You can now “attend” a “Free-for-All on Science and Religion”

November 25, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

Science Network, an educational organization based in California, recently sponsored a La Jolla, California conference entitled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.”  According to this article, the conference rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all.” 

You can watch videos of the sessions here. The speakers were numerous well-credentialed scientists and philosophers, including each of the following:

Steven Weinberg
LawrenceKrauss
Sam Harris
Michael Shermer
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Joan Roughgarden
Richard Dawkins
Francisco Ayala
Carolyn Porco
Stuart Hameroff
V.S. Ramachandran
Paul Davies
Steven Nadler
Patricia Churchland
Susan Neiman
Loyal Rue
Elizabeth Loftus
Mahzarin Banaji
Scott Atran
Sir Harold Kroto
Charles Harper
Ann Druyan
Jim Woodward
Paul Churchland
Richard Sloan
Terry Sejnowski

What was the bottom line of the conference?  Watch the sessions and see! I haven’t yet watched most of the conference yet, though I do plan to watch them all.  If you click in, you’ll immediately notice the consistently high quality discussion throughout the conference. 

In her talk, Patricia Churchland argued that “What we care about sets the framework for what we value.  Evolution see to it that we care about food, water, oxygen, sex, surviving.  Social animals also care about offspring, mates, parents and kin.”  Consequently, the traditional philosophical claim that you cannot derive an ought from an is, is “wrong.” We don’t need an overriding value system in order to know how to behave well.  Morality is in us, configured by robust biological triggers.  Her bottom line: you “don’t have to scare the crap out of people” to get them to get along with each other.

Neil Tyson’s talk was terrific, in that it was both entertaining and provocative (see the video from the second day of the conference). Wonderful comments by the panel and the audience. Notice his photos of horribly mal-formed babies (many stillborn, one with a heart outside of its body), used to illustrate the falsity of Intelligent Design. He makes the point that “The universe is not here for us.”  Further, “God is not responsible for what we don’t understand.”

The conversation then leads to this: what can science do about leading the charge against superstitution? What kind of PR campaign can be effective? Stephen Weinberg was cautious about the limits of science in providing the basis for morality. He asked, “If not religion, what?” His own answer: The answer won’t be science.

Tyson’s session included especially insightful comments by Patricia Churchland, Scott Atran, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris and others.

Here’s another quote from the NYT article, regarding the manner in which Tyson’s session wrapped up:

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt. “She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she’s getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once,” he lamented. “When she’s gone, we may miss her.”

Dr. Dawkins wasn’t buying it. “I won’t miss her at all,” he said. “Not a scrap. Not a smidgen.”

For more articles on the conference, as well as a separate link to the videos, check the Edge’s site.

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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Dan says:

    Most excellent. Thank you for the link.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I am still working my way through the many sessions of this conference. I have just finished reviewing session 9, involving talks by Sam Harris, Melvin Konner and others.  Konnor attacked the approach of Richard Dawkins and to Sam Harris. His key point was that Harris and Dawkins allegedly failed to consider the harm that might be done by abolishing religion. Konnor compared religion to the ingestion of ethanol. Drinking alcohol causes some good and much mischief. Doing away with our call, however, throws out the baby with the bathwater.

    Konnor argued that all arguments presented by Dawkins and Harris (in their books) are "old arguments." None of these arguments were likely to change the viewpoints of any believer. Believers do not care about arguments or evidence, according to Konner. They care only about faith. He warned that it is "not the job of a physician to take away the patient's hope." He cautioned that religiosity is substantially durable (citing work of T.J. Bouchard).

    Konner offered these four conclusions:

    1. Follow Bertrand Russell's advice and try to convince people not to believe in things for which there is no evidence.

    2. Science should continue to study religion and publish its results.

    3. Spread the good news about the beauty, power, value and values of science.

    4. Resist the delusion that religion can be eliminated. "It's not going away."

    In essence, Connor was arguing that the tone of argument used by Harris and Dawkins was counterproductive.

    Dawkins responded that, based upon his lectures and book signings, he was also convinced that his manner of presenting his information was not effective in converting any firm believers. On the other hand, the jury is still out with regard to the "many" fence sitters, allegedly religious people who don't really believe what they say they believe. Harris responded that he was against all forms of dogma, including religious dogma. He asserted that the fight against religious dogma is urgent and requires his choice of tone, a tone that many believers perceive to be strident.

    The session began with a presentation by Sam Harris, who attacked the claim that religion is useful because it makes people moral. Harris argued that it was absurd to argue that without religious faith we would not have any meaning in our lives and we would treat each other badly. He argued that there was no evidence for any of this. According to Harris, we can find good reasons for treating each other well. As a result, religions give bad reasons when good reasons are available. "We don't have to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin to help others."

    Harris attacked the cherry picking of the Bible so common among believers. The God presented by the Bible is often "needlessly horrible," and believers "edit" the Bible by cherry picking.

    Harris argued that the only rational basis for morality is empathy, concern for the suffering of others sent in beings. Religions too often separate questions of morality from suffering." For instance, religions focus on preventing gay marriage instead of dealing with a serious problems of suffering that abound in the world. They fight stem cell research for religious reasons, even though a three-day old embryo contains only 150 cells (none of them nerve cells). By contrast, there are 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. Therefore, "we should be more concerned about killing flies" than killing three-day old embryos. Believers often argue that each cell with a nucleus is a potential human being. Harris responded that (following this logic) "every time you scratch your nose, you commit a holocaust."

    In response to Connor's comments, Harris emphasized that he is not against using many of the things associated with religion (meditation, yoga and ethics) in a nonreligious context. He admits that engaging in ritual might be accomplishing important things for us.

  3. "Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control."

    "The sins {law – less – ness} of the fathers is visited upon the children unto the third and fouth generation". One would think that scientists would have better grasp of cause and effect than to attribute to "blind nature" what man has unlawfully introduced into the environment. Producing chemicals that effect the reproduction of frogs doesn't just maim and kill frogs. We have simple instructions that are being ignored which include penalties for non-compliance.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Gee, Larry. Are you REALLY suggesting that, before humans began spewing their toxic chemicals into the environment, there weren't any "newborns misshapen by birth defects"? That's quite a huge and unjustified leap you've made. Where is your evidence of THAT?

    Please, take a deep breath and then consider that if an "intelligent overseer" is in really charge, he was up to all KINDS of comparable mischief (e.g., malaria, cleft palates, Down's Syndrome, conjoined twins) long before humans started invented dioxin and benzene (to name two examples).

  5. Deb says:

    As much as I dislike agreeing with Larry on anything, because mostly he does not use much logic in his comments and feels the need to comment on everything in his attempt to proselytize, he does occasionally stumble upon on some truth. Birth defects are on the rise (check out stats for cleft palates, for example, something we cannot attribute to additional reporting), and it is true that the damage we do to our environment is cumulative over generations.

    I may start quoting Shakespeare as an authority on everything. Maybe by doing that, I can get you all to join the Shakespearian religion.

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    Perhaps the rise in birth defects is a "sign" that we've "replenished" enough and it's time to cut back. Maybe the "intelligent designer" gave us a larger brain so we could figure out how to do that when the time came. Like invent birth control?

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Artificial mutagens and carcinogens in the environment are bad news. But birth defects are on the rise in part because we can and do keep a greater proportion of the population born with genetic defects alive to procreate each generation. Genetic flaws that were fatal to newborns a century ago are now "cured" by routine neonatal interventions. But the bad genes are then passed on.

    As a rich civilization, we can afford this. A generation after it collapses, human evolution (survival of the fittest) will resume and birth defects will dramatically fall.

    Civilization has the effect of reversing evolutionary pressures: The weak are promoted and conserved at the expense of the strong. For example, the strong are sent off to war, and the weak stay home and console the widows. Countless soldiers, knights, and pharaohs over the millenia have come home to find that their wives had "found" babies on the doorstep, in the woods, or among the reeds.

  8. No, I am not "suggesting that, before humans began spewing their toxic chemicals into the environment, there weren’t any “newborns misshapen by birth defects”. I am pointing to the most recent instances, an effect that you might be able to relate to. Then I had hoped to show that there was a cause for this, and examine the effect before it, and another cause and another effect etc.

    Sin is the ultimate cause of evil, its effects are seen everywhere. There are causes and effects outlined in Deut 28, the first fifteen verses explain the causes and effects of "hearken diligently" and the last 54 show the effects of "will not hearken". I hear verse sixty-seven come out of my coworkers mouths on a daily basis.

    It seems to me a logical person would consider these causes and effects, and make comparisons to what we see happening right in front of our eyes. We have been given an amount of "control" over this planet with simple instructions about how to run things, and I can assure you we are accountable for it. Trying to "pass the buck" back to the delegator or "blind nature" ain't going to cut it. But it seems our snotty insistence on self-determination has blinded us to any help, or our own culpablity.

    Within each of us are two centers of thinking. They are referred to as the spirit and the soul. The thinking center of the spirit is called the heart. The thinking center of the soul is called the mind.

    Logicians are familiar with the thought process of the soul's mind. It was created to provide self-awareness and calls itself "I am" {as in – I think, therefore}. It is introspective by nature and is susceptible to pride. When it does not understand the logic of the spirit, it can easily stage a coup and take over the management of a person's life in order to maintain what it sees as orderly truth.

    The soul's mind attemps to understand all things in life by their contrasts. In other words, it is dualistic. It does not understand white except when it contrasts it with black. It does not understand good without contrasting it with evil. It cannot understand long without short. The mind employs its logical ability to polarize its perceptions.

    In the kingdoms of men, the mind is the acknowledged master of the universe. But the mind was not created to be one's master, but only the servant of the spirit's heart. The spirit, along with its thinking center (the heart), is our point of divine contact. It has a logic of its own that is incomprehensible to the mind. Those that are unaware, are unaware of being unaware.

    BTW: Shakspeare and I have much in common, quote him all you like.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry wrote: "The soul’s mind attemps to understand all things in life by their contrasts. In other words, it is dualistic. It does not understand white except when it contrasts it with black. It does not understand good without contrasting it with evil. It cannot understand long without short."

    The notion that good cannot be understood wthout constrasting it with evil appears to conflict with the Christian notion of an absolute moral code. So, which is it? Is good something that is absolute, or is it merely relative to evil?

  10. I am devoted to God, not a moral code. When you make an absolute moral code you create a religion, set in stone, unable to learn. Our God is a consuming fire. He consumes our impurities and teaches us to be like Himself. It is the meat brain that is limited to logical contrasts. Darkness is a lack of light, not a thing of it's own. But we don't appreciate the light without experiencing darkness. The meat brain {alone} cannot appreciate God.

  11. gatomjp says:

    Dan wrote:

    "But birth defects are on the rise in part because we can and do keep a greater proportion of the population born with genetic defects alive to procreate each generation."

    Very true. Also, every time we use fertility drugs to help an infertile couple get pregnant or rescue a preemie from certain death we are helping to create a species of human that cannot procreate without technological intervention. We are circumventing natural selection. Has anyone considered that nature is trying to tell something to the infertile couple?

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