Hello there! If you’ve been following along with my previous post in this category, you would have read about NOMA and the argument against “new atheism”. This week we will be discussing the role of technology in human progress – whether we can preserve the concept of dignity, and how the bible factors into the debate over authority vs. human destiny.
So, the readings we’re doing this week are Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, by Gary B. Ferngren (pp. 31-92), The Bible in America: What We Believe about the Most Important Book in Our History, by Steve Green (pp.47-74), In Defense of Posthuman Dignity, by Nick Bostrum, and Genesis 1-3 (RSV).
Here are the questions we will be addressing:
- How does Steve Green describe the relationship between Science and the Bible?
What resemblance (if any) does it have to the controversy described by Coyne
and Gould in the reading from last week?
- Compare Green’s account of the history of the relationship between scientists and
biblical authority and the version given in the Ferngren readings so far. Try to
describe the discrepancy and account for it, if possible. Does reading this account
in The Atlantic complicate the picture?
- What does it mean for The Bible and Science to be “compatible?”
- What is a “transhumanist”? What is a “bioconservative”? How does Nick Bostrom
understand their disagreement? Do you see any potential relatonship to the
science vs religion debate as outlined by Gould and Coyne?
- Reading Gen 1-3, what do you think the Bible says about “human dignity”? How
does this compare with dignity as Bostrom describes it?
According to Steve Green, as the Bible spread around Europe, technological advances were being made as well, and this was not purely coincidental. The pursuit of knowledge turned from pure inward thinking outwards, to physical truth and discovery. The reason nature exists is because it was created by a God – if people didn’t believe there was a Designer, they wouldn’t have gone looking for the design itself. Therefore, there didn’t appear to be a conflict between science and the Bible in the beginning.
However, since Darwin’s theory was published, the two worlds have never been fully reconciled, at least, not in the academic conversation. Scientific evidence has still kept the bible in the picture – life is far more complicated than Darwin had thought, and points to intelligent design.
Green says that using science to disprove God wrong way to approach the discrepancy – we attribute the architecture or the art to the artist, geometry to Euclid, and gravity to Newton, but we stop short when we observe creation and use that knowledge to doubt the existence of the Creator. Furthermore, truth is perspicuous and immutable – which means that it can be known and doesn’t change, so scientific truth doesn’t conflict with biblical truth. And, according to survey data, the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to say “God is not dead”.
Last week, we talked about the controversy between Coyne and Gould. Coyne argued that science and religion were in no way compatible – they were fundamentally different and competitive ways of understanding the world. Gould agreed that they were compatible, they were just non-overlapping in all respects, and was vague where the line was being drawn. Green is saying that not only do religion and science coexist, as they have through the centuries, they are actually mutually dependent.
In the book by Ferngren, a collection of essays from Johns Hopkins University, two of the papers talked about the conflict thesis and the complexity thesis, respectively. The conflict thesis states that science and religion have been in conflict because of differences in chronology (historical events), methodology (using faith vs. facts as a foundation), ethics (abortion, genetic engineering, etc.), and the unfair use of social power (especially from the church). However, the author also acknowledged the weaknesses of the conflict thesis, such as the presence of a symbiotic relationship in the past, the distortion of any disputes, the diversity of ideas in both areas, and the fact that they don’t conflict because they are different subjects. The second paper mentioned that we must dismiss “presentism” for the context in history – for example, Copernicus would be conservative by today’s standards, but his theory was revolutionary back in his society. The words “science” and “religion” themselves have changed very much, and he too, talked about how the Christians laid the foundation for modern science. Therefore, things were much more complicated than a simple divide all throughout time – hence the “complexity” thesis.
Another paper addressing early Christian attitudes to nature acknowledge that some elite Christians were hostile to science and philosophy because they were “useless” to know, however the majority reconciled this because truth from a pagan source is still truth – the temporal can be used to serve the eternal. They did not reject the knowledge of a round earth, or refrain from using medicine, much like us today. Another paper pointed out especially that the theologians and the scientists were often the same scholars. There wasn’t any warfare, but these scholars just followed reason and observation freely. Tertullian was an odd man who preferred blind faith to reasoned argument, while Augustine and other scholars recognized science as a religious necessity for exegenesis, and adopted the handmaiden formula, using science as a means to an end.
In light of this, yes, science and religion are, and have been, compatible since the beginning. Previously, science has been logical and experimental handmaiden to religion. Now, we are using what we know about the bible to discover the truths in the text, and there is still exchange between the two.
The Green Foundation has amassed an incredible amount of biblical artifacts – and in their museum, they seem to presenting a cohesive story of the bible, and a narrow one too. The text of the bible has always been seen as infallible, however there have been so many discrepancies over the years of transcribing and translating, that there is really no definitive “original text”. It seems like the Greens are playing the modern role of a biblical authority – trying to present a one-sided view of the history of the bible as a way to influence the public faith. So, it seems like we must approach all accounts with caution and skepticism.
Moving on to transhumanists vs. bioconservatives, Nick Bostrum defines a transhumanist as someone who believes in morphological and reproductive freedom: firstly, that human enhancement technology should be widely available, and secondly, that parents can choose these enhancements for their children, respectively. They believe that human nature is improvable through genetic engineering, information technology, fully immersive virtual reality, AI, etc. He defines a bioconservative as one who is opposed to using technology to modify human nature, since it is a way of undermining human dignity when they become “posthuman”.
The disagreement that bioconservatives present is that firstly, enhancement technology could degrade and dehumanize people in a way that doesn’t factor into cost-benefit analysis, and that secondly, these posthumans could pose a threat to the ordinary humans. The transhumanists advocate for this because what is natural is not always good – disease, starvation, aging, disabilities (or in our species specifically: murder, rape, cheating, racism). Also, as a race, we should embrace technological progress while defending human rights and individual choice, while taking action against threats such as bioweapons, military/terrorist abuse, etc. We already have a spectrum of people with different abilities and disabilities, we are simply enlarging the spectrum. A current example of people who are “transhuman” are transexuals – eventually, this could become the norm.
If we look back at the argument between Coyne and Gould, this is obviously an intersection between the use of science and the ethics of how to live. Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) doesn’t work because this is an issue where the state of being human is in direct contact with the use of science and technology.
To the hunter-gatherer human from a thousand years ago, we may already appear to be posthuman. Bostrum defines dignity, first of all, by looking at the dictionary definition, but then he defines it as what we have the potential to become, not by our causal origin. The individual still gets the choice over their own life if their genes were selected by their parents.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…”
Bostrum uses the dictionary definition of dignity – a state of respect and moral status, being honorable, worthy, noble, and excellent, but he doesn’t use what the bible says about dignity. According to this passage from Genesis, man was made in God’s image and likeness, with dominion over all the earth, and blessed and meant to fill the earth.
And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
Before and after Adam and his wife eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they seem to have two types of dignity: the first of innocence, and the second of knowledge.
The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.
Eve doesn’t receive a name until after the first sin. God himself makes clothes for the man and woman, as if to acknowledge that this modesty is indeed “correct” knowledge/truth. Perhaps it is saying that in order for us to have dignity, we must first be aware of indignity.
That’s the end of what I’ve prepared for this week. Follow my blog to stay updated on more writings! Feel free to add your opinions on what I’ve covered in the comments below. Bye for now!