Monday, November 15, 2010

Religion: A temporary phase in mankind’s history?

I don’t often write on science and religion. That’s because it seems to me that everything that can be said was said about a million times already. But much of what I read recently tries to argue for or against the compatibility of religion and scientific research. The outcome is either some justification for denial of scientific facts or what’s become known as the “god of the gaps:” religion confined to these areas where scientific explanations are still lacking; an inevitably shrinking range of operation for god. But I believe that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Religion and science are not two different approaches to explain the world that need to be made compatible, possibly by discarding one entirely. Instead, religion (as well as other superstitious believes) is a historical pre-phase to scientific thinking. It’s a primitive exercise in story-telling and sense-making, that has proven to be of advantage for its practitioners. Religions are part of our historical legacy, but the wide spread of religion we currently witness is a temporary phase. Both are not compatible in the same sense that an MP3 player isn’t compatible with living in the Stone Age. But then, people in the Stone Age were happy even without MP3 players.

As an atheist, my interest in religion stems from them having a major influence on our history and their lasting effect in shaping our societies. It is an interesting question: Why is it that so many people, all around the globe, believe in some god when that god and its tales are in outright conflict with scientific evidence or, in the better case, without evidence whatsoever?

In an earlier post, I reported on results of a study looking for the neurological origin of religion. There have been a lot of studies in that direction during the last decade. Almost all of them however do not so much look for the origins of religiosity as more for the origins of supernatural thinking, or call it jumping to conclusions. The human brain looks for explanations, tries to find patterns, and to construct theories. These are skills that have proven very useful to our survival. Inventing gods arguably serves as some sort of explanation. Yet, superstition generally serves that purpose too, and at the end of the road, if you carefully follow up on the explanations, if you construct correct theories, where you inevitably arrive is: science! And over the course of history, that’s the path we’ve taken: Starting from gods and superstition towards science by continuing to ask and to look for better and more useful explanations.

Thus, one could equally well say our looking for patterns and aiming to construct explanations is not only the origin of religion, but the origin of scientific thinking and drawing upon such neurological basis to claim religion is hard-wired just confirms what we see in the world around us but doesn’t explain it. On that level, the difference between religion or superstition and science is simply how carefully you investigate the data and how much you learn about how to construct consistent theories of reality, ie the question is at which level of explanation do you stop searching. Tests for activity in certain brain regions look for activity on the very-short to short timescale. But that’s not all what constitutes human cognition. In contrast, compared to other species humans are particularly good in careful deliberation, reflection and advance planning. That’s the basis of our success. Not so surprisingly then, most, if not all, religious people sooner or later have doubts in the reality of what they believe in. This doubt has to be constantly silenced to be a good believer, and many people manage indeed to lull themselves into a state of constantly belying their own intelligence. But the existence of these doubts tells us that indeed religion is not the natural endstate of the search for explanation. The human mind wants to question and solve the puzzles. It wants to understand, not to be shut up. It wants to know more.

So, compared to science religions don’t make particularly convincing or useful explanations for anything and knowing what we know today, belief is only possible with working against ones’ own intelligence. We are then left to wonder still, why do so many people believe?

In a recent opinion piece on the NYT blog, Tim Crane (who declares himself an atheist) wrote, in essence, that people chose to believe because it’s easier:
“[S]cientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability...

Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)...

I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories... [M]ost people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it.”

I don’t find this explanation plausible. True, if one wants to understand the details of modern science it requires time and effort. But that’s true for everything, including religion, as Crane points out himself. Understanding the Bible (to the extent possible) also requires patience and a narrowing of focus. It would already make a difference if more people would at least understand contemporary science on the level they understand their weekly sermon. No, the actual reason why people have more knowledge about their religion than, say, modern cosmology, is that they go to church every Sunday instead of going to a physics lecture. Their mindset is a consequence, rather than the origin of what they spend time on. Just think about how amazingly quickly seriously ill patients learn details about their disease, up to the level where they know more about recent research than their doctors. Suddenly they are deeply interested indeed, it’s just a matter of motivation.

With Crane’s explanation not being convincing, let us ask again: why do so many people believe? I think it’s because religious belief has both psychological as well as social advantages, and that serves as a motivation science is often lacking. Let us start with the psychological advantage. Existential psychotherapy is a particularly simple (and overly simple) model of the human mind. It posits that we all have four so-called “existential fears” – the fear of death, of loneliness, of meaninglessness and the fear of freedom. (The latter refers to the fear of responsibility one has for one’s own decisions.) Psychological problems occur if one or several of these fears take overhand and stifle personal development. Religions neatly address all of these fears. The social advantage comes from being a member of a global community with shared traditions that in many cases are very well organized, providing counseling and support in difficult phases of one’s life. The believer belongs, and he knows where he belongs.

Thus, the practitioner of a widely spread religion has indeed benefits from his belief. The benefits are less pronounced for superstition for which there is no such social cohesion and does less to address existential fears, thus explaining why the neurological origin might be the same but religions are more successful.

The question is now what has science to offer?

On the psychological and social level, science has no such offers to make – at least not yet, and not obviously so. But I think these offers will come, and they will become more and more widely accepted.

On the social level, I don’t think it is farfetched that one day people do indeed go to a public lecture on science every Sunday instead of going to church (must be one of my optimistic days). And the sense of community, that some of you might have found already on the Internet, comes automatically with the spread of shared knowledge, and time and places where you know you will meet like-minded people to discuss what's on your mind. Today, if you are actively working in science, you’ll find your community easily at the next university, all over the globe. Departments of physics look the same everywhere. If you’ve been in the field for some while, you’ll feel at home in either one. Same posters on the wall, same books in the shelves, same topics over lunch. I guess it is similar in most other fields: Science is a global enterprise.

On the psychological level, let us first mention again that science has the advantage of allowing –indeed welcoming – skepticism and doubt. The disadvantage is that one has to accept uncertainty as necessary ingredient. Science does not address the four existential fears as directly as religion does, but it does to some extent and that’s becoming more and more noticeable. There are for example numerous research programs trying to understand, explain, and modify human mortality. Of course these are on very different levels of scientific rigor and plausibility (ranking from freezing in one’s brain, over uploading oneself to a computer, to improving the body’s DNA repair mechanism). And of course they are not as complete comfort as believing in an immortal soul that goes to heaven or is reborn, but they offer a ground to grapple with the process of one’s own aging and death. The fears of loneliness, meaninglessness, freedom: There is lots of scientific research which addresses one or the other, on social, neurological, psychological, or philosophical grounds. That again is becoming more and more noticeable. Just have a look at the abundance of self-help books (e.g. on the topic of happiness). Yes, most of them are based on pseudo-science rather than sound science, but at least it’s a start. The point is not the quality of the science, the point is these approaches are non-religious. It’s a begin of a change of which I’m convinced we’ll see more.

And finally, of course a major role is played by the ancient questions: Where do we come from? and What are we made of? Theoretical physics is on the most fundamental level of our search for explanations. This is why the questions asked in this field seem quite detached from life and understanding current research – and its relevance – takes time and effort indeed. But it is this research we need to truly understande our place in the universe.


  1. Modern religions do not consist in supernatural thinking and seeking an explanation for the inexplicable. They all present historical evidence for their faith.

    Mormons have the veracity of Joseph Smith's claims of Revelation. Muslims have the notion that the angel Gabriel revealed the Qu'ran to Mohammed. Jews have the Exodus "I am the God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt" and Christians have the resurrection of Jesus.

    Science has nothing to say about these events. These aren't repeatable phenomena, they are the results of transcendental actors.

    God-in-the-gaps may seem like a dismal prospect, but all of history is opaque to repeatable experimentation. Most of human experience consists in singular events with complex and multiple causes preventing simple analysis by scientific means.

    Neuro-biology is irrelevant to the question of the plausibility of the resurrection.

  2. They might base their faith on historical events, but they certainly claim to have relevance for people's lives now and in the future. And that's why people flock to the churches, not because of the stories, but because of the promises. So claiming that "science has nothing to say about these events" is irrelevant anyway. Besides this, it's also wrong. You might not be able to recreate the event, but you can certainly answer the question whether it can plausibly have taken place according to today's scientific knowledge. In any case, that was not the point of my post. Best,


  3. Interesting, and interestingly argued, as always, Bee. How does one become part of this community of scientists, if one doesn't have a PhD and a full-time career at a University? Science "allow[s] –indeed welcom[es]– skepticism and doubt", indeed, but Religion, at its best, allows -indeed welcomes- uninformed skepticism and doubt, and finds work for any hands that will come to it. Science succeeds despite rather than because of its non-inclusiveness.

    As far as the God of the Gaps is concerned, what Science knows of the world is finite, and could be of measure zero in what could be known of the world, for all we can know, believe, or claim. Whether Science is a point in an infinite plain, or a covering of most of a finite room, makes the gaps infinite, never to be touched by Science, or else god will be Dead soon, but how could we know which is the case?

  4. Hi Peter,

    How does one become part of this community of scientists, if one doesn't have a PhD and a full-time career at a University?

    It's a community that so far, unfortunately, pretty much doesn't exist. One doesn't need a PhD to be interested in science, much like one doesn't need to be a preacher to read the Bible, so that's not much of an obstacle. I think it's just that presently there are too few people and too few opportunities for them to meet and to exchange. From the organizational side, I'd think that increased public outreach efforts of universities can initiate such a process. Best,


  5. You can ask whether an event can take place plausibly according to scientific knowledge, but that's stupid if there are transcendental actors. It's like asking whether the statues at Easter Island could be created by erosion. People did it: actors, intelligent beings. It's irrelevant whether you could recreate it with natural processes (erosion) without that actor.

    In the same way, you could figure out whether someone could understand whether resurrection after flogging, crucifixion and being impaled by a spear is plausible according to our scientific knowledge of natural processes, but it's obviously an unnatural process. Modern, repeatable experimentation just does not encompass any data as to whether God did that in the past.

    Now if historical evidence exists for such transcendental actors, their promises for the future are also plausible. These are still irrelevant to scientific inquiry.

    My point was also that the present tense, our current experience is bounded by a profound lack of information or control. Someone might ask, "Why did my girlfriend leave me?" They could ask her, ask their friends, develop a plausible narrative but that's in no way scientific. They could ask them to undergo FMRI studies to try and see where the love went. But unless their entire relationship was conducted under such close observation the moment when a little demon whispered in her ear she would never be content with him would go un-captured.

    I say this not to suggest that's the most likely explanation, but the complex and multiple causes for the actual events in our lives and the impossibility to measure let alone model that complexity leaves plenty of room to assert the possibility that there are also transcendental actors at work in our lives.

  6. Question of the day: Is the concept of a rational religion an oxymoron?

    According to Democritus, Spinoza and Einstein, the answer is a resounding "No".

    The definition of "religion" would need to be a broad one, but not unusually so. Also, a ratonal religion need not remove those facets that make religion important to humans.


  7. Hi Joshua,

    There's no evidence for historical events in need of explanation by "transcendental actors." There's no evidence whatsoever for any "unnatural" event ever having occurred at any time or any place. Sure, that there is no evidence doesn't mean it can't have happened. It also means however there's no basis for faith whatsoever. It's all storytelling, it's all wanting-to-believe. And yes, there's still things science doesn't explain, for example why your girlfriend left you. Otoh, does the bible offer an explanation?

    In any case, I'll repeat again what I said above: this was not the point of my post. I was saying, to summarize, people have good reason to belong to one or the other religion because it's of benefit for them. I think science has similar benefits and that in the long run, science will thus replace religion. Best,


  8. Hi Robert,

    No, I don't think it's an oxymoron either. That's why I found Dawkins has classified me as a "sexed-up" atheist ;-) Though it of course depends on what you mean with religion. There are arguably some religions that are simply not compatible with rational thinking. I'm not sure whether there is today any that is? Best,


  9. The prime concern of a religious person is to gain a guarantee for salvation, that is, a guarantee that his/her life will somehow continue after death. It is not a concern, at least not primarily, to gain an explanation for the universe workings. God created all. Religion gives the guarantee of life after death at the only price of believing in God. Science does not and cannot give such a guarantee. It does provide explanations, under certain limitations and considerations, of the physical universe or the nature of life in the biological sciences. But the price is too high (a lot of mental work and years of learning the basic language, mathematics, to understand it, even partially). And at the end it does not offer at all a guarantee that understanding such workings of the physical/biological world one will have his/her mind set free from the agony of the perspective of his/her limited existence. Religion offers all required guarantee at a very low cost. Science cannot compete with Religion in that area.

    Education only is not enough to give an end to Religion (sure, it helps). There are many educated, even scientists who are religious. What is here at stake is a *psychological* issue -- how one is willing to cope with death.

    Luc Ferry has many (good, IMO) popular books on that account. (Although I do not agree 100% with that author, he gives very nice philosophical/historical perspectives on that matter).



  10. Hi Christine,

    Salvation certainly plays a major role in all religions since fear of death is the most pronounced and omnipresent one of the fears. But it's not the only reason people turn to religions. For example, they also want guidance and somebody to watch over them, they want their life to have a meaning. Salvation is also historically not the only reason people have invented gods. They wanted explanations for their observations: natural disasters, birth defects, diseases, etc etc. (You still find leftovers of this today. Why did that volcano erupt again?) A priori the believe in an omnipresent actor and the believe in salvation isn't necessarily connected, but de facto it is for all religions (at least all that I know of), because it fits so conveniently. Best,


  11. Saying there is zero evidence does not make it so.

    The bible is evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. The historical record of the Christian church, several extra-biblical accounts attest to this belief.

    Now, setting aside the fact that this evidence obviously exists, the fundamental point is, do you find it convincing? Or, perhaps more broadly, where does this evidence fit into Christian faith?

    As Paul says, if Christ is not reason, our faith is in vain. In other words, Christianity depends *entirely* on this historical record.

    Whether the evidence is convincing depends on a separate fact: what do you believe about Jesus? If you read the Gospels and believe Jesus is credible when he claims to be God, his predictions about his death and resurrection, the response of the disciples before and after and the recorded history of the Church make a great deal of sense in that context.

    On the other hand, if you find the words of Jesus to be all simply that of an ordinary fellow or a crazy person it seems unlikely his disciples were anything other than delusional.

  12. Hi Bee,

    Yes, that is why I used the word "prime" in my previous comment. There are other reasons apart from salvation, of course, but I think they are minor concerns.

    Also, note that religious people must not only believe in God, but also must live their lives according to some rules "stated by God", in order to gain salvation (part of the price...). A mismatch in this regard tends to drive a person towards asking for some guidance, to receive some "light" in order to conduct better his/her life according to such rules. Of course, the problem can sometimes be genuine, but if God is there to help on anything, why not ask for His guidance?? There is such a relief in believing that some "actor" is out there caring for us. In desperate times, it is natural to ask a for a divine hand.

    I very much would like to have such a divine help for me and my family, I would be so much more tranquil in various aspects... But I cannot have this. Since I was 10, I realized that God did not exist. And yet, I had sometimes to go to the catholic mass as a child, because I studied in a catholic school. I would spend hours facing the image of Christ asking for Him to appear to me or otherwise to make me die instead. I am still here. But the issue is not over. I hate the idea of dying. When I do, let the world (at least the internet...) know that it will be under the deepest protest!

    Finally, the belief in an omnipresent actor to explain phenomena was avery strong issue in the past, but today the trend is more in the direction to state that science "is discovering things now that were already known to religion" (whatever that is). Or to put scientific discoverings in a religious mold (e.g., the Big Bang).


  13. Karl Marx correctly identified a dialectic in human history, but was mistaken in postulating that it was between the powerful and the disenfranchised. The central dialectic of human society has been between fundamentalism and intellectualism, faith and doubt, belief and incredulity.

    We, among the intellectuals, like to think of ourselves as slowly winning the battle of stamping out virulent fundamentalism. But in truth, fundamentalism vastly dominates all of human society and history. Intellectualism has only existed in brief fits and spurts; only then to be stamped out quickly, often in the violent butchering of intellectuals; when fundamentalism no longer perceives value or usefulness of allowing intellectuals to exist.

    By far most humans are intellectual surfs; who quickly retreat from the perceived danger and uncertainty of curiosity and doubt, back to the comfortable psychological safety of faith and belief. Furthermore, when intellectuals challenge the safety of faith too vigorously, or too quickly we get murdered en-mass.

    From the Taliban to the Tea Party, what we are witnessing is the predictable and unstoppable swing away from intellectualism that occurs when the majority of the human race no longer perceives the value of the achievements of intellectualism (computers, antibiotics, sanitation, etc...) as out weighing the costs of doubt, curiosity, and the questioning of faith.

  14. Joshua, if you think that the bible is an obviously existing evidence of the resurrection of Jesus and the only question is to what extent you believe this after reading it, I am tempted to ask you a question. Have you read a certain bestseller by the name of Lord of the Rings? Do you believe in Elves after reading the 3 tomes? I thought so...

    Or in other words: just because something has already happened doesn`t prevent us from studying the possibilities of that thing happening again. As Bee said in her post, science is all about accepting the uncertainty - you can never be 100% certain that Jesus didn`t actually resurrect but according to current scientific knowledge it is certainly more plausible that such an occurance has never taken place. I`m talking about plausibilities of magnitudes like 99.9999(insert random number of integers here)%.

    P.S. Great post, Bee.


  15. Martin:

    Name one person Martyred (IRL) for Frodo and the Ring and I'll concede the point.

  16. Joshua,

    Name one person who was martyred who was not killed in the name of a book or belief?

  17. There must have been a little tingle, neck hairs rising, when we pressed our bare foot into the mud next to the pugmark of a big predator. Perhaps that visceral discomfort was part of the DNA of early religion, that and huddling in some shelter during a massive thunderstorm. Certainly the Devil retains his predatory attributes to this day and frankly my first “religious” experience came while balled up in the bottom a sleeping bag during a rainstorm on a Boy Scout outing. Religion is in part palliative.
    Rather than religion, the tradecraft of hunting was possibly the rootstock of scientific endeavor. Hunting gives one the daily opportunity to test theory against result and the returns are more than intellectually rewarding.
    Organized religion came on about the same time as agriculture and certainly it has elements of a grand, social irrigation project. Our sexual drive, for example was dammed up early on and redirected into various social functions. There are many variations on the theme of, “to the holy warrior goes the virgin.” They have bound societies together and helped them prosper. So it goes.
    Perhaps the universe of science is too frighteningly big, too disturbingly small and too uncomfortably complex for the average pedestrian. Religion cuts it down to a reasonable size, makes for an easier equation, a simpler tale in which we can find our path with angels on our shoulder.
    Living in a country where fifty percent of the people believe that the book of Genesis is the way it was, I feel the weight of what is basically their fear. Science can illuminate the dark places, maybe that will be enough.

  18. What makes an explanation into a religious explanation?

  19. Trite but fun answers:

    a) The explanation is pathologically tautological "things are the way they are because they are the way they are" or "because god said so"

    b) The explanation is not falsifiable "god has made the earth to make us think that it is old"

    c) The explanation requires the denial of falsifiability "this book is the word of god and so must be accepted on faith"

  20. a. (things are the way they are) applies to the anthropic principle and multiverse.

    b. (non-falsifiable) applies to superstring theory

    Are these then religious explanations?

  21. My point about modern religions being based on historical evidence makes them all falsifiable.

  22. Science deals only with material things. It can never say anything scientific one way or the other about immaterial things such as spirits, including God. To oppose science to religion is to misunderstand what science is.

    And it's pretty pathetic when someone who claims to be a scientist is so desperate to refute religion that he'll knowingly invoke pseudo-science in his cause.

  23. Scientology is banned in Germany. I wish they'd do that in America, but "freedom of Religion" is hard-wired into our laws here. We KNOW the source of Scientology, which was L. Ron Hubbard, who once said: "If you want to get rich .. invent a religion!" Putz.

    Communism forbids Religion, the better to worship the "State." How did that work out?

    Who got the contract for the statue of Athena in the Parthenon? Pericles' brother? If anyone objected, would Pericles have responded: "OF COURSE I give construction contracts for our city's patron goddess to my family and friends. Who should I give them to? My enemies?"

    Nine out of ten mathematical physicists agree: The Study of Religion and Theology is time better spent studying the difference between diffeomorphism and homeomorphism, and other cool things.

    Atheists are guiltless.

    Agnostics are atheists without balls. (Steven Colbert)

    The fundamentally devout are the worst ambassadors of their religions. These are the people sent out into the world to advertise their faiths.

    There is not a sparrow that falls to Earth that goes unnoticed by the Father ... but still the sparrow falls.

    If nobody died the world would be a mightily overcrowded place. Which it is already. The words of the clerics bring great comfort to the survivors of the recently departed. Just before the 21-gun salute.

    Free Constantinople! Give Europe back to the Europeans (or at least to Thrace). Religion and Politics don't mix, unless you covet someone else's land/resources. I kill thee in the name of my kind and loving god.

    Order-in-Chaos theory and Evolution show that complexity can arise out of simplicity, but they do not prove that all complex things must.

    The greatest God of all is the one in the clouds in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because he hates groveling.

    Oh Bacchus, where are thou? Other than at my son's fraternity?

    Bee, unless you think it's too personal a question, how do you intend to raise your children, beginning with the inevitable question: "Who made me?" and later "Is there a God?"

  24. Oh, Bee, I`m really sorry for you seeing how your blog is getting spammed by the worst kind of trolls.

    There was a saying: "When you argue with an idiot they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience". Just replace the word "idiot" with "uneducated fanatic".

    I wouldn`t even try to answer, just ignore them. The point of your post was totally missed, you just argued WHY people choose religion.

  25. Arun:
    "a. (things are the way they are) applies to the anthropic principle and multiverse.

    b. (non-falsifiable) applies to superstring theory"

    You are incorrect on both accounts. Anthropic principle has to do with why this universe seems "fine-tuned" for life, and flips the question around by revealing that it is life that is fine-tuned to the universe in which it arose. Multiverse is entirely unrelated.

    String theory is in principle falsifiable, for instance it relies on GR and QM, so falsifying either would in turn falsify string theory. It just hasn't made any unique predictions yet.

  26. Joshua,

    Have you accepted doubt into your heart?

  27. I strongly suspect religion will last as long as humans do. I think it evolved mainly to fuse people into groups to compete against others, and it's still working pretty well in that respect.

    Most believers are neither particularly knowlegeable or interested in the details of their theology - as research has shown.

  28. Hi Joshua,

    The only thing the bible is "evidence" of is that some people wrote down a lot of fancy stories. In any case, I'll repeat it once again, and this is the last time: that you believe the bible is convincing "evidence" for "transcendental actors" and I don't isn't content of this post, and is irrelevant. Arguably the evidence for "transcendental actors" is extraordinarily weak. If the "strength" of evidence depends on whether you believe the evidence, as you say, it's no evidence.

    The question I have addressed here is is why do people believe despite this evidence being so weak. This is what my post is about. At the very least I hope it gave you something to think about and reflect on your own motivations. If you want to further discuss the plausibility of transcendental actors and unnatural events, please do so elsewhere. There must be hundreds if not thousands of websites dedicated to the topic. Best,


  29. Hi Christine,

    It must have been difficult for you. I suppose I was lucky I've grown up an atheist to begin with, so I never had to leave a church. (I actually wasn't Christianized). I had to attend religion at school though, for reasons of supervision (no pun intended). I filed the bible stories somewhere between Grimm's fairy tales and other moral tales that German children are drowned in, such as the Struwwelpeter. (Stories that would easily gain a PG 16 and probably traumatized whole generations).

    In any case, almost all of my friends, relatives and neighbors were either Protestants or Roman Catholics (the exception one being Jehovah's witness, or rather her parents, and quite suffering from it), so needless to say I know the drill. For some time, I went to mass quite frequently with my friends. From this, I got a quite positive impression in that it was simply a nice place to go and a very supportive community that in addition played a major role for the social services in the area. It is for this reason that I think religions are not just some evil that's plaguing mankind, but has some benefits to it, which is why people hold on to it. As long as science doesn't have comparable benefits, we'll have to cope with the evils that religions comes with too.



  30. Hi Don,

    "Perhaps the universe of science is too frighteningly big, too disturbingly small and too uncomfortably complex for the average pedestrian. Religion cuts it down to a reasonable size, makes for an easier equation, a simpler tale in which we can find our path with angels on our shoulder.

    Living in a country where fifty percent of the people believe that the book of Genesis is the way it was, I feel the weight of what is basically their fear. Science can illuminate the dark places, maybe that will be enough."

    Very well said. I hope that in the long run what will speak for science is that it doesn't necessitate shutting down parts of the brain. Some days I'm more, other's less convinced that's where we are headed, but if you look at the trend, more and more people are leaving churches and are looking for inspiration elsewhere. At the very least, I think this trend will continue, though it's likely religions will never completely vanish. Best,


  31. Hi Arun,

    I'd say features typical of religious explanations are that they're final, not to be altered and not to be questioned, ever, and that they are extremely non-minimalistic, in that they necessitate some omnipresent, omniscient being that consciously does things (like, say, throwing lightnings at the disbelievers). They also typically have no predictive power. (If praying doesn't cure your cancer, well, you just haven't prayed enough.) Taken together, I guess one could sum it up as religious explanations are useless as explanations per se. Their use comes from the community they tie you in and the comfort they offer. Best,


  32. Hi Naturgesetz,

    "Science deals only with material things."

    Is a quantum field material or immaterial?

    "And it's pretty pathetic when someone who claims to be a scientist is so desperate to refute religion that he'll knowingly invoke pseudo-science in his cause."

    You totally misunderstood my post. I haven't even tried to "refute" one or the other religion. There's plenty of others who are engaging in this and I'm not interested enough in the details of one or the other religion to waste time on such arguments. I've simply pointed out that as a matter of fact people are seeking out non-religious help and explanations, which sometimes is real science yet more often pseudo-science, and that is taking in place that was previously occupied by religion. Best,


  33. Hi Steven,

    Bee, unless you think it's too personal a question, how do you intend to raise your children, beginning with the inevitable question: "Who made me?" and later "Is there a God?"

    I haven't spend much thought on this, and I would discuss this with Stefan when it comes up. However, these were questions I actually never asked as child. It just didn't come up. I think I asked at some point what "God" is supposed to be. It was a concept that didn't make much sense to me, and it still doesn't. Best,


  34. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I suppose that's another reason not to write on science and religion... Should have known better. Best,


  35. Hi CIP,

    Yes, that's what I think on my more pessimistic days... However, there are trends indicating that the large religions have a decreasing fellowship, so on the more optimistic days I like to extrapolate this trend. Best,


  36. Hi Bee,

    Even though I find myself being as you, as to be defined by Dawkins as a sexed up atheist, I think what you’ve missed with your comparison between science and religion, is both at their cores being philosophies, each with their own methodologies. The problem being is what many today consider as being religion is that which concerns with its mandates or doctrines, as opposed to what stands as being its goals.

    That is if one is to begin with a standard definition of a non scientific philosophy, as being “an investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods“, one finds what it missing, being something most as thinking to be central to religion, with that being belief. This is also to point out that what most see as being religion today primarily deals with what one believes, rather then what one is attempting to discover and there is where most of the difficulty and conflict arises between both and among peoples which consider themselves as being religious and those who find themselves not.

    On the other hand, what science is could be loosely defined as being is “an investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning required to be reinforced with empirical methods“. This has this philosophy as being similar to the first, only it does demand incorporating empirical consideration in its attempt to relieve doubt, which it also excluding belief as not required and thus each being the central goal of both scientific and non scientific philosophy.

    So for me when both are considered properly and carefully, they each tend have us forced to suppress what I consider the worst of humanity’s weaknesses, with that being its arrogance; with having us necessarily to admit to ourselves, that there is much more that we don’t know, respective of what we do or can. So even though I hold to science as being my philosophy of choice, respective of reason relative to the likeliness of success, I also respect, as to admire, those I find to be the truly religious, as although they may be limited by their approach we share the same goal(s).

    “And yet, that the primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.”........... “But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.”

    -Albert Einstein

    “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”

    -Albert Einstein



  37. Wise words all around Bee, and regarding what you said to CIP's wise words, I don't think there's any place for optimism or pessimism in Science, not real Science, especially not the least complicated and most important Science which is Physics.

    When I was 37 (so much changes in our psyches at that age, give or take), and after many years of research into the matters I will list, I decided to let the Wookie win so to speak, and stop worrying about things that realistically we'll never have an answer to, or not bloody likely have the answer to, in this or the next several generations, like Religion, Consciousness, and Death.

    Then again, regarding Death, doesn't everything die, except in certain Cosmological speculations? And who does the Universe think it is that it's so special such that its immortal? Maybe it's not, so here's to The Big Rip Model.

    When I was younger, I heard that at dinner parties especially, in "polite" company, the 3 subjects one should never discuss are Sex, Religion, and Politics. Well hell, I figured, those are my three favorite subjects (at the time)! Where's the fun in that?! And so, I switched (back) to (my childhood love of) Science, at least its study. And stopped going to parties.

    Bee, thanks for showing that you (and Stefan) have interests other than Math and Science, as the public has the impression we're all nerds. That's one of the greatest strengths of your weblog and why we keep coming back, that Scientists are in fact human beings too, and ask the same questions as everyone else.

    For example ... who do Wookies worship? The Great Wookie? Well, I just don't know and will never know so I won't go there, as things will get too hairy.

  38. Phil,

    The yogi and the tantric is engaged in empirical investigation.


  39. Bee, I think you have captured our intuitive notion of what constitutes a religious explanation quite well. There are some philosophical problems with it, but won't delve into it.

    Weforgottenuno, the theory of Allah, or Christ or Jehovah also makes definite falsifiable-in-principle, not so in practice predictions.

  40. Hi Bee,

    just wanted to say I am really glad you posted this, despite the fact that some people have misunderstood (or wanted to misunderstand). In my opinion, you have an admirable ability of thinking independently, understanding the big picture, and delivering your points in a solid and often very witty way! I wish more blogs were as thoughtful and charming as yours :)

    Now, regarding the topic of this post: I was wondering how long you think that the ongoing shift of people's interests you are describing (from religion towards science) is going to take (assuming a pace of scientific progress at least as fast as today's), and if it will ever reach a state of overthrowing religion. Can you imagine people attending science lectures instead of sermons on Sundays happening in the course of the next few years, decades, or rather after several hundreds of years of evolution?

    I would definitely be thrilled to experience something like that in my lifetime. However I'm afraid that the extremely strong influence of religion on our educational systems and societies will make it very difficult.

  41. What is the difference between religion and quantum gravitation or SUSY? Religion occasionally stumbles onto a miracle (though irreproducible).

    @Joshua Probert, Name one person Martyred (IRL) for Frodo and the Ring and I'll concede the point.

    All four books are orgies of blood and death. JRR Tolkien was a professed Luddite and a devout Christian. Technology is skewered. Purity is gained through mortal sacrifice (unlike calculus, that only requires persistence). There are the Chosen.

    Therein contained is not a single water closet. Middle Earth ("Mediterranea") is a place you did not walk without watching your every step - barefoot Hobbits especially, or not. Wuck.

    The Good Lord has Special Place in His Heart for those who believe: martyrdom. Test of faith! The worst Science can do is unemployment.

  42. Question of the Day:

    Well then, is the concept of a rational human an oxymoron?


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  44. Robert wrote:
    Well then, is the concept of a rational human an oxymoron?

    Not for those blessed/fortunate to be born with the highest IQ's, and the appropriate knowledge. Good question.

    Uncle Al wrote:
    The worst Science can do is unemployment.

    And the worst is a reality. Click here to see how it's about to get worse than worst in America.

    Then click here and enjoy/scream. I got that from Bee's tweet in the right hand margin.

    Science does a very good job, given current information. Industry lags behind because technology lags behind. Technology lags behind because Scientists aren't Ciceros. They have a difficult enough time explaining their competitive theories to each other, let alone the masses.

    Thank goodness some are exceptions, like Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis' beautifully accessible recent book, The Shape of Inner Space. 24 reviews, 23 5-stars and 1 4-star, need I say more? It was released at the same time as Hawking's The Grand Design, which unnecessarily invokes Religion (avg. review 3.5 stars. Guess which one shot to the top of the non-fiction charts?

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  46. In my comments above, i left an important word out, in bold italics below:

    Scientists have a difficult enough time explaining their competitive theories each other, let alone to engineers and the masses.

    Sorry, forgot the most important bit, because it is engineers, those who build based on Science, that are charged with explaining all this stuff to the businessmen, such that money is put where it should go. And ain't it all about the money, honey?

    Religion is indeed falling by the wayside, Bee, unless one considers Atheism to be a religion (which I very frigging much DO!), in which case it's just a shift in beliefs, same as it ever was.

    Let's see, Atheism is a belief system. It's a faith, without proof. Yeah, I guess that ain't a "religion" .

  47. Hi Bee,

    I was raised a string Catholic as a youth, with prayers around a statue on Fridays. As I grew older I did find a patriarchal society had formed in appearance, and that such power, in human beings can have a God Complex over "reason" in humanity, can have found the psychology presentation of respect falling by the wayside for some religious principal.


  48. Bee: Why is it that so many people, all around the globe, believe in some god when that god and its tales are in outright conflict with scientific evidence or, in the better case, without evidence whatsoever?

    I am not sure why being a atheist one needs to be reminded this qualifies as somehow being part credential as some scientist?

    As one can believe in the growth of science, for the person in science, it is okay to believe and not have the support of some reason to believe in that God for one self?

    It is a personal thing that one must grant such freedoms for the diversity of belief, to see that all people are entitled, that what ever path chosen becomes their light on the choices they make and ultimately their responsibility?

    I truly believe you will have the last say on how you did in living this life in its totality.

    While I do believe in a God, a vibration, this does not dissuade me from continuing to develop and look into, for the patterns, not only of belief, but of the foundations with which we move science forward.

    The developing psychology of our youth manifest as human beings in reaction to their growing up. This defines them as who they are.

    It is not always clear how such developing manifest as if by some "phase change" had occurred that you can identify on one level a action taking place and on another, how experience can have manifested as that action.

    It is very important to understand this, as one might see by example such parables in the story of the bible, will have manifested in how human beings interpreted by analogy, emotions as real waves of oceans and seas, or, of fisherman as some who seek deeply, the wisdom of what rests below our conscious minds. Who we are as human beings.


  49. IN your Art and Communication you quote the following from a comment of mine.

    Bee:I tend to believe we are taking ourselves too seriously. If there is a God how could we be sure we'd be able to understand his (her?) thoughts? Genderless for sure eh?:)

    You see, Jean Shinoda Bolen's "Ring of Power" is a good demonstration of how we are who we are, as an outcome of the action of our youth, and who we have become as people today. We might not even in our own everyday capabilities understand this change.

    To interpret this you have to understand that a "phase change" takes place that is psychologically embedded and needs to be interpreted in a special way.

    As one might interpret a dream perhaps?:)What do these symbols represent to you.

    How was a society in our historical past shaped by a Hitler who used the driving force of such symbols of mysticism? What "psychology" shaped him? Mother, Father, a family? Society, so easily lead then by an outcome?


  50. Plato: "I was raised a string Catholic as a youth"

    :) Now that's a funny typo...

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  52. Hi Plato,

    I totally grant everybody the freedom to believe what they want to believe as long as they do not harm others. It's their life and I hope it makes them happy. I just have trouble to understand how somebody can get themselves to believe in some god and its narrative, and that's my try in understanding. Best,


  53. Hi Arun,

    You said:”The yogi and the tantric is engaged in empirical investigation.”

    Yes good point and yet as Einstein reminded as to have observed in my quote “But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form”. I would argue that science itself still struggles to find what to be “a pure form”. That would be also to point out those of science that find it already attained to suffer from the same misconception as those that find religion to be concerned with belief, rather than the relief of doubt as then to not have it be required.



  54. Bee: that's my try in understanding.

    Bee their is no way I can "map out" the pathway( my own blog tells the tale?) that allowed me "to see" in a certain way, or , to help translate this "as fragments" so as to understand something of a totality of what I have come to believe.

    Again, it's not necessary either, yet, that you are trying to understand that narrative is much appreciated, as you have left room for my "own state of being" without being determined and closed the door.

    As to the "string typo" I find myself doing that a lot:) Maybe, a certain bias there?:)

    Hope you are doing well.


  55. I just have trouble to understand how somebody can get themselves to believe in some god and its narrative

    I do not know, except for what I have stated before, regarding how one is willing to cope with death - letting oneself get driven into a some religious safe land (salvation promise land) -- or not.

    As also mentioned, this is not the only reason for religion, but possibly the main reason. So it's a psychological issue, IMO. You have to study the psychological side of the question. Explanation for phenomena played a role in the past, but it's no longer the case -- in fact the inverse now seems to be true: what science is discovering is more and more put into some religious mold.

    OTOH, it is possible to grow as a child in a religious environment and yet for some reason go into a process which leads to doubt and finally disbelief in religion, being myself an example, and perhaps others here. The process can be a very arduous and deep one, though. So I would even speculate that the atheist that comes out from such a process may be somewhat a different atheist from a case where the person never had to put their faith under test.


  56. Why does it matter why some (actually very many) people believe in a deity?

    It seems to me, BTW, that all the hypothesizing about what motivated prehistoric humans to believe in the divine is speculation which of necessity has no real evidence.

    But whatever conscious or unconscious motivation there may be, is ultimately irrelevant, because it says nothing about the truth or falsity of the belief. What matters is whether there is a God, not why I believe that there is. As they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't prove they aren't out to get you.

  57. naturgetsetz: "Why does it matter why some (actually very many) people believe in a deity?"

    The simple straight answer is that if you believe that a deity is running the show, you are prone to using that paradigm to answer some (many) questions with bogus explanations. And to stop further questioning.

    Bottom line: The danger is short-circuiting your ability to observe and reason and question in a rational manner.

    If large numbers of people think this way, ...

  58. Joshua,

    Pre-history may have "officially" ended 5000 years ago, but everyone knows that it didn't "unofficially" end until the printing press was invented 600 years ago. Pyramids and cavepaintings don't count.

    Your whole argument, while honourable, is not helping anything.

  59. @ RLO — You didn't answer my question. You explained why it may be a problem that people believe in a deity if that belief is false. But that would be true if their belief were false, regardless of why they believed it.

    The reason I made the post is that it seems to me that many people seem to think that they can explain faith away if they spin out an hypothesis along the lines of, "Primitive humans observed such and such and felt thus and so, so they invented the idea of god[s] to explain it/comfort them." All of which says absolutely nothing about whether they were right or wrong or whether contemporary theists are right or wrong. One might as well ask what it is that motivates people to come up with these fanciful "explanations" and actually think they prove something.

  60. Robert,

    I hope you realize how ironic it is that you chose the simple straight forward answer as to why people believe in a diety.

    Unfortunately, you're wrong.

    Looks like you need a dose of your own medicine. Let me know when you've taken it, and I'll explain to you why people really believe in a diety. I'm sure I can fit you in somewhere between all my programming and reading of physics.

  61. The simple straight answer is that if you believe that a deity is running the show, you are prone to using that paradigm to answer some (many) questions with bogus explanations. And to stop further questioning.

    Didn't stop Sir Isaac Newton!

  62. I am neither believer nor atheist. I am just a searcher. In my opinion the fundamental question is this: What is going to happen after death? Everything will be over or something will survive? For trying to give an answer to this question I have been travelling extensively and studied many religions and rites. Honestly I have to say I have seen some immaterial phenomena. My book contains many data and it is a must for people who want to open their mind. The title is Travels of the Mind. My website is
    If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
    Ettore Grillo

  63. Today one half of civilization believes, the Universe was created with God, the second one believes, it was created in huge explosion from nothing. Frankly, I don't see a huge difference here, because belief in any form is an imanent part of our acceptation of surrounding reality.

    Some of us are believing in God or Aether, some others believe it doesn't exist, being blind and deaf to all its motivations. All modern theories in physics are based on belief in abstract postulates, which have no deeper reasoning without assumption of hidden underlying reality.

    The more logical stance we occupy for explanation of remote phenomena, the more abstract and common sense violating assumptions we are required to believe. It means, there is a symmetry in depth of logical explanation and belief in assumptions of this explanation.

  64. My kind of religion is less interested in theology. It asks questions like - what is the source of sorrow? and provides answers like - it is anger, fear, greed, jealousy, and teaches how to control, if not overcome these.

    Along the way, it has to have a metaphysical view of human life. Among other things, this view comes to the conclusion that there is no external "purpose of life" (e.g., a purpose such as the Christian God provides); the purpose of one's life is self-generated. All that my kind of religion does is enumerate the possible purposes, and which ones are more likely to avoid sorrow/provide happiness than others.

    All in all, my kind of religion is a guide to action, not a catalog of beliefs that one must hold in order to be "religious".

    My kind of religion does not ask me to accept anything on faith, except for one thing - that the quest for answers is worthwhile, even if difficult and often seemingly futile. It provides its own answers to the questions, but the answers are meaningless for a particular person until he realizes it, both intellectually and experientially.

    The god/gods in my type of religion are very different from the Christian god, even though there are morphological similarities. In particular, these gods have no will to impose on me or purpose to provide me. Their existence in a historical or physical sense is irrelevant. They serve as powerful symbols that direct the mind; upon whom meditation is fruitful; as an anchor for emotions. Certainly they have inspired great art.

    Now some say that my kind of religion is no religion, it is something else. That well may be. But conventionally, it is still called a religion.

    I hope I have provided an understandable explanation of why religion is still relevant to me.

  65. Arun: "Didn't stop Sir Isaac Newton!"

    Newton's prodigious efforts in biblical hermeneutics and alchemy got him exactly NOWHERE.

    When he restrained his credulous side and buckled down to serious rationalism, he gave the world several precious gifts: universal gravitation, the basic laws of motion and a much better understanding of light.

    Could one ask for a better lesson?


  66. Sir Isaac Newton's motivation to look into gravitation, etc., was driven by his religious belief. He thought hew was reading God's book. We accept his secular achievement and reject his religious and alchemical stuff, which is fine; but in that process we might lose what drove the man. And without being driven, what does one achieve?

  67. Hi Arun & Robert,

    As far as I have been able to gather having an acceptance, rather than a belief in God, neither helped nor hindered Newton respective of science, as he had already adopted science as his method for discovering nature’s physical truths. The role Newton had for God being very much as the one Bee describes his role today for many as being the God of the margins. However I think it pretty clear that Newton’s conception of God was not as it would be taken by most of his time or place as to understand if his feelings on such matters being broadly known would have him branded as being a heretic.

    In support of this I offer two quotes both taken from the summation of his “Principia Mathematica”[1687]. The first has it clear what he thought the method and goals of science being respective to those many then and similarly today consider to be the domain of religion. In the second he assigns the reason that gravity hasn’t brought the universe together in a big crunch, being it was created with everything being placed at such great distances from one another, as not having realized that a big bang with an initial exponential expansion might have accounted for the same. None the less the place for God in such considerations was to transfer what stands as being motive to a creator, rather than to serve as a method., as such things is what science was to serve as to have more confidently explained respective of utility.

    If one looks to what separates even practitioners of science today comes down as being this question respective to motive, rather than method, as method is considered to be something that can be known, while the discovery motive or the lack of one still remains uncertain relative to science’s reach. In the end for me what stands to separate scientific and non scientific philosophy is in many believing that a discovery of motive will be detrimental to the former, while the discovery of their not being one negating the role and therein the utility of the latter. I would argue it is this belief, central to both having many so concerned serving as what separates the two needlessly, as each position not being consistent respective to reason.

    “But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phænomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phænomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phænomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that the impenetrability, the mobility, and the impulsive force of bodies, and the laws of motion and of gravitation, were discovered. And to us it is enough that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.”

    “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.”



  68. Despite my animus toward certain bullying, Buda blasting aspects of organized religion, I think it will be with us for some time as a necessary ingredient. For good or ill, it serves to generate the field that orients our compasses. I don’t see a social mechanism that would replace it; certainly science is too diffuse to serve the purpose.

    Then there is the metaphysics. I feel a need to leave some room for the unknown. I wonder exactly how the bear of nose and claw perceives the humming bird and hence, just how my own perceptions might be limited. Perhaps that is superstitious, but if God is not forbidden by the laws of physics, perhaps she does, in some form, exist.
    By the by, I once looked up God in the encyclopedia. There was a half page article. This was dwarfed by the article on baseball (American encyclopedia). Under Goddess it said, “see mythology”.

    Anyway, muddling along, yesterday I heard a song:

    If you gotta pretty good idea of what you’re looking for,
    Then you gotta pretty good idea of what you’ll find.
    You don’t have to go so very far these days,
    To find yourself a made up mind.
    Peter Mulvey, Letters From A Flying Machine, “Kids in The Square”

    Multiple regards and thank you for blogging.

  69. Final comment:

    Deism gives one everything useful from religion without the tooth fairies of Theism. And I literally mean every thing that is beneficial.

    Moreover, one does not kill in the name of Deism, nor is it prone to the "us/them" lies and paranoia.

    Spinoza said it all, long ago. Wake up!


  70. Hi Phil,

    It is easy enough to find things like this:

    "In his The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford 1974), F.E. Manuel concluded: "The more Newton's theological and alchemical, chronological and mythological work is examined as a whole corpus, set by the side of his science, the more apparent it becomes that in his moments of grandeur he saw himself as the last of the interpreters of God's will in actions, living on the fulfillment of times." "

    The question here is - what drove him, and not what methods did he use. The point being that for one driven like him, scientific methods are also useable.

  71. Robert:

    “Deism gives one everything useful from religion without the tooth fairies of Theism. And I literally mean every thing that is beneficial.

    Moreover, one does not kill in the name of Deism, nor is it prone to the "us/them" lies and paranoia.”

    This sounds a bit like one of those TV ads for the latest pharmaceutical that we get in this country.
    “… if you experience killing, lies and paranoia consult your doctor”

    And, I see that my post was unreflective and inconsistent. I begin with the notion that religion is the only “moderating” influence and end with a quote from a folk song. Clearly there are other potent, tonal agencies at work. I left out song, theatre, storytelling, pageantry and philosophy as well as whatever we are doing here in this new species of public interaction.

  72. Don Foster:

    “… if you experience killing, lies and paranoia consult your doctor”

    In such circumstances, I would instead recommend questioning your basic beliefs and assumptions.


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  74. Hi Arun & Robert,

    I would be the first to agree that for those few like Einstein, who have come to recognize the God of Spinoza as able to lend a level of understanding , respectful to the significance of balance and holism in the world, to afterwards leaving little else required to have them become persons of quality. However if one looks to how few have actually attained such enlightenment, to the point that it lends guidance to their lives, one would have to admit it having very limited success; even among those being considered great scientists, while also being self proclaimed atheists . Admittedly religion as for the most part as considered to be practiced today by many, also has a success rate that doesn’t lead one to find it having much utility in such regard; rather to the contrary it seemingly having the opposite result relative to its goal(s).

    In light of recognizing both as being apparently true, one must question what has each to fail and if perchance they could somehow be connected, being not so much to do with each respective of their methodology, as it is with what’s being considered to be its goals, utility or purpose if you like. In considering each from this perspective, I find that false conclusions, respective to what it means to “believe” , relative to both scientific and non scientific philosophy’s fundamental foundations to be such a lynch pin. That is I’ve found Einstein to have best expressed during his life what belief respective to science to mean and more recently Karen Armstrong what it means as it relates to non scientific philosophy, stand to be little different. Armstrong gave a TED lecture back in 2008, where at 3:06 minutes in she talks about how the concept of “belief” has changed, from what it originally meant, which is “ to love, to prize, to hold being an intellectual approach to a set of propositions.”

    So what I find common to both philosophical methods, being each not primarily meant to guarantee finding what as being right or wrong, yet rather what stands as being the best solution. Then I ask myself, given the present reality, where more and more people find it harder and harder to care, as to understand anything, which in the short term being the more likely to have the best result affecting the human condition respective to outcome, that being a fundamental appreciation of scientific philosophy or the same for one considered as being a non scientific one? Of course before this can be properly considered is to have understood that fundamentalism, respective to the latter, being not what many think it to be, yet actually its opposite.



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  76. Again, I will never understand why people seek to unify the apples and oranges that are Science and Theology, when there are so many other things begging and capable of being unified, some of which can be experimentally verified using current technology, or tech that will soon be on the table. Just look at the whole mess and chalk it up to Science being Man's attempt to find God's Reality, and [insert your ancestors' Religion] as God's attempt to explain Reality to man, then let it go and go do something practical.

    Or if you insist on contemplating this stuff because it gives you great intellectual pleasure to do so, then fine knock yourselves out with it. But at least have some fun with your studies of unprovable-until-Death stuff like the following, in which Jon Stewart unites Astronomy, Dogma, Empirical Evidence, and one dead Religion quite succinctly:

    Our solar system consists of a sun, eight planets, 170 or so moons, millions of asteroids, trillions of iceballs, and one dwarf trans-Neptunian object that tried to put one over on us (we're looking at you, Pluto). Our observation of the planets' regular motion was the first triumph of empirical science over irrational dogma. We named them after gods just to be safe.
    ... EARTH: The Book

    Then there's Feynman, who said there are no Laws of Nature, plural. There is only one law, only one Nature, and it is humans who wish to break it into parts.

  77. Hi naturgesetz,

    "Why does it matter why some (actually very many) people believe in a deity?"

    As I wrote in my post, I think it matters because it has shaped our history, and still has a major influence on our societies and politics. Best,


  78. Hi Bee,

    "Why does it matter why some (actually very many) people believe in a deity?"

    I think it more having to do with what Karen Armstrong pointed out in the introduction of her book "Bible" in stating “Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair”. I would then argue that science also being a philosophy which for some is found as serving to satisfy this innate quality respective of need. I would also suggest that science and religion are viewed as being polar opposites today resultant of the change in what it is considered as it meaning to “believe”, rather than being due to them being all that fundamentally different respective of methodology or objectives.



  79. Hi Steven,

    ” Then there's Feynman, who said there are no Laws of Nature, plural. There is only one law, only one Nature, and it is humans who wish to break it into parts.”

    Unfortunately this also comes down to being a belief, which admittedly is found today as a being common among most physicists. However there is another way, as ontologically to have it considered, being instead of one their being two or perhaps more natures, which when forced to be in each another’s presence accounts for the substance and action(s) that we observe. The question being which viewpoint being true with the answer to be hopefully found with the aid of science left unfettered by the constraints of what many consider to be belief.



  80. I had a bet with myself how long it would take for a Philosopher to weigh in on questioning Feynman's basic assumption, as the questioning of assumptions is the very job that professional Philosophers do so well and for which they are so very badly needed in Science.

    I am not at all surprised it was you Phil, but I am surprised and pleasantly so that it was so fast.

    George Musser beautifully explains what I just wrote in the final chapter of his The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Not sure that thought is original with Musser or from Lee Smolin.

    In any event, we are hampered in that it is not the onus of the Physicist to learn Philosophy, but rather the other way around. I'm happy Tim Maudlin understands the Physics of Special Relativity and Quantum Entanglement and took the professional Philosopher's logic sword to their incompatibility, in his book, Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity.

    The next obvious step would be to have these annoying String Theory wars settled once and for all, for if there was ever a theory whose assumptions should be examined, it is String Theory's. And a little child philosopher shall lead them.

    But String Theory Math, as they say, is tough. Is it really, or is "tough" the string priesthood's advertising spin meant to kept rational investigators at bay?

    Well, I don't know. But if so, any philosopher's veil of ignorance can begin to be removed in swift fashion by reading The Shape of Things by Shing-Tung Yao.

  81. Marcelo Gleiser questioned Feynman's Assumption this past summer, which led me to question in turn that if a TOE doesn't exist as Gleiser questions it may not, then there may not be a unification of Gravity and the three quantum forces either.

    I hope not, as that would suck for me being one who has adopted Quantum Gravity as his hobby for the rest of his born days (with just a few brief respites trying to catch Lake Trout every now and then in Round Valley reservoir).

    But we must question. Fish we must.

  82. Hi Steven,

    It’s nice that you would consider me as being a philosopher and yet the only firm connection with it being both the prefixes of my name and it being the same, as meaning to love. However the suffixes have us to be different, as with philosophy it being knowledge, while with my full name being Philip has it related to horses. This has long had me to be concerned that what I say at times may not be resultant from being correct, yet rather with some affinity being connected with a horse’s ass. This may explain why I dropped the suffix, as I much prefer it simply to be love and have the rest left to be decided; hopefully scientifically:-)



  83. This comment has been removed by the author.

  84. Phil, your problem is that you're too modest, humble, and polite, which I can relate to because I was raised to be so as well, so it should surprise noone that you're Canadian.

    The thing old pal, is this. You are an Amateur Philosopher, and I have believed you have confused the incorrect current usage of "amateur" with the correct old one, which is my intent in describing you so.

    The current wrong version is: incorrect or newbie or student or just-enough-knowledge-to-be-dangerous, as Lubos views Jim Weatherall.

    The older and correct version and which applies to you of "Amateur" is "one who self-studies."

    This of course is 100% un-correlatible of whether or not you are right or wrong. But I think you're right.

  85. Hi Steven,

    I would concede to having read and contemplated many philosophies and yet I find the scientific one being the best, as it relates to the probability of success, from the perspective of measurable quantities as they relate to our perception and understanding of quality. The only proviso I would place upon it, is despite what many believe, it being no different than other philosophies, as requiring to be looked upon contextually in order to have things best assured as being understood.

    For instance, many who profess to understand quantum mechanics (and what its since given rise to) fail to see this as being the case and thus quite often have not only things misunderstood, yet worse find themselves in a position where important questions are not even realized as needing to be asked as a result.

    Similarly from the religious side, where for instance when some read in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, it is often associated with weaklings and/or cowards being preferred as to be favoured. However if taken from the earlier Greek translation “Maka,rioi oi) praei/j o[ti auvtoi. klhronomh,sousin th.n gh/n” it comes out reading "Blessed the meek because these they will inherit their portion of land/earth.". However this in itself is not enough, as needing to be considered in terms of its meaning and context of the time. That being “blessed” is to refer to those being “happy” as opposed to being favoured or entitled ones, which describes a state of being, rather than a position of privilege. As for “meek” in the original meaningful context relates to those who are “kind”, “gentle” and “forgiving”, as only being separate aspects of the more general character of "Temperance", which in of itself doesn’t rule out or forbid resistance, only reminding it needing to be a considered and measured response, requiring empathy always being maintained. Finally what land/earth references to is where it is one arrives, such as the promise land or a place from which God can be known or more simply in a state of enlightenment.

    The bottom line for me being, is finding the context of all and any philosophy needs to be considered as being important or one runs the risk of having it taken on faith alone, as to only have it able to be believed; rather than something one is required to understand. So Steven I would have you to know that for the most part you find me correctly, as one trying to be of a character not resultant of not being or wishing to be bold, yet rather as being humbled by what I so much enjoy, which is the attempt to have things understood. That is for me it comes down to Valhalla not being a place one finds, as attained from our struggle(s) to arrive, yet rather the experience(s) provided during the journey, as the result of making the attempt. This gives rise to another thought, as to think, if there were such a being, which came to know all as to have nothing further to look forward as being learned, how boring and lonely that could be; this thought however not being representative of any philosophy, yet only the wonder from which all are born.



  86. Well it looks like you're going to be happy the rest of your life, Phil, because there's plenty we don't understand. Each answer seems to spawn four new questions, so we're good to go that way down the next several generations, at least.

  87. Nature is completely unified and balanced.

    If it were not, then you would not see the amazing degree of orderliness in nature.

    Therefore, there has to be some kind of TOE, but it may not be convenient to express it mathematically. Like Darwinian evolution unifies biology, at least qualitatively, the TOE of nature may be most conveniently expressed in concepts with words. There would be a mathematical version, but even the best computers and the smartest humans might be have trouble coping with it at present.


  88. I agree with bee. Religion is a historical pre-phase to scientific thinking. In general,
    religion is concerned with the existence of a transcendent sphere. According to all religions this sphere represents the most fundamental foundation of the universe.
    It is a quite strange fact that even today many philosophers as well as physicists were still attached to this idea of a transcendent sphere. What is the reason for this seemingly unreasonable attachment?
    I think that this idea has indeed a kernel of truth but that it came historically much too soon.
    It’s a typical case of prematurity. In a much-discussed paper published in Scientific American in 1972, molecular biologist Gunther Stent has proposed this hypothesis of prematurity. He wanted to explain why a specific idea that later turns out to be correct, is initially ignored by the scientific community. According to Stent a discovery is premature if its implications cannot be connected to the canonical knowledge by a simple series of logical steps.
    To my opinion the idea of a transcendent sphere belongs to this group or category of ideas as far as the historical development of physics is concerned.
    I am actually convinced that we are able to connect this idea with our knowledge of the physical universe by a simple series of logical steps.
    One of these steps is to turn around our usual perspective: Instead of looking for the transcendent sphere itself, which cannot, in principle, be perceived by any kind of detection or measurement, we have to look at the observable universe and to ask: How must the universe look like if it based on such a strange foundation?
    Often Einstein asked himself: Did God have any choice in the creation of the universe? If one think about the condition of transcendence more seriously one can recognize that transcendence is obviously a highly restrictive condition with respect to the physical universe. If the universe shall be organized in such a way that its ultimate foundation can never be seen from an immanent point of view, then it must have a very very specific conception.

  89. Hi Bee,

    The truth is this debate regarding the place and value of religion has raged for centuries and discussed among the scholars. In fact many scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment were preoccupied by such notions. The influence of deist such as John Locke had great effect as highlighted in the American Constitution as it being authored by those like Benjamin Franklin, also a self proclaimed deist, had it to become a secular document as to be the first nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state.

    Further if one studies what Franklin wrote in such regard it’s discovered there not being much difference between the God he, Einstein and Spinoza would ascribe. Never the less he saw no replacement for religion as finding its general advantages far outweighed its detriments and held that atheism could not become a replacement yet more if becoming the general sentiment more likely to bring havoc and ruin to society in the main.

    “I have read your Manuscript with some Attention. By the Arguments it contains against the Doctrine of a particular Providence, tho’ you allow a general Providence, you strike at the Foundation of all Religion: For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection. I will not enter into any Discussion of your Principles, tho’ you seem to desire it; At present I shall only give you my Opinion that tho’ your Reasonings are subtle, and may prevail with some Readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general Sentiments of Mankind on that Subject, and the Consequence of printing this Piece will be a great deal of Odium drawn upon your self, Mischief to you and no Benefit to others. He that spits against the Wind, spits in his own Face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any Good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous Life without the Assistance afforded by Religion; you having a clear Perception of the Advantages of Virtue and the Disadvantages of Vice, and possessing a Strength of Resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common Temptations. But think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc’d and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent Talents of reasoning on a less hazardous Subject, and thereby obtain Rank with our most distinguish’d Authors. For among us, it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots that a Youth to be receiv’d into the Company of Men, should prove his Manhood by beating his Mother. I would advise you therefore not to attempt unchaining the Tyger, but to burn this Piece before it is seen by any other Person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of Mortification from the Enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of Regret and Repentance. If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?

    -Benjamin Franklin - Letter to unknown recipient (13 December 1757)





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