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Intelligent Design and the Quest for a Survivable Spirituality

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Politics in America will get more and more pathetic unless and until rationality and the natural world, as it is understood by science, get some respect.

The anti-intellectual tradition in America is part of the cultural bedrock supporting right wing power, but the Left also has a version of it. The corresponding phenomenon on the Left is New Age sentimentality. If you believe in what makes you feel good, then you'll believe whoever makes you feel good. You might vote for some charismatic figure or not vote at all if no candidate makes you feel good enough. If, on the other hand, you believe in hypothesis testing and reality, then you are more likely to figure out how to vote for your own best enlightened interests. Which is what hasn't been happening enough in America.

The spread of belief in comforting supernatural fantasies intrinsically helps politicians who don't face reality, and at this moment they tend to be Republicans, but that could just be a passing phase. New Age magical thinking ultimately harms progressive politics as much as fundamentalism propels the current excesses of the Right (where it strengthens the alliance between the churches and the wealthy.) Somehow I doubt Deepak Chopra is a big Republican supporter, for instance, but by promoting Intelligent Design he discourages reality-based thinking and therefore encourages our current sorry crop of reality-challenged leaders.

Intelligent Design is only one bit of evidence of a big deep problem: Science often makes people uncomfortable. If all science could do was make people uncomfortable, there would be little reason to defend it. But science as practiced honestly is also the only path to dignified survival.
Some New Agers believe in the fantasy of good old pre-science days, perhaps before agriculture or fire, when everyone was well fed and healthy, but that's a lie.

Science has to be done honestly to be useful, and as it happens, honestly performed science also reveals awesome beauty in nature, so it bestows rewards on many levels. But there are activities associated with science, including how it is taught, funded, and communicated, that might be reconsidered in order to make people more comfortable. I'll explore some of them in future
posts. In this post, I'll suggest some starting points for how religious and spiritual movements might renegotiate their postures relative to science.

I think it's a mistake both for scientists and religious people to focus exclusively on factual disagreements. Doing so means that religion is asked to suffer a humiliating loss in order for science to be of benefit to mankind. The stem cell debate is a clear example of the dilemma. What would be more creative is to find a better way for religion to mesh with the Enlightenment. The status quo in the last century or so has been a sort of two state solution with a separation fence. That might turn out to be the best plan in the Middle East, but the fence isn't holding in the domain of ideas.

Religion is in part about ideas but it is much more than that. The moving frontiers of knowledge set in motion by the Enlightenment could be seen as creating new roles for religion rather than beating back the ideas of religion.

One role of religion is to provide ritual, solace, community, and meaning during life's triumphs and trials. Science makes us aware of more of these key moments than we knew of before. For instance, reproductive biology has made us aware of reproductive events that were previously unknown. We now know that there were more aborted fertilizations in the course of human history than were imagined in centuries past, when the concept of conception was vague.

Marriage, birth, adolescence, death, and other milestones of life are framed by ancient ritual, but the newly revealed milestones of life are not. Religion hasn't kept up, but it should. A religious movement that sought to help people through such modern events as difficult fertility treatments, organ transplantations, or the fitting of profound prosthetics would find a new economic niche as well as a pragmatism that might soften the confrontation between ideas. (The comment about religion's economic niche shouldn't be taken as an insult, particularly in the American context where the idea of the "Right" combines free market idealism with religiosity.)

Consider the sort of argument a scientist might use with a religious friend: "The way you talk about God, you might as well be talking about a space alien with very advanced technology. Such a space alien could have been responsible for "Intelligent Design" on Earth, if you insist that's what happened, as well as the miracles described in the Bible. But there is no reason to believe someone is more moral, trustworthy, or insightful just because they are good at technology. So why should we respect a space alien just because it was clever?" There's an interesting place to take this line of argument that isn't tried often enough: "Isn't the truest sign of divinity composed of such things as compassion, empathy, service, forgiveness, and so on? The divinity described in the traditional religions encompasses both magical events, like walking on water, and profound empathy, so why not emphasize the empathy, and demote the question of the authenticity of the magical events until it's practically a moot point? After all, a clever alien could have performed the magic, and that by itself wouldn't mean a thing." Which brings us back to practical compassionate activities as a way out of doctrinal conflict.

What worries me most is the number, variety, and power of the enemies science has acquired lately, particularly in the United States. There is a tremendous energy behind the vaguely defined sentimental New Age movement that distrusts modernity and seeks "Natural" alternatives in such things as food and medicine. It finds expression in the severity of the anti-GM foods movement in Europe, for instance. I was astonished at a recent meeting on the future of technology in United States when a humanities professor from an Ivy League university said with a straight face that she expected "reductionist" science to be made obsolete by the acceptance of psychic power. Then I was flabbergasted when a number of other academics who were present concurred.

Then there's the short term thinking of commerce, driven by an arms race of impatience on Wall Street. Many of the great corporate research labs in the USA have either shriveled or become short term development shops. And there's the breakdown of research funding from agencies such as DARPA in the United States, once again because of the victory of short term thinking. And then there's the postmodern academic movement, which at its worst treats science as if it were only the expression of a particular culture. Let's not forget the imposed bias of some pharmaceutical-funded research, or the strenuous obfuscation of Global Warming data in some government and industry-funded research.

Science needs friends, and just maybe we can find some in surprising places, even within religious movements that see an opportunity for service in the wake of science's illuminations.

The Intelligent Design battle is crucial, but it's only one aspect of a larger problem, which is anti-intellectualism in America. For instance, overwhelming preparations for standardized tests have crowded out thinking in many classrooms; a result of the No Child Left Behind program. This shift in emphasis undermines the central idea of science; that science comes from studying and thinking about nature rather than from regurgitating dogma.

The broadly defined 60s-identified counter-culture wins a lot of battles in the American Culture Wars, and is the uncontested tyrant of the surface style of our culture. Do these victories matter? Often they don't. While the left is frequently associated with college campuses and braininess, it can also spread anti-intellectual sentiment, and the New Age isn't the only way this happens. I've seen recent K-12 math books that focus more on multiculturalism and surface image than on math, for instance. The anti-intellectual component of the American character has been triumphant in the classroom for all too many students. This scares me as an American, because I wonder what the country will do to make money when these kids grow up. The goal should be better informed kids who think it's cool to work towards honestly understanding the world (which is a quick populist shorthand for doing science.)

There's a lot of talk about what constitutes real science that seems to confuse two issues. The first concerns the psychology and motivations of scientists. Here I think one finds huge variety. Some scientists love beauty and elegance; some seek fortune; some are bold careerists while others are painfully timid; some of the best are simply playful; some even fall into discovery accidentally. I can see no reason why religious feeling should be considered a lesser motivation than any of the above. The question of motivation has to be separated from the notion of hypothesis testing, however, which is what makes science unique.

One version of what makes science unique was articulated by the philosopher Karl Popper, who pointed out that a scientific idea was made powerful only after it survived many tests, even though some as yet unknown test could still potentially disprove it. (So an idea that could never be disproved even in principle is not scientific.) A scientist doesn't have to be a perfect Popperian as far as motivation goes; most scientists probably prefer trying to support their own claims instead of finding tests that might disprove them. Usually rival scientists end up with that nasty job. Not only do scientific claims do have to be tested, but the tests have to compensate for the illusions that might be created by human foibles. We have to have double blind tests, peer review, control groups, independent replication of results, and so on precisely because we don't assume our own motives to be pure or our personal visions to be unclouded. As long as a scientist accepts the differentiating rigorous phase of the scientific process, I see no reason to demand a purity test for untainted initial curiosity.

None of this lets ID off the hook. ID is not a motivational system for doing science, but the precise opposite; a decision to give up on naturalistic exploration. However, I don't see why religious feeling can't be a motivator of honest scientific activity. As it happens, the most profound aspects of religion are the ones that can work best to motivate scientists. A quest for moral improvement does no harm to science, so long as it doesn't fall into the manipulative orthodoxies of a church power structure. A call to service, a sense of compassion and empathy; these fit perfectly with the current opportunities to further medical science. A profound sense of awe at existence is just right for science. Metaphysics need do no harm to physics and is more profound and beautiful than supernatural claims, which turn God into nothing but a nerd superhero in the sky.

The distinction between metaphysical and supernatural ideas is important to me. For instance, I find it perfectly reasonable to believe that there's something metaphysical about the way one experiences the world. You could claim that the sense of experience or awareness is something apart from other phenomena, in that you can't test whether it exists by any experiment, but you still know about it in a different, direct way. Since you can't measure experience, it isn't part of the natural world, and it also can't be supernatural, since it can't violate the expectation of any experiment; therefore it's metaphysical. Things only get supernatural when you decide to reject what you could potentially learn about the natural world, such as the history of the evolution of life. Can metaphysics be a hook where faith attaches? Certainly. It's only when faith demands that the natural world be a certain way that faith becomes unnatural and makes brains blurry.

The path forward, I think, must include a renewed sense of spirituality that doesn't depend (or at least depend very much) on supernatural beliefs. We should demand that our spirituality be made of natural ingredients, and there should be warnings about non-natural additives.

We need a survivable spirituality.