Fear of Nuance: Science, Religion, and “A Nation of Cowards,” Part II

By Adam Frank | February 26, 2008 12:15 pm

Adam FrankI will be in Seattle next week doing some work and giving a few talks on the book, but before I left I thought it worthwhile to revisit issues raised by Attorney General Holder’s now infamous “Nation of Cowards” speech. My post on the topic generated a lot of dialogue, some of it about science/religion and some of it about Holder’s topic—our limited ability to talk honestly about race in America.

The New York Times printed an editorial by Stephen Carter a few days ago on the reaction to Holder’s speech. Its point is relevant for our own discussions of science and religion:

The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words—that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks…is quite beside the point.

The problem, as Carter rightly points out, is the endless tendency to simplify any and all arguments down to the part where we can get pissed off. The reaction to Holder’s speech left the body of his argument untouched—and that reaction was, as Carter, says,
“plenty of sound bites, but nothing that moves us forward.”

He goes further still:

This difficulty, however, is not limited to race. There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.

And here the connection to the public debate about science v. religion becomes relevant.

As a species, we face challenges that are entirely new, and for which we are entirely unprepared. From climate change to resource depletion, an avalanche of structural problems is bearing down on us that contain real threats to our justifiably cherished project of civilization. It is obvious that science needs to be part of the solution. It is not as obvious that the enormous burden of those solutions will not be acted on without science being placed into a wider context—which will include what we hold sacred (there is that word again) and what we take to be sacred. We will need to create new mythologies, new stories for what human being and human civilization mean, if we are to marshal the collective will and ride this wave to the other shore.

A discussion about science and religion that “moves us forward” will have to be nuanced, for there are no simple answers here. Most importantly, the discussion will have to include how science fits into the full matrix of human values and aspirations. That means the dialogue will naturally wash up against themes that people see as “spiritual.” If we cannot face difficult questions without the certainty that alternative perspectives are already wrong, then the much-needed work will never get done. If we cannot get past the bumper stickers, the court cases, the bus ads, then our capacity to rise to the challenge of recasting ourselves as a truly global species will be drained.

And what happens then?

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (40)

  1. Ignorance can be educated, stupidity is forever. As so many welcome Dark Ages’ velvety assurances let the few shine a bright light in their stupid faces. In the whole of human history across the entire planet not one deity has volunteered Novocain. Take the hint.

    (physical reality) – (empirical reality) = faith

    Nothing in the universe is more than 666 years old. Moment by moment Satan recreates the whole of observation to damn your soul to Hell for all Eternity. “Poenitentiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.” “Non tamen solam intendit interiorem, immo interior nulla est, nisi foris operetur varias carnis mortificationes.” “Bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn.”

  2. Mike Gottschalk

    Here’s an Einstein quote that seems appropriate- “I don’t know what the weaponry used to fight WWIII will be, but I do know that WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones….”

  3. Mike Gottschalk

    @Uncle Al: Actually Al, I think (physical reality) – (empirical reality) = (reality inaccessible through empirical means.) is the proper equation here.

    If you want to describe faith using an equation, than you would write it something like this: ( (an idea, person, method or situation satisfies my test for credibility) x (a situation requiring my considered action or decision) — ( forced or reflexive choosing) ) x (intelligently decided action) x ( an out come that remains uncertain until action is completed) = (faith).

    Our need for faith arises out of our having frontal cortex’s; because we have the capacity to consider before we make choices, we’re not locked into drives and instincts. Therefor, when we make choices, we can do so with faith which makes me fully engaged person, or without faith, which makes me something of an automaton going through the motions.

    You may critique one’s beliefs utilizing reason and argument- I’m doing this now with your beliefs. But entering into a critique of someone’s beliefs by durrogatorily labeling it faith, not only shows your misunderstanding of this human dynamic made necessary by our brain structure, you’ve made short shrift of rationality. That’s too bad because you seem to be a person of intelligence that has insight to offer.

  4. Mike Gottschalk

    @Novocain hint in Al:

    Faith doesn’t eradicate or make up for bad thinking, whether on the part of religion or science.

    Life is hard and confusing for the human being. Christians are fond of boiling down all this difficulty to an idea of sin; in thinking without enough care for nuance, a helpful idea is mangled. To correct this gross misuse of the word sin on the part of many Christians, I point out that animals don’t experience the kind of suffering so present in human being. So, one way to alleviate 99% of our suffering would be to give up human levels of consciousness and revert back to non-human levels of consciousness. If this is the case, then most of our suffering stems not from sin but from being”made in the image of god”- a poetic phrase bearing our human level of consciousness and abilities.

    I don’t think that we appreciate just how much difficulty arises from this part of us that gives rise to so much of our pleasure. But if we came up with an FDA styled list for, “The Essential Detriments to Full Human Thriving”, I think our list would be mostly comprised of things generated by ourselves and not by some deity.

  5. Steve F.

    Its good to see somebody making sense.

    As a scientist, I know that the search for truth always resonates in a spiritual register. As a Baha’i knowing the necessity of religion for long term change, I readily recognize that the core values of science – its rational, investigative, analyzing, and evaluative powers and habits of mind – are crucial to sound religion.

    Nuance means, I think, the willingness of the new atheists to table ideologies that label perspectives other than their own illusions held by fools. After all, the God of religion is nearly identical to that of natural law (the main difference being that natural law is thought to lack intrinsic intelligence, meaning that intelligence and the like makes its appearance by means of smoke, mirrors, magic, and longish periods of time).

    Nuance also means recognizing the value of evolution (religionists vary rarely doubt the rest of science, a factor often overlooked by overeager atheists). Perhaps, this could be helped by recognizing that the claim that evolution overrides belief in God is just ideology. Consider: the claim that evolution overrides God, when analyzed carefully, is nothing more than the belief that God can only work in short bursts of time (miracles and the like) and is somehow forbidden to work over longer periods of time (eons and the like).

    So, when do we end this needless and debilitating battle between science and religion? We’ve got a world to rebuild!

    Steve F.

  6. PeterS

    The heart of this post seems to be your statement “We will need to create new mythologies, new stories for what human being and human civilization mean, if we are to marshal the collective will and ride this wave to the other shore.”

    These stories, beliefs, aspirations and values can be broadly seen as part of our social capital. And high social capital gives us the social cohesion, consensus, sense of purpose and civic engagement we need to ‘marshal the collective will and ride this wave to the other shore’, avoiding ‘Collapse’.

    Sadly though, our social capital seems to be draining away, see for example Robert Putnam’s paper http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/25/6/1825848.pdf

    Re-engaging with the sacred, the spiritual and the religious is part of rebuilding our social capital.
    The scientific community have become our technology based society’s thought leaders (just as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates were in Ancient Greece) so they have a special responsibility to contribute, as thought leaders, to the re-building of social capital.
    How? I can do no better than quote you “A discussion about science and religion that “moves us forward” will have to be nuanced, for there are no simple answers here. Most importantly, the discussion will have to include how science fits into the full matrix of human values and aspirations.”
    To that I would add the New Atheists must find a way to move from their harsh negativity to find a way to contributing positive values and leadership to our social capital. This is the challenge they face if their philosophy is to have any lasting value.

  7. Good point. The creation of these new mythologies is something everyone will need to work on together if they are to gain purchase.

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    Peter and Steve,

    I love what you guys are saying. At heart, I am a pastor. And as the kind that I am, I tend to the Soul of Being, not one’s alignment to established precepts. I can tell that you guys get this Soul. (or what ever we call this fuel that burns in this fire we’re drawn to.) I’ve stayed out of pastoral practice for the last twenty years because the language and concepts available to me back then, whether through religion or science paled in comparison to what I was witnessing in this life. Even the modern movements of New Age spirituality failed to voice what I was perceiving.

    Today I have language and ideas adequate to the practice I’ve aspired to. The funny thing is, the ideas don’t define what one should see as much as they break down obstacles to seeing what might be. (it’s occurring to me in this moment Peter, that Zero might be a fitting name for ‘god’… the nothing that is.) I hope you’ll recognize that I didn’t just make a statement about god, this statement also reveals my appreciation of zero- which isn’t bad for a guy who’s last math class was 10th grade geometry. If science has been prone to make mathematical measurement king, than we Christians have been prone to make dogma god. There’s more to say to you two, but now I just want you to know that I’m interested in the substance not the precepts. And I’d like to be your team mate- not by playing the position of scientist but by playing my position as pastor.

  9. Mike Gottschalk

    Peter and Steve,

    That said, I have something kinda concrete to offer. If we have a job to do, and we build our social capital to move forward together, then we’ll need to understand our destination; and such a destination has to embody something capable of carrying the depths of myth. Right now I see our need for myth primarily embodied in war- ideiological (I’m letting that typo stand) and geological, free market capitalism, consumerism.

    I’d like to offer this phrase to describe our destination: fullness of being. I like it because at the heart of human being is our capacity to interact with being itself on a full subjective level. And the power of being derived by shopping pales in comparison to the power of being present in the green shoot finding it’s way through asphalt. In the field of being, we see extravegant aliveness, creativity, generativity, diversity. The fullness of being therefor, entails our decided engagement with being, in ITs power and not just in our paled renditions of it. Fullness of being craves eros not bliss; it endeavors to create a ‘heaven’ instead of waiting for one that’s ready made. Fullness of being refuses to be domesticated by piety- which btw, is for people afraid of Eros.

    Through the idea of evolution, we are accustomed to seeing progress as linear and accumulative; so when we see that pattern we recognize it as progress. In one dimension of human living, the technological dimension, this pattern is indeed present. So we see ourselves as having progressed through our centuries. Yet in another dimension of ourselves, I don’t see this linear accumulative pattern; instead, I see a pattern that is more circular and repetitive. As I see it, we’re mired in the same dynamics that mired people of the first century: we entertain the same categories of signals and noise- we just added amplification.

    If we are to embark on another renaissance, (why not, it’s happened before) it seems we need another breakthrough in perspective. We need to have a means to be active together in this dimension that seems to trap us in our circular pattern.

    To me it seems that the beginning of our myth is noticing that being explodes into existence and evolves to a level of complexity present in human being who lives to experience its fullness. What do you think?

  10. Adam, Steve, Peter, Mike, I am so glad to hear this discussion and encourage you to continue toward that breakthrough in perspective. I think people should be respected not for their beliefs but for their being, whether it explodes or oozes into existence. Beliefs that prevent people from joining in the tasks before us, climate, economic and social instability, may need to be challenged but I hope only in the spirit of coaxing them into productive joint action not as a condemnation of their religion. As Mike says most beliefs held by people that prevent them from the work we need to do are not religious but are the myths of the American empire anyway. But, I want to defend the cyclical over the linear somewhat because I think the linear notion of progress is reflected in the linear quality of our technology which has caused so much of our problems. Linear systems often mean that some elements of the system are ignored or wasted which has gotten us into this mess so we may need to incorporate the cyclical in our myth somehow. What of nature is linear?

  11. Mike Gottschalk

    Rail Roads?

    Howard, I like your notion of respect for being taking precedence over an inventory of beliefs. I would argue that this idea is central to the work that christ did in his life. Only people who shrink the act of Being into moralistic recipes make him a champion of moralism. The irony is that he not only confronts some of the most moral people to inhabit the earth, he does so on a basis that’s not in a category of morality at all; he utilizes categories of being or fullness of being.

    When I used the word circle, I deliberated with using the word spiral but decided against it as spiral implied motion getting closer to a center which didn’t seem to fit. When you bring up other ways of using a circle to see through, you cause me to think of time; not in its attributes of motion but in its attributes of space and our occupation of it. I used the word renaissance because it speaks of a change in time, not in terms of rate implied by line, but a change of space that seems to be implied by your use of the word circle .

    How does this aspect of time come about?

  12. Well, the new definition of life that biologists have come to, called autopoesis, is that a living entity is one that continually recreates itself. So spiral works very well for me as we continue to evolve physically and consciously toward a new worldview where religion and science are once again united. Getting past the religion/science debate, as Adam points out, is critical since it is now nearly moot. There has always been plenty of doubt expressed within both religion and science, and I think it stems from those who have trouble accepting the inherent ambiguity. There is no guarantee we can make it so we better get it together soon.

    I recommend looking at the video on the web; After Darwin by Elisabet Sahtouris at;
    http://www.oneearth.ws/videozone.php?page=playvideo&video=22

  13. Mike Gottschalk

    You sold me on the spiral Howard, lets hope we reach the center before we form it into the funnel of a flush….

    I watched the video and appreciated Sahtours’ more nuanced version of the metamorphesis myth as she spent more time explaining the catepillar’s consumption of energy to attain a higher order than usual. I would tie into our thinking, Prigogine’s idea that living structures are also those that are dissipative structures: they rely on transforming energy into order. From here I would throw on our pile the book, The Bottomless Well by Huber and Mills. They do a great job discussing the contingent relationship that order creation has to energy transformation; their hope is to help us have a more nuanced and useful conversation about using energy in our making of order together.

    I like this book and video because they let me see the core sanity present in the natural world and give me hope that we can approach this sanity.

  14. Mike Gottschalk

    @ PeterS (and anyone else)

    Wow- Putnam’s paper is a treasure trove. I’m printing it out- thx! Bishop, in his book, The Big Sort writes along these themes of social connectedness and points out another element: in the heyday of civic involvement and social capital, both the bank president and the factory worker stood on equal ground at their animal club. Coinciding with the decline of this type of civic connection is an increase in associating with each other on a basis of sameness (sort). So not only are we in a place where we need to reconnect, we need to learn to connect with others who, on some trivial measure, are not considered the ‘same sort’ as ‘we’ are. Hm- maybe another part of the task before us is to re-calibrate what we think constitutes trivial and what constitutes profound when we identify differences between us.

  15. Mike Gottschalk

    @ Adam:

    People in power for their own benefit will shape and utilize myth toward their own ends. During the middle ages, the Christian myths were hi-jacked. During the twentieth century through now however,, Darwinian theory has been our core myth from which we’ve organized ourselves; not so much socially, but certainly economically. And according to the above research, our economic lives are displacing our civic lives. So not only will new myths need to be born, we have to deal with the ways the myth in place, “Darwinism” has been co-opted by those who only want to justify selfish behavior.

  16. I’ll drink my green tea to that! Here’s to sanity world around.

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