Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The compartmented mind

I'm always surprised to find scientists whose work I respect having religious beliefs. It seems, from an essay by Carl Zimmer in today's New York Times, that mathematical biologist Martin Nowak of Harvard University may be one such scientist believer. As Zimmer quotes Nowak,

Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right.


Nowak has done lots of great work on the logic of social behavior and cooperation in biology, not only among humans, but among may other organisms. It's brilliant work, and I've written about this field in the past. If you think we humans are really special because of our ability to cooperate, think again; single-celled bacteria manage many of the same tricks (which I think really brings home the point that some social phenomena have much more to do with the logic of collective organization than with the "specialness" of individual human beings).

Still, I find Nowak's comment on theology quite striking, and really hard to understand. (And obviously, I don't know the complete context in which he said it.) Does he believe that principles of religious belief can be established with the same kind of mathematical certainty as Fermat's last theorem, or any other mathematical theorem? His argument seems to have a devious logic.

Mathematical certainty is of a different order from anything requiring empirical confirmation; I believe in Pythagoras' Theorem in plane geometry because of mathematical proof, not empirical facts (that it works in practice merely shows how well plane geometry fits our world of ordinary experience). Quite reasonably, therefore, Nowak argues that scientists don't go demanding empirical evidence for mathematical assertions, the truth of which has been established by logic (if one already accepts the beginning assumptions). But then comes the punchline -- so why should scientists demand evidence for religious assertations?

Well the problem, obviously, is that religious beliefs aren't established by any appeal to logic, but are taken on faith. They aren't like mathematics, and so the comparison is just irrelevant. It seems as if Nowak is implying that some theological statements can be proven by pure logic, but which ones? I'd love to see some examples.

All this brings to mind a fascinating novel I just read, A Certain Ambiguity, by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal (I have a short review of it forthcoming in New Scientist). In the novel, an Indian mathematician Vijay Sanhi gets arrested in New Jersey under archaic laws against "blasphemy," when he publically doubts the truths of Christianity. He must defend himself before a Judge who is himself a committed Christian. Sahni tries to argue to the judge that religious certainty never approaches the same level as mathematical certainty, and illustrates the nature of mathematical reasoning by showing how geometric truths (such as the Pythagorean theorem) can be established from a handful of "self evident" axioms and pure logic.

To this demonstration, the Judge quickly responds that the same is true in Christianity:

I start with the "simple fact" that everything in the Universe must be created by something; it cannot come into being out of nothing. ... ; hence, the first something must have been created by a being that was always there, a being that could create something from nothing, and a being that lived before time started. Humans have just given that being a name; we call Him God.


To which Sanhi replies:

The problem is I do not believe your underlying "simple fact" that everything in the universe must have been created by something... Everywhere I look, life is full of cycles.. Or I could equally well claim that the "first thing" always existed... You assumption that everything must have a cause of creation applies to the world of sense experience. In this realm I will agree with you that your "simple fact" of causality is self-evident. But you have extended the "simple fact" beyond the world of sense experience to something that is supposed to transcend it. You have applied an experiential notion beyond all possible experience, as well as beyond the limits for which there are any guarantees that our sensory perceptions are reliable. So, yes, Judge, I disbelieve your underlying simple fact, and hence I disbelieve your conclusion that God exists.


Curiously, the Zimmer article also quotes another well-known scientist believer, biologist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. But Collins and Nowak seem to disagree with one another. While Collins claims that "Selfless altruism presents a major challenge for the evolutionist," a point I've argued against in The Social Atom, and in this blog, and elsewhere, Nowak seems to think there's no big problem. “The current theory," he says, "can certainly explain a population where some people act extremely altruistically."

But so what. People disagree, and people are all over the board on this religion versus science argument, and what it comes down to, it seems to me, is a point made very well by Sam Harris in The End of Faith -- that those motivated by religion and faith seem to have marked off a special corner of life in which the ordinary laws of thinking and evidence just aren't supposed to apply. For those persuaded by religious faith, the world seems to fall into two disjoint parts -- one in which the search for evidence and application of reason is the only known method for gaining sure knowledge, and the other in which the need for evidence is wilfully suspended:

Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.

15 comments:

Partha said...

"You have applied an experiential notion beyond all possible experience, as well as beyond the limits for which there are any guarantees that our sensory perceptions are reliable. So, yes, Judge, I disbelieve your underlying simple fact, and hence I disbelieve your conclusion that God exists." ...... It seems to me that Sahni's proper response at this point is to be an agnostic rather than an atheist. The judge, of course, is in error as Sahni contends. But the judge's error does not necessarily settle the larger issue of God's existence.

Len said...

It's interesting to me how atheists such as Mr Harris buy into a Judeo-Christian-Islamo version of God just so that they can not believe in it. The question that Mr Harris poses--about the book on the nightstand--would be incomprehensible to a Buddhist, who knows that his basic tenets--The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path--were created by a man, not a deity. It's a completely different outlook, and one that gets ignored in these conversations.

As for me, I've finally reached my most Taoist point yet: I don't know. Is there a God? I don't know. Is there not a God? I don't know. Am I an agnostic? I don't know.

I figure I might find out when I die, an event I'm hoping to postpone for as long as practical. If it turns out that either the fundamentalists or the atheists are right, I'm screwed. Otherwise, I should be okay.

Partha said...

While it is true, as Sahni says, that geometric truths can be established from a handful of self evident truths and axioms, Godel showed that this does not hold for number theory. I've always been intrigued that while mathematics is ostensibly a human invention not much older than ten thousand years, Nature seems to have been following very complex mathematical laws for the better part of fourteen billion years. How did she manage to do that? Mathematicians who call themselves Platonists appear to argue that mathematics is more of a human discovery than human invention. I do not know the full philosophical implications of that argument; but it seems to address my own little paradox. My apologies if I'm hogging this discussion.

Who am I? said...

Partha, Len:

Thanks for your interesting points as always. The Godel theorem does indeed make trouble for any attempt to found mathematics on some kind of perfectly logical system; whether this somehow applies to the laws of physics too has been a matter of some considerable speculation ( I actually wrote a brief essay on this idea recently for Nature Physics, based on a nice review by John Barrow, available at http://www.arxiv.org/abs/physics/0612253.

And yes, Harris does fixate on the Judeo-Christian-Islamo version of God, and his criticism might not apply to other religions with a more "naturalistic" point of view.

My feeling has long been that, even though one cannot prove there is no God (say, in the most widely popular Christian sense), the absence of any evidence for his existence is tantamount to proof. There are many things, indeed an infinite number of things, for which there is no disproof of their existence. Hundred-headed invisible cats the size of Jupiter that cannot be detected by any physical interaction, for example. But no sensible person would say, well, since we can't disprove it, we should keep an open mind.

One could make up all kinds of tales about how the world began, and populate it with various supernatural creatures, and each of these would be equally not possible to disprove -- and all also equally lacking in evidence. Most religious stories seem to fall within this set of possible stories, all lacking any evidence, and so I take the chance of God existing to be something like the limit of 1 over x as x heads to infinity.

Kate said...

"My feeling has long been that, even though one cannot prove there is no God... the absence of any evidence for his existence is tantamount to proof. "

In religion, as in matters scientific, how you define the question, your methods and the measures you use will determine your findings.

As len points out, atheists like Sam Harris use the primitive definition of "god" popular with fundamentalists--an entity that is material, supernatural, external--because that is easy to refute. Or they will use the ignorant fundamentalist conviction that the Judeo-Christian bible or Koran is literally true, God's Own Word, as justification for dismissing faith. In this they are engaging in confirmation bias. Because they don't believe, they are finding easy ways to justify their lack of belief. And then they stop, content with their argument.

Personally, as a believer, I am always struck by what seems to me to be a lack of imagination, almost a cultural deafness that atheists demonstrate. To my ear, they speak about religion as I speak French--badly, as a non-native speaker. I also wonder what emotional benefit they derive from their identify as non-believers.

Christ, in the Christian bible, reassures his disciples that "When two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be there as well." That is a much harder definition of god to refute. It is also harder to refute a Christian's belief that "God is Love." In both of these cases, the non-believer has to look for alternate explanations for the power found in relationship.

The research on cooperation described by Nowak, altruism, relationships, network intelligence, and social networks suggest a world that is both much simpler and far more interconnected than anyone comprehended.

So what is the lack of evidence for God? We can exclude "god" as defined by the fundamentalists. But Nowak evidently looks at these lines of research and infers evidence for something superordinate, universal, that binds us together. He seems to define that meta-principle as God. You may choose to call it something else.

Len said...

Okay. This is definitely swimming in the deep end. It's fun to be having this kind of discussion with such bright and thoughtful people. I just hope I can keep up my end of the bargain.

The Buddhist viewpoint (and I am not a Buddhist, for the record) is more psychological than anything else. The goal of the Buddhist is to release themselves from Samsarra, the world of illusion, into Nirvana, a psychological state in which one understands reality beyond the limitations of space and time and duality.

This is why atheists don't take it on. They don't know what to grab hold of. They must believe in God as a thing so that they can not believe in it. It's quite the paradox.

And that's the problem with the hundred-headed invisible cat argument: It reduces the transcendent to the level of the temporal and tries to make a thing of that which would have to be "no-thing." I'm not putting that forward as proof of God, just trying to point out the difficulties we're dealing with here.

Part of the problem comes from use of the word "God," which is prejudicial and brings a number of assumptions along with it, including, but not limited to, the vision of an old white guy with a long beard (and yet often bald) who sits on a cloud and smiles with favor on some and smites others. If this be God, whoever wants Him can have Him.

The problem I have with fundamentalism is that fundamentalists read poetic and symbolic texts in the same manner as they would a newspaper. This is foolish and shortsighted. Unfortunately, it seems that the typical atheist (and I hate to generalize, but what are you gonna do?) reads these texts in the same, shortsighted way.

In Hindu cosmology, the universe exists in 432,000-year cycles. In a theory which is very similar, I believe, to some scientific thoughts, they believe that a universe comes into existence, flourishes for 432,000 years, and then is destroyed. Another universe then comes into existence. And this goes on endlessly.

Now, the number 432,000 shouldn't be taken literally. It's a mystical number. 4+3+2=9, and 9 is the number of death and rebirth. This is why the number of the Beast in the New Testament Book of Revelations has the mark of 666. 6+6+6=18. 1+8=9. It's the same symbol. In both cases, much is missed without understanding the symbols.

I think there can be less disagreement when other terms are used, ones such as "the transcendent," "the eternal," perhaps even "the divine." What we're talking about is a mystery, in the religious sense. If this is the sort of thing that Martin Nowack is on about, I don't think there is necessarily a conflict. If he's thinking of the white guy on the cloud, there's a problem.

Partha said...

Mark,
Thanks for the reference to Barrow's article. It seems quite interesting. I also found all the comments on this page quite stimulating. Unfortunately, the theme is a bit tangential to the main subject of your blog, and perhaps not worth pursuing much further here.

Who am I? said...

Yes, indeed, this is heading off down a trail we could follow for a few decades.

One thing I'd like to know more about (and I'm not sure anyone knows much about) is the evolution of religious belief. It would be fascinating if we could go back and know what was being thought and believed by all those pre-humans, say, 50 or 100 or 200 thousand years ago, and by our earlier primate ancestors before that. How did any creature come to start thinking about "God," however you might define him? I'm not sure we'll ever know, but for me (with my scienetific biases) this seems the likely key to understanding where religion comes from.

Kate said...

partha: "Unfortunately, the theme is a bit tangential to the main subject of your blog, and perhaps not worth pursuing much further here."

You call this tangential! Goodness, you must not have spent much time in the blogosphere! And as for the main subject of this blog...The theme of this post was an apparent paradox, "A brilliant scientist believes in God." Thus it seems to me to be completely relevant to discuss alternate ways to conceptualize religious experience.

This blog, I believe, is about "learning to anticipate the patterns that emerge naturally when many "social atoms" interact"--Certainly one clear pattern is that the majority of social atoms participate in ritualistic behavior involving supernatural, non-rational entities and a much smaller group of social atoms look upon said ritualistic behavior with slack-jawed bewilderment.

So the interesting question is why does the pattern of religious belief emerge universally when the social atoms get together.

We can assume that religious belief is an evolved adaptation that conferred a survival advantage. Cooperation is certainly a piece of it--the Nowak article comments that cooperation is as fundamental a principle of evolution as selection and mutation.

And, yes, it would be great "if we could go back and know what was being thought and believed by all those pre-humans, say, 50 or 100 or 200 thousand years ago, and by our earlier primate ancestors before that. How did any creature come to start thinking about "God,"

For what it is worth, my personal speculation is that three developments were involved: first, that the notion of a "god" didn't emerge until humans developed speech around 70,000 years ago. When humans got beyond the point and grunt stage, they started putting labels on things and naming cause-and-effect relationships (even if they were spurious.) Second, that the natural world in which our ancestors developed was full of events, conditions and what the ancient Celts called "thin places" that make humans feel vulnerable, part of a greater cosmos or secure--thunder, fire, shadows, dark, sunlight, water, stillness, animal herds, and, of course, DEATH. The question about cause & effect behind these events are obvious. And third, humans lived in tribal families where they certainly were collectivist not individualistic. They cooperated within their tribe and slaughtered those outside the tribe (a pattern we share with other primates.)

Put these together, and it is easy to see how a tribe faced with an experience of fear or awe could label the unknown cause-and-effect power behind that experience as "god." From there it is a quick evolutionary hop to the "give god something to eat to placate him" and the "maybe we can bribe the god to help us" stages. And then in no time at all, one has reached the "this object is our tribal god" stage.

In some ways, the history of religion could be described as the movement from specific objects of aweful power to more abstract principles, or to paraphrase len, a movement from "god" to "transcendence". Humans still have the hardwiring for religious belief, but our knowledge of the material world keeps forcing us to reconsider. In any case, I think some of these phenomena could be tested.

Partha said...

Kate,Mark:
Kate is right. I'm new to the blogosphere. By the way, Kate's notion of "a superordinate, universal, meta-principle that binds us together" has deep resonances with my religious and philosophical heritage. I think that the realm of Matter and the realm of the Spirit are nearly orthogonal, with just a sliver of overlap. Most of us don't have the tools to explore the latter realm. That is why the sliver of overlap is so interesting. Unimpeachable mystical experiences, Bell's theorem, Godel's theorem, quantum entanglement and other paradoxes might all belong to that sliver and are, therefore, of interest to me. Mark's quest of the origins of religion is great. But how is he going to capture the dimension of the spirit?

Len said...

I'm far from being an expert, but a few thoughts on the history of religion:

We know a bit about early religious belief, both from archeology and anthropology. Tribes of hunter/gatherers tended to identify the animal that they most depended on for meat and skins as their deity, as with the cave bear phenomenon of Alpine Europe and the buffalo cults of the American plains Indians. The basic idea was to venerate the spirit of the animal in the hopes of keeping that species healthy and plentiful so that the tribe could continue to hunt them.

As societies became agricultural, the mythic motifs of the religions became associated with planting and reaping. The god or gods involved became a bit more abstract and started to represent natural phenomenon.

As more complex societies appeared and as individuals began participating in those societies in more specialized ways, the religions they practiced became more abstract and their symbol systems tended to reflect the structures of their societies.

The Yahweh cult that came to prominence in ancient Israel was based in a society that kept sheep. They sacrificed lambs to their God just as their neolithic forebears had offered meat to the skulls of bears. It's the same idea. This is why "The Lord is my shepherd" and why Jesus is the Lamb of God and why Catholic priests consecrate the host.

MaryKaye said...

Compartmentalizing the mind? Isn't that kind of like partitioning off part of your hard drive?

Anonymous said...

I am about to purchase the Social Atom because that is where my research takes me so I thought it worthwhile to record my thoughts and then again after I read this book. Initially what I will say is that anyone who says God cannot exist is saying that they are a God. Human knowledge is evolving and expanding by the day and its fair to say that a good college student 10 years from now might well know more than most learned experts in their field nowadays such is the curve in learning from discovery. This whole issue is misnomer. The idea that a force (we'll say God is love and light for arguments sake) can operate beyond our epistemology of physics is almost irrelevant to a degree. As humans we would always be within this comprehension. What we can do is understand those mechanisms as best we can. Without knowing the 'end game' we can't account for purpose. What Darwin did was to begin with a rough beginning and used mid-Victorian time as his end point and his theory of evolution emerged. By and large the process of evolution is accepted science although there remain lingering and I suspect lasting arguments as to how much natural selection and other chance mechanisms play in the grand scheme of selection and diversity.

Which brings me to the statement that humans are like atoms, even grand atoms. We don't know what they human mind is so how can we say that other than to try and shift book copies, to state something which seems more than a little proclamative is to add weight to the view that Darwin's theory loses weight within the realm of human existence. When he wrote there was no human fossil record, the first sociology Professor Emile Durkheim was 1 year old when 'Origin of the Species' was written in 1859 and social science would only develop through the next century. In his book 'The Descent of Man' Darwin's work was received as an opus on humans with the famous quote 'the difference is one of degree not of kind' when comparing humans with animals. Well the difference between man and animals is certainly one of kind and to pretend otherwise enlightens the listener to your dogmatic stance be that evolutionary or someone who thinks that ToE (Theory of Everything) can operate outwith the human mind.

The only reason that you are able to read this in this present time and space is due to the differences between humans and animals, within that difference we can find humans. All attemtps by evolutionary psychology to outline 21st century behaviour by using a very simple idea about adaptation which aplies well to all 10 million species fails to account (and will always fail) to account for human complexity, expansion and the humans lanscapes which have increasingly taken command of nature's aggregate. To maintain that this is all part of nature's grand scheme would have Darinw turning in his human made, human dug, human designed, and human ceremonial grave.

Richard Dawkins, Prof E. O. Wilson, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have all written books on religion recently because there is an underlying truth that their kind of science has run its course in their eyes. Something which has produced a stream of work is increasingly clear it is limited. To take a genes-eye view of the world is a worthwhile excercise as long as the genes are returned to their rightful place in molecular biology and a greater understanding of the processes of development and heredity can be understood. However, in the light of nothing better on the horizon another book on genes is published, and another and another and the one gene-one protein myth unfolds. Everything is genetically driven. Despite repeated concessions that he didn't really mean 'selfish' gene Dawkins will always be remembered for this science-spin. In approaching culture something he again concedes now is too complex to reduce he encourages those who plough on with memetics, a Darwinian theory of culture so crude as to appear childlikeplex.

So when I approach the social atom I am all too ready for the introduction to comment on 'when I say social atom I don't really mean 'social' atom....' We have socio-physics and socio-cybernetics and mathematical sociology are trying to move in on culture, evolutionary biology/psychology and memetics from the other side and even Intelligent Design theory thinks it can have a considered input to a general theory of culture.

It's coming, in 2008, a year before Darwin's 200th Anniversary of birth and 150 years after 'Origin of Species' a general theory of culture is coming to bridge not only the natural sciences with social sciences (as Prof E. O. wilson writes of in 'Consilience') but further unifying physical sciences as well and dare I say accounting for faith epistemology as well.

For the deep thinking sociologist of knowledge everything people think of has to accounted. It cannot be dismissed easily like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Co, even Hitchens is in on the money making act now. A theory of everything has to begin with humans. Without humans we wouldn't have physics in the sense we know them now. We might find through a wormhole that there is a new physics and we have only been studying a small fraction. So everything we talk about, write about is a human interpretation of what we see around us. Science is the study, research and announcement and argument of provisional truths. There is a danger as we approach some grand convergence that we don't over-state the boundaries of our own disciplines and that is a concern of mine as I approach the book 'The Social Atom'. That ideas of singularity are out there and there are common themes of convergence out there in the popular and academic science world appears irrefutable. However, we have to be careful if we think we can reduce the complexity, expansiveness and sheer difference of humans, culture and mind to ill thought out attempts to annex these fertile areas under physics. We've had these flags put down by biology over 100 years ago and they'll soon be replaced, not by the physical sciences but by the social sciences who understand on a different level perhaps not all the technical detail of natural ansd physical sciences but enough to know how and why humans do what they do, where they have come from, how they differ from animals and certainly more about the term 'social' than most.

It's an interesting period ahead.

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