Monday, September 22, 2008

Weinberg on Science & Religion: Part I

Steven Weinberg has an article called "Without God" in the new New York Review of Books. Here are some point he makes, with some comments I want to make.

1. We have a "widespread weakening of religious belief." Empirically, this seems to be false. See both Donald E. Miller's Global Pentecostalism, and Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom. This is too general a statement to handle. In Europe might this be true? Jenkins would say it's not true.

2. A "tension" between science and religious belief has had, as a consequence, a "decline of religious belief." Probably not. And probably not among scientists. See Francis Collins's The Language of God, where Collins argues that the percentage of scientists who do and do not believe in God has not changed in a hundred years.

3. Weinberg says there are "four sources of tension between science and religion." #1 is: "religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways." The result, for Weinberg, was "the advent of widespread atheism and agnosticism among the educated in the eighteenth century." Here I want Weinberg to give empirical evidence because, Collins again, in the last one hundred years such things have not increased. In my church in East Lansing, Michigan, we have many scientists for whom the following could not be said: "the explanatory power of science worrie[s]those who value... religion." Because of their pre-theoretical worldview science's explanatory power ends up thrilling the "religious." Here it's all about worldviews, correct?

4. Weinberg writes: "we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation." That's question-begging.

5. "There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life." Is "multiverse" talk science? Some scientists disagree. Weinberg should refrain from mentioning "God of the gaps" arguments if he wants to bring in multiverse theory. See here, for example. And what, precisely, does the size of the universe have to do with anything? Are we "just another planet" (the "Mediocrity Principle"), or are we "rare earth?" Surely it's not clear. If we're the only intelligent life in the universe then, cosmically, we're not "just another planet." I don't think this in itself would dissuade Weinberg on the issue of God. If his myth gets exploded I don't see him becoming a believer. Likewise, for me, if there's ETs out there it will not affect my religiosity. And in all of this size does not matter.

6. Weinberg's words about the problem of consciousness are not helpful. He says we may never solve the problem of consciousness. I can accept that. What I cannot accept is that the physicalism he so wants to believe in is "true." It's precisely the problem of consciousness that makes this incoherent for me.

7. Weinberg's third source of tension between religion and science is Islamic fatalism, which leads to not a lot of science being done by serious Muslims.

8. Weinberg's tension #4 has to do with the conflict between what science claims and what religious authorities claim. He makes an astonishing claim: "Though I can't prove it, I suspect that when Americans are asked in polls whether they believe in God or angels or heaven or hell they feel that it is a religious duty to say that they do, whatever they actually believe. And of course hardly anyone today in the West seems to have even the slightest interest in the great controversies—Arians vs. Athanasians, monophysites vs. monothelites, justification by faith or by works—that used to be taken so seriously that they set Christians at each other's throats." This is Weinberg the psychologist, or Weinberg the Dawkinsian mind-reader. Weinberg is such a dogmatist that he simply cannot envision Americans, if they have any level of intelligence at all, actually believing in God and heaven and angels and hell. This marks Weinberg as a fundamentalist. Talking to him about anything different will be like talking to a brick wall. As for the "great controversies," Weinberg is guilty of anachronistic thinking. Those "great controversies" made sense within their historical context. To ask that many will today be concerned with them is to expect us to share a 1700-year-old worldview. Today we have other "great controversies," and many are fully religious. For example, the question "Does my life have a purpose?" is alive and well.