Last Wednesday BBC 1 aired a factual programme by the Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi, the Right Honorable Lord Jonathan Sacks. It was entitled ‘Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion’. As a result of watching this programme and after having had a number of discussions and heated arguments with people regarding the utility of science for understanding reality, I want to explore a few things about this argument in this blog post. I am afraid it is ranty in nature. For this, I apologise. (Update: I can no longer find programme on iPlayer- so please excuse my lack of linking)
In the program, Lord Sacks met with three scientists to discuss whether science and religion could not only coexist peacefully on the same intellectual landscape, but whether they should strive to actively work together to understand the nature of the universe and the human condition. As part of his investigation into whether science and religion could ever make happy bedfellows, Sacks met with ‘neuroscientist’ Baroness Susan Greenfield, ‘physicist’ Jim Al-Khalili and ‘evolutionary biologist’ Richard Dawkins. (Their respective ‘fields’ are noted as such because they are probably all better known as science communicators rather than full-time research scientists these days. It’s not because I think they’re crap).
The scientists met with Sacks in various corners of London, including the gorgeous Royal Society building, to chat about such matters. What followed were three perfectly polite, accommodating and anodyne conversations between scientist and rabbi. Nobody came across as a bigoted pillock (heaven forbid) and the whole affair was quite civilized and British. The problem is that, while civility and politeness are very decent ways of ensuring calm and reasoned discussions, the whole exercise was frustratingly insipid. No one said anything that properly addressed the very serious and real questions of whether science and religion can both offer equally valuable solutions to the conundrums society faces today or whether they should be accorded equal respect in this case.
So I intend to delve a little deeper into some of the outcomes of the conversations in that programme. I am sure the scientists and the Chief Rabbi will be profoundly grateful for this enlightened intervention.
I intend to rant about three specific points that were made (or at least implied) during the show, which were not given due care and attention in my arrogant opinion. My rants will ultimately lead to my assertion that science must be accorded hegemony in our quest to understand our universe.
The first question that I want to address, and indeed one of the first questions Lord Sacks asked when he went to visit Baroness Greenfield is: can science really understand human consciousness?
As a neuroscientist, Greenfield was well placed to give an expert account of why the realm of the human mind is fully accessible to scientific investigation. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Greenfield merely hinted that even if understanding consciousness was a fully tractable scientific problem, she was happy to accept that “science and religion could both be different sides of the same coin” when we consider how best to appreciate the intricacies of human consciousness.
Firstly, it would be entirely reasonable to assume (and indeed essential to point out in this case) that understanding the existence of consciousness is a highly achievable goal when we rely on science alone. However, it may not be possible to gain a full and comprehensive understanding at this particular moment in time. Scientific breakthroughs don’t just happen when individuals have amazing insights; they also happen when breakthroughs in technology and machinery allow us to delve deeper into the universe (or any given system or phenomenon) than before. When we can start probing at ever smaller or larger scales, or can contemplate problems with ever-greater computational complexity, we can start to understand things that were hitherto inaccessible to us. It is reasonable to assume that neuroscience will eventually benefit from such developments.
Therefore, future advances in functional MRI combined with deeper insights into the physics of complex networks, will yield more clues to the nature of how our minds work. When we combine these achievements with the ability to model what happens in and between neurons, and gain a fuller understanding of the evolution of consciousness in humans and other animals, we will have the eventual ability to model human consciousness and understand its nature and even its origins. This may not happen tomorrow or even in the next ten years, but that does not mean that science won’t eventually provide us with a valuable synthesis of knowledge about the workings of the mind.
Furthermore, our understanding of consciousness in the context of the human species (rather than the ‘human creation’ made separate from animals) will hopefully go a long way to solidifying what has been patently apparent for some time- that animals have levels of consciousness, or at least similar underlying mechanisms that form the basis of conscious thought that are entirely similar to ours. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at all given that we are animals and our evolutionary history can be charted all the way back to the last universal common ancestor of the eukaryotes (at least). Yet, I have had arguments with people (and attended talks by eminent ‘thinkers’) where they have flat-out denied that consciousness is a tractable problem for evolutionary biology (or science in general).
That consciousness is complex and remarkably difficult to model, and that it gives rise to subjective thought and appreciation does not mean it is beyond the reach of empiricism. Just because we currently assume that human consciousness is infinitely richer and more profound than ‘animal’ consciousness, this doesn’t mean it has to have come from somewhere other than natural selection either.
Raymond Tallis, the “poet, cultural critic, philosopher and [ex]-physician” actually claimed during a talk of his that “something like human consciousness would never be selected for by evolution”. Not only did this sadly demonstrate a terrible misunderstanding regarding the passivity of natural selection as a process, but also seemed to stem from an assumption that consciousness exists outside, or beyond the entirely map-able, dissectible and model-able structures of brain tissue! If brain tissue is thoroughly accessible to scientific investigation then arguably, so is consciousness. For this not to be true, consciousness will have to exist somewhere beyond the confines of our brains. Perhaps that’s why Paris Hilton favors such ridiculously large handbags…
An entirely empirical understanding of the true nature of human thought and its influence on our behaviour may also have profound consequences for how we understand psychoses and other neurological conditions. It may come to influence how we punish (or rehabilitate!) psychopaths when they murder people, or how we define future crime and punishment systems in general. It may yield remarkable and vital insights into human suffering that would provide us with a much stronger understanding of the human condition than intuition or experience can provide. Therefore, it is essential to use science to understand consciousness. Science will provide us with a far more accurate synthesis of knowledge than insight or philosophy ever could.
I would also argue that understanding human consciousness as a divine creation instead of a biological one will always result in us relegating our fellow non-human animals to more lowly ranks, less deserving of compassion. This will suck for animal welfare.
The next point stems from the conversation Lord Sacks had with Jim Al-Khalili: Both happily reached the conclusion that they felt a sense of wonder at the enormity and majesty of the universe. They agreed that they really only differed in their views where Sacks questioned the underlying purpose and reason for the universe’s existence and Al-khalili professed an interest only in how it came to exist.
This is all very unsurprising, but what frustrated me was the implication that the dispassion required for doing science prohibits us from developing any sense of wonder or profundity for the world because it reduces us to impartial, observers. Why were Sacks an Al-khalili both so determined to stress that they shared a wonder of the universe in common? Is asking how something works less fulfilling than asking why it exists?
This notion that science somehow drains all sense of wonder from the world by reducing it to a series of ‘mere facts’ seems to demonstrate a simple inability to find those facts as interesting or fulfilling as fictions. From the intricate creation of a human life, to the majesty of love or the even the question of why we are here, that science should seek to corrode any sense of awe we might have for such things is an utter fallacy.
It is true that scientists must keep passion and hopeful intuition in check when designing experiments and analysing results. This all seems rather mundane if you take limited delight in data gathering and analysis (though some would argue that they find these pursuits positively heavenly). The careful, rigorous and objective study of reality may well reduce it to a series of facts, but why should these facts be considered paltry or disappointing in the face of a more supernatural understanding? Is love really rendered boring or unsatisfying when we study oxytocin or speak of the advantages of pair boding? Is our appreciation of the wonders of nature really predicated upon such flimsy foundations that we can’t cope when presented with the real facts about how they work?
Science may not give us angels, gods or the ability to plumb hitherto untapped depths in our psyches to reveal superpowers, but it does give us the most pragmatic and efficient tools with which to alleviate human suffering in all of its many guises. It also provides us with a long-running narrative about the world that is far richer in its complexity and far more nuanced than anything religious texts or traditions can provide.
Any scientist with a modicum of interest in the world will assert that understanding the universe with science is awe-inspiring and provides sufficient fulfillment to be on par with the spiritual wonder of believing in an intelligent power. Science charts the clockwork steps of the celestial dance; watches the death throes of stars, probes into the very building blocks of matter and guesses at the wonders yet to be discovered beyond the visible universe. Science delves deeper, further, higher, faster and with more precision than any other method with which we strive to understand reality. Why must we look to religion to provide wonder for us when reality, un-augmented by stories and non-empirical appreciation, already does a good enough job?
My final bugbears came from the meeting of Sacks and Dawkins. Both spoke of the virtues of encouraging children to question assumptions about the nature of the world, whether from the perspective of the Jewish faith or from Dawkins’s favored secular stance. Naturally Dawkins repeated his oft-spoken assertion that indoctrinating children into any belief-system for which there is no supporting evidence was tantamount to abuse.
Sacks’s rejoinder was that providing children with a strong sense of identity and heritage is important. He argued that religious belief encourages our children to view the world within the confines of a well-structured morality and provides them with the sense of belonging and identity that they need to grow into well-rounded people.
However, this presumes that those children introduced into no faith or belief system are wandering lost in a barren wasteland of confusion and cultural isolation. It is true that children provided with a ready-made religious understanding of the world are endowed with parables, traditions and teachings that offer clearly defined moral guidance and a framework with which to understand or at least appreciate the nature of reality. Belonging to a faith, is belonging to something. Arguably, those with no religious or strong cultural traditions to cleave to are surely all the poorer for this deficiency.
I would argue that this is nonsense. Evolutionary biology demonstrates that there is a deep homology between the human species and all other species on the planet, regardless of whether they happen to be plant, animal, bacteria or slimemold. We are related, albeit distantly, to all other forms of life on our planet. Of course we can go further than this; Carl Sagan said that we are all made of star stuff. The atoms in us have come from the vastness of space. We are intricately woven into the very fabric of our reality, and the stuff of our bodies will continue to be part of that reality long after our minds have ceased to marvel at its wonders. Can there really be any better or more profound heritage than this one that we all share?
Science also tells us that there are no significant genetic differences among human beings. The construct of ‘race’ is simply that, a mere construct. We are not as different from one another as we are prone to thinking. Therefore, is it not better to belong to one universal heritage were we are all of equal value than to belong to one of many smaller groups, in which our beliefs are partisan? Is it really preferable to strive to define ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity for the sake of having a stronger, more concentrated identity? Surely this sort of tribalism or in-group vs out-group thinking is the wellspring of all sectarian violence?
I am not advocating some weird intellectual communism or a bland existence in which culture and tradition are quashed for the sake of uniformity. I am simply suggesting that were we all to understand ourselves in the way science shows us to be (connected to everything and everyone) compassion and empathy for those around us, be they human or animal would be remarkably more intuitive and sustainable. As Darwin said, ‘there is grandeur in this view of life’, far more so than the stories that any subset of humanity can come up with.
Perhaps if there had been more time, these arguments would have been raised in response to Sacks’s questions. There is nothing wrong in entertaining views of the world that are alternative to the evidence that scientific investigation has provided. Providing that we do not attempt to foist our intuitive beliefs upon others, we should be free to construct our own belief-systems if we wish to. However, for its shear utility, accuracy, testability and assumed ignorance, science is the best tool we have to understand our world and ourselves. Yet science goes beyond mere understanding: the legacy left by science has afforded us the ability to improve and enhance our lives in ways that are far more profound than any human-lead religious movement. Science is a universal leveler and a trustworthy guide since evidence reigns supreme.
Yet science is certainly a dangerous tool as well as a useful one. When used for evil means the applications of science can yield terrible outcomes. But the onus is on us to ensure that we are compassionate and responsible custodians of this tool. Perhaps religion reminds us of the need for such compassion (though it does a rather poor job of regulating its own tendencies for intolerance and destruction) but human morality is not grounded in religion alone. We do not need organized religion to foster widespread compassion for our fellow human beings. Compassion comes from knowing what it is to be human and knowing what it is to be human is one of the things that science is continuing to do best.