Does Religion Make Bad Scientists?

Does Religion Make Bad Scientists?

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 1. No: Counter examples to this thesis include

  • Isaac Newton: the initiator of modern science: Laws of Motion, Theory of Gravity
  • John Dalton: developed Atomic Theory: chemist
  • James Clerk Maxwell:  the fore-runner of present day physics: the Unification of electricity and magnetism
  • Georges Lemaitre: developed Physical theory of the expanding universe: “the primeval atom”
  • Arthur Stanley Eddington: founder of modern Astrophysics, also relativist and cosmologist
  • Charles Alfred Coulson: molecular orbital theory: Chemist
  • John Eccles: Nobel prize winner (Neurophysiologist)
  • Charles Townes:  Nobel Prize winner who developed the laser (Physicist)
  • Tony Hewish: Nobel Prize winner: Radio astronomy
  • William D Phillips Nobel Prize winner: Laser cooling (Physicist)
  • Francis Collins: Director, Human Genome Project
  • Brian Heap: Animal Physiologist, Past Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society
  • Peter Berger:  outstanding Sociologist (“The social construction of reality”)
  • Pauline Rudd: innovative Glycobiologist: molecular structure and function
  • Kathleen Lonsdale. foundational crystallographer.

Scientifically speaking, that proves the case conclusively. There is no need to say more. Nevertheless there are aspects of the issue that deserve further investigation.

2. The issue of fundamentalism

There is no serious case for `creation science’ and little for `intelligent design’, and I’m not interested in defending them. These are extremes, which can be easily dismissed from a scientific viewpoint. However there are more defensible positions relating science and religion.

Fundamentalism is the claim that a partial truth is the whole truth. This tendency to claim that a partial truth (of course the one that the proclaimer happens to be expert in) is the whole truth, is one of the dominant ways that humanity goes astray intellectually. It derives its power from the fact that the partial truth being proclaimed is indeed true, or at least is experienced as true by the believer. It derives its destructive power from the refusal to acknowledge all the other significant factors in the causal nexus influencing events, either denying that they exist, or at least denying their effectiveness.   It makes the implicit or explicit claim that the proclaimer is the person with sole access to truth, who others should therefore defer to, while also closing the minds of the proclaimer to seeing any larger reality that may exist.

Some religion is fundamentalist, but much is not. Fundamentalist religion is bad religion, and is also incompatible with good science. However open-minded non-dogmatic religion can be compatible with science. There is a large and sophisticated literature on this by Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, Keith Ward, Nancey Murphy, Bill Stoeger, Phil Clayton, and many others. It is crucial to note that fundamentalism occurs not only in religion, but also in all the sciences – natural and human – and indeed even in the humanities. Scientific fundamentalism is bad philosophy, and will usually lead to bad science.

 3. Scientism as a fundamentalist religion

Atheism is a religion just as much as say Christianity, as it is an unprovable belief system claming to clarify the meaning of life. It can be or dogmatic or open minded: fundamentalist  or non-fundamentalist.

Scientism – the claim that science is the sole and perfect access to all truth – is a fundamentalist atheist religion, complete with a creed : “Science is the sole route to true, complete, and perfect knowledge” (Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger, page 237) and a relic of a saint [the morbid relic of Galileo’s finger itself]. It makes its claims by declamation (“it has to be so”) rather than legitimate argumentation, for as I discuss below neither science nor philosophy can establish its main philosophical claims; but it is as dogmatic and closed a belief system as any religion has ever been. It occurs in physics and chemistry, in biology and the social sciences; and proceeds by proscribing what can be legitimately considered the target of enquiry, the methods used, the data allowed, and the kinds of explanation entertained.

However it often goes much further than simply being anti-religious: it denies the worth of most of what makes civilisation worthwhile. As an example, Professor Atkins believes in “the limitless power of science” (P W Atkins. In Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, Ed. J Cornwell. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995,  pp.122-132)(1). He writes

“Scientists, with their implicit trust in reductionism, are privileged to be at the summit of knowledge, and to see  further into truth than any of their contemporaries… there  is no reason to expect that science cannot deal with any  aspect of existence… Science, in contrast to religion, opens up the great questions of being to rational  discussion … reductionist science is omnicompetent  … science has never encountered a barrier that it  has not surmounted or that we can at least reasonably  suppose it has the power to surmount…. I do not consider that there is any corner of the real universe or the mental universe that is shielded from [science’s] glare” (pp. 123, 125, 129, 131).

  This is a very clear statement of belief that science can answer questions that are in fact outside its domain of competence. The useful question we can ask is, is Atkins in fact claiming that science can deal with everything of importance to humanity, or rather that anything outside the limited scope of science is unimportant? It appears that the latter is his true position, for he throws out of the window not only theology but also all philosophy, poetry, and art:

“although poets may aspire to  understanding, their talents are more akin to entertaining self- deception. Philosophers too, I am afraid, have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets … I long for immortality, but I know that my only hope of achieving it is through science and medicine, not through sentiment and its subsets, art and theology” (pp. 123, 131).

His frame of reference thus excludes all the highest understandings of the human predicament that have been attained throughout history; he defines reality to be only that which can be comprehended by his narrow view of reductionist science. Indeed he frames his viewpoint so narrowly that it even excludes psychology, all the social sciences, and behavioral biology, for he states “A gross contamination of the reductionist ethic is the concept of purpose. Science has no need of purpose” (p. 127). This is the framework within which he claims to consider “the great questions of being”. The conclusions he attains are dictated by the self-imposed extraordinarily narrow limits of his analytic scheme.

Atkins is motivated by the power of science to show connections between the disparate, and its ability to show that at its foundations the world is simple (p. 126). He rightly wants to see how far this approach can go. However this then becomes a dogma that drives all before it irrespective of how inadequate it is in some spheres of understanding, and he raises reductionism to a first principle to be adhered to even when it cannot deal with the issues at hand (unlike for example Neil Campbell’s superb text on Biology: Benjamin Cummings, 1990). Anything that does not fit into this narrow framework is claimed to be self-deception or delusion. His argument against religion, which he characterises as only being based on ignorance and fear (p. 124), is essentially that it does not fit into his restrictive scheme. His whole approach is based on an a priori metaphysical position of a fundamentalist nature, which is his ground and starting point. This viewpoint is claimed to be the only metaphysical position compatible with science, which is simply untrue; he can maintain this supposition only by ignoring both the rationally based arguments that carefully consider all the other metaphysical options, and all reasonably sophisticated versions of religious explanation.

One might ask what is the pay-off of this impoverished world-view, which consigns to the dustbin inter alia Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, T S Eliot? It appears to be two-fold: firstly, one claims absolute certainty (even if this is not attainable) – it is yet another manifestation of the human longing to be free of the metaphysical doubt that in fact faces us. Second, given this view, scientists become the high priests of this barren religion – they are the people with privileged access to omni-competent knowledge. It is their prerogative to judge and dispose of truth in this desolate landscape. Thus the temptation to scientists to promote this view is the same as has throughout history been the temptation to those claiming absolute knowledge of truth: they can see themselves as superior to their contemporaries. However this no longer works: while a few will follow, the main result is to convince the majority of the public that scientists have little understanding of the real world or of what is valuable. This kind of exaggerated position (whether explicit or implicit) is one of the reasons why anti-science views are presently on the increase in the populace at large.

It is crucial for you to know that this extreme position is not implied by science, and it is not true that all scientists have such a barren and destructive worldview. Science can indeed be done by people who appreciate the arts and humanities and ethics, and indeed also religion.

 4. The limits of science

One must recognise the limits of science – it can’t deal with values, ethics, aesthetics, or metaphysics. These limits of science follow from the very nature of the scientific enterprise and its methods.

 4.1 THE METAPHYSICS UNDERLYING COSMOLOGY. When science studies the nature of cosmology, it does so on the basis of the specific laws of physics that apply in the unique Universe we inhabit. It can interrogate the nature of those laws, but not the reason for their existence, nor why they take the particular form they do.  Neither can science examine the reason for the existence of the Universe.

These are metaphysical issues, whose examination lies beyond the competence of science per se, because there is only one Universe, and we are unable to perform experiments in which we vary its initial conditions or the laws of physics that apply in it, nor can we even compare its properties with those of any other universe. Neither can science investigate the issue of whether or not there is an underlying purpose or meaning to physical existence, for these are non-scientific categories. However these issues are of significance to us; in particular they underlie the existence of humanity. Professor Atkins states “Science in contrast to religion opens up the great questions of being to rational discussion” (p. 125). That is pure fantasy. No scientific experiment has any ability to clarify the truly fundamental issues.

  This is not to deny that science constrains our views on metaphysics in an important way, in that it provides a context within which metaphysical viewpoints are developed; and that context does indeed limit the range of possibilities.  Nevertheless the scope of that constraint is limited to what science can legitimately achieve. This does not extend to direct statements on any metaphysical issues.

 4.2 ETHICAL ISSUES AND ISSUES OF VALUES.  Issues of value are of fundamental importance to life in general, and to applied science in particular, but science itself is unable to provide a foundation for the choice of values, whether in ethics, aesthetics, or daily life.

We must distinguish this statement from two issues that are distinct from it. First, there are certain values that are essential to the conduct of science, which we might call the Scientific Virtues (honesty in relation to other scientists and to the experimental data, for example); these are taken for granted by science, forming part of the foundation necessary for it to flourish. Thus science can be said to support or demand these values (J Monod Chance and Necessity. Collins/Fount Paperbacks, 1970). Second, some values are necessary for science to continue studying particular objects of interest: if the Thunderwing Butterfly becomes extinct, we can no longer study its mating habits. Thus one might stretch things a bit and claim that zoology imposes an obligation to prevent extinction of that species. Neither of these begin to approach providing a basis for the value choices needed in real encounters with Aesthetics or Ethics. This is because there is no possible scientific test that can measure whether something is `good’ or `bad’, or is `beautiful’ or `ugly’; for these are non-scientific categories – they are not amenable to determination by any scientific experiment [see for example Richard Feynmann: The Meaning of it all: “I believe therefore that it is impossible to decide moral questions by scientific technique, and the two things are independent” (p. 46), and “ethical values lie outside the scientific domain” (p. 43).]

This does not mean they are non-rational or unimportant, but rather that the experimental methods of science cannot give sensible answers in this domain, nor can they result in a corresponding technology (for example, a meter that you point at a picture which will evaluate its beauty). Science cannot tell you what to do about the September 11attack on New York or about Israel or Iraq or the death sentence or Zimbabwe. But these are very important issues.

What science can do, given some basic set of value choices, is to determine whether specific policies or actions are likely to promote these values or not. For example, if our values specify that the existence of whales or of humans is valuable or important, then science can help determine what courses of action are likely to promote their continued existence; but science per se (biology or ecology, for example) cannot determine if either whales or people are in any absolute sense `valuable’ or `important’, as these too are non-scientific categories. Again science can determine if some species of animal is important in terms of its role in a food chain or ecosystem; but it cannot say if the ecosystem or food chain itself is important in any absolute sense. Social science can determine if some group or other regards specific species or environments as valuable; this establishes social preferences of that group, but does not determine a repeatable experimental standing of this valuation that has the status of a scientifically established fact, much less give it the ontological status that ethics requires.

Don’t fall into the trap of then concluding that these domains are meaningless or worthless. Rather recognise that science is a highly idealised means of argumentation that is only one of many ways of learning what is meaningful and valuable to humanity. It is even possible for scientists to be open to these broader domains of human achievement and meaning, although for some their life experience will be so limited they are unable to appreciate them.

Taken together, this means science says nothing about meaning. It says a lot about mechanisms.

 4.3 METAPHYSICAL UNCERTAINTY Consequent on this, science cannot answer the major questions about meaning and purpose of the universe and of our lives that are fundamental to every one of us, including religious issues such as the existence or non-existence of God. Neither can philosophy answer these questions with certainty; indeed there is a profound ambiguity of the universe relative to these issues. Science cannot solve them, and neither can philosophy give an indisputable answer. This is not to say one cannot make strong cases one way or another, or attain viable viewpoints as a basis for living. However intellectual certainty is unattainable.

  This ambiguity was known to Hume and Kant, who both realised that no certainty can be reached by human reasoning regarding the existence or non-existence of a deity, or the nature of any deity there may be. According to Gaskin, Hume “adopted a species of `mitigated skepticism’ which is inconsistent with any positive assertion about God’s nature, existence, or non-existence”. Thus “any conclusion as confident and positive as atheism would have been inconsistent with the skepticism expressed by Hume in his philosophical works”.  Similarly, according to Fischer, after many years of thought and study, “Kant determined for all time and for all who follow that  it is impossible to prove the existence — or the non-existence  — of God, and as a consequence of this situation Kant expressed  the standing plea that no one should in the future bother him with further attempts of this sort”. This is re-affirmed more recently for example by Richard Feynmann in The Meaning of it all: “It is not possible to disprove the existence of God as far as I know” (page 40).

The proponents of scientism like to make out there is no such uncertainty. Don’t be fooled by them.

 5. Nature of argumentation

One should learn to recognise the arguments used by extreme atheists to buttress their case:

* claiming for science what it cannot do: claiming it can exceed its legitimate domain of activity. Atkins claims there  is no reason to expect that science cannot deal with any  aspect of existence but in fact it can’t deal with aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, or meaning, and any claim that it can is simple deception.

* playing down the uncertainties of science within its legitimate domain: maintaining it is more certain and definite than it is. But uncertainty is a key feature of science (Feynmann, The Meaning of it all, Chapter 1is entitled “The uncertainty of science”). Atkins for example claims much more certainty than is available about both the start of the universe (where speculation is rife but proof is non-existent) and about the relation between the macro and the micro contained in the second law of thermodynamics (where we don’t understand either how entropy relates to gravity, nor how the arrow of time emerges in the macroscopic world; indeed Boltzmann’s H-theorem is in the end one of the great disasters of science, for it fails to establish which is the forward direction of time).

* arguing against straw men instead of genuinely strong arguments, or only admitting the existence of the invalid arguments (Scientific Creationism etc.) rather than the valid ones. This is like denying astronomy because of the existence of astrology.

* denying the existence of data that is inconvenient to their view, such as the religious experiences of millions of people. One can query the meaning of that data, which is fine; what is not fine is to simply ignore its existence, as when the claim is made that there is no evidence supporting a religious viewpoint.

* applying extreme reductionist argumentation where it is inapplicable. The warning phrase is “nothing but”, used for example in a way that excludes most present understanding of how the mind works and even of how the gene functions;

* resorting to personal attack and abuse when the case is weak. Thus Atkins refers to religious people as “not merely the prejudiced but also the under-informed” (p 125) and later refers to them as `the under-informed or the wily’ (p. 129), which is that oldest of rhetorical tricks: the resort to personal abuse because a more cogent argument is lacking. The fact he needs to resort to such a form of attack may be taken as a strong indication of the weakness of his arguments.

* in the end trying to use scientific authority to get deference in domains where science cannot legitimately be applied, and defending this by appeal to authority: “I am a scientists so I have the truth, and you’d better believe me”.   The dogmatic bishops of old would have been very at home with this attitude.

Don’t fall for it. Despite all the efforts of scientists, scientific knowledge will always be partial and incomplete, and science cannot comprehend everything of value to humankind. It needs the humility to explicitly recognise that there are limits to what science can offer us, and that other aspects of human endeavour – ethics and aesthetics, philosophy and poetry for example – are also significant; and that even religious or spiritual beliefs and experience may also be of great significance.

And beware the implicit threat contained in the attitude of scientism, which – as is true of any fundamentalist religion – would like to suppress the thoughts of those who do not agree.  I quote from Atkins: “[Theologians] have no right to claim that God is an extreme simplicity … Maintaining that God is an explanation is an abnegation of the precious power of human reasoning” [p.128]. Here you have the clear whiff of the Inquisition: if they have no right to think this wrongheaded way, then the strong implication is that they should be stopped from doing so.

The final answer to the question posed to us: fundamentalist religion of any kind, including scientism, makes for bad science, bad philosophy, and bad citizenship. Open minded, enquiring religion can be compatible with good science. Indeed it can even help stimulate philosophical questions with the potential to lead to more integrative scientific approaches to understanding than are commonly practised by scientists. That is, it can be a motivator in one of the most fundamental features and achievements of science: the drive to greater unity and integration of understanding.