Science and the world’s future

Today, I attended a special lecture, Science and the world’s future, presented by Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science. Since Science is one of the most respected scientific publications out there I expected a good talk about science. For the most part I got what I expected. However, when it came to the questions things went downhill quickly.

The body of the talk was about science education, more specifically how it can be improved, and how to make science more relevant in the world. There were many examples of ways to better science teaching, generally aimed at moving away from rote memorisation and towards fostering thinking and creativity. In addition he talked about the National Academies and how they played a role in using science to guide politics. He spoke about international co-operation between scientists and how the climate of needing lots of publications stifled creative science. Overall it was a good talk that wanted an increased interest in science and the hope that that would lead to a generation of rational, problem solvers.

Then it came to the questions. The first question was about the relationship between science and religion and whether they were in conflict. According to conversation afterwards the question was asked by George Ellis, though I wasn’t familiar enough with the people attending to recognise anyone. I knew the name as he had collaborated with Stephen Hawking. It turns out he also was involved with the International Society of Science and Religion and was a recipient of the Templeton prize.

I wasn’t sure how Alberts would answer as I knew nothing about him before the talk. I’ve heard the AAAS takes an accommodationist position and his talk was advertised as emphasising “science as a way of knowing”. The “a” suggests there would be other ways of knowing. On the positive side, he hadn’t said anything accommodationist in his talk and had focused on instilling rationality through science. Unfortunately he took the accommodationist position, saying that religion and science were separate, not in conflict and that religious questions couldn’t be answered by science.

It’s quite astounding seeing someone so qualified say something so obviously wrong. This especially to his claim that religious questions couldn’t be answered by science. They can and have been, in the negative, multiple times. The religious claims that prayers are capable of healing has been scientifically tested, and found to be untrue. The religious claims of the age of Earth have been scientifically tested and found to be untrue. The same thing can be said for many other religious claims and I’m sure they’re all archived somewhere on the internet.

But, even ignoring those cases that directly contradict him, we can see the difference in methodology. Religion does not work on empirical observation and experimentation. It’s not even a source of knowledge and has provided no advancements or new technologies. Jerry Coyne has addressed the topic of “ways of knowing” far better than I can.

As a scientist, Alberts should know to only accept claims which are supported by evidence. You don’t accept religion because you can’t disprove it but only if it provides evidence to support itself. It doesn’t. He would not take someone seriously that claimed to have a revelation about how cells work so why does he take it seriously if someone claims it for a spiritual phenomenon?

In the end I guess I should have expected it but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the ending to what was otherwise an enjoyable talk. I know it was recorded so it will probably be posted with the other Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lectures before too long.

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21 thoughts on “Science and the world’s future

  1. I think it is important to note that “religious questions” encompass much more than the simplistic topics of miracles and the origins of the earth.

  2. Religious questions can encompass a lot more but the answers never become justified. Religious questions have no accepted answers because religion is not a source of knowledge. There isn’t even agreement within denominations of the same religion. The only questions that get answers are those that conflict with science because science is a source of knowledge.

  3. “Religious questions have no accepted answers because religion is not a source of knowledge.”

    That will depend on what sort of “knowledge” you are talking about. Knowledge about how gravity works, why a airplane flies and how life may have evolved is quit different from knowledge about why we should behave ethically, why we should be monogamous/polygamous, honest, how to deal with death or what meaning and purpose to be taken from our lives.

  4. Knowledge as in something that is true. Religion can’t answer questions about ethics, sexuality, honesty or dealing with death.
    Its ideas of ethics are completely out of touch with modern ideas and not universally accepted even among the religious. That’s not knowledge. Its advice on sexuality is again out of touch, harmful, discriminatory and inconsistent. The idea of religion and honesty is laughable as the whole thing is a lie. And it’s proclamations on death and the meaning of life are hollow.
    If religion offered a real truth then that would be something everyone could accept. Like everyone accepts how a plane works, the equations for gravity etc. That’s because science gives real knowledge that everyone can arrive at. Religion is not a real truth.

  5. “Its ideas of ethics are completely out of touch with modern ideas and not universally accepted even among the religious.”

    Exactly whose “modern ideas” are “universally accepted” then? Karl Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche, Adolph Hitler, Freud, Chomsky, Gould or Dawkins?

  6. Secular ethics are widely accepted but also are not claimed as objective knowledge. However they are supported through reason and have a philosophical basis. When we say people should all be treated equally regardless of sex or sexuality or religion we can back that up with reasons. When the bible says women should be stoned if they aren’t virgins it can’t back that up without postulating an invisible being pulling the strings.

  7. So to repeat my previous question, whose brand of “secular ethics” are widely accepted – in comparison to religions ethics that you say are all over the place? Karl Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche, Adolph Hitler, Freud, Chomsky, Gould or Dawkins?

    You also use the word “widely”. It is my understanding that 4/5 humans being on this planet live in China. Do you have any evidence to back up your claims that the vast majority of Chinese people support “Secular ethics” and then what brand of it do they support. Do they support the liberal capitalist Western form of individualist democracy, or do they support the working class type of collective democracy?

    What about basic assumptions in “Secular ethics” – do we have a consistent scientific approach the the metaphysical concept of “free will” for example.

  8. The sort as supported by the ideas of universal human rights which are currently expanding and endorsed by the UN. Also if you think 4/5 of people are in China then you really need to do some better research.

  9. The 4/5 was a joke – right 🙂

    But at least we are getting somewhere now. So lets take for example the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its starts with article 1:

    “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

    Do you have any scientific evidence for any of those bold metaphysical assertion about the innate nobility of mankind. Lets just take again the concept of freedom – man as an independent agent i.e. with a free will, endowed with a “conscience” and therefore able to make moral choices.

    Do you have any scientific evidence for that?

  10. They aren’t metaphysical assertions and neither are ethics scientific questions. Those are principles we take as a foundation that gives the best possible world for everyone, no matter their position.

    Edit: I’ve changed how comments display. The nested version didn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.

  11. “They aren’t metaphysical assertions and neither are ethics scientific questions. Those are principles we take as a foundation that gives the best possible world for everyone, no matter their position.”

    In fact they must be metaphysical assertions since you have not offer evidence or reasoning based on scientific observation to support them. Further you have just confirmed that questions on ethics in your opinion are not scientific questions, however you also argued above that you do not agree with “religious questions couldn’t be answered by science.”

  12. They are not metaphysical assertions because we’re not claiming that they are actual things. They are concepts that are useful for creating a desirable world. They are products of philosophy.

    Ethics are not scientific questions, they are philosophical questions. That doesn’t contradict saying that religious questions can’t be answered by science. Questions about how the world are and what exist are religious questions that are answered by science. Religions statements on ethics are invalid not because ethical questions themselves are scientific but because religious justification of ethics rests on religious claims about the nature of the world, which are scientific questions. When a religion says X is wrong because god said so then it’s making an ethical claim whose validity rests on god existing and interacting with the world. Whether god exists or interacts with the world is the sort of question science can address and a lack of evidence for that premise invalidates the conclusions, in this case religious ethics, that are derived from it.

  13. “They are not metaphysical assertions because we’re not claiming that they are actual things. They are concepts that are useful for creating a desirable world. They are products of philosophy.”

    But God is also a concept – the subject and product of philosophy over thousands of years? There are quite a few religions that do not in fact propose the existence of God as an “actual thing”.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#ConGod

  14. I don’t know all the religions in the world so perhaps there are some. However those are very much in the minority and don’t have a noticeable influence on the world.

  15. “don’t know all the religions in the world so perhaps there are some. .”

    That is bit like saying I’m a scientist: I don’t know much but I have a theory.

  16. continued…
    Lets take Hinduism for example, the oldest religion on earth going back over 5000 years. The abstract concept of God.

    “Q1. Who is the Hindu God?
    A. There is no such thing as a Hindu God. Hindus believe in the same God as Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other religions do. Hindus call God by countless male and female names, for example, Ishwar, Pramatma, Bhagwan, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Mahadeva, Prabhu, Parmeshwar and Shakti. Hindus also believe that people of other cultures and languages understand this one God in their own way, and each religion has its own path to this one God.”

    “Q2. What is the definition of God in Hinduism?
    A. According to Hindu thought, God is: the infinite Supreme Reality; the Absolute Truth; a divine conscience energy from which all energies flow; the sole cause behind everything visible and invisible; the creator of the entire universe. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and self-evident. God has no beginning and no end.”

    http://unitedhinducongress.org/beliefs.html

    Now read Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

    Not much difference imo in the metaphysical conjecture and speculation there. However article one makes a number of claims about human nature that are not substantiated by any evidence or scientific reasoning – it just is so? Well – and what if its is not so? Religious reasoning is much more scientific in its approach to ethics by postulating the concept of God or a ‘Universal Good” as the source and rationale behind such metaphysical concepts as “endowed with reason and conscience”, “a spirit of brotherhood”, etc..

    And this of course may main problem with the socalled “New Atheists” who indulge in “religion” bashing much like fundamentalist lunatics themselves. They most often do this from a position of absolute ignorance of the topic of moral philosophy, including but not limited to religion which they like to define and pigeonhole in its narrowest and worst aspects of Western (aka Christian) manifestation. They then proceed to knock their own strawmen down, arguing from a position of absolute ignorance and contempt for the tradition of evidence and reason that they claim to uphold.

  17. Continue trolling if you want but I’ve run out of interest in this debate. You’re also still mistaking ethical claims for truth claims. They are not truth or real knowledge in the same way as science.

  18. Pingback: Theism versus atheism: Uninspiring VC Open Lecture | Evidence & Reason

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