Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientific Study of the Supernatural

This morning I found an excellent paper by Dr. Yonatan Fishman, an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York, titled “Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?”. Fishman argues that no field of knowledge is inaccessible to scientific study. He points out that this contradicts the idea of "non-overlapping magesteria" that is often used to exempt supernatural concepts from rational analysis, as well as to exclude Intelligent Design and other religious ideas from science curricula.

This is something I’ve thought about many times and wanted to write about, but Fishman’s paper covers the subject with much more rigor and detail than I’d have been able to supply. Here are some quotes (with page numbers):

9 The findings of modern neuroscience strongly support the dependence of perception, cognition, emotion, memory, decision making, and personality on the function of the physical brain.

11 In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science.

12 The history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.

17 Demarcating ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘natural’ from ‘supernatural’ is not only problematic but unnecessary. The crucial question is not, Is it science? or Is it supernatural?, but rather, Is there any good reason to believe that claim X is true?

17 If the fundamental aim of science is the pursuit of truth - to uncover, to the extent that humans are capable, the nature of reality - then science should go wherever the evidence leads. If the evidence were to strongly suggest the existence of supernatural phenomena, then so be it.

17 Naturalism is not a premise or presupposition of science - it is a conclusion of science, albeit a tentative one, based upon the available evidence to date.

18 The best explanation for why there has been so far no convincing, independently verifiable evidence for supernatural phenomena, despite honest and methodologically sound attempts to verify them, is that these phenomena probably do not exist. Indeed, as discussed earlier, absence of evidence, where such evidence is expected to be found after extensive searching, is evidence of absence.

18 Contrary to the positions expressed [in the 2005 Dover Pennsylvania school district trial] by Judge Jones, the AAAS, and the NAS, the reason why supernatural or religious claims, such as those of ID/Creationism, do not belong in science classes is not because they have supernatural or religious content, but rather because there is either no convincing evidence to support them or science has debunked them.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Having Opinions

Another day, another blog. Today's find is Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking. In his January 8, 2008 posting on Neil Postman's recommendations for how to watch TV news, he mentions something I've often thought about and never heard anyone say before:

“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have.” What they mean here is that it is better to have fewer, but better informed, opinions, and that it is simply ridiculous to expect to have an informed opinion on every major political or social issue.
I'm often disgusted by on-line opinion polls that ask questions of fact, like "What caused Benazir Bhutto's death?" My mental response is "Who cares what I think? Who cares what anyone thinks? What matters is the truth!"

For many years, I've been reluctant to support political candidates or express my thoughts on public issues because I felt that I knew far too little about the person or issue to be able to make an informed judgment. In my mind, some of the most important issues are also among the most complex. Immigration policy and health care financing come to mind. Many very intelligent and knowledgeable people have struggled with these things, without producing clear solutions. How can I presume to have the answers?

I'm understandably skeptical of people who express strong opinions on issues that are far outside their field of expertise. I think Bertrand Russell said it well:

The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Thinking about Heaven

Scott Carson makes some thoughtful comments in his blog about a recent Time Magazine interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright on the subject of concepts of heaven.

I was interested in Bishop Wright's comments because they were much like what I believed about heaven when I was a Christian. (I once shocked a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses by agreeing with them that Jesus will rule on the earth.)

As I read Wright's interview, it occurred to me that ruling the new earth sounds like a recipe for an eternal Excedrin headache. It makes Scott's facetious remark about eternally milking the cows sound idyllic.

Scott's suggestion is "Don't worry about what it's like; it just is."

I think the point he's making is to not try to project too much of what this life is like into the next one. If we weren't at all concerned about what heaven is like, we couldn't say anything about it at all. After all, it would certainly be a bummer if heaven turned out to be like the popular image of hell.

So what can we say about heaven? To me, that's the tough question. I can't come up with a plausible description. What that says to me is that I can't conceive of an afterlife.