Wednesday, March 23, 2011

God is dying: Reflections on science, religion, and the human spirit

Over at Cosmic Variance, a blog at Discover, Sean Carroll has a really interesting post up on whether the universe needs God. I recommend reading it in its entirety, but here's a taste:

Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God's roles in the world. He isn't needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the scientific revolution has been in the realm of methodology. Control groups, double-blind experiments, an insistence on precise and testable predictions – a suite of techniques constructed to guard against the very human tendency to see things that aren't there. There is no control group for the universe, but in our attempts to explain it we should aim for a similar level of rigor. If and when cosmologists develop a successful scientific understanding of the origin of the universe, we will be left with a picture in which there is no place for God to act – if he does (e.g., through subtle influences on quantum-mechanical transitions or the progress of evolution), it is only in ways that are unnecessary and imperceptible. We can't be sure that a fully naturalist understanding of cosmology is forthcoming, but at the same time there is no reason to doubt it. Two thousand years ago, it was perfectly reasonable to invoke God as an explanation for natural phenomena; now, we can do much better.

None of this amounts to a "proof" that God doesn't exist, of course. Such a proof is not forthcoming; science isn’t in the business of proving things. Rather, science judges the merits of competing models in terms of their simplicity, clarity, comprehensiveness, and fit to the data. Unsuccessful theories are never disproven, as we can always concoct elaborate schemes to save the phenomena; they just fade away as better theories gain acceptance. Attempting to explain the natural world by appealing to God is, by scientific standards, not a very successful theory. The fact that we humans have been able to understand so much about how the natural world works, in our incredibly limited region of space over a remarkably short period of time, is a triumph of the human spirit, one in which we can all be justifiably proud.

This isn't necessarily new to those of us who look to science instead of some mythological faith to answer our questions, including our existential ones, and to provide a comprehensive picture of our world, but it's well put and bears repeating at a time when science is under fire from the right and when religiously-rooted ignorance continues to threaten progress towards greater enlightenment.

I've always described myself as an agnostic as opposed to an atheist but that's only because I recognize that we don't have all the answers. (Okay, I also describe myself as a nihilist, but that's more philosophical, and I do tend to recoil from all-out Nietzscheanism. It's hard to be a nihilist and also a progressive liberal who tries to advance the cause of freedom and human dignity.) And I think such doubt with respect to absolutism, with respect to any claim to absolute certainty, to the Truth, is healthy. (Nothing has all the answers, and if you think you have them, or believe in something that has them, you're wrong. About that I am absolutely certain.) Indeed, I think such doubt is also what drives my appreciation for science, which, by the way, does not claim to have all the answers and which, contrary to, say, Christianity, is about recognizing that there's a lot we just know and that only through further investigation can we ever know more.

Anyway, I don't necessarily hold organized religion in quite the degree of contempt that Christopher Hitchens does, though it's close, but I can say I wasn't unhappy to read about a new study suggesting that religion may actually die out in the nine countries under investigation, including Canada. This makes sense, given the broad secularization that western countries have been undergoing for a long time. No, religion won't die out entirely, not unless all of our deepest existential questions are somehow answered for good, but we could certainly do with a lot less of it in the world.

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