Tag Archives: religion

Science tells a human story but scientists don’t care

I read something interesting from the Archdruid Report. It suggests that science provides a narrative to contextualize human lives. That’s interesting, but not the intention or concern of scientists.

…When the late Carl Sagan spun his compelling “We are star-stuff” myth for the viewers of Cosmos, for example, he was engaging in reflection rather than abstraction. His goal was not to communicate an abstract rule but to weave a narrative of meaning that provided a context within which human life can be lived.

He makes an interesting point about science. I see it as the fringe of knowledge, pressing outward. There is an aspect to which the Archdruid points that is the opposite. He suggests that science is a competing reflective narrative in our culture.  I don’t disagree, but I can vouch for this: scientists don’t see their work in this context. Sagan was building a narrative to directly compete with The Religious Narrative.  I think religions see see only this aspect of science, and it’s an aspect of science to which the scientists themselves are oblivious and uncaring.  That disconnect is part of the problem with communicating science to non-scientists. It’s one reason Carl Sagan was so smart.

Bacteria ‘invent’ new enzyme in the lab under scientific supervision

The importance of this cannot be overstated. There are levels of understanding of evolutionary theory. In Chemistry, my chosen field, you learn the “basics” of chemistry about 5 times before you’re done with an undergraduate degree. Every time you re-learn it, you learn all of the problems with the old way you learned it and all of the ways the new way of understanding is better. It’s unrealistic to teach graduate chemistry to elementary school students – they need the context of a few benign simplifications in order to approach the deeper understanding. It’s the same way with evolution. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I understand that there are levels of subtlety and that the simple explanations are not the whole story.

One of the most hard-to-believe concepts is that biologcal ‘designs’ come from the vast sea of probability. How could randomness produce an invention? Doesn’t invention require intelligence? It all comes down to amplification. Looking for a fully formed functional enzyme in the sea of randomness would take forever (almost literally). But if you had a way to amplify every useful step along the way from any random junk all the way to something useful, then the whole thing can happen pretty fast.

How fast? About 30,000 generations. Scientists have put bacteria in an environment where it would be advantageous to invent an enzyme. The bacteria did it in 30,000 generations. That’s ‘macro-evolution’ on a pertri-dish. It’s a terrible blow to those who have touted the idea of ‘irreducible complexity,’ and people who consider evolution to be an unproven hypothesis.

Of course, they hold themselves to a different standard of truth, so there’s really no basis for rational argument. I’m not sure about it being a ‘miracle,’ but I will concede this: the wow factor is really high for the feat of making critters invent an enzyme on cue.

-Peter

Sam Harris, reason, the common agenda, discussion of Deep Topics

Sam Harris gave a speech to the American Athiest Alliance about how he doesn’t think atheists should identify themselves as such.He wants atheists to be champions of reason, maybe, but campaigners against belief?No.He makes an interesting case. I think the video would be interesting for any person who thinks about these things. Sam Harris, by the way, wrote The End of FaithOne of Sam Harris' books and Letter to a Christian NationOne of Sam Harris' books, of which I have read neither.

There are some really subtle issues here that surround the contention that atheism constitutes just another religion.The idea is this: there are a lot of people who identify themselves as atheists, and they have a social agenda based on their stated and committed belief.Based on this, they form a de facto religion.The fact that the core belief of this “religion” is that there is no god is somewhat irrelevant; if the group of people take up the structure of a religion, so the theory goes, so it should count as one.

I can see the logic in that argument, but most atheists I know are not that kind of atheist.They don’t belong to an atheist club and they don’t see themselves as ascribing to an external social agenda.They don’t commit themselves to the belief that there is not a god; they simply don’t care.It might be better called Apatheism (apathy-ism). That’s different again from agnosticism, which holds that the issue might be important, but we just don’t have an answer.

Apatheism can’t be called a religion in the same way that the American Athiest Alliance can be called a religion, even in the superficial sense.The point is that, on the whole, the agenda of thinking, caring people is not served by anyone representing themselves as anti-religion. For people who care to talk about these issues like truth and morality (the non-apatheists) the common ground is the desire for reason and understanding what is going on.Those desires are served by people being kind and reasonable to each other.

And when it comes to intellectual pursuits, intellectual honesty and integrity are things upon which people of any creed may insist.Even people without any other creed can insist on intellectual honesty and integrity.And that’s enough to accomplish our shared agenda.Nobody needs to insist on anybody giving up a belief as long as it is either (1) held up to standards of reason, or (2) held only as a private conviction and not as a social standard.

Reason is the cornerstone of a civil social space for a diversity of opinion and perspective.The Big Upshot is that I am not going to insist that people agree, but in the interest of a discussion I insist only that they be reasonable – that is that the views that they contend that I should also hold must be internally consistent and consistent with the observations of the world which we can all share.And even then, I certainly acknowledge silence as another option.

Thanks for reading.

-Peter