Russell XII: Shouting “Science” isn’t Evidence

funny-science-news-experiments-memes-dog-science-fuzzy-logic1Continuing on with our examination of Russell’s “Why I’m not a Christian”, we get to an argument from justice.

Roughly stated, the argument claims that, if one believes that there will ultimately be justice, then one needs to believe in an afterlife because there is so much gross injustice in this life.

Personally, I have my reservations about making this argument, not the least of which is that it is highly unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe in an afterlife. It struck me as odd, then, that Russell’s response is equally unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already reject an afterlife:

If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.

This simply ignores the entire premise of the argument: that justice will eventually be served. Russell is free to reject that premise, but he isn’t making a case until he gives us a reason why he rejects it. As it is, he raises the idea only to avoid answering it.

More significantly for the current debate over atheism, Russell is arguing that his disbelief in justice is more “scientific”. As a lover of science, nearly as much as a believer in God, I find myself offended that science is so often being misappropriated for anti-theistic philosophies that aren’t in the least bit scientific. The New Atheists, in fact, seem to have trouble getting through a page of text without making this error.

Science is silent on metaphysical questions. That is part of its strength, actually. To say that the next life will be like this one, because this is all we know, is no more “scientific” than a British child deciding that Chinese breakfasts consist of oatmeal, toast, and jam because that is all she knows. It is pure assumption, nothing more.

Far too many have no ethical misgivings whatsoever about co-opting science in order to bolster what are actually philosophical assumptions. As much as many Christians need to be reminded not to put words in the mouth of God, it seems that the New Atheists require the same with respect to science.

If science is silent on an issue, one shouldn’t claim to speak for it.

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10 responses to “Russell XII: Shouting “Science” isn’t Evidence

  • Lou Saboter

    He said “if” one believes in justice. I think you’re playing philosophy to avoid reality.

    • Debilis

      I agree that he said “if”. None of my points require that he didn’t.

      My point was that his other “if” is completely misplaced. What he calls scientific is anything but. One could never say “If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view”. All one could ever say is “You can’t look at the matter from a scientific point of view, because it’s not a scientific question”. As such, he hasn’t addressed the argument.

      Saying “if” doesn’t change that.

      But it seems more than a little presumptuous to make vast conclusions about my personal character based on reading a single blog post. I’m not sure how you know that I can’t give reasons for what I think that are as good as the alternative views on offer.

    • Debilis

      Personally, can feel the force of this position. But, logically, I cannot accept it as more than an unfounded assertion.
      The question that I can’t get past is this:
      How does one know that everything is a product of a material environment?

      Is there a scientific answer to that question?

      If so, can I find a theory has answered it? What laboratory conducted the experiment that confirmed it? What peer-reviewed journal published the findings?

      If not, the statement that everything is answerable to science is not, itself, a scientific position – and therefore contradicts itself.

      In fact, even science itself depends on more than the scientific. Science is based on a set of philosophical positions which have to first be accepted in order to trust science. Beyond that, interpreting the results of science is itself an act of philosophy. So, to trust science is to trust philosophy as well.

      It is a contradiction in terms, then, to say that everything is answerable to science. That is simply a philosophical assertion that can be shown to be false.

    • Debilis

      So, all the reasons I gave are wrong because…?

    • Debilis

      I fully agree that one doesn’t need to accept every philosophical position if one accepts science (one does’t even need to accept every scientific position – some theories turn out to be false).

      But this was never what I claimed. I said that it makes no sense to dismiss all philosophical thinking simply because it is not science.

      The reason I gave for this is that science depends on philosophy (but I could also have mentioned that no reasons were given for dismissing philosophy).

      So, it is fine to disagree with a philosophical position, but, to disagree rationally, one has to give valid reasons for that disagreement. Simply dismissing philosophy is not a rational objection (and inadvertently dismisses science).

  • makagutu

    Where in Russell’s statement is it false. He says if. Since this is the only universe we have been alive and there is injustice, where is the mistake in making that inference?

    • Debilis

      Okay, I realize that last one is long: this will be short(er).

      Russell’s saying “if” does not help his case. That is, if you look at the matter scientifically, you’ll conclude that there is no grounds for comparison.

      The appropriate adage is “data is not the plural of anecdote”. Good science requires much better control than Russell assumes here, and to treat this kind of reasoning as “scientific” is disheartening to me as a science-lover.

      So, yes, there is a mistake in assuming that anything that might be outside the universe will be like what we observe inside the universe. This is not an uncontroversial position among cosmologists, and I don’t understand why Russell seems to think otherwise.

      At the very least, he owes us a reason why cosmologists are all wrong on this point.

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