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Faith and Facts - Part II
There are indeed limits to science that leave a gap for faith to step in. Just not the sort you'd think.
This is part 2 of a response to Ross Douthat’s now year-old column on rekindling religious faith among readers. There has been a gap since part 1 went up, and by design. It allowed me to introduce, in commentary on newer NYT columns, research on dimensions of inequality such as economic, linguistic, environmental and on our efforts to play God and fabricate human gifts.
This newsletter doesn’t usually dive into philosophy. Fair warning then, this time it will get a bit deep. I hope you’ll bear with me as you wade through it to find out if I have anything new to say on the old questions. I’ll certainly try to tie in recent insights from research and collectively interpret them in a coherent frame.
At first blush, inequality doesn’t sound like it has much to do with the tension between religion or science, does it?
I set out to write a response to that column because to me a more worthwhile leaflet than a guide to finding faith seems one that enjoins respect for the faithful. Not just genuine deliberated empathy for how and why they keep faith, but the wider legacy of faith to which we are all heirs.
In part 1, I argued that if the route to finding faith is via a tour of the very edge of science, it cannot take selective pit stops to note a few things that science has not answered yet. (What good is a God of the shrinking gap anyway?) The tour has to be very comprehensive. Given the nature and mission of science, such a tour is simply impractical. Here in Part 2, I’ll try to draw a bridge instead from a corner of well-established science to a robust respect for faith. Remember from part 1, explore the island of knowledge well and you’ll find something that stands you in good stead when you venture beyond the shoreline.
Once we realize science cannot take us all the way to where we’d like to go, before we let go off its hand, we’d do well to remember the path science brought us down so far on the journey.
Science indeed has limits. Douthat picked the wrong kind of limits. Respect can stand on reason alone, with a different selection of limits to science sufficing as buttress. Whereas its limitations in its core job are ever shrinking — humans will only keep uncovering more knowledge — there are limits to its reach that will remain.
Earlier, I picked parts of the column that did not acknowledge all current science. But one part that particularly bothered me best tees up the flight to metaphysics I wish to take this time. On human consciousness, Douthat argued:
Your fourth- or 14th-century self was obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it…
Now consider the possibility that in our own allegedly disenchanted era, after Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein — all of this is still true.
It may have felt true after the last of those guys, but in 2022, after Lynn Margulis, Jane Goodall, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and a whole bunch of others, it shouldn’t.
Consciousness is a very flimsy word and for that reason many neuroscientists avoid engaging with it. But if whatever definition you’re working with deems three-month-old human babies conscious, you really have to work hard to make the case that a majority of animals are not. If you follow no other periodical, animal cognition research reported in the Times science section alone would gnaw at your inclination to believe that humans are special in that regard.
Since about 2010, accumulating evidence has bolstered my faith that human consciousness is no more different to the grade of sentience that animals experience than human language is to animal communication. And unless you follow that latter space closely, your priors on how big that latter gap is might be outdated. Years ago in the Times, you could read about the grammar of prairie dogs and bats, and that’s just a small selection. In fact, our priors might still be off. As the gap steadily narrows, science paints a clear trajectory for the trend. We share so many individual genes, epigenetic switches and neurotransmitter pathways with animals, by the time we get around to matching the resources we spend on human brain-computer interfaces on chips that translate animal cerebration, who knows where our consensus view will land!
Yes that last paragraph does use the word ‘faith’.
Science is not devoid of faith
Sample a few words from a Vatican encyclical titled Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason):
What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith… There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith.
No, that’s not your liberal Twitterati Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It’s from 1998. That would be Pope John Paul II. The whole thing is rather long, but well worth a read. Let me try and convey a part of what I understood with an example.
When you watch this duck, what do you think is going on?
That footage made me pause and reflect on the nature of faith and faith concerning nature.
Faith hinges on where someone insists the burden of proof lies. ‘Hinges’ in almost a mechanical sense. You know how in a simple lever, you can move the fulcrum away from the center one way or another, and that changes what relative weight on one side is required to balance that on the other. For a being that had access to all facts about nature, a being without cognitive biases, a being who had had every experience possible, that fulcrum would be dead center. Only exactly equal weights would balance each other. Humans are not such beings and, as outlined in part 1, our brains come with severe constraints and quirks. On any and every question, our faith — the position of the fulcrum — is revealed in what weight of proof we require at either end.
I see the duck above and I agree with those who say it is a leap to infer that is an altruist duck. I can see how the footage seems to suggest so to a human beholder, but the evidence is just not sufficient in itself. Equally though, with all I understand about evolution of species, I think the evidence is near sufficient to believe we might have there a duck who has a concept of self, ‘food’ and ‘eating’, not as objects and parts of an instinctive action to satiate hunger, but as an abstraction: food is something <I> <eat>, and this other not-duck creature <eats> too.
I like to believe that the duck is doing that mainly out of curiosity and for amusement. But there’s that word — believe. It reveals my faith. I think just as the burden of proof lies with those who insist this is an altruistic act to produce more dispositive evidence, so it lies with those who say the duck does not conceive of food in an abstraction. We know we share ancestors, we know our brains developed along the same lineage (unlike octopuses). We have seen babies do this sort of thing long before they speak, so we know complex language isn’t necessary for abstract concepts. I think we need good arguments to explain what the duck is doing and why if it isn’t consciously going something like “Would those guys under there eat what I eat?... They do! Let’s see that again!”. That I demand a greater burden of proof at that end betrays my faith.
Even I, a perfervid science partisan, exhibit some characteristics of faith at least in my inclinations regarding what science will soon confirm that it hasn’t. That tells us something deep about humans.
The tower of Babel
Though most scientists don’t think consciousness is it, there is something significantly different about humans and it is a difference pertinent to comparing the respective relationships humans have with science and religion.
The difference is that we cooperate at much greater scales to improve our collective lives (under our own, less than unanimous definition of improvement). That in turn requires us to hold a certain canon of knowledge in consensus and pass it on to every next generation, ideally, but not always, updated. The two parts of that correspond to distinct functions of science and religion:
a) What do we know about the workings of nature and how may we apply it for progress?
b) How do we organize the collective, convince people to join society and prepare the soil for education and other functions necessary for inter-community cooperation?
In a slightly different description and more esoteric terms, this dichotomy has been discussed long. But science and religion did not each pick a lane and stay in it. Religions typically deal with both the transcendent and the quotidian, covering both (a) and (b). The former involves belief systems about creation, the nature of reality and man's relationship with an Omnipotent Creator Being who was responsible and remains in-charge. On the more down to earth and everyday matters, organized religions in particular offer simple and clear moral guidance as to how individuals might live their everyday lives — love thy neighbor, offer zakat to the poor, question your desires. Timeless religious stories help arbitrate values in the quandaries that arise in constant close interaction with others. Scientists and philosophers have suggested that since science doesn’t concern itself with ‘b’ above and someone in authority ought to, religion could cede ‘a’ and wholeheartedly embrace the latter mission and do a better job with the newly redirected resources.
I wish to toss in a bit of current neuroscience in support.
Animal brains more generally are not designed ground up for thinking. The brain’s primary preoccupation remains what it has always been throughout evolution — to monitor our internal physiological state. Any further add-on features are adapted to each organism’s niche.
We named our species Homo sapiens, reflecting pride that it was our larger brains that made us the only member of our genus that survived so long. That name suggests when we chose it, we thought we outcompeted Neanderthals and Denisovans because we knew more or better than them. We named ourselvesas paragons of function ‘a’. But newer science tells us it wasn’t so much how much we knew, but the fact that we shared it and passed it on. Our brain wasn’t simply larger to be better at surmising, rather the evolutionary additions were to our speech and language abilities. We got more brain not for holding more information or solitary contemplation, but for conversation and persuasion. Of the two parts of current human niche, the defining distinction actually comes from ‘b’. A better name for us might’ve been Homo docens or Homo cooperans.
Our niche required not essentially critical thinking or problem-solving, but communicating effectively to cooperate with peers and keep the immediate social group viable in the long run. The newest evolutionary updates in the human brain are designed to optimize belonging and cohesion with the group we grow up in the midst of and everyone who matches them. Hence the ancient aphorism, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, common in East Africa. They would know.
But there is a ‘relative’ difference of distance between your immediate kin and your wider community. The radius of bonds that develop naturally and early in life is limited. As you grow up, you come to expect that your family will always be there for you. You parents likewise rely on an extended family. Children lucky to be raised by a village feel affiliated to the village. But not the whole county or district. To organize cohesion at any larger scale of community, humans need myths to share. Two aspects of the brain as we understand it now appear to correspond to these levels of belonging. Hardwired neurochemistry forges the closest bonds more directly with the likes of oxytocin. At larger scales of the social network, stories seem to assume the role of hormones.
Rather like we saw in part 1 with visual data and illusions, the brain assesses and interprets social information in terms of narratives that fit better with the shared story you learnt.
We have come a long way, hidebound for centuries from Western Philosophy’s early insistence that reason was the most essentially human characteristic. Now, after several TED Talks on the subject have been out for years, it is a truism to say that humans are not rational beings. If we were, we could organize society around logic and facts and rely on science alone. No need for stories. But we are not. We make our lives and all meaning in them collectively. Money, property and visas are all of a piece with the mythical substrate that we use for organizing.
Newer aspects of this scheme keep emerging. Our social network influences what we notice around us or care about. We have long known that specific languages affect how we think, but we mostly understood that to work at the level of abstraction and metaphors. Now we have evidence that language determines what we pay attention to and by what means in a very literal, practical sense. And language of course we share with what we consider our community, almost by mutual definition of both.
What does that mean for religion and science? A small minority of individual humans may have minds that are driven mainly by scientific hunger or strict logic, but to the extent that it places shared totems at its core, religion is more attuned to (neurotypical) humans as a species.
Religions of the world have long grasped this crux of the social brain theory and the role of stories. The pope observed a sense of it in that 1998 encyclical:
In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people…Knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.
The distinction of the human brain among brains tells you a lot about why we needed religion and might still, after all the science, have use for some form of it.
Myths that bestow a broader identity and belonging grew into religion. Just like science, early religion wasn’t invented. It emerged from who we are. God was the invention, or rather the characteristics of an archetypical lead character in most of these myths. To insist on an understanding of religious belief as centered on a God of conventional definitions amid all today's knowledge grossly misprizes the original intent of all religion. That old joke about the man in a flood gets it though.
In the 2020 film The Duke, Jim Broadbent’s Kempton Bunton faces trial after admitting to stealing a famous Goya as a protest against the BBC. (Back in 1961 Bunton really did!) At his trial, his lawyer, played by Mathew Goode, tries to get the jury know what he has learned about the man: “When did it start for you, looking out for people?” Bunton says when he was stranded out at sea as a child, he had faith “Not in God, but in people…”. His lawyer paraphrases, turning those eloquent Goode eyes to meet the jury’s: “Humanity is a collective project.”
In telling a story about God, the earliest sages were hoping to infuse godliness. When they said God is omniscient and omnipotent, they meant that when religion achieves what they preach, godly people would be everywhere. In your time of need, such people around you will aid you with their knowledge or resources. God is a placeholder for the collective. The collective truly is, nearly omniscient and omnipotent. Even more crucially, godly people can safely trust each other and focus on cooperating to build great things that improve everyone’s lot. And you know what, in every culture for some period, religion did achieve that. The more religion were successful at that job, the more its extraordinary claims would seem to actually work. Your prayers would appear to receive answers!
If we weren't so fixated on looking skyward, hailing and praying to an extraterrestrial non-human being, religion could again do that job today.
Non-believers and atheists of all descriptions everywhere, no matter how pugnacious or tolerant in their attitudes to religion, directly benefit from having grown up in a society that was stabilized in a great part by religion. If there are things you value in your society — institutions, culture — look back into their history and you will see social cohesion forged by religions somewhere upstream. Even in the present day you might be interacting with people whom you trust, people who always act in ‘good faith’ either directly or indirectly influenced by religion. An indirect instance would be where someone is raised in a secular household by parents whose own childhood morality was itself molded by a God-fearing ethos. Religion may be on the decline in many parts of the world but we are not yet that far removed from its moral influence in terms of generations. An afterglow of godliness from religion’s heyday still deeply permeates the social fabric, like cosmic microwave backgroundin our universe.
All human progress required cooperation at very large scales. The arc of human progress would be very different if religions had not brought people together in vast trusted communes for sustained periods.
If religion was once necessary (but not sufficient) that tells us about the sort of religion the modern world might still need. What form it might take and what role it might assume.
The other limits to science
Douthat chose to ground his guide to faith in a selective list of questions science has not answered. That is a Sisyphean errand; the list is constantly renewed. But science has more than one kind of limitation and the others serve respect for faith better.
Science’s limits are now also clear in both its application and reach.
As part 1 acknowledged, through all progress that science brought, inequality persisted. For a few thousand years now, we seem resolved to work in an economic system that relies on inequality as fuel.
As I say above, science is innately human in two related ways. Curiosity and exploration is one side of it. The other is that our species is defined by its drive to shape our environment to suit us. We don’t just chase knowledge for its own sake. We apply it in engineering and technology to try and improve human life.
But for all our ingenuity and scientific progress, science did not deliver us a utopia. Not to all of humanity anyway. A majority of us have to struggle to find work that pays enough just to eke out a life, a life of which work consumes all the prime years anyway. And in attaining even the skewed progress, we have also despoiled the natural environment such that the near term consequences only hurt those same groups without means and power.
Pollyannaish technocrats will tell you that technology will deliver solutions to all the problems it caused. It doesn’t bother them that over a billion people have waited in imposed squalor for decades while the solutions seems to always remain exactly five years away.
The same inequality that is a testament to the limits to science in application also limits its reach.
If it were interested in dethroning religion from human affairs altogether, science ought to have at least reached every child alive. That looks unlikely.
And even if in an equal world, science reached everybody, would everyone understand all of science? The very nature of science today precludes it. Even scientists don’t understand each other’s disciplines. And the reason they do not need to? That same essential human distinguishing trait of cooperation at a global scale.
Even if everyone were familiar with all science, could it take on that second job (b)? Despite the best efforts of atheist thinkers, it is hardly clear how it could at scale. It isn’t sufficient to demonstrate to a minority of educated elites that morals can arise out of reason alone (something I largely agree with and something that is different from deriving morals from ‘science’). The project would need a feasible plan and roadmap for how these morals would reach eight billion people.
If you have ever tried to persuade just one individual at a time as to the values of even a simple everyday virtue such as punctuality with reasons alone, you’d recognize the enormity of the task. I have failed every time, even with close friends who have known me long and trust I mean well.
For the same evolutionary reasons we went over, persuasion scales best with shared stories and faith, not with facts and reason. The immense investment in soft and hard infrastructure that religion has made over centuries begs to be redirected.
Science is a glorious project but shaping better institutions is beyond its remit and capacity. The alternative is to co-opt religious leaders to persuade followers to refocus religious fervor. That is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem.
A recent example from closer home shows what this could look like in practice. A 10-day festival to honor Ganesha just concluded where I live. Just like the American outlets that print advice every October for stuffing turkeys alongside advice to skirt political arguments with uncles, Indian outlets produce topical content on festivals. A list of Dos and Don’ts in the Hindustan Times’ this year reflected that very Asian ease of holding science and religion together without a hint of dissonance or tension. It instructed that the idol needs to be installed only between “11:05 am and 01:38 pm”, you must recite mantras for “Prana Pratishtha” and light a lamp of ghee. In the same stern tone of religious diktat, it added that for environmental reasons, one must choose idols made of biodegradable materials and they “should be” immersedat home in a bucket of water rather than a river. That this modern bunch of Dos was not set apart as mere recommendations certainly elicits my respect for the whole package.
Even in parts of the world where science and religion are more traditionally at odds, gradual change is afoot. The National Association of Evangelicals in the US last month released a report that directly addressed the science of climate change and called the attention of congregants to looming impacts including in South Asia. The report pronounced climate action a Biblical duty. I salute them. Even without the respect of non-believers, I believe a reinvigorated and redirected religion is the surest way to a more balanced, caring and equal world.
Even if they aren’t Catholic, Pope John Paul II would agree.
25-Sep-2022: On what we see when we see a duck feeding fish, a forthcoming paper is nearly exactly about that: Leach, S., Sutton, R. M., Dhont, K., Douglas, K. M., & Bergström, Z. M. (2023). Changing minds about minds: Evidence that people are too sceptical about animal sentience. Cognition, 230, 105263.
Thumbnail image credit: ‘Nalagiri, a ferocious elephant, sits listening to Buddha’, CC-BY from the Wellcome Collection.
Regular readers will know by now that I regularly return to this theme of our species name. You have no idea how disconcerting it can be to have a name that doesn’t really fit.
There are several other valid scientific mechanisms for how religious or religion-adjacent habits redeem themselves. For some of the same neuroscience reasons cited in parts 1 and 2, rituals lower anxiety thus increasing chance of success in your endeavors!
The time window is probably one appointed auspicious by some astrological calculations. The ‘immersion’ is a ritual in which the idol, traditionally made of clay from a river bank, was returned to the river, probably symbolic.