Thursday, November 15, 2007

Neither religion nor science has access to absolute truth

John Polkinghorne, mathematician (Cambridge) and cleric, argues that religion does not have access to absolute truth but neither does science, in this entertaining review of John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel and John Humphrys’ In God we doubt: Confessions of a failed atheist.

Apparently, Darwin’s Angel (“an angelic riposte to The God Delusion”) is written in the persona of Richard Dawkins’s guardian angel. Humphrys, by contrast, tried to be an atheist but didn’t have enough faith ...
Humphrys takes very seriously the human experience of conscience, urging us to do some things and to refuse to do others. No doubt, evolutionary thinking offers us some partial understanding of this, with its concepts of kin altruism (protecting the family gene pool) and reciprocal altruism (I’ll help you in the expectation that you will help me). Nevertheless, Humphrys rightly sees that these concepts fail to offer insight into the kind of radical altruism which, to use an example he discusses at some length, led Irena Sendlerova repeatedly to risk her life in saving 2,500 Jewish children who were trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Humphrys sees ethical intuition as the signal of a transcendent dimension in life, which he values but does not know how to explain from an atheist point of view.

Polkinghorne makes the critical point that
No progress will be made in the debate about religious belief unless participants are prepared to recognize that the issue of truth is as important to religion as it is to science. Dawkins invokes Bertrand Russell’s parable of the teapot irrationally claimed to be in unobserved orbit in the solar system. Of course there are no grounds for belief in this piece of celestial crockery, but there are grounds offered for religious belief, though admittedly different people evaluate their persuasiveness differently. Religion does not have access to absolute proof of its beliefs but, on careful analysis, nor does science.

Anyone who thinks otherwise has not heard of Godel’s theorem.


Positive thinking doesn’t affect cancer, study finds

A kind reader writes to draw my attention to this recent story by Sharon Kirkey in Canada’s National Post, which shows that a positive emotional outlook does not increase one’s chances of surviving cancers of the head or neck. He asks, doesn’t this contradict what you are saying in The Spiritual Brain?

I replied,

The study you appended looked at the value of emotional well-being in cancer survival.

Our book looked at two different topics: the placebo effect on healing and spirituality’s correlation with longevity/health.

Re cancer, we cite a study in The Spiritual Brain that found:

“However, placebos are not a cure-all. They can’t help every condition. Robert J. Temple found (2003) that placebos rarely help shrink cancerous tumors, though they do improve patients’ pain control and appetite.” (p. 144 and Note 53)“

The placebo effect should also be distinguished clearly from “positive outlook”. It means the doctor’s/patient’s belief that a specific treatment is effective. That may or may not correlate with a positive outlook in general. (E.g.: Both doctor and patient may expect the patient to die of a disease, but nonetheless believe that a given treatment relieves symptoms. In that case, the placebo may also show some good results.)

Many studies found a positive correlation between spirituality and longevity/health (Chapter 8). But that correlation may not hold for cancer in particular.

When I have a moment, I will try to get the study and find out what measures for spirituality, if any, were used.

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