DO GEESE SEE GOD? (And should we even try to know?)

Last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education carries an excerpt (note: subscription required) from Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, a book by Columbia University Professor Richard P. Sloan on the relationship between medical science and religion. Obviously a very hot topic, especially after the loud salvo coming from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and the sharp reverberations it generated in both printed and online form (not to mention the reverberations on the reverberations).

I have not read Sloan’s book, but from its reviews and other writings by him, it is clear that he is no faith-healing enthusiast - on the contrary. Still, I strongly hope his book’s arguments are less naive than what this excerpt makes them look like, because unless the piece was meant more as a provocation and a teaser than a summary, they just fall flat Regardless, I think the excerpt is worth discussing here, and thinking about, because of its relevance not only for the general relationship between science and religion, but also because some of the issues it covers relate to the evolution/Creationism controversy.

Sloan’s piece touches on two main themes. First: can scientific analysis ever meaningfully interpret a subjective, unquantifiable feeling such as religious experience? Second, is it even opportune for science to attempt to do so, and to analyze religious experience and its effects (for instance, with respect to the potential health benefits of religious practice)?

Regarding the first question, as Sloan notes, there is a well established, if hotly contested, line of thinking that argues that the scientific reductionist approach cannot, even in principle, address questions having to do with subjective aspects of consciousness. Referring to an article by Marguerite Lederberg’s and George Fitchett’s titled “Can You Measure a Sunbeam with a Ruler?”, Sloan suggests that such a measurement “may be possible,[but]it cannot capture the essence of the sunbeam and in fact may distort it”. Thus, Sloan argues, as successful as reductionism has been from a scientific standpoint, “we ought to question seriously what insights it yields in the study of religion”.

Fair enough, questioning things can only be good. Can science tell us anything worthwhile about religious experience, and what may that be? Sloan’s comparison of religious with esthetic experience as another area science is supposedly ill-equipped to investigate, only underscores, contrary to his intent, that to some extent it can. Admittedly, reducing individual esthetic preferences to psycho-, neuro-, physiological, cellular and/or molecular mechanisms is a hard, perhaps impossible task, but understanding some aspects of esthetic preference, such as the shared propensity of humans for certain esthetic value judgments, in terms of more basic processes may not. Studies in cognitive and evolutionary psychology, for instance, have asked the question of what makes a person esthetically “attractive”, and why (see for instance this recent review). Should these hypotheses be confirmed, as some evidence has suggested, that certain physical features we tend to find attractive (e.g. facial symmetry, or female waist-to-hip ratio) may be related to reproductive fitness, it surely would provide a significant insight into what “attractiveness” means, and how our esthetic sense may have developed in this respect. That such a finding is unlikely to explain, let alone change anyone’s subjective mating preferences would not affect its general validity.

Similarly, the fact that it may be hard or even impossible to satisfactorily “reduce” a person’s subjective religious experience to a specific pattern of brain activity hardly implies that understanding the physiological correlates of religious belief in terms of neurological function may not provide insights into the phenomenon. Imagine, in the crudest of scenarios, that scientists were in fact able to reproducibly “map” brain activity during religious thoughts to a certain group of neurons, and to elicit analogous thoughts in non-religious subjects by stimulating those neurons. This would tell us something about religious experiences in general, while not presuming to necessarily reduce their subjective experience to the mere firing of neurons. In other words, we might be able to look at a brain activity scan and take a good guess that someone’s praying, although we may not know to whom the prayers are addressed. Still, this is valid scientific information. And, as mentioned, scientists routinely attempt to understand the general psychology and neurophysiology of other deeply subjective feelings such as love, anger, sexual or political preferences, and neither they nor the public agonize too much about it.

Whether or not one agrees with Sloan’s take on the ability of science to add anything to our understanding of religion, however, his argument seems to fly off the rails when he tries to argue that it may in fact be inappropriate for it to do so.

Religion and science are independent approaches to knowledge, and neither can be reduced to the other. Religion and science are fundamentally different, with the former relying on faith as a source of wisdom and the latter demanding evidence. Religious truths generally are considered to be enduring and not subject to change. Scientific truths, on the other hand, are completely dependent on evidence, and as new evidence emerges, scientific truths change accordingly.

For these reasons, attempts to understand religious experience by scientific means can never be satisfying to religion. They can satisfy only science.

Sure, but… so what? Why should scientific inquiry have to “satisfy” religion? An appeal to something akin to S. J. Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) seems definitely out of place here. NOMA applies to religion’s and science’s respective fields of interest (metaphysics vs. the natural, physical world), not to each other. Religious practice, though metaphysics-inspired, is not metaphysical, but an activity of physical beings in a physical world. As such, it is very much within the scope of scientific investigation. So are, of course, all religious claims which derive from metaphysical principles but purportedly affect the physical realm.

While, fortunately, science in itself does not advance metaphysical claims (that’s not to say that scientists sometimes don’t, but that’s different), science can’t help addressing the physical consequences of metaphysical propositions, as when it denies that the creation account in Genesis can be literally true. In other words, science can have metaphysical implications, which theologians can and do argue about, as a consequence of the straying of religion from the metaphysical realm. The reverse, science directly advancing metaphysical claims, happens rarely if at all - at least, I honestly can’t think of any genuine examples. (And that’s why the recurrent Creationist complaints that evolutionary biology is traipsing into religion’s territory, and thus violates the Establishment Clause, are nonsense: it is some forms of metaphysics which sneak into the reach of scientific investigation, and usually end up looking the worse for it, non vice-versa. The many Deists who contributed to the writing of the U.S. Constitution well understood the difference.) Even Dawkins’s bold assertion, in The God Delusion, that the existence of God is a scientifically testable hypothesis like any other, in practice ends up referring to forms of metaphysics with direct, testable effects on the natural realm (arguably, to forms of divinity which themselves end up being part of the natural realm, and subject to certain natural constraints). For instance, Deism and Einsteinian spirituality, while discussed by Dawkins, are not targeted by his God-denying arguments.

The main justification for Sloan’s suggestion that religious claims ought to be excluded from scientific inquiry is made explicit in the second part of Sloan’s excerpt. He points to certain clinical studies that suggest that religious believers tend to be, in aggregate, in better health than non-religious “controls”, and warns that this kind of studies could have the “unintended consequence” of providing support for some forms of religious practice vs others, at least in terms of health outcomes.

If we are truly interested in collecting information relevant to health outcomes, then we should want to know whether it is better for our health to attend a Catholic mass or a Quaker meeting. Are Orthodox Jewish services better for our health than Reform services? Is there a health advantage to praying five times a day, as Muslims do, as opposed to the three times of Orthodox Jews? Why is it acceptable to determine that more-frequent attendance at religious services is better for your health than less-frequent attendance, but it is not acceptable to determine that Christian services are better for your health than attending Jewish or Muslim services?

Well, why indeed. Modern medical science is based precisely on comparing the outcomes of different interventions in order to choose the most effective to maximize quality and/or quantity of life. And once the data are known, it is standard medical practice to allow every patient to follow the course of intervention that most satisfies one’s individual preferences and goals. Most of us would consider having the choice between more or less aggressive cancer therapy options, weighing quality of life and survival expectancy issues, to be an absolute positive. I see no reason why the very same should not apply to the option of choosing between different religious practices based on similar parameters, should they be shown to indeed significantly affect life expectancy. In fact, assuming the health benefit of religious practice could be satisfactorily demonstrated, even if the effect of changing one’s religious practice were just marginal on an individual level (say, one month’s longer lifespan on average), the cumulative effect at population level could be enormous, giving the vast numbers of faithful. Just from a public health perspective, it should arguably be considered unethical not to investigate the issue and disseminate the results.

Sloan cites two reasons why he fears this information shouldn’t be researched and made available. First:

It undoubtedly is true that we can submit religious ritual and experiences to scientific study to determine if they are associated with beneficial health outcomes. But to do so runs the risk of trivializing the religious experience, making it no different from other medical recommendations made by physicians. If attending religious services becomes no different than consuming a low-fat diet or getting regular exercise, a great deal will have been lost. Bringing religion into the world of the scientist must by definition reduce religion to measurable indices that strip it of the sense of transcendence that distinguishes it from other aspects of our lives. Doing this dumbs religion down, making it so bland and universally acceptable that it has lost all of its meaning.

But how can having more information “dumb” anything down? How is the voluntary inclusion of tested, quantifiable parameters on health effects in one’s choice of religious practice any “dumber” than choosing a religious affiliation because of family or ethnic group tradition, or based on someone else’s preaching persuasiveness, as most people do? It’s not like knowledge of health outcomes will necessarily force anyone to convert, as Sloan’s own comparison with issues related to diet and exercise abundantly - pun intended - show. People weigh costs and benefits of their actions all the time, and make individually tailored decisions (sometimes smart, sometimes dumb): why should religion be different? Face it, religion already is, at least in part and whether we are conscious of it or not, the result of subjective cost and benefit analyses (e.g., between the time and economic cost of religious practice and the social and psychological benefits one derives from it). Adding scientifically quantifiable parameters about health effects to the mix is hardly going to be more damaging to religious practice than allowing stores to open of the Sabbath (which was also hotly contested by churches, fearing competition for the faithfuls’ time) was, and the upside is obvious.

Of course, one cause for caution in considering studies about religion is the significant rate of sub-standard science done in that area, something that Sloan knows well and is in fact the main focus of his book. But Sloan’s own argument seems to me counterproductive in this respect, by reinforcing the stigma attached to this kind of research: as long as a scientific examination of religion-related claims is seen as “out of bounds” or inappropriate by scientists and the public at large, only strongly ideologically and religiously motivated scientists will tend to undertake the research, increasing the risk of conscious or unconscious investigator bias. The (sometime overlapping) area of research into alternative medicine suffers from the very same problem.

Sloan’s second reason for keeping science’s paws off religion is even more troubling:

Although science allows us to conduct such a study, ethics and religion ought to tell us how ridiculous such a comparison would be. In today’s world (and in the past as well), we have ample evidence of religious strife. This should not diminish the value that religion has for many people, but no one can dismiss the fact that religious factionalism has been responsible for conflict at the societal and familial level for thousands of years.

and later:

Bringing religion into the “laboratory” of the scientist cannot help but contribute to the inevitable comparisons of the “scientifically established” virtues of one religion, or one type of religious practice, over others. In a world riven with religious factionalism and strife, it’s hard to think of a worse idea.

This is really stunning, in my opinion. Sloan seems to suggest we should not investigate whether a form of religious practice is better than another (or none at all) from an objectively quantifiable health perspective in order not to upset the proponents of any one religion, and thus contribute to “religious strife”. Never mind that medicine has been doing this for centuries already, vis-a-vis for instance the health benefits of shamanism as practiced by most animistic cultures, without guilt pangs or second thoughts. That it still is doing it, daily, when testing and dismissing the health claims of believers in New Age spirituality. Is it just because animists and New Age proponents, unlike other religionists, are not at enough risk of being violent to cause widespread concern? Or just not influential enough to actively advocate, socially and politically, against science and medicine? Who decides what forms of religious practice should be granted this “get out of the lab free” card? I sure hope Sloan satisfactorily clarifies this in his book, because failing to do so may in itself promote religious strife.

(In all frankness, actually, shouldn’t we welcome any rational, well-grounded and effective argument that can contribute to the voluntary mass abandonment of any religious practice whose potential for violence we are so afraid of, that we ponder the opportunity to even advance such an argument in the first place? Even considering the possible short-term cost, is there any doubt society would be better off in the long run without such a potentially destructive form of religious practice? But I guess that’s a discussion for a different time, and web site.)

Sloan raises several important and controversial questions here, issues that I think are crucial for the public, not just for scientists, physicians and theologians, to ponder. He is right when he decries the infiltration of religious activity into medical practice (though I suspect this is less prevalent than his book seems to suggest), and may well be right when he suggests that mixing religion and medicine can be toxic. However, I suspect that his proposed solution, granting religious practice immunity from scientific investigation, is short-sighted and counterproductive. With the appropriate protective equipment and precautions, even the most toxic reactions can be safely made to run their course, and once any noxious gases dissipate, the products can be valuable. That beats just storing the reagents forever in their cabinets, hoping they’ll never mix.