A flurry of recent research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has suggested that from our childhood we are “teleologically promiscuous“- detecting purpose readily behind everything from birds to rocks, “intuitive dualists“- distinguishing between physical bodies and immaterial minds, and possess a “hyperactive agency detector device” (HADD), which makes us quick to worry about what caused that twig to snap in the bush behind us. All of these factors (and more beside) are said to make us “Born Believers“ in the words of Justin Barrett, a psychologist specialising on religious thought (and my former supervisor). However, even if we accept such accounts, then an important question remains: what exactly are we ‘born to believe’ ?
The final talk at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was a talk by Dr. Raj Persaud a well known psychiatrist and TV personality (who has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently). Unfortunately, I found this talk to be the weakest of the four but this is somewhat understandable given that Dr. Persaud was a last minute replacement covering for Baroness Mary Warnock’s absence.
His talk was lacking any real underlying topic or coherent message and instead was a sort of mishmash of separate topics that seemed to have been cobbled together in order that the two topics of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ got a mention. As a result, I got the impression that his appearance at the event may have been due to a frantic last minute search (and a personal favour to the organisers) rather than because he had a lot to say on the topic of ‘Science vs. Religion’.
The third talk at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was a discussion by the philosopher and head of CFI London Stephen Law on ‘the empirical evidence against God’.
From the title of the talk I was expecting a whistle stop tour through topics such as abiogenesis, evolution and some of the scientific theories of the origin of the universe however none of these subjects were touched and, in actual fact, I didn’t really note any ’empirical evidence’ being discussed. Instead, what Stephen Law presented in his talk, seemed to me to be more a philosophical argument against the monotheistic concept of God. I realise it is a distinct possibility that the philosophical definition of empirical means something entirely different than from what I understand, however, my definition of empirical is something like ‘evidence that can be scientifically identified and tested’ and in this regard Law’s talk was somewhat lacking.
With that said the philosophical argument he did present was quite interesting and entertaining and from my perspective it seemed to be quite well argued. The central thesis of the argument was that you could replace a ‘Good God’ with an ‘Evil God’ in the most common arguments used to defend a Good God’s existence and they work just as well in reverse, suggesting that they are not particularly compelling arguments as they can be used to defend the existence of any type of God, even seemingly absurd ones like ‘Evil God’.
The second speaker at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was the popular science writer Simon Singh. Simon Singh is an excellent public speaker who gives very polished talks and he also happens to be one of my favourite science writers.
His talk on this occasion was on the Big Bang and the all too familiar battle between unyielding, dogmatic conservatives and progressive, open minded pioneers. The slight twist in this tale was that it was actually the religious figures who were being more open minded and the scientists who were being dismissive.
However, before parapsychologists and pseudoscientists everywhere get to celebrating, there is an important point worth recognising. Namely although the Big Bang story does illustrate how resistant to change everyone, including scientists, can be it also illustrates how as more and more evidence came in supporting the theory the scientific consesus did in fact shift. Thus the Big Bang is a good story for highlighting that science is somewhat unique as an endeavour, in that, no matter how much people resist a concept, when it is true the evidence for it will eventually overcome any resistance.
So another month, another Centre for Inquiry event and another series of four reviews on the talks provided.
This time the theme for the four lectures was ‘Science and Religion‘- a topic close to my heart, and the speakers were Dr. Jack Cohen– a reproductive biologist, Simon Singh– a popular science writer (and the defendant in an important upcoming courtcase), Stephen Law– a philosopher and provost of the London Centre for Inquiry and Dr. Raj Persaud– a psychiatrist who frequently appears on TV (and has recently been embroiled in some scandal). Baroness Mary Warnock an influential philosopher pulled out at the last minute so unfortunately her talk on ‘religion as humanism’ was missing, which was a shame as it sounded interesting.
This post will be covering the talk of the first speaker Professor Jack Cohen titled ‘The Evidence for Evolution’.