Monday, January 15, 2007

postal scrotum: Max on spirituality, science, etc.

Max writes:

In defense of what I wrote on your blog, I think Richardson did misunderstand me somewhat. However, I believe he didn't know the context of the situation. Let me explain. Before I begin, two points. First of all, I thank Richardson for the admonition that not all Christians interpret the Bible literally. Point well taken. Secondly, I would like to admit that my purpose in writing you about the religious debate between me and my friend did have something to do with satirizing her position.

Ordinarily, however, I'm not very sarcastic, cynical, or satirical these days (now that I am, in my own estimation, more mature—people generally don't like to be criticized). I especially try to refrain from being cynical when it comes to others' religious beliefs. The problem here was that my friend kept rubbing her religiousness in my face.

We were having general conversations about her life, mine, and the state of the world, but every twenty minutes or so she would bring the conversation back to religion. About how every major decision she had made in life was due to God. About how God has made all the good things she has done possible. About how if only mankind obeyed the laws laid down by God, there would be no evil in the world.

Still, none of this really bothered me; she has a right to her beliefs.

But she was also playing preacher, trying to win me over to her viewpoint of the universe. Hence the "debate" that we had. Let it be known here, though, that I didn't voice much of my cynicism to her; I reserved that for your blog.

What I didn't like was how she kept disparaging my position (I don't believe in a Christian God) but how I felt that if I, in the spirit of debate, disparaged her position (she does believe in a Christian God), would be insulting her. I don't know why I felt this way, but I did. Maybe I felt that she was more vulnerable to criticism than me, or that she would take it badly? (I'm pretty good at taking criticism well, I believe.) Can you understand how I felt? Anyway, because of this feeling I had, I didn't debate with her much.

The other thing I didn't like was how it basically came down to her telling me, "I'm right and you're wrong." That bothers me. Apparently, her conscience was not at all troubled by her exclusivist beliefs; with a proverbial wave of the hand, she roundly discounted and discredited all other religions and hundreds of millions of believers. You know, I couldn't help but recall the old line: "If you don't believe in our God, then you're going to hell!"

No one should claim to have all the answers.

My next topic has to do with what you call "atheistic version of fundamentalism." Wow. Cool. I've never heard it put that way before. I think you're making a really important point here, namely that any kind of fundamentalism must be eschewed.

You see it all around you. The materialists—those who don't believe in the existence of anything not directly observable (by sight, sound, touch, and so on)—would have us believe that there is no such thing as a God. Funnily enough, I myself was a staunch materialist until recently. However, I've become more of a spiritual person, in part due to some books on metaphysics that came across my path.

This is an excellent book. It has given me a lot of new insight, and I haven't even finished reading it yet. I was struck when I found out that there is now a substantial body of scientific evidence—yes, evidence collected via the scientific method—that suggests there is a basis to phenomena such as ESP, out-of-body experiences, and reincarnation.

Here's one experiment that was discussed in the book. There are two psychics, each in a sealed room. One of the psychics sits in front of a computer and the computer automatically selects a random image. That psychic looks at the image and concentrates on it, while the other psychic in the next room tries to draw the image that enters his mind. I was amazed to learn that the artist was sometimes able to draw the correct image. I forget the exact results of the experiment, but they were statistically significant.

To conclude, my point here is that I think spirituality (religion) and empiricism, two extremes, can meet halfway. It doesn't have to be either one or the other (I think you would agree?). And I was intrigued to learn that science has made and will continue to make inroads into the understanding of our spiritual side.



Very interesting insights.

I would probably be like James Randi and treat any claims of psychic power with great skepticism. If it should turn out that several carefully conceived batteries of experiments yielded statistically significant results, I would, at the most, say, "This warrants further study."

Science, especially lab science, relies on repeatability for independent confirmation; it also relies on what the philosopher Karl Popper called "falsifiability." Falsifiability is not the ability to fake an experiment, but the ability to disprove a particular claim through empirical means. Carl Sagan's famous "dragon in my garage" chapter of his The Demon-Haunted World addressed falsifiability and the question of an unfalsifiable claim's veridical worth (zero, in Sagan's opinion).

For now, the evidence seems to lean significantly toward the view that psychic powers do not exist, despite millennia of claims to the contrary. First, defining what a psychic power is is a hairy business. Second, getting experimental subjects who are willing to sit repeatedly for experiments can be a touchy matter, and then there's the question of methodology.

[NB: I would be curious to know more about the lab conditions in the image-reading experiment mentioned.]

As for the idea that science and spirituality can meet halfway... I think there's something to that notion, but I won't delve into that topic here.

Quick note about materialists: they do believe in the existence of things not directly observable, though I think they would say that "believe" isn't quite the right verb here, given what it implies religiously. Atoms and molecules, for instance, would be considered a given by materialists-- a brute fact of existence. The ultimate composition of atoms and molecules is still the subject of keen exploration and will remain so for years to come, but that they exist is beyond dispute. The same can be said of macroevolution, which is also not directly observable, but which is nevertheless considered a brute fact-- not a "mere theory," as some creationists would have it-- by all legitimate scientists.

There have been many attempts at describing the nature of the conflict/dialogue between science and religion. Some, like SJ Gould, would say that science and religion represent "non-overlapping magisteria," each pursuit confined to answering the questions only its methodology can answer. Others see science and religion, not as conflicting, but as pursuits occurring within an as-yet-unnamed larger paradigm. Still others view the matter in an almost Manichaean way, seeing science and religion as destined for eternal conflict, with only one side representing "the good" or "the right." I think a mature dialogue requires tolerance and patience on both sides. As you say above, Max, "No one should claim to have all the answers." The humility born of scientific skepticism and the humility born of religious virtue seem in line with that conviction.

More on this later.


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