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In Conversation: A Philosopher on What's Next with "Science and Religion"

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What was the most surprising thing you took away from these interviews?

I guess I was somewhat surprised by the number of contributors who rejected or found unsatisfying Stephen Jay Gould’s attempted reconciliation between science and religion. I expected the atheists to dismiss Gould, but I was somewhat surprised by how many theists rejected Gould’s proposal as well. The atheists complained that (a) religion does not limit itself to the domain of morals and values, hence it ends up treading on science’s turf; and (b) religion does not even deserve any special authority when it comes to the domain of morality.

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Theists, on the other hand, felt that Gould’s conception of religion was too narrow and that it didn’t acknowledge the fact that religion is often interested in the same issues that science investigates. So while there was by no means universal agreement among the contributors, I was surprised by how many acknowledged some overlap between science and religion.

You interviewed a magician in the book. What can magicians add to the conversation that scientists and theologians can’t?

I didn’t interview just any old magician; I interviewed James “The Amazing” Randi! Randi is in the magician’s hall of fame, but he is also one of the world’s most tireless investigators and demystifiers of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. He is famous for publically debunking charlatans like Uri Geller and for offering a million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural, paranormal, or occult powers under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. To date, no one has claimed the prize.

[Editor’s Note: A

documentary about Randi entitled “An Honest Liar” recently won the Audience Award for best feature at the recent AFI Docs Festival in Washington, D.C.]

I think magicians are particularly well suited to address certain types of claims—e.g., claims of ESP, speaking-with-the-dead, dowsing, and similar matters. Since they are masters of illusion, misdirection, and slanted reasoning, they know the tricks of the trade and are capable of accomplishing apparent miracles on stage. One difference, then, between magicians and so-called psychics and faith healers is that magicians are at least willing to acknowledge that their tricks and slight-of-hand are simply a form of entertainment. Psychics and faith healers, on the other hand, pass off their trickery as real supernatural powers.

I’m really glad James Randi agreed to participate since his perspective is a valuable one. He is part of a long tradition of magicians who have also been outspoken skeptics, a tradition that continues today with people like Penn Jillette.

What’s the next frontier in this back and forth between science and religion? (Neurotheology jumped out to me!)

I agree with you that neurotheology is interesting. We will, no doubt, continue to learn more about the evolutionary and cognitive foundations of religious and spiritual beliefs. We will also gain a fuller understanding of the neurological causes of spiritual experiences. As we gain a better understanding of these things, we will need to squarely confront the following question: Are such explanations debunking explanations? Personally, I am very interested in this question.

Gregg Caruso
Philosopher Gregg Caruso.

When is an explanation a debunking explanation? If my five-year-old daughter believes there is a ghost in the house because she hears noises upstairs, explaining to her where the noises are coming from (the wind rattling the window, the floorboards creaking, etc.) debunks, I believe, her ghost belief. Not all explanations, however, are debunking in this way. Hence, we will need to ask ourselves whether evolutionary and neurological explanations of religious belief amount to debunking explanations or not.

Beyond this, I think neuroscience more generally will continue to remain at the forefront of the science and religion debate. As our scientific understanding of the mind continues to grow, certain religious conceptions of the self will need to be reconsidered. Naturalists will also need to tackle the question of how we can preserve meaning, morals, and purpose in the age of neuroscience. I think we can, but I believe more work needs to be done on this front. I’m actually working on a new edited collection with Owen Flanagan, tentatively entitled Neuroexistentialism , that will attempt to address these issues.

Finally, developments in cosmology will continue to be of interest. Our understanding of the universe has grown immensely in the last few decades. Just two months ago, for example, quantum gravitational waves were detected for the first time. If that discovery holds up, it will help confirm the inflationary model of cosmology and provide evidence of how the universe rapidly expanded less than a trillionth of second after the Big Bang. As we learn more about the origin of the universe, this will directly affect the science and religion debate.

Both science and religion deal with life’s big mysteries. If you could have the answer to one of the “big questions” about the universe answered, which would it be? Why?

I guess I would want to know, why something rather than nothing? Why a universe at all? How did it all begin? Was it created out of an unstable nothingness? Are we part of a much larger multiverse? Questions about the origin of the universe are so primordial. If we had a complete understanding of how the universe began, it would shed light on most of these other issues.

If you could sit down with one living world leader and ask these same five questions, who would it be?

A few people come to mind but if I was forced to choose I guess I would say the Dalai Lama. I actually tried to get him to contribute to the book but unfortunately he was unable to take part. I would be interested in hearing his answers, especially since he has thought a lot about the relationship between science and religion.

One historical figure?

That’s easy, Darwin.