Steve Paulson, interviewer for “To the Best of Our Knowledge” on Wisconsin Public Radio, appeared at the Reeve Memorial Union in Oshkosh on October 26, 2010 to discuss his work and his new book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science. Paulson is unique in the science and religion debate in that he is firmly placed on neither side, preferring to be the constant agnostic, or as he puts it, “in search of the sacred”.
While any conclusions he has reached he prefers to keep to himself, his background is not atypical of contemporary America. Paulson was raised in a Congregational Christian family, but stopped going to church around age fourteen. At that point, he considered himself “spiritual but not religious”, as many youth do at one point or another. Today, he wants answers, and is in possibly the best place to get them, interviewing the brightest minds in theology and science alive. While Paulson “naturally resists doctrine” and does not believe it’s possible to accept science and a literal interpretation of the Bible simultaneously (some Creationists would disagree), he also finds the strict materialism of Daniel Dennett to be just plain wrong. The hour he spoke was a reflection on interviews he had done over the last four years.
Paulson began his talk by referencing the new Stephen Hawking book, The Grand Design, where Hawking states that philosophy is dead. Paulson asserts, correctly, that “Hawking is wrong. Philosophy is not dead, and neither is religion.” There is still plenty to debate, and the conflict is “not just about evolution and creationism.” (Hawking’s claim rests on his belief that philosophers have not “kept up” with modern science. As anyone working in artificial intelligence or a number of other philosophy fields can tell you, that is pure bollocks.)
Interestingly, even the most serious of scientists can have trouble accepting the label of “atheist”. E. O. Wilson, when pushed by Paulson to identify as atheist, refused to do so, and instead opted for deist. He fully accepted that God did not interact with the world today, but could not rule out the possibility that God set the whole world in motion. How does one go from this view to being a deist? Could other deities — perhaps a group of them — have created the world? That is a question for Wilson. (Paulson points out that many “hard-nosed” scientists have accepted God or various Eastern spiritual viewpoints.)
Even Einstein, the most famous scientist of all time, has been caught in the science and religion debate. Years after his death, atheists and theists argue over who can claim them, as though his religious beliefs somehow alter his contributions to science. Einstein, though raised Jewish, really does not fall into any traditional religious category and thus is hard to label. Theists point to statements like “God does not play dice” and assume he is referring to a Judeo-Christian god. The consensus seems to suggest otherwise, though.
Elaine Pagels, student of the Gnostic gospels, says that Einstein’s words were only talking about God “metaphorically”, while Steve Weinberg thought Einstein was being “poetic” and only meant what we think of as God in the vaguest of terms. In fact, when pressed, Einstein himself said that he believed in “Spinoza’s god”. Spinoza, another Jew by birth, could probably most closely be labeled a pantheist — he believed that God and the universe were essentially one and the same.
The most contentious interview, not surprisingly, came from evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. Paulson asked Dawkins if science answers “how” questions and religion answers “why” questions, and Dawkins found this distinction to be stupid, as most “why” questions asked by religion are, to him, meaningless. Dawkins asked, facetiously, “Why are unicorns hollow?” Paulson continued to push that there are big unanswered questions for religion, but Dawkins wouldn’t have it. I think, interestingly, that the so-called “why” questions need not be “why” at all… one might ask, “How far can unicorns jump?” Dawkins seems to be following a line of thought not unlike logical positivism, saying that religion questions, because of a metaphysical nature, have no meaning. As they cannot be explored empirically (scientifically), there is no point to try to ask or answer them, as we would not be able to.
Paulson now believes the biggest “intellectual challenge” is this: can you believe in purpose and also in natural selection? While many would say no, some do seem to believe this is possible.
But where he feels is the “cutting edge” of the science and religion debate (and, indeed, one of the most difficult problems in the philosophy of mind) is trying to determine the nature and origins of consciousness, and whether any part of the mind can continue to exist in some form after death. Can the mind be explained merely in terms of the brain? One need not even involve religion if they choose not to, as there is plenty of debate on this between materialists (which Paulson rejects), dualists and other less celebrated branches.
As much as I would like to see Paulson come firmly down on one side or another, it is somewhat refreshing to see a journalist stay as staunchly neutral as he does. He is the eternal font of curiosity, asking the right questions, prodding those who think they know the answers. The whole truth, of course, will probably not be found in our lifetimes, but thanks to people like Steve Paulson on the front lines, we know the debate between science and religion will be interesting and always intriguing.