Monday, May 18, 2009

The strident atheist scientists

The BBC has a 5-minute interview program and on May 16 their website aired such an interview with Richard Dawkins. Although a public figure, he is purportedly a professor of Public Understanding of Science, at Oxford. That is unfortunate, because he like many others in science these days (especially, evolutionary biologists) are cashing in on a kind of strident atheism that is a bad misrepresentation of science, just the opposite of what they should be doing.

Dawkins said in this interview, as he has elsewhere, that he doesn't believe in something for which there is no evidence. Therefore he says he shouldn't have to deal with God any more than with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Of course, he has every right to doubt the claims of religion (or tooth fairies, or Santa Claus), or the literal truth of religions based on sacred texts that purport to relate to the real world. Many scientists, who spend their lives trying very hard to understand the world share his skepticism about the claims of religion and other 'mystical' kinds of phenomena.

But it's very bad science! We should be educating the public--and ourselves--as to what science as we know it is really about, not propagandizing our personal views on the world (or, at least, we should be clear that those are our views, and not based on science per se). The reason is quite simple, but we think just as important.

Science uses an array of methods to study a range of phenomena and has some semi-formal rules of decision-making (called the 'scientific method'). We agree, as a culture, that the principles of things like mathematics and our idea about logical reasoning are true. We agree on acceptable forms of measurement, data collection, data analysis for drawing both specific observational conclusions as well as generalizations (theories) about Nature. But therein lies the most important issue.

Dawkins and the professional atheists say that as scientists they don't believe in that for which there is no evidence. But what they really mean, and to give them credit may not even be aware of, is that they don't accept things for which there is no acceptable evidence. And that is a kind of tautology. Something is defined as 'true' (or, at least, plausible) if and only if it is within the realm of their kind of evidence.

There's nothing at all wrong with doing this, but it does make science an axiomatic system for viewing some particular aspects of the world. What is wrong is not recognizing that this is what they are doing. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence for religious claims--even if that doesn't legitimately apply to claims such as the Biblical fundamentalists make about young earth and intelligent design.

Hundreds of millions of people claim that they have had what scientists would call mystical experiences. Many say they communicate directly with God. Whether that's literally true or not is, in fact, beyond the scope of current science. The reason is that current science doesn't deal with, and many if not most scientists won't accept, such types of subjective, personalized evidence as evidence.

Science says it deals with the material world, but that communicating with God is not material, and therefore not real in the sense of materialism. But what is 'material'? Before the discovery of, say, electromagnetic radiation, we could not deal with unobservable aspects of it (like parts of the spectrum we couldn't see). Dark matter in space is another kind of example. We can't see it in the usual way, and only claim it's there because it seems to affect the pattern of radiation as it passes to us through the cosmos.

Once a phenomenon is discovered and can be measured, it becomes part of the 'material' world and joins the panoply of scientific causes. We can never know what things we don't yet know, and it is a kind of arrogance to assert that things we don't know by our chosen way-of-knowing aren't true--or that there is 'no evidence' for them.

We cannot challenge the atheists' skepticism about the often patently false material claims of religion. But it is badly misleading the public 'understanding' of science to present science as if it is the only way of understanding the realities of existence.

What we are saying provides absolutely no support for religious or other mystical claims! We cannot, and do not, imply that claims of personal contacts with God are true or even what 'true' would mean in this case. The mistake Dawkins and other strident scientist-atheists make does not in any way lead to the conclusion that Genesis may be true after all!

But scientists and the public alike should realize that science is a part of our culture, not something handed down to us from the outside (by whom? God??)! It is a particular, and hence limited, way of characterizing the world. In terms of manipulating the world, it is immensely powerful. And it does seem to provide ever-better accounts of what we see around us. But it is a system that is based on a set of accepted rules. Religion and its kin are in a similar way cultural phenomena.

To a hard-nosed scientist, the comforting claims of religion don't seem to ring true, and that can be a depressing thought, given the pain and suffering that clearly are part of reality. Atheism is easy to understand. It is easy to make the personal judgment that claims of speaking with God are illusions. But personal conviction is not the same as science, and not what science is all about. If you don't want to accept as evidence such claims, fine. But it's part of your assumptions. And that's what the public, religious or otherwise, should understand about the nature of science in relation to the nature of Nature.

Dawkins was asked in the same interview what is the point if he doesn't believe in God. His answer was that the point is to enjoy life, to live life to the fullest. This seems to us to ignore Darwin's own lessons, to further perpetuate misunderstanding, not further the public understanding, of science. Dawkins has been called "Darwin's Rottweiller" because he has written so much in defense of evolutionary thought, but within a Darwinian framework, the point, if there is one, is only to survive and reproduce. And that is not even a 'point', as if there was some sort of ordained purpose; instead, it's just the nature of life.

Anything else we make of life, our values, our sense of beauty and purpose, our beliefs and so on, is our own invention. It may be the most important aspect of our lives as we experience them, for sure. But it is personal, and does not reflect scientific knowledge and there is no reason other than celebrity gawking why the opinion about the point of life of a scientist as scientist, is any more meaningful than anyone else's view. Again, this is relevant to science only so far as the evidentiary and topical basis of science goes, which would say that Nature has properties, but doesn't have a 'point'.

If Dawkins had said that science doesn't tell us anything about the 'point' beyond the Darwinian framework, and that this is not an area where expertise of any kind at all has any bearing, and that what he can offer is his own view of life for those who might be curious about it, then he would have been doing his job to enhance public understanding.


Ben said...

I agree with much of what you say and particularly - We can never know what things we don't yet know, and it is a kind of arrogance to assert that things we don't know by our chosen way-of-knowing aren't true--or that there is 'no evidence' for them. Yes absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. There is a theory in Intelligent Design message from the Designers which offers an explanation as to our humanity's origins, that allows for a much bigger framework to understanding our origins. Darwin's theory of evolution was excellent at the time and presumed, understandably that the evidence of progression of design was by nature.Give that our scientists, are approaching the first rung of the ladder of the creation of life, we can now consider this new theory which is about the progression of design by very advanced science.This theory offers a simple explanation for the original purpose of all the world religions and AT THE SAME TIME a sensible explanation behind the appearance of the ufos, especially since 1945 and Hiroshima.If this is science fiction then within the context of that theory ,so are the dangers of nuclear war and over-population

Ken Weiss said...

By chance a column by Stanley Fish appeared in today's NY Times that deals with this subject (and Dawkins' ideas, too, and a link to another similar story).

The point is again that science makes its own assumptions and can see only through the framework of those assumptions. A life in science may often personally persuade scientists that claims by religion are wrong, but it's a judgment and not _because_ of the science itself.

The facts that science deals with are done so because we have agreed on a set of methods for that purpose.

Religion is in a less clear position in that regard, especially if the claim is that your personal, subjective religious experience should be able to persuade others.

The fact that science works through a culturally adopted and hence limited and somewhat arbitrary conceptual framework doesn't make science factually wrong, nor does it in any way give credence to any particular religious views.

But this blog isn't yet another food-fight on this subject and we don't want to be dragged deeply into it! There are plenty of venues for that.

Proxima Centauri said...

Different people claim mistical experience or personal revelastion of the god they personally believe in.

These beliefs are mutually contradictory.

Therefore at least some, possibly all mystical experience is subjective and false.