137–138: Science and Religion

November 5, 2012
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What is science? What is religion? What are the methods/disciplines and underlying assumptions that animate each? What does each investigate? What practices and institutions does each have in place that lead to self-correction and ensuring that they truly are working for truer, deeper understandings of the universe? Should science and religion remain separate from each other? How much can each say fruitfully about the other’s “realm”? Can science teach us how to live more richly? Can religion be trusted as a guide in any way to how the universe “works”?

In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon is joined by Matthew Nokleby and Steven Peck for a head-on dive into these questions and more. Eventually each shares why he orients toward science and religion the way he does—Matt as an atheist who honors spiritual life while rejecting religion’s explicit claims, Steve and Dan as remaining more engaged with religion along with their celebrations of all that science has to offer? The also briefly discuss the theology and rhetoric of Mormonism toward the value of science.

Please listen and join in the conversation in the comments section below!

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37 Responses to 137–138: Science and Religion

  1. Matthew
    November 5, 2012 at 10:53 am

    A quick addendum: When Dan and I were discussing the empirical study of spiritual practices, I completely and unforgivably blanked on positive psychology, which is almost exactly the research program we were describing in the abstract. You can check out researchers like Jonathan Haidt and his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” to get a sample of what this program has to say.

  2. Riley
    November 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Really enjoy this. Thank you Dan, Matt, and Steven.

  3. David Sigmon
    November 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Steve needs a better connection or audio equipment. His voice is breaking up a lot.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      November 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Yep. Drove us crazy (we constantly stopped and started on some sections as he cut out super badly) and it cost me an extra hour or two in post production to fix (lesson the impact of) the things I could. This was our only window for weeks to do this episode, so we just chose to live with it–hoping listeners would find things interesting enough to put up with the less-than-ideal sound.

      It’s the second time I’ve had a BYU faculty member on, recording in their office via the campus’s network, and to have it not be great. Seems to be a sort of cycling going on or something. Steve even tried connecting via the guest network to see if any better. In the future, we’ll just find a different window and have him record from home.

      • David Sigmon
        November 5, 2012 at 6:45 pm

        Oh, yeah, I can put up with it. I’d rather have these podcasts as is, than not have them at all just because the recording was poor.

  4. David Sigmon
    November 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I’d like to hear Steve explain further what truths fiction can tell that science can’t. I think science can investigate the aesthetic of art, etc. Psychology, neuropsychology, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology are the fields that can and have been investigating why we find certain things (landscapes, music) beautiful and why we evolved that way. They also look at the effect music has in eliciting emotional responses and priming memories, etc.

    The research being conducting in complexity and emergence are fascinating, such as how ants accomplished massive works without any one ant giving orders or directing the work, or how our neurons also are able to complete complex tasks without any one neuron being in charge, or how cells with the same DNA, are able to differentiate into stomach cells or bone cells without anyone being in charge of the metamorphesus. Yet, it is not magic that they work that way. Cells, and ants, and neurons respond differently than their neighbors, even though they all have the same operational system, because their environments are slightly different. A cell may receive neurotransmitters on one side and not the other. An ant may smell a chemical trail that is different than his neighbor received because of the additional output by the neighbor ant. My point is, I’ve yet to see a case of complexity or emergence that does not at least have the potential to be accounted for in a strictly material world. Romantic relationships can also be boiled down to the effect the partner has on their partner’s brain.

    Now, conscious experience of qualia is a mystery. I’m not sure how we may eventually account for it. But, I see no reason to jump the materialist ship, so to speak, when we have no reason to suspect that something supernatural exists or that it is responsible for the experience of consciousness or how it produces the experience of consciousness. Basically, the supernatural offers me nothing, besides an imagined realm where magical things can happen when I haven’t yet discovered a natural explanation for a phenomena.

    • David Sigmon
      November 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      I did not mean neurotransmitters above. The point was in that part of my post was the parts of the system, change the environment (or inputs) for their neighboring parts by means of their outputs. Downstream parts of the system behave differently than upstream parts because they are in a different environment.

  5. Daniel Parkinson
    November 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Great discussion. I kind of wish you guys had discussed a little how bias and ideology impact science and lead to lots of false scientific ideas being accepted. A very grievous example is the pharmaceutical industry, and how it controls (by scientific funding) which studies/findings end up being accepted and publicized. This is relevant because it makes it more rational for anybody to doubt things that are widely accepted by the scientific community. This has unfortunate consequences…ie the lingering suspicion that global warming science was ideologically driven.

    • David Sigmon
      November 5, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      Good point, Daniel. I think Steve talked about how science is a human process and thus subject to the weaknesses of humanity, and Matt talked about how he has to remind his friends and associates how science is not this objective process of pure observation. But, drug trials are a great illustration of that. I’ve heard, but haven’t verified, before a drug can be approved by the FDA, the manufacturers just have to present two studies that show that the drug is effective (among other things). So, they could run 10 trials, 8 of which so no effect, but if they have 2 trials that show positive results, they just have to present those trials to get approved. The problem is one takes an unfair advantage of the statistics involved when one runs multiple trials. For instance, most experiments will call a result significant if it would happen by chance less than 5% or 1% of the time. But, if you run an experiment multiple times, you have to make statistical adjustments for that which these drug companies aren’t doing.

      • November 5, 2012 at 10:17 pm

        I meant “statistically significant”.

        • Daniel Parkinson
          November 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm

          The problem is much more severe than what you describe above. There is another phenomenon that researchers in all the Universities in the USA have to fight for funding. A researcher knows that he has to keep his funding sources happy, and often the funding source is private industry. Thus they have a huge motive to get certain findings in come to certain conclusions, because they need to maintain their relationships with their source of funds. Even if they are getting funding from public sources like the NIH they still have to worry about the political whims that invade that institution, and it’s funding source: the US congress. There is a pervasive system of conflict of interest in our system, which is most profound in medical science, but can impact any area of science.

          • Matthew
            November 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm

            When Steve brought up peer review and funding agencies as reasons why science is powerful — and they are! — I wanted to interject with how they are also sources of subjectivity and bias, and how the political landscape could, in principle, turn the scientific enterprise into a propaganda machine. But this conversation was wonkish enough as it stood, and getting into a detailed debate about how the tenure system impacts the objectivity of the scientific enterprise didn’t seem like the best use of everyone’s time!

  6. JT
    November 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I really appreciated this conversation. Thanks to you all.

    I think recent research in neuroscience might complement this discussion, though the work is admittedly in its infancy. The following references might be of interest to listeners:

    Neuroscientist Warren Brown and Phiosopher Nancey Murphy of the Fuller Theological Seminary authored:

    Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (2007, Oxford University Press)

    http://books.google.com/books/about/Did_My_Neurons_Make_Me_Do_It.html?id=7spFPgAACAAJ

    Murphy is a philosopher interested anti-reductionism. Brown is a neuroscientist who focuses on anti-Cartesianism. Both are theists. They develop the concept of “top-down causation …understood in the context of [nonlinear] dynamic systems” subject to feedback. They argue “that [not] all causal work must be done at the level of subatomic physics” and argue for a manner of “free will” within a purely materialistic framework. Since the “spirit” is traditionally seen as the substrate for contra-causal free will, this work pertains.

    FOr those who want a quick overview, this book is reviewed and Warren Brown interviewed in two episodes of the Brain Science Podcast. You will find the audio and transcripts here:

    http://www.brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/review-did-my-neurons-make-me-do-it-bsp-53.html

    http://www.brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/did-my-neurons-make-me-do-it-with-warren-brown-bsp-62.html

    Warren Brown also co-authored a more recent book more directly related to understanding spirituality from a materialist, but theism friendly, perspective.

    Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature (2009, Templeton Science and Religion Series).

    http://www.amazon.com/Neuroscience-Psychology-Religion-Illusions-Delusions/dp/1599471477/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1352225141&sr=1-1

    Dr. Andrew Newberg has conducted fMRI studies on Franciscan nuns in prayer and Tibetan monks in meditation with the aim of identifying neural correlates of these deep, trans-emotional and trans-conceptual “spiritual” experiences. Newberg writes for a popular audience, some of which veers into the self-help realm.

    http://ttbook.org/book/transcript/transcript-andrew-newberg-why-we-believe

    http://www.amazon.com/Born-Believe-Science-Ordinary-Extraordinary/dp/0743274989/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1352225623&sr=8-3&keywords=andrew+newberg+why+god+won%27t+go+away

    Finally,

    Sam Harris – now “armed” with a PhD in neuroscience – is adept at Eastern meditative practice and has taken some flack from the “nothingbuttery” views of strict material reductionists.

    Dan, I think you will particularly appreciate the following audio excerpt from a talk Harris gave a few years ago. Perhaps the only difference between your views is the final ontological attribution for such experiences.

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/13817676/Sam%20Harris%20on%20Contemplative%20Disciplines.mov

    Cheers

    “JT”

  7. Derek
    November 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    This was one of my favorite episodes so far! A few thoughts:

    1) I wish you had had more time to get into how this all maps into Mormonism specifically (i.e. is Mormon doctrine in favor of ontological materialism since it says that all spirit is matter?).

    2) Dan, you are adamant that you do not see yourself as entering the realm of the “supernatural.” Could you elaborate on this? I assume you mean simply that you think that the non-rational realm, which our minds do have access to even though we can’t study it empirically, is nevertheless still a part of the universe we inhabit and is therefore subject to natural law, even if we don’t necessarily understand those laws. So for example, do you think there is some sort of material causality whereby God sends us signals of communication during those moments in which we “feel the Spirit”? I’m think about how in the physical world we can interact with each other by making use of the laws of physics. We can send sound waves using our voices, we can touch each other, we can use electromagnetic radiation to send information, etc. But if there is a spiritual realm that does operate according to natural law, isn’t that still for all intents and purposes a “supernatural” realm, since we don’t really have the ability to study it and understand it?

    3) Does Mormonism provide a solution to the mind-body problem, and if so, how? Maybe you need to do a whole podcast on that as part of your philosophy series because it’s a fairly big issue (I think this has come up before but I thought I’d mention it).

    4) From 39:05-39:25 of part one, Matt hinted that our acceptance or rejection of ontological materialism is due to something other than a mere weighing of the evidence. Unfortunately, you guys never really got back to that point, but I got the sense that at least Steve agreed. If so, I’m wondering what you guys think we *do* base our positions on.

    5) For Dan and Steve who do believe in God and an afterlife, if there isn’t a reliable way to follow evidence to arrive at the correct conclusion, how is that not absurd? How can we on one hand say that there is a God who cares that we believe in him, but on the other hand explain someone like Matt, who is both intelligent and moral, has come by his atheism honestly? How can we affirm that atheism is a valid position to take without rendering our own belief in God pointless?

    • Matthew
      November 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Derek, I’ll answer (4) as best as I can here. I think I summarized it in my “closing statement” at the end of part ii. I take models in which there are supernatural phenomena or entities but which cannot be distinguished empirically to be needlessly complex; yet simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, and Ockham’s razor is merely a useful heuristic rather than a reliable principle that can be derived or inferred. I also take those models to be ad hoc in the sense I described in the first part of the podcast: believers are merely rearranging the propositions in order to protect their belief in a particular proposition, namely the existence of God.

      I also mentioned in that discussion that I regard ontological materialism as a good inference rather than a faith claim. All I’m doing, I claim, is extrapolating the fact that materialism crushes supernaturalism in the (repeatably) observable domain to domains (currently) unreachable by empirical methods. The quality of this inference depends on the relative “sizes” of those domains, which, quite frankly can only be guessed at. I suppose the observable domain to be rather large, and therefore I take my inference to be merely filling in a few gaps. I expect that believers like Steven or Dan suppose the opposite, that the observable world is tiny in comparison to what’s ineffable, in which case my inference is laughable.

      This is all one level below your question, however. I’ve laid out the difference in assumptions that lead me to my conclusions, but I haven’t explained where those assumptions come from. Self-analysis is hard, but here’s my best go at some reasons:

      - I was burned by an expression of the supernatural that *did* encroach on the empirical. Being jerked out of a belief in the supernatural leaves you skeptical of any flavor of supernaturalism, even ones that (potentially) cohere with the evidence. Had I been raised by a Sunstone/Dialogue family, I might never have had such an experience, and I might be a liberal/non-literal believer instead of an atheist.

      - The surrounding zeitgeist is one that supposes, as a null hypothesis, that supernatural phenomena aren’t real. This is true even for most Mormons, in my experience. They argue that Mormonism is true because there is positive evidence for it, spiritual and otherwise. Many/most of them would regard it silly to believe in it without such evidence.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      November 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Great stuff, Derek! Thanks!

      Definitely on 1! Let’s have that discussion here and/or I will be sure to do what you propose in #4 and make that part of it. We are scheduled to do our next in the philosophy series–on process theology and Mormonism–at end of this month, so that will have a bit to do with that, too. Anyway, definitely soon for deeper sense of how Mormon sensibilities map in ontological queries.

      On 2, not quite what you say. It’s damn hard to avoid talking about “realms,” so I think that’s where confusion comes in all the time. For me, no separate realms. Nothing supernatural. I simply judge religion and spiritual disciplines as better ways of sensing the “connectedness” of the universe. Science best at smaller parts, approaches through rational means, instrumentation that isn’t worth crap unless it quantifies hence always skews toward partness/what can be divided out, etc. But, again, what I’m talking about when I talk about religion and disciplined query through primarily non-rational means is the sensibilities/intuitions that we get that lie well below the level of “propositional claims” of the kind that Matt (and even Steve) were often referring to. My exclamations about “energy, man!” and other things like that are my affirmation that they are real, part of the universe and not separate from it, but I definitely do not think they can be described in words, fully tracked by machines (I love watching brains of meditators/mystics light up, but that doesn’t touch what they are experiencing), etc. My only dog in the fight is that people don’t get so disgusted with what people say as hard and fast claims about God, devils, heaven/hell, “unmediated” access to the Divine will, etc., they close off to intuitive/non-rational approaches that are the most likely paths to their having truly amazing/paradigm shifting (connection saturated!) experiences.

      #5. Not sure what to say about “how is that not absurd?” except to deny what you’re probably thinking is the only thing that counts as “evidence” that we can follow. I think I mentioned a few times that I find the injunctions of spiritual masters/scriptures–”do this, it’s what I did”–and then doing those things ourselves and having similar experiences to be a pretty compelling as “evidence” that they are not just blowing smoke. I can and always will evaluate the conceptual elements of what it is I just experienced (“Did that really imply a God, or was it just power and light and sense of wholeness/connectedness?”), but at some point the fact of “hell, yeah, that was something incredible and delicious” ceases to be all that much in question. I fully recognize that my experience may not be the same as Matt’s, so it never even enters my mind to evaluate another’s way of orienting to the universe.

      On the “rendering our belief in God pointless” question, let me head back to your first sentence of #5 related to afterlife. Let’s be clear: I “believe in an afterlife” about the same way and amount as I believe in a “God.” I have a hunch about both based upon a confluence of many things, but I’m not banking on either being true, not living much of a different life or pursuing different experiences because of some hope for heaven or validation of my intuitions after I’m dead. Sure, I’d “like” to continue as a personality, and I’d “like” to think there are beings in the universe who “went for it fully” and became so one with the energies enlivening this universe that they are somehow interested in a bloke like me finding my way there, too. But I find it’s enough joy for me that comes when I do my regular dives that take me below just what I can get to via thinking. In them, without any thought of post life, I simply enjoy the infusion of a sense of connectedness that they often yield (and wowie zowie explosions much more infrequently, but always with lingering effects that warm the edges of all else) that this is simply the way I choose to pursue happiness. These lead me to feel warmly toward all people. These seem involved in what helps keep my heart broken open to truly feel love, and they render me delighted more than frustrated that there are a million facets to everything (all “being” WILL have its say! And I want to hear it!), and somehow it all helps me simply feel centered. I still “know” I’m simply a novice in all of this, but among the messages in these dives is that it’s all okay.

      So “our own belief in God” rendered pointless? I guess so. That’s why I don’t insist there is a God, that there is only one life we get, that any scripture or prophet gets the last word. Staying alive to experiences–I think that’s the only key. Religion/spiritual disciplines point to this even if people (including most scientists and most religionists, alike) forget this and hope instead to nail it all down once and for all. As Zarathustra said, “Beware the marketplace!” Don’t let the herd/mob keep you from full exploration/owning your drive to more life and experience. Engage the mob, let them teach you how to become truly loving and how to become a mirror to them so they can see more in themselves just as you see moreness in yourself, but don’t think you have to settle for their “answers”–any answers. Gods don’t have answers; they have lives!

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        November 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm

        Sorry, when I get going, it’s like I’m at a charismatic church’s pulpit! I stand by what I say above, but definitely not my most circumscribed prose, or my only way to engage your questions. So keep asking if you want a “different” Dan to respond!

      • usernameEric
        November 9, 2012 at 10:57 am

        Dan,

        With regard to :

        “Nothing supernatural. I simply judge religion and spiritual disciplines as better ways of sensing the “connectedness” of the universe. Science best at smaller parts, approaches through rational means, instrumentation that isn’t worth crap unless it quantifies hence always skews toward partness/what can be divided out..”

        I’d love to hear your response to this 10 minute excerpt from a talk by Sam Harris where he gives his take on insights gained from contemplative/meditative practice.

        http://dl.dropbox.com/u/13817676/Sam%20Harris%20on%20Contemplative%20Disciplines.mov

        “JT”

        • Dan Wotherspoon
          November 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm

          Hi JT, Sorry for slow reply. Traveling this week and almost no time for the fun stuff!

          I did just now listen to the clip. And, of course, I am all for dialogue between religion/contemplatives and science/secularists, taking religion out of the realm of “preposterous claims” and centering on happiness/flourishing. So it’s great to have Harris talk with admiration for how contemplatives have come to astounding insights through contemplation, that they are “scientists” of sorts in first-person explorations of consciousness. He, of course, shoots himself in his own foot in terms of his own potential effectiveness to persons like me who know a lot more about these things than the audience he was speaking to. His being sure to describe it as at the far end of the spectrum, tying it to 40 days and 40 nights, 10 to 20 years in caves (multiple mentions of this), choosing to emphasize it is mostly insights coming from those in the east rather than west and then not being able to resist a cheap-shot tie to eastern medicine as so radically inferior to western, then taking a needless shot at intelligent design…all these things simply hurt his credibility for those like me, reveal that he is “winking” throughout to his audience that “yeah, I’m praising this, but don’t take it too seriously as I’m going to give you the more clear-eyed view in a minute.”

          In the end, I am all for the fruition of his hope for a “thoroughgoing science of human happiness,” and if secularists want to approach from the language of retraining their brains to learn compassion, of course I’m all for that! While they are working on that, I’ll continue working to help religionists move from “preposterous claims” about this or that, pointing them to actually “having” spiritual/mystical experiences themselves rather than thinking they can be understood by “thinking” about them or describing them or God. Same team. I think my way is likely to change society faster than yours/Harris’s. Millions through contemplation (eastern or western style), service, ritual, and other spiritual disciplines learn compassion as an outflow of their experience, and most people on the planet are more likely to “try” to train (I’m fine to note there are brain paths that get grooved via mystical experience–of course any experience will map in the brain, with our disagreement being whether it ever escapes the brain to begin with, if there’s something wider or more extensive that we are “part of”) my way than yours–especially if your best (or one of your best) ambassadors continues to damn with faint praise through marginalization and cheap shotting. I wonder if he speaks this way when he’s in dialogues with actual contemplatives. I doubt it. Hope not. If so, the dream is doomed.

          • usernameEric
            November 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm

            Dan,

            Good points. Thanks for replying. Getting to know you…

            By the way, I don’t pick up everything that Harris puts down and feel greater separation from his “project” than the “/” which you placed between us implies. Certainly I am not involved in a public project to change society – other than offering my opinion on a few relatively low traffic podcast forums which leave me open to fair criticism. I might sound like I think I have it all figured out for others, I’m really just trying to work things out for myself .

            Which means I really appreciate your thoughtful responses and even criticism!

            Cheers

            “JT”

          • usernameEric
            November 15, 2012 at 11:31 am

            Dan, with regard to your comment:

            “I’m fine to note there are brain paths that get grooved via mystical experience — of course any experience will map in the brain, with our disagreement being whether it ever escapes the brain to begin with, if there’s something wider or more extensive that we are “part of”” … especially if your best (or one of your best) ambassadors continues to damn with faint praise through marginalization and cheap shotting

            Let me respond to this.

            First, your experience represents a genuine point of inquiry for me and is not a target of “cheap shotting” Harris is not one of my “ambassadors”. Spinoza comes closest to my hero as as I try abide his dictum, “”Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere”.

            I recently purchased (but have yet to read) a book that relates to your position:

            FITS, TRANCES, & VISIONS: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James by Ann Taves (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0691010242/ref=rdr_ext_tmb)

            You may know Taves as a professor of the History of Christianity and American Religion fro the Claremont School of Theology.

            From the back cover: “She pays particular attention to a third interpretation, proposed by such “mediators” as William James, according to which these experiences are natural and religious.”

            Perhaps you see yourself as a modern mediator in the spirit of William James, though I don’t know whether he professed a belief in anything that “escapes the brain.”

            I am currently reading:

            Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature by Malcolm Jeeves and Warren Brown (http://www.amazon.com/Neuroscience-Psychology-Religion-Illusions-Delusions/dp/1599471477/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1352225141&sr=1-1)

            Brown is a neuropsychologist at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Christian theist. I think my serious engagement with such scholars speaks to something more than offering faint praise and marginalization.

            That said, I am obviously skeptical to the attributions you claim for your experiences which, given the nature of my knowledge of them I can’t give more weight than supernatural spiritual experiences. Skepticism – which is different from denial – is the only honest response I can have unless (1) I have my own subjective experience that compels me to see science as “best for the smaller parts” or (2) science advances to the point of discovering this “more fine or pure” substrate and replaces metaphor with mechanism. In the meantime I must settle for a depleted electrochemical existence and yap away about the merits of falsifiable claims (in a world filled with unfalsifiable ones) and the proven value of not ignoring the null hypothesis when seeking their best explanations.

          • Dan Wotherspoon
            November 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm

            Sorry, again, for slow reply. Trip over, finally getting back to real life.

            Taves was on my dissertation committee. Really enjoy her, even just having lunch with her this summer when she was in SLC. Hope you’ll enjoy her book! (I’m also in a book club right now that is working its way through her newer book, Religious Experience Reconsidered.)

            Good to hear more about your background, reading, approach to these subjects, and the vigor in which you are pursuing these things as genuine questions. Sorry for assumption that Harris must have been speaking more closely to your own views or speaking in a rhetorical style that you think is appropriate for exposition on contemplative practices and the claims they make. Thanks!

            William James and Alfred North Whitehead are the two thinkers through my years of study that I’ve read and connected with the most, so while I don’t think of myself as a “modern mediator in the spirit of William James” (though I quote him a lot!), it truly is difficult to always know exactly where ideas I have in my head originally come from and where my own have taken them away from what he or Whitehead or other authors who are influential on me would be comfortable with. Of course, the first leap toward certain writers/thinkers comes from us as we find some sort of match to our own felt sense of things, so definitely not all derivative. For both of these guys, I truly love their spirit of exploration and the attitude of “What must the world be like if this and this might actually be true?” (Whitehead using relativity theory and quantum theory to jump off from; James the nature of religion and areas that it plays in producing real, life-enriching effects), and their not ignoring “wild” facts because they don’t fit current science.

            On all kinds of experiences tracking within the brain, I am mostly influenced by David Bohm’s idea of ourselves as energy/information beings in an energy/information field, with us as similar to
            whirlpools or eddies in a river—more or less stable patterns but ever changing and fully in touch with all that is going on in the river, and with the idea that just like the whirlpool/eddy, it is impossible to fully define where we begin and end in relation to the rest of the river. (Bohm’s _Wholeness and the Implicate Order_ was the seminal book for me related to this. I’ve also been intrigued for the past fifteen years or so by Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, in which there is a deep connection between and information is carried outside individual members of a species yet affects their development. He’s written much since, but _A New Science of Life_was a great start for me.) Anyway, our brains as also part of our pattern that is part of the wider river/information field would clearly interpret/process (in all the chemical/electric and other ways brains establish routes and hankerings) information or interact with subtle energies without necessarily also being the source of those energies.

            For William James and whether anything “escapes the brain,” if you look at his conclusion to _Varieties of Religious Experience_, you’ll see he was playing in the same border of brains/mind and the wider something-or-other with which we are coterminous (he calls it “the more”) through the terminology and theory of the subconscious mind. A quotation f his, the open-endedness and spirit of which I love, to go out on:

            “But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep
            discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow scientific bounds.”

          • usernameEric
            November 20, 2012 at 7:54 am

            Thanks Dan.

            Just ordered Religious Experience Reconsidered.

            Ahhh – David Bohm – Rupert Sheldrake. I’m understanding a little more with every exchange! But don’t take this as a dismissive judgement. Rather another point of skeptical inquiry (not be be equated with cynical fault finding).

            I’ve got to get to William James. Varieties … has been on my shelf three years now.

            As always, I appreciate your thoughtful responses.

            Eric (JT)

          • Dan Wotherspoon
            November 20, 2012 at 9:55 am

            Aware of Bohm’s and Sheldrake’s place outside mainstream physics and biology. Hazard of being grand theorists! These two, along with Whitehead, fascinate me through taking seriously the way wholes affect parts, and how for this to happen there must be some sort of communication between all parts of the whole that is not simply conveyed through external connections. (Whitehead consistently called what he was working through a “philosophy of organism.”) All three posit internal connectedness yet have gotten there through quite different paths. And, of course, attempting to get at the “insides” of things and figure out how information can be conveyed outside normal sensoral or chemical routes (implying some sort of “action at a distance”) puts one outside mainstream science and into the borderlands with what mystics have intuited and are more experienced at describing.

            All in all, these are guys whose work and insights intrigue me–and, obviously for reasons that have more to do with how their sensibilities match better with my own gained via my experiences (this is empiricism, too!) rather than a pure weighing against mainstream science’s current (and likely future) explanations (since the types of inquiries and tools of science being better suited for inquiry into parts rather than wholes, outsides/measurables versus insides/experiences.

            We’ll have to meet up one day and really have a great chat!

          • usernameEric
            November 20, 2012 at 11:50 am

            Dan,

            I’ve spent some effort studying the theoretical, experimental, and philosophical foundations and implications of quantum “weirdness” including entanglement, the EPR experiment, Bell’s inequality theorem, its predicted violation by quantum mechanics, and then its demonstrated violation by Alain Aspect and others – and Bohm’s central role in this.

            Clearly the violation of Bell’s inequality forced physicists to give up Einstein’s wish for a local hidden variable quantum theory (i.e. not violating the speed of light limit). Bohm answered with his (mathematically rigorous) theoretical work on a non-local hidden variable theory to preserve the concept (reality?) of classical particles and classical causation through his quantum potential Q. Q’s dependence on the wave function offers a view of the world as an undivided whole. Pretty cool.

            I am sure you are aware that Bohm never claimed to offer a new theory of quantum mechanics, only a new interpretation. In other words, his “formulation” made no new empirical predictions – it just added a new entity Q. Might Q be considered a for Occam’s razor? :)

            The choice that the EPR results and Bohm leave us is indeed intriguing and bizzare, whether we entertain Bohm’s interpretation or not:

            (1) Go with Bohm and accept nonlocality (a Universal “connectedness”) while preserving our intuitive notion of objective reality and causation,

            or

            (2) Go reject non-locality (no Universal connectedness) and accept the extemely non-intuitive notion of there existing a “deep” indeterminacy and absence of causation at the atomic scale.

            A few important comments to add:

            First, indeterminacy does get washed at the level of cats (and wet mushy brains) – we don’t see them cat’s in alive/dead superpositions (and our consciousness doesn’t make trips across the cosmos) – OR DO WE?

            Second, the speed limit of light recently held up against claims to the contrary.

            Third, there is a VERY important qualification to Bohm’s non-local “connectedness”. It does not allow for superluminal or instantaneous information transfer. More specifically, IT DOES NOT OFFER INSTANTANEOUS CAUSAL CONNECTEDNESS. In the EPR experiment, neither observer can control the outcome of a particle measurement – which means they cannot encode information. Therefore, neither observer can dictate what the other observer’s outcome will be through these “spooky” quantum correlations. They cannot send instantaneous messages. In other words, each observer ends up with a sequence of fundamentally random sequence of orientation measurements whose correlations can only be revealed by sending them to the other at the speed of light. Non-local connection with perfect local randomness!

            Here’s a neat passage from the book The Quantum Challenge” by George Greenstein Arthur G. Zajonc

            “The physicist and philosopher Abner Shimony has called the different sort of non-locality that we are considering here “passion at a distance.” It is a wonderfully evocative phrase. Physical causation operating over great distances necessarily involves some sort of action — but Alice and Bob, as they make their measurements, are utterly passive. Yet even though they are passive, unknown to them, a subtle quantum connection links their results.”

            I’d enjoy meeting in person also. I’ll let you know if I ever get to Utah. Please let me know if you are ever near Delaware. You have my e-mail.

          • usernameEric
            November 21, 2012 at 6:09 am

            Dan,

            I thought it worthwhile to look into the latest theoretical and experimental work on non-local realistic theories. At the risk of encouraging you : ) I offer the following link to a paper, which I have yet to study in detail, but would imagine that we all would have heard something since 2007 if my second caveat (non-local causality or information transfer) proved true.

            Cheers

            Eric

            An Experimental Test of Non-local Realism

            Nature 446, 871-875 (19 April 2007)

            http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v446/n7138/abs/nature05677.html

            http://arxiv.org/pdf/0704.2529.pdf

            Most working scientists hold fast to the concept of ‘realism’—a viewpoint according to which an external reality exists independent of observation. But quantum physics has shattered some of our cornerstone beliefs. According to Bell’s theorem, any theory that is based on the joint assumption of realism and locality (meaning that local events cannot be affected by actions in space-like separated regions) is at variance with certain quantum predictions. Experiments with entangled pairs of particles have amply confirmed these quantum predictions, thus rendering local realistic theories untenable. Maintaining realism as a fundamental concept would therefore necessitate the introduction of ‘spooky’ actions that defy locality. Here we show by both theory and experiment that a broad and rather reasonable class of such non-local realistic theories is incompatible with experimentally observable quantum correlations. In the experiment, we measure previously untested correlations between two entangled photons, and show that these correlations violate an inequality proposed by Leggett for non-local realistic theories. Our result suggests that giving up the concept of locality is not sufficient to be consistent with quantum experiments, unless certain intuitive features of realism are abandoned.

          • Dan Wotherspoon
            November 21, 2012 at 2:08 pm

            Thanks for both notes, Eric (JT)! Great to get these thoughts and reminders and links. As I said in the podcast, I don’t control the math and have to rely on secondary sources as interpreters, and I appreciate what you’ve offered here in terms of reminders and clarifications. It is at least a dozen years since I’ve done much thinking about these things, other than always being attuned to science news and commentary in mainstream-but-geared-to-serious-people media, so I’ve been aware that Bohm’s work and the intuitions it suggests remain at least intriguing, as do Sheldrake’s. It’s important to me to have key sensibilities at the base of my worldview at least in dialogue with and not in opposition to general sensibilities in physics, but far more alive to me than what’s happening there are the intuitions that strike and animate me via my own first-person dives. One of these that has been freaking me out a bit over the past couple of years have been occasional touches with what seems like experiences that go beyond sort of a “uniting with energies” and give peeks into non-duality. When they started coming (and not very often–just a few flashes that hover around the edges), it fundamentally shifted how I thought about the whole entanglement issue and the question of superluminal communication, and gave me a new appreciation for Bohm’s “wholeness.” (This is related to things you said in Caveat 2.) The entangled particles don’t communicate across time and space but it is beginning to seem possible to me they truly are not separate entities. Which, of course, means we are not either, which of course makes the early verses in D&C 88 sing in a different way than before, leading me to freshly sense the mystical Joseph in addition to the highly flawed Joseph, etc. Anyway, in my dissertation, I wrote on internal connectedness and LDS suggestions about all things being in and through all other things (light of Christ language simply naming that fundamental fact rather than being something like the ether, as Widtsoe imagined), but until the flashes of non-dual experiences, it didn’t really “sing” to me. Now, I’m just confused when I try to contemplate wholeness (entertain fresh pantheism/panentheism) as there is no way to sort that kind of stuff out through language and logic (partly why I am fascinated by mathematicians who can “get” this when equations open up vistas to them, though I’m not sure it’s all that different than what genuine mystics “get”) but I am at the same time excited to be in this place where flashes are coming that unsettle me and put me in a mode of expectation that more will flow. And even if it seems like b.s. to folks, I find these new insights leading me to be more compassionate, more patient, more committed to being an agent for good, which I hope is not upsetting to them even if they are imagining me in la-la land.

          • usernameEric
            November 21, 2012 at 6:40 pm

            Dan

            Excellent. That brings us to a good place – right alongside (or perhaps above) both science and religion.

            I’m delighted to acknowledge any sense of connectedness or wholeness that leads to a person being “more compassionate, more patient, [and] more committed to being an agent for good” – especially since I more often find myself on the receiving end than the giving end – courtesy of my faithful LDS wife and kids.

            But I’m working on it too – in all my electrochemical splendor! And I count myself fortunate to live and work among so many agents of goodness from both the “believing” and “non-believing” worlds.

            Thanks and best wishes,

            Eric

          • Dan Wotherspoon
            November 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm

            I absolutely sense this quest and successes in the things you share about your life and explorations. Love our discussions and where our fuzzy areas overlap allowing us to connect as fellow travelers.

            Can’t wait until I say some crazy new thing on an upcoming episode and we can start finding new divergences that also feel like connections!

            Thanks for everything!

  8. usernameEric
    November 9, 2012 at 9:15 am

    The following link connects to a podcast interview with John Shook, the Director of Education and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry.

    The episode name is: Dewey, Quine and Some Varieties of Naturalism

    It focuses on Dewey’s “Pragmatic Naturalism” but touches on the other ends of the spectrum from “synoptic pluralism” (William James – more or less) to reductive physicalism. Very well presented.

    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12950

    You can find a pdf of the transcript here:

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/13817676/Varieties%20of%20Naturalism%20(Shook%20and%20Muehlhauser).pdf

  9. usernameEric
    November 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    It took me about seven years after my convert baptism at age twenty to reach the point where I just had to clear my supernatural deck. That left me a dynamic pattern of interacting elementary particles – a wee bit of the Universe me’ing. I felt and behaved pretty much the same. I had merely downgraded various mental representations of persons and places occupying “realms” I’d never seen and feelings that had always required self-conscious effort to muster – or so it seems in retrospect. I have the “earnest effort gene” but apparently not the “spiritual experience” gene.

    The physicist Murray Gell Mann said:

    “You don’t need something more to get something more. That’s what emergence means. … It doesn’t diminish the importance of [life] to know that they follow from more fundamental things plus accidents.”

    I’ve found both parts of Gell Mann’s assertion convincing having looked into it with an effort worthy of my advanced degree in engineering.

    Spinoza helped me through my early days of solitary atheism in a family of happy committed theists who I am very fond of. I first discovered Spinoza in the following passage from Will Durant’s History of Philosophy:

    “To one who advised him to trust in revelation rather than in reason, he answered: ‘Though I were at times to find the fruit unreal which I gather by my natural understanding, yet this would not make me otherwise than content; because in the gathering I am happy, and pass my days not in sighing and sorrow, but in peace, serenity and joy.”

    The least expected encouragement came from Walt Whitman – given his opinion of “the learn’d astronomer”:

    “I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

    One lesson I’ve learned (so far) in the years following my loss of faith is that all the frailties of mind that social psychologists and cognitive scientists have demonstrated are revealed in my own – though it requires faith at times to believe that. I’ve been my own case study. My experience with Mormonism was humbling in this regard and now that I look at it from the boundary, it’s hardly true that I am less susceptible to ballistic intuiting, unconscious confabulating, and confirmation biasing. But getting my metaphysical world down to a minimum, and taking the scientific method home with me nights and weekends, keeps my mind in better check and changes it more often.

    In a recent Mormon Stories podcast I heard Richard Bushman describe his response to a Catholic colleague’s question, “Richard, how can you believe in Joseph Smith?” He told the conference audience, “Without a second thought I replied that when I lived the Mormon way I’ve found that I was the kind of man I wanted to be.” Well. I’ve got to say, that’s good enough for me because that’s how I feel about my provisional naturalistic stance. (And also that trying to believe in Joseph Smith was not making me the man I wanted to be!)

    I’ve had no “deep” experience with disciplined practice in meditation or prayer as Dan describes. I have Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” on my book shelf (unread) and I listened through his introductory tape, twice. I can see where it could lead. And if the likes of both Dan Wotherspoon and Sam Harris have such strong testimonies of it, I truly expect that if I were to dedicate myself I would have some powerfully novel experiences (and lower blood pressure).

    That being said (or done), however, I would allow that I might remain unsure about a few things. First, that our minds would actually achieve the same qualitative experience, sense of value, or make similar attributions – whether or not we reach for same metaphors. Second, I’m not so sure I’d want a source of experience more real or powerful than such things as holding my newborn children, or massaging my dying mother’s shoulders, or sharing with my wife our memories of our first date. Third, I’m not sure I’d want the frustration of going around telling people, “You don’t know what you’re missing, you’ve just got to experience this,” assuming they are as unprepared to muster the time, patience, or courage to get there as I am. It can be frustrating and lonely enough being the only atheist member of two Mormon families.

    Thank you Matt, Steven and Dan for this conversation and for the occasion to think about this stuff some more.

  10. Wayne
    November 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Dan’s great and I think his ability to create dialogue is extremely important but he’s misguided in his hopeful distinction that religion concerns itself with spiritual life and science with the material world. Religion has a long tradition of explaining every aspect of the world: its origin, its purpose, the order of nature, the proper workings of society, territory disputes, genealogies, money systems, the afterlife, etc. Religion claims to have all of the answers (at least all of the answers the gods want us inferior beings to have). Claiming that religion leaves science alone doesn’t make sense given that “science” (i.e. modern science) is only a few centuries old and therefore couldn’t have been addressed by texts predating the 17th century. Before that time “science” simply meant knowledge and in that case it was very much part of scripture. Predictably enough, The BoM and The Book of Abraham, texts produced after the birth of modern science, incorporate updated scientific knowledge (e.g. Hel. 12:15). What’s most significant about the inclusion of scientific knowledge in scripture is that it consistently fails the test of time (in the case of the Heleman example it’s simply childish and out of place) which then calls into question the other facts of life scripture purports to explain so clearly. Are the spiritual and moral truths of these books withstanding the test of time? In so many cases (e.g. explanations of sexuality, racism, genocide, crimes warranting death, causes of guilt, justification for sacrifice, etc.) the scriptures become extremely dangerous references and a major cause for human grief and suffering. Can the jewels of the scriptures warrant saving the religions that sprung from them. With everything you could possibly read in this world, why waste our time? Gambling our spirituality on faulty authority can only complicate our lives. We have updated books that cary on the best messages offered in religion. We have thousands upon thousands of them.

    • usernameEric
      November 14, 2012 at 7:14 am

      IMO, religions have been successful in projecting culturally-evolved pro-social (or in-group sustaining) codes of ethics (or moral principles) onto the “heavens” where they gain instant (and, IMO artificial) legitimacy and authority when reflected into their sacred books. This has given us a world of several billion people who cannot conceive of being good without a god of one sort or another – and there are many sorts. A powerful strategy one must admit.

      So Wayne, I agree with you. It’s too bad people don’t see that their pro-social behavior (as well as their bigoted behavior) is of their own invention. If they did perhaps they would take proper responsibility for the good (and bad) and see there is more work for THEM to do, rather than feeling the need or obligation to abide the limited reflections of their poorly-informed ancient ancestors – notwithstanding the good bits worth repackaging without their myths.

      (Note that from this perspective the first four of 10 commandments can be seen as providing divine leverage for the very practical remaining six).

  11. Pickle
    November 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Mormons = Church of of Latter Day Racists

  12. Dave C
    January 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

    It is interesting that you discuss an issue like science and religion without consulting LDS experts in this area other than Mr. Peck. Have you done your homework by reading the leading LDS scholars on this topic? People like Frank Salisbury (The Case for Divine Design), David Brems (Divine Engineering), and Dave Collingridge (Truth and Science: An LDS Perspective).

    • Sue
      November 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      Oh please… I think that would have been entirely predictable, and rather unscientific from the perspective of people who have actually studied science without religious prejudice in the mix. I loved this podcast exactly as it was – there is plenty of second-rate stuff out there already. Sorry to be so blunt, but I hate it when religious institutions try to bend science to fit their particular dogmas!

  13. Sue
    November 24, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    I love love love this podcast, and have just listened to it again. It’s so thoughtful, intelligent, rich… There is so much noise in this world and not enough communication. This is communication. So much of the web and real-life discussion on this topic just endlessly goes around in circles with much talking and even more putting hands over the ears when someone else is talking, and the discussion never gets beyond being shallow, predictable, uneducational, annoying and eating up time that could be usefully employed instead. Thank you for this in-depth exploration and breath of fresh air to all three of you! :-)

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