A Strong Case for Science

Stuart Jordan

Science And Nonbelief, by Taner Edis, with a new preface by the author (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59102-561-0) 304 pp. Paper $18.95.

In this generally excellent book, Science and Nonbelief, physics professor Taner Edis offers a comprehensive review of modern science and gives cogent reasons why so many people still embrace views that are clearly irrational. Yet despite

his own secular perspective, Edis also expresses sympathy for liberal religion and offers some insights into the psychology of religious fundamentalists. The author concludes with comments on morality and on how scientists can be politically effective in a world still saturated with religious superstition. In covering so many subjects, the book is an ambitious tour de force. Notwithstanding that challenge, this

reviewer concludes that the author has succeeded, subject to only one caveat that appears at the end of this review.

Edis lays the foundation for his views by summarizing the main features of modern physics, biology, and neurophysiology. Following a very readable introductory chapter on the history of science, philosophy, and religious doubt, this summary appears in Chapters 2 through 4. It begins with a review of current physics, including cosmology, and, following a convincing presentation of modern evolutionary biology, ends with a discussion of the relatively new field of neurophysiology. I have never read a better summary of these three distinct but coupled fields than appears in these chapters. Edis shows how these three scientific disciplines are tied together by one of the most fundamental discoveries of modern physics, the universal role of determinism and chance in all natural phenomena studied to date. The immense power of modern science and its potential for ever deeper explanations of phenomena are presented extremely well.

The nonscientist must concentrate when reading these well-written chapters, because some of the material may seem unfamiliar. A thorough grasp of the essential points will then require effort. However, the rewards will be great. To learn how the role of determinism and chance has an exact analogue in the “new synthesis” of modern evolutionary biology, and more recently in the study of neural networks in the human brain, should thrill anyone wishing to understand how our world really works.

With the science chapters as a basis, Edis goes on to address topics ranging from fringe science (Chapter 5) and current attempts to explain the continuing allure of religion (Chapter 6) to concluding thoughts on morality and politics (Chapter 7). Numerous examples of popular expressions of “spirituality” are presented in Chapter 5, including New Age and other beliefs that typically fail when subjected to critical scrutiny.

I found Chapter 6 especially interesting. Modern neuroscience provides insights into why people are naturally inclined to believe in the physical reality of things that are clearly “not there.” Young children are especially susceptible before they reach the ability to reason. The faculty of reason associated with more recently evolved brain structures (see Chapter 4) gives the person a superior basis for evaluating mental and other phenomena, thus providing him or her with a better-grounded sense of reality. Studies of agency—a term that describes how a person’s brain can fill in the gaps in perceived reality with imaginary agents—are particularly illuminating.

Does the author think that religious belief will soon succumb to scientific elucidation? Edis would likely say no. Rather, the author has given us an excellent basis for understanding the great appeal of religious superstition and the difficulty of overcoming it. He notes what many secular scientists learned long ago—that it is we, not the majority of people, who are the mavericks in today’s world. Superstition is now relatively easy to understand and is found everywhere. Overcoming superstition requires a conscious effort for most people and a properly developed rational mind as well.

Acknowledging the appeal of religion requires nonbelievers to deal with certain societal and political realities that most secular scientists find disturbing. Scientists are generally aware of the high level of irrationality in a large fraction of the world’s population today. Nor are nonbelievers entirely immune from nonrational tendencies, as evolutionary psychology has shown. Indeed, Edis notes many situations in which this departure from rationality continues to offer human beings many instinctive protections in a world scientists are still struggling to understand.

Another sobering conclusion follows from recent work in the neurosciences, where a problem formerly assigned to metaphysics may be close to solution by neuroscience. This is the question of free will. Should large numbers of scientists publicly endorse the growing body of evidence that we have no traditional forms of free will, the impact on contemporary society is difficult to assess, especially on those who still cannot reconcile themselves to Darwinian evolution. The fundamentalist is likely to say that losing free will means losing human dignity and will angrily oppose this new perspective, even though many thoughtful people have already become comfortable with other ways of defining and realizing human dignity. Edis is acutely aware of the problems this could cause.

In his final chapter, Edis presents his views on the proper role of the nonbelieving scientist in the political arena. He strongly urges cooperation with religious liberals whose social and political agendas are typically very close to those of nonbelievers. He notes, for example, that the two groups both favor separation of church and state. He also clearly disapproves of “religion bashing”—as opposed to critical scholarly studies of religion—if scientists want to be fully accepted by the greater community. Having had some experience in the political arena, this reviewer agrees completely.

Finally, I have one major objection to a position taken by the author in his discussion of morality. In a commendable effort to reach out to all reasonable people, Edis expresses approval of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of science and religion occupying “nonoverlapping magisteria.” In doing this, I think he gives away far too much. The most pernicious argument that many religious apologists offer to discredit nonbelief is that nonbelievers cannot be moral people and that morality must come from a supreme lawgiver (God). This argument is false. Gould’s “Separate Magisteria” gives religion the power to set morality, and each religion then typically asks the state to enforce its version of it. In this reviewer’s opinion, morality is an area where nonbelievers cannot, and should not, back off. However, our case certainly needs to be made in a civil manner, with which Edis would agree.

Notwithstanding this one disagreement with the author, I found Science and Nonbelief to be an outstanding book. The author is to be commended for his superb synthesis of modern science, for his excellent exposition of the many reasons why religion comes so easily to so many people, and also for his compassionate, humanistic grasp of the realities of a world in which many scientists still need to learn how to communicate more effectively with the public at large. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in any or all of these subjects.

Stuart Jordan

Stuart Jordan is a past president and current board member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists. He is a Senior Staff Scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center.

Science And Nonbelief, by Taner Edis, with a new preface by the author (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59102-561-0) 304 pp. Paper $18.95. In this generally excellent book, Science and Nonbelief, physics professor Taner Edis offers a comprehensive review of modern science and gives cogent reasons why so many people still embrace views that …

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