Tag Archives: Science and Religion

Smith, “Science and the Person: A Complacent Reflection”

CLR Forum friend and guest blogger Steve Smith has posted an enjoyable and thoughtful short essay (written with his distinctive grace and humor) about the implications of the developments in neuroscience for our legal understanding of the person (including our understanding of various issues in criminal law).  With an interesting qualification, his general sense is, there are no major destabilizing implications — hence his genial complacency.  Here’s a fragment involving that qualification, on the issue of whether neuroscience will affect our views about the intrinsic worth of the human person (footnotes omitted):

A better understanding of how the brain works and how it causes or correlates with mental states does not in itself tell us anything about whether persons have intrinsic worth, so far as I can see. Neither does an account of how persons may have evolved from other organisms. But it is possible that by giving more cachet to a naturalistic approach to understanding, advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology might contribute to the ascendancy of a worldview– or as I sometimes put it, an “ontological inventory” — in which things like intrinsic value don’t register. In this way, it is conceivable that neuroscience might for some people undermine belief in intrinsic value in the same way that for some people science undermines belief in God– not by scientifically demonstrating that God (or intrinsic value) aren’t real, but by promoting and reenforcing a vocabulary and conceptual framework, or ontological inventory, in which these things just don’t figure.

Some people will find this loss of faith in soul and intrinsic value invigorating; they will feel that their new-found skepticism is an indication of their tough-mindedness, or of their keeping up with current knowledge. Fine. The sad thing, I think, is when someone announces this loss of faith regretfully, because the sacrifice is, so far as I can see, pretty much gratuitous.

Nagel on Plantinga

This is, it seemed to me, a very fair-minded and illuminating treatment of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.  Nagel comes from an atheist and secular perspective, while Plantinga’s perspective is theistic.  Much of the evaluation (and likely the book itself) is far beyond my philosophical depth, treating issues of epistemology (though I did find the discussion of the issue of the derivation of “basic knowledge” interesting, and am not sure I understand the analogy that Nagel says Plantinga draws between the operation of faith and memory).  Here is a portion where Nagel is discussing Plantinga’s view of faith:

Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.

Scientific Progress and the Socio-Religious Worldview

This month, Baylor University Press publishes Rhetorical Darwinism: Religion, Evolution, and the Scientific Identity by Professor Thomas M. Lessl of the University of Georgia Department of Communication Studies.  Please see the publisher’s abstract below.

Everything evolves, science tells us, including the public language used by scientists to sustain and perpetuate their work. Harkening back to the Protestant Reformation—a time when the promise of scientific inquiry was intimately connected with a deep faith in divine Providence—Thomas Lessl traces the evolving role and public identity of science in the West.

As the Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, notions of Providence evolved into progress. History’s divine plan could now be found in nature, and scientists became history’s new prophets. With Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary science, progress and evolution collapsed together into what Lessl calls “evolutionism,” and the grand scientific identity was used to advance science’s power into the world.

In this masterful treatment, Lessl analyzes the descent of these patterns of scientific advocacy from the world of Francis Bacon into the world of Thomas Huxley and his successors. In the end, Rhetorical Darwinism proposes that Darwin’s power to fuel the establishment of science within the Western social milieu often turns from its scientific course.