God Flights

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2007 9:47 am

USA Today reports on the efforts of “prayer warriors” who have taken to the sky for the spiritual benefit of the people of Ohio.

CINCINNATI — Ten small single-engine airplanes circling over Ohio on Friday afternoon will be on a special mission. They’ll be taking part in PrayerFlight, airplanes filled with people praying for the health and welfare of the state’s 11 million residents. […]

The prayer warriors, from all religious affiliations, pray silently and aloud while aloft. They ask God to guide leaders, pray for people in schools and hospitals, and ask for salvation. […]

The second flight had eight planes with 26 people, including six youths from Teens for Christ, a ministry of teenagers from 22 high schools. This time the group prayed over seven Ohio counties.

Samantha Ciminillo, 18, of Lima, a member of Teens for Christ, took one of the December flights. It was her first airplane ride. “You see rows and rows of houses, and you know they are full of people you are praying for,” she said. […]

For now, Ciminillo is looking forward to Friday. “God works through the power of prayer,” she said. “I’m expecting big things to happen.”

Now, as a connoisseur of sophisticated theology, I am well aware that the vast majority of religious believers share a philosophically nuanced image of the divine, such as one might read about in the London Review of Books. God is viewed as a manifestation of immanent transcendence (some tension there, to be deliciously savored!), a precondition of the universe’s existence, standing outside our ordinary categories of substance and imagination. Happy times they are, as these typically devout folks chat away over dinner about the progress of our understanding from Tertullian to Levinas, relaxing over dessert with anecdotes about Ricoeur’s hermeneutic speculations.

But, in the interests of complete honesty, we must admit that there are still a few folks out there — one or two, scattered about the landscape — who indulge in a somewhat more literal vision of the traditional religious stories. People who believe that God is some kind of person, sitting up there in the sky, looking down on us and passing judgment. A being quite frightfully anthropomorphic, whose omniscience and omnipotence correspond roughly to those associated with the beard of Gandalf and the strength of Superman, respectively.

It’s a funny kind of philosophy, and I do wonder how carefully people examine their own beliefs. If a human being were to manifest the kind of need for constant worship and gratitude that this God exhibits, we would call them pathological (or perhaps “Mr. President,” but that’s another topic). It’s a scary idea, that God has the power to exert great influence over what happens in our daily lives, but chooses to do so or not on the basis of a handful of people flying around in airplanes, praying their hearts out. (“Sorry, Kentucky; I’d love to help out, but the flightplan didn’t quite take the prayer team over your airspace.”) Subtle interventions to be sure; maybe this person’s cold won’t evolve into pneumonia, that one will get cancer but it won’t be very painful. And if it weren’t for the praying, those unsuspecting folks below would be out of luck; one imagines God doing a weary shrug, in a “Don’t look at me, I’m just enforcing the Cosmic Rules, which, yeah, I’m sort of responsible for in the first place, but still, rules are rules, you know?” kind of way.

And then there are people who believe that things don’t happen for a reason, nor are events influenced by anyone looking at us from on high. The creation of good and evil, justice and mercy, beauty and terror, are all in our hands, as complicated conglomerations of particles obeying the laws of Nature. I kind of like it that way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • Vince

    “And then there are people who believe that things don’t happen for a reason, nor are events influenced by anyone looking at us from on high. The creation of good and evil, justice and mercy, beauty and terror, are all in our hands, as complicated conglomerations of particles obeying the laws of Nature. I kind of like it that way.”

    But what about miracles? :) You know, like what supposedly happened to that French nun.

  • Sam Gralla

    Hi Sean,

    I always follow you, but sometimes I don’t believe you. For example, I don’t believe the last sentence.

    -Sam

  • http://terryware.com/blog terry

    “..we would call them pathological (or perhaps “Mr. President,” but that’s another topic).”

    Thanks for that line, as it was the direct cause of water spewing everywhere! A good laugh, to be sure.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    One of the best works about God in that higher philosophical sense, was _The Mind of God_ by Paul Davies. He focused mostly on things like the anthropic principle, in the sense of it being interesting that our universe has just the right physical values for life to exist within a very narrow range. For those who escape to multiple universes, pehaps via modal realism: I hope you are aware of the irony of believing or even supposing such things, given:
    (1.) Our near-complete lack of theoretical justification for any other universes with other properties, and
    (2.) The history of logical positivism, which used operational definitions of empirical proof requirements against ideas of God etc. It would be rather hypocritical to toss aside such concepts just because it becomes “politically” convenient to use them now.

  • David S-D

    My favorite discussion of the “Don’t look at me, I’m just enforcing the Cosmic Rules, which, yeah, I’m sort of responsible for in the first place, but still, rules are rules, you know?” is here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qzf8q9QHfhI

    “Yes, but wait for Lou…”

  • http://tsm2.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Sean,

    if you believe that “things don’t happen for a reason” (and I would to some extent agree with you) then why do you really care about the “complicated conglomerations of particles”, which USAtoday identified as people praying in airplanes, when all they did was “obeying the laws of Nature” ?

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Okay, Sean, you are very, very droll and witty. I loved reading your post! In fact, I felt quite flattered! And I was thinking after my reply to The God Conundrum that you pysicists and biologists really do have to take a lot of pressure from the religious right, and I should understand that and make allowances.
    However, I still have to say that you are side-stepping my point — or my question, I guess. Do you think your views of what is “reasonable” are conditioned by your way of knowing, and perhaps even by a Newtonian-Cartesian version of your way of knowing that physics has perhaps left behind? Okay, that’s leading the witness….
    Do you think that your views on metaphysical questions are NOT conditioned by the basic pre-suppositions of your discipline? Physics began by ruling out teleology and practising an extreme reductionism, focusing on physical bodies in motion and a brilliant mathematicial formalization of “what’s happening” in terms of mechanics.
    Given that, it seems to me highly likely that trained in such a discipline and dealing daily with the incredible adventure it is, pushing back the frontiers of what we know about these things, such a person MIGHT tend to view everything in the universe and in human experience as though the mechanics were “explanatory” in every sense of that term? Might — to use the buzzword — tend to “totalize” that approach into an exclusionary worldview?
    I was haunted by the email that talked about the wonder of looking at rocks and seeing the depth and beauty of mindless physical mechanism in itself. Yes, yes, yes! But to say the natural mechanism is “mindless” relies on the Cartesian definition of “mind” as something separate from nature. The same respondent said that matter is inherently in motion. Yes! But for Aristotle, motion and design were how “mind” was defined…. So I guess today it’s sufficiently “scientific” to feel awe and wonder, as long as we specify that it is “mindless” mechanism we are feeling these responses about?
    I remember watching a lunar eclipse with an honors seminar of students drawn from all the disciplines. We sat together in the dark for over an hour. When it was over, I said: “Does anyone else besides me feel really moved and awestruck?” I could hear the lit major-and-poet sitting beside me (a young woman) going “yeah….” Then a science major (a young man) said, almost angrily: “No, not at all. Because we can explain exactly how that is happening.”
    Now I gotta tell you that while I could see that made perfect sense to him, it made no sense at all to me. I understood how it was happening when I was pregnant, too, but I still felt the utter awe of all those mechanisms over which I had absolutely no control turning on one after another and carrying me through the entire process based on eons of encoding that came down to me going back to the condensation of the first hydrogen molecules after the big bang. I’m sure that the artists in the room and the musicians were having their own responses. And every year in that seminar, in free-wheeling discussions, the two or three biologists always brought up the same pespectives, at the same points, as the biologists in previous years had done. Not because they were brainwashed, but because they were really good in their discipine and so they saw certain aspects of any problem with an amazing clarity derived from their discipline. And perhaps they didn’t see other aspects as well….
    We self-select into our own disciplines, after all, and then we are arduously trained and conditioned. The responders to The God Conundrum by and large kept saying where’s the evidence for God? “God could settle the argument this afternoon by showing up.” Can you see that for many people God has shown up — that is the point to which their training and life journey has brought them. For them, the evidence is everywhere, at the same time someone else is saying, “Where? Where?”
    Now I know in your mind this may simply sound like an appeal to irrational stuff that isn’t evidence. (Sometimes you’re right.) But this is my question. Do you think that if it isn’t scientifically-generated evidence, in the physical-science sense, then it couldn’t be valid evidence at all? Science after all has been from the get-go a reductive way of knowing. Actually, all ways of knowing are reductive in their own ways. There’s just more “out there” than we can ever get into focus. But I want to say that other ways of knowing have their own methodologies and validy-testing and highly-developed acquired sense of what is evidentiary.
    You seem to imply well, that okay, that’s all very well and good, for you Levinas and toast types, but we scientists have to deal with this utterly stupid phenomenon of blind and ignorant “faith” trying to get creation science taught in schools! Well, I sympathize, I really do. But that’s no excuse for acting as though scientists have a right to teach scientific explanations as though they answer all questions except “meaningless” ones. This is an issue that will outlast ephemeral but highly-politicized conflicts because it goes to the core of all disicplined intellectual endeavor. We have to accept the limitations of our disciplines as well as their incredible power for coming to know. And we have to be aware that our own desires to know in certain ways, about certain kinds of things, exercise a strong determinism in what we discover to be the case.
    I guess the big lesson of late twentieth-century thought for me is that we have to be willing to risk listening to otherness, or we’re repressing a part of being human that is inside of ourselves, too. The same Cartesian structures of thought that lead scientists to ridicule believers also lead scientists to ridicule women. Women seem to have made it into scientific respectabilty, hurray! (As seen in the shock and horror inspired by the “Male-ness” post.) But not theists…. I wonder why that is? Both have been great scientists.
    P.S. I haven’t studied Eurigena, but the Aquinas-Scotus debate does have a lot to do with the issues Dawkins tries to address, though I’d never go so far as to say Terry Eagleton isn’t irritating! (He is brilliant, though.) And who said a Marxist couldn’t be a Christian?

  • jeff

    Maybe they should conduct carefully-controlled scientific tests measuring the effectiveness of airborne praying vs. old-fashioned ground-based praying. Hey, you never know what the universe is capable of until you actually test.

  • http://different-eye.blogspot.com/ mark

    Janet: I’m not a scientist, but I agree with the folks here as far as the supernatural. I think your views are based upon a misunderstanding of what science is, eg “conditioned… way of knowing”, “pre-suppositions” and “exclusionary world view”.

  • Coin

    I wonder what the public response would have been had a Muslim group announced they were going to charter ten small airplanes and fill them with “prayer warriors” who would fly around Chicago praying for the residents.

  • spyder

    Uumm, just curious here. Do you suppose they might have prayed for improved quality and honesty in future Ohio elections? But by doing so, wouldn’t they have been in some way praying against their theocratically inclined political desires?? It is so confusing. Praying for what, and for whom; the “health and welfare” of the state’s citizens as it is abused by the GOP leadership that has failed to avoid massive corruptions and illegal elections? mmmmmm… pondering the imponderable.
    I am sure this must be gd’s answering the prayers Two BOE workers have been given 18-month prison sentences for felony convictions stemming from what a government prosecutor called the “rigging” of an officially mandated recount for the 2004 presidential election.

  • Jason Dick

    I often find it rather amusing how so many people don’t understand just how comforting it can be to believe that there is no reason behind the terrible things that happen in the world around us. Think about this for just one second: the typical theist line is that the specific deity in which they believe is all-powerful and all-knowing. This means that every single bad thing that happens was planned to happen by God from the start, but it also means that God could have found a way to accomplish the same goal that would not have involved any suffering. This directly leads to the conclusion that any all-powerful, all-knowing creator deity is a sadistic bastard indeed.

    I find it vastly more comforting to understand that there is no creator, that there is no purpose imparted to us and our lives by some external source. I find this comforting because it means that we can make our own purpose. It means that we can help those who are suffering, those in need of help. It is in credibly uplifting that we humans are finally to the point where we can actually reduce the impact that hurricanes have upon human lives. We can build structures that are resistant to earthquake damage, and are even making strides in predicting earthquake activity. It means we are no longer subject to the whims of volcanic eruptions, but can actually detect when they will occur with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

    No, the idea that suffering is something that just happens, and that we humans have the capacity to reduce it, is, to me, incredibly appealing. I would much rather believe this than in a deity who could achieve the same goals without suffering, but instead chooses to impart suffering.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Sam — you should believe me. I vastly prefer a world in which the hard work of developing values is squarely in our hands, rather than one in which they are imposed from outside.

    Janet — thanks for the thoughtful reply. Of course I am conditioned by everything that I’ve thought about and everything that has happened to me (just like everybody else). Taking those influences into account, I try to be as honest about how the world works as I can.

    Now I’m about to catch a plane, so more thoughtfulness will have to come later!

  • http://www.huperborea.blogspot.com/ Robert O’Brien

    I wonder what the public response would have been had a Muslim group announced they were going to charter ten small airplanes and fill them with “prayer warriors” who would fly around Chicago praying for the residents.

    LOL!

  • http://astrocath.blogspot.com Joe Buckley

    Sean,
    Yes, Janet’s post *was* thoughtful. Perhaps you should also consider Jacob Bronowski question: “how do you know what you know”?

    I must admit that you’ve left me “peevish”, so I’ll try to ask respectfully. Did you have to post this on Good Friday of all days?

  • Elliot

    Janet wrote:

    “The same Cartesian structures of thought that lead scientists to ridicule believers also lead scientists to ridicule women.”

    At the risk of taking one sentence out of context this statement is puzzling and clearly contradicted by the evidence….Sean….who clearly supports women in science but does not support theism. The ability to see the world from different viewpoints is also a critical skill in being an effective problem solver in the physical sciences as well as many other fields.

    My point Janet is that physicists are not much different than the rest of the world and Sean is only one data point.

    Everyone can have an opinion or belief structure and if that causes no harm to others so be it. But describing physical reality frankly is not open to non-scientific approaches. To suggest that other ways of “knowing” are subjective, permitted and maybe even should be encouraged is fine as long as you are not trying to describe objective reality. That is the realm of science.

    Regards,

    Elliot

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  • Garth Barber

    I must admit that you’ve left me “peevish”, so I’ll try to ask respectfully. Did you have to post this on Good Friday of all days?

    And I thought Good Friday was all about being crucified for your beliefs.

    I wonder what the public response would have been had a Muslim group announced they were going to charter ten small airplanes and fill them with “prayer warriors” who would fly around Chicago praying for the residents.

    All my moderate Muslim friends would have also been praying to God/Allah for “to guide leaders, pray for people in schools and hospitals, and ask for salvation”.

    Whereas I would question their use of money and unnecessary carbon emissions, whereas a bus ride around Ohio, or even staying in their church and using their imagination, would have served just as well at least their intentions were well meaning and not destructive.

  • Garbage

    “Now I’m about to catch a plane, so more thoughtfulness will have to come later!”

    Are you in Ohio? ;)

    God bless America …and f*ck the rest of the world :)

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I remember a Nova episode way back around 1980, called “The Green Machine”, about plants. They did an experiment in which a fellow prayed to one enclosed box of plants, and not to a control group. The former did better. Just saying, that’s what I saw…

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    Did you have to post this on Good Friday of all days?

    Uhm, if you aren’t Christian, then “Good Friday” really is just like any other Friday … it’s not like Sean saves all of his anti-religious posts for religious holidays, which is because—just a guess here—he really couldn’t care less when said holidays are.

    But what we really want to know, Sean, is whether or not you were praying for Ohio on that flight…

  • Vince

    “No, the idea that suffering is something that just happens, and that we humans have the capacity to reduce it, is, to me, incredibly appealing. I would much rather believe this than in a deity who could achieve the same goals without suffering, but instead chooses to impart suffering.”

    How does a deity/God impart suffering. Take a look at C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Good book.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    “Everyone can have an opinion or belief structure and if that causes no harm to others so be it. But describing physical reality frankly is not open to non-scientific approaches. To suggest that other ways of “knowing” are subjective, permitted and maybe even should be encouraged is fine as long as you are not trying to describe objective reality. That is the realm of science.”

    This response by Elliott beautifully sets the problem. And I mean no disrespect at all toward Elliott, who speaks for many, and speaks clearly, but I still do think there is a problem.

    If Elliott simply claimed that science is the only way to describe the workings of the physical world (which it is — well, except for art and music and photography and…). But then Elliott equates that fact with the claim that science is the only way to know “objective reality.” There’s the problem.

    I don’t think that science does claim to know objective reality anymore. And that doesn’t mean that physics introduced “subjectivity” either, or that there isn’t a “physical world” out there, or that “reality” is only “socially constructed.” But Einstein did bring in the intentional observer, and QM did cut the simple deterministic link between a mathematical model and “objective reality” in the view of Copenhagen thinkers. This is really complex and I’m not an expert, but Einstein and Copenhagen did see that the old claims about what physics “knows” no longer could be asserted as before. (As Bronowski knew, for instance.)

    Please, it is so important NOT to make the instinctive move that if we cast doubt upon claims about “objective reality” then we are saying everything is just “subjective” and anything goes. That merely puts us right back into the old Cartesian “objective-subjective” bind, just like sexism does. (hence my remark about women in science)

    Science has intellectually moved beyond classical scientific “objectivism” and the Brownoski episode Joe recommends is a very powerful way to go about pondering this. Bronowski was a world-class physicist and a humanist who had a strong appreciation for the validity of scientific knowledge but who still says that it is imperfect and partial, relative to “reality.” (I think he is standing in the mud at Auschwitz at the end of that episode….)

    I am fine with saying that science is THE way of knowing we must turn to EXCLUSIVELY for the results that come from setting out to use the scientific method to chart the physical world — actually some specific selected aspects of the physical world, since chemistry and biology and so on are busy with things branching out from that. Great. And that’s it.

    So can’t we ever discuss the big topics like God? Yes, but only as what we are — individuals with personal life journeys who are trained in a discipline that gives us insights but no absolute lock on reality. That’s what I think Dawkins should do — go out and crusade, that’s fine. But when he says science demonstrates or even predicts there isn’t a God, he is waaay out of line, just as far out of line as a Fundamentalist saying the Bible demonstrates that the universe was created in six days. They are both out of their fields and neither has studied the history of their own tradition!

    In The God Conundrum thread on this site, someone noted how “ahistorical” the scientific community currently tends to be, by and large. The same is just as true of Fundamentalist Christians, and with the same result. Epistemological arrogance. And political-social warfare!
    Fundamentalism has borrowed the intellectual assumptions of Newtonian scientism and tries to fight it on its own ground. It’d be ironic if it weren’t so tragic.

    This lack of historical perspective is why scientists think that science reports back to us (and definitively, for heavens sake) on God, and why Fundamentalists think that Genesis reports back to us (and definitively for heavens sake) on science!

    From history, Fundamentalists would learn that the Bible has been read in many other ways by deeply spiritual believers and scientists would learn how much physics has revised its original assumptions and changed its methodologies, to the point that the original belief-structure supporting the objective-subjective split is pretty much long gone and probably never had much to do with scientific process in the first place. (Do we know?)

    At our point in the history of thought, to say “my discipline tells the truth about reality” is not intellectually defensible. It’s wishful thinking, at best. Sean, for instance, never said that, I don’t think…. He said “it drives him crazy” that other people don’t see how unscientific it is to believe in God. And I said “it really surprises me” that he feels that way. But we aren’t hurling our respective disciplines at each other, I hope. People have to venture out of their own ways of knowing, to talk openly as human beings and citizens about issues that transcend any one of the arts and sciences. Academia gives us few enough such opportunities, so thank God for the internet!

    I’m sorry to be up on my soapbox about all this. I’m a retired educator who is doing almost nothing except pondering how education could be better. It’s not like the world isn’t depending on us.

    P.S. I promise I’ll never write a long, long email again!

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    So sorry, Elliot, for misspelling your name! I’ve read too many Renaissance manuscripts, where everything is spelled eight different ways, and I can’t really remember how we spell anything today anymore.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    It’s been a few months since I made a fool of myself on this board, so I’ll risk it again.

    I am open to other ways of knowing, but I approach the idea with extreme caution. Science has a fantastic record of experimental verification. I can’t think of any other way-of-knowing that approaches it. As a result, I tend to think that if a problem can be approached scientifically, then that is the right approach.

    However, there are two types of questions that I do not how to treat scientifically: ethical questions and aesthetic questions. If someone has a scientific approach to these questions, I’d like to hear about it. I haven’t given the aesthetic questions much thought, but I think our sense of compassion is the correct tool (way of knowing) for deciding ethical questions. There are many other options (moral codes or our sense of retributive justice, for example) that are wrong ways of answering ethical questions.

    None the less, I think that something like the existence of a personally involved deity, like the one cited by the prayer fliers, is well within the scope of scientific investigation.

  • Elliot

    Janet,

    Consider the following hypotheticals:

    1) A 40 year old father truly believes that God is speaking to him and telling him the devil inhabits his 8 year old daughter so he molests her and ultimately kills her by holding her head down in a toilet until she drowns.

    2) A troubled undergraduate student in the 1970’s after ingesting LSD and fasting in the desert for six weeks believes he can defy gravity and attempts to prove it by leaping from the top of the 12 story library on campus.

    3) The leader of the most powerful country in the world thinks that he has the divine right to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people because the god they worship isn’t Christian.

    These are the types of scenarios that can be justified by what you describe as “other ways of knowing”.

    Having never even met you, I am almost certain you are as mortified by these as most people. But when you open the door to these approaches, I cannot see how you can avoid such consequences.

    Do I get goose bumps when I hear the Barber Adagio for Strings or for that matter George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”…. Absolutely I do.
    Do I need to provide a reductionist explanation for that response. No I don’t. I can enjoy the experience without analysis. But do I think the scientific method is the ultimate arbiter of what is objective reality and what is not… I do.

    The “subjective” perspectives of QM and relativity are part of science and have been experimentally verified. That was not what I was referring to above. To state it more clearly. Let’s assume an alien civilization was observing the Rings of Saturn from well beyond our Solar System. During this observation, all human life on earth was extinguished by let’s say some extremely virulent version of the bird flu.

    Would their observation of the Rings be altered by our demise? I think not.

    Elliot

  • Garbage

    Hey Janet, are you part of the crew in Ohio? that would explain many things ;)

    Think about it, to explain the universe we dont need an hypothetical *god*, if you wonder where is your taste for art or music coming from, I could give u a scientific explanation which you will probably reject, cus music or perception isnt *science* right? I’d be partially happy if at least you would invoke the ‘music of the spheres’ (not sure you’ll get that one though… ;) )

    Now, there are many things we yet dont understand, but that has happened in the past many times, and stubborn as we are, we havent given up on the idea that God is yet a comodity we prefer to discard. I could go on about more deeper questions about how is it the the world is logical, but that could drift us appart into a multiverse of shapes and tastes which I’m afraid you could missinterpret…After all, you could as well sustain an anthropic principle…

    Dont get me wrong, humans will never *trully* understand what’s out there, but so what?, does it make any sense if there is something else we cant observe, nor play with? :)

    Jap, we are liltle beings, and as little we can figure out about the world. We have done pretty well nonetheless, and the *extrapolation* philosophy it’s worked out quite well. Sure there wasnt anyobdy at the time of inflation, nor anyone has *really seen* an electron. However, we still can ultimately *observe* its effects whatever it was we decided to map into a set of mathematical objects and rules which allowed us to make some cool *predictions* (and postdictions). It is the minimalist hypothesis we stand up for.
    Whatever that gives us the confortable sense of understanding and leaves us happy there is a sensible universe out there…

    Like Poincare said once: If nature werent beautiful, it wouldnt be worth living nor studying it…

    Oops, I introduced aesthetic into the equation…sorry ;)

  • Richard E.

    The truly odd thing about this is that is amounts to a very mechanistic view of prayer — that these planes are something like crop-dusters, speading God’s grace on the good people of Ohio far more efficiently than would have been possible if the same amount of praying was done on the ground.

    In this light it is ironic that some contributors to this thread have been arguing eloquently for “different ways of knowing”. So far as I can see the organizers of these flights actually have a remarkably materialist model of prayer — almost scientific, one might say, and at odds with the viewpoint expressed by the apologists (and I use the term in its technical) contributing to this thread.

  • Zeus’Headache

    Nice job, Sean. However, out of the 28 responses (at this time of writing) i find that you have the ear (or reading eye) of plenty who simply do not get it. To wit:

    From Sam Gralla: “I always follow you, but sometimes I don’t believe you. For example, I don’t believe the last sentence.”

    What is there to “believe”? That you disgaree with Sean’s final paragraph, or that Sean in fact wrote a paragraph that is consistent with what he thinks and has written earlier?

    From Joe Buckley: “I must admit that you’ve left me “peevish”, so I’ll try to ask respectfully. Did you have to post this on Good Friday of all days?”

    One day out of 365 ain’t bad. But your peave begs a larger question: what makes April 7 so special? Well, let’s just look a smattering of happenings over the last sufficiently long while:

    It is also the anniversary of: Attila’s Hun’s plundering of Metz (451 AD), the invention of wooden matches by the English chemist John Walker in 1827, a forest fore that that reportedly burned 900 acres in San Luis Obispo, California in 1926, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met for an Axis conference in Salzburg in 1943, Spain relinquishes her protectorate in Morocco in 1956, “Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds,” premieres in New York City in 1970, a Guttenberg bible sold for $2,000,000 in New York City in 1978, the 14th Nabisco Dinah Shore Golf Championship was won by Alice Miller in 1985, a fire kills 110 on a ferry in Norway, while 30 die in a ferry flip over in Burma, both in the same day in 1990, and Pakistan beat Sri Lanka to win Singer Cup in Singapore in 1996…I could go on, and on…

    but the point should by now be sufficiently clear: just exactly who has dibs on any particular date? Hmmm?

    From Neil B. : “One of the best works about God in that higher philosophical sense, was _The Mind of God_ by Paul Davies. He focused mostly on things like the anthropic principle, in the sense of it being interesting that our universe has just the right physical values for life to exist within a very narrow range. For those who escape to multiple universes, pehaps via modal realism: I hope you are aware of the irony of believing or even supposing such things, given:

    (1.) Our near-complete lack of theoretical justification for any other universes with other properties, and

    (2.) The history of logical positivism, which used operational definitions of empirical proof requirements against ideas of God etc. It would be rather hypocritical to toss aside such concepts just because it becomes “politically” convenient to use them now.”

    A. The anthropic principle is completely counter to cause-and-effect. Religious folks would find this result horrid (if they managed for a moment to be able to think about it reasonably). In fact, most physicists laugh at the anthropic principle as an idea that has zero explanatory power.

    B. There is no end to theoretical justifications for what you are pleased to identify as “other universes with other properties”. A theory can address any question the author likes. In science, we like the idea that ideas that are bad or inconsistent with what we observe in nature are discarded. Not so with religious folk.

    C. Its rather easy to toss aside any concepts, such as you have provided, that are easily identified as trash.

    and again from Neil B.:

    “I remember a Nova episode way back around 1980, called “The Green Machine”, about plants. They did an experiment in which a fellow prayed to one enclosed box of plants, and not to a control group. The former did better. Just saying, that’s what I saw…”

    So you “see” something performed on a tele program and immediately embrace it as an “observation” worthy of its long tradition in science. Hmmm…

    From Janet Leslie Blumberg: “If Elliott simply claimed that science is the only way to describe the workings of the physical world (which it is — well, except for art and music and photography and…). But then Elliott equates that fact with the claim that science is the only way to know “objective reality.” There’s the problem.”

    Excuse me? Since when has it been authoritatively ordained that “art, music and photography” are not at heart scientific??? These are aspects of human discourse that are intimately involved with communication, and as such, must necessarily have a rational handle on mutual understanding – and THAT is intrinsically associated with everyone’s responsibitlity to “measure” what it is that they have seen or heard. That’s SCIENCE, first course, as soon as we leave the womb.

    What makes you think that music, for example, is not scientific? Oh, I see…its that peskily popular commercialized lousy-poetry wallpaper-pattern stuff that so many equate with the word “music”. Did you know that you can actually obtain INFORMATION from decent music??? Do you know what a “ear-worm” is??? If you did, you would understand the intimate connection between true art and true science.

    From Gavin Polhemus: (who also said, “It’s been a few months since I made a fool of myself on this board, so I’ll risk it again.”) “None the less, I think that something like the existence of a personally involved deity, like the one cited by the prayer fliers, is well within the scope of scientific investigation.”

    Consider this: if a “personally involved deity”, who putatively has unlimited power over our affairs, has, in fact, any purchase on what dreck and discord we find about ourselves, then any NORMAL thinking person would reject such an incompetent as an insult to humanity. BUT, if such a perfection of being actually existed, how could any of us non-perfect humans possibly pretend to “know” the existence of such a being, let alone know the intentions such a being might have? It’s quite clear from the rhetoric spouting from the religious contingent throughout the world (WHATEVER the religion) that these people claim to have knowledge that can only be afforded to perfection: evidently, no self-analysis in search of error, mistake or underestimation is required as long as one has GOD on one’s side. This is the gist of the problem: some people like to listen to evidence from nature that is reproducible (they are “scientifically-minded”) and others like to listen to people who have followed a millenia-long tradition of hoodwinking con-artistry. Nobody thinks they aren’t good at it.

    Richard E. : “The truly odd thing about this is that i[t] amounts to a very mechanistic view of prayer — that these planes are something like crop-dusters, speading God’s grace on the good people of Ohio far more efficiently than would have been possible if the same amount of praying was done on the ground.”

    The difference between a “mechanistic” and a “non-mechanistic” view of prayer is, in the complete absense of any evidence that would shine any light on this ridiculous question whatsoever, completely ZERO.

    On the other hand, to those like Sean, Terry, Coin, Spyder, Mark, Jeff (for humor), Mollishka, Eliot and Garbage and some others: Bravo!

  • Gavin Polhemus

    Zeus’ Headache,

    I stated

    I think that something like the existence of a personally involved deity, like the one cited by the prayer fliers, is well within the scope of scientific investigation.

    In the interest of brevity, I did not bother to observe what I thought was obvious: that ample scientific evidence has accumulated contradicting that existence. I should have been more clear.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    No answer to Wolfgang’s question? To repeat:

    Sean,

    if you believe that “things don’t happen for a reason” (and I would to some extent agree with you) then why do you really care about the “complicated conglomerations of particles”, which USAtoday identified as people praying in airplanes, when all they did was “obeying the laws of Nature” ?

  • http://pieceful.wordpress.com/ Piecefujl

    “The creation of good and evil, justice and mercy, beauty and terror, are all in our hands, as complicated conglomerations of particles obeying the laws of Nature. I kind of like it that way.”

    I like it that way too. Categories like good and evil are completely human constructed and vary in time and space (in the historical/cultural sense). But since these categories, along with the categories of “science” and “religion” are also all in our head, then shouldn’t we first spend some time defining what we really mean when we throw such words around.

    I disagree with some in this discussion who have seemed to imply that science is somehow outside of or beyond culture. This too feels to me like an antiquated belief that scientists really don’t need to subscribe to. A more useful way to view science is as but one patch in the great tapestry of cultural forms. This is not to denigrate science, but simply to point out it’s similarity religion and other belief systems. Of course, science has many unique aspects, chief among them being it’s institutionalization of revolution.

    I’ve taken a stab at defining science and religion, but what do ya’ll think?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Arun and Wolfgang, I fail to see the connection between whether I should care about things and the existence of some external cosmic purpose. I do care about things, as a matter of empirical fact; my cares might change with circumstance, but they don’t rely on God to tell me what to care about.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Janet (responding all the way back to #7) — I’m totally with you in regretting the disdain shown for awe and wonder by your young science major. Most working scientists are full of amazement and wonder at the workings of the universe. They generally believe that understanding the mechanisms behind the natural world adds to your appreciation of its beauty. College students can sometimes get carried away in their enthusiasms, you know.

    More generally: sure, there are different ways of looking at the world. Rigorous training in a specific discipline doubtless colors one’s favorite ways of conceptualizing what they experience, and one’s conceptual predispositions doubtless influence what kind of discipline they go into. But when it comes to deciding whether some specific proposition is right or wrong, I don’t (or shouldn’t) really care about the personal predelictions that drove someone to believe in that proposition; I should judge it on its own merits.

    In particular, I’m happy to admit that there are plenty of ways of looking at the world other than the scientific. “Was Hamlet crazy, or just play-acting?” is not a scientific question, nor is “Is the death penalty moral?”, although both are interesting questions.

    So, when people say they believe in God, either they mean to make some specific claim about the workings of the universe, or they don’t. The entire point of the above post was to highlight the fact that, while academics and theologians and so forth like to think about God in a more philosophically nuanced way, the overwhelming majority of actual believers are much more literal about it. They really believe in some being that made the universe and intervenes in it to occasionally violate the laws of nature. That’s a view that has every right to be critiqued on conventional scientific grounds.

    If you want to believe in God in some other way, that’s fine, but you would have to spell out exactly what that way is before I could tell you what I think. God turns out to be quite the moving target, once you move out of guy-with-a-beard territory. Personally, I find that the concept is completely unnecessary and unhelpful on all of the levels of which I am familiar. It’s just baggage from a less sophisticated era, and high time we moved on.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Sean,
    Repeat- why should the behavior of complicated agglomerations of particles obeying the laws of nature cause you botheration?

    We all know as a matter of empirical fact that it does bother you – e.g., this blog posting. The question is why?

    -Arun

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Again, in fewer words: why shouldn’t it?

  • http://divineafflatus.blogspot.com mark

    So were these a bunch of prayerful people, who thought they needed to get closer to God to establish a stronger, clearer connection for their communications to him; or, were they a bunch of people who love to fly in airplanes (or were happy to get a chance to go on their first airplane ride), who were just looking for another excuse to go fly around?

  • Mustafa Mond, FCD

    ways of knowing

    I don’t like that term. Gavin Polhemus, aesthetics is about beauty, not truth; therefore it is not about knowledge at all. As for J.L. Blumberg’s “other ways of knowing,” she never seems to list any other ways of knowing, or explain why we should respect them as valid. My impression is that the term is used to claim unearned respect for outmoded and invalid forms of epistemology which should be discarded as unreliable.

  • http://www.iidb.org RBH

    Janet Leslie Blumberg’s posts perfectly illustrate the disconnect between the rarefied air of academic theologians and the swamp gas of religion on the ground. The former is foreign to the latter. In the part of Ohio where I live — a rural Ohio county graced by a 7th-Day Adventist district headquarters, a Church of the Four-Square Gospel seminary, and more fundamentalist churches than you can shake a stick at — what Janet wrote is not only incomprehensible, if it were understood it would be regarded as uppity heresy. The Bible as interpreted by fundamentlist preachers is what counts here.

    It’s the latter kind of religiousity that’s the enemy of the Enlightenment, the purveyor of anti-science trash, and the root of the kind of evil of which Dawkins and Harris write. It’s the kind of religiousity that pushes the teaching of a Moonie’s trash science in Ohio public schools and leads to a local conservative Christian radio host claiming that scientists routinely prostitute their profession to keep the grant money flowing (a near quotation). C’mon out here, Janet, and speak at the Billy Graham Crusade scheduled for next fall in my county.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    Ha! Zeus is both cruel and funny… excellent!

    How about different “modes of perception” instead of “ways of knowing”? “Knowing” implies there is a basic truth which we can either know or not know, and nice cold hard facts are generally within the realm of science, which is what I think some of the folks here are objecting to. But the term “perception” allows for more subjective ways of accessing the world around us (e.g., through art and music). As for, “Was Hamlet crazy, or just play-acting?,” there is a well-defined answer; Shakespeare knew it and since he didn’t bother telling the rest of us, we’ll just argue ad nauseum over what it is. Whether or not morality, then, falls under the purvue of “science” is a question of whether or not there is an inherent sense of right and wrong to the universe (i.e., regardless of whether or not there are humans wandering around on Earth trying to decipher it).

  • kapakapa

    Did Jesus reincarnate flew over Augusta today? Zach Johnson seems to think so.
    Wonder whom Jesus would have chosen if other contenders prayed as much as Zach did? Would he still choose randomly one over the others? Doesn’t he want to be more egalitarian and bring euphoria to every player? Either the concept of the ‘tournament’ dies or Jesus evolves into Chance.

  • Charon

    “The pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.”

    -Ian McEwan, Saturday

  • ronan

    RE: #28 Richard E.

    > … So far as I can see the organizers of these flights actually have a remarkably materialist model of prayer …

    This whole airplanes-for-Jesus bit reminds me of a scene in “Jesus Camp”. The preacher and her assistants were preparing the camp to open. They walked through the chapel, up and down the rows, running their hands over the pews praying for protection. They touched the computer and prayed that PowerPoint wouldn’t crash.

    This struck me as some kind of odd Christo-Pagan witchcraft. Do they think that their touch (or airspace proximity) somehow enhances God’s power to answer prayers? If they really believe in an omniscient god, who would presumably know the addresses, names, and favorite pizza toppings of every person in Ohio, and an omnipotent god, who could answer any prayer, then do they not believe that they could sit in Bangkok and effectively pray for the residents of Ohio?

    I think somebody wanted some flying hours, and found a way to get some tax-exempt fools to foot the bill.

  • Jim Nightshade

    I have spotted a worrying trend. The frequency of faith-related posts around here does not seem to be Poisson. In fact, I estimate — very conservatively of course — that the rate of such posts has been increasing, and is consistent with a hyperbolic model having an asymptote at t_0 = 2008-04-01 01:00:00.17 UTC +/- 3 days (stat) +/- 11 days (syst).

    (Most of the systematic error is due to my background model, which is a 3rd order polynomial. With some effort I may be able to improve this.)

    Now, the extrapolation of this model leads to a result that is clearly unphysical, so something in the nature of a crisis or turning point must surely intervene. Perhaps WordPress will crash, or — as I judge more likely — Sean will convert to Zen Buddhism and apply to join the Shaolin Temple in order to study the application of martial arts in the context of geometrodynamics. Whilst he is pursuing this lifestyle, the opportunity to blog will necessarily be curtailed.

    Of course, the later part is admittedly speculative, so please take it with a grain of salt.

  • http://different-eye.blogspot.com/ mark

    I have to reiterate that I think Prof. Blumberg is almost completely wrong here. Her view is reminescent of the “science is just another religion” argument, which I think misrepresents what science actually is. Of course there is necessarily a human element in science. But her assertions are merely her opinions: I could say there is no big conundrum about God and that her comments about otherness are absurd.

  • Vince

    In response to Jason Dick, #12,

    Here are a couple of interesting articles which answers your comment. They may or may not be satisfying or helpful.

    This first one is entitled “If God is all good, why does he allow pain, suffering and evil to exist in the world?” http://fmmh.ycdsb.ca/teachers/F00027452/F00027453/gr9fqgoodevl.html
    http://fmmh.ycdsb.ca/teachers/F00027452/F00027453/prov1.html

    I was at a particular physicist’s talk and he said something like “We can’t observe individual quarks, but we know they exist because the theory of QCD does a remarkable job in predicting the results of experiments, and so in that respect, quarks must exist. Likewise, if string theory also does a remarkable job in predicting the results of experiments, and the multiverse concept still persists in string theory, then we should regard the multiverse as existing as well, even though, like quarks, we can’t directly observe them.” So this kind of disturbs me. I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up. Perhaps because I read somewhere in this thread about science being another religion, or whatever. Anyway, it reminded me of this talk. The question I had was how do we know we can’t formulate a theory that works just as well but that does not contain the baggage of things completely outside our universe (like other universes) which we can’t even observe? What is the connection (if any) between a “belief” in the existence of these other universes based on a successful scientific theory, and a belief in the existence of things “outside” our universe (like a heaven or hell), based on something completely different from scientific arguments which also cannot be observed?

  • Nick

    “I remember a Nova episode way back around 1980, called “The Green Machine”, about plants. They did an experiment in which a fellow prayed to one enclosed box of plants, and not to a control group. The former did better. Just saying, that’s what I saw…”

    They should have done a double-blind experiment with a bunch of plants. Then they could have had a controlled scientific experiment with published results, instead of just an anecdote on tv.

  • Nick

    What was that great quote from Richard Feynman? It was something like, “Science is a kind of way of not fooling yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.”
    I think that sums up the difference, in my view, between science and “other ways of knowing.” Sorry I don’t have the exact quote.

  • Alex R

    Given that this is nominally a physics blog, I think we should consider some of the interesting physical questions that occur in the context of this post.

    I’m particularly interested in understanding the physical nature of the interaction called “prayer”, and why praying in airplanes might be more effective than ordinary ground-based prayer.

    Of course, prayer could be considered a 3-body interaction among the person praying, the person or object being prayed for, and the deity. The first physical question would be: Can this be simplified to being a pair of 2-body interactions — presumably, pray-er to deity and pray-ee to deity? If so, then presumably the airborne pray-ers believe that they are moving themselves closer to the deity (so much for omnipresence) in order to increase the strength of the interaction. Of course, we don’t know quite how distant this sky-god is — if the interaction were some kind of inverse-square, the extra mile or two shouldn’t make too much difference, *unless* the gravitational potential of the Earth makes a big difference.

    I don’t know, this is starting to get pretty complicated. I think it might be useful to ask these airborne “prayer warriors” to share the physical models that they’re using to predict that prayer will be more effective when airborne. Somebody ought to be able to get a paper out of this…

    They are Christian, though, so perhaps we could start with the New Testament to see what it says about the best location for prayer… “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt 6:5-6)

    Oh. Never mind.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Zeus’ Headache, you indulged in some clumsy thinking and misrepresented my views in various ways. The purposive formulation (there are different ways to look at it, it’s not a “the”) anthropic principle is supposed to be about why a single example, the universe, is the way it is. Of course it doesn’t have explanatory power, it’s not that sort of thing, it’s an after the fact interpretation. We aren’t going to have bunches of universes to play with, for experiments one way or the other. Also, you did not provide any of the suppose theoretical justifications for other universes, nor deal with the core empirical issue. You misunderstood my point about logical positivism, because (even if poorly worded) I wasn’t referring to the idea of God being discarded, but meant that it was hypocritical to discard the *logical positivism* once LP wasn’t on the “right side” of the argument any more. You did not deal with the implications of LP for multiple universes, or even how LP got away with being used against “undesirable” concepts even while being unable to deal with operationally meaningless phrases like “things continue to exist even while not being observed.” As for theories that are bad or inconsistent being discarded, well, the idea of the universe being conditionally existent contradicts nothing (unlike young-earth creationism, etc.) It is an interpretative take on what we already know.

    BTW, a philosopher who thinks the universe is not existentially self-suficient is not practicing “religion”, which comes from a tradition of revelations or a founders’ vision, but is practicing philosophy (perhaps you forget the irony that the presentation of philosopy of science about how science should be done is itself philosophy, and not science.)

    FInally, you misrepresented my take on the plants and prayer episode. All I said was, that’s what I saw on the show. I didn’t endorse any interpretation of it, or characterized it, clearly saying I was just passing on a simple “observation” *of mine* in the simple sense, not meaning the experiment itself. Hence, your pretense “So you “see” something performed on a tele program and immediately embrace it as an “observation” worthy of its long tradition in science. Hmmm…” was a clumsy canard, not based on any thing about the way I reported it. So far, you come across as an Ann Coulter style scientism dittohead, of the same sort who thinks that liberals are communists, etc., just substituing other targets instead in another context.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    This was a very entertaining post, so thanks.

    But let me draw out an analogy — let’s imagine that most people in the world subscribe to some version of a thing called “physics”. While a tiny elite plays around with sophisticed model of the universe involving unseen dimensions and abstruse mathematical constructions like Calabi-Yau manifolds and n-categories, the vast majority subscribe to a cartoon version of Aristotle’s physics — objects only move under the application of force and slow down when the force is reoved, living things move on their own while inanimate things get pushed around, heavier things fall faster than light ones, etc.

    It’s easy to mock the naive version of physics even though it seems to get the world’s peasantry through their unrewarding daily lives. But whatever you think of naive physics, it doesn’t really impinge much one way or the other on the inherent value or lack thereof of the sophisticated form of physics practiced by the elite.

    Maybe it’s confusing to call both of these things “physics”, but we are stuck withe terminology our language gives us.

  • ronan

    > But whatever you think of naive physics, it doesn’t really impinge much one way or the other on the inherent value or lack thereof of the sophisticated form of physics practiced by the elite.

    Except that the ‘naive majority’ has convinced the politicians to use Aristotlean physics when making policy decisions, and has forbidden all public aid to any foreign NGO that practices (or even mentions) non-Aristotlean physics to third-worlders who desparately need such information. They’re trying as hard as they can to outlaw many non-Aristotlean practices and expressions. They congregate outside Newtonian clinics shouting hateful quips from Aristotle at patients. Now are they impinging?

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    You are misreading the analogy. The point is: if there are a diversity of beliefs labeled x, then debunking some of them does not debunk all of them. The common if somewhat lame strategy of people who don’t like any of x is to pick the worst elements of x and attack them, smearing by implication all of x.

    On the other hand, people who believe in some element of x will often hide in the vagueness of the definition of x, so when their falsifiable belief (an anthropomorphic god) is attacked they can retreat to a more defensible position ( a vague transcendentialism), without actually modifying their belief. It works both ways.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    From Vince, # 46
    “I was at a particular physicist’s talk and he said something like “We can’t observe individual quarks, but we know they exist because the theory of QCD does a remarkable job in predicting the results of experiments, and so in that respect, quarks must exist. Likewise, if string theory also does a remarkable job in predicting the results of experiments, and the multiverse concept still persists in string theory, then we should regard the multiverse as existing as well, even though, like quarks, we can’t directly observe them.” So this kind of disturbs me. I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up. Perhaps because I read somewhere in this thread about science being another religion, or whatever. Anyway, it reminded me of this talk. The question I had was how do we know we can’t formulate a theory that works just as well but that does not contain the baggage of things completely outside our universe (like other universes) which we can’t even observe? What is the connection (if any) between a “belief” in the existence of these other universes based on a successful scientific theory, and a belief in the existence of things “outside” our universe (like a heaven or hell), based on something completely different from scientific arguments which also cannot be observed?”

    I really, really appreciate this entry from Vince. For one thing, it is vulnerable. Vince asks a question and he really wants to know what other people think. He wants to think and talk about this, and I really want to do so, also.

    Secondly, I love it because surely the question of “what makes a scientific theory different” from other kinds of theorizing is one of the most fascinating questions we face these days in philosophy (and in science). I wanted to hear what you-all scientific types think about that difference. (I approach it from within philosophy and literary theory, though I am fascinated with the history of science.) In fact, that’s mostly why I wrote to begin with.

    But I gotta say to SOME of you that a look at the history of science itself will dissuade you from answering the question by saying the scientific kind of theory is “objective” and everything else therefore has to be “opinions.” Yes, of course, there is a great difference between opinions, which we all have, like Sean’s informed guess about which view of the singularity will win out, and on the other hand, genuine rigorous theorizing within any way of knowing. And there are other kinds of rigorous knowledge, I believe, that come to us through anguish and life journeys, and if it is humble and evidentiary (that is, if we can say “this is why I hold this, and only on this basis”)then it ought not to be ruled out of the conversation either.

    What are other different and potent avenues for coming to know about reality besides science? All of the arts and sciences, I’m thinking, and I would say theology and I’m starting to think mysticism, though it’s not my way, all of which are highly formalized and disciplined and evidentiary in their own ways, if you start looking into them. Do you think musicians don’t have to hypothesize and do experimental testing? But they have a different kind of “falsifiabilty.” And in every field, reality — just like God — IS a moving target. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get anywhere.

    I thought that the New Physics established that a physicist cannot claim that physics KNOWS (or better, CAN know) that a physical theory “is” a description of physical reality, or that whatever reality itself “is” can be described by physics as “objective physical fact.”

    Isn’t physics nowadays a very rigorous attempt to formalize the kind of reality it has selected to address, but assuming that any truly scientific model is not the simple truth about that reality and is never “proven,” but onely “not yet falsified”; it has to be always open to future developments, which themselves will be judged by scientific critieria (which are always evolving).

    As an attempt to formalize what it is trying to know, it will be AS GOOD AS IT PROVES TO BE IN THE FUTURE, AS JUDGED BY THOSE WHO WORK IN THE DISCIPLINE, which means in terms of the standards the discipline has worked out for its endeavor. In those terms, then, I think that a working expert physicist can legitimately say “quarks must exist.” But it’s not an absolute truth-claim like Newtonian science used to make — or at least people used to think it did. I’ve read a lot, as much as I can, and that’s where I thought physics was tentatively at, at this point?

    This would mean that science is certainly not “just (like) a religion” (in the sense Vince meant)nor is it “just a socially-constructed model” with no relationship to a reality at all. That’s what makes science so powerful, so amazing. But at the same time Einstein and the Copenhagen physicists realized (I thought) that it was no longer possible for science to make those older classical claims that a formula or a physical theory is the equivalent of the reality it tries to formulate. A physical theory is neither objective nor subjective, because those terms don’t tell us much any more. We’ve moved beyond them; they proved to be way too crude. A physical theory instead appears now to be a rigorous and well-supported approximation which methodologically the reality must always have escaped because we could always make better measurements, and even then we would only know that, what we had measured, and not “the thing itself.”

    There have to be intentional observers (us) taking measurements and making statistical summations about the reality, and that doesn’t make the results “subjective,” but it does limit them to what humans know by taking measurements and making summations!! Okay, stop. I really like what I just said. What do you think? Is any *human* knowing able to be thought of as the equivalent of “the ways things are,” as if we had attained a universal perpective? Is *human* scientific knowing the equivalent of ultimate rality? Or is it what it claims to be (I think), a rigorous HUMAN attempt to know better as much of reality as we can formalize selecting a certain kind of reality and using certain kinds of methods for measuring it?

    Given Einstein and QM, I don’t see how one can determine if a scientific proposition is “right” or “wrong” scientifically? We can only determine what we think (validly) we must say is the “best theory” right now, based on the interpretive frameworks we have right now. That is the glory and the profound honesty of science, and I wish all religious people were equally honest about what they claim to know, and how they claim to know it. But many are! For every reactionary Fundamentalist in Ohio, there are also many Evangelicals (believe it or not!) and Orthodox and Episcopalians and Jews and Buddhists and so on who hold what they take to be their own hard-won knowledge with a proper epistemological humility and are not trying to invade science classrooms. I’m sorry you-all don’t see them very much: we are trying to get our voices out there….

    At this point in the history of science, as far as I know, physics does not NOW claim to set out to look at ALL of reality or to use a method that is a universally applicable method for dealing with all of reality, and especially with the large swaths of human experience that it does not even claim to address, except on the physical level. Does any of this make any sense, in terms of Vince’s pondering?

    Maybe these questions and considerations pale next to the immediate political climate, but they are perhaps more enduring questions, for the future?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Janet, quantum mechanics and relativity have had precisely zero impact on how we judge the truthfulness of scientific claims. What they did was to change the relationship between the state of a physical system and what we can possibly observe about it; before we thought we could observe everything with arbitrary precision, now we know better. But that has nothing to do with how a certain theory is judged to be right or wrong.

    In particular: we could never prove that a scientific theory was right, even back in Newton’s time, and we still can’t. That’s not how science works, as I will talk about in a half-written blog post. All we do is gain higher and higher (or lower and lower, as the case may be) levels of confidence in our descriptions, based on the coherence between the theories and the set of all the data we have. At some point we reach a level of confidence in which it’s unreasonable to doubt that the theory is correct within its domain of validity, and we move on.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    I don’t think Blumberg’s comments are relevant to the reason why so many people are religious.

    I believe that religion exists because people don’t feel comfortable seeing themselves as physical objects subject to the laws of physics (i.e. mere machines). Even though it is impossible for us to escape the laws of physics, we can pretend that we are somehow not subject to the laws of physics because we don’t have the technology yet to make objects with similar capabilities as the human brain.

    If we were all robots made in some factory (but with exactly the same mental capabilities as we have now) then I don’t see how we could still be religious. Humans need concrete hands on evidence of scientific facts before they are prepared to throw out beliefs based on superstition that are contradicted by the science.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    In response to Sean # 55

    “In particular: we could never prove that a scientific theory was right, even back in Newton’s time, and we still can’t. That’s not how science works, as I will talk about in a half-written blog post. All we do is gain higher and higher (or lower and lower, as the case may be) levels of confidence in our descriptions, based on the coherence between the theories and the set of all the data we have.”

    I don’t know whether to say “I stand corrected” or “I rest my case.”

    How does what you describe as science differ in any way, in terms of intellectual legitimacy and rigor, from what goes on in a non-scientific way of knowing?

    From what you say — that science isn’t associated with impossible truth-claims any more (or never was) — then science seems to differ only in WHAT it is trying to look at and in HOW that community accordingly goes about trying to understand it.

    Which was my point.

    I look forward to your post, because there IS a difference, but I think it’s really hard to say exactly what the difference is. (In a Berube post it’s interesting that he says he’s a “realist” about physical fact but not about social fact. But he lets them both be fact, not in the sense of proven fact but in the sense of attempted deep description of what’s going on….)

  • Nick

    Here’s the Feynman quote I couldn’t quite remember:
    “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Here’s another one:
    “This method [science] is based on the principle that observation is the judge of whether something is so or not. All other aspects and characteristics of science can be understood directly when we understand that observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea.”

    How does this compare with “other ways of knowing”? What is the religious or spritual way of “knowing”?

  • Elliot

    Janet,

    Interestingly there was a PBS documentary on last night regarding the Peoples Church (Jim Jones) tragedy where 909 people died by drinking cyanide laced kool-aid because they were religious followers of Jim Jones. This is where I have a “big” issue with the phrase “other ways of knowing”.

    It is not knowledge it is belief. And that is the difference between science and religion. You can put them both under a meta-catagory of mythology if you like but just because somebody says the represent God does not make it so or make it part of knowledge.

    Elliot

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Janet, science has a well-established (although never explicitly spelled out) way of judging its truth-claims. We make hypotheses, use them to make specific and unambiguos predictions, test them against data, and discard those hypotheses that come up short. It’s a cycle that gets us closer and closer to the truth, without any guarantee that we ever reach it.

    If you give me an example of some other way of knowing, I can tell you how science compares to it. Just one, very specific, way of knowing, with some established procedure for understanding things that is different than the scientific one.

    Just to be clear: I’m a huge believer that there are many different ways of thinking about the world, and many interesting topics of discussion other than scientific ones. There are moral questions, logical questions, aesthetic questions, etc. But as a way of understanding the workings of the material universe, I don’t think there are any serious alternatives to science.

  • http://www.huperborea.blogspot.com/ Robert O’Brien

    Janet Leslie Blumberg’s posts perfectly illustrate the disconnect between the rarefied air of academic theologians and the swamp gas of religion on the ground. The former is foreign to the latter. In the part of Ohio where I live — a rural Ohio county graced by a 7th-Day Adventist district headquarters, a Church of the Four-Square Gospel seminary, and more fundamentalist churches than you can shake a stick at — what Janet wrote is not only incomprehensible, if it were understood it would be regarded as uppity heresy. The Bible as interpreted by fundamentlist preachers is what counts here.

    It’s the latter kind of religiousity that’s the enemy of the Enlightenment, the purveyor of anti-science trash, and the root of the kind of evil of which Dawkins and Harris write. It’s the kind of religiousity that pushes the teaching of a Moonie’s trash science in Ohio public schools and leads to a local conservative Christian radio host claiming that scientists routinely prostitute their profession to keep the grant money flowing (a near quotation). C’mon out here, Janet, and speak at the Billy Graham Crusade scheduled for next fall in my county.

    Well, not everyone possesses the sort of insight an experimental psychologist brings to the table regarding matters of hard science. No doubt your abnormal psych text had entire chapters devoted to random fields in the context of statistical mechanics and non-commutative probability, for instance.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    #60 from Sean:
    “Just to be clear: I’m a huge believer that there are many different ways of thinking about the world, and many interesting topics of discussion other than scientific ones. There are moral questions, logical questions, aesthetic questions, etc. But as a way of understanding the workings of the material universe, I don’t think there are any serious alternatives to science.”

    I think I’m starting to get a clearer idea, Sean, of why you said back in “The God Conundrum” that people believing in God is not “reasonable” and “makes you crazy.” It’s that you think of belief in God as claiming God to be a way to “understand the workings of the material universe,” and that’s what I didn’t get before, because it’s so foreign to my understanding and experience of Christianity in general — around the world and historically.

    Most Christians do NOT agree with the Fundamentalists’ attacks on science. (It’s quite peculiar to North America. Americans are so literalistic.) Teilhard de Chardin of course did early ground-breaking work in evolutionary theory, which he wrote about from a deeply Christian perspective too. (We’ve studied him in my church.) A couple Christian physicists I know go over to India every year because the Dalai Lama invited them to teach Western science to his monks! They’re Greek Orthodox; I’m Episcopalian; Teilhard was Roman Catholic. And I taught at a non-denominational Evangelical university where the students have always of course been taught evolution and all the science faculty are excellent and publishing scholars.

    Funny story. A colleague of mine, an inexperienced teacher just out of grad school, was teaching about chromosomes early in her very first GE intro-to-science course, and a freshman girl raised her hand and said: “I don’t understand. The Bible says God made Adam first and then Eve, but then why does the man have the XY chromosomes and the woman is XX. It seems like it would be the other way around.” Well, my friend was so astonished that she just gulped and said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” She went to her department chair for advice and the two of them couldn’t stop laughing. A few days later he came up to her in the hall and said: “Hey, I figured out what you should say to that student. Tell her Adam was the experiment, and Eve was the control.”

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Elliot on Apr 11th, 2007 at 2:14 pm
    Janet,

    Interestingly there was a PBS documentary on last night regarding the Peoples Church (Jim Jones) tragedy where 909 people died by drinking cyanide laced kool-aid because they were religious followers of Jim Jones. This is where I have a “big” issue with the phrase “other ways of knowing”.
    —————-
    Yes, I saw that, Elliot. It was a tragedy. I’ll get back to you with a clarification of what I mean on “ways of knowing.” Sean asked me for “one clear example” and I’m choosing one.

    Whenever I hear the terrible things (like Jonestown) that people hold against “religion,” I can’t help but think of all the historical inhumanity that has to be attributed to the old-school “scientific attitude,” but rather than trade examples back at you, I try to just be glad it is changing.

    Okay — I can’t resist. For just one small example: did you know that scientists and scientific medical professionals refused to believe that babies could feel physical pain until the past 20 years or so, or that they could suffer depression from the loss of their mothers until WW II? They (all men, of course) were just following the Cartesian idea that had ruled science for 250 years, that animals and immature humans are just physical, mindless machines, and do not have “mind.”

    That same mind-body dualism was everywhere in the Enlightenment and justified the inferiority of women and slaves, who clearly lacked the capacity for true “mind,” i.e. thinking scientifically — i.e. “objectively.” My mother boiled bottles and used infant formula like all the other mothers in the 50s because they were told (again by male scientists) that it was the scientific way — much more “sanitary” and “enlightened” than nature’s way…. And please, don’t forget the atom bomb, while we’re at it…were the crusades worse?

    No, I feel ashamed even bringing these things up, because I know that human beings are really screwed up and prone to delude themselves, especially in the name of “good causes,” whether they are called scientists or religious people, and every evidence available supports this as a reasonable viewpoint!

    Augustine thought that the greatest enemy of the spiritual life was our proneness to embrace illusions, especially arrogant and self-serving delusions about ourselves. I loved the quote about “science is a constant revolution.” Yes! It resonates, too, because being a Christian is supposed to mean that you are opening yourself to an endless process of conversion that always calls your motives into question and shatters your self-serving fantasies. And most of all just when you thought you were getting to be quite the fine person indeed!

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    I went back and reread “The God Conundrum.” It’s a LOT longer than I remembered!

    And it has some really great stuff in it. I’m still trying to figure out where the fundamental tension or disconnect that I feel, reading it, is located, precisely. I may have treated it reductively before, and if so, I apologize.

  • Elliot

    Janet,

    Interesting you bring up Teilhard de Chardin. A theology based on the possiblilty that God does not exist in our past or present but “might” exist in our future is certainly an interesting possiblity and one that could not be disproven by sceince or any other method. This gets directly to what may be a more and expansive interesting question: “Than does God exist?” which is “Is there meaning or purpose intrinsic in our existence and that of the Universe at large?”

    Elliot

  • HI

    Janet,

    I wanted to respond to some of your earlier comments, but I thought I was a little too late to join the discussion. But since you are still leaving your comments, and since Sean took care of some of the more general issues, this might be a good occasion to write about what you wrote from my personal point of view.

    I enjoyed your comments. I really do. But I have to say that, just as you seemed to be frustrated by what Sean wrote, I felt a little frustrated by the comments you left here and also to “The God Conundrum.” I apologize in advance if I sound offensive. English is not my native language and I cannot control all the nuances.

    You used the words like “Anglo-American intellectual tradition”, “the Anglo-American rationalist-empiricist tradition”, and “the good-old British empiricist tradition” to characterize the position of scientists and atheists like Sean or Dawkins. The implications may be (1) these scientists/atheists take their positions because of their Western cultural tradition, (2) science/atheism is biased because it has its origin in the Western tradition, (3) someone from a different cultural tradition is likely to (if not necessarily to) take a different position, and (4) someone in some different discipline (like you, Janet) may be able to escape from such bias.

    Janet, you sound like you are a North American, or at least a Westerner more broadly. I am Japanese, so I am from somewhat different cultural background. One can argue that you and Sean have more in common than Sean and me. Yet, you and Sean have very different views and my view is very close to Sean’s. You sound like a nice person and all, but when you criticize people for taking “a basically Anglo-American intellectual tradition” for granted, or “other way of knowing”, you are not being a spokesperson for a non-Westerner like me.

    Why science appeals to me and other non-Westerners? I think the main reason is that science makes sense, even to the people outside of the West. The modern science may have its origin in the West, but it can cross the cultural borders. There is fairness and openess in science that is hard to find in other fields. You can think about the reason, but I think science deserves some credit for this.

    How about religion? So, you are Christian. You are in the Judeo-Christian tradition just like many Americans, and Westerners in general. So, why can you criticize others for taking “a basically Anglo-American intellectual tradition” for granted?

    What I don’t like about religions, aside from the fact that I think they are irrational, is that every religion is regional. If there is a god, why would it spread its message only to a part of the word and not the entire human population? Choosing any religion is unfair, because you are favoring one cultural tradition over others by doing it. Atheism is fair, because everyone is born an atheist.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Dear Hi,
    I’m sorry that I sounded to you like I was “criticizing” people for being in an Anglo-American intellectual tradition. I enjoy learning from people in every tradition, especially when they are open and tolerant. And the cosmicvariance folks seem very much that way. So I was surprised by the vehemence of so many folks who are witty and devoted to their discipline critizing faith in God and in such broad terms. I was trying to point out that we are all coming from somewhere and need to be humble about our viewpoints, especially when we claim our view is “reasonable” and the other people’s aren’t. Of course, I do know that Fundamentalists are not open and tolerant (that’s why they are called fundamentalists). But I’ve gone back and looked more at Dawkins and I am deeply disturbed by the way he tars eveyone with the same brush and is basically attacking the very core of many people’s identity. Maybe I’ve come not to expect much better from the religious extremists, but from scientists? They have a right to state their conclusions, but to go on the attack this way, against a whole category of people, and especially in the name of Reason is deeply disturbing to my liberal values as an educator and citizen. This does not bode well for our country and I’d ask folks to really think about this.
    Dawkins says Christians “believe” in the face of contrary evidence and pride themselves on that. Well, Christians have been trying to tell the Fundamentalists this very thing for decades. It is harmful to them and it is not the historic understanding of faith. But how can we even begin to sort this all out and understand each other with these huge generalizations being slung about? How does anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime understanding a tradition get the right to make sweeping uninformed negative proclamations about it? We have to listen to each other as individuals — as Martha Nussbaun said over on 3quarksdaily.com about Moslems. Doesn’t Dawkins realize that people’s traditions and their sense of the sacred go to the core of their very identities? It would be like saying: “I don’t think it is reasonable for you to love your mother so stop.” Even if you had a dysfunctional mother (and many people have a dysfunctional-parent kind of God), you don’t just stop loving her. People are deeply, deeply formed by their histories and traditions and disciplines.

    PS It is fascinating for me to have a comment from someone outside the North American tradition who feels excluded or stereotyped by me as one who would not love science. I never thought of that or intended it! Thank you for writing. How can I get at how dangerous it is to claim “Reason is on our side” without accidentally overgeneralizing myself? I have to work on this. A crusade or jihad in the name of God isn’t any worse than one in the name of Reason (think of Manifest Destiny or colonialism), and I think Sean, for instance, would probably agree, based on his comments on Northern Ireland. I’ve taught the history of the West and science-and-religion courses all my life and am working on a book right now, so that’s why I got so interested in this discussion. I’m learning a lot and it’s worrying me to see this much polarization going on. But I wasn’t criticising folks for being formed in a particular intellectual tradition, but trying to warn about using it as a foundation from which to attack others.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Well, here’s an amazing example (from within the Christian community) of how to respectfully carry on genuine discussion with those we deeply disagree with, without dismissing an entire institution and way of life. It’s from “Soulforce,” a group that’s been traveling to Christian campuses to affirm the full humanity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students on those campuses. You’ll find the following at http://www.soulforce.com/blogs/. Reflecting on visits last week to Seattle universities, one soulforce member writes:

    “Ironically, the assumptions that lead us to accept the Bible as inerrant and perfect are the same assumptions that stop us from fully including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals into our churches and schools. At its base is the assumption that our worldview is shared, unchanging and unwavering, throughout all time and every category we would claim for our own. It is a form of prejudice. And the foundation of it all is fear: fear of our ability to cope with change, fear of having to wrestle with new ideas and situations, fear of losing our Self, fear of being alone, fear of being wrong.

    “Faith cannot grow in concrete ground. It needs good, tilled earth. So we must wrestle with the earth we are blessed with, to sift it and question it, to tug at its roots and examine them, to prepare its branches for the grafting of new truths and revelations, to water it with thought, and nourish it with fervent study. Uncertainty cannot scare us, and—like Scripture asserts—we must prepared to submit our deepest truths to the ways of God. If we are to become the new creature, transformed, we cannot fear. There is no fear in love; that is the lesson—Northwest University included—must learn.”

    This is now Janet again: here’s the part I would emphasize for scientitsts to consider:

    “At its base is the assumption that our worldview is shared, unchanging and unwavering, throughout all time and every category we would claim for our own. It is a form of prejudice. And the foundation of it all is fear….”

    Now Sean’s blog on how science operates (“What I Believe that I Cannot Prove”) dispells these kinds of assumptions about science. So how can someone like Dawkins in good faith use science to dismiss an entire group of people who vary greatly from one another and many of whom operate (within their faith) with the openness and humilty evidenced by soulforce.

  • Elliot

    Janet,

    You continue to attempt to put belief on the same plane as knowledge. Just isn’t going to work. I know if I drop the cup of coffee in my hand it will fall to the ground. I do not believe that a virgin gave birth 2000 years ago or a dead man arose from a grave after 3 days.

    Nobody is saying that faith communities don’t have the power to do good things in the world. They most certainly do. But you cannot elevate faith and belief to the level of knowledge.

    And on the issue of tolerance for Gays etc., science tells unequivocally, that this in not a “choice” so therefore is not subject to moral judgement.

    Dawkins can say anything he likes. It doesn’t make it correct or incorrect. He doesn’t speak for “science”. Perhaps on his commentary you should take the biblical “turn the other cheek” suggestion.

    Regards,

    Elliot

  • Gavin Polhemus

    Janet,

    You say

    “At its base is the assumption that our worldview is shared, unchanging and unwavering, throughout all time and every category we would claim for our own. It is a form of prejudice. And the foundation of it all is fear….”

    Now Sean’s blog on how science operates (“What I Believe that I Cannot Prove”) dispells these kinds of assumptions about science.

    What are the assumptions about science that Sean dispells? I agree that Dawkins should not “dismiss an entire group of people.” However, there is a widely held belief in a deity who is engaged in our everyday lives through supernatural powers. That belief is one that Dawkins is justified in dismissing, on the basis of science, no matter how much we might admire the belief’s defenders.

    I’ve been reading your posts and I just can’t quite figure out what you are trying to say. Is it that God exists, or that science can’t address the question of God’s existence, or perhaps that the answer to that question can have different equally valid answers when address in different frameworks of knowledge, or that the existence of God is somehow personal. Perhaps it is not the actual question that bothers you, but rather the arrogance of science to claim it is the only way to answer this question. I just can’t tell. It seems interesting though, so I’m hoping I can figure it out.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    BTW folks, remember that there are really three main players in these kinds of discussions: science, philosophy, and religion. The latter two are not identical. Science is a process for investigating the world that was developed to do a job for mostly practical reasons. Ironically, the notions of what science should be and what its implications are, are in fact “philosophy” and not science itself. Philosophers take what we already know in experience, and try to draw conclusions about things – some of them issues we don’t have easy access too, other than our thoughts. It is “larger” than science. A philosopher could have a discussion with Plato about whether we should believe in God that would be far different than the sort of discussion a fundamentalist would have. Religion comes from a tradition and is not really the same thing, and is a sort of tangential approach.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Gavin says to Janet: “I’ve been reading your posts and I just can’t quite figure out what you are trying to say. Is it that God exists, or that science can’t address the question of God’s existence, or perhaps that the answer to that question can have different equally valid answers when address in different frameworks of knowledge, or that the existence of God is somehow personal. Perhaps it is not the actual question that bothers you, but rather the arrogance of science to claim it is the only way to answer this question. I just can’t tell. It seems interesting though, so I’m hoping I can figure it out.”

    Janet responds: Thank you so much! I should pay you a kick-back, because I just got my own weblog up and running five minutes ago, and it addresses exactly these issues. I hope you’ll visit and tell me if it helps.

    It really takes my course on the history of theory — which is a great branch of philosophy — to make it clear what I’m trying to say, so I’m putting transcripts from my course on my site. A lot of what I’m saying is well-known within my fields but I want to bring that high-level theory down (in my own way) to the issues that really matter to us in our ordinary lives. And I really want to hear what all you scientific types think about it, when you’ve heard my fuller arguments. And there are points I try to make that you could really help me with. I don’t know how to do a pingback yet, but here’s my web address: http://www.deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com Tomorrow’s post is going to be a meditation on Sean’s posts on Dawkins and how science knows, and on “Soulforce” visiting Christian campuses.

  • http://www.deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Eliot,
    Thanks for visiting my new weblog on science and faith. I appreciate your thoughtful distinctions between science, philosophy, and religion. By Session Two of my course transcripts, we’ll have some new vocabulary for talking about these three and I’d like to know what you think.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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