Unknown vs. Hawking? Seriously? I mean, I’m not looking to Hawking for faith lessons but not looking to Tyson either. #YAFPRBE

Just got this press release by email that pits a new author Scott Tyson against Stephen Hawking in some sort of “religion vs. science” debate.

PR Contact: Ginny Grimsley:

Why Hawking Was Wrong
To Discount Life After Death
Award-Winning Physicist Chastises Scientist
For Decrying Religion

Scientists make terrible theologians.

That’s the opinion of physicist and researcher Scott M. Tyson, who thinks colleague Stephen Hawking was wrong to dismiss the concept of life after death. Hawking recently explained in a newspaper interview his belief that there is no God and that humans should therefore seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” Hawking told The Guardian. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

But Tyson believes that Hawking’s comments may serve to do more harm than good for both people of faith and people of science.

“I think that people in general believe that scientists don’t believe in God, and that’s just not true,” said Tyson, author of The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework for Understanding the Universe (www.theunobservableuniverse.com). “History is filled with scientists who were also men of faith, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to Einstein. Now, I do also believe that there are other scientists who would like to prove that God doesn’t exist. These scientists might want to rain on everyone else’s parades with respect to God really, really badly. The problem is that one of the limitations of science is that science simply cannot prove the non-existence of objects and phenomena over the full spectrum of possibilities. So, while scientists may be able to prove in a scientific framework that there is no life after death, they cannot, nor should they even attempt to, prove it in a theological framework, which is the territory of faith. To do so creates unnecessary divisiveness that can serve no beneficial purpose. And that’s the line Dr. Hawking crossed – he essentially discounted the idea in both frameworks, and nothing good could come of that.”

Tyson’s concern is that Hawking’s comments deepen the rift between the scientific and religious communities, erecting hurdles that only diminish the prospects for potential good that science could do for humanity.

“Dr. Hawking is probably one of only a handful of scientists in the world who is a household name,” he added. “In many ways, he’s the captain of the team, he’s the quarterback, so when he speaks, millions of people believe he is speaking for scientists everywhere. That’s part of the weight of his celebrity on the scientific community as a whole. His comments are out of line and further complicate complex issues like stem cell research, in which faith effectively blocks the use of scientific discoveries that could heal people and ease their suffering – a concept not inconsistent with the tenets of most organized religions,” Tyson added. “But science oftentimes becomes blocked politically and socially not because the science contradicts religion, but because the argument is framed in an ‘us versus them’ context. We inadvertently challenge people to either believe in science or to believe in God, at the exclusion of the other. It’s an unreasonable and unnecessary position in which to place anyone.”

What’s worse, according to Tyson, is that people who believe in both science and faith get left out or, worse, placed into the difficult situation of needlessly choosing sides.

“Millions of people practice their faith but then also believe in the veracity of Darwin’s evolution,” he said. “Many in the scientific community view science through their faith, rather than in spite of it. When scientists discount theology in a wholesale fashion, they not only insult the faithful who discount science, but also the faithful who embrace it. It discourages and further polarizes the dialogue between the two disciplines and increases the challenges that science must overcome in its quest to better comprehend the nature of our world for the betterment of society, goals that I and many other scientists will continue to embrace.”

About Scott M. Tyson

Award-winning physicist, engineer, scientist and researcher, Scott M. Tyson graduated from Johns Hopkins University with an engineering degree, and then embarked on a career that included working at IBM’s VLSI Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Westinghouse’s Advanced Technology Laboratory. Responsible for the implementation of new microelectronics approaches for space, Tyson also served as an advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on space computing technology development and planning, as well as for congressional delegations to accelerate the advancement of meaningful and effective space electronic solutions.

To interview Scott M. Tyson or request a review copy of The Unobservable Universe contact Ginny Grimsley

Ginny Grimsley
National Print Campaign Manager
News and Experts

Now – mind you – I am not a big fan of the “science is the only way of thinking” crowd and I am sympathetic to a diverse set of view points.  But I do not wear my opinions about this on my sleeve, so to speak.  Regardless of where I stand on some of these discussions, what I cannot stand is bad arguments on any side.  And the arguments in this PR piece are pretty bad I must say.  
For example, the PR states at the beginning “Scientists make terrible theologians.”  Certainly, some do.  But then the PR argues that scientists who discount religion leave out all the scientists who are religious and that that is not fair.  So – I guess scientists who are religious make good theologians while scientists who aren’t religious don’t?  I am lost here on the logic flow.
What really gets me here is the attempt to diss Hawking for misusing his fame as a great scientist but to then use the names of other great scientists who supposedly believed in God.  Which is it?  Is it OK to use fame / notoriety as a great scientist to support a point of view or not?
Another thing that gets me is the attempt to somehow elevate the author of this book into Hawking territory.  Hawking is referred to as a “colleague” of Tyson, like they routinely work together or something.  And Tyson is an award winning physicist.  What awards would that be (look here – I could not find any).  Out of curiosity you might ask – has Hawking actually won any awards?  Well, lets see – Wikipedia lists a few: 
  • 1975 Eddington Medal
  • 1976 Hughes Medal of the Royal Society
  • 1979 Albert Einstein Medal
  • 1981 Franklin Medal
  • 1982 Order of the British Empire (Commander)
  • 1985 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 1986 Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
  • 1988 Wolf Prize in Physics
  • 1989 Prince of Asturias Awards in Concord
  • 1989 Companion of Honour
  • 1999 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society
  • 2003 Michelson Morley Award of Case Western Reserve University
  • 2006 Copley Medal of the Royal Society
  • 2008 Fonseca Price of the University of Santiago de Compostela
  • 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States

Are we really trying to compare the two here?  Colleagues?  Seriously?   Hawking is a brilliant brilliant brilliant man.  Does that mean his thoughts should count for more than other people’s?  I don’t know.  But there is no doubt something he says will get my attention more than something Tyson says.  Doesn’t mean I think Hawking is right about everything.  But you have to give respect where it is due.  And he deserves it.  If Hawking announced that the color red was inherently better than the color blue I would want to know why he thought that.  He has earned that.  Tyson hasn’t really earned much of anything.  Not discounting his ideas per se.  But to try to take down Hawking while elevated himself, that kind of bothers me.  Makes me think that Tyson’s ideas may have trouble standing on their own merit.  If they were solid, he wouldn’t need to start off with an attack.

Again, this post is not about how I feel about religion and science or religion vs. science (I think the science vs. religion debate is unnecessary personally – but that is all I am going to say about it here).

This post is about how I feel about badly thought out arguments and YAFPRBE (Yet another press release by email).  I am sick of publicists sending me these emails.  Especially when they seem fundamentally flawed.

Francis Collins Launches Biologos – a strange re-working of theistic evolution

Biologos.  All I can say is, well, I am just really baffled by the whole thing. I am all for trying to have discussions about science and religion. But I do not think the two topics are really compatible in the sense of merging them together. Science (and medicine) should be about, well, science. And religion can be about whatever it wants to be. And when we can get religious and scientific leaders together to talk about the implications of each area on the other and on the world, fine too.  But merging the two together into one hybrid such as Christian Science and Creation Science?  Not for me.
Thus it is with some horror that I have been browsing the web site for Francis Collins’ new The BioLogos Mission | The BioLogos Foundation (f0r some other discussions of it see e.g., Larry Moran’s discussion here, and PZ Myers here and Time Magazine here and US News here). BioLogos appears to be Collins attempt to promote a slight variant of “theistic evolution” which he has been discussing for years and is also in his recent book.
And whatever you may think of theistic evolution, the Biologos version of it is just icky in many ways in my mind. For example, the site has many many links and pointers to books authored by the members of the Foundation (e.g., the front page says “Among other resources, this website posts responses to many of the questions received by Collins, Giberson, and Falk since the publication of their books, including: The Language of God; Saving Darwin; and Coming to Peace With Science.”) There are also other links to this page with ads for their books. Not that there is anything wrong with selling ones books, but to have a foundation whose purpose seems in a large part to promote one’s books really seems distasteful. 
And the details of Collins attempt to merge science and religion into a version of theistic evolution are really unclean.  Basically, he is trying to argue that on the one hand science and religion are completely separate activities (I support this) but at the same time argues that God can intervene in the setting up of natural laws and in providing some guidance here and there in order to, for example, produce human beings in his image.  
The web site repeats some things from Collins book that are equally illogical – such as saying that altruism can be explained by science (and even specifically saying that science is the way to explain the natural world) but then turning around and saying that science cannot explain extreme forms of altruism (and therefore implying that actually, the natural world cannot be explained by science).  Which is it?  Is science for the natural world or not?
What one wants to believe in terms of faith/religion is a highly personal issue.  But trying to both say that science and religion are completely separate but also that they are not is just completely illogical.  
UPDATE: See also:

Conflict between religion and evolution? Not according to the Papal Conference on Evolution …

Not to beat a dead horse here, but some people out there still think there is a absolute conflict between religious beliefs and believing that evolution occurs.  And if you still think that, you might want to check out the schedule for the Vatican Conference on Evolution (and related topics) that is going on right now (see here for the PDF and here for an outline).  
Held at the Vatican from Oct 31 – Nov 4 and sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a conference on “Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.”  Among the speakers: Takashi Gojobori, Werner Arber, H.Em. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, David Baltimore, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Christian de Duve, Francis Collins (who is the only one of the speakers with God in the title of his talk) and Maxine Singer.  Sounds like a pretty good conference and I really wish I had been invited.  But suffice it to say that (1) the Pope has strong religious beliefs and (2) that the Pope and the Vatican are enthusiastic about evolution as a science.  
Too bad one of our VP candidates seems still stuck on the notion that we need to teach “the controversy” about evolution.  Just what controversy is that?

God, Evolution, and Science

Apparently Francis Collins has a new book coming out on how he balances his religious beliefs with his work as a scientist.

Well, that is all fine and dandy and I personally view science and religion as separately areas for the most part. However, if you look at some of Collins’ interviews you realize that in fact his science appears to be compromised by his strict (i.e., fundamentalist) interpretation of certain aspects of religious belief.

For example see his PBS interview. In this he says that “Moral Law” comes from some higher power and gives the following example:

“If I’m walking down the riverbank, and a man is drowning, even if I don’t know how to swim very well, I feel this urge that the right thing to do is to try to save that person. Evolution would tell me exactly the opposite: preserve your DNA. Who cares about the guy who’s drowning? He’s one of the weaker ones, let him go. It’s your DNA that needs to survive. And yet that’s not what’s written within me.”

What an absolute load of crap. What he is saying here is that since someone might do something that is not in their own direct self interest it cannot therefore have evolved. Apparently, Collins has either never taken an evolution course or did not pay attention in one if he did. Does he suggest that soldier ants are following some moral code to sacrifice themselves for the colony? What about skin cells? Or birds that warn of coming predators? Basically, Collins is using his position as the head of NHGRI to foment anti-evolutionary points of view. It is one thing to express an opinion that one has faith and that one follows ones faith rather than following science. But instead Collins repeatedly says things that are hostile to the field of evolutionary biology. He may not intend it, but that is the way it is. It is a shame too as NHGRI (the intitute he is the head of) has done some good things for the world. His blather about evolution however, is not one of them.

This is not to say the evolution and religion are not compatible, but the way to make them compatible is NOT to mislead people about what the science of evolutionary biology reveals. It’s funny in a way – Collins claims he believes in “theistic evolution” or the idea that God created the natural laws, including those of evolutionary biology, and that those laws are how the hand of God works. But then I do not understand why it is OK to ignore those laws when convenient.