Recommended reading on religion and natural laws?
March 19, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I am a scientifically-minded person who is trying to sort out my religious beliefs. I think it would be helpful to read some debates between deism, atheism, pantheism (Spinozism), and/or a scientifically-grounded theism. Can anyone recommend me books or essays that discuss these topics in ways that are engaging, well-thought-out, and thorough?

One of the main areas that I'm struggling with is the idea that natural laws and an orderly universe can exist without a 'programmer'; that order would come from chaos and randomness. I am interested in both philosophical/religious arguments and scientific arguments that deal with the explanation of natural laws and the predictability and consistency of natural phenomena.

I'm not interested in arguments that consider 'religion is a fantasy or delusion' as a given, or, of course, arguments that rely on pseudoscience (e.g. The Secret). Speaking of which, I firmly believe that "evolutionary psychology" is a pseudoscience. I'm also not interested in adopting any philosophy that relies upon holy texts or their interpretation, or in becoming a part of an organized religion. I'm also not really interested in discussions of the concept of morality, because I'm very certain about my own beliefs regarding ethics, and they are not related to religion or philosphy.

Based on the recent Thomas Nagel FPP, which inspired this AskMe, it seems like apparently I should read Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. I will read Dawkins but only if you can promise me that his writing is not as smug and self-satisfied as his public persona.

If you have recommendations for works that changed your worldview or gave you some interesting things to think about along these lines that are from other genres or media, they are welcome. For instance, if there is a science fiction movie that is required reading in your personal philosophy of the cosmos, I'd give it a try.

However, I am really, really not looking for explanations of any of these things that can fit into a Metafilter comment. If you have found a philosophy that works for you, please do not attempt to convince me of it here but instead list some of the thinkers or works that convinced you personally.
posted by capricorn to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You may appreciate Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages. It's not so much a debate on the topic, so much as an argument that there really shouldn't be a debate in the first place; Gould argues that science and religion each deal with wholly separate fields of human experience, and that if each leaves the other alone they work together just fine. He also does a good job of examining where each started intruding into each other's turf.

Gould also writes from the perspective of the scientist, so some of his other books may help with the "order coming from randomness" question you're struggling with. Evolutionary biology was his specialty.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: My UW colleague Elliott Sober's Evidence and Evolution. Sober is a philosopher of science and of probability, and brings a (scientifically-informed) philosopher's view to the central questions: what do we mean by "structure" and what counts as "evidence"? What do we mean by "randomness" when we speak of things have already happened, and are thus not (from our present viewpoint) subject to chance? Stuff like that. You will find that Sober does not come down in favor of arguments that natural phenomena demand a designer, but he takes those arguments much more seriously than someone like Dawkins does, and spends his time grappling with the strongest versions of those arguments, not the weakest.
posted by escabeche at 8:21 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: You might be interested in the writings of John Polkinghorne. Science and Theology: An Introduction is a good place to start. Polkinghorne is a Cambridge physist and an Anglican priest, and much of his writing is devoted to the intersection of science and theology.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:48 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: It has been years since I read it, but Dawkins' The Selfish Gene blew me away at the time. It really leaves you in awe of nature and evolutionary processes. I think it will help answering some of your "order from chaos" questions. It's not angry or polemical at all. You may also be interested in books by cosmologists and physicists about the origins of the universe, why it is just right for life, etc. (Paul Davies is one who has written many books about these topics).
posted by theuninvitedguest at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is the classic examination of a bunch of natural theology type arguments. It is framed as a dialogue between between three friends: in modern terms, Philo sounds like an atheist (albeit a closeted one), Cleanthes an orthodox Christian who is persuaded by some sort of design argument, and Demea a Sophisticated TheologianTM, as Jerry Coyne would put it.

Most people think Hume's own views are closest to those of Philo, but amusingly he has his narrator tell us that Cleanthes won the argument.

It's fun for the number of modern arguments that Hume anticipated, even without knowing about evolution.

It's freely available: nice version here.
posted by pw201 at 9:38 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: One of the main areas that I'm struggling with is the idea that natural laws and an orderly universe can exist without a 'programmer'; that order would come from chaos and randomness.

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene are directly on point. Both men are atheists and Dawkins is (in)famous for considering religion a delusion, but the books stand for themselves. Both are legit scientists with a gift for writing for the layperson. I read both as an Orthodox Jew and was not offended, although they did push me along towards my current atheism.

Wolfram's A New Kind of Science is overblown and a little ridiculous, but it does provide another perspective on how "natural laws and an orderly universe can exist without a 'programmer'." Sagan's Contact might be a fun fictional but relevant diversion on your quest.
posted by callmejay at 9:52 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: If you have recommendations for works that changed your worldview or gave you some interesting things to think about along these lines that are from other genres or media, they are welcome. For instance, if there is a science fiction movie that is required reading in your personal philosophy of the cosmos, I'd give it a try.

In dealing with the same sorts of questions you've outlined here, I have found it more helpful to read about the universe and natural world, and learn how it works, than to read philosophy. Right now, I'm not-quite-finished with The Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich, which makes kind of a nice case study about "order coming from chaos", in this case the evolution of intelligent behavior in ravens. Heinrich is a field biologist and prolific science writer, and the book itself is a narrative summary of some of his observations of raven behavior and intelligence, their relationship to predators (including humans), and some of his suppositions about why ravens are so unusually smart and social.

The book itself only brushes up against philosophy in one or two places, and Heinrich draws a firm line between what he does as a scientist, and what philosophers do. Also, it's fundamentally about raven behavior; it won't tell you why the laws of thermodynamics are what they are, or why Earth supports life and the moon doesn't. Nevertheless, I think it would give you a lot of food for thought about the interrelatedness of natural processes, including evolution, and about humans' place in the world at large. (It's also fascinating. Did you know ravens will often cooperate to find or defend food, not just with other ravens, but with other species entirely (e.g. wolves)? Or that they occasionally form communities of several mated pairs? Or that individuals can recognize each other, sometimes from great distances, but they have virtually no sense of smell? Cool, huh?)
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:10 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Albert Einstein wrote very thoughtfully about religion, notably in his collection of essays and letters The World As I See It. He was a pretty smart guy.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:50 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: And since you brought it up (:)) Neal Stephensons novel Anathem, and specifically the discussion of quantum consciousness therein, has shaped my beliefs about God quite a bit in the last few years.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:52 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: As far as I know, Nagel's recent book has been poorly reviewed by philosophers -- so don't take it as any kind of authoritative "philosophers think x" statement. There are a few other current books on topics that might interest you.

First, it's useful to distinguish some different questions you might be thinking about:

1. How do scientists currently think our universe (full of things!) developed from its earliest state (very few things!)?

2. Why do we have the natural laws we do, rather than some other possible laws?

3. Does any of this require positing a supernatural explanation such as a creator? Is it compatible with the existence of a creator?

There's a book by Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, which purports to answer the question "why is there something rather than nothing" but actually only addresses question 1 above. The author is dismissive of philosophy in a way that's weirdly anti-intellectual, and this was the subject of some debate in the blogosphere last year. (That link is to a nice short summary of the various questions at stake by Sean Carroll. See also his short post why is there something rather than nothing?)

Jim Holt has a book out, Why does the world exist?, which is supposed to be better.

On philosophical questions, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great starting point - high-level summary essays on the state of play on various topics, then bibliographies to further reading. Some relevant examples:
-why is there something rather than nothing?
-cosmology and theology
-thermodynamic asymmetry in time
-creationism and theism as opposed to deism
-deism and God's sustenance of the world vs creation of the world
-when we talk about laws of nature, what do we mean?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:59 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

And I'll second the Sober and Hume books suggested above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:01 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: The Varieties of Scientific Experience - Carl Sagan
posted by hannahelastic at 2:57 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: I'll recommend this paper by Sean Carroll: Does the Universe Need God? (He says no.)
posted by crLLC at 7:34 AM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are great, and you can listen to them at LibriVox.

For a starting point on contemporary design arguments, you might look at Debating Design.

Or if you want something more generally directed at philosophy of religion, you might look at Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion.

If you then decide to be really serious about philosophy of religion, you should take a look at the Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion.

LobsterMitten makes a number of good suggestions. I want to explicitly add that you might wonder (or maybe you ought to wonder) whether there are natural laws at all. (If there are no laws of nature, then explanatory arguments from the existence of laws to the existence of a law-giver are pretty obviously not going to work.) The question is a non-trivial one in philosophy of science, and although it is a difficult work, I'll recommend taking a look at van Fraassen's Laws and Symmetries.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:17 AM on March 20, 2013

Read Dawkins on science, where he's excellent, erudite, funny, and nearly unsurpassed in his engaging prose (the Selfish Gene is still a classic). Don't read Dawkins on moral philosophy, where he's bumbling, arrogant, ignorant, and loaded with self-imposed logical and empirical blind spots he refuses to acknowledge.

I unfortunately don't have an introductory text to cite, but to understand how the concept of natural law emerged in the church and, partially by extension, in western thought, the seminal figure to study is Thomas Aquinas, who really established the natural law theology, which under the name of "Thomism" has become one of the dominant theological traditions in the Roman Catholic church. His contributions to medieval science were very significant, directly helping to inform Kepler's laws of motion, but he's also the source of much of the church's obsessions with sexuality, including the association of "the sin of Sodom" with homosexuality.

And I'll second the motion to look at Einstein, who's uniformly thoughtful and funny, but with the caveat that probably his most famous "theological" (or perhaps theologish?) statement, "God does not play dice with the universe," was more coming from him being tragically wrong about quantum mechanics than it was him discussing God.
posted by MTBinDurham at 6:52 AM on March 21, 2013

i don't normally read things like this but just happened across plantinga's lengthy review of nagel's book mind and cosmos over at the new republic: why darwinist materialism is wrong. i didn't see this linked on that other mefi thread. i'm about half way through and it is quite interesting.
posted by wildflower at 1:20 AM on April 2, 2013

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