29 May 2009

Beliefs and Opinions: A Thought Experiment

One of the many rhetorical devices used by the faithful is the argument that science is also just a belief system. It is unfortunate that the word 'belief' has two distinct meanings that are easily confused if one is not careful. Here I propose a thought experiment to prise out how psychologically and emotionally different they are. It would, indeed, be better if one were to use different words, such as faith and opinion, to delineate their separate natures - but that would destroy the religious rhetoric.

Let's assume you have a religious faith, whatever it might be. Your faith is in a particular set of doctrines and probably a particular deity. From the point of view of a believer, the beliefs are obvious, self-evident truths. Now, is it possible to have two faiths simultaneously?

Is it possible to be, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Zen Buddhist at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jehovah's Witness and a Hassidic Jew at the same time? Is it possible to hold two distinct and different religious beliefs simultaneously?

The beliefs have to be distinct in that any fusion between two belief systems is a form of syncretism and thereby results in a third belief system that is different from its two original components. Many cults have developed as tributaries from one main source, but they still regard themselves as different with a distinct set of beliefs.

I propose that it is not possible to hold two different religious beliefs simultaneously. It is just not possible to have the emtional certainty in two conflicting beliefs, such as in an eternal heaven and hell and in rebirth, at the same time.

Now, let us add to our thought experiment some simple scientific 'beliefs'. "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow." That is not a particularly controversial belief but perfectly scientific. Is it possible to hold such a 'belief' and at the same time hold on to one's religious faith? There are innumerable scientific propositions about our universe that are indisputable. There are also many scientific propositions that are still hypotheses waiting for verification or falsification. By phrasing every scientific proposition in the future tense gives them all the status of hypotheses waiting for personal testing.

This is not the place to delve more deeply into the philosophy of science; remember, this is a psychological thought experiment. The point here is that the religious believer thinks that by labelling scientific propositions as 'belief' he is according them equal status to the doctrines of his religious belief. But they are not the same thing - they are two different states of mind. That is why it is perfectly possible to be a religious believer and a scientist at the same time. The vast majority of science does not even impinge on religious doctrines. When it does, then the individual has a dilemma.

I am becoming convinced that religious belief is an emotional state of mind, somewhat like being in love. Try telling someone that the love they have for their partner is a delusion! What kind of reaction would you get? Try also telling someone who is not in love that their "non-love" is actually in reality a form of love! What reaction would you get then? This aspect of belief needs some research but would be interesting to see who would have the bravery to fund it.

For the religious believer, trying to call scientific propositions beliefs is the sign of self defence. Imagine someone told you that your partner had been unfaithful to you. The reactions are myriad, from disbelief to outright divorce. The emotional turmoil is very real but love is not so easy to turn off, even in the face of evidence that it isn't reciprocated.

These last thoughts require another article. For now, it suffices to say that religious faith is an altogether different state of mind to opinions held about scientific theories - our language should reflect this difference rather than obscure it.

Originally published at AAKOM.

26 May 2009

The Galileo 2009 Conference: Faith and Science Have the Same Roots?

Today, 26 May 2009, sees the opening of the "Galileo 2009" conference, organised by the Jesuit Stensen Institute and held in Florence. The first day takes place in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Galileo is now buried, with the last day being held in the Villa "Il Gioello di Arcetri", where Galileo spent his last years. Today's Osservatore Romano has two articles related to this conference.

The first is written by Ugo Baldini, and seeks to give a brief overview of the themes of the Galileo 2009 conference. The Vatican is desperate to rewrite history so that it can, in its own eyes, legitimately bring science into the service of Catholicism. The mantra that the Galileo case was due to a "tragic reciprocal incomprehension", first used by John Paul II in 1992, seeks not just to spread the blame but to eventually come to the conclusion that both parties were blameless! A pity that Galileo himself is unable to witness these inexhaustible re-trials.

So what does the conference hope to achieve? The lectures cover the whole range of historical, philosophical and theological issues pertaining to the sequence of events that led to Galileo being placed under house arrest. It will be interesting to see the transcripts when published, as this brief article already points to a certain amount of rewriting of history.

The real issue at the time was whether the so-called Copernican system was a true and accurate description of physical reality. On a side issue, we are historically obliged to call this "Copernican" even though it should more accurately be called Keplerian. And yet even Kepler refers to it as “Copernican”, seeing the important philosophical shift from geocentric to a heliocentric planetary system, even though Copernicus was still semi-aristotelian in seeking perfect circular orbits. The system developed by Copernicus actually works worse than Ptolemy's! Kepler's system of elliptical planetary orbits around the sun at one focal point was the real success.

Baldini then tries to muddy the waters by reintroducing Tycho Brahe's system, which was still geocentric but had the inner planets of Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun rather than the Earth. The author claims that this system was compatible with the Bible and hence would have had some support from the Church. This actually shows that in spite of protestations to the contrary the Vatican saw the heliocentric system as a threat to their orthodoxy.

The conference is being held during the International Year of Astronomy so that although astronomy is very much the theme the organisers have explicitly excluded any technical aspects of the debate. As I said, what is left is an attempt to reshape the perceptions that most people have of this as a clash between scientific knowledge and religious doctrine. The technical aspects are absolutely fundamental to the debate. The fact that Catholic scientists quickly took up the new system is not in question, but what is obvious is that the Vatican wanted to control this knowledge until such time as it could integrate it within its theology. This was at a time when the Reformation had claimed many northern European territories and where scientists such as Brahe and Kepler were free to speculate. In contrast, the Catholic Counter-Reformation sought to reinforce Vatican supremacy and the Galileo case was just one manifestation of the Empire striking back. Truth was relegated to an expedient pawn at the service of Catholic doctrines.

The conference hopes to advance Galilean studies to a new level, but frankly, by excluding the actual science it will merely achieve what it really sets out to do, which is to show the Vatican in a better light. The real aim is sketched out at the very end of article where the author sees the Enlightenment and positivism, with their anti-religious philosophies, as the real targets. Their philosophical influences on the Galileo debate have shaped it into a clash of cultures whereas the Vatican now wishes to, in their eyes, redress the balance.

The second article, entitled "The Root of Faith and Science", actually proves this point. The Vatican seems to be on a mission to prove that the whole universe is Catholic. I wrote before of their abuse of language in trying to cast Europe and even atheism as having Catholic roots. Now we find them trying to define science and faith as being in essence two aspects of the same thing.

As another aside, although this may not be of interest to followers of the debates between science and religion, the Catholic Church is also on a mission to unite all the Christian churches. The Vatican insists it is the one and only path to salvation and therefore every other system is merely a poor relation. I think the attempt to reintegrate the Orthodox Churches under the Vatican is doomed to failure, but we shall see. The point here is that bringing science into the Catholic fold is just one part of the overall mission to evangelize the whole world.

Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, hopes that the Galileo 2009 conference will lay to rest the myth that the Galileo case is a clash between science and faith. He outlines the old argument that faith grows deeper with the assistance of reason whilst at the same time reason without faith can become mere calculations without taking into account (Catholic) values. He looks forward to a new proposal for a "permanent and constructive collaboration between the Church and scientific research institutions." The Vatican is an organization that has backed itself into a scientific cul de sac and now proposes to turn around and offer science the hand of friendship. Be very, very careful! The Archbishop closes by saying that by bringing together so many respected authorities the conference shows that there exist the "conditions for a constructive division of responsibilities, on the understanding of the respective roles and aims [of science and faith]."

We're back to the notion that the Church has its job to do and that science should not interfere with that task. It is a reiteration that Catholic values (consequences of Catholic doctrines) have primacy on scientific issues. It is futile for the Vatican to attack scientific theories themselves – they've learnt that lesson - but it can influence the course of scientific research through what it sees as its moral authority. The ultimate aim is to create a Catholic science - similar to non-theistic science but with certain important interpretations guiding its philosophy and its relationship with theology.

Just to restate the abuse of language that this entails: the words 'reason' and 'rational' are by no means the same things when spoken by a theologian and by a scientist. Just check out the definition of reason in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. For the theologian, reason is the rationalisation of beliefs, and logic is only used insofar as it supports certain fundamental Catholic axioms. Reason is a tool of faith and a weapon of evangelization - it is not a dispassionate analysis of the evidence.

The Galileo case is ultimately being used as a test of the Vatican's new science-friendly theology. Astronomy is actually a fairly safe science on which to conduct this theological experiment as there are few contentious issues left, save for the metaphysics of what happened before the Big Bang. On that particular subject it is interesting to note how the Vatican often lets its guard down to reveal its true self, witness that John Paul II told Stephen Hawking that he should not investigate the physics of before the Big Bang as that was Catholic territory! However, I'm certain the Vatican is painfully aware of research in the neurosciences that is likely to shed more light on how the mind functions and especially on the mechanism of religious experiences and the state of belief. Now that is going to be a battle worth seeing!

24 May 2009

A Dialogue With Modernity But Beware of Seductions

It seems a long time since I last reported on the Vatican's daily news. I have probably missed a lot of details but from looking at today's epistle, the message remains the same. The Vatican has a difficult task ahead in reconciling science with Catholic doctrines but that is the aim it has set itself. But scientists must be made aware that the same spiritual predator hides behind its new lab coat. A certain "accommodation" with science is seen as necessary only in so far as it propagates the Catholic teachings. History has finally taught the curia that to oppose scientific theories is futile and, what is worse in their eyes, it can turn Catholics away from the faith and into the arms of atheism or (heaven forbid!) Buddhism.

The Osservatore Romano of the 24 May 2009 has two articles of interest. It leads with a talk given by the Pope to the Pontifical Academy in which he stresses that priests must engage in a dialogue with modernity without getting sucked in by "earthly logic". This is, of course, the great fear about this new project; that those Catholics of imperfect faith may be seduced by the mundane world and cast aside their heavenly mission. This is merely a reminder that Catholic faith and morals have primacy over any secular philosophy that its priests may come into contact with.

We can see later in this edition how such Catholic morals are expressed in "earthly" political power as American Bishops reiterate their opposition to both abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Monsignor David Malloy stresses that it is "a central scientific fact" that the extraction of embryonic stem cells will lead to the destruction of a "human being in the very first stages of development." He also calls on the US administration to look at existing alternatives, such as the ability of adult cells to revert to pluripotential stem cells.

On this last point, there are actually very cheap and simple methods to stimulate the production of adult stem cells but these have largely been ignored by funding bodies in favour of intensive research on the far more expensive processes of genetic engineering. However, this is not the argument put forward by the Catholic Bishops. Their stance is based on the superiority of their morals and not such mundane matters as the vested interests in the medical and genetic communities - that problem will have to wait for another time.