In this third podcast discussion, “Don’t Blame Me, I’m a Meat Robot,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and theology professor Joshua Farris discuss how a belief in God is compatible with science. Egnor argues that belief in God is a necessity, to prevent science going off the rails:
A partial transcript, notes, and links follow:
Michael Egnor: I wanted to talk just a little bit about philosophy of science and its relation to theology. First question is, is a belief in God compatible with the practice of science? It seems like a silly question, but it’s actually a pretty hot question nowadays…
Joshua Farris: There’s this common idea that when we proceed utilizing the method of methodological naturalism — as methodological naturalism is often taken to be just science — it just is science. And science proceeds in a way that has no need for ghosts, angels, or eerie spirits, or God. In fact, we have no need for consciousness itself.
So you have people like the psychologist Bruce Hood, who are operating out of this sort of framework, who make these wild claims… And so he goes on to suggest that we no longer need any idea of this free willing-self. Instead, we need to reexamine what’s behind our thoughts and behavior, because science doesn’t give us a free willing-self or a conscious self. There is no more need for that.
Note: University of Bristol developmental psychology professor, Bruce Hood, is the author of The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012): “Those who embrace the self as an individual in the West, or a member of the group in the East, feel fulfilled and purposeful. This experience seems incredibly real but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that this notion of the independent, coherent self is an illusion – it is not what it seems.” – From the Publisher
Michael Egnor: The odd thing, if you think about it, why would any one try to convince other people that there is no free will? Because if there is no free will, then other people aren’t free to choose to agree or disagree. I mean, just the whole process of discourse presupposes the option of choosing. And if everything’s guided simply by physical interactions, then we all just reflex preparations anyway, and why bother? That just amazes me.
Joshua Farris: That’s right. Why would you try to persuade me of that?
Michael Egnor: Right. The other thing is that the philosophers and scientists who argue that the notion of God… and spirits and things like that are superfluous to science, are the same people who propose that an uncountable number of universes exist within the multiverse. And of course, they invoke that to try to defend a naturalistic understanding of the fine tuning of the universe and so on. So they’ll posit the existence of uncountable other universes, that’s not too strange. But the idea that there might be a God is crazy, and just off the plate.
Unless one presumes that they just don’t want to face up to God. If you want to get rid of God, that’s the way to do it; you just stipulate that he doesn’t exist. And then you can’t do science without him — and then you make up all sorts of crazy stuff and call it science.
Joshua Farris: Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago makes claims like this: In This Idea Must Die, he states quote, “The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatiblists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know we don’t. We have no choice in the matter.”
Note: This Idea Must Die (2015): “In 2014 [editor John Brock] asked 175 brilliant minds to ponder: What scientific idea needs to be put aside in order to make room for new ideas to advance? The answers are as surprising as they are illuminating.” – From the Publisher
Michael Egnor: The funny thing is that the exact opposite is true. They do have choices and they pretend that they don’t. I’ve interacted with Coyne quite a bit. We go back and forth on blog debates.
And he’s quite hilarious. He actually put up a post on his blog a couple years ago showing, I think, a dented fender on his car. Somebody in the faculty parking lot had bumped into his car and then drove off. And… didn’t own up to it.
I said, well, if the guy had no free will, how can you blame him? I mean, if it was a meat robot, there’s no blame, there’s no accountability. No more than if the wind knocks over a tree branch, it just happened…
The denial of free will is an extraordinarily dangerous idea. I actually think it’s among the most dangerous ideas put forth by materialists who put forth a lot of dangerous ideas. And the reason is that the denial of free will is the core of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism entails reducing human beings to livestock, and then to hurting them and culling them as you see fit. Hitler didn’t gas six million Jews because they were individually culpable. There were no trials, they weren’t convicted of any crimes. They were basically treated like livestock that you wanted to get rid of.
And if there is no free will, it’s true that there is no guilt. But there’s also no innocence… And if you want to stop crime, you can do it very efficiently by just imprisoning people who might commit crimes. Why wait to prove their guilt? It’s much more efficient.
Note: In Minority Report (2002), starring Tom Cruise, “In a future where a special police unit is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes, an officer from that unit is himself accused of a future murder.”
Joshua Farris: Why not put them away or put them out of misery early on, right? So that we don’t have to deal with it, yes. Yes, right.
Michael Egnor: Nobody puts a coyote raiding their chicken coop on trial. They just shoot it. Because coyotes don’t have free will; coyotes just do what they do. So, yeah. It’s deadly stuff. It’s a deadly idea. And we don’t realize how bad it is. It’s not just an academic question.
Michael Egnor: Here’s a question. Can you demonstrate God’s existence scientifically?
Joshua Farris: I guess it really goes back to a more fundamental question about what we mean by science and what science is… There’s excellent work in natural theology being done today by philosophers who have made pretty valiant attempts to develop arguments that move in the direction of demonstrating God’s existence. And utilizing nature as a sort of independent source that we can derive our premises from, and develop logically airtight arguments that demonstrate God’s existence.
I’m sympathetic to those proposals. The way that I approach natural theology is more along the lines of a kind of logic of discovery, from a vantage point of a pre-commitment to theism. In my case particular,ly Christian theism, that has a particular lens on the world, that does a better job of explaining certain things in the world.
Ultimately, theism provides better causal explanation for, say, consciousness and the implications following from consciousness, as we were just discussing. Seems to me that the various properties and powers that follow from consciousness lend themselves to all sorts of theistic implications. And this is why many scientists… want to get away from those consequences. And so they have to effectively eliminate the conscious-self, the free willing-self, in order to avoid those implications to theism.
Michael Egnor: The definition of science that I like and think works the best comes really from the classical philosophers: Science is the systematic study of effects according to their causes. So it has three characteristics: It’s systematic. So it’s not just hunches and occasionally doing stuff, but actually sit down and studying it. It’s a study of effects of things in nature as they are. And the study is focused on the causes of those effects and the natural science, which… would include theology, ethics and music and all sorts of things. Natural science would be the systematic study of natural effects according to their causes.
There are effects in nature that have extra-natural causes. The Big Bang was the beginning of nature. Whatever caused the Big Bang was outside of nature. I think that singularities at the core of black holes are extra-natural things. They aren’t defined in physics, they’re outside of physics.
Joshua Farris: But they would still be within the domain of science, according to your definition?
Michael Egnor: Of course. Because singularities are solutions to the field equations of relativity that blow up, that basically go to infinity because something is divided by zero. That is, if you actually do the equations, the number becomes infinitely large, and that’s a singularity.
Mathematically that’s not defined. Division by zero is not considered a defined function in mathematics. And so singularities within physics, aren’t defined. Their effects are defined.
So we can know a singularity by its effects, but we can’t know what it is because it’s not defined. If you look at the classical ways of knowing God, there are three ways that God can be known. We can’t know him in himself as he actually is, at least not in this life. But we can know him by what he is not. We can know him by his effects in the world, and we can know him by analogy, which was St. Thomas …
Joshua Farris: That’s very Thomistic of you.
Michael Egnor: Yes, yes. That’s classic St. Thomas. But he got a lot from Boethius. And the interesting thing is that, if you look at the way science handles singularities, it’s the same three. It knows singularities by what they are not. They don’t have dimensions. They don’t have temperature or color or things like that. They’re known by their effects in the world. They gave rise to the Big Bang. They’re at the core of black holes. And we can know them by analogy. Singularities are often depicted as depressions, in like a stretched rubber membrane. If there’s rubber membrane in spacetime, a singularity is an infinitely deep depression in that membrane.
So science deals with singularities just the same way as St. Thomas said we had to deal with God. Now, that’s not to say that singularities are God. It’s saying is that science can deal with things outside of nature. And does all the time.
In fact, numbers are outside of nature. The number four is not a natural thing. There are groups of four things in nature. There are four trees in my front yard. Four tires on a car. But the number four is not a thing in nature. It has no location, it has no weight. It’s not a natural thing. But it’s invoked in science constantly.
I think the supernatural can cause things in nature. It does all the time, if we define things that are undefined in the natural world as supernatural.
Joshua Farris: So that wouldn’t fit very well within the confines of what most are considering methodological naturalism.
Michael Egnor: But methodological naturalism is bad science; it’s ideological science. It’s saying that no matter what the cause of something is, we’re going to exclude anything that’s not a natural cause, which is junk science. That’s basically saying we don’t care what the real cause is. We’re going to impose this structure on it, knowing that that could very well lead to causes that aren’t real. As I said, the definition of science is the systematic study of natural effects according to causes. Any cause, whether it’s natural or supernatural, I think, is the best definition of science. If the supernatural cause is the cause, then you go for it.
Joshua Farris: So on your definition, we’re basically studying causes and effects. And some are natural and some are supernatural. The study of revelation or the theological study of revelation, on that definition would be considered science as well?
Michael Egnor: Yeah. And the classical philosophers did consider it. I mean, theology was the queen of the sciences. And the only thing that distinguishes science as we know it today is that it’s the study of natural effects. We restrict our study to effects in nature, and that’s what natural science is. But we don’t restrict our study of causes of those natural effects to nature. The causes can be anything, wherever the evidence leads.
Joshua Farris: So as a practicing scientist, do you think that there is still today, at least in the academic practice of science, is there any place, or at least any robust place for theology to enter into the scientific discussions?
Michael Egnor: Theology is in all scientific discussions. It’s everywhere, either acknowledged or denied.A very good example of this: I am of the very firmly held opinion that all proofs of God’s existence, all of them, are scientific proofs. Many theists say, well, science can’t really prove God. But all genuine proofs of the existence of God — proof meaning inferential lines of reasoning — are scientific proofs. The reason is that, in St. Thomas’s view, … and I think he’s right on this, “existence is absolutely distinct from essence.”
That something exists is a different thing than what that something is. And therefore you can’t demonstrate the existence of anything, the that-ness of anything, by just describing the what-ness of it. Which means, for example, that the ontological proof is not valid. And St. Thomas famously rejected that proof, because there’s no existence in it. There’s no evidence. It’s a formal logical proof and formal logical proofs cannot prove anything outside of formal logical things. And God is not a formal logical thing, he’s an existing thing.
Note: “One of the most fascinating arguments for the existence of an all-perfect God is the ontological argument. While there are several different versions of the argument, all purport to show that it is self-contradictory to deny that there exists a greatest possible being. Thus, on this general line of argument, it is a necessary truth that such a being exists; and this being is the God of traditional Western theism.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
So you have to have evidence to prove the existence of anything. So to prove existence at the end, you have to start with the existence of something. And that’s inductive proof. When you start with evidence and then use some formal system to arrive at inference to best explanation, that’s an inductive line of reasoning. And science is just inductive reasoning applied to nature. So the proofs of God’s existence are also inductive proofs, and they have the same structure as scientific proofs.
A very good example is the Prime Mover argument. The Prime Mover argument, basically, is that change exists in nature. And that it is not possible to have an infinite regress of instrumental causes in a system of change, without having at the foundation of this instrumental series of causes, an unmoved mover, a Prime Mover that is not itself moved. That’s a scientific argument. Because you start with the empirical observation of change in nature, and you reason through a formal way to what must be true of the cause of that change.
That’s the same thing as is done in evolutionary biology, looking at nature, reasoning back to what causes the change in species. Same thing that’s done in physics. What causes this radioactive isotope to emit that electron? So I believe all valid proofs of God’s existence are scientific theories.
So when you say, can science be done without theology? At least if one is talking about natural theology, science and natural theology are completely intertwined.
Joshua Farris: Some day I’d love to chat more about how we can develop fruitful research programs to integrate the two a bit more consciously and explicitly in print. So the question seems obvious, but I just don’t see a lot of robust theological and scientific engagement taking place right now. And how it is that theology can actually offer any sort of voice in the contemporary scientific conversations.
Or how the scientific practitioner can consciously bring God into the mix and supply a logic that gives us a fruitful way of discerning where God is acting in the present world right now. It’s hard for me to see that actually taking place where theology has largely been marginalized in the higher ed systems, at least in the US. And it’s almost… well, it’s just almost irrelevant these days. And it’s certainly irrelevant in scientific discussions.
Michael Egnor: Well, it’s irrelevant, but it even goes further. If you are a practicing scientist and you bring theology into your science, you’re unemployed. That’s it. I have a friend who’s a leading biologist, who is a devout Christian. And I talked to him one time about intelligent design and all of that. And he said he would give anything to be involved in it because he really believes in it. “But if I ever said a word publicly, I would never get another grant.”
And he’s exactly right. He would be totally canceled. So in that sense, theology is already in science, in a negative sense. That if you make any appeal to God, you’re done.
Michael Egnor: So there’s no separating theology and science. I mean, if you look at, for example, even Aquinas’ Five Ways. That the first way by change, the second way by causation, the third by contingent existence, the fourth by degrees of perfection, and then the fifth by regularity in nature. All of them are scientific statements. Every single one. Change. How do you account for change? There has to be an Unmoved Mover. That’s a scientific line of reasoning…
Michael Egnor: And punishing people for bringing them up, in a sense, is theology in science, only it’s negative theology… But that is theology in science — it’s just used as a cudgel instead of as an aid.
Joshua Farris: Right. And that’s why it is difficult right now to articulate in our contemporary situation, how theology can be the queen of the sciences. If it’s not functioning in any sort of robust way in how science is conducted and how the conclusions are interpreted.
Michael Egnor: Well, it depends on how you define theology. If you define theology as including the philosophical and methodological exclusion of inference to God from scientific work… I think that is a theological statement. Theology can be negative. If you define theology as including that, then all science nowadays is theological, in a sense that you better not talk about God.
So there’s no escaping it. There’s just no escaping God. There’s no escaping inference to God. You can choose to refer to God in your work, or you could choose to refuse to refer to God and to punish people who do, but it’s all theology.
Joshua Farris: I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a very Thomistic way of thinking. There are classical reformed ways of thinking about science and theology that depart from Thomas. Herman Dooyeweerd, the systematic theologian, would say that theology is one science among other sciences, and philosophy serves the foundational role and philosophies foundational to all the sciences. So there’s some demarcating role that’s given to philosophy as a way of demarcating the different disciplines and how we parse out the different disciplines…
Michael Egnor: Here’s a good, I think, retort to that notion that philosophy is the foundation of sciences rather than theology. Without theology, there is no real ground for believing in the existence of anything outside of your mind and the validity of your concepts and the validity of your perceptions. I mean… solipsism makes just as much sense from a purely philosophical perspective as does the ordinary way of looking at the world. How do you know that I really exist? That what you’re listening to is coming from a person like you.
At least in theology, the inference is that God is not evil. That God wouldn’t deceive you like that. In philosophy, how do you know? So I don’t see how philosophy can be the ground… How can you study the natural world if philosophy offers no actual proof that the natural world even exists?
Joshua Farris: I guess you could take philosophy as being rooted in a reliabilist understanding and common sense. And so that’s the starting point.
Michael Egnor: Right. You have to believe that reason is reliable. And in my view, that cannot be grounded in itself. It has to be grounded elsewhere. Obviously, the only other “elsewhere” on tap would be God. So theology, I think really is the queen of the sciences. And frankly, all scientists practice it. I mean, every scientist is a theologian of sorts.
Joshua Farris: At least implicitly, despite what they might say, right?
Michael Egnor: Right … implicitly. Obviously, very few of them are the least bit aware of it because scientists are, almost without exception, the worst philosophers on earth. They’re terrible philosophers. And they do things all the time that they don’t understand.
Here are the previous segments:
A neurosurgeon and a philosopher debate mind vs. body. Philosopher Joshua Farris defends controversial Cartesian dualism. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor critiques it but thinks it may account for near-death experiences. They both critique emergentism, the view that the mind, while not merely what the brain does, emerges from the brain and has no separate existence or origin.
How does dualism understand personal identity? Both neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and theology professor Joshua Harris acknowledge weaknesses in their philosophies’ understanding of personal identity. Aristotelianism, in Egnor’s view, interprets the mind– brain relationship better but Cartesianism, in Harris’s view, interprets personal identity better.
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How did Descartes come to make such a mess of dualism? Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable. After Descartes started the idea that only minds have experiences, materialist philosophers dispensed with mind, then puzzled over how matter has experiences.
Dualism is best option for understanding the mind and the brain. Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.
- 00:06 | Introducing Dr. Joshua Farris
- 00:24 | Is a Belief in God Compatible with the Practice of Science?
- 02:51 | The free-willing self?
- 09:11 | Can One Prove God’s Existence Scientifically?
- 12:16 | The Definition of Science
- 21:10 | The Prime Mover Argument