God, Science and an Unbeliever's Utopia

Scientists gather to mull science, atheism and much else.

January 8, 2009, 12:28 AM

Jan. 6, 2007 — -- Last year's wildly popular Beyond Belief 1.0 scientific conference primarily focused upon and championed irreligion. The Beyond Belief 2.0 conference held at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., this past November was wider in scope. Rather than aiming to be another undiluted atheist lovefest, it attempted to consider changes in the ideas of the Enlightenment that are necessary given advances in various disciplines since the 18th century.

At least that was the stated aim, but any gathering that included the diverse luminaries in attendance would be guaranteed to roam all over the intellectual landscape. Despite the roaming and the diversity, however, the conference remained -- pardon the adolescent alliteration -- an unbeliever's utopia, a heathen's heaven, a pagan's paradise.

The complete video of the conference proceedings is available online HERE, and I urge readers to view it and related material for themselves. The video's marquee names include philosophers Daniel Dennett, David Albert and Patricia Churchland, physical scientists Stuart Kauffman, Sean Carroll and Harold Kroto, biologists and cognitive scientists V.S. Ramachandran, David Sloan Wilson, Lee Silver and host Roger Bingham, writers Rebecca Goldstein, David Brin and Robert Winter, various stars, such as Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers and Michael Shermer, and a host of others.

I was fortunate enough to be invited because of my new book, "Irreligion -- A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." Since the book has just come out this month, I'll take the liberty of noting that it briskly examines and succinctly deconstructs the 12 most common arguments for God. If I may quote myself and continue with the entertainment metaphor, these arguments range from "what might be called golden oldies to those with a more contemporary beat. On the playlist are the first cause argument, the argument from design, the ontological argument, arguments from faith and biblical codes, the argument from the anthropic principle, the moral universality argument, and others."

Along the way, I digress and insert impious observations and whimsical musings on a variety of irreligious themes, ranging from the nature of so-called miracles, creationist misuse of probability, and an imaginary conversation with a sort of minimalist "divinity" to cognitive illusions, Thai Internet Web cams, and prudential wagers.

With that bit of shameless self-promotion out of the way, I note that many of the conference's participants did try to broaden the approach to religion beyond the irreverent chest-thumping of the BB 1.0 meeting. Biologist David Sloan Wilson, in particular, urged people to consider how religion functions in a society. It doesn't do, he claimed, to simply label it irrational and ignore its adaptive role. Unfortunately, he went on to make some points about group selection that were, to my mind, a bit less reasonable.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt also took a more charitable view of religion and its positive impact in binding people together and blunting their more selfish tendencies. (The latter point has always seemed more than a bit dubious to me, considering that studies on crime rates, divorce, alcoholism and many other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented along each of these dimensions.)

Stuart Kauffman, who's worked extensively on complex systems, argued against the reducibility of all science, much less all knowledge, to physics. Higher-level phenomena must be consistent with physics, of course, but are too complex to be derived from it. Kauffman, although an atheist/agnostic like most of the conferees, even went so far as to tentatively propose introducing the term "God" to describe these unpredictable emergent consequences of physical laws.

Psychological foibles and failings were discussed and, since cognitive scientists were in attendance, some of the discussion was pleasantly data-rich. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran explained his work on a particular kind of synesthesia, the ability to see numbers or letters as having different colors, 4 as green, 5 as red, et cetera. People have questioned whether the phenomenon is real, but in an experiment in which many 5's and a few 2's, which are similar-looking but reversed, are intermixed on a screen, synesthetes are immediately able to pick out the 2's. Everyone else takes a while to locate them. The explanation for this ability is, roughly, that the areas of the brain dealing with color are close to those dealing with letters and numbers and occasionally these two areas bleed into each other.

Adam Kolber spoke on the legal and ethical implications of neurotechnology, in particular the use of drugs to dampen or even eliminate traumatic memories. More generally, he discussed techniques to measure aspects of our subjective experience and assess how iffy and malleable our mentality is.

Pat Churchland discussed mirror neurons and unconscious mimicry and the role such mimicry plays in evolution and the social interactions that are a big part of religious practice, and Daniel Dennett supplied new stories and wise counsel regarding "Darwin's dangerous idea" and its implications for religion and science.

Jonathan Gotschall, a literary theorist, argued convincingly that literary scholars could benefit from a more hard-headed tack when studying texts, one that took advantage of elementary mathematical notions, scientific principles and common sense. The alternative to not doing so is more hoaxes like that perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal when he submitted a paper full of arcane but, in the context, meaningless scientific terms to a literary journal whose editors, impressed with the paper's seeming profundity, accepted it.

There were also informative talks by two novelists, a musician, a lawyer, two economists, a couple of historians, and several other humanists of one flavor or another.

Despite some efforts to broaden the approach to religious matters, most attendees did not seem particularly intent on deepening Enlightenment ideas. Chemistry Nobel-prize winner Harry Kroto spoke of his global educational efforts in science and scoffed at the efforts by the Templeton Foundation and others to find some kind of rapprochement between religion and science. He also noted that though very large majorities of Americans say they believe in God, only a bit more than 5 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do. Chemist Peter Atkins made similar remarks.

There was little talk of politics at the conference, but no one held out much hope that any presidential candidate would come courting the group. It certainly wouldn't be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who believes in the biblical creation story, but not evolution, nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has said, somewhat frighteningly, that "freedom requires religion," nor any of the others who seem to tout their religious faith even when asked about the policies of the Federal Reserve.

Near end of the conference, Sam Harris reiterated the critical importance of evidence and rationality and also addressed the question of whether science and religion can be reconciled. I agree with him and probably most of the other attendees that, though there is much to be gained by considering different approaches to knowledge and life, the answer is no. Since religions (except possibly a couple that are devoid of dogma) make many significant factual claims -- historical, biological, and cosmological -- that are simply and egregiously false, science and religions do not deal with separate realms and cannot be reconciled.

Again I urge readers, especially those with a different perspective, to browse through the hours of video of the conference proceedings at http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief2/. It's a good show.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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