God and Science
Through the months of May, June, and July of 2015, TheBestSchools.org is hosting an intensive Dialogue on the Nature of Science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer.
During the third month, July, the focus will be on God and science.
Dr. Sheldrake will defend the position that there is no conflict between science and the existence of God; evidence from conscious experience renders belief in God reasonable.
Dr. Shermer will oppose Sheldrake’s position, arguing that science in no way supports the existence of God; in fact, science undercuts the reasonableness of belief in God.
For details about this dialogue, along with a complete guide to other portions of it, click here.
To give our readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:
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Sheldrake Opening Statement
I believe in God, and I am a church-going Christian, an Anglican (Episcopalian in the United States). You are a materialist, atheist, and secular humanist. I think faith in God and the practice of science are compatible and mutually enhancing. I dare say you disagree.
“I think faith in God and the practice of science are compatible and mutually enhancing.”—@RupertSheldrake
Nevertheless, we probably agree about many things. First, we both believe that the universe has a unity that makes science possible. This belief is shared by Christians, atheists, and by followers of other faiths. Second, we both agree that the universe is intelligible, at least in part—otherwise, science and reason would be futile.
For those who believe in God, the intelligibility of nature and the ability of human minds to understand some aspects of the natural world make sense because they have a common source, namely God. God’s consciousness is the ultimate source of human consciousness, and all other forms of consciousness in the universe.
Most atheists and materialists also believe in something like the mind of God, but stripped down to mathematical principles, or “the laws of physics,” which were there from the beginning, and are changeless, universal, and omnipotent. This seems to be the opinion of your friend Lawrence Krauss, for example. The main difference is that in Christian theology, the ordering principles of the universe are aspects of God, whereas for an atheist the laws of nature sprang into being miraculously at the moment of the Big Bang, or exist in a transcendent Platonic realm, from which they somehow gave rise to the universe.
If these laws are explained in terms of yet more fundamental laws, as in M-theory, or superstring theory, then where do those ultimate laws come from? Just like the woman who thought the world rested on a turtle, and that turtle on another turtle, and so on all the way down, in modern physics, mathematical laws rest on mathematical laws all the way down.
You will argue that to say that the ordering principles of nature have their ultimate source in God adds nothing simply to saying there are laws. But it does add something. God is by definition a conscious being, and divine consciousness permeates the universe, and is also the ultimate source of human consciousness. By contrast, materialists believe that the universe is unconscious, governed by unconscious laws, and made up of unconscious matter. These assumptions make human consciousness problematic, which is why philosophers of mind call the very existence of consciousness “the hard problem.”
A third area in which we agree is evolution. We both believe in evolution, not only at the biological level, but also at the cosmic level. The whole universe has been expanding and developing for billions of years, forming ever more varied structures within it, including galaxies, solar systems, and biological life, at least on this planet. All the new forms that come into being, including the forms of molecules, crystals, plants, and animals, require some kind of creativity. Like you, I think that creativity is inherent in nature, and I do not think that the universe is designed by an external engineering-type God. Also, like you, I do not think that the bible, or any other sacred book, is a scientific, historical record to be taken literally.
Some biblical fundamentalists think of God as an engineer who designed and created species of animals and plants like a watchmaker designing a watch. Ironically, this God of the world machine has more to do with science than with the bible or traditional Christian doctrines. When the machine model of nature took hold in seventeenth-century science, a new image of God came into being as a supernatural engineer, a machine-maker separate from nature.
You don’t believe in this kind of God, and neither do I. In traditional Christian theology, God is not a kind of craftsman, or demiurge, who makes the world in the first place and then retires, leaving it to work automatically, except for occasional interventions when he arbitrarily suspends the laws of nature. God is not a demiurge, and not a meddler with machinery. According to the traditional understanding in Christian and other theologies, God is the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. He sustains the world in its existence from moment to moment, and is doing so now.
In any case, the biblical account of creation does not see nature as mechanical, or God as an engineer. Plants and animals were not invented by God in a kind of celestial workshop. The Creation account in the book of Genesis (1.11) reads, “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so.” Likewise, God empowered the seas and the earth to bring forth marine, terrestrial, and flying animals (Gn. 1.20–24). In theology this is called “mediate creation.” God did not create plants and animals directly, micromanaging their details, but endowed Nature with an inherent creativity.
Spiritual traditions in general, and religions in particular, were not founded on irrational propositions, or on blind faith, or on dogma, or on fear. They arose from states of consciousness that go beyond normal everyday experience. Shamans, Indian rishis, the Buddha, the Jewish prophets, Jesus and Muhammad spoke from their direct experiences of connection to a greater consciousness.
In your opening statement in May, you remarked that “If God (or some creative force—it need not be the creator Judeo-Christian-Muslim God) exists outside of nature, but periodically reaches into our world to change it in some manner . . . then, in principle, there should be some way to measure the effect.”
I do not believe that God “periodically reaches in.” He is continuously present throughout all of nature. But if you want evidence of the effects of God, or a creative force, then look at the way great religious leaders have changed the course of human evolution; if you want material evidence, then look at temples, cathedrals, and mosques.
Throughout the history of humanity, some people have connected with realms of consciousness beyond the human level, and many still do so today. Some people have spontaneous mystical experiences; some have their minds opened by psychedelics; some connect with God, or saints, or angels, or ancestors, through prayer; some meditate; some connect to spiritual realms in other ways. The British biologist Sir Alister Hardy studied the natural history of religious experiences in the modern world, and found that they were far more common than most people assumed.
Not all religious people have had such experiences themselves, just as not all people who believe in a scientific worldview have experienced working in a research laboratory or in an institute of theoretical physics. Many religious and scientific beliefs are accepted second-hand or third-hand on the basis of religious or scientific authority.
“The direct experience of divine presence is not a conclusive argument for the existence of God.”—@RupertSheldrake
I agree with you that the direct experience of divine presence is not a conclusive argument for the existence of God, however convincing it seems to people who experience it. After all, some atheists who have taken psychedelics remain atheists, and see their mind-expanding experiences as nothing more than chemical disturbances of normal brain functioning, rather opening the doors of perception. Anti-psychedelic religious people agree. Some atheists practice meditation and experience expanded states of mind while remaining atheists, including Susan Blackmore and Sam Harris. They—and probably you, too—would no doubt explain these experiences as being produced inside the brain as a result of physiological changes in the nervous system, proving nothing about consciousness beyond human brains. But this interpretation is itself a product of belief. If you are committed to the materialist worldview, it is an article of faith that the mind is confined to the brain and cannot connect with a greater mind that pervades the universe, because such a mind does not exist.
Our differences are not simply about beliefs. These beliefs have effects in practice and affect the way we lead our lives. The materialist doctrine that all conscious experience is nothing but the activity of the brain has an isolating effect, pulling people back into our own separate skulls. By contrast, for those who accept the reality of consciousness beyond our own, such experiences open channels of communication that can be pursued through meditation, prayer, rituals, festivals, worship, and thanksgiving—through many of the traditional practices of religion.
This experience of connection with the spiritual realm affects people’s physical and mental health, as well. Numerous studies in the United States and elsewhere have shown that people who are religious, especially those who regularly attend religious services, live significantly longer, enjoy better health, and suffer less depression than people without religious practices. Both Christian and non-Christian groups showed these effects.
In other studies, people who prayed or meditated were compared with similar people who did not. These studies were prospective, as opposed to retrospective: the people under observation were identified at the start of the study, and then watched over a period of years to see if their health and mortality turned out differently. They did. On average those who prayed or meditated remained healthier and survived longer than those who did not. In one study in North Carolina, Harold Koenig and his colleagues tracked 1,793 subjects over 65 years old who had no physical impairments at the beginning of the study. Six years later, those who prayed survived 66 percent more than those who did not pray.
In our first dialogue, you wrote, “I’m encouraged by the recent increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation.” From the point of view of evangelical atheism, this must be an encouraging sign. But will it benefit those who have abandoned religion? Some people brought up in a religious atmosphere find atheism liberating, at least for a while. I did myself, and for more than 10 years, I identified myself as an atheist. But I then came to see the atheist worldview as narrowly dogmatic, especially when it denied the value of spiritual experiences that I found enriching and enlivening. Moving beyond atheism to an acceptance of the spiritual realm felt like leaving a two-dimensional, black-and-white intellectual world for a full-color, three-dimensional reality.
If religious practices can lead to better health, then, as a corollary, the loss of faith and the cessation of religious practices can damage health and well-being. Atheism is not just about intellectual theories and the denunciation of religion. It can have serious adverse effects. Like smoking, it should carry a health warning.
The British philosopher Alain de Botton, a second-generation atheist, thinks much the same. In his bestselling book Religion for Atheists (Vintage, 2013), he argues that an atheist or agnostic lifestyle is severely impoverished, and suggests that non-believers should learn from religions “how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, escape from the twenty-four hour media world and get more out of art, literature and music.” His practical suggestions include atheist festivals, atheist temples, atheist sermons, and atheist Sunday assemblies. I agree with his analysis of the needs unsatisfied by atheism and agnosticism, but see no need to reinvent religion when we have plenty already, and are spoilt for choice.
Michael, I agree with you that some religious people have done terrible things in the past, and some still do so. A notorious example was the Spanish Inquisition, which operated from 1478 to 1834 and was responsible for as many as 5,000 executions.
Many anti-religious people have also behaved murderously, including Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, all of whom were atheists and believers in science and reason, following Karl Marx. Together, these communist regimes led to at least 20 million deaths. I know that you are trying to rebrand communism as a “faux religion” to avoid acknowledging that atheists have caused human misery on a vast scale. But the fact is that some people are capable of doing very bad things to other people using religion, atheism, nationalism, ideology, profit, or even reason as their justification. Reason was a major inspiration for the French Revolution, and in 1793, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was converted into a Temple of Reason, and the Cult of Reason was proclaimed the state religion. At the same time, at least 40,000 people were executed in the Reign of Terror (1793–4), and the guillotine became a symbol of the revolutionary cause.
Finally, you and I probably agree that a great deal of religion is culturally determined and subject to human limitations. You may see this as another refutation of religion, but I see it differently. The core of all religions is the experience of connecting with the ground of being, or the mind of God, or ultimate consciousness, but when these experiences are talked about and interpreted, they are refracted through human languages and cultural traditions that are necessarily limited, and inevitably different from one another.
If I had been born to Sinhalese parents in Sri Lanka I would probably be a Buddhist today. If I had been born to Muslim parents in Egypt, I would probably be a Muslim. In fact, I was born to Christian parents in England, and the form of religion that I find most congenial is the Christian faith, and in particular the Anglican form of Christianity. This does not mean I believe other Christian churches are in error, and that other religions are wrong. It does not mean that I think that people who are spiritual but not religious are lost. There are different paths to God, or to ultimate reality, and all have their strengths and weaknesses.
I see faith in God and the practice of science as complementary, not contradictory. Conflicts arise from dogmas on both sides. Religious and scientific fundamentalists are still locked in old battles, and some people on both sides relish the fighting. Fortunately, the sciences themselves are moving beyond the dogmas of materialism, and new possibilities for dialogue between the sciences and religious traditions are opening up.
Notes to Sheldrake’s Opening Statement
1. For an illuminating discussion of the traditional understanding of God in the Christian and other religious traditions, see David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
2. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
3. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
4. Harold G. Koenig, Medicine, Religion and Health: Where Science and Spirituality Meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.
5. Ibid.; p. 143.
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Shermer Opening Statement
For our final three rounds on the existence (or not) of God, I will be especially curious to know how you arrive at orthodox Christianity out of your unorthodox theory. As you told my Scientific American colleague John Horgan:
I believe in God. I am a practicing Christian, specifically an Anglican (in the US, an Episcopalian). I went through a long atheist phase, and began to question the materialist orthodoxy of science while I was still an atheist. I later came to the conclusion that there are more inclusive forms of consciousness in the universe than human minds.
Already, I’m suspicious . . . and skeptical. How convenient that the God you believe in happens to be the same God that most of your fellow countrymen (and, more broadly, your fellow Westerners) believe in. Geography, in fact, is the number-one predictor of anyone’s religion—where they happen to have been born and raised. Had you been born and raised in, say, India, it would be far more likely that you would defend Hinduism as the One True Religion, the god Ganesha as your deity of choice, and employ morphic resonance theory to explain reincarnation and Karma (memory of past lives and deeds).
But let me not presume too much, and await your statement—and in the meantime, inquire why belief in the supernatural (as you have defined and defended it) and belief in God should be conflated at all. Historically speaking, most commentators have lumped the two together, but it seems to me entirely possible that the two could be separate. Although I do not believe this myself, assuming for a moment that you are correct that there is a world beyond the natural world (or, if you agree with me that there is only the natural word, then forces heretofore unaccepted by mainstream science such as psi really do exist), such a world could contain no God, one God, or a multitude of Gods. In principle, psi-like forces could exist whether or not there’s a God. You could be a supernatural atheist in this sense.
Likewise, there could be a God and no supernatural forces. God could just use the known forces of nature (or perhaps some heretofore unknown forces of nature) to perform miracles. And if there is a God, why not multiple gods? There is nothing inherently special about monotheism, save for its historical triumph as a religion—perhaps superior at uniting tribes against other tribes or playing a prominent role in the first civilizations to reinforce group cohesion and act as an enforcer of morals and ultimate punisher of violators. This is, in fact, my theory of the origin of religion (developed in my books How We Believe [W.H. Freeman & Co., 1999] and The Believing Brain [Times Books, 2011]), which I define as a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. There are multiple lines of evidence that humans created gods, not vice versa.
First, there are many human universals that anthropologists have discovered among all peoples of the world related to religion and belief in deities, such as sacraments surrounding death, supernatural beliefs about fortune and misfortune, and especially divination, folklore, magic, myths, and rituals. With such universals we can presume that there is a genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures, and that these cultures, despite their considerable diversity and variance, nurture these natures in a consistent fashion toward belief in gods and religious rituals.
“Twin studies have consistently found a strong genetic component to religiosity and belief in God.”—@MichaelShermer
Second, twin studies have consistently found a strong genetic component to religiosity and belief in God—roughly speaking, about 40–50 percent of the variance is accounted for by genetics. Genes, of course, do not make one a Jew, Catholic, Muslim, or any other religion. Rather, genes code for cognitive and behavioral tendencies that make one more or less likely to believe in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and more or less likely to commit to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals).
Third, the comparative study of religions leads to this back-of-the-envelope calculation: over the past 10,000 years of history humans have created about 10,000 different religions and about a 1,000 gods. What is the probability that your God, Yahweh, is the One True God, and Amon Ra, Aphrodite, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, Zeus, and the other 986 gods are false gods? As skeptics like to say, everyone is an atheist about these gods—some of us just go one god further.
Fourth, since you are a Christian I must point out that even within the three great Abrahamic religions there is much disagreement. Christians believe Jesus is the savior and that you must accept him to receive eternal life in heaven. Yet, both Jews and Muslims reject this central tenet of your religion. In fact, only roughly two billion of the world’s six billion believers accept Jesus as their personal savior. Most Christians believe that the Bible is the inerrant gospel handed down from the deity. Muslims believe that the Koran is the perfect word of God, and yet Christians do not. As well, while most Christians believe that Jesus was the last prophet, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet, while Mormons believe that Joseph Smith is the last prophet. Who’s to say which one is right? By what criterion is one to judge among these competing claims? And while they are usually called “faith-based” beliefs, believers in fact hold these tenets of their religion to be really true—actually and factually correct—not just relatively or psychologically true. Given that fact, Rupert, how do you decide which among the many world’s religions is the right one? You’re a scientist—if you believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead three days after being crucified, where’s your control group?
Fifth, the study of comparative mythology leads to the recognition of commonalities among flood myths, virgin birth myths, and resurrection myths, all of which converge to the strong inference that they are not unique to your religion but were—like God—invented by humans.
Flood Myths: The Noachian flood story is predated by the Epic of Gilgamesh by about four centuries. Warned by the Babylonian Earth-god Ea that other gods were about to destroy all life by a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube 120 cubits (180 feet) on all sides, into which he was instructed by god to put one pair of each living creature.
Virgin Birth Myths: Among those conceived sans a biological father were Dionysus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury, Romulus, and, of course, Jesus. The Greek God Dionysus, for example, was born from a virgin mortal mother impregnated by the king of heaven. He was said to be able to transform water into wine (he was, after all, the Greek god of wine), and it was he who introduced the idea of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the creator, not the Catholics centuries later.
Resurrection Myths: The ancient Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility, Osiris, first appears in the pyramid texts around 2400 B.C. Widely worshipped until the compulsory repression of pagan religions in the early Christian era, Osiris was not only the redeemer and merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, he was also linked to fertility, most notably the flooding of the Nile and growth of crops. The kings of Egypt themselves were inextricably connected with Osiris in death, such that when Osiris rose from the dead, so would they in union with him. By the time of the New Kingdom, not only pharaohs but common people believed that they could be resurrected by and with Osiris at death—if, of course, they practiced the correct religious rituals.
Since you are a Christian I presume that you believe God to be all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good (omnibenevolent); who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it; who is uncreated and eternal, a non-corporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans. I do not believe in this God. That makes me an atheist. Yes, I know, technically speaking I cannot prove a negative—I cannot prove God does not exist. But neither can I prove that Zeus does not exist, and yet I don’t believe in him, either. Tweet this!
“It is very likely God does not exist except in the minds of people.”—@MichaelShermer And as I showed above, I can provide strong evidence indicating that it is very likely God does not exist except in the minds of people. (That God is very powerful indeed, as he can get people to fly planes into buildings and to blow themselves up in crowded squares.)
As well, I can show that the traditional arguments for God’s existence are refutable—and have been refuted, starting with Hume’s devastating critiques. The first cause, prime mover, and cosmological arguments, the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, the argument for the origin and intelligent design of life, the moral origin argument, the origin of consciousness argument, and the like, all have equally plausible (and in most cases more probable) explanations from science, and in any case constitute what is called the “god of the gaps” style of reasoning—anything that science cannot currently explain (a gap in our knowledge) is best filled with God as the explanation.
There are several fallacies with this line of reasoning. First, the either/or fallacy, or the false dilemma, is the tendency to dichotomize the world such that if you discredit one position it means the other position must be correct. Not so. It is not enough to call out the weaknesses in a theory; you must also provide evidence that your alternative theory is superior—that is, it explains more data than the alternative.
Second, science is young and there is much we still do not know. Before we say something is out of this world, let’s first make sure that it is not in this world. We have some cogent natural explanations for the origin of the universe, life, consciousness, and morality, but much remains unknown.
Third, what will happen to the God hypothesis that relies on these gaps when the gaps are filled by science?
Finally, there is one God I could believe in based on a purely naturalistic worldview. In honor of Arthur C. Clarke and his famous three laws, I have called this Shermer’s Last Law: any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) is indistinguishable from God. (Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)
My gambit is based on three observations and three deductions:
- Observation I. Biological evolution is glacially slow compared to cultural and technological evolution.
- Observation II. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI is remote.
- Deduction I. The probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more or less advanced than us is virtually nil. Any ETIs we would encounter will either be way behind us or way ahead of us.
- Observation III. Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than in the previous hundred centuries. Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every 12 months applies to dozens of other technologies. If Ray Kurzweil is right in his book The Singularity is Near (Viking, 2005), then the world will change more in the next century than it has in the previous thousand centuries.
- Deduction II. Extrapolate these trend lines out tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years—mere eye blinks on an evolutionary time scale—and we arrive at a realistic estimate of how far advanced an ETI will be.
- Deduction III. If today we can engineer genes, clone mammals, and manipulate stem cells with science and technologies developed in only the last 50 years, think of what an ETI could do with 50,000 years of equivalent powers of progress in science and technology. For an ETI who is a million years more advanced than we are, engineering the creation of planets and stars may be entirely possible. And if universes are created out of collapsing black holes—which some cosmologists think is probable—it is not inconceivable that a sufficiently advanced ETI could even create a universe by triggering the collapse of star into a black hole.
What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering life, planets, stars, and even universes? If we knew the underlying science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call it an Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; if we did not know the underlying science and technology, we would call it God.
Either that God already exists, or we are becoming that God. Either way, the mere contemplation of the possibilities simply blows one’s mind. If you want to be awe-struck by a religious-like experience, turn to science.