Saturday, November 06, 2010

Frans de Waal for sanity in science & religion debates...

May be Frans de Waal also attended Jon Stewart's rally to restore sanity. He is definitely urging to tone-down some of the rhetoric in science-religion debates. He is responding to the reaction generated by an article he wrote a few weeks ago, Morals without God?. Whatever one's position regarding God & religion, he is interested in engaging with questions that are intellectually interesting. In general, we hope we are doing the same on this blog. Here is de Waal:

To have a productive debate, religion needs to recognize the power of the scientific method and the truths it has revealed, but its opponents need to recognize that one cannot simply dismiss a social phenomenon found in every major society. If humans are inherently religious, or at least show rituals related to the supernatural, there is a big question to be answered. The issue is not whether or not God exists — which I find to be a monumentally uninteresting question defined, as it is, by the narrow parameters of monotheism — but why humans universally feel the need for supernatural entities. Is this just to stay socially connected or does it also underpin morality? And if so, what will happen to morality in its absence?
Just raising such an obvious issue has become controversial in an atmosphere in which public forums seem to consist of pro-science partisans or pro-religion partisans, and nothing in between. How did we arrive at this level of polarization, this small-mindedness, as if we are taking part in the Oxford Debating Society, where all that matters is winning or losing? It is unfortunate when, in discussing how to lead our lives and why to be good — very personal questions — we end up with a shouting match. There are in fact no answers to these questions, only approximations, and while science may be an excellent source of information it is simply not designed to offer any inspiration in this regard.
The last part is almost another way of saying Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Yes, this approach also runs into problem as groups may define boundaries in a different way. In fact, for many, de Waal's own work on the origins of morality may be overstepping the boundaries. But I think there can be a civil discussion about boundaries themselves - especially when it comes to the questions of origins (as we run into those frequently when dealing with science & religion). Perhaps in this context, NOMA can serve as a good initial point to start such conversations.

Here is de Waal again:
What I would love to see is a debate among moderates. Perhaps it is an illusion that this can be achieved on the Internet, given how it magnifies disagreements, but I do think that most people will be open to a debate that respects both the beliefs held by many and the triumphs of science. There is no obligation for non-religious people to hate religion, and many believers are open to interrogating their own convictions. If the radicals on both ends are unable to talk with each other, this should not keep the rest of us from doing so.
Yes we can (oh - sorry, this is from 2008). But yes, Frans, we are definitely with you on this.

Read the full article here.


Benjamin Geer said...

Do humans universally feel the need for supernatural entities? Certainly atheists don't. Durkheim argued that distinction between the natural and the supernatural didn't exist before the development of the modern scientific concept of the natural world; hence one can't define religion in terms of supernatural entities.

However one defines religion, I do think that sociology can explain why some human beings find religion appealing and persuasive, and that we already have the broad outlines of such an explanation.

It is perfectly possible for non-religious people to be courteous and respectful towards religious believers, and to tell them respectfully that, according to social science, religion isn't what believers think it is.

Ali said...

Interesting comment, Benjamin.

Just my observation .....
You say "... sociology can explain why human beings find religion appealing and persuasive ..."
I am no sociologist but I do think sociology can 'explain' all human behaviour.
I am sure if sociologists want to know why or what sorts of people drink Coca Cola, there are more than one way of 'explaining' that too.

Having said that, I think sociology is one angle through which we look at the world. If neuroscientists are asked to tell us what religion is according to them, i will not be surprised if they tell us religion is not "what believers think it is." The neuroscientists' view may not be what sociologists think what it is either.

Similarly, if religion is analysed by quantum physicists, (I am hoping one day they can do it. How they can do it, I don't know. :)) they would tell us another view.

In my opinion, social sciences, theology, neuroscience, etc are different yardsticks we use to measure the same thing. Their measuring units are not the same. So why expect to arrive at similar conclusions?

So to be told that the length of my plot of land is 3000 feet may disappoint me because according to me it is 1000 yards. But if someone measures it with a universal mesuring tape, he can tell me that we are talking of the same length.

OR, it could be that analysing religion from a sociologist's view is only as good as trying to measure volumes using chromatography or spectroscopy.

Benjamin Geer said...

Ali, any phenomenon is most appropriately studied by a particular scientific discipline; other disciplines will have little to say about it. For example, a chemist can't explain electricity; only a physicist can, because the physical processes that produce electricity are the ones that are studied by physics, not chemistry.

Religion is basically a social phenomenon. It exists only in human society. Minerals, plants, and other animals don't have religion. Thus, quantum physicists, neurologists, botanists and geologists don't attempt to explain religion. Only sociology can explain it.

Before you make assumptions about what sociology can and cannot do, I suggest you learn something about sociology. You could start with the book I linked to.

Ali said...


"... any phenomenon is most appropriately studied by a particular scientific discipline; ..."
I disagree. :)
Some phenonena can be appropriately studdied by more than one discipline.
Take for example the study of criminal minds.
I am sure sociologists have something to say about them. I am also sure neuroscientitists too have something to say.
Both have their different explanations. Maybe both are correct.
I am thinking, geneticists also are trying to tell us they too have something to say about crims.
And the psychologists, of course. How can i forget them?

"Only sociology can explain it [religion]."
This made me smile. :)
I am asked to read a certain book. So i better read it before I say more.

Benjamin Geer said...

Ali, you're right that I was oversimplifying. There are topics that more than one scientific discipline can help explain, and your example of crime is a good one. In this case, though, we shouldn't get completely different explanations; instead we should expect the observations of different disciplines to fit together in a coherent way. And probably one discipline will play a dominant role. I think neurologists and geneticists would agree that crime is mainly a social phenomenon, because it is society that makes laws to define the difference between legal and illegal behaviour. Human genes and the structure of the human human brain haven't changed in tens of thousands of years, but laws and religions have changed a great deal. Genetics and neurology can't explain that, but sociology can.

Also, not every discipline can say something useful about every phenomenon. As far as I know, quantum physics has nothing to say about crime.

With these nuances, my point still stands: some disciplines are more relevant than others to any given phenomenon. For now, we have good sociological explanations of religion. Until I see a persuasive genetic or neurological theory of religion that takes into account the world's religious diversity, I'll remain convinced that religion is a social phenomenon.

Ali said...


"Until I see a persuasive genetic or neurological theory of religion that takes into account the world's religious diversity, I'll remain convinced that religion is a social phenomenon."

I am not trying to convince you otherwise.
But, this is just my opinion.
Science is about trying to fit everything into patterns and laws. We fit everything into one or the other pattern, or one or the other law.
So religion and religious believers also can be fit into one or the other pattern. Sociologists call this 'explaining' religion when they do it from a sociological perspective (please bear with my ignorance).

I am sure there will be appropriate genetic and neurological explanations of religion. The reason why we have not seen them so far is because these disciplines are at a pretty young age of their lives. Give these disciplines a few more centuries of maturity, and advancement and we will see them flourish in all directions.

But, we being able to explain religion and religious phenomena does not explain the 'why' of religions. We are simply explaining the manifest phenomena of religions by putting them into patterns from all angles that we can reach them.

So, sociologists will explain religion and be satisfied that it is a social phenomenon.
Neurologists will explain and be satisfied that it is due to dopamine deficiency or excess or something of that sort. :)
Geneticists will tell me that my VMAT5609 gene is upside down and that is why I believe in God.

But, but , but ... what if religion is actually there because God gave us religion?
ALL these explanations will still hold TRUE. So, Ben, yes religion is a social phenomenon. But, please don't say "ONLY sociology can explain it." (emphasis mine) :)

Benjamin Geer said...

"But, we being able to explain religion and religious phenomena does not explain the 'why' of religions."

It does. For sociology, religions exist because they serve certain kinds of human interests in this world. It seems to me that this explanation is sufficient.

"what if religion is actually there because God gave us religion?"

What if religion is there because mischievous demons created it in order to trick human beings? What if religion was invented by extraterrestrial creatures who visited Earth? What if religion exists because the world is actually an illusion created as part of a game (or a sociological experiment) carried out by a technologically superior civilisation?

Saying "what if" is easy; making a persuasive scientific theory, and testing it, is hard. The "God hypothesis" has some serious problems. Perhaps because of these problems, I don't think there are any scientists trying to test the "God hypothesis". But you can always try. If you do, please publish your results in a scientific journal.

Ali said...

An excellent riposte, Ben.

My reading list is huge. But I am tempted to add and i probably will add the link you just gave.

The 'God hypothesis' is a tough one to prove. And publishing anything about it on a peer reviewed journal will not be easy either.

Having said that, your comment has brought the difference in our opinions or rather beliefs to its crux: I believe the universe is a creation. You don't.

Of course, I believe because for me there is enough proof that the universe is no cosmic fluke. Those who don't believe think there is nothing that proves this. This has puzzled me and continues to puzzle me.

I don't expect you to answer this but, forget about God and forget about religion and think. Is there really nothing in the universe that makes you think it cannot be a random natural materialisation?

Thanks for a thought provocating 'session' here. I thouroughly enjoyed.

Benjamin Geer said...

Thank you, Ali, I enjoyed our discussion, too. As for the origin of the universe, I'm not competent to answer; I leave that question to the physicists.

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