Tag Archives: science vs religion

Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.

 


Cracks in the Materialist’s Armor

Iron-Man-3-2013-Broken-Armor-HD-Wallpaper-1024x741Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. The thing to be aware of here is that the emphasis is on “materialist”. If you don’t know about Nagel, you should. He is a very well respected philosopher, and is one of the small (but growing) group of academians to reject the dominant view of materialism.

His challenge, therefore, may well be a sign of much bigger changes on the horizons.

Getting to that challenge, Nagel has pointed out that science cannot inquire into certain things (such as consciousness and value), not because it hasn’t had enough time to do so, but because the scientific method has been defined in such a way as to exclude them.

How does that work? It’s rather simple, actually. The early proponents of modern science insisted that anything which cannot be mathematically modeled should be considered “out of bounds” for science. Things like, say, the color red as it looks to a person were defined as non-scientific topics.

Specifically, they were classified as “subjective”. Science could describe the reflective properties of surfaces, or the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, in mathematical terms, of course. But anything like one’s everyday experience of red simply isn’t (according to this view) a property of the outside world.

This is all to say that the actual first person experience we each have is simply not something science studies–or can ever study.

But many (philosophically uneducated) people assume that neuroscience will resolve this issue. “After all” this line of thinking goes “science has described everything else in mathematical terms, so it will only be a matter of time before brain-science describes our experiences in the same way”.

The problem is that this is based on a very sophomoric understanding the philosophical foundation on which neuroscience rests.

In simplest terms, the scientific method cannot be the solution to this problem, because it was exclusive adherence to this method that created the problem in the first place. Essentially, science has been using the mind as a sort of dumping bin for everything that cannot be mathematically modeled.

It goes something like this:

-“The color red as common sense understands it? Can’t be described mathematically. List that under ‘subjective’.”

-“Value judgment? Same problem. Call that ‘subjective’ as well.”

And so on it goes. One can argue that these things actually are subjective, but that is not the point. The point is that science can’t study them. The subjective contents of the mind aren’t going to succumb to the scientific method in the same way the physical world has for the very simple reason that modern people tend to call a thing subjective (or “all in the mind”) if science can’t study it.

And, if we’re going to do that, we can’t turn around and say “everything else but the mind has been explained by science, so it will be, too”.

But what about neuroscience? It undertakes the (very necessary) task of correlating behavior with brain-states. It can tell us, for instance, what particular patterns of neuron activity are associated with a subject claiming to see the color red. What it doesn’t do is tell us any more about the subject’s mental life than that verbal behavior. It simply doesn’t inquire into the subjective.

Proponents of materialism tend to rail at this. They often say that the whole, vast universe is being explained by science, and that it’s silly to think that our minds (this tiny little part of the whole) should be the one exception to its methods.

But, if one understands Nagel, the answer is obvious. Our minds are “the exception” because that is how we’ve chosen to draw our (mostly arbitrary) lines of demarkation. To borrow an analogy from Edward Feser, to say that the mind will be described by science because everything else has been is like a man sweeping all the dirt in the house under the kitchen rug. Then, when someone points to the bump in the rug and says:

“You didn’t get rid of the dirt, you’ve just moved it. What are you going to do about that bump?”

“Simple,” he replies. “I’ll just get rid of it the same way I got rid of all the other dirt in the house. Are you suggesting that this tiny little part of the house is some magical exception to a method that worked everywhere else?”

In this case, it’s obvious that the kitchen rug is the one place that this method will not work, even in principle. The sweep-it-under-the-kitchen-rug trick, even carried out for all eternity, will not solve the problem of the dirt under the kitchen rug. And it isn’t mysterious in the slightest; it’s just a simple fact that follows from the the cleaning method being used.

But the same is true for materialism. The sweep-it-into-the-mind trick isn’t going to explain the mind. This has nothing to do with our current lack of understanding in neuroscience. Nor is it remotely “magical” (a word critics of this argument like to throw around). Neuroscience continued for all eternity couldn’t solve this problem because it is, like all sciences, dedicated to the method of “sweeping” anything that cannot be mathematically modeled into the “subjective pile” (aka the “mind pile”). Therefore, it can’t possibly explain the things in the “mind pile”.

For these and other reasons, Nagel concludes that science (at least as we currently define it) cannot possibly investigate all things that we experience on a daily basis, and that materialism is, therefore, false.

One can attempt to argue with his logic (good luck), but the important thing to note is that none of this has to do with the current limitations of our knowledge. It is about what is possible, even in principle, for science to discover.

And this would mean that materialism, which is the basis of modern atheism, is simply false.

Having shown that there is more to reality than the physical, Nagel sets out to wonder what that “more” might be, while most philosophers set out to try to refute him. I’ll discuss one attempt at refutation soon.


Science’s Fortuneteller

4186-1537In defending scientism (the belief that science is the source of all knowledge) Alex Rosenberg insists that he doesn’t actually need to deal with the arguments showing his position to be wrong.

Scientism isn’t required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can’t be physical, so minds can’t be brains. That’s the job of science— neuroscience in particular. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 228)

It’s already been pointed out that this is a category error–that science simply cannot, by definition, explain the mind. In fact, that is precisely what many of the proofs Rosenberg mentions show. So, to say that science will explain it is to assume, without giving a reason, that these proofs are somehow flawed.

But there is more going on here than circular reasoning. Even granting for the sake of argument that science can inquire into metaphysical objects like minds, this is no defense of materialism. This is because Rosenberg has absolutely no reason why, in order to explain the mind, neuroscience won’t need to propose metaphysical properties or substances very much like those believed in by theists.

Of course, one might object that “Of course neuroscientists won’t propose such things; they wouldn’t be doing science if they did that”. And that is exactly the theist’s point. Science doesn’t propose or test for the metaphysical, and so cannot even in principle explain things like mind or experience.

Essentially, we can’t have it both ways. We need either to see that science doesn’t test for the metaphysical, or (falsely) claim that it does. But, if we do the latter, we shouldn’t be making bold predictions that science will never find it.

But there is still the more the more modest view that, while there is no reason (at all) to think that science will show that the mind is physical, there is no reason to think otherwise. This approach is less presumptuous about what science will do, and only suffers from the fact that it is demonstrably false. Science simply doesn’t test for the mind. And, I hasten to add, is no less amazing for that; it has a very different, equally necessary job.

So, in Rosenberg, we run into one of modern culture’s more curious paradoxes. As one of scientist’s most passionate supporters, he seems to know very little about how science actually works–and it is precisely his love affair with science which, like an infatuated teenager, keeps him from seeing the real person through the illusion that he’s found the answer to all of life’s problems.

Rather than make a goddess out of science, however, we need to see it for what it is: an astonishingly useful tool for revealing physical truths, which achieves such power by ignoring (not disproving) the non-physical. Prophesying that science will one day save the materialist from proofs of the non-physical is anything by scientific.

And this is key. Scientism is not merely not science; it is positively anti-science.


Materialism and Book Burning

book-burning

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity of school of metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
-David Hume

This passage may be the original source of the modern idea that we should trust nothing other than science. It has been repeated so many times that it hardly reads as shocking. At this point, the thing that struck me is that Hume allows for mathematics, rather than “just science”.

Of course, one might well point out that mathematics is fundamental to science. This is true, but no more so than the idea that philosophy is fundamental to science. Though many will object at this point, it is a simple fact. Science doesn’t function without metaphysical foundations such as the principle of sufficient reason and Ockham’s Razor.

Still, some might argue that science supports philosophy, not the other way around. But this is a distortion almost beyond recognizability. While it is true that certain philosophical positions have premises which are scientifically established, and that philosophy should always be done in light of scientific knowledge, it is clearly the founder of science. In fact, most lay people tend to underestimate how often philosophical points ground scientific theories and how important it is that science always be done in light of philosophical knowledge.

In fact, Hume’s statement is an excellent example. By his own standard, the page on which he wrote this declaration should be burned–for it contains no mathematical or scientific truth and is, by his reckoning, “nothing but sophistry and illusion”.

And this is the problem that still plagues materialism today: it is precisely the sort of thing it rejects.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the fact that most materialists I know are less bothered by a direct contradiction than the fact that there is no evidence in support of materialism. The latter is, to be certain, a big problem. But it is arguably untrue if one doesn’t define evidence as narrowly as materialists tend to define it.

Being self-contradictory, however, amounts to a proof (in the logical and mathematical sense) that the position is false. There is no more powerful disconfirmation than that.


Lost in Translation

a-universe-from-nothing-200x300Though I’ve discussed a few different versions of the cosmological argument, I’ve just realized that I’ve never addressed Lawrence Krauss’ claim that the universe can arise from nothing.

This is half-intentional, as the problems with his argument have been pointed out many times before. But, to give the briefest of summaries for those who are unfamiliar: Krauss has pointed out that empty space contains vacuum energy, from which virtual particles can arise. It is not impossible, then, that the entire universe is a massive quantum fluctuation.

To be equally brief in criticizing him, it has been pointed out that, even though scientists often use the word “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum, it is not actually nothing. Moreover, this addresses only the Kalam, and is irrelevant to the other cosmological arguments.

I bring this up, however, because it is a good example of a common mistake. Philosophical arguments for God’s existence are often compressed into a scientific mold (often mangling them beyond recognition), then attacked for being poor science.

I’ll not deny that philosophical arguments are poor science, but one suspects that something has been missed here.

Using Krauss as an example, he clearly has compressed the Kalam (which is interested in the question “What is the original cause of physical reality?”) to “What caused the Big Bang?”. Thus, he thinks that by suggesting a cause of the Big Bang, he’s dealt with the argument, though the point being made is clearly not dealt with unless he can show that the quantum vacuum could itself be past eternal.

But the key point is that Krauss would never have made this mistake if he’d not assumed that a philosophical argument was an attempt at science.

Numerous attempts have been made to clarify these issues to Krauss and others. But, rather than speculate as to why they have failed, I’d like to make the point that one cannot press the idea that science will answer philosophical questions by simply assuming that these questions are scientific. That would, after all, be circular reasoning.

In fact, I think this is where we get the idea that there is some inherent conflict between science and religion. It seems more that there is a conflict between what is said in the name of science, and what is said in the name of religion. And a real conflict seems to depend on misusing one of the two of these disciplines.


Speaking for Science

pseudoscienceIn laying out his philosophy, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg makes quite a few bold claims about what science has shown.

Science provides clear-cut answers to all of the questions on the list: there is no free will, there is no mind distinct from the brain, there is no soul, no self, no person that supposedly inhabits your body, that endures over its life span, and that might even outlast it. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 147)

I’ve encountered this general sentiment many times, and my favorite response is simply to ask which experiments verified these claims. I know of no experiment which has tested these theories–or even a scientific way to test these claims, leaving me to conclude that science has established nothing of the sort.

It is scientism, not science, that has led Rosenberg to think these things. Much like the fundamentalist preacher who claims to speak for God, he is quick to tell us that science endorses his personal view, whether it does or not.

But this isn’t simply attempting to pass off a philosophy as science, it is a positive undermining of science. For, if there is no free will, no person, and no way that we can actually think about things, then there is no reason to trust science.

Of course, science does seem to work rather well.

There are those who would say that this is simply a brute fact. Usually, this is coupled with the statement “I’m okay with not knowing”.

But, for those of us interested in advancing inquiry, stopping here is not good enough. And, once we start to explain how science can actually work as it does, we’re back on the path to theism.


Science is Theistic

HandOfGodThe earliest proposers of the “laws” of science meant the term more literally than most today realize. Contemporary people, when we think about the issue at all, tend to think of them simply as the way that nature happens to behave (with no more explanation than that–no wonder Hume was baffled). The developers of science, however, literally considered these laws to be something like divine fiat–God telling the world how it was to behave.

This is one of several reasons why, until very recently in history, the success of science was taken to be a point in favor of theism, rather than opposed to it.

Materialists (like many theists, for reasons I’lll get to) tend to scoff at this idea of divine fiat. But the trouble with this (for materialists) is twofold:

First, that materialism offers no alternative explanation. The regularity of the universe is simply a brute fact, according to this view–”brute fact” here being, as in most instances, something of a euphemism for “magic”.

Second, and more significantly, this perspective is not required by theism. In fact, it is not the traditional view. Rather, many theists have long held that God created the universe with a particular nature, it’s contents having specific tendencies that, under similar conditions, will behave similarly.

But, if this explanation works, why can’t the non-theist simply borrow it from the theist, strip it of any reference to God or the non-physical, and use it as a materialist explanation? Because it is the reference to the non-physical in general, and God in particular, that make this explanation work.

To claim that the contents of the universe have specific tendencies is to embrace teleology (aka final causation). It is a rejection of David Hume’s critique of causation (so beloved of materialists), and is the key premise in one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. We’ll get to this last at some point in the future.

Beyond that, it is simply another “brute fact” in the hands of the materialists, as opposed to being based on a necessary being, argued for on independent grounds, as the theist’s position would have it.

I tend to be suspicious of views that dismiss vast parts of perceived reality as illusory. It generally seems like an ad hoc way of ridding one’s self of anything for which the view in question cannot account. That is, it is the provence of inadequate views trying to maintain respectability.

The telltale sign, however, is the need to postulate brute facts. Contingent things (that is, things that logically could not have existed, but do) that apparently exist for no reason at all.

Anything that simply pops into our view of reality (such as the patterns of the universe, or even the universe itself), without any explanation, is a sign that we’ve dismissed the actual explanation as illusory.

All this is to say that the only explanation materialism, or naturalism, or empiricism, or positivism has advanced for the fact that science works is, essentially, the old Apple Jacks argument that “it just does”. The moment one suggests that a complete philosophy needs to take the fact that science works into account, these secular philosophies are in mortal danger.

Theism, on the other hand, lives quite comfortably with the idea that the universe has such regularities. All the talk of secular philosophies being, in some unspecified sense, the “scientific” ones is excellent PR. But the reality turns out to be quite the opposite.