About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Once more, trying to prove God through science
Anyway, Newberg – who a few years ago authored a pretty badly written and even worse argued book entitled “Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” -- scanned the brains of five women while they were allegedly speaking in tongues. What did the savvy researchers find? That the women's brain were active in a way that was different from the pattern observed when they were not speaking in tongues. In particular, the frontal lobes (in charge of thinking) were working much less than usual, while areas of the brain in charge of self-consciousness were active. So, these women were conscious, but not thinking a lot. Hardly a proof of something supernatural, is it?
To make things worse (other than the lack of gender controls and the extremely limited sample size), one of the co-authors of the study, Donna Morgan, was also one of the subjects! Talk about maintaining a scientific detachment from the object of your study. But the obvious flaws in the study didn't stop Newberg from making the grandiose claim that “The amazing thing is how the images supported people's interpretation of what was happening ... The way they described it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them.”
Come again? Apparently, Dr. Newberg (who obviously didn't take a course in experimental design, or even one in elementary logic) believes that the fact that some areas of the brain light up during a particular experience “supports” the personal interpretation of what is going on provided by the subjects. This is a complete non-sequitur, analogous to saying that because the brain behaves differently when one has taken hallucinogenic drugs, one's experiences under the influence of the drug are not just hallucinations. All that the brain scans support in the case of Newberg's study is that the subjects where in fact having an experience that: a) required them to be conscious, and b) didn't require them to think too much. Hardly a proof of the existence of god, don't you think?
But the broader point is that it is prima facie hard to understand why so many believers are so desperate for science – which they repeatedly mock in other settings (creationism, big bang, sexual education, global warming, etc.) – to confirm what they ought to believe regardless, in fact in spite of, the evidence. Could it be that these people, deep down, don't really believe the nonsense they so confidently utter? Could it be that science has gotten so authoritative in the eye of the public that even god needs it to strengthen her case?
At a recent conference on science and religion where, for once, skeptics were more numerous than believers, someone proposed in jest that the next Templeton Prize “for the scientific advancement of religion” be given to Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion.” I whole-heartedly support the motion, and perhaps god doesn't mind either.