah, Talmud, Bible, Qur’an and Hadith.  The willingness of a large number of intelligent and/or educated people, be they commoners, kings, prophets, saints or theologians, past and present, to accept the assertions in religious canonical texts as proof of the existence of a creator God does not constitute evidentiary proof acceptable to science.  Not one of the Abrahamic canonical claims for the existence of a creator God has succeeded in establishing itself as a credible scientific fact.  If it had, it would have appeared on the front page of the New York Times and a creator God would have taken His place among the other provisional truths of science, and been quickly and firmly ensconced within science textbooks all over the world.

The human assertion, be it canonical or not, of a creator God’s existence, omniscience and omnipotence is not supported by an unequivocal, replicable, demonstrable, testable preponderance of observations, investigations or experiments.  The onus for providing such proof is on those making the assertion not those asking to see the evidence.  Must they provide such evidence and must it satisfy such standards?  Well, yes, if believers expect such explanations to be accepted to the same degree that the basic understandings of science have been universally accepted.

Science does not have the burden of disproving the existence of God.  It is the burden of those who accept the assertion to prove that a creator God exists.  Contrary to the rants of many contemporary atheists and agnostics, science has no position on the existence of God – whether he exists or not – just as it has no position on all other unsupported assertions regarding the unknown.  Richard Dawkins, perhaps the dominant scientist and author among the so-called “new atheists” is a “probabilistic atheist,” claiming that the existence of the Abrahamic God is "very, very improbable."  I agree with Michael Shermer, a good scientific position is one of non-theism – having no position on the subject therefore no deity is accepted, rejected or postulated.

As to your second question, yes, there is a conflict between Christianity and science.  I agree with your comment that science and the Abrahamic religions both look for patterns and causes in our Universe, and that the absolute truth of Abrahamic religion predates the provisional truth of modern science.  However, having arisen within the Christian milieu of Europe does not mean that science is in any way beholden to religion as possessing a superior truth.  Scientists have, for the most part, severed themselves from that branch of science's roots embedded in Christianity.  (Regrettably, Francis S. Collins, former head of the Huma Genome Project and current head of NIH, is a notable contemporary exception.)  Nevertheless, most, in fact, have and continue to argue that science is to be commended for having shed its efforts to find evidence supporting God’s absolute laws of Nature.  Many also applaud science for eschewing a reliance solely on rational proofs as did Spinoza, and for giving up the search for grand theories explaining it all in the realm of human affairs.  Patterns and trends remain valid objectives in science but truth is in the particulars.

The diversity of philosophical opinion in this the so-called “postmodern” period, including the unsubstantiated beliefs that the world is irrational, illusional or unknowable, and that all opinions and beliefs are equally valid because our minds are constrained by languages and values, does not negate the explanatory power of science.  The efficacy of scientific knowledge is evident in medical science, engineering, technology and elsewhere all around us.  Despite the need for scientists to be more open to a wider range of possible causes and effects, which I think they should, we nevertheless do not allow anyone and everyone to prescribe medicine, conduct cancer experiments or build skyscrapers because all truths are not equal.  [I am sure you accept this and I apologize for exaggerating in making my point.  But some do take postmodernity near to such extremes.]

There is an objective reality regardless of my experience of or feelings about it.  The evidence for this postulate, for it is in fact a postulate because it is a tentative conclusion based on other evidence and experience, is unequivocally overwhelming for most people.  Granted, my experience of reality is a mental representation.  However, it is not an illusion.  Every time I stub my toe I’m painfully reminded of that reality as an inheritance of an unnecessary over-abundance of foot nerve endings my primate ancestors relied on to navigate the tree branches of their reality.  For me to accept that objective reality is irrational or unknowable would be a denial of my bodily existence, for my physical existence is part of that very real and knowable reality.  En garde, Descartes:  Reality is because I bump into it all the time, therefore I am whether I think about it or not.  Please see A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief for a more nuanced and intelligent discussion of this topic.

Despite the great enormity and apparent purposelessness of our Universe, the immense complexity and improbability of Life, and the great chasms in our secular/scientific understandings, there is clearly something about it all that nevertheless demands our reverence.  That we accept stewardship of the biosphere, and that we work to create a sustainable global morality, whether there is a creator God, or not.  Each of us must live our lives forward into the uncertainty of an ever-changing Universe and Earth.  I have chosen the incomplete, provisional yet compelling understandings of science as a guide.  I believe these understandings are a better fit for the ever-changing circumstances of my life experience and my limited ability to understand anything.

Thanks once again, Craig, for responding to my post and comments.  I very much look forward to your next book on, as you say, each member of Humankind having a “big story” about our Universe and our place in it.  I can certainly agree with that – we do! 


1  Secular Truth and Morality:  Being Virtuous, Happy and at Peace Without God and Religion;  The Case for Human Evolution, Science and Reason – A Reading List; What’s So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D’Souza – A Review; Cultural Evolution, Phase II – Establishing a Unified Worldview; and Is Scientific Knowledge as Good as or Better than Religion as a Basis for Values, Ethics and Morals?.  Regarding the “Anthropic Principle” see Richard Dawkins.  Regarding the myth that if evolution is true then species should get stronger and prosper when there is no morality when I “simply take what I want that I can get away with” see The Origins of Virtue:  Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley; The Evolution of Human Sociality:  A Darwinian Conflict Perspective by Stephen Sanderson; and Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved by Franz de Waal.  As for the multiple universes of M-Theory they remain a part of science’s postulated truth, for now.

ORIGINAL POST, September 23, 2010
What we believe and accept as truth affects the well-being and survival of each of us, our societies and our civilizations.  By definition, it is unreasonable to believe something based on faith alone rather than evidence; however, to do so has merit as an act of reverence.  What we believe matters.  We adjudge all beliefs and truths as to their effect on human life, sooner in the course of our individual lives, later as groups.  Prehistorically and historically, those ideas found harmful based on the evidence of experience have been rejected.  Those retained have become our sustenance, our survival.

In the United States in particular, the quantity and quality of scientific knowledge grows while the passionately intense commitment of the religious to faith-based, revealed knowledge deepens.  Science is a process that over time reveals more and better knowledge about the nature of man and the cosmos, bit of evidence by bit of evidence.  All that is considered missing and incomplete scientific knowledge is provisionally accepted as areas to be eventually studied and hopefully understood.  Scientific knowledge is not always correct, but it is correctable.  It will likely never be complete.  A scientific worldview is therefore humbling, not arrogant.

So far, demonstrable, unequivocal evidence has not been found for the existence of an Abrahamic God.  Believers nevertheless have faith that all life was divinely created and by extension remains divinely influenced.  For them revealed, faith-based knowledge about the essential workings of nature and the rest of the cosmos is sufficient.

It is not a problem of two types of knowledge - faith and evidence - both being equal.  Science and religion are not equally viable alternatives.  Science produces knowledge, faith produces belief.  Demonstrable, verifiable knowledge rather than revealed belief is a more credible foundation for directing one's individual actions and for the decisions and directives of those who lead us.  Scientific knowledge about human nature, the biosphere and the cosmos can be a powerful awe- and reverence-inspiring basis for a new, more just and less prone-to-conflict global morality than that currently provided by revealed, faith-based belief.  I think the survival of humanity and the Earth will depend on whether or not we as a species make this change in the basis upon which we respect and inspire each other and direct our behavior.


kmgraham99 said...

Here is a recent article on atheism replacing religion I thought you might want to take a look at. I think it seems logical, see what your professional eyes see.
Thanks Kevin

Just War Theory Man said...

Jim, old friend,

I am intrigued by your blog. Congrats on its attractive format!

I fall into the "Abrahamic" category, and I would have 2 main comments on the remarks here: (1) I disagree with your faith/reason split. It is true that in Genesis, and throughout the Bible, Abraham's faith "under trial" is praised, but there are plenty of canonical "Abrahamic" texts that insist that there is evidence for a Creator. You can look up the "Anthropic Principle," and see some discussion of the way the universe is "fine-tuned" for life, an idea that of course generates much debate. However the facts are construed, one typical "escape" from sounding like a creationist is to say "of course, there are probably an infinite number (or "billions") of possible universes, we clearly evolved in one that happened to hold the conditions for our evolution." That is of course a wild leap outside the realm of science. Not only is there no empirical evidence for these other universes, but by definition there never will be. Sad for such theorists. In sum, the order and beauty of the universe (imperfect though both are), along with the wildly unlikely (in any given universe) set of life-friendly factors, can be said to argue for (perhaps not to prove) a Creator. The escape from this argument is usually into a mystical, non-scientific assumption of or claim of multiple universes.

2. Perhaps you can enlighten me. I agree that "be decent to other human beings, as you are one yourself" seems like a rational argument, and one the vast majority of people intuitively accept--and it forms the basis of one form of morality (although there are arguments at the edges). But it seems to me that there is no fundamental, reason-based rule for deciding that I will simply take what I want that I can get away with--and I can argue that when a lot of rational beings do that, the race gets stronger through competition. It's not MY argument, but what scientific argument against it is consistent, i.e. based on some empirical set of facts?

Just War Theory Man said...

Hey, I realized you may not know who is writing this--I'm the old refcoord from Nairobi, 2003-2006. And before that, refugee resettlement guy in DC, 1998-2000. You DO know me.

Jim Lassiter said...

Kevin, I read the link you suggested "Why Atheism Will Replace Religion” by Nigel Barber. The article draws attention to apparently compelling information supporting the title’s claim. However, if I were a betting man I wouldn’t put any money on it happening in the manner he claims it will.

Barber mounts a plausible argument that highly intelligent, urbanized, affluent people are atheists because they can afford to have more control over their lives and are therefore better able to deal with their fears of life’s uncertainties. Conversely, he claims, the poor cannot afford medical science practices, don’t have cash reserves or other assets, for example, and therefore have greater fear regarding the uncertainties of life. Their affordable option is religion.

My major concern is the claim that atheism will replace religion. To his credit, Barber notes that barring ecological catastrophe, asteroid impact, global economic collapse or some other devastating worldwide occurrence, the standard of living of the world will continue toward greater affluence and the number of atheists will increase, and believers decrease.

However, I think there is a greater threat to continued global prosperity and peace than those posed by ecology, cosmic collisions and economics. That is, the threat posed by the blindly devout, faith-based thinking and warring adherents of the Abrahamic religions. Sam Harris covers this threat very convincingly in his book: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. He provides an alternative to a religious-based worldview in his newest book, just out this week, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. His views in this latest book are paraphrased as follows, from his recent appearance on The Daily Show - : "The objective knowledge of the natural and social sciences is a better basis than the beliefs provided by organized religion for developing and sustaining a global civilization based on shared values and morals. Not having such a global worldview is the biggest, most urgent crisis humankind currently faces. It is a myth that we can't get there through science."

As for Barber’s idea that higher standards of living will be accompanied by atheism replacing religion – there may not be enough time for that to happen given the depth and breadth of abject poverty in the world and the ever-deepening, increasingly manic “passionate intensity” of the world’s believers, rich and poor. Nevertheless, I’m putting my money on our species passing through the eye of the next evolutionary needle – the development of a global set of morals and values based on objective, demonstrable and incontrovertible evidence, not belief. (See “Cultural Evolution Phase II – Establishing a Unified Worldview,” above.) Jim

Jim Lassiter said...

Thanks for weighing in with your views.

As you know, scientific, evidence-based understandings of our universe are incomplete. Abrahamic understandings claim complete knowledge of the past, present and future of the cosmos. These understandings of believers are vested in God and knowable to man only as He chooses to allow them to be known, and are accepted true based primarily on faith and historical assertion rather than an objective assessment of evidence. Much of the Abrahamic defense of its beliefs – particularly the subterfuges and red herrings of contemporary fundamentalist Christian Americans and some theologians – uses the language, methods and findings of science and historiography in an attempt to identify premises for conclusions already arrived at. For example: “God exists, let me prove it to you.”

Regarding reason and scientific evidence, the former is fallible, of course, and the latter is tentative and replaceable. This does not mean that both should be rejected as insufficient for increasing our knowledge of life and the cosmos, and therefore replaced or supplemented by faith. I can accept the “gaps” in scientific evidence and knowledge - they may one day be filled. To question, investigate, experiment, learn and adapt are not acts of arrogance in the face of a deity. They are proven methods that led to the evolutionary emergence of human culture and our species’ survival.

I am of course interested in the origins of the universe and life. However, a definitive, final understanding of these largest of all questions is not essential for accepting a compelling evidenced-based argument for the emergence of humankind within the cosmos and natural history of our biosphere. As for the anthropic principle, allow me to quote a prominent biologist, whom I sure you’ve heard of, whose view I subscribe to:

“It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

Jim Lassiter said...

“It has been estimated (based on demonstrable evidence) that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. A billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. Even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets – of which Earth, of course, is one. … Here the anthropic principle comes into its own. We can deal with the unique origin of life by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities. Once that initial stroke of luck has been granted – and the anthropic principle most decisively grants it to us – natural selection takes over: and natural selection is emphatically not a matter of luck.

“The key difference between the God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence. ... How do they (theists) cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?

“There is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God’s infinite power is put. Is science having a problem with X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that? Well, actually, almost everything.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, pages 162-180)

There is sufficient empirical evidence supporting the high probability that the biosphere originated and exists as described by science without reliance upon the written or oral assertions of Abrahamic beliefs and canonical assertions. I have adopted a reasoned, evidentiary understanding of the origins of life sufficient for the (my) time-being. I prefer this open-ended approach to understanding life’s origins and other subsequent natural events to the closed-ended understandings and revelations of religious traditions that were espoused and written in the last 2500 years of human existence. The record of human (Homo sapiens) history, and prehistory as far back as 100,000 years BP, particularly that “written” in the fossil record and demonstrated through comparative anatomy and physiology, is far more reasonable and compelling than religious beliefs, revelations and assertions. This scientific-historical record “speaks” more authoritatively about all humankind than do the Middle Eastern authors of Abrahamic texts who were ignorant of the later discovered, most fundamental facts of biology, physics and paleontology.

Jim Lassiter said...

Not being well-versed in astrophysics, I find it most useful to accept what is most demonstrable and evidentiary closer to home in the biosphere – biology and anthropology. The preponderance of evidence from the fossil record, biology and comparative anatomy and physiology is sufficient for me to accept that ours is a long evolutionary history within and inseparable from the natural history of life on Earth and, more broadly, the evolution of the cosmos.

Regrettably, my friend, though I greatly appreciate and respect the reverence with which you hold your views, I am not convinced by your belief that the “order”, “beauty” and “life-friendly factors” found on Earth argue for the existence of a Creator. I see and am reverent toward Earth’s beauty and order in a multi-faceted way. The natural world is beautiful to me whether I consider or fully know its origins or not. If it were conclusively proven either way, there is or is not a God, I would still find the earth beautiful. Order, particularly in the biosphere, is apparent as a retrospective consequence of Darwinian natural selection – the interaction of matter, emergent entities and processes with environments, through time.

I can accept and marvel at life without knowing definitively and finally how it began and continues, and without deferring to a deity. As for the appearance of life-friendly conditions on Earth, the open-ended incomplete postulates of science as to how this came about shall suffice for me, for now. Answering these questions by declaring them unknowable or too complex for human understanding and, in turn, answering them all by claiming they are products of a Creator would be, for me, lazy. To do so would defy common sense and run contrary to our demonstrably evolved and inherited adaptive human ability to question, investigate, invent, innovate and reason.

I’ll respond later to your human morality query. Cheers! Jim

Jim Lassiter said...

Hello, Craig,
You mention a fundamental, reason-based rule for deciding to take (or not take?) anything a person wants. That if a lot of people did this it would lead to a “stronger race,” presumably a group of individuals who would have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Finally, you ask what is the fact-based scientific argument against “it”, that is, against the idea that people should just take anything they want because the competition that ensues would improve the group. Oh my, you certainly have “grabbed my attention.” : )

Providing an empirical, fact-based scientific argument that people should not freely take anything they want does not, to my knowledge, exist. However, there seem to be at least three science-based arenas where answers to the question have been and continue to be fruitfully sought.

First, what in the paleoanthropological record - the fossil bones, artifacts and paleo-environments – shows that our prehistoric ancestors had a moral, ethical sense of private property, justice, etc. Though much has been learned about our prehistoric forebears’ social life, ecology and mental abilities pertaining to tool making and use, specifics of the values and morals they possessed can only be inferred. Nevertheless, archeological evidence of their ritual behavior as portrayed in cave paintings, petroglyphs, and burial accoutrements provide compelling evidence for the existence of a rich social and symbolic life, even a reverence for nature, certain individuals at their death, and life itself.

Second, evolutionary psychology, which gained a certain credible public and professional standing beginning in the 1990s (though not as much among the more show-me-the-data anthropologists), has presented numerous arguments for the emergence of certain “adaptive” values and morals in our evolutionary history.(1) You might find the sections in Wright’s book footnoted below useful: “Darwinism and Brotherly Love” (pages 338-342) and “Theories of Brotherly Love” (pages 371-374). In the second section Wright cites the work of philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer and that of the late psychologist Donald T. Campbell(2) to make the point that a Darwinian worldview need not be one of amorality.

Jim Lassiter said...

Buss’s book, especially Chapter 9, “Cooperative Alliances” (pages 264-290), makes a fairly good case for the evolutionary emergence of social cooperation and reciprocal altruism (versus brute selfishness) based on our social primate ancestry, and the adaptive and survival value they provided our otherwise weak, tooth- and claw-less human ancestors and consequently us, their descendants. You will find more “facts” regarding the evolutionary “nature” of our kindness in a link I put on my blog – Social Scientists Build Case for the “Survival of the Kindest” (

Third, and the more difficult avenue of research for me to swallow, are the efforts of the sociobiologists to link specific genes to specific behaviors, including the stuff of thought such as morals and values. One of these chaps, Dean Hamer, an Abrahamic geneticist, even announced his discovery of the “God” gene. Sorry, he didn’t. See the following link: ( My arguments against the sociobiologists are posted in my blog “The Origins of Kindness”, October 5, 2010, which I believe you’ve already looked at.

Finally, here’s a list of books that put forth scientific and philosophical arguments for the existence of a natural human morality and that it derives from our evolutionary past:

Why Good is Good Robert Hinde
The Science of Good and Evil Michael Shermer
Can We Be Good Without God? Ribert Buckman
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser
Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion by Stuart Kauffman (pages 260-272, See especially, the section “If There is No God, Why Be Good?” beginning on pg. 259)
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (“The Roots of Morality: Why are we Good?” 241-267)
The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley

Hope this addresses your comment and is in some way helpful.

Cheers! Jim

1. See The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life by Robert Wright, 1994. Also, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Third Edition, by David M. Buss, 2008.

2. See Singer’s The Expanding Circle, 1981 and How Are We To Line? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest 1993. Also, Campbell’s “On the Conflicts Between Biological and Social Evolution and Between Psychology and Moral Tradition,” American Psychologist 30:1103-26.

Anonymous said...

Old Friend,

Thanks for the link bringing me back to this part of the blog. I may not be able to do justice to your voluminous argument, but I do want to raise a few points.

Anonymous said...

OK, it's Just War Man writing here, but posting as "Anonymous." It's easier!

First, I'm not sure if you are even aware of all the Christians who accept one version or another of the evolutionary theory. C.S. Lewis was one of them, and there are many more. There are plenty of anti-scientific Christians out there, and certainly I find that aggravating and discouraging from time to time (although the wretched lack of logic from some voluble atheists reminds me often that there is no monopoly on illogic on the Christian side! ;-)) (Please don't get excited about "evolutionary theory" above--I believe that is one of the correct scientific formulations.)

Again and again you draw a contrast between science and a Christianity that rejects science (which is not the Christianity to which I belong). If you would at least specify that those are the antagonists, in your view, it would be a more interesting discussion for me.

But here is my second question: you appear to be saying that theism (and Christianity in particular) is in inevitable conflict with science. This would be quite paradoxical to say the least, in light of the fact that modern science grew up in a devoutly Christian milieu. According to many philosophical points of view, the world is an illusion, or it is irrational, or unknowable in some way. But the Christian view that the world is an orderly place encouraged scientists to look for and formulate "laws of nature," the descriptions of that order, and to look for the reasons for those laws in the properties of the things in the universe. That seeking and formulation led to an explosion of scientific knowledge. (Of course, scientific research continues to be vigorous even in the absence of its Christian roots, but the roots are there.)

But I would like to await your answer to my second question before going on.

Anonymous said...

"By definition, it is unreasonable to believe something based on faith alone rather than evidence; however, to do so has merit as an act of reverence."

I think unfortunately this is a straw man. No Christian I am aware of states that he BELIEVES based on faith alone. ("Faith alone" is Martin Luther's description of the basis of salvation. That is a very complex discussion that need not detain us here.) All Christians that I know claim that there is EVIDENCE for their faith. Some believe that evidence is so compelling that it can be called proof. I am not one of those, but I do believe there is evidence. Not everyone is convinced by that evidence? True, but that is the fate of any system, any gathering of facts into a theory, especially if a lot is at stake. Some see the evidence differently.

Anonymous said...

"So far, demonstrable, unequivocal evidence has not been found for the existence of an Abrahamic God."

Yes, true. And the same can be said of any theory of the origin of the universe. You believe in the Big Bang? Great, I think it is likely too. But a big piece of the current theory that involves the Big Bang involves "dark matter." Hmmm. Demonstrable, unequivocal evidence of the existence of dark matter? Nil. Zero. Nada. Does that mean the theory is false? No, it means that our knowledge, especially concerning the past, and especially concerning very big questions, is radically incomplete. We sit on this little planet in a vast universe, at this particular moment in a vast expanse of time, with our puny tools, and we try to make sense of things, but our tools are too small at this point to give us firm knowledge of such questions.

Is there any big theory concerning the origin of the universe for which we have "demonstrable, unequivocal evidence"? I read a lot, and I have not seen it.

Anonymous said...

"It is not a problem of two types of knowledge - faith and evidence - both being equal. Science and religion are not equally viable alternatives. Science produces knowledge, faith produces belief."

There is a big problem with that last sentence. The word "science" simply comes from the Latin for "knowledge," and the word faith is simply another word for belief.

The knowledge "science" brings is provisional, as you note throughout. Not only that, but not one human on the planet has mastered more than one science--there is just too much out there. Because of that, we all exercise "belief" in science, in a variety of ways. We have faith in aircraft designers and engineers, so we get in the planes they design and build, and take off.

So I would say, we should all be guided by science as much as we can, but with due regard to its provisional nature. Scientific explanations of one race's "superiority" over another were very common a few decades ago, for example. Now we recognize them as bad science, but this was not the case for most educated people at the time. And scientific theories on the origin of the universe evolve constantly--meaning that if I was certain about the science of 1960, or 1980, then the science of 2011 tells me I was wrong then. The science of 2021 will surely say the same about significant bits of the science of 2011. Nonetheless, where science is clear, it behooves us to heed what it says.

Of course, where a scientist has no particular credentials--such as a Richard Dawkins talking about the origin of the universe, or questions that involve philosophy--a proper "scientific" attitude is one of scepticism.

In a book I am currently writing, I claim that we all have a "big story," which is my shorthand for an overall undertanding of the universe and our place in it. (That includes philosophy, science, politics, you name it--we all have some notions about these.) Now, there is evidence that suggests that some Big Stories are no longer viable. Greek thinkers rejected a flat earth thousands of years ago, based on sensory evidence and calculations. Medieval Christians fully agreed that the earth was round. And now, a flat earth is in flat contradiction not only to scientific calculation, but to visual evidence of photographs from space, as your own website shows so nicely.

Anonymous said...

Current scientific orthodoxy posits a "Big Bang" as the first event we can be sure took place in this particular universe. All the matter of which we have evidence, every massive galaxy and quasar, was all crammed into a space not the size of the head of a pin, nor of a molecule, nor of one atom--but of a proton, in the account I read of the Big Bang. (Talk about faith--you need faith to believe that! ;-))

Interesting, this current article of scientific faith was proposed by a Catholic priest (and scientist, obviously)! Look it up in Wikipedia!

I accept, provisionally, the theory of the Big Bang--but I note with some dismay that the popular accounts I have read often omit the question every 6-year old must ask: "what was there before?"

It is not that I expect answers to be provided, but I do think it is disingenuous at least, since we all grow up doing algebra on a numberline in which zero is the middle term, not the limit marker on the left, that the question is not even raised.

If the Big Bang is the correct model, then a theogenic model of the universe makes intuitive sense (and there is no science to guide us here). Whereas the idea that a nearly infinitely dense and infinitely hot incredibly tiny point sprang into being spontaneously would require a tremendous amount of faith, with no evidence whatsoever.

(PS: I see that I have abandoned my earlier idea of only continuing when I got an answer, and also that I never fully explained my objection to that one sentence of yours. My objection is that it boils down to "knowledge leads to knowledge, but belief leads to belief.")

Anonymous said...

And I see I left out the most obvious point I should make: it is easy to be a Christian and to believe in a universe 13.7 billion years old, in which Darwinian evolution took place (although if there is a God who set the universe in motion, and designed it, then the very features of the universe that led life to come into being were the features designed by that God, which is different from the atheist version of evolution).

Jim Lassiter said...

Rather than respond to each point in the above comments, most of which I have already addressed or referred to in the writings of others elsewhere in my blog, I am continuing the discussion in a new post: “Belief, Science, Survival” Revisited – Join The Discussion. Please join the discussion and add your comments. Jim

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