Blog Posts

02
Jul

In Conversation: Becoming a Philosopher

Let’s start with you. What originally sparked your interest in the relationship between science and religion?

Well, I’ve always been fascinated with the “big questions.” Does God exist? Does free will exist? How are the mind and body related? How did the universe begin?

As a young child, I first sought answers to these questions in my Catholic upbringing. As I grew older, however, I discovered philosophy and science and was captivated by their distinctive ways of going about answering these perennial human questions. I read as much philosophy and science as I could get my hands on, and I was enthralled not only by the answers I found there but also by the difference in methodology. It became apparent rather quickly that science seeks answers and goes about justifying beliefs and theories differently than religion does. This realization led me to question the epistemic authority of religion: Does religion offer an alternative route to knowledge that is distinct from science? That was probably the first real conflict I experienced between science and religion.

Of course, as my interests progressed other questions arose. For example, most of my professional work has been in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and metaphysics, with a particular interest in consciousness and free will. It’s hard to theorize about these issues without considering the relationship between science and religion. For example, if one adopts a naturalistic account of the mind, as I do, then the human mind, including consciousness, is seen as a natural phenomenon that evolved over millions of years.

I am always perplexed when I meet people who are interested in science and religion but have never thought much about the relationship between the two. I find this utterly baffling! Given that scientific and religious worldviews dominate our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it, I believe it’s imperative that we ask ourselves: Are science and religion compatible when it comes to understanding cosmology (the origin of the universe), biology (the origin of life and of the human species), ethics, and the human mind (minds, brains, souls, and free will)? As I see it, questions like this are just a natural outgrowth of trying to understand the world around us. I find it hard not to be interested in such questions!

I loved when the scholars in the book touched on how their personal experiences inform their work. Did you have any life experiences that inspired your work in this field?

The book does include some interesting personal tales. Michael Shermer, for example, recounts how he was a born-again Christian in his late teens—a “bible thumper” and “Jesus freak” as he puts it—before becoming one of the leading skeptical voices in America. Susan Blackmore describes a personal experience she had in the 1970s that forever changed her life. She describes it as an out-of-body experience or near-death experience, and it had her absolutely convinced at the time that the soul was real. She went on, however, to do research in the paranormal, eventually earning a Ph.D. in parapsychology, and after years of research came to the conclusion that there is no soul and no personal life after death.

In the opposite direction, the book also includes some conversion tales and personal tales of coming to God. Alister McGrath, for example, is one of the world’s leading theologians and Christian apologists, but he describes how he started out as an atheist.

My own personal journey was nowhere near as exciting. In fact, it was downright prosaic. I was raised Roman Catholic, attended Catholic high school, and somewhere along the way simply lost whatever faith I had. There was no single moment or experience that shifted the scales. Nor did I suffer any dark nights of soul searching or existential angst. Rather, it was much like a snake shedding a layer of skin it no longer needed.

Did you have a mentor?

My mentor in graduate school was David Rosenthal. I worked closely with him for a number of years, spending some time as his research assistant. He played an instrumental role in shaping my philosophical thinking and his theory of consciousness—known as the Higher-Order Thought (or HOT) theory—is one I still defend and make use of today, most notably in my book on Free Will and Consciousness. He was also the Coordinator of the Cognitive Science concentration at the CUNY Graduate Center and every Friday the Cog Sci group would gather together to hear an outside speaker or member of the group give a talk.

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Gregg Caruso and his father.

In fact, my first attempt at giving a “quasi-professional” presentation was in that group. I was really nervous at the time, but it was a rather supportive place to work out ideas and David did his best to support and encourage us young academics. Drinks and continued debate at a local pub usually followed our Friday sessions, and I have to say that those Friday afternoons had more of an impact on me than any single course I took.

Another big influence on me, though a non-academic one, would be my father. I’m not sure if he qualifies as a mentor, but he’s the person that taught me respect, how to love, how to be curious, and how to work hard to achieve one’s goals.

These topics are having a “moment” right now with the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate. Have you given any thought to the timing of this book? Or why discussions about science and religion are having a moment now?

I agree with you that there is currently a lot of interest in the relationship between science and religion. You mentioned the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, and undoubtedly that debate garnered a lot of attention—not all of it good in my opinion. Giving Ken Ham such a prominent platform lends undeserved credibility to his anti-scientific worldview, his young earth creationism.

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Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

It also has the unfortunate effect of painting all Christians in an unfavorable light. Most Christians I know are reasonable people who accept that the universe is billions of years old, that humans didn’t just appear on the scene in their common form, and that carnivores existed before the fall of man. Ken Ham in no way reflects sophisticated theological thinking on these issues. So while the spectacle of that debate may have made good entertainment, it didn’t really reflect an adult conversation about the deep issues.

For my money, the recent debate between theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and Christian apologist William Lane Craig—incidentally, both contributors to the book—was far more interesting and informative than the Nye/Ham debate. Last summer there was also a series of high profile debates—I believe there were three debates in total—between theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig throughout Australia.

All of these high profile debates, along with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of the Cosmos and movies like The Unbelievers (which features Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins), has definitely placed the relationship between science and religion at the forefront of many peoples’ minds.

What is the “climate” like right now regarding the dialogue between science and religion?

That’s a great question. I’m not exactly sure how to read the winds. On the one hand, things are definitely better than they were in the 1980s. As a few of the contributors note, the 80s were a particularly volatile time in the culture wars. It saw the birth of the religious right and the rise of so-called “creation science.” No one really talks about creation science now, so that’s progress I guess, but there is still debate, at least in the United States, over intelligent design.

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The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case inspired this Time magazine cover.

The recent 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is evidence that America has not yet come to terms with Darwinian evolution. That case was the first direct challenge brought in the United States federal courts testing whether a public school district could require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. The book, in fact, includes two people who testified at that trial on opposing sides. William Dembski, one of the world’s leading intelligent design advocates, testified for the defense. The Catholic theologian John F. Haught testified for the plaintiffs against intelligent design. Haught, in fact, won a Darwin Award for his testimony and he says it remains one of his proudest academic moments.

In general, I am an optimist about the prospects for healthy dialogue. In fact, I recently founded a journalScience, Religion & Cultureto help facilitate such dialogue. I think it’s important that dialogue occur between believers and nonbelievers, since I think there is still much we can learn from each other.

I also believe that dialogue needs to occur within various camps, communities, and traditions. As the disagreement between Dembski and Haught makes clear, Christians, and theists generally, are still struggling with their acceptance of evolution, modern cosmology, and neuroscience. I think it would be beneficial, therefore, for a dialogue to occur between those theists who embrace our best scientific theories and those who still resist them. Perhaps a wider acceptance of science would be better achieved if the science-friendly members of the religious community were the ones to counteract their fundamentalist brothers and sisters.

To be fair, I would say the same is true for atheists, secularists, and humanists. I think members of my own community need to consider their tone, rhetoric, and overall attitude toward people of faith. A discussion also needs to occur within the community over scientism, the role and importance of philosophy, and the question of whether or not science alone can answer all questions. The first issue of Science, Religion & Culture actually includes an exchange between Victor Stenger and Massimo Pigliucci (both contributors to the book) on precisely this issue. It is well worth checking out.

Part 3: The science vs. religion debate

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SeanSLOS

Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.