A “Sinai and Synapses” writer tries to show that religion gives us truths that science cannot, fails miserably

I mentioned the project/website “Sinai and Synapses” (S&S) a few days ago (oy, what a name!). It came up in an accommodationist article written by Brian Gallagher, editor of a Nautilus blog and also a S&S fellow.  Checking out the S&S site, whose mottos are below, I see it’s the Jewish equivalent of BioLogos: a religious organization dedicated to showing the harmony between science and religion. S&S is run by the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and, as expected from its mission, it’s funded in part by—you guessed it—the John Templeton Foundation:

Scientists in Synagogues, an initiative funded primarily through The John Templeton Foundation. . .  offers Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science, and to share how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work.

The amount of dosh given to S&S by Templeton: $217,400.

And if you look up the goals of “Scientists in Synagogues,” you find out that, unlike evangelical Christians, most Jews are okay with science (read: evolution). Contra Biologos, S&S’s goal is not to get Jews to embrace science, but to embrace Judaism more firmly! The organization wants to use “theology” to hammer into Jews that science and religion are not in conflict, but collaborative. To wit (emphases are mine):

About 25% of the American populace chose one of the two conflict options, which, interestingly, was the same percentage as the Jewish population. But while most of the Christians who saw religion and science in opposition viewed themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who saw science and religion in conflict came down on the side of science — and by a huge margin. For the “conflicted Christians,” three out of four opted for religion, and one out of four chose science. But for the 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16 saw themselves on the side of science, and therefore, anti-religion.

This finding clearly implies that it’s often less of a challenge to get Jews to embrace science than it is to get them to embrace Judaism. Perhaps because Judaism has long embraced questioning and challenging authority, or perhaps because theology is rarely emphasized in the more liberal branches of Judaism, many Jews erroneously think that if they accept science, then they need to reject their Judaism. Thus one goal of Scientists in Synagogues will be to show that science and Judaism need not be in conflict, and that Jews do not need to reject their Judaism in order to celebrate science.

Yet there is an even more important goal of Scientists in Synagogues, and that comes from a slightly more subtle finding from the Perceptions Project. For the 75% of the populace who did not see science and religion in conflict, respondents were allowed to choose either “in collaboration” or “independent.” Jews were lower than any other religious group in viewing religion and science as “collaborative,” meaning that many Jews did not see science and religion as supporting each other. Instead, Jews were higher than any other group in viewing religion and science as “independent.”

Well, if Judaism supports science, it’s only through a disproportionate number of scientists having Jewish backgrounds (most “Jewish” scientists I’ve met are, of course, atheistic cultural Jews, like me). And science surely doesn’t support Judaism, for time after time science has shown that Jewish scripture is just wrong (two examples: the creation story of Genesis and the now-falsified Exodus of Jews from Egypt).  What a great use of Templeton dollars!

Sinai and Synapses mottos:

Before I get to the S&S article at hand, I looked up S&S’s advisory board, and found, to my surprise, the usual suspects, including some Christians. Among the advisors are Elaine Ecklund, accommodationist extraordinaire, a sociologist heavily funded by Templeton; Karl Giberson, who used to bear the honorific “Uncle” but has now lost it again; Jennifer Wiseman, a Christian astrophysicist who heads the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program. (If you belong to the AAAS, which publishes the journal Science, remember that your membership money is used for accommodationism); and Michael Zimmerman, head of the Clergy Letter Project, a project self-described as “an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.”

What a nest of accommodationists! I’m a bit disheartened to see that Templeton, which seems to be neuronally depauperate, continues to pump money into the futile endeavor of reconciling science and religion. And as the West becomes more secular, the necessity of that endeavor shrinks even as the desperation of its adherents grows.

To the issue at hand:  I looked at the S&S webpage and found this article, comprising two separate promoters of apologetics. It caught my eye because I’ve always been interested in the question of whether there are religious “truths” that can’t be apprehended by science. (The answer, as I show in Faith Versus Fact, is “no”—not when it comes to factual statements about the cosmos. As for “moral truths”, well, those aren’t really truths in the scientific sense, but simply  statements—usually consequentialist in nature—that grow out of one’s preference.)

But let’s look at how Timothy Maness, a Ph.D. student in religious studies at Boston University, answers the question below. Maness recites the entire piece in the video below, but I’ll single out the one “truth” that religion purports to find and science cannot. Read and weep:

First, Maness claims that religious “truths” are found by a different method than are scientific truths. That method is personal apprehension, a form of “subjectivity”:

. . . . when people over the past couple of hundred years have talked about religion, we have usually put most of our emphasis on the subjective rather than the “objective” side, and not without good reasons. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, a religious experience is by its nature one that we can’t really capture in words. Trying to describe something that you don’t really have words for is hard, for the same reason that it’s hard to tell someone else about a dream you had: while you may be able to set out in a dispassionate way the images you saw or the words you heard, it’s impossible to get across to another person the strange and powerful meaning that those words or images had in the context of your dream: the emotional details that gave the dream its character. If you can’t pass an idea on clearly from your mind to other people’s minds, then you can’t really treat that idea in anything but a subjective way. Of course, I don’t mean to say that religion is all about private, subjective experiences that we can’t talk about effectively. I just mean that, in religious contexts, we have no choice but to think in subjective terms as well as objective ones if we want to address everything that’s going on.

Ascertaining the “truth content” of a private, subjective experience is impossible unless you can verify it empirically, i.e., objectively. If Maness says that Jesus came to him in a revelation as the Son of God, all I can say is that, yes, Maness says that he had such a revelation (if you believe him). But that tells us absolutely nothing about whether Jesus existed, was divine, and was the son of God. As William James noted, a lot of religious belief comes from revelation—from people getting feelings of what’s true.  And that’s surely the case, but it doesn’t tell us what actually is true. After all, Muslim religionists, Hindu religionists, and so on all get revelations that tell them different “truths.” And there’s no way to winnow the real truths from the claimed ones—if there are any real truths there.

Well, Maness makes no statement defending Jesus, miracles, the Resurrection, and so on, but he does limn one “truth” that subjectivity reveals and empiricism cannot. He reveals that below, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what he’s trying to say:

Still, I think that, if we try to live by objectivity alone, we end up missing things that we can’t do without. Let’s take time as an example again. As I said earlier, when we treat time in purely objective, mathematical terms, what we get is just a list of events ordered from earlier to later, with every moment in time like every other one. The crucial thing that’s missing from that view of time is any sense of now, of a unique moment in which we can act, unlike all the past moments that we can remember or the future ones we can try to imagine.  There’s no way to translate that vital distinction into mathematics. And we need both points of view, the objective and the subjective, in order to live our lives in time, just as we need two eyes to see depth. I need the objective view of time, that numbered list of events on a timeline, to say that I’m meeting my friend for lunch at noon, and I also need the subjective view, so that I can know when noon is now, the time for me to get up and go.

So, that’s one of the roles that my religion plays in my life: to show me that I need the subjective as well as the objective, the personal as well as the purely rational, action as well as contemplation. If in my life I can integrate that subjective call to action, to know who I am and to be who I ought to be, with the powerful objective tools of science, then that will be something like success.

I’ve read that first paragraph and pondered it several times, and I’m still mystified. First of all, even if you think there’s a truth buried in there somewhere, it’s not a truth that requires religion. That aside, why does the concept of “now” have to be translated into mathematics? (In fact, I’m sure it could be.) The entire “truth” that Maness discerns from his faith seems to be this:

I need the objective view of time, that numbered list of events on a timeline, to say that I’m meeting my friend for lunch at noon, and I also need the subjective view, so that I can know when noon is now, the time for me to get up and go.

Well, of course there are objective ways to tell Maness when it’s noon: he can simply set his iPhone alarm, which is synched to the local time. And when the alarm goes off, the signal goes through his ears and into his brain, where there’s a program telling him what he has to do at noon. That’s all objective, empirical stuff. I don’t see how Jesus tells Maness that he has to go to lunch at noon.

What that has to do with religion, or is a “truth” that somehow circumvents science, defies me. All I can say is that if this is the best religion can do at discerning “truth”, then religion’s truth-finding capabilities are nil. Sinai and Synapses would be better named “Sinai and Schmaltz”.

Here’s Maness reciting aloud his whole spiel, some of which is transcribed above.

 

38 Comments

  1. Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    There seems to be a failure of comprehending the utility of time. If you are meeting someone for lunch at noon and you use “noon” as a signal that it is time to get up and go, then you are already late. Fundamentalists aren’t very good with the fundamentals it seems.

    • Diane G
      Posted December 18, 2018 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      That part confused me, too.

  2. Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    There seems to be a failure of comprehending the utility of time. If you are meeting someone for lunch at noon and you use “noon” as a signal that it is time to get up and go, then you are already late. Fundamentalists aren’t very good with the fundamentals it seems.

  3. Barney
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    The URL behind the picture link to Maness’s article/video has been truncated to end “what-tr”; when I click on it, the SandS site makes a guess, and serves me their article “what-truly-is-a-miracle/”.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Where to start… ugh… I’ll just pick a couple things :

    1. Living in the moment I can understand. Music is intended to exist in the moment. When we read, it is in the moment. Anesthesia shuts off “the moment” for “a lot of moments” so we can get an operation. Intuition is in the moment. It’s an important type of experience of life… might say it is equal to the experience of life.

    2. Maness claims religion showed him he needs objective and subjective views because – he claims- these two views – and only these two views – and at least in religious contexts – can ever let us address “everything that’s going on.”

    … I’ll just ask if [2] above is an accurate synopsis of his essay. Because I don’t even know where to start with just that.

  5. Sastra
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    The example using time isn’t really the point. Here I think is the gist of the argument:

    So, that’s one of the roles that my religion plays in my life: to show me that I need the subjective as well as the objective, the personal as well as the purely rational, action as well as contemplation. If in my life I can integrate that subjective call to action, to know who I am and to be who I ought to be, with the powerful objective tools of science, then that will be something like success.

    If you turn this into an apologetic, you get this:

    If religion is true/important, then it will encourage emotional engagement in the world and give a sense of purpose.

    Religion encourages emotional engagement in the world and gives a sense of purpose.

    Therefore, religion is true/important.

    If A, then B.
    B
    Therefore A

    It’s called affirming the consequent, and it’s invalid. Jerry explains why: there are other means to that end.

    I’ll point out 2 more problems, because this is the gift that keeps on giving:

    One, it assumes we *already* have or want what religion provides so that we will want religion. That undercuts the argument.

    Second, there’s a big confusion here between truth and usefulness or importance. Religion could be false and yet provide all sorts of nice things. If Jews are rejecting religion in favor of science, that means those Jews already appreciate the distinctions anddo opt for truth.

    It seems to me that Maness wants to make the argument that, without God, we would be unfeeling robots, so the existence of emotion and mattering is evidence for the existence of God (God is the best explanation) — but, unless I missed it, he doesn’t quite go there.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      God is outside of A and B.

      • A C Harper
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        But if god is outside A and B, outside logic, outside science, outside the natural universe, then no one can have any idea about what god is or wants.

        …and if you can’t know what god is or wants then Religion is just people making stuff up to suit their preferences. You can’t even rely on personal revelation or personal faith because you cannot rely on a god outside A and B being or behaving the same twenty minutes later…

        So the idea of bridging the worlds of science and religion (let alone theism) is fatally flawed.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          [ I am playing devil’s advocate for fun ]

          There’s just got to be something out there – who can say?

          God is outside of anything we can conceive. That which is beyond comprehension. It’s his plan. Yes he’s a guy. DAMHIKT.

          • A C Harper
            Posted December 18, 2018 at 6:08 am | Permalink

            Yeah, I gathered that 😉 It just sets my teeth on edge when people get as far as ‘God is Love’ or ‘God is Ineffable’ and then don’t develop that thought further.

            If god is ineffable you assume his actions or requirements are effable, describable, understandable.

            If god is love (what does that even mean?) then who is responsible for malaria and tsunami?

            And if god is omnipresent who is sharing your bathroom or bedroom moments? Creepy.

            Which is why I am indifferent to the existence or not of god – but I do worry about peoples Theism Turing Machine reaching a halt state too soon.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted December 18, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink

              I saw the most recent Oxford debate on religion vs. science and while listening to the religion side. while the speakers clearly describe the importance of science, they then get to the god part and make claims about god using terms like “time” and “space” and it struck me that these terms themselves were not sitting around since the earth formed- they are human-designed concepts.

              It’s amusing and bewildering at the same time…

    • darrelle
      Posted December 18, 2018 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      So very well said Sastra. As always of course.

      Maness argument is a common one that always leaves me a bit sad. I always wonder if the person really believes it or has to talk to themselves real fast to get by the dissonance before it causes any serious discomfort. It is the mother of false dichotomies. Actually it combines many of the classic logical fallacies. False Dilemma/False Dichotomy, Straw Man, Appeal to Ignorance, Circular Argument, Hasty Generalization, Causal Fallacy, Appeal to Pity and the Bandwagon Fallacy.

  6. JohnE
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I suspect that many thousands of people over the ages have had “visions” or heard “voices.” Why is it that nearly everyone thinks these people are delusional UNLESS the person who has the vision or hears the voice declares — based on nothing more than his/her own say so — that the vision or voice was “god”?

  7. BobTerrace
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    What I subjectively imagine is Maness bending over backward so far to make his point that the back of his head hits the back of his heels.

  8. Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Let’s be realistic about epistemology: No one has direct evidence of anything except the information that’s in his or her memory. One may choose to prioritize memories that were laid down based on information that entered via the sensory modalities, especially if that sensory information was carefully structured by means of exacting experimental or observational techniques (science). But everyone has memories for which no such precise scientific pedigree can be recalled, and people act on such “memories of uncertain origin” all the time. It’s a practical necessity.

    The best way to avoid a conflict between science and religion is to say, simply, that no specific belief from an earlier less-informed age (religious or otherwise) will be retained after it has been disproved by evidence to the contrary. Most intelligent people follow this rule anyway, and organized religion has followed it many times in the past (perhaps most notably, with the geocentric universe). Even if this rule were to be applied, there would still be a lot left over because science has a long way to go to explain even the most fundamental of human experiences–viz. the vivid conscious awareness that every normal person has of the material world. Science does not, in other words, even explain the only thing of which we have direct, unintermediated knowledge.

  9. DrBrydon
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I think what he means is that there is objective truth and the incomprehensible, and he is championing the latter. I don’t think that is likely to convince secularists, but, as usual, the devout will find it a balm.

  10. mfdempsey1946
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “And we need both points of view, the objective and the subjective, in order to live our lives in time…

    …just as we need two eyes to see depth.”

    An accident with a knife caused me to lose my right eye when I was 8 years old. But since that time decades ago, I have never had the slightest difficulty perceiving visual depth.

    What I did lose is the ability to see 3-D movies, a few of which were released during the 1950s. To a one-eyed person, with or without the glasses, 3-D films are a blur.

    But depth perception remains, even for those with only one eye. What I see with my remaining eye has never resembled a painting without perspective.

    So — for me, at least — Timothy Maness’s use of this inaccurate analogy to tout the necessity of religion in order to gain knowledge of certain life truths is enough all by itself to demolish his entire argument.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    And science surely doesn’t support Judaism, for time after time science has shown that Jewish scripture is just wrong(two examples: the creation story of Genesis and the now-falsified Exodus of Jews from Egypt).

    Reminds me of the time I represented a Lubavitcher from Crown heights on a Section 8 housing fraud beef in federal court in New York. I was able to work out a very favorable plea for him on the eve of trial. After we got the initial calculation of his sentencing-guidelines range in the pre-sentence report, I sat him down and explained that, with the mitigation evidence I intended to present at his sentencing hearing, I thought we could get his sentencing range down to where he might end up serving less than a year at a federal prison camp (down from the 10 years of hard time he was facing when I took the case).

    He said he wanted to persist with a request for straight probation. I explained that that wouldn’t constitute a lawful sentence under the circumstances. He said not to worry, G-d would provide. He explain that my role in the proceedings was to be a conduit for the power of the Lord — that I was, he said, serving essentially the same function as the staff held aloft in the hand of Moses that Yahweh had used as a conduit for parting the Red Sea.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      So, how’d it work out?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        I dunno. They had some young recent law school grad from “the community” substitute in to handle the sentencing hearing itself.

        As my partner, who has family ties to the Crown Heights community explained, they brought me in to do the heavy legal lifting for pretrial, trial, and plea negotiations. Once it got down to presenting character witnesses from the Orthodox community to plead for leniency at sentencing, it made sense to have the presentation fronted by a local who “spoke the community’s language,” so to speak.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 18, 2018 at 2:52 am | Permalink

          My malevolent atheist side hopes he got at least two years – to practically demonstrate to him the efficacy of relying on God…

          😉

          cr

    • Roger
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      So how many decades did he end up getting.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Hope the guy had no dependent children. Or was he expecting manna?

  12. Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they should change their name to ‘Desert & Brain’, and reconsider which is a more useful tool for inquiring into the nature of reality.

    Or they could call it ‘Athens and Ad Hoc Argumentation’, seeing as they still haven’t advanced a single step beyond Plato’s idea that inquiring into nature is to investigate the works of the divine — a permissible but rather grubby pursuit compared to the loftiness of revelation.

    The ultimate split here is, of course, between those who assume the universe has been intelligently designed, with the secret divine engineering code tattooed subtly onto the human brain, where it can be read by smart sophisticated and smug people, or if it arose according to the laws of physics chemistry and biology, and takes a rather a lot more work to understand empirically.

  13. Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen the subjectivity move before. Bunge answered this years ago in his “objective study of subjectivity” stuff.

  14. Taz
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    while you may be able to set out in a dispassionate way the images you saw or the words you heard, it’s impossible to get across to another person the strange and powerful meaning that those words or images had in the context of your dream

    This is simply not true. Great writers, artists, and musicians do exactly that.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      And even if I could personally convey to someone the emotional power of a dream, I still wouldn’t confuse the dream with reality. The similarity seen by the author between dreams and numinous/religious experiences undermines rather than supports any truth claims by the latter.

      On another matter, ‘neuronally depauperate’ is a keeper.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        On another matter, ‘neuronally depauperate’ is a keeper.

        Oh, yes!

  15. CAS
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    “I’m a bit disheartened to see that Templeton, which seems to be neuronally depauperate, continues to pump money into the futile endeavor of reconciling science and religion.”
    I agree, but they probably help make the religious feel more comfortable with both their ignorance and modernity. In Templeton terms, they may well be a success. Rationality is rarely used to find truth. Look at the Trump true believers who continue to come up with half-assed rationals to continue supporting his lies and very probable crimes.

  16. Ray Little
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Subjective time is a game I play: I say, ‘It’s about a quarter to three,’ then look at my phone, and I’m pleased when it says 2:42. But this is a game. If I say quarter-to-three and my phone says 1:15, I don’t set off for my three-o’clock appointment in a flurry because I’ll be late. Yes, objectivity is the gold standard.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 18, 2018 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Yep. And I bet Maness looks before crossing the street too.

  17. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    This fellow talks about “a unique moment in which we can act…”. Sounds to me like an attempt to insert unconditional free will into the equation.

    Oh, and I like the term “neurally depauperate” for Templeton. I can think of a few more salty phrases, but that’ll do for the moment.

  18. Posted December 17, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Why is “now” anymore subjective than “here”? Both simply identify a particular point in spacetime relative to other points in spacetime.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Why is “now” anymore subjective than “here”? Both simply identify a particular point in spacetime relative to other points in spacetime.

      Because if you think like that, you don’t get any Templeton money.

      Religion will never disappear from American life–the scam is simply too lucrative, and the scamees use it to preen themselves on being better than everyone else (the one thing that jews, christians, and muslims all have in common).

  19. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 18, 2018 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    “And science surely doesn’t support Judaism, for time after time science has shown that Jewish scripture is just wrong”

    The exact same applies of course to Christianity, for obvious reasons to do with the origin of the O.T.

    cr

  20. Roo
    Posted December 18, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Regarding what he means – I believe this is a reference to “living in the present moment” or “the power of Now” type stuff, which is a common theme in contemplative or mystical traditions. I understand this to *some degree (I’ve noticed that if I’m doing an intermittent fast I barely even think about lunch that day because I know it’s not coming, but if I don’t have time to eat lunch on a typical day it does cause mild ‘suffering’, as my brain races ahead in time to “When am I going to eat, when am I going to eat, why haven’t I eaten, when will I have time to eat?!”), but I’ve never understood why this particular practice just blows some people’s minds. Apparently it does though.

    That said, I think the issue is not so much that there are important subjective truths to be discovered – I am actually very much in agreement on that. I think there’s a fair amount of data on mediation as positive psychology practice, for example. I think the tricky thing is when those are categorized under ‘religion’. Even if you posit a vague nonmaterial component to transcendental experiences (and I admit, I am fascinated by the possibility of things like psi, reported everywhere from near death experiences to those using psychedelics to mystics and saints such as St. Porphyrios – I don’t rule out some sort of ‘spiritual realm’), that says very very little about whether or not science is compatible with specific religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc., apart from whatever contemplative practices they contain. The book of Genesis and whether or not it’s beneficial to ‘live in the present moment’ are two very different topics.

  21. Zetopan
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Summary:

    As the masses get more educated religion has to retreat deeper into more sophisticated obscurantism in an effort to remain “true”.

    Rational people easily recognize religious apologetics for the intended deception that is its core, while the perpetually confused cannot and continue to believe in falsehoods.


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