Sunday, October 21, 2012

G4G: Religion, Science, and the Kobayashi Maru Scenario

This weekend is part of a biennial event for skepticism and critical thinking, the Gathering 4 Gardner, sometimes called G4G (see Gathering4Gardner and G4G), a celebration of the life of Martin Gardner.

The recently deceased Martin Gardner (1914-2010) (Wikipedia) was a noted skeptic, perhaps best known for his many columns in magazines such as Scientific American.  He also authored a number of science popularizations, such as The Ambidextrous Universe (Wikipedia) which was probably one of the first physics-related books I read in junior high school.

One of the interesting things about Mr. Gardner is that he was NOT an atheist. It is a statement which I had heard over the years in passing, but had never read any of his work dealing with theology until recently. 

Per the recommendation of a coworker, I read “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”, which is a collection of essays by Gardner with an emphasis on philosophical and theological issues.  Sections in the book  describe a lot of Gardner's philosophical and theological thinking and how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his skepticism and critical thinking skills. 

One of the sections I found particularly interesting was “Evil: Why We Don't Know Why”, which explores “The Problem of Evil” (Wikipedia).  This is the theological problem of understanding how evil can exist in a world with an omnipotent, benificent diety.  One of the most compelling solutions to the problem was presented on pages 263-264.  The history of this problem goes back a number of years, but the explanation in the book mirrored some of my more recent thinking on the topic.  The short answer is that how a Christian deals with evil is part of the key test of being Christian.
I find the simplest way to explain it is by an analogy from Star Trek:

The Theology of the Kobayashi Maru

The opening of the second Star Trek movie, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (link), presents a test for a group of StarFleet cadets, the Kobayashi Maru scenario (Wikipedia).   The scenario places cadets in a situation where all their decisions have bad consequences.  It is a test for how potential command officers, deal with a 'no-win scenario', a situation where all your available choices have significantly less than ideal outcomes.  This is a situation that anyone in a command position might eventually have to face.  It's goal is to determine the character of the cadets, especially in tough command positions.

Consider the parallel of Christianity in a Naturalistic Universe...
  • There is no physical evidence of the existence of an afterlife
  • There is no physical evidence for the existence of the soul
  • If you take the most basic interpretation of naturalistic evolution of the selfish gene, the 'best strategy' in this situation would be an eye-for-an-eye approach to life.  I'll call this Strategy 1.
It certainly looks like a 'no win' scenario, because no one can ALWAYS be the biggest and strongest in their 'ecosystem'.  It might work for short-term survival, but it's not very good in longer-term  situations.

But consider a wiser interpretation...

More altruistic strategies in life are much more long-term best strategies.  It opens the door to cooperative, rather than winner-take-all competitive enterprises.  I'll call this Strategy 2.

The first commandment of Christianity is the Golden Rule, to do unto others as they do unto you.  This is a cooperative strategy.  The Golden Rule is NOT exclusive to Christianity and even predates Christianity (Wikipedia).

Altruistic strategies, and the Golden Rule, are the opposite of Strategy 1,  but it is not an obvious strategy.  It depends on a 'leap of faith', that the other side will not exploit what could be interpreted as weakness, to their advantage.  From game theory, we know that these types of cooperative strategies have evolutionary value.  This may be why the Golden Rule appears in a number of non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures as well.

The true test of Christianity, the First Commandment, asks believers to adopt Strategy 2. (Matthew 5:38-39)

We live in a Universe that is set up as a No-Win scenario. 

All the physical evidence says that when you die, that is it.  Even while we are alive, no invisible being will rescue us if we do something stupid.  While flukes may rescue us from bad decisions, no divine entity will. 

On top of that, we see a first-order evolutionary strategy that is dog-eat-dog.

So how does one deal with this apparently hopeless situation?

Christians are asked, in spite of all the physical evidence to the contrary, to adopt Strategy 2.  Yet if we look at many of the high profile 'christians', many adopt the militant view of Strategy 1.

Which demonstrates the stronger faith, the Christians who live by Strategy 1, or those who live by Strategy 2?

Which choice is a better test of character?

Creationism, and other theologies that rely on a Diety that will actively intervene in the physical world, like Captain Kirk, tries to change the conditions of the test.  You can only get away with that so far...

Creationists try to fool you into thinking there is an easy way out instead of Strategy 2.  They try to sell you that their pseudo-science is part of the package - you can't believe any of it if you don't believe their claims as well.

This isn't to say that someone can't be a Creationist AND live according to Strategy 2.  It just distorts one's priorities.

Something to think about, when Gathering for Gardner...

Related Posts

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There is no physical evidence for the existence of the soul"

Quick question: Do you believe in a soul? (Or free will?)

Ryan said...

Judging from your "no physical evidence" claims it seems you're advocating for naturalism. But we can only justify claims of "no physical evidence" if we first exclude all types of supernatural evidence as categorically inadmissible. But on what *scientific* basis do you exclude it? And which of the sciences declares naturalism to be true--I don't recall that experiment?

As a side note, The Passover Plot seems to be the same old counter-claim from the first century: the conspiracy of the resurrection. But it doesn't appear to deal with the inherent problems with such a theory: e.g. the deep conviction of the apostles, and the countless eye-witnesses to Jesus' works in Palestine.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Anonymous:
Considering how many nuanced definitions exist for both of these terms, I can only say 'yes' to some of them.

To Ryan:
This article is simply an example of how some people can accommodate accurate science and faith. Having grown up in the U.S. 'Bible Belt', I know a lot of individuals who based their faith on too literal interpretation of the Bible and went to complete atheists when they hit a serious challenge. My point is that this either-or situation is unnecessary (Wikipedia: False Dilemma) and a waste of the human potential.

NCSE: The Creation/Evolution Continuum
'Supernatural evidence' has no objective way to test. I started including Electric Universe as an example of how 'supernatural' interpretations can accommodate any agenda.

Reliability of Eyewitness testimony: APA: How reliable is eyewitness testimony?
Christ isn't the only one reported seen after death (Wikipedia: Elvis sightings)
A good faith can accommodate the possibility.

Steve said...

Wow - with comments like that (what is the scientific basis for excluding the unknowable from science) I don't see how you have the energy to keep it up.

But that aside, the problem with your 2 scenario setup is that it grants the premises of the religionists. If your goal is to weed out pseudo-science, you have to start with a reality oriented philosophy. The whole idea of religion and religious-oriented philosophies (e.g. Kant) is that you can't *really* know reality and thus you can't know morality. You've only fought the less-important half of the battle if you show that you don't need religion to explain the seasons, or lightening, etc. The most important thing is that you don't need religion to know morality.

When you set the situation up as it's either a) kill or be killed, or b) have a mystical unknowable morality, then of course you'd pick b. But the whole question is "how do you know it?". A question like "How do you know the seasons aren't caused by god's moods" is fundamentally no different from "how do you know right from wrong". It's a question of whether you can know reality, or you need a mystical source of insight.

Morality can be known, just like the methods for building a bridge. There's no more reason to think that everyone would go on a killing spree if there were no god, any more than to think engineers would build bridges out of newspaper and spit if there were no god. Why don't they? Because it doesn't work. Once you realize that a bridge has a purpose in reality, and it's made out of real materials with physical properties, then it's clear reason and reality are your guides. The same goes for morality. It has a purpose - which is living like a human being here on earth. Human life has requirements which you can know by reason - just like anything else in reality. It's not written on the sky, just like bridge building is not.

It's not obvious what "every man for himself" actually means in practice. Religious premises lead one to expect that kind of Kobayashi-Maru lose/lose situation in life, because of the religious foundation of the material world as imperfect and corrupt, in contrast to perfect and unknowable mystical realms. That's the premise you need to question - does it really have to be lose/lose? Or is it possible for people to live together, neither with the strong feeding the weak, or the weak living off the sacrifices of the strong? Animals have to live like that, but human beings do not.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Steve,

I don't regard my proposal above to be a perfect solution, but it is a solution that works for some people.

I accept that religion is probably going to be an integral part of the human experience for centuries to come. A key to the survival, and advancement, of humans will be to integrate the sometimes contradicting priorities of science and religion in a viable way.

Steve said...

"integrate the sometimes contradicting priorities of science and religion in a viable way" <= i.e. mixing reason and unreason, life and death. Good luck with that.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

What can I say, reality, like making sausage and laws, is messy.

Steve said...

It's funny, because usually the gist of a conversation on this topic is flogging away trying to get someone to realize that what they're proposing is in fact contradictory, whereas you just overtly embrace unreason and boldly throw logic out the window. It's at least a big time saver.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Steve,

I'd hardly say I 'embrace unreason', I merely accept that a certain amount of unreason is okay - a position that Martin Gardner also accepted, and lived with.

Until humans have the Kolinahr ritual, that's about the best we can do.

Steve said...

You don't need a special ritual to know that contradictions can't exist.

When one accepts these contradictions, what will be the guide to what lies within the "certain amount"? It's not going to be reason, because there's nothing in reason to guide you in accepting contradictions - not which ones, or how many.

On the one hand, you seem to be saying the problem is with reality (reality is "messy") - on the other, the implication is that people are the problem. We don't have a way to purge the contradictions out. Either way, once you accept contradictions as inevitable then science and reason and the knowable universe are out the window. The foundation of all that is a non-contradictory reality and reason as a faculty that is capable of grasping it. If contradictions are inherent in man and/or reality, then whatever you're claiming as knowledge is just a bunch of monkey hooting. It's quite different from realizing that you can make a mistake, or realizing that there are things you don't yet know.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Steve,

Then the question becomes what is the goal of the effort.

My goal is to improve the acceptance of science. I recognize that science cannot explain *everything*, either because some problem is beyond the scope of science, or because there might not be (and might never be) enough data to unambigously resolve the question. There will always be contradictions and things that violate (the human perception of) logic.

I'm willing to accept some level of that to improve the acceptance of science.

If I pursue the 'take no prisoners' form of all must be 100% logically consistent, that in itself an almost religious position considering the limitations of science, then I am guaranteed to lose as the number of people in my 'target audience' who would accept such a postion is probably very small.

Tom

Steve said...

"My goal is to improve the acceptance of science." <= I assumed that, based on the overall tenor. But what exactly is it that you're trying to get accepted? The basic premise of science - the philosophy of the Greeks and the Enlightenment - is that reality is knowable by the senses and logic.

Science and logic don't deal with the idea of knowing *everything*. That kind of idea is the province of religion - all-powerful beings, all-knowing beings, things that persist for eternity, knowledge without any means of knowledge, etc. All those things are as impossible as a perpetual motion machine.

So when you say "I'm willing to accept a certain amount of that in order to improve the acceptance of science", that's not improving the acceptance of science, it's destroying science to recast it in terms of religion.

It's not a "problem" of science that you might not have all the data required to answer a question that you want to answer. Where science and religion come into conflict regards the deeper issue of whether reality as such is knowable or unknowable in principle. Just as it's not a fundamental "problem of travel" that a specific person may not ever visit Paris - we know that it's possible, in principle, regardless of whether any specific person has the time or means. When it comes to knowledge, religion (and Kant) say that you can't *really* know reality by the senses. Everything that is really important comes from divine revelation.

That is what science is about fundamentally - a certain position on the question of *how* we know. You can't straddle that line, though many scientists try.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

If I understand you correctly, your claim is that only pure atheists can be scientists.

What does that say about people such as Galileo, Newton, Lemaitre, and many others who had religious beliefs and managed to make significant contributions to science and mathematics? Are you saying that their contributions are less legitimate?

I am not recasting science in terms of religion, I am simply recognizing that science has limitations and there is space in the human experience for the role of religion, I do recognize that there are cases where, when translating belief into action, the religion should be informed by science.

Religion that claims it can explain the physical world has failed repeatedly, and will most likely continue to fail (though I, nor you, can rigorously *prove* that).

To argue that you can only be a scientist if you are also an atheist gives loads of ammunition to the fundamentalists who will use it to pull more of the general population into their anti-science agenda. In many ways, Richard Dawkins has *hurt* public acceptance of science and in the short and long run will hurt the society.

As Carl Sagan noted, the most honest attitude about scientists towards religion is agnosticism. (link1, link2)

If one wishes to increase the acceptance of science among the general population, the only way to make some kind of progress is to admit some turf for religion, which is my position. Only then can you win any support from the huge part of the population that has various levels of adherence to religion but also recognizes that science is important. In the long run, this strategy may actually increase the acceptance of agnosticism and atheism, but that is not the primary goal.

Steve said...

"If I understand you correctly, your claim is that only pure atheists can be scientists."

That's a strange interpretation. I'm making a claim about what is and isn't consistent with science as a body of ideas.

"What does that say about people such as Galileo, Newton, Lemaitre, and many others who had religious beliefs and managed to make significant contributions to science and mathematics? Are you saying that their contributions are less legitimate?"

The inconsistency of specific people has nothing to do with the philosophy of science. You can't prove anything about the proper philosophy of science by saying "Newton thought so" than you can prove the sun goes around the earth by saying "the pope says so".

"I am not recasting science in terms of religion, I am simply recognizing that science has limitations..."

In the sense you mean 'limitations', that *is* recasting science in terms of religion. There's really no such thing as a universe that's sort-of knowable by reason. Either it's fully knowable in principle, or it's completely unknowable. Kant lays that out pretty well, coming down on the unknowable side.

Religion that claims it can explain the physical world has failed repeatedly, and will most likely continue to fail (though I, nor you, can rigorously *prove* that).

"To argue that you can only be a scientist if you are also an atheist gives loads of ammunition to the fundamentalists who will use it to pull more of the general population into their anti-science agenda. In many ways, Richard Dawkins has *hurt* public acceptance of science and in the short and long run will hurt the society."

One can certainly be very inconsistent, and many enigmatic people have accomplished quite a bit while simultaneously pursing contradictory goals. That doesn't have anything to do with the proper foundation of science though. What people do is no basis for the philosophy of science, and certainly a popularity contest should be the very last court of what is or isn't science. I'm not a big Dawkins fan, but certainly I'd never criticize any theory on the grounds that it turns people toward or away from science. If there's anything science is NOT, it's consensus.

"As Carl Sagan noted, the most honest attitude about scientists towards religion is agnosticism."

Carl Sagan is a bad philosopher of science. There's no reason whatever to be agnostic about a claim what is based on no evidence whatever - a claim that lies outside the province of evidence and reason as such. Either science or arbitrary claims have to be dismissed as invalid. One can't have both.

"If one wishes to increase the acceptance of science among the general population, the only way to make some kind of progress is to admit some turf for religion, which is my position...."

Well there would at least be some perverse integrity in injecting religion into science on the grounds that one believed it was true in some sense. Doing it to "increase the acceptance of science" is completely perverse.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Steve,

Again, I am not 'injecting religion into science' (see Is Big Bang Cosmology a 'Creationist' Model?). I simply say there are questions that science cannot answer and that provides a space where religion can make a contribution to the well-being of society.

I still agree with Sagan. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Prior to the 1990s, we didn't have any evidence of planets beyond our own solar system. This was not evidence that they did not exist, though some creationists actually used this claim for a time (see Another failed creationist prediction?).

I cannot disprove the existence of a diety. I can only say that there is no evidence that such a diety actually intervenes in the physical world, beyond perhaps providing inspiration/motivation for human action. This was part of the point of the original post.

This is my position. Your feedback, while welcome, will not alter the approach I take with this blog for the foreseeable future.

Tom