Washington Post columnist says we’re “wired to need explanatory stories”, i.e., religion

The Washington Post editorial below has on tap a considerable amount of science-bashing, as well as heavy pushing of the idea that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond empirical observation. Read and weep; the author is Michael Gerson, an op-ed writer at the paper and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. I’m betting he’s religious, but that’s just a guess.

Gerson’s piece is a generally positive review of a new science book, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, and he lauds its author, David Christian, for a lucid presentation of geology, anthropology, chemistry, linguistics, and sociology. But then Gerson gets exercised when Christian says he’s trying to replace traditional “origin myths” with true stories.  So Gerson goes off about science. OY! (Gerson’s words are indented.)

Christian has written a book that succeeds at everything except its stated purpose. Ultimately he wants to provide a replacement for traditional origin stories that come from religion. These he finds contradictory and outdated. But human beings are wired to need explanatory stories, revealing, as Christian writes, “ This is what you are; this is where you came from.” Without this rooting, people can become victim to a “sense of disorientation, division and directionlessness.”

Well, yes, maybe, as beings evolved to be curious, we want explanations. But are we wired to accept divine explanations? If so, what’s the evidence? And aren’t science and truth sufficient to satisfy that curiosity? If not, how do you explain Scandinavia, a group of largely atheistic lands where people are not sunk in ennui and anomie?

But wait! There’s more science bashing to come!

In some ways, “Origin Story” is appropriately humble. Christian’s version of history, he admits, provides no explanation for ultimate beginnings. Why did the universe start in a high state of order (which is a low state of entropy)? Why did the newborn universe — what Georges Lemaitre called the “Cosmic Egg” — have operating rules that allowed for the emergence of form and structure? There is really no telling. Maybe, Christian hints, the questions themselves are meaningless. And we certainly can’t turn to the divine. “Most versions of the modern origin story,” he writes, “no longer accept the idea of a creator god because modern science can find no direct evidence for a god.”

Christian thus repeats the defining mistake of scientism: the unquestioned assumption that all rational knowledge is scientific knowledge. This is anything but humble. It is a kind of epistemological imperialism that excludes knowledge coming from moral and philosophical reasoning, from theological argumentation and from historical investigation based on reliable witnesses. Not to mention the kind of knowledge that someone loves us. Christian attempts to increase the certainty of knowledge by limiting it to less consequential things. It makes the Cosmic Egg more like a Faberge egg — ornate, beautiful and, ultimately, useless.

My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Bruce Grant, responded (below) when he sent me the link to Gerson’s pablum:

Michael Gerson’s book review of “Origin Story” in his Opinion column, July 24, accuses the book’s author, David Christian, of repeating “the defining mistake of scientism: the unquestioned assumption that all rational knowledge is scientific knowledge.” But it is Mr. Gerson who is mistaken. Rational knowledge is not private knowledge. It requires verification. That requires evidence that is open to all to inspect. It cannot be simply made up, and accepted as true because it makes us feel good. That’s called wishful thinking. The author of the book Mr. Gerson reviews does not make claims beyond what current evidence supports. Scientists are free to ask any questions they want, but they are not free to make up the answers. That is the significant distinction between science and religion Mr. Gerson fails to recognize.

I’ll add that knowledge of the type Christian was writing about doesn’t come from philosophical or moral reasoning, for which you’d be hard pressed to identify universally agreed upon “truths”, though I think there’s value in both endeavors. (I don’t, for instance, think there are objective moral truths.) Theology, of course, produces NO truths, for every religion has different “truths” that are often incompatible. “Historical investigation based on reliable witnesses” is simply empirical investigation, which of course requires verification, as all good historians know. Finally, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, even the question of whether someone loves us is based on reason. John Hinkley might have thought that Jodie Foster loved him, but there was no evidence for that. There are signs that someone loves you, depending on your definition of “love.”

Finally, Gerson pulls the ultimate theological rabbit out of the hat: “You can’t prove there’s no God.”

As to God, the claim that modern science can provide no direct evidence for a being apart from the natural world is tautological. Does Christian expect transcendence to be like a gas that glows blue when heated?

At the very least, a Christian should require evidence for the existence of God and Christ before turning her life over to Jesus worship. And yes, a God that interacts with the world should give the world some evidence that He exists. Otherwise it’s just the “wishful thinking” that Bruce mentions above. Such evidence is possible (I give some in FvF as did Carl Sagan in his book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God [read it!]), but the evidence just isn’t there.  When we lack evidence for a widely believed proposition, like Santa Claus or Bigfoot, we tend to put that proposition in our mental dustbin—except when it comes to God.  Apparently Gerson is one of those who likes to suspend disbelief:

Christian’s view of the universe has an impressive breadth, but it is shallow. Scientism always involves reductionism. “A man who has lived and loved,” said G.K. Chesterton, “falls down dead and worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like.” If loyalty is really chemistry, and truth is just the wisp of electric current in a three-pound piece of meat, this is not enough to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. It is not even enough to divert a class of students who hear the call of a fall afternoon, and love, and a vast sky full of meaning.

Well, maybe science has its limits, but I for one am not going to find “purpose and belonging” in wish-thinking and scriptural fiction. In response to Gerson I’ll simply quote another great skeptic besides Sagan: Richard Feynman:

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

I guess Feynman wasn’t properly wired to need explanatory stories—unless they were true.

43 Comments

  1. Posted July 24, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Okay, I’m stumped. What matters most? Is this a trick question?

    On Tue, Jul 24, 2018 at 11:55 AM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “” >

  2. Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “Why did the newborn universe … have operating rules that allowed for the emergence of form and structure?”

    I take this to ask why do we have laws of physics? I am not sure how to address that, but given that our universe has the 2nd law of thermodynamics and gravity, the result will be a universe with form and structure. Dispersed matter in the hot young universe will coalesce by gravity, resulting in galaxies and stars.

    • Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      I take it to mean “Why do the laws of physics lead to atoms made of quarks, molecules made of atoms, life made of molecules, culture made by life, and so on.” Are the rules that make structure possible highly dependent on the details of the laws of physics, or would it arise in any universe with different laws having more than some minimum level of complexity? Note that by “universe” I include both parallel universes and universes we can imagine. (Perhaps there’s no difference.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      That we *have* laws of physics is rather trivial, same with structures. It is the question of having *interesting* structure that is open.

      Noether showed that symmetries, having the same characteristics elsewhere, leads to conservation laws. In an inflationary universe that is even constrained to happen, space increases in volume with preserved characteristics. But even if not, the alternative would be meaningless.

      Structures follows from inflation, same as having low entropy. Or rather, its quantum fluctuations that sets up the later cosmic filaments of galaxies.

      The most likely outcome of the observed eternal slow roll inflation process is selection bias on varying characteristics universes.

      It is arguable of course, currently it fails tests since the Weinberg 1980s estimate of our universe being marginally 5 % likely is likely updated to 2 % or so, too low for comfort. (Though I note that our solar system architecture is just 1 % of model outcomes, so such likelihoods may eventually be seen as “natural”.) But the same papers that argue that 90 % of galaxies are inhabitable due to gamma ray busters or other high energy events, place us smack in the middle of the habitable range of vacuum energy density (cosmological constant).

      Personally I don’t like it yet, life becomes so rare. But if that is where it leads… “Interesting” structures would then be Gerson’s phobia, tautological by way of observation bias of interested parties.

  3. KD33
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Feynman: “I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

    He makes one of the most important points that, IMO, need to be directed to believers and accommodationists. It’s what seems hardest for them to understand, Gerson included.

    • Posted July 24, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m guessing that some people really are unhappy with unanswered fundamental questions. We can’t all be like Feynman. (BTW, I have no problem with that kind of uncertainty.) Can we really hope to convince such people that they should be happy instead? Note I am not talking about convincing them of scientific truths here. We should try to make them understand those.

  4. AC Harper
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    It’s my observation that people with religious beliefs believe in a god that is just real enough to support the just-world fallacy (see just-world hypothesis in Wikipedia) and no more.

    It’s almost as if too big a god would be embarrassing.

  5. Paul Matthews
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Our host’s guess that Michael Gerson is religious is bang on, according to his Wikipedia entry. There he’s described as “evangelical”.

    • Logan Moss
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Gerson’s Wikipedia entry is certainly illuminating and definitely worth a read, if only for lines such as this from a former colleague:
      “For all of our chief speechwriter’s finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point.”
      That assessment certainly seems to be borne out by some of the comments he makes in his WaPo review.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Michael Gerson was a Bush baby, a speech writer for George and an old school republican who is like many, lost today in a world of Trump. Use to see him on the PBS news sitting in for the other lost republican, I forget his name. Maybe when you no longer have a party to believe in you revert to your old ways. Too bad.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Michael Gerson was Dubya’s main liaison to the evangelicals, so, yeah, religious. He did a piece in The Atlantic a couple months ago, though, in which he denounced the evangelical support for Trump. A pretty damn good and well-written piece it was, too.

  8. alexander
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I read the comments to the WaPo piece published by the paper, and was happily surprised–I expected a halleluja chorus.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    “It is a kind of epistemological imperialism that excludes knowledge coming from moral and philosophical reasoning, from theological argumentation and from historical investigation based on reliable witnesses.”

    One of these things is not like the others — the only one that’s incompatible with science.

  10. freiner
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Gerson seems to be playing the role of Napoleon to Christian’s would-be Laplace in another “No mention of God?” – “No need for that hypothesis” exchange. The actual N-L exchange may never have occurred, but its moral endures.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, do you have any interest in reading the book, or do you know anyone who has read it? It looks interesting (despite Gerson’s childish complaints). Along the lines of Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow I imagine.

    • Jim batterson
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      David christian has published big history in several very different formats overthe years. My favorite and i believe the most informative with graphs and data tables is the book, “maps of time”, published in 2004/2011 by u of california press. He also does an infotmative great courses dvd; recently did a well-illustrated but with extremely limited data coffee table style book (dk penguin random house); and now, most recently, the origin story book under discussion here in weit, which seems to be almost all text with no supporting data tables or figures. I really like maps of time, referring to it often.

  12. Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Gerson: “But human beings are wired to need explanatory stories, revealing, as Christian writes, ‘This is what you are; this is where you came from.’ Without this rooting, people can become victim to a ‘sense of disorientation, division and directionlessness.'”

    We’re “wired to need explanatory stories?!” Hey, I’m no Blank Slater, but I have a hard time imagining how our genes found out about “explanatory stories,” not to mention imaginary super-beings that live in the sky.

    Gerson: “(Scientism) is a kind of epistemological imperialism that excludes knowledge coming from moral and philosophical reasoning, from theological argumentation and from historical investigation based on reliable witnesses.”

    Moral reasoning? About what? As Prof. CC says, there is no such thing as objective morality. In other words, when it comes to objective truths, moral reasoning is no different than reasoning about the different breeds of unicorns. As for philosophical reasoning and historical investigation based on reliable witnesses, what “truths” is Gerson referring to that are somehow hermetically sealed off from science?

    Gerson: “If loyalty is really chemistry, and truth is just the wisp of electric current in a three-pound piece of meat, this is not enough to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. It is not even enough to divert a class of students who hear the call of a fall afternoon, and love, and a vast sky full of meaning.”

    So unless you believe in a pack of lies you somehow become incapable of appreciating a fall afternoon, love, or the sky? This guy needs to swallow the red pill. I really think the lives of religious zealots are impoverished by the nonsense they believe. My sense of wonder comes from imagining the incredible improbability of our existence, and the wealth of knowledge we have yet to discover.

  13. grasshopper
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Stop the universe – I want to get off.

  14. DrBrydon
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    We would also crap on the ground unless we were taught otherwise. We learn.

    • Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      We’re having some remodeling done at home, and right now, the water’s off so the plumber can work. I may resort to crapping on the ground too unless it comes back on soon. 😉

  15. Posted July 24, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Religion by it’s very nature constrains the freedom of inquiry, it is safe. It may warm your hands and feet but unfortunately with science milling about, it leaves your butt exposed. Which is why i like Feynman’s comment about being frightened.
    It’s a cold universe and he (Gerson) needs his blankie and that’s ok, bedtime stories are a nice thing with beginning and end.
    Sooner or later though…
    not so science and as far as we know, the universe, there is no “happy” ending either. The truth in that is liberating and granted, frightening, but we are all, along with our fellow creatures in this together… finding the truth and that’s a WOW, this is life! and should more than sustain Gerson with courage, that’s if he cared to look beyond fairytales from under his blankie.

  16. JohnE
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Gerson just needs to grow up. What objective adult doesn’t think the real story of creation (including the fact that all of the atoms in our bodies heavier than hydrogen and helium were formed in a supernova, and that we are distant cousins with every other form of life on earth) isn’t infinitely more fascinating than the primitive idea that the universe was poofed into existence by a magic man who then formed Adam out of dust?

    • Sastra
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes. His complaint reminds me of a teenager throwing down a book on astronomy in disgust because it doesn’t say anything about his personality or future or who he ought to marry. You know — the important things.

      Our brains are wired to perk up at astrology.

  17. Steve Pollard
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Whenever someone waves the flag of “other ways of knowing” – moral, philosophical, theological, what have you – I am tempted to reply “What if you had to defend your assertion in a law court?”

    Suppose you really had to show, for whatever reason, that you know the sun will rise again tomorrow morning? Or that you love your spouse and family? Or “I know that my redeemer liveth”? Yup, evidence every time. And all of it, in principle, testable.

    And some of these assertions pass the evidence test, and some of them don’t. That’s how we make progress, every now and again.

  18. FloM
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    David Christian — sounds as though this writer needs a pseudonym urgently!

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Oy.

    I do not agree with Gerson that science cannot provide direct evidence for there being no “being apart from the natural world”, as LHC and Planck has shown us. At the very least I cannot agree because Gerson’s claim is arguable.

    Moreover Gerson is – and others that recently lauded Lemâitre are – tedious when he whips out a 100 year old idea that was shown to be erroneous already 60 years ago. There is nothing of what “[Lemâitre] called the “primeval atom” or “the Cosmic Egg, exploding at the moment of the creation”” [ https://www.physicsoftheuniverse.com/scientists_lemaitre.html ]. Penzias and Wilson showed in the 60s that the universe is too homogeneous to have “exploded”. And the very same process that we eventually discovered happened before the hot big bang expansion – cold inflation expansion- is what explains the initially low entropy due to the adiabatic expansion cooling under the process.

    Wrong and tedious. Unfortunately precisely what you can expect from apologetics, they do not research their “primeval nuggets” for facts.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Oops, ‘modern’ apologetics was wrong 50 years ago. But what is a decade between friends?

      • Angel
        Posted July 24, 2018 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        Still Scienctists haven’t explained WHY the world was at the moment of “being”, at the minimum entropy, thus highly organized. The rest is quite well understood. I do agree with Sagan, Feymann and others here that is possible to live with the uncertainty. ..

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted July 26, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          I covered precisely that! Adiabatic expansion under inflation cools the universe same as it flattens it.

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m glad that it’s an opinion column and not a book review, because in the latter this would be really really out of place.

    If there is a true religion, then there is at most one, and the mixed ethical record of even the best of them suggests that none are entirely true.
    Like Plato, I hold one can achieve quite a lot of moral insight without the aid of religion, and my mostly favorite religion- Buddhism- has a spotty track record on treatment of women, and in some places (notably Japan) has a deeply compromised record of church-state entanglement.
    Some religious thinkers have profound moral and “spiritual” insights, but no religion has a monopoly on these, and every religion has promulgated some clearly unethical ideas.

    I will concede readily to Mr. Gerson that there is a major difference between truth and verifiability, and that while science is the best way to verifiable knowledge, there may be be many truths that are true but not verifiable.
    But as Dawkins observed to Bill O’Reilly that doesn’t itself per se lead to Christianity. In particular, to Mr. O’Reilly’s version of it, there are substantive moral objections.

    The author of the book being reviewed is correct that origin stories are contradictory. As I observed in a comment here at WEIT in the past two weeks, Genesis has TWO creations of Adam, one from the Yahwistic source (in which Adam and Eve are created simultaneously) and one from the Elohistic source (only about 10 verses later), in which Adam is created first, and then Eve is made out of his rib.
    This is a fairly clear sign that this text was not intended to be read literally, and even the crusty conservative St. Augustine figured that one out, although he believed in a literal Adam (although not a literal 7 days of creation).
    (I also noted in that other comment that the Old Testament not to mention Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity has no doctrine of original sin in the Western sense.)

    Now, I suspect humans in some sense may really BE wired for several individual elements of religion (including the tendency to think teleologically), but even so I would still argue that many religions are actually hijacking those tendencies rather than constructively employing them.

    Incidentally, if Greenland counts as a Scandinavian country (it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark) than it remains one that is still highly religious.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted July 25, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      Looking up Scandinavia on Wikipedia, I have ascertained that Greenland is not considered Scandinavia, nor are a couple of islands that belong to Norway.

  21. Posted July 24, 2018 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of Feynman, his Lectures on Physics include this gem:

    Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more ? […] It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined!

    Source

    • Angel
      Posted July 24, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Those lectures are great!

    • Posted July 25, 2018 at 12:33 am | Permalink

      I’ve always liked this response. The fools like to portray it as mutually exclusive choices: once the scientist disassembles a phenomenon, she can no longer appreciate its beauty. Instead, the experiences are additive or, at least, independent.

  22. Posted July 24, 2018 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if PCC-E has written about this “scientism” before. It seems like a buzzword people bring out whenever science is about to disprove their pet idea, whether theism or woo.

    • Posted July 25, 2018 at 12:36 am | Permalink

      Wikipedia’s Scientism entry makes it clear that it is a negative label. It’s used by non-scientists while looking down their nose and sniffing.

      • peepuk
        Posted July 25, 2018 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        You are right, it’s normally not used as a compliment, but still I think scientism is the best term to describe my core belief:

        There are no deeper explanations than those that science provides (from : Alex Rosenberg).

  23. Posted July 25, 2018 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  24. Jackson
    Posted July 25, 2018 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks for bruce grant paragraph..it was great.

  25. Posted July 25, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    So what? We’re also wired to want too much sugar and fat.

    • eric
      Posted July 25, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      Yes exactly. We’re wired to die after we stop being able to have kids. We’re wired for a lot of stupid things. If we’re wired for explanatory stories, that’s simply another bias we need to overcome, not a reason to think stories are some philosophical deepity.

      Since people are adding Feynman quotes, here’s one of my favorites (from QED) which is in a similar humble vein as Jerry’s:

      “The next reason that you might think that you do not understand what I am telling you is, while I am describing to you how Nature works, you won’t understand why Nature works that way. But you see, nobody understands that. I can’t explain why Nature behaves in this peculiar way…

      …I’m going to have fun telling you about this absurdity, because I find it delightful. Please don’t turn yourself off because you can’t believe Nature is so strange. Just hear me all out, and I hope you’ll be delighted as I am when we’re through.”

    • Posted July 25, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      With much the same effect as the so-called innate human desire for religion: we individuals are made sick for the benefit of
      the overlord corporations, and leadership of churches.

  26. JOANN SERRANO
    Posted July 29, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I will naively respond that difference implies autonomy but does not ensure it. Gravity references a context.


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