Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Science of the Devil's Advocate

Last week I wrote about the Devil's Advocate in our Science for the Church newsletter. Because I love the Devil's Advocate. Let me be clear: I don't love the Devil; I love the Devil's Advocate.

But first, I'm going to start with groupthink.

Many of us would like to believe about ourselves that we are "independent thinkers." Psychological science responds, "Not so fast." To use Jonathan Haidt’s word, we are innately "groupish.

“We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork.” Jonathan Haidt

We love being in groups or teams, and we tend to think like—not in contrast to—others in our group. 

Obviously, there are upsides, but the downside is that teamwork often leads to groupthink. And that brings me to the next topic: one of the glories of science is to combat this natural human tendency by setting up rigorous methods to root it out. 

Put simply, scientists know we need colleagues from within the fold to question our assertions.

And, believe it or not, that brings me the office of the Devil's Advocate and why I see connections with the methods of science. Both address the problem of groupthink. Incidentally, the reason I just used the term "office" is that the Devil's Advocate is an official position in the Roman Catholic Church. It was created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V as one of critical offices of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, who oversee the processes of beatification and canonization. 

Anyone you or I put toward a sainthood will have to make it through the Devil's Advocates' counter-arguments (whose official title, by the way, is Promoter of the Faith). The duty of the Devil's Advocate it is to prepare in writing all possible arguments against the raising of anyone to “the honors of the altar.”

In a world marred by polarization, in which we just talk with those in our group and avoid--whether intentionally or not--we need true conversation where "iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17). The concept of the Devil's Advocate, even after more than 400 years, is still fresh and remarkably compelling.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Starting a Chapter on Christianity and Science with a Little Help from C.S. Lewis

I've been working on a new book about religions (in the plural) and science. As I move into the chapter on Christianity and science, I’m pondering this line from Stephen Prothero: 

“There is a persistent, unexplored bias in the study of religion toward the extraordinary and away from the ordinary. In the United States this bias manifests in a strong attraction (even among scholars who are atheists) toward hardcore religious practitioners….” Prothero, God is Not One
Nowhere is this more applicable than with Christianity and its relationship with, where too often the loudest and most strident voice is heard. The fundamentalists rage against “godless” evolution and the climate change “hoax,” while millions of believers have no significant problems with either. Though this approach makes good copy for the media, I won’t work for this book. 

Why don't we like talking about reasonable religious believers?

Fundamentalist approaches to Christianity can certainly ungird a "believe-no-matter-what-you-discover" approach to faith. Exploring questions becomes the much-dreaded "doubt." Nonetheless, unbelievers often supply the worst distortions. They assert that Christian faith is opposed to scientific reasoning. Consider this from the arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, 

"Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence even in the teeth of evidence." Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Here I bring in St. Clive, aka Clive Staples Lewis, to assist. (Nothing new for me about that!) Certainly, there are believers who have faith despite the evidence, but St. Clive, whose book, Mere Christianity, still sells millions and guides their understanding of the Christian faith, writes this,

Faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That seems to be reasonable approach to faith. Faith is faithfulness to our commitments.

A word then about what this means for Christian faith and science... A reasonable faith, like the one Lewis presents, is one good historical ground for the rise of modern science in 16th and 17th century Europe. Of course, scientific endeavors flourished in the 8th-14th centuries in Muslim countries (a topic for another post). Still, this approach to faith and reason, to state it ever so succinctly, is cause of why the Scientific Revolution occurred in Christian Europe. Faith in the God who creates gives us an ordered creation to study. As the Nobel Laureate UC Berkeley physicist Charles Townes once noted (and as I've quoted before), 

"For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry." Charles Townes

That's a start to my chapter. More to come I suspect...

Friday, October 02, 2020

A Few Summary Comments on Buddhism and Science

I’ve come to conclude that, unless religious traditions are able to integrate science and technology, they will gradually fade. This isn’t per se the well-worn “secularization thesis” of Max Weber (as in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), but it is a recognition that religions retain their vitality as they engage contemporary culture. Minimally, that rubric guides my particular interest of analyzing how any particular religion and contemporary science relate to each other.

You see, I've been writing a chapter for a new book on Buddhism and science, and this is part three of a mini-series in the blog. In sum then, how does Buddhism do? Is it Philip Clayton observes, "the poster child for successfully integrating religion and science”? 

Not entirely. Surveys indicate that Buddhists tend not to integrate science with their religious life, but generally conclude that "religion and science as two separate and unrelated spheres,” according the Pew Research Center.

Naturally, in recognizing the stunning variety within Buddhism, I can’t provide a summary statement for all Buddhists. For one thing, it is rooted in East Asian culture and therefore less historically embedded in the "conflict" or "warfare" thesis. 

I can affirm that Buddhism, at least in many forms, is nontheistic, or at least has no teaching of a Creator God, a teaching has proven problematic for some scientific cosmologies. But as I mentioned, in a previous blog post, this is not uniformly positive, since the Dalai Lama has expressed resistance, as a Buddhist, to the conclusions of the Big Bang.

More striking is the Buddha’s openness to experimentation. Still, as we’ve seen (back to my previous post), this isn’t absolute. 
All in all, Buddhism does not represent the poster child, but I’d still affirm that it’s doing fairly well for a tradition that’s been around 2500 years. It will continue to make significant contributions to the way that we negotiate the relationship of science and religion. All religious thinkers, including we Christians, can learn from the Buddhist example and its contributions.