Friday, June 26, 2009

Eccentric atheist professors

Bridget Kendall interviews Marcus du Sautoy on the BBC World Service radio program, The Forum, this week, along with two other guests. A mathematician, du Sautoy now fills the post of "Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford, recently vacated by Richard Dawkins. He talks on the program about the intersection of music and mathematics.

When du Sautoy was appointed to the Professorship in March 2008, the media noted his many awards, his brilliance, his experience with the media, his eccentricity and taste for loud clothes and so on, but they almost invariably also noted that he, like Dawkins, is an 'avowed atheist'. This fact is included in his Wikipedia entry. But why is it considered to be relevant to his science?

Regular readers of this blog may remember our post objecting to the idea that Dawkins' atheism has anything to do with science. We continue to object. Perhaps eccentricity is truly a requirement for explaining science to the public, but du Sautoy's atheism can't have been informed by his work in mathematics and his atheism can't inform his math, so why do we need to know? And why is this relevant to--or is it misleading--a 'public understanding of science'?

Perhaps the idea is that, as an atheist, the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science will object to creationism taught in the schools, surely a worthy cause (because creationism isn't any form of science). But it certainly isn't only atheists who object to creationism--anyone who thinks that explaining the origins of the diversity of life on Earth must be grounded in observation rather than undemonstrable faith will object, and this includes many believers, even those accepting the Bible as moral and essential truth, but told in allegory and metaphor.

The atheist/believer divide may be real, but it's social, cultural and political, not scientific. To be scientific, there must be experiments to prove that 'God' does not exist, whereas science is about things that do exist and can be analyzed as such. As a mathematician du Sautoy should know that conclusions follow from definitions, so how one defines 'God' must, for starters, be specified before one can be an 'atheist'. To show that some claim, such as a 6,000 year old Earth, is not consistent with the facts is a form of scientific statement. But that is about some particular story about God, not about God directly. Even further, the rules of mathematical deduction are assumed, and it has been shown that not even all mathematical truths can be proven to be true.

So, while a scientist may (as many or most do) believe that the empirical world is all there is, and may personally be an atheist (no matter how 'God' would be defined), that is a result of their personal experience and view, not their science itself. It is very misleading to think otherwise. To do his job, Marcus du Sautoy should perhaps ask how science could address such questions, if it can, and point out why current science is helpless to address the fundamental existence question as it has been posed. The fact that there is a long history of philosophers or even scientists (including Isaac Newton) who have tried to prove biblical truth through their idea of science doesn't change this. du Sautoy has many interesting things to say about mathematics, and his flamboyance may attract many readers to science and careers in science. But what he has to say about religion is not grounded in his scientific expertise, it's just his opinion.


Sam said...

What you say is true, a person's religious beliefs, or lack there of, should not influence their science. But for the sake of argument, what are your thoughts on an individual using two completely different sets of standards of evidence for different types of information. I think one could argue that consistency of thought in this regard would be a good characteristic of a scientist. This, and other more practical reasons, is why Huxley coined the term 'agnostic'. The most we can say scientifically about the supernatural is that our methods can't address those kinds of questions, so we don't have any data, and thus don't know. I like this definition, although agnostisism seems to have taken on a more wishy-washy meaning today.

Anne Buchanan said...

It's an interesting question, whether we should use the same evaluative criteria for different types of information. If a scientist has faith, he/she is necessarily using different criteria as the basis of his/her religious and scientific lives; faith for the one and presumably material evidence for the second. Does this make him/her a bad scientist, or just a scientist with faith--or a person with inconsistent standards? S/he may be completely consistent with respect to scientific thinking, and may not even expect God to intervene in his/her experiments.

Consistency, like the idea that parsimony makes for better science, is a social value (unless you believe that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, in which case it's socially _de_valued).

I agree with your definition of agnosticism--to _not_ be agnostic is to suspend one's scientific standards.

Ken Weiss said...


We've said elsewhere that what a Dawkins really is saying is that there's no evidence of a kind he accepts. Other people may have other evidence that counts towards understanding and truth, such as personal experience or testimonies. Whether a regular 'scientific' approach, or empirical support, for what we now consider supernatural can be developed is anyone's guess. But things that used to be attributed to mystical factors have subsequently be brought into routine science when a material basis was found for them (dark matter, electromagnetic radiation, nuclear reactions and the age of the earth, etc.)