A call for nuance in the ‘science/religion’ discussion–open letter to Dr. Sam Harris

Dear Dr. Harris:

At one point in your comments to Dr. Chopra (in “The Future of God” debate), you stated that one will never see a theoretical physicist make a categorical, dogmatic assertion. But I have often seen physicists (and philosophers of physics) do just that. One example is the often-dogmatic assertion that ‘physics implies a block world’ (i.e. that the future exists just as the past and present), when in fact physical theory does not force that conclusion (see, e.g., Raphael Sorkin’s “Relativity does not imply that the future already exists”)[1].

A famous historical example of a baldly dogmatic statement by a theoretical physicist is Niels Bohr’s categorical assertion: “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” (as told to Aage Petersen; my emphasis)[2]. Now, Bohr had certainly done some careful philosophical investigation into quantum theory, and there are many subtleties to his thought and much that can be debated about his philosophical approach. But his explicitly dogmatic assertion about what constitutes ‘wrong thinking’ is neither scientifically nor philosophically justified. It presumes certain metaphysical and epistemological tenets that can be, and have been, rationally questioned. For example, Bohr presumed that everything about the physical world must be describable in classical terms. But in fact one can take quantum theory’s mathematical formalism as providing real information about the structure of the quantum world, even though we cannot capture that structure in the usual classical language of ordinary experience.

So unfortunately scientific researchers often deal with unresolved interpretational aspects of physical theory by lapsing into dogma. Contra Bohr, there certainly can be a quantum world, and physical theory certainly can be saying something about its nature, even if that nature is non-classical. Bohr’s assertion presupposes a conceptual and linguistic framework that is not essential or necessarily appropriate to the task at hand. In more colloquial terms, he was thinking inside a particular kind of box, and his dogmatic pronouncement sought to impose that box on all other researchers. This is why the Irish physicist John Bell railed against Bohr’s unjustified circumscription on discourse, writing a now-famous paper entitled “Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics”.

Of course, quantum theory certainly presents science with a wholly new kind of interpretational dilemma, since its formalism inhabits a domain mathematically larger than that of the empirical (3+1 spacetime) realm that is the traditional domain of physical science. My own proposed resolution to this dilemma involves a rationally grounded step beyond the empirical realm. That is, I offer the view that QM is a physical theory whose referent is a kind of reality that cannot be empirically observed. While this may seem radical, it should be kept in mind that Ludwig Boltzmann took a similar step when he proposed unobservable ‘atoms’ whose behavior gave rise to the macroscopic laws of thermodynamics. Though derided by his contemporaries (in particular Ernst Mach), Boltzmann’s postulation of unobservable entities turned out to be the fruitful way to go. (While we think we ‘observe’ atoms now, we actually just indirectly image them; those images are the results of particular kinds of interactions with our macroscopic instruments.)

The point here is that not all of reality describable by physical theory is necessarily contained within the empirical realm, even though physical theories can only be tested by checking against empirical data. There is no necessary logical incompatibility between these two circumstances. Indeed there are often good theoretical reasons (such as the predictive successes of theories based on unobservables) to allow for the existence of unobservables.

This naturally brings us to the topic of spirituality, which was the main subject of the debate. This feature of human experience (that is, at least of many humans) was unfortunately trivialized in the discussion by an assertion that modern monotheistic schools of thought are substantially the same as ancient worship of polytheistic gods. But in fact there are deep and significant differences between, say, Christian monotheism and worship of the Greek pantheon. I don’t think one will find a Zeus-worshiper saying things like “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy…” (James 3:13, 17; New Testament)

In any case, it is perfectly possible that spiritual experience–which is primarily subjective and inward in nature–is simply a different mode of knowledge and discovery complementary to the scientific mode, the latter being primarily intersubjective and based on outer sensory experience.[3] Thus, spiritual experience might just be another way that many people ‘intuit’ the existence of sub-empirical aspects of the world. This is why it could make sense for the hermit in the cave to have an inner experience of an ‘unseen’ aspect to reality that could just possibly be the same reality described by quantum theory. Note that this suggestion is not dogma, just an offer of a possible connection between science and spirituality. In fact other researchers have suggested such a connection–e.g., Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics) and Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu Li Masters). That is why I found it unfortunate to see such a schism between religion and science evidenced in the Caltech discussion, when in fact there may be some common ground between these different ways of knowing.

You and Dr. Shermer are right that organized religion has been a cause of much evil and suffering–and in fact that seemed to be your primary concern about religion in the debate. But all modes of knowledge can be abused for destructive purposes. Many wars are fought not over religion but to serve geopolitical and territorial goals, with religious or other lofty ideological principles often being used as a pretext for conquest and domination. Many scientific discoveries were ‘spinoffs’ of inquiries into how to be more effective in war (for example, the kinematics of projectile motion was a byproduct of efforts to improve cannonball aim).

Finally, to return to the concern that opened this letter: the temptation to overstate one’s case and be dogmatic is not confined to those professing claims about spiritual knowledge. It is an ever-present trap for all researchers to fall into, and those in the ‘rational’ knowledge traditions, including the sciences, are not immune[4].


Ruth Kastner

P.S. Regarding free will, which you have apparently ruled out: it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that physical science disallows robust free will. That assertion, which is well on its way to becoming a dogma itself, is based either on not taking quantum theory into account or on a particular use of the quantum probability law that arguably is not justified. See, for example my earlier post:


[1] http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4020-6318-3_9

[2] The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery (2000) by Abraham Pais, p. 24

[3]I use the word ‘intersubjective’ rather than ‘objective’ here, because no individual scientist can get outside his or her perceptions to perceive an independently existing reality, but must rely on corroborations between many individual reports. If this seems like nitpicking, one might wish to read Chapter 1 of Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, which points out in graphic detail how no two people ever really see the same table, and moreover that it is a highly nontrivial question as to whether there even is a ‘real,’ objective table independently of observation.

[4] If I’m ever found to have committed such a lapse, I will readily acknowledge and correct it.

14 responses to “A call for nuance in the ‘science/religion’ discussion–open letter to Dr. Sam Harris

  1. Giulio Prisco September 30, 2015 at 2:29 am

    “One will never see a theoretical physicist make a categorical, dogmatic assertion” is a categorical, dogmatic assertion. But then, Harris isn’t a theoretical physicist :-)

    By the way, I am reading your books, the first pages of both books are very interesting. Any news of Cramer’s own book, scheduled (I think) for early 2016?

    • rekastner September 30, 2015 at 2:38 am

      Thanks Giulio! No he isn’t, but apparently his statement is still incorrect as evidenced by dogmatic assertions by theoretical physicists ;)
      I haven’t heard any updates about Cramer’s book. It’s my impression that he still thinks of wavefunctions as inhabiting spacetime, so we differ on that aspect of the interpretation.

  2. Giulio Prisco September 30, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Well, if we define spacetime as the container for all that exists, not just the air but also the water in your iceberg metaphor, then wavefunctions inhabit spacetime. We might just have to redefine spacetime with models that include more than the 3+1-dimensional reality that we perceive.

    Do you think future science will be able to look at the whole iceberg below the water line, or that some parts are hidden in-principle?

    Re “The Future of God” debate between Chopra, Harris, and Shermer, I know of the 2010 debate (there are many versions on YouTube), but perhaps you are referring to a new debate after the publication of Chopra’s book with the same title?

    • rekastner September 30, 2015 at 1:00 pm

      Well, an entangled wavefunction with N quanta is described by a 3N-dimensional configuration space (+ time), and most physicists acknowledge that cannot be considered spacetime.
      The debate I saw also included Jean Houston and took place at Caltech, as I recall.

  3. Pablo October 13, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Hi Dr. Kastner,

    I have just discovered you on youtube (Ruth Kastner – Why Physics Does Not Preclude Free Will) and I am absorbing everything I can find from you. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your ideas in this website. I was a bit stuck with Dr. Tim Palmer’s Invariant Set Postulate (stuck as in I couldn’t understand almost anything, since I don’t have any background in physics or mathematics).

    In regards to Sam Harris, there was a time I was interested in his views about religion, but the more he talked about them, the less sense they made to me (specially when he added politics into the mix). This letter is a revealing example confirming my suspicion that he seems a bit out of depth on some subjects.

    Anyway, thanks again. I was losing hope on the subject of free will after reading and watching the opinions of some scientists lately (i.e. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIXGxRZk3G4). I can’t wait to read your books! :)

    • rekastner October 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks very much Pablo. Yes, I think the majority of physicists and philosophers have it ALL WRONG on free will. If you haven’t already, do check out my two-part blog post on this issue.
      You referenced a letter re Sam Harris-can you clarify which letter you have in mind? Does it appear on the video you linked? Thanks again and best wishes,

      • Pablo October 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm

        Oh, I meant this post (open letter). Sorry, my English :)

        I’ll sure check it out. I’ve just finished your interview with Deepak Chopra. Your analogy with the knitting (?) was very helpful. I highly recommend it (anyone can understand it).

  4. Eric Hamilton March 16, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    Hi, Ruth–I told you I liked this post and wanted to leave a comment. :)
    You make excellent points above, but I think Dr. Harris’s argument that religion is the cause of great evil is even weaker than your letter supposes. One could just as easily (perhaps more easily) argue that government is the root of all evil–i.e., the Nazis, Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot, the French Revolution, the medieval crowned heads of Europe, the excesses of the Roman Empire, etc., etc., etc. Now, personally, I am NOT a (political) libertarian or anti-government conservative, but I think if Sam Harris’s arguments about religion were applied to government, we would all have to go even further than garden variety anti-government positions, and become anarchists. And then there is the advance of technology–given the bloodiness of modern warfare, climate change, etc., one might easily conclude that technology is the root of all evil. Perhaps the Amish are correct, after all–but again, according to Dr. Harris’s position, the Amish probably aren’t going far enough; maybe one must keep going, until we are all living in caves again…with one key difference. The “cavemen” had religion!
    Now THIS is a fascinating point. I think the idea that religion is a ‘societal evil’ that must be purged in order for us to advance is a myth of perhaps even greater magnitude than, say, Zeus worship. Because religion is something that predates what many people would call ‘society’. Take the religious paintings of Australia’s Aborigines, which depict extinct ice age species from over 30,000 years ago, or the fact that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers and tools. I think it’s likely Neanderthals were practicing religion for several hundred thousand years, even before there were modern humans. What this indicates to me is that religion and spirituality are fundamental human needs–like food, fire, shelter, clothes, tools and sex…something with biological roots (though I believe there is an additional source), which allowed the genus of Homo to advance, and helped make it ‘human’. As such, religion would be valid, even if it were false. Yet wouldn’t it be strange if we lived in a world where something like religion could arise, even be fundamental, if there were NOTHING at all that could be referred to as God?
    The one infinitesimal sliver of agreement I might have with Dr. Harris is that, when religion and government are conflated (at least in a certain way), the results are usually disastrous; the Taliban and the Salem Witch Trials both spring to mind. This is an interesting philosophical question all on its own: why, when one combines two good things one tends to get lunacy–yet it really has nothing to with a debate about God. In fact, a careful reading of the New Testament indicates that Christ was, in fact, a supporter of the separation of Church and State. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”

  5. Eric Hamilton March 16, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Have fun on St. Pat’s–I’m picturing you in your shamrock headband, right now! Oh, and if you have a mind to switch from Guinness to something weirder, you might try that drink I invented for my novel: apple-juice and vodka with a slice of cucumber–the ‘Sleepy Toddler’. I’m curious to know if it’s as bad as it sounds! ;)

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