Science and faith: a reply to Martin Bosworth

Our old friend and colleague Martin Bosworth offered up a thoughtful take on science and faith a few days ago and his thesis has been percolating in my mind ever since. In this post he describes himself as experiencing a “spiritual crisis.” No doubt he’s in one of those deep periods of self-reflection that I experience from time to time, although he seems way too lucid for the word “crisis.” In any case, since he posted these thoughts to a public forum and promoted them a bit, I think it’s fair to conclude that he’s inviting conversation. As such, I thought I might take a few moments here to, well, conversate.

Let me begin by noting that Boz doesn’t need anybody’s approval to believe what he believes or to live his life as he sees fit. Further, I think it’s clear by this point that he’s going to conduct his life and career in a way that are fair-minded and progressive in every sense, so whatever he believes it’s likely to lead him in a productive direction where those he interacts with and on behalf of are concerned. All of which is to say that there are people out there I worry about, but Martin isn’t one of them. Which is nice.

So, to the points that I’d interrogate a bit.

First, Martin’s characterization of Dawkins is off the mark.

I don’t find myself persuaded by people like Dawkins or Hitchens any more than I do their opposite numbers among the imams, bishops, etc.. Even atheist freethinkers like Eric Maisel, who are much more positively focused on building a life of meaning without the divine as opposed to just tearing God down, still place heavy emphasis on the idea of the believer as somehow less than the nonbeliever. That you are somehow handicapped or weaker for believing is just as foul as the reverse. To be Other is not to be less. It’s simply to be different.

I haven’t read the Hitchens screed yet, although I have read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, which certainly fits in here nicely whether Boz cites it or not. In short, to compare Dawkins with fundamentalist religious types is to engage in false equivalence. Put simply, fundamentalists squelch dissent (some of them by any means necessary) and reject out of hand any suggestion that their received truths are in error. Scientists like Dawkins do precisely the opposite. Nothing is taken as certain, everything is open to challenge, and the closest anybody comes to being squelched is when their ideas fail to withstand scientific and rational scrutiny.

Let me offer an example that sort of illustrates what I’m getting at. I know a guy who plays a similar sort of game with media political pundits. Specifically, he argues that Keith Olbermann is the same as Rush Limbaugh. In his mind (to the extent that I accept his argument at face value) it all seems to reduce to “partisan pundits being loud and rude.” If you’re from another planet and know nothing of the realities about which they’re each angry, you might easily enough equate the two.

The problem is that Olbermann is largely correct – in a way that is factually demonstrable – when he hammers the Bushes and Cheneys of the world. Limbaugh and his ilk are almost never factually right (I say “almost” because it’s possible I missed a factual statement somewhere; in any event, it’s not something that happens as a matter of design). Olbermann is, like all of us, a creature shaped by ideology, but he proceeds from facts and evidence. If his ideologies conflict with evidence, his ideology must and will adapt. His conservative opposite numbers are just the opposite. Evidence that does not jive with their preconceived ideological rantings is dismissed (or twisted, or lied about). Therefore, Olbermann and Limbaugh are alike if, and only if, the accuracy of their arguments and the processes they use to reach their conclusions are irrelevant. And if they are irrelevant, then what can possibly be the point of the discussion?

Perhaps Dawkins and Hitchens and Maisel do make mistakes, but if so they must be addressed on their own merits instead of being unfairly lumped in with people who are intellectually their opposites in every conceivable fashion.

Second, his personal experiences with the apparently non-rational don’t really evidence his thesis. Martin writes:

More than that, I can’t disavow or deny the otherworldly experiences I’ve had. How many times have you tried to get any work done during a Mercury retrograde, for instance? I’ve lived through too many of those to count, and to say that this is just random, unconnected chaos is like saying UFO sightings are caused by weather balloons. (What the hell IS a weather balloon, anyway?) The explanation is even more nonsensical than the experience, but we take it because it sounds rational.

For starters, your awareness of the Mercury retrograde can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the same token, I’m told emergency rooms can get a little crazy during a full moon. This doesn’t prove that full moons make us crazy, though. More likely we’ve all heard enough stories about the full moon that we take it as a subconscious license to act crazy. That is, A doesn’t cause B, B causes A.

However, we cannot and should not dismiss experiences, such as those Boz alludes to, that are not readily explainable by logical means. This relates to the final point I’ll make below.

Martin’s precognitive dreams may be powerful, but is there a sampling fallacy at work?

I’ve had precognitive dreams as long as I can remember–dreams that specifically envisioned events that took place months or years into the future, which rendered them utterly nonsensical to me–but when my timeline reached that moment, I had a flash of intuitive insight so profound that I altered my course of action, and invariably chose a better path. You can torture me like Winston Smith, but I will go to my grave knowing–not believing, knowing–that these things happened.

Let’s accept this at face value and in totality. Next question – how many dreams has he had that didn’t come true?

It’s easy, and perfectly natural, that we’d be compelled by cases where we dream something and it later comes true, especially if the dream afforded us a useful insight into how to navigate the situation when it occurred. But we all dream thousands and thousands of dreams, and it’s probably safe to say that a good 99.9% of them never come true. These, of course, aren’t going to be terribly memorable or meaningful, and are thus ignored or dismissed.

What can we really learn from, and how can we truly trust a paradigm that only counts the rarest exceptions?

Then Martin delves into creativity, and this is where I find his musings to the the most compelling. He’s certainly right – something is going on, that something is marvelous, and that something often escapes rational explanation. Hey, I’m a poet, and he’s preaching to the choir here.

But he then takes a leap, in an attempt to transcend “false dichotomy,” and in doing so assumes away some things that cannot be so easily dispensed with.

The journey of humanity has always been about overcoming our origins as beasts, as animals ruled by impulses and genetic programming to survive. Every time we choose a higher path than simple subsistence, every time we refuse the common wisdom, every time we step away from the pack, and every time we choose to rejoin the pack for a higher purpose than the tyranny of the mob, we take another step along that journey. We can make of our natures more than we are, while at the same time realizing that what we dismiss as “the supernatural” is simply another person’s way of shaping the world and creating for themselves a meaningful existence. Everything from prayer to the Tarot, from astrology to vampires, has its place in the universe. “Science” versus “faith,”is to me a false dichotomy, as simplistic and useless as “black and white,” “gay or straight,” “liberal or conservative,” etc. It’s the same tactic we fall into time and again–defining ourselves by what we are not, as opposed to what we are. We build tribes to protect ourselves from the Outsider, the Other, and end up perpetrating the same ostracism we claim to be against.

So can a secular humanist embrace the supernatural and otherworldly while rejecting zealotry from both believers and nonbelievers alike? Yes, I think so. We live in a time when all known paradigms are being reshaped. Some violently, some peacefully, but it is happening nonetheless. Probably one of the biggest paradigm shifts we have to push is against the idea that reason and faith cannot coexist, and indeed, thrive, as part of a healthy belief system that tests, examines, chooses, and investigates, yet still keeps its mind open to all possibilities.

Much of this is worthy, but here’s the problem I see. Martin assumes the existence of the supernatural. His only evidence lies in the passages I address above, and from those experiences he fiats a supernatural world.

I’m with him to a point. I agree – heck, how could I not agree – that there are things in the world that we cannot fully perceive, that we cannot explain at this point of our evolution. Like Martin, I know for a fact that there are things going on that can’t be explained via the mechanisms of science. My own creative faculties, for instance. I’ve read a good bit about creativity and how it works, but trust me, those explanations don’t come anywhere near accounting for things that have happened in my head.

However, these things Martin assigns to the supernatural. Or that’s what happens in places. In the first of the two paragraphs noted just above something more complex is at work, but in the next “the supernatural and otherworldly” assume the shape of fact.

My response is that the unexplained isn’t necessarily unexplainable. That is, it seems like a higher mystery today, but that only means that our science and rationality haven’t understood it yet. We may understand it tomorrow, though – the entire history of science has been about moving things from the category of the unknown and mysterious to the known. So my answer to Boz is that these things aren’t supernatural, there just natural things we haven’t figured out yet.

This pivot has significant and obvious implications for the discussion of religion, and when intelligent people are pursuing these issues in good faith the practical implications may be non-existent. We keep seeking, we keep learning and refining, we keep evolving. We keep moving up the ladder of enlightenment and as we do so we live better and better lives, hopefully.

Thanks to Martin for opening the door onto an interesting subject. If I know him at all, he’ll likely have an equally thoughtul response.


  • Regarding Limbaugh and Olbermann, who’s right and who’s wrong is a matter of the lens one sees life through. William F. Buckley Jr. would have said Olbermann was wrong and Rush was right, and Buckley was no slouch in the intelligence department.

    The picture shown in my link gives a perfect example of the lens of life, the filter, and either image you see is correct, and neither is wrong.


  • I’d hesitate to claim Buckley would say Rush is right.

  • And cognitive illusions, while making for a nice parallel, don’t segue well into discussions over ideological perception. It’s a big generalization to make.

  • My response is that the unexplained isn’t necessarily unexplainable.

    Bingo. And the probability is that we won’t ever get all of those explanations, which seems to scare the shit out of (or the Jesus into) most people.

  • You are engaging in your own examples of false equivalence here.

    Martin Bosworth writes: “I don’t find myself persuaded by people like Dawkins or Hitchens any more than I do their opposite numbers among the imams, bishops, etc”. *You* then interpret the second half of that relation as “fundamentalist religious types”.

    But I’d say that the “opposite numbers [to Dawkins] among imams, bishops etc” are far from “fundamentalists” – they’re very thoughtful, often sophisticated scholars, in the mould of Rowan Williams or Karen Armstrong, who will take a holy text as a starting point, not a final word, and do whatever is necessary to adapt it to meet contrary evidence or argument.

    Precognitive dreams “may be a sampling fallacy at work” – then again, *there may not*. You make a good argument that there *may* be such a fallacy – but then you proceed to treat the case as proven, which it isn’t.

    “Something is going on, that something is marvelous, and that something often escapes rational explanation” – here, I think you’re maybe doing a disservice to the scope and possibilities of “rational explanation”. If you read Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop”, you’ll find he provides perfectly rational (physical, mathematical) explanations for the existence of something you could quite plausibly call “the soul” – something that does indeed exist independently of the body, and may well outlive it for an indefinite period.

  • Pingback: Man Of Science, Man Of Faith II: Building Better Myths »

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