This is one of the worst arguments for science/faith compatibility I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of dreadful arguments. It’s by Dave Pruett, described as “a former NASA researcher, is an acclaimed computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU)”. (Note that James Madison is also the academic home of Jason Rosenhouse, and I wonder what Jason thinks of his colleague.) Pruett is also author of a new accommodationist book, Reason and Wonder; checking the contents, I find that I can’t bear to read it. Life is short.
Here is Pruett’s argument for the upcoming Grand Unification of Science and Faith. Note that it appears in the “Science” section!
1. We don’t understand consciousness, ergo Jesus.
The central challenge facing 21st-century science is understanding the human mind. That science finds itself confronting the question of consciousness comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger as Erin intuited. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.
There are in actuality two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans — cartographers of the neural realm — to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be fully resolved.
The “hard” problem is altogether something else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red. The mind is not a tabula rasa, the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant concluded. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” said Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.
Cats are almost certainly conscious too—does that imply God?
Just because a problem is hard doesn’t mean that it’s insoluble using naturalistic methods, and certainly doesn’t mean that God is the default solution. Everything we’re learning about the brain and mind show that the mind is an emanation of the brain; to paraphrase an old adage, the brain secretes mind the way glands secrete hormones. They may not be synonymous, but our ignorance of how consciousness arises, both mechanistically and evolutionarily, does not by any means imply that God exists. One could have said the same thing about any number of old scientific problems that are now solved.
2. Quantum mechanics is weird, ergo Jesus.
Lured into the study of consciousness by the Trojan horse of physics — quantum mechanics — science has entered no-man’s land. The quantum (subatomic) world is so bizarre that each of its pioneers felt that he had created a Frankenstein. In disgust at the probabilistic behavior of electrons jumping from one orbital to another, Einstein — a strict determinist — grumbled, “I would rather be a cobbler … than a physicist.”
At the quantum level, the world turns topsy-turvy. Matter looks like Swiss cheese, mostly holes, to Rutherford’s surprise. Worse, matter has an alter ego: energy. Matter, it seems, is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter. Moreover, there is the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy, revealed by “double-slit” experiments with light or electrons. Electrons, for example, manifest sometimes as particles — which are localized in space — and sometimes as waves — which are distributed — but never as both simultaneously. What, then, is an electron when it behaves as a wave? Physicists now concede that an electron’s wavelike nature expresses its tendency to exist when observed. The dissolution of the material world at the hands of science has provoked one respected physicist to quip, “Whatever matter is, it isn’t made of matter.”
. . . The uncertainty principle collapses the Cartesian partition. “The very act of observing,” articulated Heisenberg, “alters the object being observed.” Subject and object interact. Mind and matter are not disjoint, as Descartes presumed. “It would be most satisfactory of all,” envisioned Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli, “if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”
Again, how this enables God is beyond me. And you don’t have to have a human observer—a psyche—to collapse a wave function. No mind need be involved. The conjunction of physics and psyche is a myth.
What Pruett is banging on about is simply the same tired old God-of-the-gaps argument. We don’t know yet the answer to some problems, so the solution must be God. As Anthony Grayling might say, it could just as easily be Fred. I’m convinced that one day we will understand consciousness, both “easy” and “hard” forms, but to say that “mind is off-limits to science” is precisely the danger that woo-meisters like Pruett pose. They are science-stoppers. The good thing is that they won’t succeed, because scientists are infinitely curious.
In the end, Pruett channels Chopra:
But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Well, I’m sorry that Dr. Pruett is weary of science pushing back the frontiers of faith (and woo), but that’s the way it is. He can have his “numinous glow,” while the rest of us can proceed with finding the answers—and we don’t need the God hypothesis to do so.
UPDATE: I’ve just seen that, over at EvolutionBlog, Jason has analyzed Pruett’s post and is reading his book. He’s being very kind, as Pruett is his friend and colleague, but if you read beneath the niceties you’ll see that Jason thinks that Pruett’s argument is unconvincing.