Science, Divinity, and other Big Ideas

I saw an interesting quote tonight on

Answer this simple question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Most people quickly answer “ten cents,” but the correct answer is “five cents.”

These kinds of small mistakes are due to shortcuts our brains take, preferring lazy, intuitive responses to laborious, arithmetic ones. Surprisingly, intelligent people seem to make these mistakes more easily, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers reached that conclusion by observing a positive correlation between performance on standardized intelligence tests, like the SAT, and rates of incorrect answers given to questions like the bat-and-ball one above.

What’s the Big Idea?

While it makes intuitive sense that receiving a better education would remedy this kind of error, psychological studies have found that “more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.”

Such questions test our awareness of bias, which is easy to spot in others but more difficult to see in ourselves because the error is unconscious.

“In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. … The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.”

What may also be factors are the keenness of smart people to show speed in problem solving, and their habit of trusting their impressions: after all, their intelligence will have long been vouched for in their educational career.  Being right is desired above all else, and being wrong assiduously guarded against.

But as regarding the blindside nature of spotting bias in others, one thing I’ve come to understand is that the first aspect of the religious minded which critics attack and which their ensuing argument depends upon, is the idea of divinity.  Some forms of religious thinking are easy to mock – take the unstable American narcissist Glenn Beck: he is to spirituality what Josef Mengeles was to scientific research (the white lab coat was convincing until he acted out his thoughts).  Anyone can see how such people devalue their brands and attract disrepute, fanatically stating a belief while oblivious to its spirit, which long ago parted company with them.

All aboard the Certainty Line!

To critics of religion, divinity is an absurd concept in a thinking society.  Ridicule has been used to great effect in totalitarian states, and is the perfect first stage in defamation precisely because it cannot be defended against, and attempting to do so inextricably tangles the opponent in an absurdity: thus God is referred to as the sky fairy or the invisible sky papa, and then for good measure compared to the invisible spaghetti monster.

Once the doors are slammed and locked and this train has been set in motion, the next stop announces that prayer is an insult to intelligence.  Slightly further down the line we hear it is to be banned, and before long the grim silhouette of a final destination hoves into view, whose archway spells out in black welded iron that religion is for the stupid, the ignorant, and the insane, and perhaps the wicked as well (Dawkins).

Among the darkened compartments whispers repeat Sam Harris’s claim that the religious might need to be killed for the greater good, and panic begins to spread.

In fact a whole underground map attractively filled with hundreds of ingenious insults and put-downs spaced along brightly coloured lines of logic labelled progressive, cynical, amusing, mocking, quickly unfolds from this one single premise – one which is thoroughly faulty, and even counter-productive for science.

If we ask how has science come about, the answer must be either that it grew slowly from very early experimentation, or arose at some distinct (if arbitrarily measured) point at which the intellect felt able to tackle matters formerly left to faith.  Science evolved within a mind undergoing a mental evolution.  If we ask how did the idea of divinity come about – we can be sure it arose in the same way albeit much further back in our history – at least as far as 200,000 years.  This gives it a far more fundamental status within the mind, though not necessarily an inferior one – unless eating, sleeping and reproduction are considered outmoded on the same grounds.  As we know, all human societies in all ages have without exception devised their own concept of divinity, meaning that there must be a solid reason for it, but nobody has yet explained what this reason should be.

Mental evolution was at one stage incredibly slow: the Sumerian traders’ pictographs for livestock and grain were not followed by images representing their number until a further 9,000 years had elapsed, and all this development was the end of the parabola nearer to us.  Imagine the static nature of our early ancestors’ life – hardly discernable from the animal model which shows virtually no change over time – for perhaps millions of years.

This ever-faster tokenising of concepts is a marked feature of mental evolution and has corresponding centres in the brain, and parallels in the world it created: far-fetched devices, after a laborious introduction, become accepted, then mass produced, then reduced in size and subsumed as part of larger and more ambitious projects.  Understanding each stage necessitates rapid absorption of all those before it; what is a massive challenge for one generation is a mere trifle for the next, and what parent has not floundered when trying to navigate at the required speed the abbreviated, implied, knowingly sardonic outlook of their quick-thinking teenagers?

“Dad, your painting is bound to look almost the same as yesterday.  If I keep seeing it I won’t notice when it’s finished.  So for your sake, I’m not going to look at it.

Explain again how wearing my hair up will affect my education?  And my socks are matched, Dad – I’m going by thickness.  YOLO.”

( Detail from the ‘Panel of Hands’, El Castillo Cave in northern Spain showing red disks and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting paint onto the wall. A date from a calcium carbonate layer reveals the painting to be more than 41,000 years old, the oldest known in Europe  (the bison was painted long after the hand images were made – a kind of prehistoric Banksy.)  The pictures were likely created by Neandertals.  The scientific experimentation which created pigments, and the creation of art itself, were both massive ideas

Since the future must be of much more interest to us than the past, all this evidence of mental growth prompts a more important question: will science ever be supplanted by some superior faculty, however far in the futrure, of which we now know nothing?  Knowing so little about the brain, and witnessing its amazing performances in certain individuals classed as lightning calculators, child prodigies, creative geniuses and so on, we must state honestly that we cannot know, indicating it as a definite possibility.

Art, a product of the mind, has come a long way in technique and understanding: beautiful illustration by David Goodsell (original at the Carstairs-Pantalony Hematology Laboratory, Toronto Hospital).  “The yellow/green portion at the top is blood serum. The Y-shaped molecules in yellow are antibodies, and the long fibrous molecules are proteins involved in blood clotting. A cross section through a red blood cell is shown at the bottom of the picture. The cell wall is shown in green, with lots of glycosylated proteins extending upwards from the surface. The molecules in blue inside the membrane form a scaffold that supports the membrane. Inside, there are lots of bright red hemoglobin molecules. The whole thing is drawn at 2,000,000 X magnification, and all of the macromolecules (proteins and membranes) are shown.”

But considering the same question of divinity, a future concept of it superior in nature to any present one is only possible if the mind of man also expands, because divinity by necessity already represents the highest and most perceptive intelligence imaginable.  If an expansion of such a concept becomes acceptable one day, it must indicate that the nature of reality warrants it.  The divinity suited to a multi-dimensional 14 billion year Universe with 7 x 10 to the power 23 suns in which 95% is hidden from man’s view can never be the same as one conceived for a Universe consisting of a single planet.

Bone headed victory over the brain:  former councillor Clive Bone, outside town council offices in Bideford, has won the legal battle to outlaw prayers at meetings. I was surprised at this, since my experience shows council officers highly resistant to actually doing anything.  The ones I know in Bedford are overpaid, overweight, self-important, greedy, inefficient and obnoxious.  Hmm..

If divinity represents the intelligence  – even a hypothetical one – able to peer furthest and most accurately into the nature of reality, then we intuitively match intelligence to the complexity of the world.   We see complexity not with our senses, but with intelligence.  To the animal, both the examples of art shown above are equivalent, in that neither is worthy of attention.  Whether you believe in a God or in natural selection, you already know Nature is not in the habit of bestowing redundant senses, and this is true whether according to your temperament you believe the existence of eyes predicted a knowledge of light, or their development followed naturally from light’s existence by a need to survive, or they enabled a concept of light to be registered in the mind.  Likewise ears and sound waves transmitted through air, the nose and fragrance-carrying molecules, the taste buds and fruit, or a love for blues and the Texan twangmeister Stevie Ray Vaughan.

If intelligence and its continual conceptual tokenising, is as areal as any other sense – as the intellectuals would be the first to claim – it must have its root in the nature of the world itself, and be a measure of how much we can understand about it.  This must be true whether (in accordance with your outlook) intelligence predicted an unravelling of laws, or followed on from experience as a survival tool, or ensured that laws yet unknown would appear to the mind as acceptable mental constructs.

Big ideas force a complete recalibration of what we formerly considered possible.  Arising from big thought, they expand the horizons of others not by their mere announcement but by an overcoming of the resistance of the material world, establishing one further instance of the sovereignty of mind.  This concept of the sovereign nature of consciousness – and not a sheepish capitulation – is the attractive force behind all spiritual disciplines

So regardless of philosophy, all must agree if the Universe were a chaos, intelligence would be of no use in unravelling it, and even by Darwinian logic, would have had no survival value: better to just stay out of harm’s way for as long as possible.  Instead, our habit of matching intelligence to understanding (a trait continually emphasised by the intelligent) indicates the Universe does have a law-bound aspect yielding only to intelligence – whether in our present intellectual form or a superior one – and which, based on our eagerness to apply it, is believed to extend infinitely in all directions.  Not only that, these laws must apply to the mind, since, however arrived at, mind itself is indisputably a product of whatever laws rule this Universe.  There is no root of chaos, nor can there ever be, for an intelligent mind.

It is for this reason that science can never afford to discount the idea of divinity, because only something akin to it can expand science indefinitely to allow its continued success in the distant future.  Once we understand every last aspect of the Universe, we would have no need of divinity, but seeing as we’re still wrestling with the extra runway at Heathrow, let’s wait until we get there first.  Presuming a superiority to divinity smacks of a cosmic-sized egotism, something always discouraged by scriptures perhaps because in this Universe, there will always be surprises for the intellect.  Junk DNA, anyone?

Einstein’s earliest manuscript on relativity -an unpublished 72-page work from 1911 or 1912 – was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $1.2 million in 1987. The price was a record for any manuscript sold in the United States and for any unillustrated text manuscript sold anywhere in the world (NY Times).  The same enthusiasm follows Darwin’s work:  Dr James Valentine, a professor of evolutionary biology at UCal,  set out to collect (over 50 years) every edition and variant of every book by Charles Darwin, in all languages.  Don’t tell me this isn’t worship!

Divinity requires an admission of relative superiority, but that naturally follows, and such an attitude – so thoroughly criticised by atheists – exists in many secular forms: why do we praise the highest minds and most successful thinkers, and are prepared to pay colossal sums to possess even a few pages of Einstein’s notes, unless we worship – by virtue of that same material acknowledgement – the value of their work, stemming from the high status of their minds, and therefore their nearer approach to divinity than our own?

Since secular people are free to worship daily in this way, why do they frown on the worship of others if it involves the contemplation of a divine mind, and even take steps to stamp out their freedom to practice it?  My advice to Councellor Bone would be, leave meetings five minutes early, or arrive five minutes late.   And I say this not to support religious dogma, or any other kind of dogma, but because this kind of mental exercise – worship if you will – seems to me an act of imagination far more future proof than its secular counterpart, and (since it has been found that meditation thickens the cerebral cortex, strengthens the amygdala, and generates a flood of healthy neurotransmitters) a concept essential to the future of science itself.


Some notes on the Cambrian explosion and the work of the above named Dr James Valentine, clearly as intelligent and as devoted a follower of Darwin as any man ever born:

Valentine and his colleagues found “it has not proven possible to trace transitions” between the phyla, and the evidence points to a Cambrian explosion “even more abrupt and extensive than previously envisioned”.  The authors concluded “the metazoan explosion is real; it is too big to be masked by flaws in the fossil record”.

Some scientists suggested that fossil ancestors for the animal phyla are missing because animals before the Cambrian lacked hard parts, and never fossilized; the Cambrian explosion therefore represents the sudden appearance of shells and skeletons in animals evolving long before. The fossil evidence does not support this view as Stephen Jay Gould and  Simon Conway Morris pointed out: the majority of Cambrian explosion fossils are soft-bodied anyway, and the fossil evidence points to the appearance of many new body plans in the Cambrian, not just the acquisition of hardparts by existing phyla.

According to Valentine, the Cambrian explosion “involved far more major animal groups than just the durably skeletonized living phyla… [it was] new kinds of organisms, and not old lineages newly donning skeleton-armor, that appeared”.

What significance does the Cambrian explosion have for evaluating Darwin’s theory that all animals are modified descendants of a common ancestor? Darwin himself considered it a serious problem. Although Darwin’s theory predicts that animal evolution should proceed from the “bottom up,” with the largest differences emerging last, Valentine and his colleagues wrote that the pattern of the Cambrian explosion “creates the impression that metazoan evolution has by and large proceeded from the ‘top down’ “.

The Cambrian explosion is for some biologists paradoxical from the perspective of Darwin’s theory. For other biologists, it constitutes evidence against Darwin’s idea that all animals evolved from a single common ancestor. Yet Richard Dawkins continues to defend Darwin’s theory as a Zombie Science – a theory already dead and rotting but which refuses to lie down and be buried – by a faux-scholar mix of arrogance and ignorance claiming, paradoxically, the only ones to not subscribe to it are “the stupid, the ignorant, and the insane, and perhaps the wicked as well”.  This group would presumably include the distinguished Dr James Valentine.

(Information from The Scientific Controversy Over the Cambrian Explosion, Centre for Science & Culture/Discovery Inst., Washington)

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Albert Einstein, Biology, Cambrian explosion, Charles Darwin, Designs in nature, Evolution, God, James Valentine, Meditation, Richard Dawkins, Science and Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Science, Divinity, and other Big Ideas

  1. Don Salmon says:

    What a great column. I immediately got 10 cents as the answer, so I asked my wife. She thought for a second and said 5 cents. According to your column, that means I’m more intelligent? I DON”T THINK SO!!! She’s obviously smarter than me, and I think this answer proves it:>))

    I think one of the main motivations for denying Divinity is the wish to believe that humans (and in particular, the human denying Divinity) are the highest form of intelligence possible in the universe. It also has something to do with not wanting to be responsive (or responsible) to something greater than oneself. Think about it – Dawkins – impossibly arrogant; Hitchens – even more so. Dennett – beyond redemption (just kidding).

    Wasn’t there something about the rabbi who was asked why so few see God nowadays, and he responded, “Because nobody can bow low enough to see”

    • Far be it from me to disagree with you or your wife! Also check out the fantastic illustration David Goodsell kindly did for the lab in Toronto – art is an inspiration; and I suppose all achievement is an inspiration – we just have to think big. And remember, ten cents is bigger than five cents!

  2. Robin Hawdon says:

    No, the main motivation for denying Divinity is that it doesn’t make logical sense.

    • Certainly, that is the reason given for rejecting Divinity. But I think it’s more accurate to say that’s the reason for denying Divinity, for anyone who relies exclusively on the logical sense.

      There are other senses, of course – intuition being one, inspiration and genius being others. There are everyday faculties for which we have concrete, repeatable, statistical laboratory proof – such as the connection between emotionally linked individuals at a distance, and the intuitive perceptions of animals – but for which we have no explanation at all. Until all of these can be attributed to a specific mechanism, the brain must be considered at the moment unexplored to any great extent, and religion and spirituality, being persistent in every age and among every class of human being, and for which we have evidence stretching back over at least 400,000 years must be considered the products of unexplored faculties.

      In fact even James Watson, no particular friend of religion, believes the Neanderthal – considered a separate species – had spiritual beliefs, and he cites this not as a regressive trait but evidence of a mind elevated beyond the animal. So some form of religion and spirituality seems present in life forms once their consciousness evolves beyond the animal kingdom. It is not the intellect which distinguishes man from the animal, since animals of all kinds show advanced reasoning capacity. Crows can work out complex problems, as can the octopus an the dolphin. The killer whale has been known to behave aggressively, in captivity, in ways designed not just to release tension but designed specifically to express its dissatisfaction with its treatment.

      Other forms of life use creativity as well, to attract a mate. Most mammals express mourning, maternal love, anger, passion, gratitude, and so on. Even rats show possessiveness and greed, leading to violence, when exposed to an abundance of wealth – in their case, food – far beyond what they need to survive. So all these traits, in the human, can be considered variations of animal traits. To say we love money or our families or like to build big houses or can work out problems is not to distinguish man at all from the animal. In fact most animal societies are organised so that all members receive their share, something which places them beyond man’s efforts. An important difference is that animal behaviours, being instinctive, do not change over thousands of years, and this can be attributed to the evolution of the human mind – for which the only real proof is the emergence of genius, from which spirituality is almost never absent.

      So it seems spirituality, specifically the urge to express this feeling and kindle it using ceremonies, images, metaphor and so on, is specific to intelligences beyond the animal. It is not logical to wipe the entire phenomenon away by referring to the intellect, which as I say, even animals have to a great extent.

      I certainly agree that, of all the people I have known who relied exclusively on the intellect, Divinity was rejected for the very reason you give. But for all the geniuses in history, an undeniable mysticism became interwoven with their output, as I wrote elsewhere on the blog, even if they started from a material or atheistic perspective, and who can deny that the genius’ brain has been the most influential class of all?

      If we say religion and mysticism emanate from the genius, then we cannot dismiss these areas of thought until we completely explain the phenomenon of genius. Until then we are a little bit like small children speculating on the reasons for marriage!

      Hope you enjoy the site somewhat and find other articles that may interest you. All the best, from San Diego!

      • Robin Hawdon says:

        That was a swift reply! I wasn’t sure how alive the conversation was. Yes, I accept that there are many as yet unsolved phenomena in the universe, but to continue to explain them by referring back to ancient conceptions of omnipotent divine authorities does not seem relevant. I have just published a novel about the modern day search for a secret Addendum which Charles Darwin supposedly wrote to ‘Origin of Species’ in which he describes in depth his own attitude to the existence of God, but which he did not dare publish in his lifetime because of its controversial nature. You may be interested to take a look –
        And the blog might entertain you too –
        Keep up the discussion!
        Robin Hawdon (

      • I sure will, thanks very much! I’ve read all I can get my hands on about Darwin, and something people overlook is that he knew in advance his theory would cause a big problem for the slave trade, because if blacks and whites were not a different species but all shared a common origin, it meant the entire slave industry was immoral and had to be dismantled. That was one reason he spent so long honing all the barbs on his argument. He wasn’t the only person to come up with this theory, and there might have been the usual skullduggery to get credit, which seems to be behind every invention, but it was clearly his destinyto carry the can, for better or worse.

        I also tried to read his book about animal emotions, I think it was called that too, some years back but I could not get through it. It seemed more like a long pile of notes that had somehow been formatted into a book. Perhaps I missed the point of it.

        Darwin himself would have been fascinated with molecular biology. The way the way proteins form spontaneously seems to rely on the elctromagnetic properties of the amino acid chains, and having started to read Johanna Budwig’s analysis of cancer and cellular respiration, in which she says these opposing forces hinge on floods of photons from the Sun interacting with the Pi electron clouds which form around unsaturated fats, I start to see life as a quantum mechanism, which in a quantum universe, is exactly what you’d expect.

        There seems so many directions for research and so many unanswered questions, all of which will take centuries to unravel to any great degree, it seems futile for people to spend their time arguing about God and ancient traditions. To each their own. One thing I begin to see is that a person holds any deeply entrenched opinion, no matter how bizarre, for some genuine emotional reason. A person raised in some parts of the world, for example, might have no exposure at all to a certain race. When they are confronted with that race, all members seem identical simply because the small part of the brain which determines the parameters of recognisable faces has been formed around a single racial type. Sheep, for example, can recognise 140 different sheep faces. I doubt we could recognise the difference between two of them.

        So there’s no point railing even against the apparent racism of a person unless you understand its cause. I once dated a girl from South Africa who I slowly discovered was terribly racist, mainly because she’d grown up on a plantation surrounded by racism from birth. She told me once one of her father’s dogs had “torn the arm off a black boy”. I was horrified, but she airily replied, “he was nearly 65 anyway.” I was never so glad to see someone deported. The strange thing is, as Rupert Sheldrake has found by experiment, when one member of a race makes progress in a certain direction, other members are by degrees gifted with an advantage too. This explains many different observations, including the weird case of scientists who repopulated an atoll with, I think, 10,000 monkeys in the 50’s after exploding H bombs there. They taught a group of monkeys to wash fruit before eating it, and observed how many other monkeys were also shown this procedure by those who were in the know.

        If I remember correctly, what they found, to their astonishment, was that after 100 monkeys learned this- suddenly, all monkeys knew it and carried out the procedure. A similar thing has been observed with experiments on rats, something Sheldrake – a very methodical experimenter – points out in his book. I wrote not long ago about the speeds of Olympic runners increasing at the same rate through the years by a mechanism which I showed could have nothing to do with inheritance. There is simply so much to uncover, that I think probably every different opinion must have some value to the overall investigation! Or as I think Donald Trump or Alan Sugar said, if two people in the boardroom have the same personality, one needs to be fired!

      • Robin Hawdon says:

        Brilliant! No question that childhood indoctrination in any belief is incredibly powerful and hard to shake off. Hence so many extreme religious codes which persist despite their irrelevance in the modern world (female genital mutilation for one). It’s what Darwin calls in his (fictitious) addendum – ‘inherited mythology’.

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