The Sacred

By Sean Carroll | January 26, 2009 12:03 pm

Over at Reality Base, Melissa has invited Adam Frank to contribute a series of guest posts related to his new book: The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. Adam is an astrophysicist at Rochester, a smart guy, and a great science writer; he interviewed me for this story in Discover, and it was the most conscientious bit of science journalism I’ve been involved with.

There is a copy of Adam’s book lying around here somewhere, but I can’t find it right now; I’ve looked through it, but admittedly haven’t read it closely. You can get some feeling for where he’s coming from by checking out his blog devoted to the book. Roughly: “Sure, simple-minded creationism and a naively interventionist deity is crazy. But there is something valuable in notions of the sacred and spiritual endeavor that captures something important about being human, and it’s a mistake to simply dismiss it all under the same umbrella.” There is a family resemblance to the argument made (in very different words) by Stuart Kauffman in his recent book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Kauffman points out an indisputably true fact: there is such a large number of possible configurations of the genetic material in a complex organism that we will never come anywhere close to exploring every possible arrangement. Therefore (he leaps), we have to look beyond simple determinism to understand our world. There is (he bravely continues) a radical contingency in the way life actually plays itself out, and it makes sense to grapple with this contingency by turning to concepts such as “the sacred.”

Let’s get the agreement out of the way first. There is certainly no question that the techniques of fundamental physics are not sufficient for dealing with getting us through our everyday lives. Even if we are hard-core determinists, and think that every particle and quantum field does nothing but march to the tune of the universal Schrodinger equation, that fact isn’t very helpful when it comes to fixing the economy or listening to music. We deal with complicated human experiences, and a different set of concepts and vocabulary is required, even if it’s nothing but the laws of physics underlying it all. And it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life, in addition to their undoubtedly successful programs of understanding the natural world and highlighting the inadequacy of traditional religious belief.

So I’m very happy to have creative and intelligent people like Frank and Kauffman address these hard issues from the perspective of someone who takes the laws of nature seriously. However, I continue to be baffled about why they would ever think it was a good idea to invoke words like “spiritual” or “sacred” as part of that endeavor.

The problem is, words have meanings. When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them” — something supernatural. Now, you may not want them to make that association; that might not be a connotation you wish to invite. (Or maybe it is, in which case I’ve completely misunderstood.) And you are free, as was Humpty Dumpty, to insist that words mean whatever you say they mean. But it’s a very good strategy for guaranteeing that people will misunderstand you.

The puzzles of human life, and our mutual sense of wonder, and a feeling of awe when confronted with the cosmos, are all perfectly respectable topics for discussion. And there exists perfectly respectable vocabularies for discussing them, that don’t come laden with unfortunate supernatural overtones: literature, anthropology, psychology, the arts, and so on. There is a huge disadvantage to throwing around words like “sacred” and “spiritual,” in that you will very frequently be understood (misunderstood, one hopes) to be talking about the supernatural. So if you really want to rehabilitate those words in the eyes of a cheerful naturalist such as myself, your task is clear: give very specific examples and contexts in which we gain some sort of understanding by using that vocabulary that we would not gain by sticking to words without those unfortunate connotations. I’m happy to admit that such a context might be possible, but I haven’t seen anything close to a persuasive argument, so I’ll remain extremely skeptical until one comes along.

And then, one can’t leave this territory without bringing up Richard Dawkins for some good bashing. Here is where Adam has a go. “Dawkins only addresses a naive and simplistic view of religion,” etc. We’ve talked before about how “sophisticated” approaches to religion are not any better, and how Dawkins has served an extremely valuable rhetorical purpose. But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You. Richard Dawkins was not addressing this kind of touchy-feely non-interventionist religion, for the excellent reason that it doesn’t match up with what the overwhelming majority of religious believers actually believe.

Dawkins was, rather, addressing the kind of religion professed by Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA). Rep. Broun is shown here, accompanied by two ministers, anointing a doorway in the U.S. Capitol building with oil. It was the doorway that Barack Obama would walk through on the way to his inauguration, and these well-meaning gentlemen understood that a carefully placed dab of oil might make God look more charitably on the new President.

This is what Richard Dawkins was arguing against. This is a member of the U.S. Congress, who in fact is a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, who believes that some sort of esoteric rite is going to curry favor with an omnipotent being. Dawkins is worried about them, not about people who are occasionally impressed with the grandeur of the cosmos. If the oil-anointers were a tiny minority of religious believers rather than the vast majority, I suspect Dawkins would spend his time worrying about other things.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Words
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  • Empedocles

    oh brother, here we go again. When my pipes are leaking, I call a plumber. I won’t ask him/her: “what is the meaning of life?”. Nor will I ask a physicist/cosmologist that question. Plumbing won’t give the answer, and neither will physics. Not ever. But pardon me for still asking myself that question. And since neither plumbing nor physics will give me the answer, excuse me for turning somewhere else. If believing in “something” that may give meaning to this all makes me happy, do you mind? I love physics, but it realy isn’t the be all and end all.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk/ Pieter Kok

    Another thing to keep in mind is that these books would sell significantly fewer copies if they didn’t use the words “sacred” and “spiritual” prominently.

  • Tony Agee

    Thanks, Sean.
    That was very well said, especially your defense of Dawkins.
    I agree that people have needs that are not met by science, but I would not agree that those needs are well met by any form of religion that we currently have.

  • http://www.monitoringsoftwareonline.com Laura

    If people could just have there beliefs without making a show like the dab of oil on a wall then there never would be silly arguments that neither side will ever win intil someone can provide real proof one way or the other.

  • Michael

    Empedocles,

    The issue isn’t where the “meaning of life” is the appropriate question. It’s a fine question and my view is that plumbers (more than a lot of folks) may actually have something worthwhile to say about the answer. Rather, the real issue is what sort of tools one uses to try and answer the question. Darts thrown at a wall covered with random words? Even you would say no to this I think? So, where does one draw the line? And that’s where science comes in. It has proven to be a much more useful tool for unraveling the nature of reality that has religion — which has does rather poorly over the years, don’t you think?

  • http://www.constantfire.com adam frank

    Thank you Sean for the kind initial words and thoughtful blog post. You bring up a lot of great points which I will digest and respond to via a posting on my own site.

    For now I wanted to address the issue of words like sacred. I spent a lot of time thinking about what terms to use in the book because in this domain words come packed with such explosive baggage. After spending 6 months in our very fine Religion and Classics department here at the University of Rochester I came away enamored of Mircea Eliade the doyen of the University of Chicago’s Religious Studies program. The term sacred is great because its roots come from the Roman referring to the inside of a temple (as opposed to the profane outer regions). So the sacred is a concept not particularly owned by anyone’s current religion. Its old and in Eliade’s view it referred to the way the extraordinaryness of the world can “erupt” into our everyday awareness.

    Scholars of religion as a human phenomena (NOT theology!) have long identified that kind experience as the essence of what we call religious. I think this kind of thing happens in science to both scientists and non scientists all the time though we fail to indentify it as such. Recognizing that is part of the change I am shooting for.

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

    Some major fallacies and downers in this screed, however well-intentioned. First, the wrongness of this:
    When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them”
    Nope, the more sophisticated approach (I use that without apology, pls. anyone don’t blather humble populist drivel against elites) is to ask why the laws are the way the are, are they that way for a purpose, if anything/any”One” is responsible for that way to be etc. That’s a heck of a ways off from crude interfering issues (not that it is self-evident or probable that our universe can’t be interfered in by something, if not “God” then other realms, “other universes” etc. There is also the issue of experience as spirituality, and more I’m sure. No, it isn’t like being Humpty Dumpty. Words have layers of meaning, contexts; just look at the numbered distinctions in a dictionary entry.

    Second, this is one of the worst ways to think about/angle on issues themselves:
    But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You.
    Ugh. First, the fact that most people are either conventional believers or outright doubters is not the point (argument ad populum fallacy.) Yes, it matters to social policy etc., but minorities (and within a category) often have the best ideas. Why not engage the best the “other side” has to offer, instead of focusing on their most pathetic rabble (which I suspect is more to have an easily beatable straw man whipping boy than any earnest concern for practicality of application.)

    Third, I’ll defend the claim that more “sophisticated” approaches to religion are better (and more relevant for people’s edification, not to be confused with relevant to political brawling), well yes. One way to look at it: It just doesn’t make sense to think that it’s OK to wonder about the deep meaning of laws in the universe and be impressed with that, but not go up a step further (yet not all the way to a “being” like traditional God) and get the notion it’s likely to have a purpose or point geared to having inhabitants because of anthropic fine tuning, etc. Really, if you can look for “expressions” of things like symmetry and “beauty” in the universe (without a “someone” to make it so) why not inherent, “purposefulness” too? Some thinkers have noted, the latter can be a foundational element without a specific “personality” to make it so.

    Finally, I and others in the “spiritual centrist” category get tired of putting it all up as this false two-ways system of science v. religion and whether they can be compatible. It reminds me of how libertarians are sick of the liberal/conservative face off as if they didn’t exist. But ultimate questions are also dealt with by philosophy, which does what it can with issues not directly open to empirical study. (The argument that something has to be empirically knowable to be worth believing or meaningful etc. is itself philosophy, there’s no getting away from big P. It is philosophical reasoning which frames what our epistemic givens are, how “shared” etc, to get science off the ground.) Legitimate philosophy by definition is not derived from cultural traditions (other than necessary entanglement with “intellectual history” but that is unavoidable …) or claimed revelations. It works on whatever good knowledge there is and various reasoning processes to try and find answers.

    Hence philosophy has to be compatible with science – meaning no contradiction – but it deals with questions that may not be part of science (and of course, the question of whether there are such issues and what to do about them if anything.) Questions like, is the universe necessary or contingent, is there a necessary being and what is it, is it all that exists, is (drum roll ….) modal realism a cogent answer to the question of why one or some possible worlds exist and not others; etc., are not “religion” even though they deal with the same issues that religions do.

    PS: For background context, I am Unitarian Universalist and an independent “seeker” who isn’t buying anyone’s simple-minded, hand-me-down religion or disreligion.

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

    PS: byargument ad populum fallacy I meant to include the false idea that only the popular ideas were relevant, not just the fallacy that such ideas had to be true.

  • Thor

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    You’re right. When you feel all dry and empty and asking ‘So What?’ doesn’t seem to get you anywhere when you wonder about the purpose of it all, spirituality has a way of soothing your wounds in a way science currently cannot, but some philosophical arguments can – philosophy can help transition one from religion to science. Once your wounds are soothed, there’s science to help you run the world again. Everyone views this differently, but there’s no reason to force things down the throats of most sciencey-agnostics. Good little essay.

  • Paul

    Why is it that many scientists feel no compunction about “explaining” (or, in Sean’s case, dismissing) religion, but they scoff in disgust at believers who “explain” science? What’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander, no? Why not just agree that Science and religion are mutually exclusive, and neither has anything to say about the other? There are many devoutly religious scientists, and many fervently atheistic ones; there are priests who are astronomers, and there are atheists who have no interest in or understanding of Newton’s Laws.

    I think there’s a touch of arrogance often on the part of scientists, especially physicists. The drive to understand nature’s laws, ironically, leads some of them to assume the very attributes of the Deities they claim are figments of our imagination. For someone who claims to be utterly atheistic, Sean spends an AWFUL lot of time talking about the subject of God (or god, if you must). The physicist doth protest too much, it seems to me.

    As for definitions of “sacred” or “spiritual” that don’t involve dogmatic religions or Newton’s Laws, well, have a child and look into its eyes and you’ll have at least one.

  • http://www.opiniondominion.blogspot.com steve from brisbane

    I suspect that President Obama himself has no problem with the “oil anointing” ceremony, so are his religious beliefs the subject of Dawkin’s ire too? Or are Obama’s supporters just giving him a pass because they think his religiosity is a bit fake? Admittedly, I can understand why scientists feel they have a friend in the White House now, but still I don’t think it particularly fair that the degree of ridicule of religiosity is dependent on which political party a politician belongs to.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/sunclipse/ Blake Stacey

    Kauffman points out an indisputably true fact: there is such a large number of possible configurations of the genetic material in a complex organism that we will never come anywhere close to exploring every possible arrangement. Therefore (he leaps), we have to look beyond simple determinism to understand our world. There is (he bravely continues) a radical contingency in the way life actually plays itself out, and it makes sense to grapple with this contingency by turning to concepts such as “the sacred.”

    Since when was “exploring every possible arrangement” the only way to obtain a materialistic, reductionistic (insert your favourite philosopher-swear-word here) understanding of a phenomenon?

  • Ryan

    In regard to language and discussing religion and science a lot of the buzzwords like “spiritual” and “sacred” are loaded with meaning. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use new words to use as long as the definitions are clearly defined in a work, no?

    I don’t see the oil-anointers as the vast majority, only the very vocal minority.

    I would call the oil-anointing, snake taming, tongue-speaking crowd a superstitious bunch that substitutes obscure, clandestine ritual for an actual relationship with God, but I would not call them the majority.

    The majority (of Christians anyway) from my experience are content to be nominal Christians only (i.e., go to church). They are not concerned with loving their neighbor, tending to the poor or trying to ease the pain of a hurting world. They are content to silently (or not so silently, most of the time) judge from a distance without getting their hands dirty. This is the majority that I see. While they may be apathetic I do not believe them to be dangerous as the superstitious bunch I outlined at the beginning.

    What is your experience with Christians? Overly concerned with oil anointing and ritual? Hypocritical and judgmental? Genuine and loving? Some sort of hybrid?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/sunclipse/ Blake Stacey

    Why not just agree that Science and religion are mutually exclusive, and neither has anything to say about the other?

    Because that statement is not true for any definition of “religion” which is socially or politically meaningful.

    I think there’s a touch of arrogance often on the part of scientists, especially physicists. The drive to understand nature’s laws, ironically, leads some of them to assume the very attributes of the Deities they claim are figments of our imagination.

    The aforementioned Deities are credited with creating universes. Physicists try to understand. Different game.

    For someone who claims to be utterly atheistic, Sean spends an AWFUL lot of time talking about the subject of God (or god, if you must). The physicist doth protest too much, it seems to me.

    Perhaps because the presence of religious beliefs within human minds has profound and often deleterious effects, even when the truth value of those beliefs is negligible?

  • chemicalscum

    I would like to say I was thinking about radical contingency in fact I have been thinking about it for about twenty years since I was a grad student and I was reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness at the same time I was studying QM. About that time I experienced a “mystical” or “spiritual” experience of feeling at one with the universe while taking the Maid of the Mist tour at Niagara Falls.

    Like Sartre did until the end of his life, I remain an atheist. However the sense of awe at the radical freedom in the possibilities of the universe, which for me always leads to some form of modal realism, still is in a sense sacred or spiritual.

    Religion is best analysed from an evolutionary point of view. This is a surprising weakness of Dawkins since he fails to do that in his valuable critique of religion. It has to be seen arising at the interface of evolutionary psychology and social evolution mediated by mimetics. The problem here is that evolutionary psychologists like Pinker fail to (or refuses to) grasp the primacy and radical freedom associated with social evolution. While Dawkins the founder of mimetics doesn’t grasp how it mediates between biological evolution and social evolution. I think Blackmore is better here on mimetics. I haven’t yet read Dennett’s recent book on religion (I am just about to start it) and it may yield some valuable ideas in this area.

    However if we take an evolutionary view of religion it is not necessarily all bad as it can have a positive influence on the survival of societies. On the other hand as circumstances change during social evolution, religions can work counter to the survival and development of the societies they are embedded in due to the historical baggage they carry. This requires that under these circumstances that they are resisted. Therefore they is room for a positive role to be played by rational religious organizations like Neil B’s Unitarian Universalist Church, which, if I remember correctly, at its last survey of how its members identified themselves, only about 10% identified themselves as Christian and the largest single grouping identified themselves as Secular Humanists.

  • Jeff

    If someone wants to daub some oil on a doorway, why should you care? Does that affect you? Does that affect Dawkins? I don’t see a problem with letting people engage in ritualistic behavior (like your morning cup of coffee), as long as that ritualistic behavior doesn’t encroach on others’ personal rights. I’m an atheist, but I recognize and tolerate the fact that many people (myself included) engage in rituals that might be silly but are harmless to others. As acts of ritual/sanctity, there’s a big difference between daubing oil on a doorway vs. cutting off an infidel’s head. I don’t think Dawkins and his ilk get that difference.

  • http://www.stsci.edu/~aconti Alberto

    What can I say? Thanks, as always, Sean.

  • Brian Mingus

    That is an extremely scary video.

    I find a little bit of comfort in the knowledge that Obama’s dad was an atheist. It makes me sad to know that it is very unlikely that I will see an atheist POTUS during my lifetime, though. People aren’t changing as fast as technology.

  • chemicalscum

    Jeff says:

    “If someone wants to daub some oil on a doorway, why should you care? Does that affect you? Does that affect Dawkins? I don’t see a problem with letting people engage in ritualistic behavior (like your morning cup of coffee), as long as that ritualistic behavior doesn’t encroach on others’ personal rights.”

    I agree, but the problem is when religious dogma is used to politically push for the encroachment of “other’s personal rights” such as in the case of the Reagan/Bush abortion “Gag Rule”. This of course was pushed by an unholy coalition of the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Protestant fundamentalists of the religious right. Thankfully this rule, which has had a disastrous effect on reducing women’s choice and reproductive rights globally, has been removed as one of President Obama’s first actions as president.

    However there may be some overlap between the oil anointers and those that would oppress women’s rights and our freedoms in general. On the other hand where there isn’t any connection, I have no objection to oil anointing, Wiccan blessings or any other harmless ritual.

  • Doug

    Neil writes:
    “Why not engage the best the “other side” has to offer, instead of focusing on their most pathetic rabble”

    The pathetic rabble includes quite a few members of congress, as Sean specifically pointed out. I really see no reason to care about what some one believes in the privacy of their home or a cozy chair in a theology department, but the beliefs that get brought into the Capitol are a different story altogether.

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

    “I really see no reason to care about what some one believes in the privacy of their home or a cozy chair in a theology department,…” is out to lunch as far as the issue of intellectual relevance goes. Of course it matters what a bunch of people with influence do as far as public affairs go. But to a thinker who cares about the subject itself, and its questions, then the imperative is to care above all what the best other thinkers mull over in their cozy chairs or perhaps in foxholes as well. Really, folks, don’t get different issues and purposes all mixed up.

    As for the door annointers, it is ironic that they presumably make fun of Obama being revered like a “messiah” but treat him like one themselves in the most direct way.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    I never tire of reading Sean’s stupidity on this subject (no, wait, I do tire of it–and quickly). His scientific posts are interesting, but these bore me to tears. I always want to ask him: Hey Sean, maybe you “haven’t seen anything close to a persuasive argument” because you “admittedly haven’t read it closely”…? Do you think the two might be related? Has that maybe possibly occurred to you even once? Or that there are more than two kinds of religious people, the strong-minded idiots and the weak-minded warm-fuzzy actually-just-confused-naturalists? Sigh. Words do have meaning. Funny how you persist in refusing to allow others to define what those meanings are, and instead continue to impose your own definitions. Did you write the dictionary? Did you write the thousands of years of theological and philosophical texts that influence how these words are used (have you even read any of them)? What makes you think that, based on a few silly but unfortunately prominent politicians, you have the right to declare what “most” religious believers think or do? If you are somehow empowered to make this call by some transcendent authority or revelation, then I stand corrected. For the time being, I wish you would allow yourself to be educated to even a modest degree in something other than your own opinions.

  • Ray Saunders

    In response to some stimuli – internal, external or a combination – i have certain experiences which are reflected/perceived by my mind (whatever a mind is). What labels are applied to these experiences by me, you, the Pope, Freud or Joe the Plumber don’t really matter. What matters is how I react to such experiences ♠(assuming I have free will – a questionable issue at best). Do I derive any benefit, expand my happiness, gain any practical advantage from these experiences?
    Using or banning words like ‘Spiritual’ or ‘Religion’ is just wordplay, the metadata of reality.
    I would not be surprised to find two people arguing about whether sirloin steak is real or an illusion – without having bothered to eat one.

  • eddie

    Neil, as someone who appears to enjoy pointing out o0thers’ percieved fallacies, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this; Your “Legitimate philosophy” is as clear an example of a no true scotsman I’ve heard in a while.

    Your other arguments about how sophisticated youy r questions are have little relevance if you have no reliable way of finding answers. You seem to accept that philosophy is a bit like science, but you can pull explanations out your ass (argumentum ad rectum) with no need to be consistent with observation or anything else.

    As Dawkins did already point out, if there was such a thing as a god, or even a non-theological ‘purpose’, the question would be; what did that evolve from?

  • eddie

    PS – apologies for the typos. It’s 4am here and I’ve just finished my night shift.

  • eddie

    And if Neil is the best the other side has got, he ought to copy ali and feign boredom as an excuse for not having an argument.

  • http://antimeta.wordpress.org Kenny Easwaran

    “it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life, in addition to their undoubtedly successful programs of understanding the natural world and highlighting the inadequacy of traditional religious belief.”

    Actually, there’s (almost) an entire academic discipline devoted to this question, and (as Neil B eventually mentioned, and eddie seems to dispute) it’s philosophy. I say “almost” because there is some work on the philosophy of religion, and because some philosophers seriously question materialism. Actually, depending on how you use the word, most philosophers (and in fact, most scientists) reject “materialism”, and would instead endorse a somewhat broader picture called “physicalism” or “naturalism” or something similar. (An important part of the distinction is that “materialism” rejects not only the supernatural and non-physical, but also the immaterial, like electromagnetic fields.) Of course, some philosophers dispute these positions as well, but they tend to do so in a fairly rigorous way that engages with the relevant evidence and thought experiments.

    Unlike Neil B, I think that even the more “sophisticated” religious positions are still seriously problematic. And unlike eddie, I think that philosophy does have reliable ways of finding out answers, though they’re much more difficult and less reliable than most of the tools we have in the sciences. However, these tools must exist, because otherwise how would eddie justify the claim that reliable ways of finding answers are important for a knowledge-generating enterprise?

    Philosophy is generally on the side of the sciences in these sorts of disputes, though scientists should be careful to avoid using half-digested philosophy (“falsifiability is the only way!”) to criticize people that are actively engaged in the enterprise of knowledge.

  • http://antimeta.wordpress.org Kenny Easwaran

    To clarify a little bit – if you admit that there are questions for “a positive agenda of living human life”, or even if you just admit that there’s something wrong about teargassing civilians or torturing innocents beyond just the fact that you personally don’t like these things, then you should admit that there’s a need for a systematic study of right and wrong (whether you call it morality or ethics or something else). In fact, you also should admit this if you claim that there’s a difference between drawing the right conclusion from an argument and drawing the wrong conclusion from an argument, or that there’s a right and a wrong way to interpret evidence. Of course, the two notions of right and wrong don’t exactly line up, but they’ve got some formal similarities. And these are the notions that underlie two of the central areas of philosophy, namely ethics and epistemology. It’s true that philosophers have had a hard time figuring out which specific actions or beliefs are right and wrong in many particular cases (just as physicists have had a hard time figuring out how far a specific piece of shrapnel will fly when a bomb explodes), but there’s been a lot of progress at least on the question of what a general theory should look like.

  • Paul

    “The aforementioned Deities are credited with creating universes. Physicists try to understand. Different game.” That’s exactly my point! They’re mutually exclusive!

    “Perhaps because the presence of religious beliefs within human minds has profound and often deleterious effects, even when the truth value of those beliefs is negligible?” Well, the presence of physics in people’s minds has profound and often deleterious effects (see the Manhattan Project), but I wouldn’t want to conclude therefore that Physics is evil!

    Videos of people anointing doors with oil in the name of Jesus is no wackier than crackpot “physicists” explaining their perpetual energy machine or their refutation of Relativity. And about as relevant…

  • erik

    Well put eddie.

    Good post Sean.

  • chemicalscum

    Kenny Easwaran has a naive interpretation of materialism when he says:

    ” “materialism” rejects not only the supernatural and non-physical, but also the immaterial, like electromagnetic fields.) ”

    There are essentially two main ontological positions materialism and idealism and materialism. Materialists hold that the world is composed of only one fundamental substance matter. Idealists on the contrary assert the world is composed of mind whether like Berkely the world exists in the mind of God or is composed from the objective idea as with Hegel. Helelianism seems to leaad however to to materialism as when Marx claimed to have turned Hegel “right side up.” Dualists following Descartes assert that that the world is composed of both but have difficulty explaing how they interact interact. Materialists and Idealists are both Monists asserting that the world is composed from a single underlying substance. Russell to be different declared himself to be a neutral monist, though it is not clear who this differs from materialism.

    Since science has discovered that matter-energy is a common convertible substance therefore any modern materialist refers to matter-energy as the underlying material substance and thus obviously accepts the existence of electromagnetic fields. I know of no materialist philosopher who denies the existence of electromagnetic fields. If one exists I would be grateful if Kenny Easwaran would enlighten us.

    As for naturalism and physicalism they are merely forms of materialism. In a sense they are used as terms to sound less threatening than materialism or to escape misunderstanding arising from people who only know the vulgar usage of the word materialism. The same misconceptions can arise from the vulgar usage of idealism. It is like the people who call themselves agnostics when they are really atheists that is they are not theists.

    By the way Eddie you said:

    “As Dawkins did already point out, if there was such a thing as a god, or even a non-theological ‘purpose’, the question would be; what did that evolve from?”

    Yes when I read that in in “The God Delusion” I thought aha! Richard you haven’t read Tipler, wacky though Tipler may be he does have a physical answer to that question.

  • Martin

    Though I have not read Kauffman’s book, I did read an interview with him about his book (on salon.com), and I was struck by the number of mistakes he appeared to be making in his reasoning. For example, he claims that we cannot predict the course of evolution from physics alone. But he never bothers to distinguish (a) given our cognitive limitations, there will always be information relevant to making accurate predications that eludes us, from (b) even a Laplacean superintelligence, equipped with complete knowledge of the state of the universe at some time, along with complete knowledge of the laws of physics, could not predict the course of evolution. (a) is true, but trivial. If he means (b), what is the argument? It has something to do with reductionism, apparently. But even here, his reasoning is bit muddled. For example, he cites Steven Weinberg–who thinks the universe is meaningless—as an example of a reductionist. Kauffman claims that a meaningless universe is the “fruit” of standard reductionism. Why? The reasoning seems to be something like this: the existence of atoms is meaningless; therefore, anything that is a mere collection of atoms is meaningless. I don’t know if this is why Weinberg thinks the universe is meaningless, but the conclusion certainly does not follow from the premise. Consider an analogous (and clearly fallacious) argument: my individual neurons do not believe that Paris is the capital of France; therefore, I do not think Paris is the capital of France. This does not show that reductionism is false, however. It just shows that Kaufmann’s understanding of reductionism is faulty. But there is another way to attack reductionism that appears to fare better. If reductionism is true, then all the facts can be deduced from the basic, physical facts (and knowledge of the concepts which we use to characterize facts). There are facts about, e.g. consciousness, that cannot be deduced from the basic, physical facts alone. Therefore, reductionism is false. Furthermore, if we cannot deduce all the facts from the physical facts, then certain phenomena are not predictable from knowledge of the physical facts (not even for a LaPlacean superintelligence). But he never gives an argument for the conclusion that, e.g., consciousness cannot be so deduced. And when he says that evolution cannot be deduced from physics, his only reason for saying this appears to be that we don’t, in fact, use physics to predict evolution. But suppose we grant the point to Kauffman; what follows about creativity and meaning? He talks about “nature” being creative, but it looks like he is committing the converse of the reductionist fallacy mentioned above; just because we are creative and our lives have meaning, it does not follow that the processes which brought us about are creative and meaningful.

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  • Grav

    A point about the anointing. For the record, I am firmly atheist, but probably in that “accomodationist” bracket in terms of practical interactions. My partner has made me aware that the rituals of religion are, first and foremost, symbolic acts. For instance, she does not believe in a god in a familiar, definable sense, yet she derives comfort from the imagery, art, and history of church settings, and she takes from the experience meanings of her own choosing. Disregarding other acts by Congressman Broun, and also leaving his personal interpretation of the metaphysical significance of the act up to guesswork, the daubing of the oil on the door can be viewed simply as a symbol of recognition that the man who would pass through it would be inheriting a tremendous responsibility, and as a token of wellwishing in the execution of that responsibility. Why do you break wine on the bow of a ship? That ceremony used to be a consecration, but nowadays few people have anything religious in mind when they do so. And if they do happen to believe it is consecration, the onlooking crowd does not have to share their beliefs to share in the sentiment. It is just a nice tradition, and a symbol of dedication and recognition. I do agree that the beliefs of public officials matter a great deal, and there are many other situations where an act can clearly carry questionable significance. But this particular ritual is innocent enough, especially considering the way it was expressed. Though Mr. Broun may believe in fundamental phenomena that are objectionable to materialists, this anointing did not bear the message “there is a God, dammit, and he’s Obama’s only hope” but instead, something more like “Good luck, may this power that we believe in favor you during your difficult charge.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I agree completely about misleading use of ambiguous words like “sacred” and “spiritual.” It is my frequent experience that someone will ride into a discussion on one definition of a word, and attempt to ride off on another definition. Therefore I generally do not use words like “spiritual.” I find that “emotional” covers the definitions of spiritual with which I can agree, but not those with which I do not agree.

    And it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life…

    Hmmm. I view the casting off of outdated and harmful dogma as positive.

  • coolstar

    Wow, much ado about nothing, IMNSHO. the more interesting question is whether and how Sean’s atheism was influenced by the VERY Catholic undergrad institution he attended.

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  • Chris W.

    Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.
    —— John Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009)

  • Bryan

    I was just listening to that same Updike quote on NPR. With respect, I don’t see why he would have thought that “religion alone” attempts to address subjective sensations, desires and illusions. Does not philosophy also attempt to address them? Materialist science is doing pretty well with those categories too.

    And it should go without saying that religious faith is NOT an essential part of being human. The mere presence of many non-religious people and whole countries that are virtually free of religion illustrates that beyond any doubt.

  • http://www.centerfornaturalism.org Tom Clark

    “…it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life, in addition to their undoubtedly successful programs of understanding the natural world and highlighting the inadequacy of traditional religious belief.”

    Agreed. The Center for Naturalism spends a good deal of time on exactly this. See for instance http://www.naturalism.org/applied.htm .

    “…if you really want to rehabilitate those words in the eyes of a cheerful naturalist such as myself, your task is clear: give very specific examples and contexts in which we gain some sort of understanding by using that vocabulary that we would not gain by sticking to words without those unfortunate connotations.”

    Only the vocabulary of spirituality and religion, not “literature, anthropology, psychology the arts,” captures the range and depth of existential concerns that naturalists have, along with everyone else. So it’s well worth naturalizing this vocabulary (naturalistic spirituality, religious naturalism) which is easily done, see http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm . Nothing about spirituality or religion necessarily involves theism or dualism, as certain variants of Buddhism show. Modern day naturalists can and should lay claim to religion and spirituality divorced from the supernatural. If you doubt this, please please read The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville, The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, and Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo. Thanks!

    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism
    http://www.naturalism.org

  • Belizean

    The belief in the magical benefits of annointing with oil doesn’t scare me one billionth as much as the belief that the economy can be stimulated by raising taxes and increasing federal spending.

  • http://praxeology.net/anarchist-jesus.pdf James Redford

    God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

    F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers,” Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964; available on Prof. Tipler’s website. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything,” arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

    Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler’s above paper was selected as one of 12 for the “Highlights of 2005″ accolade as “the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website.” (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, “Highlights of 2005,” Reports on Progress in Physics website.)

    Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal (one, incidently, which Prof. Tipler has been published in more than once). A journal’s impact factor reflects the importance the science community places in that journal in the sense of actually citing its papers in their own papers. (And just to point out, Tipler’s 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper could not have been published in Physical Review Letters since said paper is nearly book-length, and hence not a “letter” as defined by the latter journal.)

    See also the below resource for further information on the Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics: God is the Ultimate Physicist (a website on GeoCities).

    Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

    Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that “Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics” on pg. viii in the “Foreword” to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler’s Omega Point Theory was described. On pg. ix of said book, Prof. Wheeler wrote that Chapter 10 of the book, which concerns the Omega Point Theory, “rivals in thought-provoking power any of the [other chapters].”

    The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics’ 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see:

    David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: “The Ends of the Universe” of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997), ISBN: 0713990619; with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler. Available on the Theophysics website.

    The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to resort to physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s paper on the black hole information issue which is dependent on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, “Information loss in black holes,” Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005.

    That is, Prof. Hawking’s paper is based upon empirically unconfirmed physics which violate the known laws of physics. It’s an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory’s correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he’s forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

    Some have suggested that the universe’s current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in “Geometry and Destiny” (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

    There’s a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe’s collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as B – L is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

    Prof. Tipler’s above 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn’t realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), “It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. … This is somewhat analogous to Liouville’s theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity.”

    When combined with the Standard Model, the result is the Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

  • Nathaniel

    I agree with most of what was said in the article, and find the video disturbing, to say the least, but I also know that not everyone will invest the time needed to interpret the findings of science into some kind of value for themselves and life. I used to always argue against the seemingly irrational beliefs of religion, always content to turn over the apple cart but one day an experience changed my view…. Shortly after my mother passed away, suddenly and painfully, my father and I had a conversation about the deeper threads of life (something we often do) and he said, with pain and grief in his eyes, that he needed to believe that he was going to see my mother, the love of his life, again…. somehow, even though he knew the belief to be irrational . I could see then that for all the conviction of my understanding of the universe, my beating down his belief would not have been the moral thing to do, it would have only done harm. He is not a stupid man, by any means and in all reality isn’t even religious, but that one belief, that tiny solace in this world, is sometimes all that gets him through the day and who am I, who is anyone to take that away from him or anyone for that matter. For all the arrogance of intelligence, all the belittling of religion that is directed at the most stalwart of zealots, let us not forget about the others, those not making u-tube videos and mega churches, all those who are not scientists and philosophers, who spend their time surviving and struggling in a world that may seem constantly against them and filled with tragedy. Let us not forget about those like my father for whom that one belief is a candle in the darkness of loss. Truth is something worth fighting for, worth dying for, but let us remember that there is truth of the human condition and let us act in accordance with what is truly just and right in respect to it.

  • tyler

    The current trend of Stuart Kauffman’s thinking is a profound disappointment to me. His previous books and theories have been very influential on my thinking, indeed I feel there is a good chance – current windmill-tilt notwithstanding – he is fundamentally correct in most of what he writes about emergence in biochemical systems, and indeed about the importance of emergence in general.

    However, his need to find “meaning” in why we are we, in particular, this infamous contingency, confuses me to no end. It’s just spontaneous symmetry breaking. Evolution could have gone this way or that. It went this way, and that’s all there is to it. The notion that it’s “unlikely” is simply silly. Any single given outcome is unlikely. It’s just another ludicrous restatement of the anthropic fallacy.

    However, the hillbilly senator with his corny superstition is just another straw man. Of course we should be concerned about fools like him in power, and we are. Very nice, we are all on the same page there.

    Before I address spirituality itself, another word about emergence. There is a lot of debate about whether new scientific principles emerge, ones that override the more fundamental levels, or whether the emergent principles are just complex statistical behaviors that could *in principle* be reduced to physics. Certainly there is no proof of the former, but for the line of reasoning I am about to follow, the latter will do just as well.

    If physics in the aggregate leads to chemistry,
    and chemistry in the aggregate leads to biology,
    and biology in the aggregate leads to evolution,
    and evolution has led us to a global human society,
    then what does that global human society lead to?

    Well, not necessarily anything. It could just lead to global environmental collapse. But I postulate, for my own understanding, that there are emergent mass psychological effects within the human species. Human mass psychology is a funny thing and poorly understood, even in statistical models. But I think over human history, something has emerged from humanity, that is real, but is not simply reduceable to any single person; and that people who experience it directly tend to label it Spirit because they don’t know what to call it. What exactly it is I have no more idea than anyone else.

    So that, for me, is how I reconcile a scientific worldview with the various spiritual experiences I have had. I think they’re real, and have meaning, but that both the reality and the meaning are created by us.

    Obviously this is not itself a scientific idea, as it makes no predictions and can’t be falsified. It’s a conjecture based on a desire to reconcile personal experience with rational thought. It’s the only idea I have yet found that can encompass both.

  • JimV

    When I look into the eyes of a child, I often feel a wonderful emotion, as cited by a previous commenter. I believe that it is the result of coming from a long line of creatures whose offspring had a survival advantage due to the presence of this emotion. (It is no less real for that, but much less supernatural. A better case for the supernatural would be a successful species whose children were slow to mature to the point of self-sufficiency, and hated by preceding generations.)

    Speaking only for myself, these are my favorite sort of posts, because I understand them better than I do QM or General Relativity, agree with them thoroughly, and feel that they are a necessary and useful counterpart to all the contrary opinions I am surrounded with (such as three full-time religion channels in my “basic cable” package).

  • Selena Dreamy

    God is a metaphor. Spirituality, by contrast, is a thread interwoven into our multi-dimensional stream of consciousness.

    Selenadreamy@aol.com

  • Interested

    More than 20 years ago, I noticed that the word ‘buddhism’ appeared bolder (darker and thicker) than other religions, in an interfaith article written by a journalist, who I thought would be impartial in writing an interfaith article, and who is also a Christian and would not have any reason to put a particular non Christian religion bolder than others. After some more incidents of this type, over a period of time, it dawned on me, it is my eyes playing trick on me because of my own feelings after reading into the subject. It was then I decided that I am a Buddhist. All these years, I think there is no ceremony to be a Buddhist, unlike baptism in Christianity, a public event of the congregation.

    Recently I find that some of Dalai Lama’s explanation, helped fill some gap in my understanding of my life, and of life, even as I think atheists should be atheists, and agnostics should be agnostics and Christians be Christians.

    On the one hand, if memory does not fail me, there are projections ( whether scientific or not) that

    #(a) the universe will one day come to an end

    #(b) our species will one day be extinct or die out.

    I cannot vouch for these, except that ( if memory does not fail me) I think I read them in an article or two, and have tugged these articles in a kitchen drawer for future re-reading or reference. Incidentally, if one is not concerned about personal mortality, and whither after, would one ponder over the mortality of (a) and of (b) ( assuming of ‘mortality’ can borrowed and used in these other context, and if not, then at least for this isolated occasion).

    On the other hand, my Catholic cousin, forwarded me one of those types of emails that circulates from friends to friends, and some even travel quite far. It was a made up story of a man in long black gown who entered a Church one day and told everyone, he was going to take them down, if anyone of them was willing to stay and take a bullet for Jesus Christ. He elaborated that those who would not take a bullet for Christ could leave unharmed. So 2000 people left, leaving 20 standing in Church. He then told the pastor, he could begin the service now for the real believers. I did not have to ask my cousin, but I knew she and her husband, would have been among the 20. I also thought I would have done the same for Buddhism. Later I thought, only if I knew it was more probable than not, that such act would have more probable than not helped in some way to preserve Buddhism for others ( not specifically but subsumed in the latter mentioned after this as a mode I happen to know) and more probable than not in some way helped the evolutionary progress of our species.

    Though I have not read Hegel, the skimpy third or fifth or hundred account of some of his ideas interpreted by others ( unless cross checked in many ways, an interpretation is but an interpretation and limited to the understanding of the interpreter, seems to suggest to me, that there are striking points of convergence between Hegel’s analysis of perception of reality and of reality, and buddhism’s and Dalai Lama’s perception of reality and of reality. Constraints prevent an attempt to match the two different analysis to see how and where they converge and why they converge. But my inclination is that such comparative work could or would be done or undertaken one day in the far future, as one part of our species evolutionary progress for our evolutionary progress, before we become extinct in (b).

  • eddie

    Thanks Kenny Easwaran. You rightly pointed out that;

    However, these tools must exist, because otherwise how would eddie justify the claim that reliable ways of finding answers are important for a knowledge-generating enterprise?

    The scientific method can be applied in a lot of fields. Whatever your method of finding an answer in Philosophy, it’s always accompanied by a comparison to the world outside your head. If your method is useful in leading to greater understanding, that may be used as evidence of the method’s correctness.

    Some I think see it the other way, in which “…reliable ways of finding answers are important…” is an a priori assumption. but this has only developed in response to it’s being a useful assumption and one that doesn’t lead to contradictions further down the line. If it wasn’t so, it’d have been discarded.

    It’s when you don’t do this that religion sets in.

  • Interested

    What is the scientific method? Is there a list of criteria that have to be met, or at least the minimum criteria, before a method can be properly called a scientific method? Is the list the same for all fields of science or for most but not all? Are all fields of science, science per se or do they also overlap with other fields that are not science like metaphysics? When has scientific method been applied to other field or other fields, and what are these field or fields. Have philosophers of science, agreed in common that scientific method has been applied to other fields, and if so, who and what and where and how.

    I recall a list of some criteria of science, maybe not the best list, but at least as a point of reference that there exists such a list, whatever the actual list be as may be agreed or as have been agreed by the science community.

    “ The following 32 concepts include SOME of the key ideas used in the ENSI/SENSI program.
    1. Science deals only with natural patterns and mechanisms.
    2. Understanding science enables one to differentiate it from pseudoscience and non- science.
    3. Scientific knowledge is uncertain, tentative and subject to revision.
    4. Scientific explanations and interpretations can neither be proven nor disproven with certainty.
    5. Scientists use a variety of criteria to compare explanations and select the better ones.
    6. Human values deeply influence science (its terminology, the questions asked, and the criteria used for choosing among theories).”

    I took 1-6 from http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/info.fs.html where the 32 are located. I reproduce 6 as they are sufficient to outline the scientific method to determine when it is applied to other fields.
    If we cursorily glance at Christian Science, do Christian Scientists apply the scientific method? Do their method hold up to the list (whatever agreed list) of science methodology? Does Mary Baker Eddy’s claim that it is Christian Science and their Christian Monitor paper and their Christian Science Reading Room, make Mary Baker Eddy’s method a scientific method?
    Any field or fields that claims to follow the scientific methodology should be able to back up their claim and assessment by impartial philosophers of science.

    What is philosophy?

    “1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.
    2. Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.
    3. A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry: the philosophy of Hume.
    4. The critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs.
    5. The disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology.
    6. The discipline comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
    7. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory: an original philosophy of advertising.
    8. A system of values by which one lives: has an unusual philosophy of life.
    [Middle English philosophie, from Old French, from Latin philosophia, from Greek philosophiā, from philosophos, lover of wisdom, philosopher. See philosopher.]” http://www.answers.com/topic/philosophy

    Taking the cue from ‘wisdom’ what then is wisdom?

    “Wisdom (Wis”dom) (-ducr/m), n.
    [AS. wi¯sdo¯m. See Wise, a., and -dom.]

    1. The quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means; discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity; skill; dexterity. “We speak also not in wise words of man’s wisdom, but in the doctrine of the spirit.” Wyclif (1 Cor. ii. 13). ” Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” Job xxviii. 28. “It is hoped that our rulers will act with dignity and wisdom that they will yield everything to reason, and refuse everything to force.” Ames. “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” Coleridge.
    2. The results of wise judgments; scientific or practical truth; acquired knowledge; erudition. “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.” Acts vii. 22.

    Synonyms — Prudence; knowledge. Wisdom, Prudence, Knowledge. Wisdom has been defined to be “the use of the best means for attaining the best ends.” “We conceive,” says Whewell, ” prudence as the virtue by which we select right means for given ends, while wisdom implies the selection of right ends as well as of right means.” Hence, wisdom implies the union of high mental and moral excellence. Prudence (that is, providence, or forecast) is of a more negative character; it rather consists in avoiding danger than in taking decisive measures for the accomplishment of an object. Sir Robert Walpole was in many respects a prudent statesman, but he was far from being a wise one. Burke has said that prudence, when carried too far, degenerates into a “reptile virtue,” which is the more dangerous for its plausible appearance. Knowledge, a more comprehensive term, signifies the simple apprehension of facts or relations. “In strictness of language,” says Paley, ” there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it.” “Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one, Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells In heads replete with thoughts of other men; Wisdom, in minds attentive to their own. Knowledge, a rude, unprofitable mass, The mere materials with which wisdom builds, Till smoothed, and squared, and fitted to its place, Does but encumber whom it seems to enrich. Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.” Cowper.”

    http://www.selfknowledge.com/108259.htm

    Does it then suggest that knowledge is not equivalent to wisdom? Or at least to Cowper above.

    What is understanding?

    Is it closer to knowledge or wisdom? If used in context of closer to knowledge, then it is not necessarily closer to wisdom. If by greater understanding be greater knowledge, then, we have faster computers every year the world wide web where we did not before, because knowledge has become greater, our understanding of such technology has increased. While there maybe overlap between knowledge and wisdom, they are not mirror image of the other.

    We make assumptions to live. We assume we do not exist before we were born and we cease to exist when we die. Our language and concepts embrace such a clear division, and we allocate some space to ideas of rebirth or reincarnation and eternal life in heaven, to areas we call religion. We make such assumptions about commencement and end of life, human life, to define infanticide and homicide, and thus there are no contradictions or un-necessary need of reflection or contemplation.

    What answers do we look for? Answers that help us to

    (a) Survive and thrive
    (b) Grow and develop where we are with other humans , other sentient life and nature
    (c) Make sense of our life, human life, other sentient life , nature, earth, solar system and universe, and our place in it, and our life span whenever it may end (of that we are unable to tell)
    What assumptions do we make when we seek those answers –
    (a) We assume the world is material
    (b) We assume the world has no inherent existence
    (c) ….
    (d) ….
    (e) ….
    (f) ….
    (g) ….
    (h) ….
    (i) ….

    For (a), science and its criteria of “1. Science deals only with natural patterns and mechanisms.” tends to lend credence that world is material or matter. (fine distinction of energy, wave aside)

    For (b) the assumption can be derived in either of or both ways
    (i) Analytical reasoning
    (ii) Quieting the analytical mind and allowing the intuitive mind to surface and operate and comprehend the world or reality

    It seems Dalai Lama uses (b) (i) and (b) (ii)
    Are we ever devoid of assumptions? Can we ever be? Is it a human trait to exist with assumptions and an uncommon human trait to be without assumptions?

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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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