We had birthday cake at our February 3rd service celebrating 24 years since the very first NTCOF service on February 5th of 1995!
The service included a discussion about the Periodic Table of the Elements which is 150 years old this year. It may sound like a dry subject but it revolutionized chemistry and had an impact on physics and biology. It also serves as as an excellent illustration of how important theories, or ways of organizing and thinking about facts, lead to new discoveries and even whole new disciplines within science. Dmitri Mendeleev's systematic arrangement of the then-known chemical elements, for example, led to the discovery of many new elements including gallium and germanium. It was later found that the shape of the Periodic Table is a consequence of quantum mechanics. And physicists continue to work at creating new, super-heavy elements and have reason to suppose that they may find a few with greater stability than the heaviest elements now known. We should look for organizing principles in our lives that help us live with more insight and effectiveness, while avoiding ideas that anything and everything can “confirm,” theological beliefs being perhaps the best example of these sort of things.
We enjoyed a Moment of Science about e-DNA. This is environmental DNA, DNA that falls off of or out of living things wherever they go. A relevant video that we watched in considering this is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQdTV1rAlWY
The remainder and bulk of the service was then taken up with a consideration of “Religion Done Right,” the Church of Freethought's project to reinvent/remake religion. But to strip out the supernaturalism from religion requires that the relevant distinctions be made. The most important one is that claims of gods and devils, heaven and hell, reincarnation and “souls” and the like are fundamentally at odds with objective reality. None of them have any demonstrable point of contact with the world that we can perceive with our senses or that we can build machines to detect for us. Believers try to exploit this by saying that science cannot disprove them, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of of absence.” Yet this is to also say that, scientifically, all such supernatural claims are simply meaningless. As claims that “go beyond” or that are “in addition” to scientific facts, and until and unless evidence of an objective character are produced – believers promise this but you have to die to get it! – such claims are pseudoscience and nonsense.
This suggests another way to think about religion. It suggests that we may frame the subject of religion not as being about the supernatural, as so many suppose and as most everyone has been taught and believes, but that religion is about the real world of human experience that is not science. Is there such a world? In fact, there is.
We reviewed the thought experiment of “Mary The Color Scientist” and the philosophical concept of “qualia.” Qualia, as atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett has put it, is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us.” That is, it is the element or component of our experience which is not objective, that cannot be shared with others because it is fundamentally unique, personal, private and subjective. Qualia cannot be detected or measured by scientific methods, even in principle. The most science can do is to observe what people say about their qualia, what other behaviors people may engage in as a result of this, and the neurological correlates of both. But even if it were possible to observe and record , right down to the ions and atoms and molecules in someone's brain, including any alleged quantum effects, this would still not be the same as someone's experience of themselves and their perceptions and thoughts.
We considered another example of this problem brought out by some dialogue in the 1997 film Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan. The astronomer protagonist Ellie Arroway and another character, a Christian apologist, have the following exchange:
Ellie Arroway: So what's more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious god created the universe, and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that he simply doesn't exist at all, and that we created him, so that we wouldn't have t feel so small and alone?
Palmer Joss: Did you love your father?
Ellie Arroway: What?
Palmer Joss: Your dad. Did you love him?
Ellie Arroway: Yes, very much.
Palmer Joss: Prove it.
Here we see the Christian character equating facts about the objective world with subjective qualia. But they are two very different things! Did Carl Sagan not know better? If he or the scriptwriters of this film did, Arroway would have and should have made the appropriate response: that claims about the world we share need to be based on perceptions, on evidence, which are of a similar shared character. But that one cannot scientifically prove what feelings are like since there are no such shared perceptions of feelings. Feelings are not a part of the world that science can consider.
We discussed the importance of insisting on this view of religion, that it has to do with exploring and discovering meaning in our subjective experience of what it is like to be human. We discussed that many religions have already made a good start of this but that the task is hindered – as science is also hindered – by supernaturalism. We considered that other conundrums “at the intersection of science and religion” can also be resolved by this view of matters. And we considered the wise observation of the French philosopher Auguste Comte who said:
“Nothing is destroyed until it is replaced.”
Which, in this context, means that supernaturalist religions cannot fall of their own dead weight until and unless there is an alternative. This alternative, which may come to replace the traditional supernaturalisms, should be a religion based on making sense of people's qualia. Which is what the NTCOF is engaged in trying to create.
We had some lively discussion of these ideas. Add your own thoughts below!
Postings about each monthly service includes topics discussed and an open forum to further discuss those topics.
1 post • Page 1 of 1