The relationship between science, faith and academic freedom

I blogged recently about atheist philosophers Thomas Nagel and Bradley Monton, informed atheists, who both support the idea that intelligent design could potentially be researched using ordinary scientific methods. I thought it was interesting especially in the case of Nagel, who has this famous quote about his reasons for adopting atheism:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)

The thing is, Thomas Nagel has written a paper supporting ID as science, and now I’ve learned that he is rejecting Darwinism as a full explanation of human origins. (H/T Denyse O’Leary’s related post at the Post-Darwinist). Nagel contrasts the idea that natural selection is responsible for our mental capacity, or whether some other explanation is needed.

Nagel writes:

I see no reason to believe that the truth lies in the first alternative. The only reason so many people believe it is that advanced intellectual capacities clearly exist, and this is the only available candidate for a Darwinian explanation of their existence. So it all rests on the assumption that every noteworthy characteristic of human beings, or of any other organism, must have a Darwinian explanation. But what is the reason to believe this? Even if natural selection explains all adaptive evolution, there may be developments in the history of species that are not specifically adaptive and can’t be explained in terms of natural selection. Why not take the development of the human intellect as a probable counterexample to the law that natural selection explains everything, instead of forcing it under the law with improbable speculations unsupported by evidence? We have here one of those powerful reductionist dogmas which seem to be part of the intellectual atmosphere we breath.

It’s interesting that Nagel is breaking from the pack, because my post about A. N. Wilson’s return to faith highlighted the peer-pressure that atheists feel with regards to the need to project intelligence to their peers. It’s almost as they feel the need prove themselves as better than other people, perhaps to make up for some past rejection that gave them a deep sense of being unworthy.

Wilson said:

If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world – that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that “this is all there is” (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself – go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

Anyway, Denyse O’Leary also talks about some research done by Jeffrey Schwartz on her blog the Mindful Hack. I saw Schwartz present this research before in a live debate with Michael Shermer, another atheist I like somewhat. (I own, and have watched dozens of debates and hundreds of academic lectures – and I sponsor them, too! I love civil, fact-based disagreements!)

Denyse cites from a forthcoming paper of hers, as follows:

UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, a practitioner of Buddhist mindfulness, saw OCD as a good candidate for a non- pharmaceutical—essentially non-materialist—approach to treatment….

Schwartz used neuroscience techniques to identify the cause of the disorder. Specifically, the cause is most likely a defect in the neural circuitry connecting the orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, and basal ganglia, from which panic and compulsion are generated. When this “worry circuit” is working properly, we worry about genuine risks and feel the urge to reduce them. But, Schwartz found, when that modulation is faulty, as it is when OCD acts up, the error detector can be overactivated. It becomes locked into a pattern of repetitive firing. The firing triggers an overpowering feeling that something is wrong, accompanied by compulsive attempts to somehow make it right.

He then developed a four-step program (Relabel, Reattribute, Reassign, and Revalue) to help patients identify and reassign OCD thoughts, until they felt that they were diminishing in severity. Schwartz was not simply getting patients to change their opinions, but to change their brains. Subsequent brain imaging showed that the change in focus of attention substituted a useful neural circuit for a useless one. For example, it substituted “go work in the garden” for “wash hands seven more times.” By the time the neuronal traffic from the many different activities associated with gardening began to exceed the traffic from washing the hands, the patient could control the disorder without drugs. The mind was changing the brain.

Schwartz called this “mental effort” in the debate, and he used the treatment successfully on people like Leonardo DiCaprio.

The issue of mind as a non-material cause is an area of specialty for Denyse. She recently wrote a book on it for Harper-Collins called “The Spiritual Brain”. I bought 7 copies of that book and gave them to 6 of my friends for their Christmas presents. (One was for me!) Check it out. I hate (but use) philosophical arguments for substance dualism. Her book provides lots of hard scientific evidence that I prefer to use instead.

Atheism, science and free speech

As Denyse O’Leary notes in her post on Colliding Universes, Christian researchers in the sciences have to jump through hoops to keep their jobs and get tenure, in an establishment dominated by activist atheists. She links to this story in Science, regarding a Christian professor who is brilliant, but who has to watch his step in secular-leftist-dominated academia.

Szilágyi sees his religious faith and his research efforts as two complementary aspects of his life. Within the scientific environment, “I have some options where I can express my faith,” Szilágyi says. He directly referred to God both in the acknowledgements of his master’s and doctoral dissertations and while receiving his awards. He runs a Bible-study group for young adults, and together with a friend he founded a Christian scientific group.

But although Szilágyi’s views often lie far outside the scientific mainstream, he expresses those views only off-campus and in his personal time. For him, “the debate over evolution, design, creation, supernatural intelligence, etc., is not a scientific question in the first place but the collision of worldviews, the confrontation of materialism and idealism,” he says. He takes the Bible literally, but when he lectures on the subject–outside of work–he presents what he calls “the options” and indicates which one “to me … seems to be more probable.” But he insists that it is up to “everybody to make his or her own decision.”

“As a Christian who works in the field of science, I find it quite important to deal with the relation of Christianity and science,” Szilágyi says. But “I know that it is a minefield in today’s scientific life and can be quite dangerous for one’s scientific career. … Therefore, I do these activities absolutely separately from my university work. … I am very cautious and careful that whenever I am talking [about these issues] I do not represent my university.

“My belief is very important for my career because this is the first thing that gives me my motivations so that I could work hard and I could achieve the best I can,” Szilágyi says.

Denyse, who sees the battlefield better than anyone I know, comments:

It is sad when talented people must grovel and cringe just to keep their jobs. The thing is, in the end, that never works.

“Theistic evolution” is just a way of adjusting to a world run by atheists.

Practical questions like “Does the world show evidence of design” are scientific if the answer appears to be no, but unscientific if it appears to be yes.

Denyse also wrote about this comment on the Post-Darwinist, which emerged during the recent Texas School Board hearings.

“If our students do not feel the freedom to simply raise their hand and ask a question in science class, then we are no longer living in the United States of America.”

Common sense, combined with the pressure of at least 14,000 constituent communications in favor of allowing students to discuss all sides of science theories, finally prevailed.

You may also remember the case of Guillermo Gonzalez, who, despite outperforming virtually everyone in his department, was denied tenure thanks to a crusade by an activist atheist professor of religious studies, Hector Avalos. Persecution of outspoken Christians by secularists goes on all the time in academia. If you come out as a Christian, the secularists will be offended, and then you have to suffer the consequences.

And don’t forget, as public Christianity declines in the face of persecution by secularists, so has the right to free speech. The Democrats have recently tabled bills to enact hate crime laws and to imprison bloggers who are critical of the government.

6 thoughts on “The relationship between science, faith and academic freedom”

  1. Nagel is incorrect on two counts. First, the idea that ID might be amenable to scientific investigation is irrelevant. Although I’ve seen no formulation of ID that is falsifiable and not yet proven false, perhaps someone can create and investigate some alternative. But this sort of investigation is not the issue: there are any number of tenured academics and private institutions who could perform such research without objection or hindrance.

    The only extant controversy is over whether ID should be taught in secondary schools as science. But only settled, proven science should be taught in secondary school; controversial scientific matters are relegated to graduate schools.

    Second, Nagel asserts only a degree of agnosticism about the evolutionary origins of human intelligence. Furthermore, even his agnosticism is poorly founded. I do not need to actually see an apple fall to the ground to believe a well-established theory, i.e. gravity, is responsible for its descent. Until we have actually established a better explanation, the well-established general explanation remains the most plausible to explain a specific case.

    It may or may not be true that Christians have to jump through hoops or watch their steps in academia. But it’s trivially obvious that everyone must, to some degree, jump through hoops and watch their steps: Academia is by its nature dominated by conditions and standards. The point is not whether Christians have to jump through hoops, or even whether they have to jump through more hoops than the typical academic. The point is whether they have to jump through extra hoops because their metaphysical and epistemological philosophy is at odds with science. Likewise, as an atheist, I would have to jump through more hoops to become a cleric of any religion than a typical believer, and rightly so: my metaphysical, epistemological and ethical beliefs are more at odds with the institutional norms.

    Your assertion that Guillermo Gonzalez outperformed “virtually everyone in his department,” is simply false.

    Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy “specifically considered refereed publications, [Gonzalez’s] level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.” By what standard, and according to what evidence, do you assert that Gonzalez outperformed anyone, much less “virtually everyone in his department.”

    You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but you are not entitled to misrepresent the facts. And, even though you’re just an anonymous blogger, you should feel some obligation to consult primary sources to establish the truth of statements of facts you publish here.


    1. Check out the two links I provided in the post, where you’ll find things like this:

      Key Facts about Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez

      * He has authored 68 peer-reviewed scientific articles in refereed science journals.
      * He is an author of Observational Astronomy, second edition (2006), a college-level astronomy textbook published by Cambridge University Press (authors: D. Scott Birney, G. Gonzalez and D. Oesper).
      * His work has been cited in Science, Nature and many other scientific journals. All told, there were nearly 1,500 citations to his articles and research in science journals by the end of 2005.
      * His research led to the discovery of 2 new planets.
      * He is building new technology to discover extrasolar planets.
      * He served on the NASA Astrobiology Institute Review Panel in June 2003, and the National Science Foundation Advanced Technologies and Instruments review panel in January 2005.
      * He has served as a referee for Astronomical Journal, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Astrophysical Journal (and Letters), Icarus, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Nature, Naturwissenschaften, Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Origins of Life and Evolution Biospheres and Science.


  2. You do not provide *primary* sources for your assertions regarding Gonzalez’s denial of tenure; both sources are not just derivative, but clearly and intentionally biased. Their bias does not, of course, entail that their assertions are false, but it does mean that they are unreliable without primary substantiation.

    Second, you list Gonzalez’ supposed achievements, but you give your readers no way of knowing if the assertions are true, nor any way of assessing their comparative merit, which is crucial in granting or denying tenure. Perhaps, for example, 68 peer-reviewed scientific papers is low compared to his peers, or the papers were trivial or of poor quality.


  3. Nagel is saying that he doesn’t have an explanation, not that the explanation is ID. It could be that there is a certain amount of randomness. Evolution is not intelligent, so rather than adding just the amount of brain power that humans needed in the savannah, we lucked out and got more capacity than we strictly needed.

    With regard to Schwartz, his view is that consciousness is efficacious, and that thinking about one’s thoughts allows one to change them. That could well be true without requiring dualism. My hypothesis is that matter, energy and consciousness are forms of the same underlying substance. Mind can affect matter, because they are fundamentally the same thing.


    1. Thank you for your comment. My understanding of Schwartz is that he is a substance dualist. Regarding Nagel, he neither accepts nor denies ID at this time, but he argues that it could be taught in science classes in the paper. I am a substance dualist.


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