Zero-Sum Game

Thursday, March 28, 2013

For today in infinite regression, I offer the following post:

I am in the middle of reading Dr. Lawrence Krauss' "A Universe From Nothing."  The book, as you can imagine, has sparked a firestorm of bitching from the theological community: it turns out that nothing isn't nothing; nothing is full of something, and that that something "creates" what we see.  Often, lots, and proveable.

He is judging you, while you think about this...
Krauss doesn't hide his disdain for theology, noting that it isn't a "real" scientific or academic discipline, especially when they kvetch at him.  He poses the following challenge, with regard to the contributions of theology as an academic focus (he is not talking about the value of religion, but the value of studying something that cannot be proven, and what that study contributes to our species):
In regards to theology not being a real subject, I put this challenge out to all theologians. Name me one piece of knowledge theology has contributed to human society in the last 500 years.


steves 11:40 AM  

It certainly isn't a real science, though I don't see what it couldn't be an academic discipline. How is it any less of a discipline than studying art or literature? How about law? I can say with some degree of expertise that the law is far from scientific.

As for any discussion, I am neither a theologian or a scientist, so I don't really have much to contribute to this debate.

Jay 11:57 AM  

Okay, I'll bite. I cannot state any tangible knowledge theology has contributed to human society. But I think the same thing could be said about many MANY other fields that are studied by academics. Science is pretty much designed to ferret out connections that increase knowledge. Other disciplines are not. What purpose they serve to a university and to our species can be debated, but I don't think it's entirely fair to compare them with scientific disciplines using "what knowledge have you contributed" as the metric.

In a sense, I think this question is representative of a scientist assuming (or perhaps asserting) that his world view is the only right one (or perhaps far and away the best one). As a scientist I have a lot of time for this world view, but I also try not to assume that everyone else agrees with it.

Bob 12:24 PM  

I have a hard time separating the value of theological writings in of themselves from the value of them due to the impact on a society or group of followers.

To a follower, religious scripture can be a form of poetry, morals and law, all of which describes the nature of the impact of the writing, not the writing itself.

To judge theology outside of the impact of the religion itself, I would have to judge its value as it pertains to the nonbeliever:

-Does the writing offer a form of poetry that has value in of itself?
-Is it entertaining in of itself?
-Is it a good piece of literature?

I suspect if the Bible were dissected as a form of literature - considering the contradictions and other literary problems with the book itself - it would not be held up as a well-written piece. Considering its origins as oral tradition, how could it be well-written?

Some other religions have creation stories that have value as an interesting read, but some of those are interesting because of the interesting examination of the culture that created them. Some are just cool short stories.

I suppose a story like Noah and the flood might be interesting on its own, even outside the realm of the believer, but maybe I am missing the point of Krauss.

steves 12:54 PM  

To be fair, I haven't read the book Smitty is talking about.

When I have participated in study groups dealing with the Bible, we usually end up talking about how one part of the Bible relates to another part and the historical context.

Smitty 8:08 AM  

In context, Krauss was fighting back against theological and religious backlash about his book and theory; that something can come from nothing, because nothing isn't nothing...nothing is actually quite full of somethings.

In a recent interview, he clarified:

"It was in that sense — the classical ontological claim about the nature of some abstract nothing, compared to the physical insights about this subject that have developed — that I made the provocative, and perhaps inappropriately broad statement that this sort of philosophical speculation has not led to any progress over the centuries."

Navel-gazing leads us nowhere, in other words.

He closed with:

"To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature."

but I don't think it's entirely fair to compare them with scientific disciplines using "what knowledge have you contributed" as the metric

I agree. Contributions can be abstract, they can be direct; they can contribute beauty to the human race, or insight, which are not the same as scientific contributions like Krauss refers to. But they're no less beneficial to us.

Jay 9:30 AM  

Yeah, what Smitty said.

I started reading the book last night. I am finding it interesting and fun so far. One of the early points that intrigues me personally is the suggestion that the Higgs boson discovery verifies concepts that have been part of cosmological theories for over 30 years but, until recently, there was little or no experimental data to back them up. The first book I ever read about modern physics and cosmology, back in the 80s, was called "Longing for the Harmonies". In it, they discussed the Higgs field and the idea that something rather than nothing exists because "nothing is unstable" according to the, at the time, untestable theory. The Krauss book appears to be, on some level, a continuation of that line of reasoning 25 years later now that we do have data to test the theory.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Streak 4:56 PM  

Haven't we made strides as human beings moving beyond purely tribal connections? Aren't those connections part of our philosophical understanding?

Or am I just not understanding this conversation?

Bob 6:27 PM  

No, streak, we are all about tribalism. Political parties, religions, our news programs, all are examples of tribalism. In the case of this post, there are those like Hawkins, Sagan and Krauss who strive for answers in science, the tribe that thinks they are blasphemous, and those who can blend the two.

Streak 10:23 AM  

No, I realize that tribalism is still rampant. But there are instances where people help those of another tribe because they need help. Not because they have oil.

Why do we do that?

I completely agree that science has given actual knowledge. That is really why I am asking the question that Smitty said all theologians ask, "what do you mean by knowledge."

If it is some kind of general truth that is objectively true, then I am not sure that theology is built that way. And understand, I am as skeptical and jaded about religion as I have been in my life. But I am also resistant to the idea that religion has not contributed anything but pain and misery.

Jay 10:50 AM  

Speaking as a person who is not religious in any way, I have no difficulty acknowledging that religion/theology has contributed numerous abstract ideas, arguments, and schools of thought that have an intrinsic beauty to them and that provide insight into human the human condition. So I, for one, am not trying to suggest that religious contributes nothing but pain and misery.

But if we are talking about knowledge that has advanced society in a tangible way, it's hard for me to come up with an example (in the western world, anyway) since the middle ages when the monasteries served as repositories of classical knowledge. That said, if an (ahem) historian were inclined to offer a different perspective on this point, I would be all ears.

Streak 10:52 AM  

Heh. My specialty is in the last 200 years. And I honestly don't have anything. Religion was the biggest defender of slavery, after all.

I will continue to think about this, however.

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