It surprises me how often science enters a debate, not as support of a particular scientific point, but to attack the idea that human perception is trustworthy. In defending his materialism, Alex Rosenberg makes frequent use of this technique:
The most startling evidence of how unreliable consciousness is comes from the phenomenon of “blindsight,” seeing things when you don’t have a conscious visual experience of them. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 149)
While there is definitely truth to the claim that science has found things which are surprising, it is very strange to think that science can contradict our basic perception of reality. After all, it is nothing more than a very careful, systematized set of conclusions drawn from our basic perceptions.
Rosenberg himself uses blind sight experiments in an attempt to argue that humans don’t know anything about what is going on in our consciousness. Not only is this conclusion very questionable at best (it far exceeds what is warranted by the data), but it undermines the experiment itself (not to mention the materialism that Rosenberg thinks he’s supporting). The study is good only insofar as one believes people are accurately reporting their inner lives. To take this as a reason to reject introspection altogether, as Rosenberg does, is to reject the data on which the study is based.
But I’ve already discussed the problems with rejecting belief in one’s own mind and consciousness. What interests me at the moment is the similarity between this argument and the emotional tone of nearly every science documentary I’ve ever seen.
We often forget that, while science is in the business of discovering facts about the physical universe, science documentaries are in the business of entertaining people. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, but the standard approach has long since become: the more this documentary can offend our basic perceptions, the better.
That makes for great entertainment, but not great science.
And, while I’m as entertained as the next guy, I’m beginning to take issue with the glib way modern people often dismiss our basic perception of reality because “science has refuted it”. This is a wild overstatement in itself, and even more suspect when applied only to the perceptions one happens to dislike. Science has found some very strange things indeed, but the day it finds that we can’t trust our basic experience of reality is the day it has contradicted itself.
As I’m convinced that good science does not contradict itself, I’m inclined to take these kinds of claims with a grain of salt. Rosenberg, on the other hand, is quick to leap to the same sorts of wild extrapolations that sensationalist documentaries like to make. But none of this, if one understands the difference between science and the sort of armchair metaphysics which often composes pop-science, is a reason to take him seriously.
I think it is evident that science is being used as a football to support the materialist position Rosenberg happens to favor. But I doubt that, without the prevalence of video editors and journalists who like to make big claims about science contradicting common sense, anyone would think his argument worth a second thought.