What do the Upanishads, the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and Carl Sagan have in common?

They were all sources of readings at the Tufts Baccalaureate Service, which took place the day before its commencement.

A baccalaureate service is explicitly religious, so the inclusion of Sagan is interesting — especially since Tufts doesn’t appear to have a Humanist Chaplaincy (as Harvard does).  I have no insight into the process for deciding what quotes to include, the order of the quotes, who gets to read them, etc. The sequence was chronological, so Sagan came last.  So we begin with the Upanishads asking for us to be led from fear of death to the knowledge of immortality, later we have the New Testament telling us to lay up treasures in Heaven, and finally we have this bracing piece of wisdom for the graduates:

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.  Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability is to look Death in the eye and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Good for Tufts!

Deconversion and Reconversion

The latest Radiolab podcast has an odd story called “Rocked by Doubt.”  It’s about a geologist who is having a crisis of faith.  Here’s the description:

In 2010, Lulu Miller was biking across the country, taking some time to clear her head for a new phase of life. And somewhere in Nevada, she ran into a guy named Jeff Viniard who was on a similar journey. They shared the road for two weeks, pedaling hundreds of miles together until Utah. Along the way, they got to be pretty close, and Jeff, a geologist by training, rekindled Lulu’s long-lost love of rocks. But it turns out the ground beneath his own feet was shifting that summer… and he found himself desperately searching for some rock-solid evidence to help him figure out his future.

Jeff, it turns out, was engaged to a nice religious girl, but then one night he’d had a “deconversion” experience–a strong feeling behind his sternum that there was no God.  His girlfriend doesn’t want to marry someone who doesn’t share her religious beliefs, so he goes on a long bike trip looking for a sign telling him what to believe.  He doesn’t find it on the trip.  But then, a year later, he gets another feeling behind his sternum that God exists, so he and his girlfriend get married.

And that’s the story.  Sorry for the spoilers.

Jeff in Utah

The story is told in the usual entertaining Radiolab way, and Jeff seems like a very likeable, earnest young man.  But geez.  Is the most important decision in his life based on nothing but feelings behind his sternum and signs from above?  (A ceiling tile falling onto Jeff’s sandwich at an Arby’s also figures in the story.)  Jeff is an educated guy, but nowhere in the story do we hear of him reading any philosophy or theology or history or neuroscience.  He never seems to think about what he has experienced and how it could be explained.

As someone who has never had a religious feeling of any sort behind his sternum, I find this depressing.  Because of course all the logic and science and reasoned argument in the world are not going to be able to overcome that feeling.  People are going to believe what they are going to believe.  Unless maybe a falling ceiling tile intervenes.

Oliver Sacks, “Proof of Heaven”, and Newtown

Here is Oliver Sacks in The Atlantic denying the supernatural origin of near-death experiences like the one described in Proof of Heaven:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

And here is Father Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut last night:

“Thinking about those little children, we now have 20 new saints looking over us in all the days to come.”

I am dubious about the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes, but if religion does any good, it is to provide consolation to people like the families whose children were senselessly murdered yesterday.  They don’t need Oliver Sacks; they need Father Weiss.  They need hope, no matter how ephemeral and unproven it may be.

The “Universe from Nothing” Brouhaha

Or maybe it’s a kerfluffle.  Clearly more than a spat.

When last we checked in on this, Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing had been savaged in the New York Times by David Z. Albert, a physicist/philosopher from Columbia. That’s gotta sting.

Krauss then gave an interview to someone at the Atlantic in which he referred to the reviewer as a “moronic philosopher.”  Ouch!  He also dissed philosophy in general.  He then had to walk that back in the Scientific American.  You can’t be messin’ with philosophers.

Sean Carroll at Discover Magazine attempts to referee the dispute:

Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.

But he does grant one of Krauss’s major points, which is that modern physics has removed the need for a Creator:

If your real goal is to refute claims that a Creator is a necessary (or even useful) part of a complete cosmological scheme, then the above points about “creation from nothing” are really quite on point. And that point is that the physical universe can perfectly well be self-contained; it doesn’t need anything or anyone from outside to get it started, even if it had a “beginning.” That doesn’t come close to addressing Leibniz’s classic question, but there’s little doubt that it’s a remarkable feature of modern physics with interesting implications for fundamental cosmology.

You may not think that has interesting implications, but anyone who uses the argument from design will have to contend with this kind of rebuttal, in the way they have to contend with evolution as an alternative explanation for how humans came to be.

On philosophy: Clearly, bad-mouthing philosophers is going to land you in a heap of trouble, but I take Krauss’s point.  When scientific knowledge overtakes philosophical speculation, it must be frustrating for a scientist to see philosophers go on speculating, as if this hard-won knowledge didn’t exist.  But I think the criticism is more properly applied to theologians, for whom belief will always trump knowledge.

What explains differences in levels of belief?

This post explored the wide ranges of unbelief in America, ranging from members of Congress (almost no nonbelievers) to elite scientists (very few believers).  Jeff wonders what explains the difference:

And what does it mean that “elite” scientists have, statistically, different views from “regular” scientists?  Are they smarter and more perspicacious about the life, the universe, and everything?  Or are they just really, really smart in their own narrow realm? Just asking.

I’d offer a different (or maybe an additional) explanation: insensitivity to the social stigma of atheism.  As we talked about here, atheists are considered about as trustworthy as rapists.  For most politicians, it would be political suicide to admit that you don’t believe in God.  It probably takes some courage to admit it even to yourself, even to someone else in a confidential survey.  But elite scientists can afford to have the courage of their convictions.  They probably have tenure; they work in areas where atheism won’t get them fired, won’t cause them to be shunned by their associates.  They’re not involved in popularity contests.  There’s little downside to saying what they believe.

For most of them.  I don’t know much about Neil deGrasse Tyson, except that he’s a pretty well-known science popularizer.  Here he is trying to explain his religious beliefs:

Clearly the whole atheist/agnostic thing bugs him.  He obviously doesn’t want to be seen as one of those strident, rabid, shrill, baby-eating atheists.  So he insists on the safe, uncontroversial agnostic designation.  Jerry Coyne, naturally, is not impressed.

It only takes two seconds to call yourself an atheist (you don’t have to write a book on it!), and it would do so much to help disbelief become respectable. His distinction between atheism and agnosticism (the former are “in-your-face”; the latter are not) is completely disingenuous: one can be a Republican and not be an “in-your-face” Republican, and so it is with atheists.

Just as one can be a Christian and not be a Bible-thumping come-to-Jesus you’re-going-to-hell-if-you-don’t-believe Christian.

Of course, Tyson may actually and sincerely be an agnostic.  But the video sure makes it seem like it’s more about how he is perceived than what he believes.