Sunday, November 4, 2007

Can Science and Philosophy Embrace God?

I read two stories this week that, while not directly related to one another, carried the same theme: atheists moving toward belief in God. That an atheist may shift to belief in a god is not unusual. However, the two individuals that were the subjects of the stories are not your ordinary persons. One is an Oxford educated philosopher and the other is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Often I hear that one cannot have a rational or reasoned belief in God. Given these individual's distinguished backgrounds in academics, it is hard to imagine either of them "blindly" believing in anything.

Dr. Rosalind Picard is director of affective computing research in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Picard was raised an atheist, but later embraced the idea of God and eventually Christianity. "Those who argue that humans are composed only from molecular biology and nothing more aren't basing their argument in science," Picard says. "Science is not capable of making such claims." Furthermore, "Scientists cannot assume that nothing exists beyond what they can measure...It's quite possible that there's still something more." Picard says she personally has faith in scientific progress, but also faith in God.

The story also notes that, "When she speaks about DNA, which is the basic ingredient that forms organisms, Picard raises the notion of there being 'a much greater mind, a much greater scientist, a much greater engineer behind who we are.' DNA, is enormously complex, she says. 'It takes a lot of faith to believe it arose from purely random processes. There's definitely the mark of intervention in that.'"

But she does not support "intelligent design" hook, line and sinker. "Picard also laments that the news media put people who are of different minds on the intelligent- design debate into just two distinct camps -- intelligent design or evolution. 'To simply put most of us in one camp or the other does the whole state of knowledge a huge disservice,' she said."

The other two stories (here and here) were written about Anthony Flew. Once a devout atheist, he has embraced Deism in his older age -- critics would argue it is his age that has caused such lapse in thought. Flew makes it abundantly clear that he is not a Christian. Flew's movement from the atheist camp to the deist camp is not new news, as an announcement was made in 2004. But more interviews have been conducted recently due to the release of his book entitled, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

During a recent interview, Flew states, "I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint despite numerous efforts to do so. With every passing year, the more that was discovered about the richness and inherent intelligence of life, the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code."

Two factors were were "decisive," as it relates to his change in view. "One was my growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an Intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical Universe. The second was my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself – which is far more complex than the physical Universe – can only be explained in terms of an Intelligent Source.

Flew says to those, such as Richard Dawkins, who argue that life and existence can be attributed to chance, "If that's the best argument you have, then the game is over."

The New York Times article on Flew concludes with a startling commentary by the author, "Flew’s colleagues will wonder how he could sign a petition to the prime minister in favor of intelligent design, but it becomes more understandable if the signatory never hated religious belief the way many philosophers do and if he never hated religious people in the least." I get the sense from the New York Times article that the author questions Flew's so-called "conversion" to Deism. But I am a little miffed by his concluding remarks. The author seems to imply that atheists are driven by hate versus reason and thought.

Science, philosophy and God are not mutually exclusive concepts. One can have a reasoned faith. Even if Flew's shift can be explained by old age, there are many scientists and philosophers like Picard, Francis Collins and others to document such a fact. The claim that religious persons are ignorant (to use a milder term) is becoming tired and trite. Such a claim is a simple way of not having to engage on an issue of great importance.

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