Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Physicist says Science Can Address Questions about Gods, etc.

Stephen Jay Gould famously sorted science and relgion into "non-overlapping magisteria". Physicist Victor Stenger thinks otherwise.

A Physicist says Science Can Address Questions about Gods, etc.


Victor Stenger is a physicist who has written extensively on questions of science and religion. His latest book is called God and the Folly of Faith. After reading excerpts and reviews in several magazines I’ve finally decided to order a copy.

In this essay, which appeared in the Huffington Post, Stenger argued that science can address religious claims. He refutes Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” and can remain compatible as long as they stick to their own domains:  

….while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?

In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS, reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.

Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions -- the Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke Universities -- have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.

His other example involves near-death experiences. Here’s his conclusion:  

So, scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

Furthermore, the Gould attempt to divide up the territory by ceding the moral domain to religion takes away the individual's right to have input on moral and ethical questions, leaving those issues to scholars who interpret ancient texts. This sounds like Sharia Law to me. Moral behavior is observable and science is the best method to investigate the observable world.

While some  POTA readers have written to say that evolution fails to provide a moral framework, I’m not sure that should be expected of any individual scientific theory or paradigm. At the same time, reason and observation seem like good tools to apply to questions of moral code. I noticed a striking moral difference among writers of our letters to the editor section today, with several readers expressing moral outrage at Mitt Romney’s alleged bullying of a fellow student for the crime of looking different and possibly being gay. Another reader from a very different moral universe expressed outrage that people would worry about an issue that he saw as morally trivial - the tormenting of a gay person - when our current president is planning to open the door to gay marriage.

The letters serve as a clear illustration of the difference between morality based on dogma and morality based on reason and compassion.


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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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