God and Science
This May thru July 2015, TheBestSchools.org is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Michael Shermer and Rupert Sheldrake. For details about this dialogue, along with a complete guide to other portions of it, click here.
To give our readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:
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You believe that an unconscious, purposeless universe produced minds in human brains after about 14 billion years of mindless mechanical activity. You trust that science will eventually justify this belief. I believe that consciousness comes first, and is the source of nature and of minds within nature.
You ask me how I know that God is conscious, and ask for “sources and evidence.” There are many religious sources. In the Old Testament, for example, in Exodus 3:14, Moses asks God for his name and God replies, “I am who I am” (English Standard Version). God defines himself as subjective conscious being, in the present. As I mentioned previously, one of the Indian names for ultimate reality is satchitananda, being-consciousness-bliss, again emphasizing conscious being. Evidence comes from mystical experiences and through moments of illumination, in which people feel themselves in the presence of a greater consciousness than their own. Evidence of consciousness comes through conscious experiences, not from physical measurements.
You propose that the source and sustainer of all things is not God, but the “laws of nature.” However, this conception of natural laws is not as atheistic as it seems, because it builds on the belief that the laws of nature are aspects of the mind of God, a belief shared by the founding fathers of modern science in the seventeenth century, including Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. But laws are ideas rather than material objects, and they make no sense without a mind to think them.
You endorse the speculations of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that “Certain configurations of the laws of nature inevitably lead to the spontaneous creation of universes.” Somehow, these laws “could lead to universes being formed out of nothing.” This is again very like seventeenth-century theology, but less coherent, because you imagine that timeless laws exist in a free-floating, transcendent realm—God’s mind without God—and generate a universe without a source of energy or activity. In the seventeenth century, God was seen as the source of all activity, as well as the basis of cosmic law and order.
Nevertheless, you often contradict yourself. In our first dialogue you wrote, “‘Laws’ are the linguistic and mathematical descriptions we humans give to naturally occurring repeating phenomena. There are no laws of nature ‘out there.’” But if they are merely descriptions of the regularities of nature, how can laws precede the universe and give rise to it? Before the origin of the universe there were no regularities of nature and no humans to describe them.
And why are these hypothetical laws just right for our universe, enabling it to produce life and ultimately humans? Here, you fall back on the speculations of Victor Stenger, who argues that we happen to be in the only universe just right for us, out of 10^500 universes. He and other cosmologists avoid awkward problems by Quantitative Easing, conjuring up myriad universes, just as the Federal Reserve Bank conjured up trillions of dollars. It may be easier to proliferate universes than to reconsider the existence of God. But, as philosophers point out, an infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes. The multiverse gambit fails to get rid of God, and it is the ultimate violation of Ockham’s Razor, the principle that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”
You contradict yourself again. In some paragraphs, you see science “as the conviction of things previously seen,” and the practice of science like plumbing, fixing leaky pipes and clogged toilets, based on hard facts. You see this as “the exact opposite of faith in the biblical sense.” But a belief in 10^500 unobserved universes is not a hard fact. Nor is promissory materialism. If science cannot explain something, no problem! Just give us time, you say, “Let’s wait to see what science comes up with in the next couple of centuries before we postulate a divine being as the source.” This is faith as described in Hebrews 11:1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I think God is within nature, and nature within God. You think the universe is purposeless and unconscious, and that it originated from mindless yet immaterial laws.
For me, God comes before humanity; for you, as a secular humanist, humanity comes before God, who is a delusion in human minds, and hence in human brains.
Our beliefs affect our lives. No one can wait 200 years to make a choice.
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In my final epistle I would like to pull back and consider the bigger picture across both space and time. We are in the middle of the 2,015th year of the Common Era, a sliver of time that amounts to a mere one-150,000th of the lifespan of our species, one-10,000th of the epoch of our civilization, one-500th of the Age of Science, and one-100th of the Age of Einstein, who discovered that space and time are indivisible. To think that you or I or any of the other seven billion people alive today, or anyone among the 100 billion people who lived before us, has (or had) enough knowledge to know where the universe came from, how life began, the nature of consciousness, the existence of God, the afterlife, and the soul, or what the future holds for humanity, would be hubris enough to make a Greek god blush.
Presuming that our species does not go extinct anytime soon through weapons of mass destruction, global climate change, overpopulation, pandemics, a nanotech grey-goo plague, an evil AI or ET, a super–volcano eruption, or a rogue meteor strike on the order of the stone that killed the dinosaurs, we can project ourselves into the future by an amount comparable to these past milestones and imagine what people will know about these great mysteries a century from now in the year 2115, or in half a millennium in the year 2515, in ten thousands years in 12015, or 150,000 years from now in the year 152015. Unimaginable. Literally. Given the current accelerating rate of change in which the world has transformed more in the past century than it did in the previous 10 centuries, and will change in the 21st century more than it did in the previous 100 centuries, it is impossible to know what people “in the year 2525” will know (to quote a once-popular song), much less our descendents in the year 9595—the exordium et terminus of this civilizational journey.
A brief survey of the history of science alone should humble us into acknowledging that the answers to these existential questions may not be forthcoming anytime soon, and that our current best theories—as well supported as some of them are—may one day go the way of Aristotelian physics, Ptolemaic astronomy, the flat-earth theory, the hollow-earth theory, the expanding-earth theory, phlogiston theory, the miasma theory of disease, the four bodily humors theory of medicine, phrenology, preformationism, creationism, alchemy, astrology, the luminiferous aether, the Rutherford model of the atom, the steady-state theory of the cosmos, and vitalism. Among the many good reasons to want to live a long and healthy life, or even be cryonically frozen and brought back to life centuries from now, would be to find out what we were wrong about in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we look back on these erroneous scientific theories from centuries past with disdainful dismissal, what will scientists in the 26th—or the 260th—century think about our current models of the cosmos, life, and consciousness? Will they look down upon us as we do medieval physicians who believed that the four bodily humors (black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile) were linked to the four elements of nature (earth, water, air, and fire) that caused the four personality temperaments (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric), all of which were linked to the zodiacal signs in the heavens?
That said, when I am ill I opt for the best medicine available in 2015, not 1515, because we really have learned something about the human body over the past half millennium. The same assumption of cumulative progress in science applies to cosmology, physics, biology, and psychology—our current models really are better than our past models, and the fact that some of these theories were wrong does not mean all current ones are mistaken (and thus every alternative theory must be taken seriously). Your alternative theories about the human mind and consciousness may in centuries hence turn out to be right, but the odds are long against it.
Still, as I document in The Moral Arc, one of the greatest discoveries of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment is that free expression and the open marketplace of ideas where everyone is welcome to proffer their beliefs without state censorship has been one of the driving forces behind both scientific and human progress. I’m skeptical of your theories, Rupert, but I defend your right to publish and present them in public forums such as this, where they can be exposed to the bright light of science—the most important invention ever made in the history of our species.