God and Science
This May thru July 2015, TheBestSchools.org is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Michael Shermer and Rupert Sheldrake. 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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You are correct, I do not believe that “faith in God and the practice of science are compatible and mutually enhancing.” In fact, when phrased this way they are completely different things: non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) in the memorable description of my late friend Stephen Jay Gould. In no way is science based on faith—and this fact puts the lie to the fatuous claim by anti-scientism folks that science is a religion, or that it is just another way of knowing, no better than any other. Faith, in the biblical meaning, has nothing to do with science. It is, as famously defined in Hebrews 11:1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Science rests on the assurance of things predicted, the conviction of things previously seen. Although scientists, being human, may hope that their unseen convictions are supported by the data, as a system of knowledge the practice of science has more in common with plumbing than it does religion, in the sense that at least plumbers test hypotheses when they attempt to discover and fix leaky pipes, clogged toilets, plugged sinks, and the like. Reason, logic, empiricism, mathematics, and experimentation—the core tools in the practice of science—are the exact opposite of faith in the biblical sense. Having faith in things is most assuredly a human trait, but it is not a part of the scientific method because it is not a reliable epistemology.
You assert: “God’s consciousness is the ultimate source of human consciousness.” Where is the evidence for this claim? As I challenged you previously with regard to the resurrection of Jesus, where’s your control group? In any case, if human consciousness comes from God’s consciousness, what is the source of God’s consciousness? If you argue that you have to stop the causal chain somewhere, why stop at God? If there’s a chain of being from lower to higher consciousness, why would there not be an über-God consciousness? If you believe that consciousness is a property of the universe (which you seem to argue in your theory of morphic resonance), then why do you need God at all? It seems entirely reasonable to me to argue (along these lines) that if consciousness exists itself separate from any entities, then there is no need for God. If God is necessary for the existence of consciousness, then once again I would challenge you to go one step further in inquiring into the source of God and God’s consciousness.
You ask where the laws of nature come from without postulating God as the source; that is, in a purely materialistic naturalistic worldview. As you know, this is one of the biggest questions in the philosophy of science. No one knows for sure, but I am encouraged by the work of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, outlined in their book, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010), that certain configurations of the laws of nature inevitably lead to the spontaneous creation of universes. They show how the laws underlying quantum mechanics and relativity, for example, could lead to universes being formed out of nothing. They write:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Another explanation is the multiverse theory. In his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus Books, 2007), the late physicist Victor Stenger shows how there could be as many as 10^500 possible universes. Those universes with the laws of nature that lead to the production of atoms and molecules and life and sentient beings who inquire as to their source, will naturally seem almost miraculously designed by those fortunate sentient beings, but with that many universes there was bound to be some configured purely by chance to be conducive to the evolution of life and sentient beings, but there’s nothing designed about it.
In any case, science is young—just a few centuries old—and there is much we do not know, so before we speculate about such ultimate questions as where the laws of nature came from, let’s wait to see what science comes up with in the next couple of centuries before we postulate a divine being as the source. In the meantime, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Humans have always filled in such gaps in our knowledge with gods, and it never leads to any useful or productive theory. Let’s try to overcome this psychological propensity to fill in the gaps with supernatural forces and follow the path of science in searching for natural forces.
You write: “God is by definition a conscious being.” How do you know? Whose definition? Sources and evidence, please.
You claim that “divine consciousness permeates the universe” and that we materialists “believe that the universe is unconscious, governed by unconscious laws, and made up of unconscious matter.” First, where is divine consciousness in the universe? In what way are, say, stars conscious? Stars are massive collections of hydrogen atoms being converted to helium atoms through nuclear fusion. In what way is this process “conscious”? Are galaxies conscious? Is gravity conscious? Are planets, moons, and comets conscious? What do you mean by consciousness here? Clearly this has no resemblance to human consciousness—the phenomenon of being aware and self-aware—so it would be helpful to operationally define consciousness.
Your idea about what God is seems to differ dramatically from that of most Christians (a cosmic engineer or divine craftsman), and you reject the idea that God reaches into the world to stir the particles now and then. Instead, you invoke the unhelpful phrase “ground of being” as your definition of God, and you claim that “he sustains the world in its existence from moment to moment, and is doing so now.” I presume you mean that God does so through the laws of nature—he forms solar systems through the force of gravity, he forms stars through the nuclear forces, etc. I fail to see how this is any different from just saying that the universe itself is the “ground of being” and that it sustains itself from moment to moment through the laws of nature.
What’s the difference between an invisible God that is indistinguishable from nature and a nonexistent God?
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Our most fundamental disagreement is about consciousness beyond the human level. As a materialist and atheist, you regard it as impossible or at least highly unlikely, unless it takes the form of extra-terrestrial intelligence in a civilization with technologies far more advanced than our own. What you call Shermer’s Last Law is that “any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” You imagine humanoids that have become omnipotent through science and technology “engineering the creation of planets and stars” and “even creating a universe by triggering the collapse of a star into a black hole.” And after developing your fantasy scenario, you conclude, “If you want to be awe-struck by a religious-like experience, turn to science.” But this is science fiction, not science.
Nevertheless, we have several areas of agreement. Like you, I do not think that psychic phenomena such as telepathy are evidence for God or a supernatural realm. As I pointed out in our last dialogue, I see psi phenomena as part of the natural world; they have evolved in many species of social animals. The existence or non-existence of God is a separate question. Many psi researchers and religious people agree with us. Several leading parapsychologists are atheists: they accept the existence of psi but not of God. Meanwhile, some believers in God disbelieve in psi phenomena, or disapprove of them. One of the founders of organized skepticism in the US, Martin Gardner, was a theist who was vehemently opposed to research in parapsychology because he thought it was “tempting God” and seeking “signs and wonders.”
We also agree that there are similar features in different religious traditions, including stories of floods, virgin births and resurrections. I see these themes as archetypal, reflecting fundamental ways of understanding the world, or as cultural memories. Flood myths may well be related to the actual floods that happened at the end of the last ice age when sea levels rose dramatically. One aspect of virgin birth myths is their emphasis on the creative power of the life-giving mother. No doubt the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches inherits aspects of pre-Christian goddess worship, in which the Great Mother gave birth to gods. I do not see this as a problem. In fact, I see it as a strength of the Christian tradition that it includes pre-Christian elements such as pilgrimages and seasonal festivals. Many Christian sacred places were sacred to older religions first: for example, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico was built over the temple of the Aztec mother goddess. Religions evolve, like everything else.
The theme of death and resurrection is common to many traditions, and is an archetypal feature of rites of passage. But dying and being born again is more than a myth or symbol: it is an actual experience for people who have had a near-death experience.
I think that John the Baptist was a drowner. A person being baptized in the river Jordan, if held under water just long enough, would have had a near-death experience through drowning. In other words, baptism by total immersion could have been a simple, rapid, and effective way of deliberately inducing a near-death experience. Dying and being born again would have been a life-changing personal experience. John may sometimes have gone too far, and some people may not have come back. But that was before liability litigation.
We need myths, and science creates its own. The Big Bang theory, for example, is a version of the ancient creation myth of the hatching of the cosmic egg. As the primal egg cracked open, the universe emerged from it, just as it emerged from the primal singularity of the Big Bang.
I agree with you that one of the major predictors of people’s religion is where they were born and the family and culture they were born into. The same goes for atheists. In communist countries, children were indoctrinated into atheism, and many believed what they were taught. In the Soviet Union, the state-sponsored League of the Militant Godless had 5.5 million members by 1932, and campaigned for the closure of churches, and for their bells to be melted down for industrialization. Parents were warned, “Religion is poison, protect your children!” Such propaganda campaigns were very effective. By 1940, 25 regions of the Soviet Union were declared completely churchless, and fewer than 1,000 churches, chapels, and monasteries survived, compared with 54,000 at the time of the Revolution in 1917. In East Germany, where the communist state vigorously promoted atheism from the 1940s to the 1980s, a survey in 2008—19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—showed that 52% of the population were atheists, compared with 10% in West Germany. Clearly, people educated to be atheists are more likely to become atheists than those with a non-atheist education.
No doubt some Christians, Muslims, Hindus—and atheists—think that theirs is the One True Faith, but in practice the vast majority do not. I lived for seven years in India where Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Parsees, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and tribal animists coexist and have done for centuries. Most Indians simply accept that different people follow different religious paths, without feeling the need to convert everyone else to their own religion. Likewise, in North America and in Europe, many religions coexist, as do many Christian churches. Some are bigoted, but most are not. In Britain, where I live, I hardly ever encounter religious fanatics, although I sometimes come across zealous atheists.
Most people who follow a religious path accept that other people have different paths, just as speakers of English, Turkish, Tamil, or Mandarin accept that other people speak different languages. They do not believe that other languages are false. The existence of different religions does not refute religion in general, any more than the existence of different languages refutes language in general.
You rightly point out that religions serve important social functions, including cooperation between members of a community. But this does not prove that they are nothing but human inventions. Religions have arisen not through philosophical arguments or priestly deceptions, but because many people experience a consciousness greater than their own.
Moreover, the fact that some features of religion are found in many different cultures does not mean, as you suggest, that “we can presume that there is a genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures.” In his book, Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Daniel Dennett proposed a similar and more detailed hypothesis. He proposed that when people in ancient cultures were sick and went to see shamans for a cure, the most credulous would have had the biggest placebo effect and therefore would have tended to survive more. Hence, natural selection would favor genes for credulity and they would be passed on to subsequent generations, increasing the frequency of credulity genes in the population, thus promoting religious belief. But all this is evidence-free speculation. No credulity genes have been found.
Finally, we disagree about gods and God. I think you wrongly conflate them. In polytheistic societies, gods have specific roles, like the god or goddess of the sun, the god or goddess of the sea, and so on. No one imagines that any one of these gods or goddesses or spirits is the ultimate supreme reality, precisely because there are many of them. I agree with you that they are personifications or cultural interpretations of different powers of nature, or of archetypal patterns of experience. But there is a difference between the multiple powers represented by gods, goddesses, spirits, or angels, and the unified source of all things. Even in the most polytheistic of contemporary religions, Hinduism, many Hindus agree that there is a unified source, a supreme conscious reality, one Indian name for which is satchitananda, being-consciousness-bliss.
The unified source and sustainer of all things is not just “one god further,” but is more fundamental than the many gods and spirits recognized in different religious traditions. Energy provides a scientific parallel. There are many kinds of energy in the universe: the energy in fire, in glucose molecules, in light, in falling rocks, in lithium batteries, in flashes of lightning, and so on. They are all derived from the fundamental energy of the universe, which can take many forms, including the dark energy that propels the expansion of the universe and the evolution of the cosmos. From a religious point of view, this universal energy is a manifestation of divine power. In the Christian tradition, it comes from and is sustained by the power of God. In the Indian tradition, it is called shakti.
Materialists share with religious people a belief in a unity underlying all the phenomena of nature. The difference is that religious people believe this ultimate unity is conscious; atheists believe it is unconscious.
Note to Sheldrake’s Response
1. Nick Spencer, Atheists: The Origin of the Species. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014; Chap. 4.