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Linden on Religion and Science
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I'm near the end of the otherwise great The Accidental Mind by neuroscientist David J. Linden. He offers some interesting ideas on dreaming and religion near the end of the book, and his explanations for both have to do with the bias of our minds toward learning and using temporal patterns, in the form of narratives.

He argues that dreams are probably much more fragmentary, but that we tend to mold them into narratives due to our propensity for narrative structures. He uses a similar argument for religious beliefs. We like stories, and we tend not to like gaps. Religions provide explanatory stories that don't tend to leave many gaps. As Christopher Hitchens has noted, we tend to prefer a bad hypothesis to no hypothesis at all.

But then Linden goes down a horrible little road. He talks about how science and religion really aren't in conflict, how science can disprove particular factual claims like "The earth is 6,000 years old", but cannot disprove core religious tenets like the existence of god or the soul.

Science cannot prove or disprove the central ideas underlying most religious thought. When scientists claim to invalidate these core tenets of religious faith without the evidence to do so, they do a disservice to both science and religion.

Yuck. Of course science cannot prove or disprove the existence of god or the soul. Science cannot prove or disprove anything. What science can do, and do very well, is propose explanations about the way the world is, and test those explanations against the best current evidence. Linden should know this...he's supposed to be a scientist.

I know of no scientist who claims to have invalidated the core tenets of religious faith. What they will say is that the evidence in favor of believing such core tenets is extremely weak, and so one should have a very poor justification for believing in them.

If a person is using some other criteria for belief, they can basically justify belief arbitrarily, and argue for the existence of just about anything, including any and all past gods, unicorns, pixies, mermaids, dragons, and so on. In other words, you should have some standards for believing what you believe, or you'll end up being able to believe anything. I think Carl Sagan once said, "You want to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out." I'd amend that to "...but not so open-minded that you let anything in."

Linden cites the 2005 Edge question posed to scientists and philosophers, "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" Go have a look. Linden uses this example to try to assert the old canard that scientists rely on faith in much the same way that religious adherents do, which is just flat-out stupid. Scientists may hold beliefs about things for which there is not currently enough strong evidence to suggest a definitive answer. This means they are willing to revise their belief based on new evidence. Does religious faith allow for this?

Linden argues that religious belief and scientific belief are complementary modes of thought, that work together like peas in a pod to give us a holistic view of the world. Sorry, no. Religious belief is founded on different sources and methods (authority, scripture, a priest class, personal revelation), while scientific belief is based on evidence, experimentation, critical review, and revision. These modes of belief are not complementary, but are diametrically opposed.

I don't know if Linden is pandering to sell more books or whether he actually believes what he's saying. Either way, it's lame.

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