Friday, June 01, 2007

Terrence Sejnowski: The Miracle of Science

Old Business: Wikipedia

For those fighting to keep the wikipedia entry on desire utilitarianism, I am honored - more so by the fact that I only know one of you and none of you seem to know each other.

If it would be of service, I would like to note that I have thrice been given a "thinking blogger" award.

Brian Berkey. Berkey is a PhD student in Philosophy at Univeristy of California, Berkeley.


Import Mind.Reason

New Business: The Miracle of Science

We have now reached the end of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, with this being our last presentation. In the closing minutes of the last session, Terrence Sejnowski, who is Francis Crick Professor and Director of the Crick-Jacobs Center for Theoretical and Computational Biology at the Salk Institute stood up to give a summary and to start the closing credits.

Becoming Known

Sejnowski’s summary started where Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s presentation left off, talking about the joy of scientific discovery. Sejnowski spoke of a rock on the moon that had been sitting there for billions of years – just another rock – until humans picked it up and studied it. When that happened, something that had remained unknown for all those billions of years suddenly became known.

Every day, in science, something becomes known for the first time. Scientists recently completed sequencing the human genome. Even fifty years ago, sequencing the human genome seemed impossible. However, increases in computational power gave us the ability to take things that less than a human lifetime ago seemed impossible and made them possible. Last week, I spoke of the ‘impossibility’ of seeing what the center of the Milky Way looked like. Earlier this year, I saw exactly what I thought I would never be able to see.

These impossible things will simply keep coming. Sejnowski spoke of scientific quest to sequence the DNA of Neanderthals. This will give us information on how their branch of the evolutionary tree attaches to ours and where they diverge. It will also give us information to help us determine more precisely how we and chimpanzees evolved. Is a particular gene found in chimps but not humans something that chimps acquired as a part of their evolution after humans broke off? Or is it something our common ancestor had but that humans eventually lost?

Of all of the things that we are on the verge of knowing, there are some that are of particular importance. These are facts that will help us discover how to quit killing each other, and similarly doing harm to one another.

The Uselessness of Religious Sacrifice

As regular readers are aware, my standard position is that whether a person believes in God or not is irrelevant. Problems emerge when people adopt false beliefs that make them a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others.

I would agree with Sejnowski that science gives us a great deal of power. Of this, the most important power that we get from science is the ability to save life, cure disease, heal injury, predict and avoid the effects of natural disasters, and feed the hungry.

For thousands of years, people have turned to priests to provide these things. The priests offered ceremonies and demanded sacrifices to the gods. These sacrifices, by definition, made people worse off than they would have otherwise been. That which does not leave the person worse off cannot properly be called a sacrifice. The greater the want, the greater the sacrifice that the gods demanded, or so the priests said.

Unfortunately, the ceremonies produced no effect outside what the laws of nature had already determined would be the case. The killing and suffering was for nothing.

Faith and prayer has never cured an illness or brought about the end of a disease. All of the prayers and religious pleadings of the 1300s did nothing to slow the Black Death, or end an small pox epidemic, or save a child from polio, except in ways where the religious component was purely incidental (e.g., by remaining isolated from the carriers of disease). Science, quite independent of prayer, gave us our answers to the Plaque, small pox, and polio.

Faith and prayer have never increased crop yields or prevented a village from suffering a famine. All of the rituals and ceremonies ever done had no necessary affect on crop yields. Again, it was science who gave us a reliable food supply, such that people in America have never had to face wide-spread famine, and will likely never have to do so.

No act of religious faith has ever warned anybody of an oncoming hurricane or tsunami, or warned people to evacuate an area in the face of a volcanic eruption, or taught people how to build buildings that can withstand an earthquake. Science has given us the power to do all of these things.

Some may be tempted to argue against this by saying, “How do you know? You have not been able to study every event in history to know that there has never been even one miracle. You are simply making a guess – issuing an article of faith.”

Okay, then, there proper statement is that there is no hard evidence for such an event.

However, look at how weak this response is. Imagine somebody claiming that science has never cured a disease, promoted crop yields, or warned us of an upcoming natural disaster. Scientists certainly do not need to resort to a response like, “How do you know for certain? Maybe science did accomplish one of these things some time in the past and you just don’t know about it.”

No, science accomplishes things like this every hour of every day, and is so conspicuous about it that it is obvious. If only religion was so obviously useful, then science is the best defender from disease, famine, and natural disaster in the future.

It will take moral limits as well to do the right thing in response to these threats. True beliefs does not give an individual a motivating reason to do good. If the person already has bad desires, then true beliefs will only allow him to behave badly with ore efficiency. So, we need good moral character and true beliefs. Yet, many religions put a lot of work leading its followers into dangerously wrong beliefs – turning those individuals into people who are threat to the life, health, and well-being of others.

Harm to Self

Those who complain about religion will often mention the evils that one person does to another in the name of God. Yet, it is just as reasonable to add to the ledger the evils that people do to themselves in the name of God. I have mentioned in the past how a false belief that a glass containing poison actually contains clean water can cause a person to act against his or her own interests (by drinking the water). Religion can sometimes have the same affect – when a person drinks poison for religious reasons, thinking that it will bring divine blessing or ‘spiritual’ health.

The people who die because they do not get medical treatment that would have saved their lives, or who refuse food at times of famine and starvation because it is a food prohibited by God, are doing so because they believe that these behaviors produce some type of benefit. In fact, they are inflicting harm on themselves for no good reason.

This is not to say that they should be compelled by force to give up these practices. There are many and strong reasons to prohibit the use of violence to those cases when a person is a threat to others.

We must note that a person who does violence to others will, necessarily, act so as to fulfill his own desires, given his beliefs. These desires might well include desires for the well-being of others. However, this will be one desire among many, with many of the other desires being for things that the victim of violence has no reason to be interested in.

In other words, violence against others is too easily corrupted into an instance of sacrificing the victim for the sake of those who do the violence. So, an aversion to violence except against those who do harm to others is in order.

The fact that we are morally compelled to stand aside while people do great harm to themselves does not change the fact that their faith is driving them to do great harm to a living being – and doing so in the name of some God.


This is just a reminder – anybody can have false beliefs that make them a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others. Certain religious beliefs are simply a subset of these. The true problem is not religion. The true problem is beliefs that make one a threat to the well-being of others; religious and non-religious alike.

However, when it comes to saving lives, promoting good health, and improving well-being, scientific investigation has in the past shown itself to be far more useful than prayer and faith. Any person truly interested in promoting life, health, and well-being will have good reason to go with what works.


Anonymous said...

Any person truly interested in promoting life, health, and well-being will have good reason to go with what works.

By the same token, any person truly interested in promoting the values of caring for life, health, and well-being will have good reason to consider the possibility that in some ways religious belief works better than atheism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Any regular reader of this blog knows that I put atheism in the same category as heleocentrism when it comes to value.

The issue is not whether 'atheism' works as a theory of value. The question is whether 'desire utilitarianism' works as a theory of value.

Desire utilitarianism has one significant advantage over any type of religioius theory. Its premises are true.

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with desire utilitarianism and will look into with an open mind. But I think my point stands regardless of the philosophical merits of desire utilitarianism.

For good to flourish we must not only understand what is right, but come to want what is right. And in that respect, at least, we have much to learn from the best religious traditions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, you have the core of desire utilitarianism already.

Moral institutions consist in promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires.

This is similar to the idea of 'wanting what is right'.

Though 'wanting what is right' still leaves open the question, 'What is right?" Or "What should we want?"

According to desire utilitarianism, people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (charity, honesty, intellectual responsibility), and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires (cruelty, arrogance, sophestry).

Religious systems were invented by human beings. As with all things done by humans, some inventors of religion did a better job than others. Some had a genuine concern for making the world a better place, some simply wanted power for themselves.

Which is which?

Anonymous said...

Do you think it was the quest for scientific knowledge that brought us the atom bomb, and the 'sacrifices' at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or 'religion'? Wasn't it the world's first atheist, purely scientific materialist country that brought about one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century? And incidentally destroyed most religious people, and their institutions? What did Stalin say: The pope? How many divisions does he have? Any thoughts on the 'purely beneficial' aspects of science not mitigated by spirituality or higher forms of morality? The 20th century was the century of science and technology and brought us the worst mass murders yet known to mankind. Maybe in the 21st century we will be smarter?

tn said...


Chest-thumpers increase their kill total the greater the weapon's potential for destruction: spears, arrows, guns, bombs. So they borrow technology to use for their own ends -- kill the members of the out-group, steal their land, rape their women and generally take everything that isn't nailed down. This isn't new, but it has nothing to do, as far as I see, with science... or, as you put it, ‘scientific materialism.’ (By the way, what other kind of science is there, besides 'scientific materialism'?) Lest I continue, these men had no love of science when it stood in the face of the party line: Stalin & Lysenkoism, Hitler & Deutsche Physik, Mao & anti-Einsteinian models of the universe.

... and the jingoist nationalism; and favoritism, the dogma, the wars, the killing fields, the mythicism of history, &c.

To conflate science -- the quest for truth -- and dictatorships of the 20th century is intellectual dishonesty.


Thanks for the link back to Philaletheia. You deserved the recognition -- even if I don't agree with desire utilitarianism. It's always a treat to read your ideas.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


First, you will notice that heliocentrists (those who believe that the sun is at the center of the solar system) have killed far more people than heliocentrists. However, this is typically not taken to reflect poorly on heliocentrists - that is, except during a short period in history when geocentrists (those who believe that the earth is at the center of the solar system) want to promote unjust hatred of their rivals.

Second, please note that the people who believe 2 + 2 = 4 have killed almost as many people as heliocentrists and geocentrists combined.