Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

Science and Religion News

New Scientist Detects the Spiritual (a bit) Edward Hadas

Ernst Fehr has garnered attention for doing something that should not be noteworthy - using dubious experimental methods to confirm common sense. In academic economics, however, the dedication to pure theory is so strong that the work of Fehr and his school seems almost revolutionary.

What Fehr has observed, largely through asking willing subjects to play highly artificial "games" which are supposed to test their motivations, is that the explanation of human nature assumed in conventional "neoclassical" economic theory is wrong. It turns out that men are not, as the economists imagine, simply self-interested and calculating.

The news should come as no surprise to any Christian, but economists often live in a world of their own, one in which men have but one motivation: themselves. Fehr made his reputation through discovering another one: a sense of fairness. The Austrian, now based in Switzerland, has moved on, according to a recent New Scientist profile (4 May 2010, "How I found what is wrong with economics", interview by Mark Buchanan), to explore compassion.

Christians, novelists, mothers - indeed, pretty much every human - could have saved Fehr much trouble. Advanced game theory is not required to uncover the existence of all sorts of non-selfish motivations. Even Adam Smith, often either praised or castigated as the father of the self-interest assumption, had a complex understanding of "moral sentiments".

Only a discipline in thrall to peculiarly simple mathematical fixations and a wilfully reductive and anti-nobility ethos could manage to ignore reality so thoroughly. Academic economics fits that bill. The discipline's willing suspension of observation and common sense has been so great that Fehr was long considered a revolutionary and his research was ignored.

That total isolation has ended, but the discipline's intellectual poverty is still great enough that Fehr's contribution remains worthwhile. Unfortunately, his "fairness", which is essentially the same as the "altruism" cited as a motivation by other dissident economists, is unlikely to have much influence on the theoretical work of academics. The simple assumption of a universal desire to maximise self-interest makes the mathematics much more tractable. Fortunately, economic policy of governments and actual economic practice is not much influenced by the basic economic theory, so this reality-shy approach does relatively little harm in the non-academic world.

Fehr's contributions are real enough, but for Christians, and anyone who worries about the ontological, moral and epistemological dimensions of economic activity, his gaps are probably more concerning than his accomplishments.

For a start, the method is suspect. Fehr's preference for experiment over theory may sound admirably modern, but the value of studies in "behavioural game theory", which try to isolate and replicate purely economic choices, is questionable. This sort of research assumes away the rich social context and great social and practical ambiguities of the real world. Broadly speaking, the results are mostly unobjectionable, but like so many efforts to develop quantifiable observations of human nature, they largely produce spuriously precise elaborations of fairly obvious observations about how people behave in rich Western societies.

Then there is the philosophical confusion about what counts as an explanation. It is not clear what the discovery that brain waves change along with emotions such as pity is supposed to demonstrate, but Fehr seems to think it is important. It may be impertinent, but I would suggest that Fehr would have benefited from spending a little less time compiling interviews of German mothers with children in day care and a bit more studying the mind-body problem. Fehr also refers enthusiastically to evolutionary psychology, a discipline which fails almost any conceivable test of scientific validity other than the use of complicated words. It is hard to see how rank speculation about pre-historic human experience can clarify anything. Such thinking easily leads to a worrying moral determinism - mencannot help acting that way, thanks to natural selection.

Fehr's work is fine as far as it goes, but the effort to dress simple truths and half-truths with glamorous mathematical formulae and largely spurious scientific evidence is unlikely to provide much insight. If anything, the piles of numbers make it difficult to get at the core moral questions - how virtuous and how selfish are people, and how and to what extent can their ethical disposition be improved? It would be better to abandon physics-envy and enter into a clear philosophical and anthropological debate.

In Caritas in Veritate (36), Pope Benedict XVI suggested a distinctly moral approach to economics, one which casts out completely the selfish anthropology of conventional economics:

"The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth."

Fehr's thinking about human behaviour is pointing the discipline in roughly that direction, but there is much more to be done.

New Scientist Recoils From the Spiritual Fr Chris Findlay-Wilson

New Scientist reviews Matt Rossano's book Supernatural Selection: How religion evolved in which he makes the claim that it was religion that conferred vital survival benefits on the human race: imaginative children were better suited to navigating complex social relationships as adults for example; humans who participated in healing rituals were healthier; ritual increased the brain's capacity for working memory. Above all, Rossano sees religion primarily in terms of relationships, which apparently explains why it persists even in the face of today's atheistic reductionist arguments. The New Scientist reviewer is intrigued but not convinced: "From so far away, the line between causality and correlation can look very blurry". Perhaps Rossano's hypothesis is asnear as a materialist gets to appreciating religion without conceding the reality of the supernatural order. Still, it sounds as though Rossano is looking in the right direction; it's about time we had a wide exploration of religion's unique role in civilising human society.

The New War Between Science and Religion

Last May Mano Singham, the President of the Center for Inquiry, an American secularist campaigning organisation, set out for us the key camps in the latest stage of the science and religion debate. In the Boston-based Chronicle Review he suggested that on one side we have the Accommodationists, who view science and "moderate" religion as compatible. On the other are the New Atheists. As one of the latter, Singham believes science moves inexorably to provide explanations for all areas once seen as off-limits to scientists. He is clearly upset that the National Academy of Science has sided with the Accommodationists, agreeing with Richard Dawkins that this may in America be "good politics. But it is intellectually disreputable". He somewhat clumsily concludes that if scienceconcedes the Accommodationist position, it will inevitably also have to accept witchcraft and astrology (although Accommodationists clearly do not). In the end his claim that no religious scientist can ever provide a valid argument for their position sounds remarkably like a blind act of faith...

Abusing Science

... Indeed, the agnostic philosopher Mary Midgely is famous for her critique of 'Dawkinsist' orthodoxy as in itself "a strange faith"; a reductionist ideology. Writing in The Guardian on 12 June, she argues that an 'infallible' scientific stance that just rejects all religious truth is an abuse of human knowledge. The answer to Christian fundamentalism, for example, is to get to the vital truth it contains and combine it with more modern thinking. What a shame that her article does not ponder those mainstream Christians embracing authentic scientific knowledge.

Reductionism and That Elusive 'God' Particle

Graham Farmelo writes in The Daily Telegraph (20 July 2010) about the rush to find this most hidden of scientific holy grails:

"Since the existence of the Higgs boson particle was first predicted almost half a century ago, thousands of physicists have spent many millions of pounds in an attempt to pin it down, as yet to no avail. Experimenters at Fermilab, near Chicago, recently had to quash rumours that they had finally discovered it. If nature really has chosen to involve the Higgs in its grand scheme, it is doing an excellent job of keeping it secret.

"At first glance, it seems odd that an obscure subatomic particle has attracted so much attention. It's not just that it would be much too small for any human being to see - theorists predict that it will weigh billions of times less than a typical dust particle, and will have only the briefest of lives. After each one is born, death should follow about a hundred trillionths of a trillionth of a second later as it falls apart to produce other particles.

"Yet physicists care deeply about the Higgs, because its putative existence follows from an elegant theoretical idea that helps explain why almost all of the most basic particles have mass. The Higgs theory, named after its co-author - a distinguished, now-retired theoretician at the University of Edinburgh - does a lot to explain why you and every material thing around you are not as insubstantial as light.

At a deeper level, what makes the Higgs particle so important is that it represents the one unconfirmed part of perhaps the greatest triumph of modern science - the theory describing fundamental particles and the main forces between them."

And why is it called "the God particle"? The Nobel-winning experimenter Leon Lederman once called it that, but "has never successfully explained why". Might not the reason lie in the apparent convenience of such a fundamental particle to reductionist philosophers such as Richard Dawkins. His reduction only to the level of "The Selfish Gene" has been easily shown to be entirely arbitrary. Stopping at the fundamental Higgs might appear to such mindsets a bit more comfortable.

Another Professor Turns Back on Embryonic Stem Cells Fr Philip Miller

A very significant step away from embryonic stem-cell research was taken recently when a previously forthright advocate of such research softened his stance on other ethical alternatives. In 2005, before a Congressional hearing in the U.S., Prof. George Q. Daley of Harvard spoke forcefully and influentially about the necessity for embryonic stem-cell research to go ahead, and dismissed suggestions that one could work instead with "induced pluripotent stem cells" ("iPS", i.e. stem cells reprogrammed from some cells of a living adult). We reported on iPS cells in Cutting Edge of the Jan/Feb 2008 issue, concerning Prof. Ian Wilmut's volte-face in his attitude to cloning, after embracing iPS research. In the June 2010 issue of Nature Medicine, in an interview with theBoston-based researcher, Daley tells how he further changed the focus of his work after Prof. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who won the 2010 Kyoto Prize for advanced technology, made known his successes with iPS cells in 2007: "Once Yamanaka solved the problem, I turned around virtually my entire programme to take advantage of that breakthrough," he says. "There's no reason in my mind to think that we're not going to have iPS cells that function as well as embryonic stem cells". This can only bode well for the future of medicine.


Faith Magazine

September - October 2010