Sunday, June 8, 2008

Religion, Science: Let's Get Ready to Rumble...

Here are some excerpts from John Gray's review of Berlinski's (David, not Claire or Mischa) The Devil's Delusion. Unfortunately, this same old chestnut arises:
The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off. Theories of how humanity or the universe came about are strictly beside the point.
To which, I posted the following comment:
I suppose that assertion sounds very soothing, both to the science weenies and the faithful, but it's nonsense. When you've got two different cognitive strategies acquiring chunks of the same resource--i.e., the human mind, with its inability to store more than a fairly small number of concepts and behavior--then you've got a pure "competition" in the most basic biological and/or economic sense.

In the eleventh century, I would probably pray to God to heal me if I got sick. I would be in awe of God as I looked uncomprehending into the sky. I would appeal for God's help as invaders marched through my land. And I would take comfort in God's oversight of my soul, that it might be delivered to a better place upon my death. These were all perfectly rational intuitions for humans when they had no knowledge of medicine, biology, astronomy, physics, economics, or political science. (Yeah, yeah, I know--fuzzy studies. They may be fuzzy, but they're still studies.)

Today, I'm much more likely to seek out diagnostic tests for pathogens, and proven treatments for identified conditions, when I get sick. I'm still awestruck by what I see in the sky, but that awe is informed more by how such simple physical rules can produce such magnificent complexity. I'm likely to read the news and apply my (pathetically inadequate) knowledge of economics and political science to determine how safe I should feel today. And I may still hope for an afterlife, but that hope is tempered by my knowledge of cognitive behavior as an emergent property of complex neural systems.

Note that there's still room for God in all of the above, but there's less room now than there was a thousand years ago, and there's likely to be even less room in the future. Maybe the day will come when there's a genuine equilibrium between religious thought and scientific thought, but that day has not yet come. Meanwhile, it's pretty clear what system of thought is consuming that precious idea space at the expense of what other system of thought.

(Gee! I managed to get through that whole comment and not use the word "meme" even once--oops! Damn.)

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