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Personal Gods, Deism, & Ther Limits of Skepticism

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In order to continue our discussion of the legitimate philosophical, scientific, and religious aspects of the science and religion quagmire we need a frame of reference to guide us. What I present here is an elaboration on a classification scheme proposed by Michael Shermer. (5) Shermer suggests that there are three worldviews, or "models," that people can adopt when thinking about science and religion. According to the same worlds model there is only one reality and science and religion are two different ways of looking at it. Eventually both will converge on the same final answers, within the limited capabilities of human beings to actually pursue such fundamental questions. The conflicting worlds model asserts that there is only one reality (as the same world scenario also acknowledges) but that science and religion collide head on when it comes to the shape that reality takes. Either one or the other is correct, but not both (or possibly neither, as Immanuel Kant might have argued). In the separate worlds model science and religion are not only different kinds of human activities, but they pursue entirely separate goals. Asking about the similarities and differences between science and religion is the philosophical equivalent of comparing apples and oranges. "These are two such different things," Shermer told Sharon Begley in Newsweek's cover story "Science Finds God," "it would be like using baseball stats to prove a point in football."

Using Shermer's model as a starting point for thinking about S&R, I realized that something is missing. One cannot reasonably talk about the conflict between science and religion unless one also specifies what is meant by religion or God (usually there is less controversy on what is meant by science, though some philosophers and social scientists would surely disagree). So what makes Shermer's picture incomplete is the very important fact that different people have different Gods. I am not referring to the relatively minor variations of the idea of God among the major monotheistic religions, but to the fact that God can be one of many radically different things, and that unless we specify which God we are talking about, we will not make any further progress.

My tentative solution to the problem is therefore presented in FIGURE 1. Here the panoply of positions concerning the S&R debate is arranged along two axes: on the abscissa we have the level of contrast between science and religion, which goes from none (same worlds model) to moderate (separate worlds) to high (conflicting worlds). On the ordinate is the "fuzziness" of the concept of God, which ranges from a personal God who intervenes in everyday human affairs to the concept of a Naturalistic God who acts only through the laws of physics, to the most esoteric position of deism characterized by a God who created the universe but did not interfere with it since, or even no God (nontheism).

These conceptions of God may take many forms. However, the common denominator to the belief in a personal God is the idea that (S)He intervenes in individual lives, performs miracles, or otherwise shows direct concern for us mortals. A naturalistic God, on the other hand, is a bit more detached: if (S)He intervenes at all it is through the tortuous ways of the natural laws that (S)He himself designed for this universe. Finally, the God of deism does not interfere, even indirectly, in human affairs, but simply answers the fundamental question of why there is something instead of nothing.

The personalities as diverse as physicists Paul Davies and Frank Tipler, conservative Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga, and science-religion crusader John Templeton have in common, as well as where they differ. Sir John Templeton is a British citizen native of Tennessee, and he has invested $800 million of his personal fortune into furthering a better understanding of religion through science. The Templeton Foundation has sponsored a panoply of activities resulting in articles, books, and conferences whose goal is to "discover spiritual information." (8)

According to Sir John, science has made incredible progress in discovering truths about the natural world. Ergo, its powerful methods should be useful to religion in order to augment our knowledge of God and matters spiritual. And Templeton is putting his money where his mouth is by funding several scientific projects (at the rate of hundreds of thousands of dollars each) as well as by awarding the Templeton Prize, which is financially heftier than the Nobel.

Examples of the science-to-religion connection that Templeton envisions are illuminating. His Foundation has given hard cash to Pietro Pietrini of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study "Imaging brain activity in forgiving people" ($125,000); Lee Dugatkin of the University of Louisville was awarded $62,757 for research on "Evolutionary and Judaic approaches to forgiving behavior." Herbert Benson of Harvard was aided in answering the question "Does intercessory prayer help sick people?," while Frans de Waal of Emory University was given funds for studying "forgiveness" among primates.

Templeton's efforts (but not necessarily those of all the researchers who are receiving his money) fall into what can be termed scientific theism, that is, the idea that one can scientifically investigate the mind of God. This particular position within the science and religion universe is actually a very old and revered one, having its roots in classical Christian Apologetics a la St. Thomas Aquinas and continuing today through the efforts of individuals like Plantinga and William Craig.

If, however, one believes in a more remote kind of God but wishes to retain the concept of science and religion uncovering the same truth, the choice is not limited to scientific theism. Two other positions are possible, depending on whether one subscribes to a naturalistic or to a deistic God, the Strong Anthropic Principle and Weak Anthropic Principle, the latter also known as the "God of the Big Bang." Of course, throughout this discussion the actual position of individuals within my framework maybe different from what I suggest here, either because the boundaries between categories are fuzzy rather than well delineated, or because I may have misunderstood particular individuals' positions based on their writings.

The Weak Anthropic Principle says that there is very little variation in the known constants and laws of physics that could be tolerated if the universe were to be a place friendly to life as we know it. (9) As is, this is a rather trivial observation, but if one wants to read philosophical implications into it, then it is a small leap of faith to claim that the universe was



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