Author Topic: Book Note on BR's Science and Religion  (Read 1926 times)

Phil Ebersole

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Book Note on BR's Science and Religion
« on: November 17, 2012, 10:13:57 AM »
NOVEMBER 2012 BOOK NOTE

[This is based on my notes for a presentation to the Greater Rochester Russell Set on Nov. 9, 2012.]

RELIGION AND SCIENCE by Bertrand Russell (1935)
Bertrand Russell in this book argued that only science—that is, verifiable evidence plus logical reason—was a source of truth.  What science cannot discover, he said, human beings cannot know. 
In many ways, Russell anticipated the arguments of the today's "New Atheists," such as Richard Dawkins, but he argued more effectively.  Unlike Dawkins, he did not argue for the abolition of religion. 
He said that once religious authorities gave up their claim to be a source of absolute truth, religion might have value as a source of moral intuition and of cosmic perspective.   I believe he was right to make this concession, and that it is more important than he implied in this book.   He was right to defend the integrity of science, but there are other important sources of understanding.
Russell's purpose in writing Religion and Science was to defend science against dogma—not only religious dogma, but the far more dangerous dogmas of Communism and fascism (although he mentioned the latter two only in passing).
Science, he said, provides "technical truth," not absolute truth.  Technical truth enables you to predict the weather, treat illness or design machines that work, but it is based on theories that will eventually be superseded by better theories.
Religion, on the other hand, claims to be a source of absolute truth, "as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be". 

Russell said there are three components of religion—a church, a creed and a code of morals.  He said the reason religious authorities historically have feared the growth of science is that, according to their belief, if you undermine the authority of churches and creeds, you have no foundation for morality. 
If Copernicus and Darwin were right, then the Bible erred about certain things, and if it erred about anything, then it was not infallibly true, and the Bible's moral teachings are subject to question.  John Wesley said that if you don't believe in witchcraft, you don't believe in the Bible.  If you don't believe in the Bible, you don't believe in the Ten Commandments.  If you don't believe in the Ten Commandments, there is no reason not to murder, steal, or commit perjury, adultery or any of the other sins forbidden by the commandments.
Russell said this line of reasoning is correct.   There is no absolute foundation for morality, he said.   Either you believe that murder, theft and adultery or wrong, or you don't, he said, but there is no way to prove they are wrong to someone who does not already believe they are wrong.

The first few chapters of Religion and Science deal with the almost-forgotten history of the warfare of the Catholic and Protestant churches against scientific theory and scientific research.  Since that hostility has mostly (but not entirely) gone away, it is easy to forget how widespread and influential it was.   We now regard Creationism as the view of a lunatic fringe, but up until 100 to 150 years ago, it was the official view of the mainstream churches.
The remaining chapters are Russell's critique of what has been called "natural religion"—belief in God, the immortality of the soul and freedom of the will—whose truth supposedly can be established by reason, in contrast to "revealed religion," which rests on the authority of a sacred book, a church or a creed.

Religion asserts the existence of a human soul in order that there be an entity which can survive after death.  Russell said there is no basis for believing in an immaterial human soul separate from the human body.  All human thoughts and emotions are reflected in brain activity, and there is no reason to suppose they can exist separately from a human brain. 
Russell was a reductionist.  Not only could human mental activity be described in terms of physics and chemistry, but the physics and chemistry are the causal factors.     
I don't see any reason for thinking cause-and-effect run just one way, as Russell seemed to implicitly assume.  Changes in brain chemistry will affect your emotional state, but changes in your thoughts and feelings will affect your brain chemistry.  If mind and body are one, we are mind as well as body.

Religion asserts the existence of free will in order that people can be held morally accountable for their actions.  Science is by definition the search for causal factors, but, as Russell noted, it is not scientific to assume causal factors exist in any particular circumstance without evidence.
Quantum physics suggested that some physical phenomena are random.  Russell, writing in 1935, said it was too soon to tell whether that is so, or whether the causal factors were simply too subtle to detect.  In any case, he said, both determinism and free will are incoherent concepts, so there is no point in discussing them.
I think that is right.  Determinism and free will are both concepts that I can't get my mind around.  The more I think of them, the less I understand what each of them can mean.  I think that I freely choose what I do, and that I am morally responsible for my actions, but I am aware that i do everything I do for a reason, and the greater my awareness of the reasons for my past decisions, the more I feel that I could not have decided otherwise.  As Russell said, this is not a question that can be answered scientifically.

Religion asserts the authority of religious experience as a source of truth.  Russell took this claim more seriously than many freethinkers did.  He said it is true that spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, prayer and breathing exercises, can bring about valuable mental states.  But he denied that such mental states are a source of truth.  He said there is no more reason to believe someone who eats little, and sees angels, than to believe someone who drinks much, and sees pink elephants.
The common thread of mystic experience, according to Russell, is a belief in the unity of the universe, in the unreality of evil and in the illusory nature of time.  But contrary to what he wrote, none of these is a claim about fact.  All are ways of looking at things.
The so-called spiritual practices can help you gain control of your thoughts and feelings.  They can help you see things in cosmic perspective and make your desires, fears and resentments seem unimportant in the total scheme of things.
This is not far from what Russell claimed as the benefits from the study of mathematics and philosophy in the last chapter of The Problems of Philosophy.  Russell acknowledged as much, and said that religious experience is highly valuable if it can be severed from unsubstantiated beliefs.

Religion asserts there is such a thing as cosmic purpose, which gives meaning to life.  The Bible tells the story of both the human race and the universe from beginning to end, from Creation to the Last Days.   The great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, speaking more abstractly, said that the arc of the universe is great, but it bends toward justice.  Karl Marx, who rejected religion, believed that history has a direction that gives meaning to human life.
Russell denied that any of these beliefs is supported by evidence.  Life arose on Earth, but someday it will disappear.   Human history produced Hitler and Mussolini  Russell approvingly quoted Dean Inge, who said that belief in human progress is the one philosophical doctrine that can be proved false.   Russell rightly said that to believe in cosmic purpose is to put human beings at the center of the universe, and the whole history of science, from Copernicus through Darwin to the present, is a demonstration that the universe is not humanocentric.
Finally, religion asserts that religious belief is necessary to provide a foundation for religion and ethics.  Russell said that no such foundation exists, either religious or scientific.  Morality is a matter of desire, he wrote.  For example, some people desire human beings be happy, others that they be heroic and disciplined, and there is no way to reconcile these desires.  Moral discourse, he said, consists in trying to show that one's own desires are in harmony with the desires of others—nothing more.
Now if morality is a matter of desire, it is a different kind of desire than my desire for a dish of ice cream, or for a secure retirement income.  It is true that there is no zero-based foundation for moral discourse, but that is true of many other things, including mathematics.  Nevertheless human beings manage to engage in rational discourse about morality just as they do about mathematics and much else.
I believe that human moral intuition is grounded in human nature, because all human beings have an innate sense of gratitude, compassion and equity, and that for this reason there is a great deal of overlap in the intuitions of most human beings.  Much moral disagreement arises from conflicts of moral principles and when to make exceptions in moral principles, and these can be discussed rationally.  Russell often did so himself.

Russell wrote that the theories of science are partial and provisional.  So, too, are theories of morality and the good life, but that doesn't mean they are meaningless and that they can't be discussed by rational people.
I agree with Russell's attempt to build a fence to protect science and reason against religious and political dogma.  In doing so, he neglected important aspects of human understanding.  That is an observation, not a criticism.  He couldn't deal witth every possible question in one small book.


Ken Blackwell

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Re: Book Note on BR's Science and Religion
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2012, 07:24:03 PM »

Phil wrote about ultimate values in reviewing Religion and Science:

Quote
Russell said this line of reasoning is correct.   There is no absolute foundation for morality, he said.   Either you believe that murder, theft and adultery or wrong, or you don't, he said, but there is no way to prove they are wrong to someone who does not already believe they are wrong.

[...]

Religion asserts the authority of religious experience as a source of truth.  Russell took this claim more seriously than many freethinkers did.  He said it is true that spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, prayer and breathing exercises, can bring about valuable mental states.  But he denied that such mental states are a source of truth.  He said there is no more reason to believe someone who eats little, and sees angels, than to believe someone who drinks much, and sees pink elephants.


There is something valuable here in ethics, but it needs sorting out. Whether or not Russell's conversion experiences are called "religious", he saw them as changing his ultimate values.


Ken

Raymond Perkins

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Re: Book Note on BR's Science and Religion
« Reply #2 on: December 23, 2012, 09:24:26 AM »
A very nice piece, Phil.
Just a couple of thoughts.
Does BR say that determinism is incoherent? I wouldn't have thought that. But it's been several years since I've looked at _S&R_.
There does seem to be some tension in BR's remark about religious experience and truth, and his ecstactic effusions about the Universal Soul, etc. in his "Essence of Religion" (1912). Supposedly the true value of the religious experience is shorn of creed/dogma, but he does make knowledge claims about value here and about objects (e.g. the ideal good) which he says have being in the realm of universals. This is in sharp contrast, it seems to me, with his account of value at the end of _R&S_. 
You didn't say much about his Ch 9 on value--where he introduces one of the first clear accounts of what came to be called "emotivism". This chapter, certainly on its face, is in sharp contrast with the final chapt of _Problems_ and the main ideas of "Essence". But still, I think there are some features which, if not common, are not incompatible. It would be fun to try to spell this out sometime.

Enjoyed it much. Thanks, Phil.

Ray