Saturday, April 03, 2010

Francisco Ayala and Easter

Former Dominican priest, Francisco Ayala was announced this week as the winner of the £1 million 2010 Templeton Prize. An evolutionary biologist and geneticist, Ayala was awarded the prize for supporting the notion that there is no contradiction between science and religion.

Interviewed by New Scientist, Ayala claims that science and religion are "two windows through which we look at the world. Religion deals with our relationship with our creator, with each other, the meaning and purpose of life, and moral values; science deals with the make-up of matter, expansion of galaxies, evolution of organisms. They deal with different ways of knowing. I feel that science is compatible with religious faith in a personal, omnipotent and benevolent God."

Writing in The Guardian, Mark Vernon places Ayala's position close to that of Stephen Jay Gould, who argued, as follows, that science and religion are 'non-overlapping magisteria':

"The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives."

If religion confined itself to making a bundle of metaphysical and ethical claims, then it could indeed be claimed that there is no overlap with the empirical domain of science. Unfortunately, however, the world's major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, have historically been supported by bundles of empirical claims about man's place in the universe, which have been falsified by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and the Darwinian revolution in biology. The claim that science and religion possess non-overlapping domains is therefore demonstrably false.

The majority of religious adherents in the world, believe that the universe was created by a supernatural being called 'God', that God answers prayers and performs miracles, and that humans have immaterial souls which survive death. Most Christians, in particular, believe that there was a man called Jesus, who was the 'son of God', and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, these Christians will celebrate their belief that this man was resurrected from the dead. Belief in such purported miracles amounts to a belief in the occurrence of certain empirical events, which are impossible according to science.

Ayala claims that "religion and science are not properly understood by some people, Christians particularly." Ayala's claim that science and religion are not in contradiction, therefore depends upon the proposition that religion is not actually what the majority of religious people in the world believe it to be.

By stripping religion of its empirical content, Ayala and Gould are engaging in a high re-definition of what religion is. In other words, they are implicitly attempting to re-define the term 'religion', so that it applies to a narrower range of beliefs. This more narrowly defined bundle of metaphysical and moral beliefs, might well be consistent with scientific belief, but this can only be achieved by changing the original and commonly understood meaning of the word 'religion'.

The second component of the philosophy espoused by Ayala and Gould is that religion has a legitimate role in ethics and morality. This, however, is as much of a logical fallacy as the notion that ethics and morality can be derived from science; one cannot derive ethical claims from metaphysical claims about the existence of supernatural deities, any more than they can be derived from claims about Darwinian evolution. As pointed out by philosopher Adolf Grunbaum in The Poverty of Theistic Morality, this fallacy was exposed by Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro:

Is the conduct approved by the gods right ("pious"), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.

For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept.

1 comment:

Alexander Kruel said...

At this stage, I believe, science and mathematics are the only ways of knowing.

There are other ways. There is introspection to find and convey meaning. There are self-contained rules, as in gaming or computer programming, that can be made-up and learnt. Nevertheless, these ways of knowing are not concerned with empirical inquiry about the nature of reality, but are subjective truths of an aesthetic sense. These other ways of knowing are either based upon our subjective first-person knowledge or on logical constructions, i.e. language games, which only make sense in reference to themselves.

I'll start incorporating crazy counter-intuitive notions about the nature of the universe when the cold implacable hand of the universe starts shoving them down my throat, not before! — PZ Myers

When it comes to learning about the underlying nature of things, there simply is no reason to go beyond physical, factual inquiry right now. You can assess your data with practicability. If a drug makes you think that you can fly you can jump from the next bridge and be brought back down to earth by reality.

No conclusion can be drawn if you fail to build a contradiction. — Luk Arbuckle

Reality is not subject to interpretation, only abstraction, or rather description. The fundamental nature of reality, its characteristics and qualities are absolute. Red is always red even when you call it green.

For an event to be evidence about a target of inquiry, it has to happen differently in a way that's entangled with the different possible states of the target. — Eliezer Yudkowsky

I believe that the only reasonable definition of existence is for something to have a sensible influence. This also implies that something that exists can be subject to scientific inquiry. Something that exists can be assessed with practicability. It makes a difference. Thus you don't have to have a comprehensive grasp to determine the simplest of all conclusions: Something exists or it might exist. Either something is tangible or it might as well not exist.

A belief is only really worthwhile if you could, in principle, be persuaded to believe otherwise. — Eliezer Yudkowsky

If I cut my throat I may discover that I was dreaming or that I have been playing some advanced virtual reality game all along. Everything is possible. But right now there are safer and more promising options of gaining knowledge. How can I be sure? I can't, but there is evidence which proved to be reliable so far. I have to suspect that it will continue to be reliable based on experiment and observation. That doesn't make it the ultimate way of knowing or even a superior way but the best I know of at this time. And until I hit some hard barrier I do not have any good reason to try something else.