Faith and facts in the 2020s – Part 1
Respect for religion and the religious can better reconcile with science, if it keeps up with updated ideas (from other sections of the NYT!).
With Ross Douthat, the product of my disagreement and admiration is probably the largest. Outside his writing or that of David French, I might not have understood social conservatism. Alongside Alain de Botton, Robert Wright and others, Douthat fostered a much greater respect for religions and their grandest original intentions than I grew up with.
That aside, I have long been open to the idea of conscious design (at the cosmic scale). Yes, as Douthat intended to argue in his column in August, with current science we cannot yet rule it out. But while calling for non-believers to be open, he appeared at least selective in reading all the scientific consensus we do have. Specifically on two points — in physics, ‘fine tuning’ and in biology, ‘paranormal’ experiences. This post is the first of a two-part response.
The physics is more straightforward and some readers immediately pointed it out in comments. Let’s take the biology first because the relevant science is newer and that is what prompted this post.
On 'paranormal' experiences, Douthat writes:
through the whole multicentury process of secularization… people kept right on having near-death experiences and demonic visitations and wild divine encounters.
…You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.
… if your claim is that religious experience is mostly just misinterpretation, it’s a substantial concession to acknowledge that it persists through ages of reason as well as ages of faith… Just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen
First, just the statistics. Just as in every age of faith there were those who scratched away at maths and science, in every age of reason, there are people for whom faith suffices. In less abstract terms, every age, of faith or of reason, has been unequal. Even in modern times, only a minority ever learn everything that the prevailing edge of science warrants we teach all kids by age 17. Fewer grasp and remember it all through life. Not everyone is raised in a childhood steeped in 'reason'.
He correctly points out that some people of science too report such experiences, which is a fraction of the total. Seeking to explain even those assumes that education and rationality must have a role in eliminating unexplained experiences. He does start to say, “Maybe they are all just mental illusion…” but then examines little from the wealth of science on the question, all that we have come to understand about brains and the human brain. For a quick primer, David Brooks synthesized some of the most startling but well-affirmed facts around the same time.
“It turns out, reality and imagination are completely intermixed in our brain,” Nadine Dijkstra writes in Nautilus… We grew up believing that “imagining” and “seeing” describe different mental faculties. But as we learn more about what’s going on in the mind, these concepts get really blurry really fast.
All talk of 'illusions' as something out of the ordinary is dated. It harkens back to a time when we thought the brain reports reality to a human who then knows what is or isn’t. We now know better. The brain is not capable of or designed for, so to speak, reporting reality. Instead, it finds it far more efficient to constantly predict what you’re likely about to experience. And when it cannot make sense of something – when its own predictions miss the mark — it just makes stuff up! Not only do scientists know this empirically, anyone can experience this fact on demand. For the simplest examples, look up the Hollow Face or Troxler Effect illusions and what they tell us about the human brain. The brain lies.
In fact, long before the latest neuroscience, we knew of other phenomena along a spectrum of perception errors — mirages, where the brain is actually accurately reporting light as is reaching the eyes, and synesthesia, where some brains add on a made-up experience on top of what other humans normally perceive in certain stimuli! Add the research on lucid dreams and hallucinogens — both trigger the same circuitry that exists in the brain to conjure ‘real’ experiences — and there really is little left that needs leaps of 'faith' reaching for magical explanation. And now we know physiologically, hallucination is much the same process as ‘normal’ perception.
That goes to an elemental point on Ages of Reason. The deeper you get into current books by neuroscientists like the two cited in previous paragraph, the more you realize capital-R Reason has little bearing on what the brain confidently reports you are witnessing.
What does the brain base its predictions on? Not on knowledge. The Hollow Face illusion works equally well, reliably and persistently on lens grinders, optometrists, ophthalmic surgeons, neuroscientists, people with no education and wise people who only speak one language in which no science books have even been translated. The brain’s predictions are based not on abstract knowledge but on experience. To be clear, not ‘experience’ of common parlance, but the brain’s own record of how it interpreted ‘your’ experiences. The brain makes meaning of the present on the fly out of parts of your past life, the parts where its meaning-making seemingly worked. The illusion works on people from all backgrounds simply because all people were exposed to human faces as babies. Now imagine a child who heard a particularly spooky story that gave them terrible realistic nightmares for months, who then goes on to become a reputed scientist. This is a brain primed to interpret certain stimuli in a unique way matched by none others.
Since we invoked ‘normal’ perception, let’s take a related tangent to steelman Douthat’s case. I was surprised that with his healthy skepticism of some aspects of modern medicine (which he has amply justified), Douthat did not point to the many problems with slipshod medicalization of all ‘abnormal’ mental phenomena or experiences. Psychology and psychiatry sure have a lot to straighten out. None of which falsifies the above basics we know in neuroscience.
With the brain and sensory apparatus as we have evolved, humans are simply not competent to create and discern a category termed ‘paranormal’. That ability would require that we access the non-paranormal directly. In an entirely plausible life-threatening situation in a film where it is crucial for survival to know the direction or source of light, we cannot rely exclusively on our eyes and brains. The villain might use facsimiles of faces or other shapes to throw us off. But a machine could tell us. Unlike brains, cameras, microphones and other transducers only produce a signal in response to actual physical activity. A properly equipped android can even tell us if a white sheet floating in mid-air is covering something that’s actually there.
A part of the profound beauty of ‘conscious’ life inheres in this paradox: we cannot tell ourselves because we are alive! It should not be easy “to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen”. For that is a world with very different forms or definitions of life.
Now the physics:
Fine-tuning is very much not the reason science cannot rule out conscious design yet. Two words: the Anthropic principle. The basics were better explained than I could in the article Douthat linked to, before that author, Paul Davies, advises caution with it. Davies’ reasoning? It is “just as unsatisfying” to allow for an infinite number of creators (in a multiverse) as to invoke the one true Creator, neither of which by their very definitions can be empirically tested.
To me, there is a chasm of difference between the two alternatives: their relation to a century’s worth of hard work in math. One amounts to saying, the equations that allowed us to develop computers imply some untestable things about our universe, hence a different untestable thing – God and magic – must be the simpler truth, even though there is nothing to directly imply them in their turn. Personally, I am persuaded by Sean Carroll’s assertion that the Many Worlds interpretation is the simplest explanation for the equations that are our current best (empirically vindicated) description of reality at the quantum scale. The multiverse is a wholly different thing and emerges from a different math, but some think they can be reconciled. At any rate, the multiverse requires less of a leap away from intuition than Many Worlds (not that that is alone in itself valid criteria).
There’s a famous inspirational quote: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” Fittingly the internet cannot decide whether it was from a pastor, a religious scholar or a physicist! A Guide to Finding Faith reads like rushing to the shore before exploring the entirety of the island and pointing to the fact that we cannot not see beyond the horizon as the chief justification for believing in yet another unseen thing up in the sky.
If we turn back and carefully explore the island itself, we find both religion and science all over it. The more you juxtapose them, examine every corner of the island in the light of all others, the more you marvel at the island itself and find it worthy of expansion. A Guide to Finding Respect for Religion is part 2.