Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On not idolizing science

I'll start with some self-description (which I've done before but worth doing again in this context): I'm an atheist; I  think reason and evidence constitute the only path to empirical truth; and I think that science and technology are central aspects of Western or, now, modern civilization.

Having said that, I want to say why I think this piece by Susan Jacoby is wrong: "The Myth of Separate Magisteria". The "magisteria" she's talking about are science and religion, or the teachings of science and religion, and while the term sounds pretentious it stems from a very good essay by Stephen Jay Gould, who took it from Catholic theology. Here, for example, is Gould on "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or NOMA:
Just as religion must bear the cross of its hard-liners. I have some scientific colleagues, including a few prominent enough to wield influence by their writings, who view this rapprochement of the separate magisteria with dismay. To colleagues like me—agnostic scientists who welcome and celebrate thc rapprochement, especially the pope's latest statement—they say: "C'mon, be honest; you know that religion is addle-pated, superstitious, old-fashioned b.s.; you're only making those welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic in order to assure public support and funding for science." I do not think that this attitude is common among scientists, but such a position fills me with dismay—and I therefore end this essay with a personal statement about religion, as a testimony to what I regard as a virtual consensus among thoughtful scientists (who support the NOMA principle as firmly as the pope does).
I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). ...
I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
And here, by contrast, is Jacoby:
By now, nearly everyone with a passing interest in science or religion is familiar with Stephen Jay Gould’s description of the two disciplines as “non-overlapping magisteria” with separate domains — science in the physical universe and religion in the moral realm. On this website, the philosopher Roger Scruton recently made the sweeping declaration that “genuine science and true religion cannot conflict.” A 2004 editorial in Naturemagazine insists that science and religion clash only when the two “stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble.” 
One might as well say that conflict arises between men and women only when they stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble. Science produces discoveries that challenge long-held beliefs (not only religious ones) based on revelation rather than evidence, and the religious must decide whether to battle or accommodate secular knowledge if it contradicts their teachings. 
I know both scientists and religious believers for whom the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) has become an unexamined fiction designed to skirt the culture wars. It is clear, however, that NOMA (a term Gould adapted from Catholic theology; the "Magisterium" is the Church's term for its teaching authority) is not only a fiction but a useless fiction — from the standpoint of both religion and science.
 She is at least no skirter of the culture wars. But, as her nonsensical analogy with men and women demonstrates, she's no deep thinker either, a failing she shares with her co-belligerents, the so-called "new atheists". The notion that the two "magisteria" are necessarily in conflict has its origins in a crude positivism which holds that only empirical or factual questions or issues are of concern, when it's quite evident that not only are there important issues of aesthetics and morality, but also, in a more general but more directly consequential sense, issues of meaning, value, and purpose. Any and all of those issues can be aided, of course, to a greater or lesser extent, by factual matters, as everybody has always known -- and as Jacoby herself allows near the end, to avoid looking completely silly -- but none simply are matters of fact or empirical truth; i.e., none are matters of science.

The attention given to these simplistic and crude new atheists by the liberal-left, however, reveals an irony in that side of the politicized culture wars -- just as Marxism, for example, once wanted to vanquish religion and in the process simply became a new opiate for a class of intellectual acolyte, so now science is rapidly becoming the focus of a new idolatry among those who so often flatter themselves as "reality-based" but who accept uncritically the pronouncements of white-coated authority figures that flatter their political faith.  So now I want to take the opportunity Jacoby's essay provides to make a few points about how a misplaced veneration of science can easily lead people astray -- I'm copying these, by the way, from a comment I left on a posting by Itzik at BasmanRoseLaw which pointed me to the Jacoby piece in the first place, and for which I thank him:
  • First, there's a difference between science and scientism -- and the "veneration" of science seems to stem from or lead to the latter (i.e., making an ideology of science, making lab-coated scientists into priests, etc.).
  • Second, once you make an ideology of science, you perpetually risk turning your wishes, political fixations, and the like into pseudo-science (e.g., psycho-babble, random statistics, etc.), thinking that this confers on them some sort of validity which of course is spurious.
  • Third, scientists, not being priests, superior beings, or aliens, are in fact just as human as anyone else, and therefore susceptible to intellectual fads, political fashions, and the religious yearning for purpose and meaning. This doesn't necessarily interfere with their purely scientific work as long as that work is sufficiently removed from their political, moral, or quasi-religious concerns. When it isn't, however -- as it isn't, e.g., in the current climate dabates, or in virtually the whole of social science -- then scientists too are motivated to "arrive" at politically correct results, and frequently do so in various inappropriate ways, all of which outside observers need to be aware of and be willing to discount.
Which is simply to say that we should avoid scientific idolatry, and bring the same critical intelligence to the pronouncements of scientists, particularly in political areas, that we do with any other profession.


  1. I think reason and evidence constitute the only path to empirical truth.

    As opposed to other types of truth? Is the Fundamental theorem of Calculus an empirical truth, m? For that matter, what is Reason? Perhaps confirm it exists, empirically. Im a evidentialist, and skeptic (though not... uncle meat materialist) but you're sort of begging a few questions here.

    NOMA's not the worst a thinker could do, though SJ Gould had issues (and surprised you'd agree with ..a leftist. SJ quoted Marxy Marx quite regularly). SJG didn't care for Dawkins and the "new atheists" gang, yet when ...Doc Dawkins poked fun at the goatherds' code of the Old Testament (and fundamentalists of all types), there were some of us who laughed along. People should be judged for their actions, regardless. Thomas Jefferson or Bertrand Russell--even SJ Gould, arguably---did more for the human race than Jerry Falwells, or the parish priest or rabbi--though at times, a religious person may produce important things (the writer Walker Percy, for example. Or TS Eliot, for some).

    That said, reasonable humans should oppose "crude positivism." There are generally normative issues implied with any serious policy decision--whether at local or state levels--, and many people, including scientists, are not qualified to address them. That's not likely to change, especially with rightists in charge who know little or nothing about political theory or philosophy--say Bentham 101--, or economics for that matter.

  2. First, calculus, like all of math, is an example of a logical truth, and is just one example of a non-empirical truth; Keatsian "beauty is truth" is another.

    And second, Gould indeed "had issues", but, regardless of his politics, I agree with his NOMA essay pretty much completely.

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  4. Yes, no kidding (tho some might disagree--Quineans), but that apparent division between mathematics/logic and empiricism (analytical/ synthetic distinction as they say) suggests something unique about ...Mind--integrals don't grow on trees. There are religious people who use an "Argument from Reason" similar to this (as did...Plato).

    NOMA poses some difficulites, irregardless. Say in regard to evidence. Did Gould mean to suggest we need not concern ourselves with determining the reliability of evidence in support of the Bible, both OT and NT? (or Koran, hindu texts, etc) . IN that case he was mistaken. It's sort of important, if not problematic, at least when fundamentalists start insisting that the Bible is literally true, inerrant, etc--that issue concerned Gibbon, and his mentor, that dastardly skeptic Hume, and others. Moreover, Darwin, Lyell, radiometric dating did much damage to the OT account of creation (I suspect SJG was more or less pulling for his orthodox pals). --

  5. Stories in the Bible, like stories in other religious texts, and like stories that have been handed down orally, are examples of myths, not accounts of empirical facts. But that doesn't mean they are dismissable -- myths have narrative meaning over and above their literal content, and when woven into the great religious structures they can embody and convey the meaning and central values of whole cultures. Missing this is what makes the new atheists so often sound like cocky but naive schoolboys.

  6. P.S. Quine's famous "Two Dogmas" paper, for example, does indeed resist the absolute distinction between so-called analytic (i.e., logical) and synthetic (i.e., empirical) truths, proposing instead a kind of polar distinction, which allows the two to blend into one another. I like this move, especially because of its opposition to another aspect of crude positivism, the tendency to regard "facts" as pure experiential givens rather than conceptual constructs, but it takes us into deeper waters, and certainly off this particular topic.

  7. Quine may have suggested conceptualism at times, though his celebrated "Two Dogmas" essay really did not overturn verification criteria per se but expanded it to include the entire "domain of science". Those who view TDOE as a type of holism are mistaken--he consistently affirms naturalism. Actually I don't particularly care for Quine's school of reductionism, but WVOQ's an important figure (I doubt SJG cared for him).


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