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Essay by Richard Dawkins
October 19, 2000 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Essay by Richard Dawkins (the scientist, not the game show host) on the supposed convergence on science and religion.
posted by Optamystic (47 comments total)

 
Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged marriage between religion and science is a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham.

That is a nice article, and while these happy feelings i have may just be my recent dose of mocha-powered caffiene...and while i am always somewhat disturbed to read something that so closely matches what i think...I like it. thanks for linking to such good brain-food.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:09 PM on October 19, 2000


Okay, oddly enough, yesterday I happened across another article by him on a very similar topic.

Enjoy.

-Beth
posted by beth at 12:15 PM on October 19, 2000


Thanks for the link to this article! I was discussing religion at another forum not too long back, and this perfectly illustrates my agnostic views.
posted by aprilgem at 12:16 PM on October 19, 2000


A better, fuller, treatment of the subject is in Ken Wilber's book The Marriage Of Sense And Soul. A lot depends on the types of science and religion you're talking about. Sure, strictly theist Bible-thumpers will never buy evolution. But religion looked at broadly, through common themes in all religions, (and especially mystic, meditative traditions such as Zen) becomes a sort of "science" of the interior experiences of life. Which are realms that narrow science (that which views consciousness, say, as nothing more than fluctuations in brain chemistry) can never investigate fully.
posted by dnash at 12:17 PM on October 19, 2000


Sorry, but Dawkins' attitude bothers me. I hate when scientists proclaim that theirs is the only truth. His whole argument is as simplistic as the ones he criticizes.

Then again, I believe that there are things beyond the realm of science, so take that as you will.
posted by solistrato at 12:18 PM on October 19, 2000


Yeah, Dawkins is such a jerk; he has no idea of the love and goodness that comes into other people's lives due to the Teapot Orbiting Pluto.

I hate when scientists proclaim that theirs is the only truth. His whole argument is as simplistic as the ones he criticizes.

Science is a tool for helping to determine truth, and to cut through the fog of bias, superstition, and overall crap.

Do you have a better method we should use?
posted by beth at 12:39 PM on October 19, 2000


Richard Dawson is the name of the game show host you're thinking of. Which reminds me -- books about the murder of Bob Crane, the co-star of Dawson on Hogans Heroes, allege that Crane and Dawson would often team-up on groupies in kinky sex fests. Think about that the next time you see Dawson playing tonsil hockey with a grandma from Minneapolis on a rerun of Family Feud.
posted by rcade at 12:48 PM on October 19, 2000


Brilliant, as ever - thanks for that link [His "The Extended Phenotype" is one of the best science books I have read]

posted by andrew cooke at 12:50 PM on October 19, 2000


Science is a tool for helping to determine truth, and to cut through the fog of bias, superstition, and overall crap.

While this is true, most Scientists deal in hypothesis, not facts. Newton's Laws are pretty damn accurate. Until you start looking at Electrons, that is.

Science and scientists should allow for better explanations, more refined results to come along. By blocking off future refinement by saying "This is what the answer is, and that's all it will ever be." a scientist is just setting himself up to look silly.

That's not to say that scientists don't. They'll generally grab a hypothesis and run with it, and stick to it firmly, not accepting changes. Scientists are, after all, humans, and are therefore fallible.

(which in itself is reason enough for a scientist to never say "This is it. End of story")

It isn't that we need a better method, it's that people should realize they're likely to be proven wrong.

To step aside the debate here for a second, I'm currently reading "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters" by umm... George Garow? I think? Someone like that. It's a layperson's introduction to quantum mechanics, tinged with bits and pieces of Eastern Philosophy.

I think associating quantum mechanics to Buddhism is an interesting tool to help people understand what's a fairly intense subject. Some of the associations to philosophy (a drastic simplification of one being: An observer of a system changes the system, therefore we're each the center of the universe, because we change everything) provide interesting ways of looking at physics.

It was also written in '78, so's pretty drastically out of date, but still interesting. :-)
posted by cCranium at 12:57 PM on October 19, 2000


I don't really find his argument simplistic, he just wants theories and facts and religous beliefs to be treated consistently...why should a scientist cap on christianity and then claim mystical powers thru some scientific theory? Or vice versa? Science should stay science, religion should stay religion, and love of the Teapot Orbiting Pluto should be categorized correctly...if someone uses science to promote some belief--UFO's for instance--and then treats that belief with the sort of absolute faith as one does religion, it becomes a religion. True science doesn't claim to be the complete Truth, but the best available hypothesis, supported by the available evidence. You can't have absolute truth without some "higher power" or inner power influencing you.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:57 PM on October 19, 2000


I agree with dawson that much of what is described as a "convergence of science and religion" is shaky, and that sellers of religion often use tenuous arguments of this (or any) type in order to persuade their audiences.

otherwise, the article should be entitled something more like: "why I don't believe in God". I have no problem with his belief system, but I do get irritated with those (carl sagan comes to mind) who explain in simple terms the scientific reasons that God cannot exist.

religion was, at first, a system of thought that sought to ask the "why" questions *and* the "how" questions. in the modern world those two have been largely separated between religion and science.

he objects to religious use of miracles: well, it wouldn't *be* a miracle if it followed the normal laws of nature.

he refers to some evolution of a "white-bearded God" to the "modern" vision of God as a non-physical being. in fact, the old testament prohibits making any physical representation of God whatever; from jewish tradition, christian tradition (although that prohibition doesn't hold for most christian sects). my point is, *dawson* apparently once believed in God as a white-bearded man on a throne and, because it has been pointed out to him that this isn't at all the idea, has concluded that modern religion has changed its view.

the point of the preceding paragraph is that he is engaged in the same sort of fuzzy reasoning and misinformation of which he accuses religious thinkers of all stripes to be guilty.

in short, dawson doesn't believe that science supports a belief in God, asserts that any respected intellect who uses the term is using it metaphorically, and concludes that anyone who does believe in God is unsophisticated and/or stupid.

and you know, the whole point is that if you could prove it empirically, it wouldn't be *faith*.

I forget who it was (gb shaw?) who, converting late in life, decided to become a roman catholic because he felt that rc tenets were the most difficult to believe. I've always been fascinated with this story, since I think this is such an interesting approach: religion as an exercise in faith. and the exercise of faith as a worthy end to itself.

rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 1:05 PM on October 19, 2000


Can't we all just get along? Can't we all just come together and worship my Unyielding Will, and be happy in our devotion to Absolute Brutality?

You cannot have Absolute Brutality without the influence of my Higher Authority. The only truth is my truth, defined by me, and accepted gratefully by you. Your role is to worship, obey, brutalize, and feel good about yourselves -- because, as followers of me, you are guaranteed the opportunity to commit excesses heretofore unimagined, and your names will live forever. Nobody can ever prove you wrong, because your actions are authorized by my Unyielding Will. My Authority accepts no equal.

...Now then, let's get down to brass tacks, and start figuring out how we can use the energy gained by incinerating homeless people to power my server clusters.
posted by aramaic at 1:09 PM on October 19, 2000


Yeah, what Rebecca said!
posted by ratbastard at 1:11 PM on October 19, 2000


someone should send a copy of this article to the kansas school board... if evolution's only "one possibility" then so's the idea that we're all sprung from the womb of a giant, maroon jennifer anniston...
posted by Niccola Six at 1:16 PM on October 19, 2000


Yesterday, I logged this other good Dawkins article, from which I quote:

1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as ``faith.''

2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may fell that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief (see below).

This paradoxical idea that lack of evidence is a positive virtue where faith is concerned has something of the quality of a program that is self-sustaining, because it is self-referential (see the chapter ``On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures'' in Hofstadter, 1985). Once the proposition is believed, it automatically undermines opposition to itself. The ``lack of evidence is a virtue'' idea could be an admirable sidekick, ganging up with faith itself in a clique of mutually supportive viral programs.


The whole idea of being willing and able to believe something without or even in spite of the evidence just creeps me out. If you can do that, then you can believe ANYTHING, so what's the point of belief? You might as well just get a lobotomy, since you're not bothering to use your reasoning faculties at all.

Seeing this as a virtue just adds another horrific layer of creepiness to the whole mess.

These are particularly successful, virulent memes. Bleagh!

I prefer to use my faculties of reason and logic to try to figure out what makes sense in this world (what exists, what does not exist or is very very unlikely to exist, what I should believe, how I should treat other people and why, etc).


posted by beth at 1:27 PM on October 19, 2000



I have this idea for a short story, in which some huge alien spaceship hovers over the united nations building for a few days and then finally a group of aliens come down to talk...

"We are here to visit the birthplace of Jesus" they say. "We have travelled across the Galaxy for the last 2,000 years."

Upon hearing this the entire world breaks out into the most terrible warfare ever imagined, while the aliens return to their ship, conquest completed, to watch it all on their viewscreens....would the aliens be proof? would other religions suddenly convert? would various sects reconcile?

as rcb stated so well...the whole point is that if you could prove it empirically, it wouldn't be *faith*. and that is true, and that is what i was taught in church growing up...a church that, like many others, sinks millions into archeological research looking for proof...disregarding anything that doesn't match up right. I believe in a seperation of science and religion, and i have more respect for blind faith than for faith propped up on faulty science. I'm feeling cynical today...need to go eat lunch.
posted by th3ph17 at 1:28 PM on October 19, 2000


there is a common attitude by non-believers that believers don't use thought or reason in deciding how to behave or what to believe. we wouldn't have so many religious sects if this were the case.

I have known many very thoughtful believers and just as many thoughtless unbelievers.

and just for the sake of argument I will observe that, in my experience, believers are generally more open to entertaining the idea that there may be no God than nonbelievers are to entertaining the idea that there may be one.

rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2000


I'm caught in between empirical truth and faith. It's such a confusing state that leads one to be agnostic, but it that enough? To truly bring peace to the world I must be a militant agnostic because I don't know and you don't either!
posted by john at 1:51 PM on October 19, 2000


What about those who are neither believers or non-believers? Agnostics like me?

Some young Hinduist used the following quote to preach to me about Krishna:
"I grant unwavering faith
to any devoted man who wants
to worship any form
with faith.

"Disciplined by that faith,
he seeks the deity's favor;
this secured, he gains desires
that I myself grant."

- Bhagavad Gita 7.21-22
Now, I don't like that these words supposedly come from a god that has a name, but I like what it's trying to say. Plug in any religion -- or plug in science for that matter -- for "that faith" or "deity", and what do you get? Essentially the same thing. Whether you believe in Yahweh or Evolution, aliens or maroon Jennifer Annistons, you get what you want in what you believe... because faith is free.

Dawkins uses "how" and "why" to differentiate between science and religion, but cCranium has brought up a really good point -- that scientists deal with hypotheses.

With that in mind, I would probably describe the differences between science and religion in another way -- that while both are belief systems, science is a little more open to revision than religion. After all, scientific theories are basically hypotheses based on data and observations; they're also (in a way) challenges for future scientists to prove or disprove.

In the meantime, while all religions have themselves evolved throughout history, they basically keep their same basic forms and are generally against change. I mean: to continue believing that the sun revolves around the earth after hearing the beautiful simplicity of another, more scientific theory -- that boggles my mind. That's the kind of blind faith that starts witch hunts and all sorts of other mischief. There may be instances like this in science, but it's rare.
posted by aprilgem at 1:56 PM on October 19, 2000


I've had the idea that there may be a god shoved in my face, repeatedly, for 28 years (and it shows no sign of stopping any time soon; in fact, it is likely to get worse). For the first several of those years, I somehow believed it, but then, like my belief in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa, and Democracy, it faded away like a thin vapor.

I really don't find it entertaining any more.

Now, the Teapot Orbiting Pluto, *that's* an entertaining idea!
posted by beth at 1:58 PM on October 19, 2000


and just for the sake of argument I will observe that, in my experience, believers are generally more open to entertaining the idea that there may be no God than nonbelievers are to entertaining the idea that there may be one.

That is interesting. Myself i have had the opposite experience. Because i can't prove there is no god, i have to accept the possibility that i may be incorrect. I walked away from my religion at age 25, and many of my friends didn't take it well...they have their faith, which gives them absolute truth, and they can't accept the possibility that they may be wrong. Following the rules of logic you are always in a weak position when debating against faith.

and aprilgem...science can also have its witch-hunts, when people forget that it isn't absolute truth and try and hold to the status quo.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:03 PM on October 19, 2000


There are some things that are not in science's province. And yet it tries to explain them, anyway. I'm totally cribbing this from Patrick Harpur, but it's a good argument. Science can't explain things that operate its own frame of reference - crop circles, UFOs, that kind of thing - and yet it feels fit to pronounce judgment on them anyway.

Actually, that's the point of anomolous phenomena: to cast doubt on the infallibility of both science and religion, which tend to be monolithic in their thought processes.

Science is a perspective. Never mind about truth - it's a truth. It's a way of looking at the world. If one is willing to accept the notion that quarks exist, why not faeries or demigods or anything else?

If someone wants to believe that we were descended from Grey aliens, why is that a bad thing? If someone wants to believe - indeed, if someone has experienced - the existence of faeries, who am I or anyone else to tell them that their experience was false, that he/she is crazy or hallucinating?

Are they ignorant? About science, possibly. But are they wiser with their imagination? Do they see more than other people?

Well, who can say, really?

I've always felt that the virulent anti-religiosity (sic?) that pervades agnostics, atheists, and other skeptics is not against religion in general, but specifically against Christianity, which tends to be the most uncompromising of faiths. I mean, Islam has no problem with science whatsoever. In the Dark Ages, the Muslim nations were more advanced than European ones. Judaism? They're cool with tons of stuff. Hindu, Buddhist? Hey, to them the world is an illusion anyway. Shinto? They incorporate everything into their religion.

I would hate to think that someone would blind themselves to possibility simply because of one bad apple, or for the tendencies of fundamentalists of any stripe.
posted by solistrato at 2:06 PM on October 19, 2000


I've used a similar metaphor, about the existence of microscopic unicorns in my sock drawer, to make similar points in religious arguments. (See, they all are terrified of microscopes and run to the other corner of the drawer when you stick a microscope in to try to find them. So, if you want me to admit that there could be a God then I ask you to admit that there could be unicorns in my sock drawer.) Unfortunately, I'm not sure whether I picked it up from somewhere or whether I made it up.

"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Best quote of the piece. Dawkins rules.
posted by kindall at 2:08 PM on October 19, 2000


"We are here to visit the birthplace of Jesus" they say. "We have travelled across the Galaxy for the last 2,000 years."

That sounds like an interesting premise for a story, th3ph17. However, the ancient historians Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Josephus already corroborate that Jesus did in fact exist.

I still say you should write the story.
posted by ratbastard at 2:13 PM on October 19, 2000


rcb:

I do get irritated with those (carl sagan comes to mind) who explain in simple terms the scientific reasons that God cannot exist.

Why? If a religion postulates the existence of a specific entity, determining whether that entity's existence is compatible with the structure of the universe is a completely reasonable scientific endeavour.

If it turns out that the entity is defined in such a way that its existence is impossible, the religious group can either modify its definition, change their beliefs such that it does not need to exist, or retreat into unreasonability. The option they choose tells you a lot about them.

religion was, at first, a system of thought that sought to ask the "why" questions *and* the "how" questions. in the modern world those two have been largely separated between religion and science.

he objects to religious use of miracles: well, it wouldn't *be* a miracle if it followed the normal laws of nature.

Right, but the idea that a miracle can occur at all - that it is possible for something not to follow the normal laws of nature - is itself a scientific statement, a refutation of the principle of uniformity. If religious groups are going to run around saying miracles can happen, they are venturing into those "how" questions that are the domain of science.

Science is a set of tools for analyzing the world around us. Any statement a religion makes about anything that can be perceived is a statement that can be evaluated with the tools of science.

in short, dawson doesn't believe that science supports a belief in God, asserts that any respected intellect who uses the term is using it metaphorically, and concludes that anyone who does believe in God is unsophisticated and/or stupid.

and you know, the whole point is that if you could prove it empirically, it wouldn't be *faith*.


If you can't prove it empirically it has no business calling itself science, which is chiefly what Dawkins' essay is railing against.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:22 PM on October 19, 2000


What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.
--Bertrand Russell

Faith: not *wanting* to know what is true.
--Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
--Buddha

Good represents the reality of which God is the dream.
--Iris Murdoch

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.
--Clarence Darrow


posted by rushmc at 2:31 PM on October 19, 2000


ratbastard-

>However, the ancient historians Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Josephus already >corroborate that Jesus did in fact exist

Did these writers record Jesus as being substantially the same (miracle workin', dead raisin', little children sufferin') guy that we are familiar with, or was he merely documented as an influential figure of the times?

In other words, did any of them cooborate the supernatural events documented in the Gospels?
posted by Optamystic at 2:34 PM on October 19, 2000


>>"The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the raising of Lazarus, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and they are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children. ***Every one of these miracles amounts to a violation of the normal running of the natural world.*** Theologians should make a choice. You can claim your own magisterium, separate from science's but still deserving of respect. But in that case, you must renounce miracles. Or you can keep your Lourdes and your miracles and enjoy their huge recruiting potential among the uneducated. But then you must kiss goodbye to separate magisteria and your high-minded aspiration to converge with science."

Forgive me, for I am a strong advocate of a rational Christian faith, and with that comes, for me, a literal interpertation of the Bible (as well as strong exception to the beginning of the above passage :). This seems to leave me in the minority here. Still, I will confine my comment to the article.

You'll notice that Dawkin claims that miracles violate every natural law. Yet, earlier in the article, I believe that he points out that all "natural laws" are based upon our CURRENT UNDERSTANDING of said laws. Therefore, just as scientists believed that they were ABSOLUTELY RIGHT when they once said that the earth was flat, so the current crop of "natual laws" may well become outdated a couple of decades from now.

Furthur, it assumes that "true" reality is ONLY what a human scientist can consistently observe, record, and understand. If we accept for a moment the assumption that God does exist in the Judeo-Christian tradition, then miracles are certainly possible, and no less rational than "natural laws". In short, it is the writers assumption that only what he believes is real is actually real.

Therefore, as Dawkin himself points out in the article, it falls to a rational, objective weighing of the evidence in favor of and against the existance of God. It cannot be proven completely either way... this is why it is faith. However, there is substantial evidence for the existance of God. I will not burden you with the proof in this post, but if you are interested I highly recommend anything by Dr. James Kennedy, especially "Stones and Bones" and "Skeptics Answered" as a beginning. You may also email me a question.

-Greg
posted by gd779 at 2:39 PM on October 19, 2000


[Mars] If it turns out that the entity is defined in such a way that its existence is impossible, the religious group can either modify its definition, change their beliefs such that it does not need to exist, or retreat into unreasonability. The option they choose tells you a lot about them.

Okay, this is a reasonable point if religions were pushing such entities, but what deity is defined in this way? The Christian God that I grew up learning about isn't an entity that somehow conflicts with scientific principles. Instead, that God transcends the physical universe that is all we are capable of detecting or understanding. If "God" controls the way the universe works and exists outside of it, how can any science we come up with prove his existence impossible?
posted by daveadams at 2:41 PM on October 19, 2000


Optamystic,
> In other words, did any of them cooborate the
> supernatural events documented in the Gospels?

No, indeed. In fact, most of them spoke in very disparaging terms of Jesus and his followers. As I stated, these historians merely corroborated the existence of a religious leader named Jesus who lived and died in the time of the Emperor Tiberius.

That is supposedly the big epiphany that ThePhil's aliens would've dropped on us: that somebody named Jesus did exist.
posted by ratbastard at 2:57 PM on October 19, 2000


>That is supposedly the big epiphany that ThePhil's aliens would've dropped on us: that somebody named Jesus did exist.<

no, no. *I* saw the epiphany as being that the man Jesus had cosmic significance: in other words, that he was important enough that beings in other parts of the galaxy knew of him and would revere him enough to make th elong journey.

I think it's a terrific idea for a story, too.

rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 3:28 PM on October 19, 2000


Dawkins is brilliant on this subject, and it's good to know he's out there spreading the gospel (so to speak)

Beth and Mars are right. Ideally, science is simply a collection of tools for rational inquiry. If there were some other truth-conducive means for investigating the structure of reality, then it would necessarily be part of science. That's just a matter of definition. The problem is, there's no evidence that ESP, or prayer, or other "supernatural" technique has any power to predict, explain or account for the data available to us. Yes, we are finite, biological creatures, but that is no reason to believe in unicorns or orbiting teapots or Western gods. Just the opposite, in fact. That's not to say there couldn't be unicorns or gods etc -- only that the relevant empirical evidence has hitherto not been corroborative (to put it modestly). And as Beth points out, if faith alone were sufficient justification, then every belief whatsoever would be justified -- not a welcome result, I daresay.

On the other hand, I don't see the same problems with Eastern religions like Buddhism, which, although containing some (optional?) mystical elements, is essentially a kind of secular humanism, mixed with a bit of self-help therapy. I admire the teachings of the Dalai Lama; it's too bad he did that Apple advert (from Adbusters: "Think Disillusioned.")
posted by johnb at 3:30 PM on October 19, 2000


Well, to me, the fact that Mork believes in Jesus wouldn't carry extra weight with me simply because he made the pilgrimage from Ork.

But perhaps I did misread Phil's post. Either way, it would make a fine story.
posted by ratbastard at 3:43 PM on October 19, 2000


yeah, rcb is correct....its the cosmic significance angle.

the premise of my little unwritten story, that i've told oral versions of many times for a number of years, is that if aliens showed up making statements like that, Christians would feel justified in doing anything...[modern day crusades]...yet other religions wouldn't just stop-drop-and-roll over to the Christian viewpoint. Because they have their faith and wouldn't just drop it. And yes, this applies mainly to the judeo-christian-islamic religions because they are all centered in a similar place, and if One of them is right, all of the others are wrong. Simple. More philosophy based belief systems might be more inclined to take it in stride...because they can be more accepting of other influences.

the aliens would return to orbit and watch, confident they had found the perfect way to de-populate the earth...and they would move on to their next conquest thru ideological attacks. I'm not really fond of my own writing style, but if any of you know any Real writers willing to take a crack at this story i'd love to collaborate.
posted by th3ph17 at 3:56 PM on October 19, 2000


It's depressing to me that this subject still generates such a large amount of excited debate.

C'mon, you pilgrims! Like, everyone's using multi-paragraph posts! In my experience, no amount of discussion will resolve this little chestnut.

It's a culture thing.
Faith is for Believers, Science is for Doubters.

posted by lagado at 4:25 PM on October 19, 2000


(Wow, s'funny johnb, I would've put you square on the other side in the Darwin Wars. Have you ever heard (or read) Lewontin's Biologoy As Ideology? (details here). Science as the court of reason or neutral tribunal of rationality is not really a viable idea: "Science, like the Church before it, is a supremely social institution, reflecting and reinforcing the dominant values and views of society at each historical epoch.")The replacement of transcendental truth from "on high" (God, Gods, etc.) with transcendental truth "found" in nature and a method for getting there just transfers the putative foundation of human knowledge from one imagined bedrock to another, without acknowledging the futility (as Donald Davidson puts it) of either accepting or rejecting the slogan "the real and true are 'independant of our beliefs'".)Post-Kuhn and especially post-Feyerabend/Lakatos it is hard to maintain the classical view on the philosophy of science and think of scientific practices as theory- and value-free "tools of evaluation" (as if they were just machines we cranked and out popped evaulations). You don't have to join the Social Construction of Reality/Sociologoy of Knowledge party to reject claims of a supra-human sanction for scientific endeavor.But the good news is that science does need be grounded in rationality; it doesn't need to flow from "reason" any more than arithmetic needed to be derived from logic (and look how that turned out); it just needs to be useful. And, by and large, it is.
posted by sylloge at 4:56 PM on October 19, 2000


Lagado: Nice epigram, but I think we're all using multi-paragraphs because as far as we can comprehend, it's not as simplistic as we'd like it to be. Either that, or we're all just lousy writers who can't be succinct.

The trouble with science is that it can be viewed in more than just one way -- 1. as a faith/belief system/perspective (which can engage in witch hunts just like any religion, as th3ph17 points out) or 2. as a process/system of learning (a tool, as Beth and Mars point out).

As a belief system, it acts like any religion. "These are the laws of the physical world; this is where we came from; and this is what awaits us in the future." In its worst form, it is unbending and closed to other viewpoints, and its strongest advocates hold the "non-believers" in disdain.

As a process, it seeks to understand that which we don't already understand, by coming up with a theory, proving or disproving it, then restating that theory as either true or untrue, based on the data and observations made during that Scientific Method.

What makes "the process" stand out from "the faith" is that it doesn't state itself as being the absolute truth and instead allows itself to be revised, inviting others to elaborate upon it by exercising their own experiments -- hence all the science fairs and Nobel prizes. On the other hand, science as a faith can get folks like Adolph Hitler believing that life is all about evolving into the ultimate human race.

So...

The science that Dawkins talks about may well be a marriage of the scientific "faith" and the scientific "process". In one case, he illustrates the "awe" people experience in fully appreciating the mysteries behind the theories; in another case, he illustrates the contribution of scientists throughout history with their work. So when he talks about the convergence of science and religion, I loosely interpret that as "science the process converging with science the faith and other (religious) faiths".

But this is just how I see it. I'm open to other views.
posted by aprilgem at 5:18 PM on October 19, 2000


Considering mainstream science has been pissing on Parapsychology for quite some time now, these kind of articles will continue to appear until there's full recogniztion of the validity of many parapsychology studies with positive results instead of CSICOP style reactionism.
posted by skallas at 7:08 PM on October 19, 2000


aprilgem, I agree with some what you are saying. However, I contend that science "as a faith" is simply bad science, pure and simple. Scientific theorems are always held as provisional.

The practice science not always perfect. Scientists are human and can suffer from hubris and be blinkered by their own personal biases (and religious prejudices). Sometimes it needs a eminent scientist to die old age before the theory can be re-evaluated. Nevertheless, given enough time, it will be.

Also, there are limits to how far science can go, how much can be learned and confirmed, limits based on observability, repeatability and computability. All theories are best tentative.

Religion does not undergo this kind testing. That is because it is non-science, it cannot be compared to science and should not be. Faith is confirmed by not testing it scientifically. For an example, please see the recent thread on Herzog's bible archaeology.

Look, now you made do a multi-paragraph reply, dammit! ;-j

posted by lagado at 7:50 PM on October 19, 2000


Anyone who thinks that scientists are unwilling to significantly rewrite their branch of science should go buy and read this book:

T. rex and he Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez.

Actually, you all should anyway, because it's a great read.

Walter Alvarez is not only an outstanding writer but he was there for all the important events which began with the discovery of the iridium clay layer and attempts to explain it, and ended with finding the actual impact crater itself and proving it was the one. This book shows science at its very best, including conflict, differences in opinion, collection of evidence, alternative theories, more conflict, ultimate consensus, and an enormous amount of serendipity. It's amazing how much of what happened took place because of unpredictable friendships and relationships. For instance, it's not clear that it would have happened anything like it did if Walter Alvarez's father hadn't been Luis Alvarez, who worked at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and had available to him people capable of making certain measurements possible few other places on earth -- measurements which were critical to the development of the new theory.

And it was radical and far reaching; it affects all aspects of paleontology and has significant ramifications for most aspects of biology. And it all happened in less than 25 years.

Don't try to claim that all scientists are hide-bound and close minded. They're not. But what they do demand is evidence and rigor before they'll pay attention to you and your new idea. And that's as it should be. The Alvarez theory wasn't given serious consideration until they had come up with considerable supporting evidence for it, evidence which couldn't easily be explained any other way.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:58 PM on October 19, 2000


[Warning: the following post may cause drowsiness]

Sylloge, you touched on a number of issues there. Let me drop some names to indicate my positions, and maybe we can zero in on points of disagreement, if you're up to it.

On Evolutionary Psychology:

--I favor adaptationism: e.g, Tooby & Cosmides, Pinker, Dennett, Dawkins, etc

--as opposed to "spandrelism": e.g., Gould (a gifted writer, but he mostly doesn't know what he's talking about); Lewontin; and Steven Rose (insufferable)

--and as opposed to general ineptitude: e.g., E.O. Wilson (even more confused than Gould, but in the opposite direction)

On epistemology/metaphysics:

--I favor causal realism (tempered with a touch of deflationism): e.g., Alvin Goldman, Paul Horwich, Fodor, Quine (on a good day), etc

--as opposed to (what amounts to) relativism: e.g., Davidson (an important philosopher, but the anti-"conceptual scheme" stuff strikes me as unintelligible), Goodman (brilliant, but the "world-making" line is a bit daffy), Quine (on a bad day), Rorty (a corrupting influence), Stanley Fish (contemptible), and of course Derrida (the devil incarnate)

On philosophy of science:

--I favor explanatory realism: e.g., Philip Kitcher, Welsey Salmon, and (going back a bit) Carl Hempel.

--as opposed to (so called) "pragmatism": e.g., Thomas Kuhn (imho overrated as a philosopher; useful as a historian though); Paul Feyerabend (I don't care much for Against Method; more of a prankster than a philosopher); and pretty much anyone who self-identifies as a "postmodernist".

--but with respect for (if not complete agreement with) more moderate views: e.g, Lakatos, Laudan, van Fraassen etc

So to summarize, I'm a flat-footed realist. I believe there's a real world that humans interact with and can understand at least partially. I believe "snow is white" is true iff snow is white. I believe science, although often subject to vitiating social forces, is in the long run the only way to advance our understanding of empirical reality. I believe questions involving mathematical, moral, or logical truth -- although they have objective answers -- are not reducible to empirical questions, and therefore lie outside the domain of natural science. (So the failure of the reduction of arithmetic to logic is irrelevant to the question of realism). But I also believe questions involving the existence of unicorns, the origins of the universe, and the nature of human consciousness are all empirical questions, and can only be understood against a scientific background of genes, superstrings, and neurons, respectively ( -- a background that is subject to change as we learn more, naturally)

I should mention that my opinions on the foregoing Deep Questions are pretty volitile. For example, I've switched sides several times between the empiricists (a la van Fraassen) and the realists. I'm also willing to reconsider the nonadaptationist position on Ev. Psych., provided it manages to attract some advocates who can argue a better case....
posted by johnb at 2:00 AM on October 20, 2000


daveadams:

Instead, that God transcends the physical universe that is all we are capable of detecting or understanding. If "God" controls the way the universe works and exists outside of it, how can any science we come up with prove his existence impossible?

This depends on what you mean by "controls the way the universe works".

If you're referring to a deist god, the divine watchmaker who built the universe, wound it up, then let it run, sure - there's no way to disprove such a being's existence, because its existence is completely irrelevant to the way things (currently) work. There is no test that can be devised, nothing that can be observed that would act one way if this god existed and another way if it didn't. This god is not impossible, it's merely defined in such a way that its existence is meaningless. We can safely ignore it; it doesn't matter whether it exists or not, so by Occam's razor we assume that it does not.

If your conception of God is not quite so strict, and you allow that this being, which lives outside the universe, may from time to time dip its pinky in and stir things up counter to the laws of nature, that's a different matter. Now you're talking about miracles: some sort of localized warping of the laws of physics, a violation of uniformity.

There is no way of dealing with such a situation rationally. One of the most essential axioms is the idea that natural laws are uniform throughout the universe. To accept the idea that miracles are possible, you must discard this assumption. What you have left does not allow for any sort of science at all.

Religions must choose: they can have a god who tinkers with the workings of the universe, with miracles and all the rest; or they can live in a universe which can be understood, a universe amenable to scientific analysis. You can't have both, because the fundamental axioms of each preclude the possibility of the other.

Okay, this is a reasonable point if religions were pushing such entities, but what deity is defined in this way?

I've sat through far more sermons than I care to recall in which the Christian god was described along these lines. Given that the theory of evolution is still controversial in many parts of the United States, I'd guess this variant of the Christian god is still quite popular.

-Mars

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:52 AM on October 20, 2000


Have you ever heard (or read) Lewontin's Biologoy As Ideology?

I just finished listening to Lewontin's Massey Lecture (Real Audio). Good stuff. I agree with most of it. But I disagree with the conclusions you seem to draw from it. What Lewontin does is challenge particular empirical claims -- not all of them scientific, in fact most of them pseudo-scientific. Take, for example, claims about the virtues of "modern medicine". A cursory look at the data shows that nutrition, hand-washing and other preventative measures have been far more effective (as Lewontin notes) in fighting disease and premature death. Who would suggest otherwise, then? The answer is: public relations firms hired by pharmaceutical companies, among other interested parties. But where I come from, that's called "spin" (aka "bullshit"), not science (even when people in white coats engage in it).

Look, I'm not saying that scientific institutions are immune to infiltration by powerful interests. Far from it. For example, at this point, the entire field of economics can be construed (coarsely, but with a fair degree of accuracy) as an elaborate game played to try to justify and promote the status quo (there are exceptions of course). The point is: you essentially give give up trying to be a science when you ignore suggestions that your theory doesn't match reality, or that its axioms are absurd.

In this regard, it may be helpful to compare scientific institutions to mass media institutions. As far as I'm concerned, the major corporate media outlets have almost zero credibility. But why is that? It's because bad journalism -- or perhaps more precisely: nonjournalism -- is encouraged under the corporate system. It's not because journalism is inherently about serving corporate interests. Change the system, and you get better journalism. Likewise with science. The corporatization of the university means research priorities are increasing being set by shareholders, rather than by the scientists themselves. This is a very bad thing, but it has nothing to do with the rationality of science and everything to do with the oppressive nature of the current economic order -- an order that prioritizes corporate profits over Truth and Justice.

So yes, people who call themselves "scientists" are human, and therefore subject to social and economic pressure, and therefore capable of promoting erroneous theories and perverse research priorities. But all that means is that society is often structured in a way that encourages pseudoscience by rewarding its practitioners with money and status. Such institutions and social arrangements are impediments to human creativity -- scientific, aesthetic and spiritual -- and therefore need to be jettisoned in favor of arrangements more conducive to human flourishing. Toward this end, science and rationality are part of the solution, not the problem.

Amen!
posted by johnb at 5:56 PM on October 20, 2000


(Could you tell I've been reading Rorty lately? One of my closest friends is a big fan and I've spend six years not getting more than 1/3 of the way through Mirror, so I picked up his new anthology for the uninitiated. At first it seemed like the same old schtick, which I've found I just couldn't make myself read, but the autobiographical section really caught my imagination. And I've been giving him a chance.)So, I'll go:Evolutionary Psych: Love Dennett, like Dawkins, hate Pinker. Tooby & Cosmides have been both way up and way down in my estimation. I'm not sure about the validity of the general form of explanation in ev psych (mostly because I'm generally dubious the range and power of natural selection, as compared to the generic properties of the complex systems of which organisms are an instance 1, the homologous structural constraints behind the inter-species variation 2, the apparent plausibility of the neutral theory as generator of variety 3, a soft spot for Darwin's predecessors 4 5 as well as contemporary whackos 6 and a love for a very particular metaphyical view on organism and composition 7).Having said that, I swing back and forth all the time. Extended Phenotype was more influential on me than all but a few books at the time I read it, and the extension to behaviour is natural. Still I don't think that evolution can touch language and enculturation as a source for psychological insight (in the broadest sense). So now we know that women tend to wear more makeup and skimpier clothes in the days before/during ovulation and why male chimpanzees have big balls, humans have medium-sized balls and gorillas have small balls. The bottom line (for me) is that evolutionary pysch is fine but not very interesting (at least to those of us who already subscribed to some kind of naturalism).On epistemology/metaphysics: Wittgenstein is too interesting for me to avoid. The Tractatus is basically as far as you can get in analytic metaphysics, as far as I can tell (I don't buy it, but I also don't see the point in continuing along those lines). The latter stuff is, by turns, delightfully mysterious, empty, unavoidable and profound. From Quine on, all the stuff about properties bores me to death (I studied with Hugh Mellor who I admired in philosophy of mind but found the metaphysics totally bizarre). As an undergrad I was very into logic and fell for Counterfactuals, but I have little use for arguments about the ontological status of possibilities.I like old-school metaphysics, and I still find something that pleases me in the Ethics and the Monadology. Without the system-building, I don't get the point of metaphysics. Epistemology mostly drove me nuts (because it never seemed worthwhile to lend any credence to skepticism); it is only very recently that I could approach the topic. And once I approached it, I found a home in Davidison: the interdependance and irreducibility of the inter-subjective, the objective and the subjective strikes me as the last word, just as the interdependance and irreducibility of thought and talk struck me as the last word so many years before (I also believe that we come to knowledge in that order: subjective knowledge comes last, and so empiricism is a non-starter.) There is still truth, but it doesn't come from either correspondance or coherence: fundamental, brute fact, no point talking about it.The allows me to give up maintaining the list of issues with respect to which I am a realist or anti-realist (thank god). I'm happy to play Rorty-like trump cards in this game: I just don't care about the results of the arguments. As to the conceptual scheme stuff: I take the basic point as disagreement with
The third dogma, which Davidson claims can still be discerned in Quine’s work (and so can survive the rejection even of the analytic-synthetic distinction), consists in the idea that one can distinguish within knowledge or experience between a conceptual component (the ‘conceptual scheme’) and an empirical component (the 'empirical content') - the former is often taken to derive from language and the later from experience, nature or some form of 'sensory input'. (from here, but maybe this makes it clearer?)
That is intelligible to me, as well as obviously true (heh - avoiding argument). And it brings it back to the Wittgensteinian point that you can't "step outside" language. (Or least you can't do that and then expect to be able talk about the world — Wittgenstein didn't have the variety of hallucinogens that we take for granted today.)Philosophy of Science: Right off the bat, "Amen indeed." As soon as I hear "post-modern" I stop listening. You can't spend years in most english-speaking philosophy departments without developing a real contempt for Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. (as well as contemporary incarnations of the English Department, the Poli-Sci Department, etc.) And these contempts were well and duly cultivated in me.I guess the most important point is that I take the (Quine-) Duhem thesis as basic. Despite having written my thesis on philosophy of biology, I'm not all that well-read in the larger issues of philosophy of science (I do remember liking Kitcher, but not liking Salmon, and especially disliking Carnap though). Agreed that Feyerabend is a prankster and that Kuhn is over-rated (but in '63 it was original).So to summarize, I guess I'd have to say that I'm a pragmatist (very reluctantly). I believe there's a real world that humans interact with and can understand at least partially. I believe "snow is white" is true iff snow is white. I believe science, although often subject to vitiating social forces, is in the long run the best way to improve our ability to get along in the world. (<— most importance point of difference, as far as I can tell). I believe the answers to questions involving mathematical, moral, or logical truth (if we are to maintain a discovered/created distinction) are created and not discovered. But I also believe questions involving the existence of unicorns, the origins of the universe, and the nature of human consciousness are all empirical questions about the world, and can only be understood against a scientific background of genes, superstrings, and neurons, respectively. But I am violently anti-reductionist on the important questions (for the old "you can't use quantum mechanics to explain why a square peg doesn't fit into a round whole" reason - Putnam? Goodman?). I think that you can often go down the chain (psych->chem->bio->phsyics) as far as you want, but you can't get up again, just because there is no bottom to bounce off of.
posted by sylloge at 7:38 PM on October 20, 2000


Take, for example, claims about the virtues of "modern medicine". A cursory look at the data shows that nutrition, hand-washing and other preventative measures have been far more effective (as Lewontin notes) in fighting disease and premature death.

You (and Lewontin) are assuming that these things are somehow not a part of modern medicine. Keep in mind that a lot of what seems to us modern folks to be common-sensical hygiene was at one point in time revolutionary, at the forefront of modern medicine.

Also, I'm curious to know what sort of funding structure you'd propose to free academic science from economic and social pressures. As it is now, we get all our funding either from industry (which, in my field anyway, comes surprisingly string-free) or from the government (which raises a whole 'nother set of problems for the advancement of "pure" science).
posted by shylock at 1:03 AM on October 21, 2000


Shylock: I know that one wasn't for me, but I'd have to say that Lewontin's position is best served by thinking not just of changes in hygenine practices as much as changes in the econometric "quality of life" and (broadly) the correlated material conditions. (Having running water and indoor plumbing might have been just as instrumental in changing hygenine practices as the spread of scientific knowledge.)My original comment was not intended to be about corrupting influences, bias or human frailty in science. I was trying to say that faith in science is just as misplaced as any other kind of faith. There is a real tension between holding a scientific picture of the world and at the same time believing all scientific statements are merely provisional. In the face of that tension it doesn't make sense to me to think of science as a collection of tools for rational inquiry the product of which is a decription of the world "as it really is". (And the same time, it isn't right to just say (as solistrato did above) that science is "a" truth. There's the Davidsonian rejection of multiple conceptual schemes.)(Lewontin is a bit of a red-herring here — that was kind of a side point on johnb's praise for Dawkins. I like Dawkins too, I was just surprised because.)As for changes to basic research funding: I'm not that worried about it. Commercial interests are not inherently in conflict with truth and justice (at least as long as we're not spelling them with capital letters).The history of science is intertwined with the history of commerce and it hasn't hurt much so far. The science-technology feedback loop advances them both (and enables a lot of flourishing).

---

John: "[things which impede human creativity] need to be jettisoned in favor of arrangements more conducive to human flourishing. Toward this end, science and rationality are part of the solution, not the problem."

I agree, and I particularly agree with your substitution of "arrangements which are conducive to human flourishing" for "arrangements which are conducive to Truth". That is the right criterion. And science is very good in that respect. Given a realist's wink and agreement on those two points, I think our most interesting disagreements are primarily over interpretation of the "facts"; for I think that liberal democracy and capitalism are also good in the sense of the promoting human flourishing.
posted by sylloge at 3:36 AM on October 21, 2000


Except (sylloge), we don't really hold that all scientific statements are provisional. At least not in the day-to-day practice of science. There are certain scientific principles which have proven so universal and so reproducible in so many contexts that they transcend the realm of "theory" and become scientific "law".

You might be interested in an article by a chemist named Nick Turro. (You'd need a subscription, but any university chemistry library should have it.) He rehashes Kuhn and describes scientific progress as at itterative process of shifting paradigms. There are conventional paradigms, which we test by observation and experimentation, which either reinforce the paradigm or create puzzles. These puzzles either get solved in a manner consistent with convention, or force us to generate a new paradigm.

So it's not so much that we lack a scientific "faith"-- I'd argue that the belief that the accumulated body of self-consistent scientific thought reflects reality in some meaningful way is a neccessary condition for the practice of scientific investigation-- it's just that we occasionally force ourselves to reevaluate the things we believe.
posted by shylock at 12:45 PM on October 21, 2000


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