Wednesday, 2 November 2011


I here summarise and briefly analyse John Haught's presentation at the symposium he conducted with Jerry Coyne at the University of Kentucky (video above).
Is there anything of lasting value working itself out in this vast universe that science has given us recently?
Haught starts his talk with this question; he doesn't question its pertinence, but assumes we all think it important. There is an assumption that lasting value is the only value that matters or, at least, that it matters more than temporal value. But he offers no argument or evidence for this view.

He wonders if science rules out any cosmic purpose, and thus any divine presence. As one would expect, he clearly understands the traditional mind-first view of the cosmos, which has come down to us from Aristotle, featuring concentric circles from the heavens above down to Earthly matter below. And this coincides with a theological and moral order too; so higher morality is in the heavens above us, and baser morality below us. 

We aspire, like Faust, to the heavens above; but all too often, like Faust, we are pulled down to hell below.

He says that if there is an ultimate purpose, it would, by definition (by the above definition, of course!), be beyond human comprehension, because of the hierarchy. But traditional theology suggests we can be 'grasped' by the higher levels, to have an awareness of them - and this awareness we call faith. The 'only evidence' for it is the awareness of being carried away by 'something very large, very important, of ultimate value'. The language of symbol, metaphor and analogy is all that can be used to describe it. But that's a sign of the eminence of the thing we're describing. And it must be personal or it would be less than us.

He presents no evidence for his views here, other than personal revelation; there is no argument. It's simply a re-statement of the views of traditional theology. We have no reason to believe it, in fact, since we have no mechanism for distinguishing personal revelation from every day brain activity, other than science, and science gives no support to religious revelation. Further, it's clear that he understands that science threatens the theological hierarchy. As Daniel Dennett points out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, evolution by natural selection has the effect of 'universal acid' on these ancient ideas:
Did you ever hear of universal acid? This fantasy used to amuse me and some of my schoolboy friends ... Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything ! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? Would the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake? After everything had been transformed by its encounter with universal acid, what would the world look like? Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea – Darwin’s idea – bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.
Haught summarises briefly the cosmos according to science and it's clear he sees the disjunct between these two stories, since he asks "Can we map the hierarchical view to this new view that science has brought to our attention? Does the idea of God make sense any more?"

He urges us to be transformed by reading the New Testament. Christians believe there is an 'unspeakable, incomprehensible, infinite mystery that we call God'. It gives itself away in 'unreserved, self-emptying, self-giving love to the finite world'. This is the meaning of the Christ event. The process of self-transcendence is evolution - there is absolutely no contradiction between the two.

Again, he still hasn't presented any form of argument to reconcile science and religion, the subject of the symposium; in fact, he's made it clear that prima facie they are incompatible, and he concedes that by asking the question how we should reconcile the two views.

So how to map one to t'other? Finally Haught brings us his revelation: think of God not pushing evolution from behind, but pulling it from the future. And think of the hierarchy as an evolving story, as matter emerges, and later life, and then faith and morality. Faith is the way that the universe, now it has become conscious of itself, opens up a new future. So faith is the way we can guarantee the evolution of the cosmos into the indefinite future. 

The important thing is, that evolution is compatible with the hierarchy if we knock it onto its side, and see what is above us as what is in the future. He topples the hierarchy onto its side. And, somehow, it is faith that is required for the evolving future, and so science is compatible with religion.

Obviously, that doesn't follow, and, again, he offers no evidence or argument for his view. He doesn't address the whole point of why science threatens the hierarchy - because it shows no need for anything pushing evolution or pulling it from the future. It's what matter does when it's not being guided. Now, I can imagine arguments being posed to show that evolution is guided in some way, but Haught doesn't present any. He simply asserts his view. There is no evidence or argument presented of how faith guarantees evolution. And what he says assumes that evolution is progressive to some mysterious transcendent future, but offers no argument for that. Science suggests the cosmos will end in heat death; is that compatible with this 'hierarchy on the side' vision? I don't see how. It is, finally, an argument free talk.

This is very disappointing because in his open letter allowing the release of the above video, Haught says, addressing Jerry:
Rather than answering my point that scientism is logically incoherent–which is really the main issue–and instead of addressing my argument that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation...
But he doesn't make any argument that I can discern that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation, and he doesn't even make any argument that there is such a thing as religious truth! He just asserts it, perhaps based on the discredited mind-first view of the cosmos. To be fair, personal transformation is logically consistent with this view of the cosmos, but that's the notion that science is destroying, and he doesn't argue against that, but suggests a reconciliation that is, frankly, pure hand-waving. He doesn't explain why the 'universal acid' isn't eating its way through his theological ideas as we speak. And I see no hint of an argument that scientism is incoherent (which it may well be, but that doesn't then mean that religion is compatible with science); perhaps I missed it (was it on a slide?).

All in all, it's a poor talk, if it's supposed to be presenting some forceful arguments for the compatibility of science and religion, because surely anyone would come away more convinced that they weren't compatible!

UPDATE: Link to the slides here.


  • Steve Zara says:
    2 November 2011 at 19:47

    Thank you for the summary - very useful.

  • Quine says:
    2 November 2011 at 20:19

    Feynman said that science provides us with a means of not fooling ourselves. Haught just showed us why that is important.

  • Mark Jones says:
    3 November 2011 at 03:21

    No problem Steve - hope it helps.

    Q - absolutely. Theists never supply an answer to this conundrum - how can they have any confidence that they're not being fooled in these matters of great import? Apparently, they just know. Well, in that case, I can 'just know' the opposite.

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