There is a group of Sophisticated Philosophers who, though a nonbelievers themselves, feel compelled to occasionally don the mantle of Sophisticated Theologian© and help the faithful find ways to comport their religion with modern science. Two specimens are Michael Ruse and Elliott Sober. We’ve previously discussed how Sober finds God-guided mutations logically compatible with evolution, and I’ve reviewed in another place Michael Ruse’s previous attempt to comport science with Christianity: his book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (The answer, of course, is “certainly!”)
I’m not sure why atheist/agnostic philosophers want to spend their time harmonizing science with the very religious beliefs they reject. Sober, for example, doesn’t believe in God-guided mutations, but goes around telling the faithful that God could help Darwin along by occasionally tweaking the DNA. And Ruse is a nonbeliever as well. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t suggest the motivations for this, but none of them seem savory to me. I could talk about “belief in belief,” or early religious belief that, once rejected, still lingers, but who knows?
So today I’ll inflict on you yet another attempt at accommodation by Michael Ruse; it comes from his latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2010). It’s a strange book: most of it is about the history of science and philosophy, with the usual potted discussions of Hume, Kant, Aristotle, Descartes, and so on, but in the end he tackles the question of whether the main tenets of Christianity can live in harmony with science. His foregone conclusion: “Certainly!”.
Ruse sees four defining characteristics of Christianity that can be examined in light of science (quoted from p. 182):
- There is a God who is creator, “maker of heaven and earth”.
- We humans have duties, moral tasks hear on earth in the execution of which we are going to be judged. Hence, God stands behind morality.
- Jesus Christ came to earth and suffered because we humans are special, we are worth the effort by God. . . We have souls.
- There is the promise of “life everlasting”. . . we can go to heaven, whatever that means.
He then spends the rest of the book showing how all of this is logically compatible with science. No, he doesn’t give any evidence—that’s not his tactic. He wants to show that science “can’t lay a finger” on any of these claims. His thesis (p. 183) is this: “The Christian’s claims are not refuted by modern science—or indeed threatened or made less probable by modern science.”
To give an idea of how his argument works, let’s look at his discussion of the afterlife on pp. 226-227 of the book. Bear with me, even if you feel a rising nausea:
There are many more details and issues that could be raised here. We might discuss the nature of hell, or the possibility of God extending his mercy and eternal life to all humans and not to just a select few, or the prospects of salvation for children and others (including those born before Jesus or those born in lands unaware of the Christian message). But, whatever the relative importance of these and like issues, for our purposes enough of the basic Christian picture of future things and hopes has now been presented. Remember, the question is not whether we ought to accept it. Rather, the question is whether someone who accepts modern science has any good reason to reject it purely on the grounds of science. Of course the scientist might well want to deny the possibility of life after death, whether as a disembodied mind or as a resurrected body. The question is whether one can do this on the grounds of science. If the claim were being made that, say, somewhere else in the universe we shall find Saint Paul and Julius Caesar and Napoleon and Charles Darwin—as minds alone or with bodies also—then as a scientist one might be skeptical. But this is not the claim. It is rather that there is another dimension of existence where resurrected bodies exist—or minds, if that is all. It is the place of the spiritual body. As such, I doubt that science can lay a finger on the idea. The scientist may not much care for the religious claims—the philosopher Bernard Williams (1973) once wrote an article on “the tedium of immortality”—but he or she is not able to reject them on the grounds that they go against scientific understanding.
Indeed, science can’t prove that there’s no heaven, but of course we’re not in the business of proving anything. Rather, science is in the business of concocting models that best represent the universe we see. We can’t disprove some other plane of existence, but neither can we disprove that there are invisible unicorns that influence our destiny, or that we are merely the reincarnations of beings that existed in previous ages.
The question is not whether some logical possibility can be disproven, but this: what grounds do we have to believe that we live on after death? If we can’t find any, why should we believe it, much less condition our entire lives on that premise?
And on what grounds should a scientist be skeptical that his soul might commune with that of Charles Darwin (a consummation devoutly to be wished!), but yet have nothing to say about whether other resurrected bodies or minds might exist in some celestial territory?
And the idea of an afterlife does go against scientific understanding for at least one big reason: our understanding of the universe does not require—or even suggest—the existence of such a thing. One could find other reasons why the afterlife “goes against scientific understanding.” As best we know, our personalities and our memories—everything that constitutes who we are as people, spiritual or material—reside in our bodies and brains, which vanish completely when we die. All those memories we have are coded in our neurons, which rot away soon after death. Further, the claims of “near death experiences,” in which people begin their trip to the celestial realm of souls but are rudely interrupted in transit, have been debunked. As Christopher Hitchens’s famous claim goes, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Now Ruse would probably reply that religious claims don’t require scientific evidence—that they are based on faith, revelation, and teachings of the church. But we have no confidence that those give us any reliable information about “realities” like heaven or an afterlife, if for no other reason than that different faiths give different answers. Many Jews don’t accept an afterlife, many Hindus believe not in a celestial realm of souls but in reincarnation, and Buddhists don’t have a heaven at all.
What about miracles? Don’t those violate the scientific claim that there are unbroken regularities (“laws” if you will) in the physical universe? Ruse says, well, yes, miracles like the Resurrection might be straight-out violations of physical law but that “Christian miracles are not trying to do the work of science at all. They are about something entirely different, and they are simply laid across the world of science.” (p. 207). Laid across? They either comport with what we know about science or they don’t. There is no “laying across” science. There may be philosophy going on here, but if so it is so subtle that I don’t understand it.
But Ruse offers another explanation of miracles—that they aren’t supernatural at all but merely natural occurrences that had a powerful effect. He says this about the Resurrection, for instance, claiming that maybe Jesus really did rot away, and that the “miracle” was not that he was raised from the dead but that his disciples were heartened rather than downtrodden by his death, and went forth to preach the gospel—an example of what Ruse called “group psychology.”
These apologetics are at their most amusing when Ruse proffers the faithful an explanation of how Jesus’s conversion of water into wine might have not been a “real” miracle after all (pp. 205-206):
First, in the spirit of Augustine, one argues that miracles do not necessarily involve a breaking of natural law. It is more a matter of meaning than of peculiar happenings. . . When Jesus turned the water into wine and when he fed the five thousand, it is much more probable that people were really moved by his presence and preaching to do that which they would not have done otherwise. The host at the wedding had not meant to bring out his good wine, and then, shamed by Jesus, he did just that. The multitude had no intention of sharing and then, moved by Jesus, they did give to those who had little or none. In fact, a case might be made for saying that this puts Jesus into a better light than if he actually were changing water into wine and multiplying loaves and fishes. To think literally is to change Jesus into some kind of fancy caterer.
Yes, “OMG, Jesus is here! I’d better break out the Chateau Lafitte ’32!” This is not philosophy, but the most laughable form of apologetics—theology turning scientific necessities into spiritual virtues. This resembles what theologians did when confronted with the ineluctable fact of evolution: they just claimed that it was, upon judicious reflection, better for God to have created through a “self-sustaining process” rather than ex nihilo.
I guess Ruse sees himself as a theologian as well as a philosopher, but I fail to understand why he produces this kind of intellectual pablum. If he wishes to bring together science and faith, his avowed aim, does he really think that Christians will buy this? Does he not see that his solution waters down religion so much that it becomes a kind of spiritual homeopathy, impotent to cure the longings of the faithful?
Well, maybe lots of religious people will be relieved to know that Jesus wasn’t a fancy caterer, but I don’t believe it.