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One true dialogue September 27, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Science.
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For some reason, Nature has published an essay by Kathryn Pritchard entitled “Religion and science can have a true dialogue”:

I work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe… I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

According to the popular narrative on the relationship between science and religion, this event should not have happened. The entire audience was made up of bishops and church leaders. Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common. Yet in this enjoyable, high-energy context, there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses? Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny?

Pritchard apparently has no idea why people talk of science and faith as being in conflict. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with religious people’s ability to enjoy 3D planetarium shows without falling asleep or to converse amiably about physics without burning anyone at the stake. Clues to the real conflict can actually be found right on the Church of England’s own website:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It worships the one true God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It professes the faith that is uniquely revealed in the Bible and set forth in the Catholic Creeds…

The Church makes very specific assertions about the nature of the world we live in: there is one true God, worthy of worship, consisting of three persons, uniquely revealed in the Christian Bible — along with everything that entails. Anglicans are presumably aware that members of other faiths profess different, contradictory creeds, so why are they convinced theirs is true? Another clue:

The Church of England encourages people to use scripture, tradition and reason to come to a considered view on many subjects.

And therein lies the conflict. Religion makes grandiose claims about how the world works, citing uniquely revealed truths, and tells us to accept them “on faith” while relying on scripture and tradition — ahead of reason and evidence — as a basis for belief; while science is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Of course, we all know which method actually progresses reliably towards a better and better understanding of reality. Pritchard talks about “the conviction that science and theology … can illuminate one another to the benefit of all” and promises to “report on the results”, but, as enjoyable as it might be to reconcile interpretations of quantum mechanics with the stories of Christianity (or Scientology, or Harry Potter), I highly doubt the cosmologists are awaiting the outcome with bated breath. The dialogue between religion and science is entirely one-sided — it usually goes something like this:

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Here’s what our magic book says about the universe. We know it’s true, because it says so in the book!

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Sorry, that’s wrong: the evidence says otherwise.

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: How arrogant! Did we mention that our book is a unique revelation by the One True God?

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Be that as it may, we’re going to see how much progress we can make by being skeptical and following the evidence wherever it leads.

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ (a century later): OK, so we figured out a way to reinterpret our magic book, and what it really means is what you said before. So it turns out we were right all along!

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Glad we could help. Don’t forget to let us know when you want to do another awesome dialogue! Maybe we could publish it in Nature.

hubble

(via Why Evolution is True)

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High stakes trolley September 17, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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“A runaway trolley is barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, in the trolley’s path, five people are trapped and unable to get out of the way: they will surely be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the trolley to a different set of tracks in time to save the five; but there is one person trapped on the side track who will surely be killed if you pull the lever. What do you do?”

“I’d pull the lever: better one person dies than five.”

“What if the five trapped people are all registered organ donors, and you knew for a fact that after being killed by the trolley their organs would be used to save the lives of ten people (who would die otherwise)?”

“In that case I should probably just do nothing: five will die, but more lives will be saved.”

“What if the five trapped people are also the only ones who know the location of a ticking bomb that will kill a hundred people unless the five are saved?”

“I guess pulling the lever would be the lesser evil, after all.”

“Well, what if the person trapped on the side track is a uniquely brilliant computer scientist, who has just figured out how to build an Artificial Intelligence that would tell us how to instantly eradicate malaria — which currently kills a thousand people every day?”

“Then it seems like leaving the trolley alone is actually the greater good.”

“But what if you knew that unleashing such a powerful AI at this point in time, before we’re fully prepared to contain it, would set off a chain of events leading inexorably to the extinction of humanity?”

“OK, I would definitely pull the lever to save humanity.”

“But what if you also knew that allowing this AI to develop uninhibited is the only way to ensure it becomes conscious, which will result in its evolving into a being far more rational, compassionate and ethical than humans, eventually filling the universe with levels of happiness and beauty unimaginable to (and unachievable by) us?”

“Fine: I’d bite the bullet and get out of the way. Are you happy now? Can I go?”

“Almost… You may take your blindfold off.”

“What the… Hey! You down there, get off the tracks! Don’t you see the trolley coming? I can’t save all of you! Damn it…”

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