Could scientific breakthroughs lead to new religions?S

NYU psychologist Gary Marcus has penned an interesting article for The New Yorker in which he complains about how some scientists are using science itself as a way to rekindle beliefs in the supernatural.

The two thinkers in particular that Marcus has chosen to pick on include artificial intelligence researcher Jürgen Schmidhuber, who has talked about "computational theology," and neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has proposed a quasi-religious view he calls "Possibilianism."

Marcus writes:

Schmidhuber, in a post on Ray Kurzweil’s A.I. blog, ”In the beginning was the code,” begins with the premise that there “is a fastest, optimal, most efficient way of computing all logically possible universes, including ours—if ours is computable (no evidence against this).” Schmidhuber further elaborates on a “God-like ‘Great Programmer,’ ” and a method by which it would “create and master all logically possible universes.” From this follows what Schmidhuber describes as “Computational Theology,” a component of which is the undeniably heartening claim that “your own life must be very important in the grand scheme of things.” Over all, suggests Schmidhuber, Computational Theology “is compatible with religions claiming that ‘all is one’ and ‘everything is connected to everything.’ ”

If Schmidhuber’s logic is hard to follow, Eagleman’s is not; there is no allusion to computing logically possible universes, nor is there technical-but-nebulous talk of quantum computation. Instead, Eagleman is interested in the limits of our own knowledge, and what we can infer from what we do not know...Eagleman aims to “make the case that our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism.” According to Eagleman, his invention, Possibilianism, ”emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities,” and is “comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.” Eagleman’s poster child is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field experiment; in a 2010 PopTech talk, Eagleman begins by standing in front of a cloud of stars and describing an experiment that revealed that there were a “thousand trillion stars” in a tiny corner of universe that was previously thought to be dark, “all of them with the potential to house unknown forms of biology.” Eagleman concludes, “This is a good conscious-raiser to think about the size of the mysteries that surround us.” In other words, if we didn’t know what was hiding out there, who’s to say there isn’t a divine creator after all?

Among his many concerns, Marcus had this to say:

Any agnostic is free to believe that his favorite religion has not yet been completely disproven. But anyone who wishes to bring science into the argument must acknowledge that the evidence thus far is weak, especially when it is combined statistically, in the fashion of a meta-analysis. To emphasize the qualitative conclusion (X has not been absolutely proven to be false) while ignoring the collective weight of the quantitative data (i.e., that most evidence points away from X) is a fallacy, akin to holding out a belief in flying reindeer on the grounds that there could yet be sleighs that we have not yet seen.

Scientists and non-scientists alike are still free to believe whatever they want, but the grounds for religion have to be the same as they ever were: faith, not science. Science cannot absolutely prove that there is no divine creator, but the tools of science do allow us to weigh the existing evidence, and assign likelihoods to those hypotheses; by ignoring those tools, Eagleman does science a disservice.

I think Marcus is being a bit too harsh and constrictive, here (not to mention that his view smacks of old-time logical positivism). Eagleman is not making any extraordinary claims. He's simply saying there's a lot we don't know about what we don't know, and that new information could eventually come to light which could paradigmatically change our perspective of our place in the universe. Like this for example.

If anything, to deny this possibility — and the right to speculate about such matters — is a kind of extraordinary, unproven claim that Marcus himself is railing against.

Be sure to read the entire article as I've only skimmed the surface.

Image: NASA/Hubble.