Is Science In Mortal Danger?

Is Science In Mortal Danger? February 23, 2015

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So, here’s a contention: the endeavor of the scientist presupposes intelligibility, that is to say, some sort of possible conformity between our minds and reality; but intelligibility is impossible if reality is not itself the product of a mind; therefore, science can only ultimately flourish within a theist (perhaps even only Christian) culture, where science is understood as a legitimate way of understanding the mind of God and approaching God (or even, in a Christian worldview, responding to God’s action of drawing us nearer to Him).

Is this true, or not?

I don’t know.

Here’s a much more modest contention, but one which is not unlinked to the previous one: modern science is only a process by which falsifiable empirical claims are tested through controlled experiment; as such, it produces presumptions, not absolute truths. If science is taken to be a mechanism for producing absolute truths, rather than presumptions, it will defeat itself. This is what I tried to get at in a couple columns. This proposition should be uncontroversial in a world where basic epistemology is widely understood, but since it is not, it is not.

The link between the two contentions comes readily apparent: if nature abhors a conceptual vacuum, an atheist materialistic worldview will elevate science as God. This won’t do much harm to God, but it will do a lot of harm to science (and it might certainly do a lot of harm to all of us).

The problem here is that we’re, through conceptual confusion, increasingly forgetting what science is, and therefore how to do it.

How much evidence is there for this? A distressing amount.

It is frightful to think that much of the work that goes on at the frontiers of science is frankly little better than astrology. I am thinking of much of economics, and also much of psychology, and also nutrition. These are all areas where a commonsense epistemological view would suggest that the extreme causal density should lead us to deep epistemic humility, and yet grandiose claims are being made and made again, in wanton disregard of the scientific method, and swallowed whole by a society that somehow despite its importance has never bothered to learn about how science works.

And, frankly, one gets the sense that too much scientific work is taken really with an atheistic apologetic purpose in mind: one pursues the hypothesis that would seem to vindicate a naturalist worldview, regardless of the facts.

There’s a distressing sense that this is what’s happening in physics. We’ve been here before. It’s hard to escape the notion that the Big Bang Theory was rejected for religious reasons. It was advanced by a priest, and sounded disturbingly like Genesis. The very name “Big Bang” was invented by an atheist colleague of Lemaitre to mock and dismiss his theory. The prevailing cosmological theory at the time was the steady state theory, and it’s hard to escape the sense that its main appeal was that it seemed to suggest a beginningless Universe and therefore no possibility of a creator God.

Today, it seems that a similar role is being played by the multiverse theory, which seems inherently unscientific, and sounds increasingly like a grown-up and rather baroque version of the tooth fairy.  But the alternative seems to be to accept fine-tuning, and, well, we know very well where that leads.

But if this is what’s going on, then the conclusion seems inescapable that many of the world’s most brilliant physicists are doing not science but astrology, or whatever it is Molière’s doctors were doing, and that we’re wasting enormous amounts of money and brainpower. And if that’s true, then the even worse realization dawns that not only is this going on, but almost nobody realizes that this is what is going on.

I don’t yet believe this to be wholly the case, exactly. But if it was the case, how could we tell otherwise? And wouldn’t things look a lot like what they look like now?

These thoughts are prompted by this post at the site Brain Pickings, on “a compendium of answers Edge founder John Brockman collected by posing his annual question — ‘What scientific idea is ready for retirement?’ — to 175 of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and writers. Among them are Nobel laureates, MacArthur geniuses, and celebrated minds”. There seems to be a bit of groupthink among our ‘celebrated minds,’ but “this is a glorious feature rather than a bug […] for its chief reward is precisely this cumulative effect of discerning the zeitgeist”. Fair enough.

Well, what are those ideas that are so popularly unpopular?

IQ, the self, race, the left brain vs. right brain divide, human nature and essentialism, free will, and even science itself.

…Oh boy.

Some of these are debatable but fair enough (IQ, left-brain/right-brain), some are utterly boring (pray tell, how popular is scientific racism in the academia nowadays?), but all of the rest are alarmingly insane.

As even a dog can tell you, the self, human nature and free will self-evidently exist. And it’s not coincidental that an ‘enlightened’ zeitgeist that would think that these “ideas” “must die” would also want to change the classical definition of science. And it’s not coincidental that these are the things that a naturalist worldview would see as the last redoubts of a supernaturalist metaphysics which must at long last be overrun by the march of scientific progress. (It also won’t surprise you that Steven Pinker, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne are among the “celebrated minds” that was asked to contribute to this tome. I recognized no Christian theologian or philosopher among the contributors. I wonder why.)

If this is a reliable picture of this zeitgeist (and every evidence suggests it is) then it means that countless research grant proposals and grants and the efforts of countless ambitious grad students and tenure-track academics will be spent on scientific work based on a bankrupt metaphysical worldview, work which can only turn out to be valueless–but potentially do a great deal of harm in the meantime, just as scientific racism and social darwinism and nutritionism and so many other fads did in their heyday.

All of this is highly suggestive that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. How much of our scientific work is being thus wasted? How much will turn out to be this century’s phrenology? It’s hard to say, especially considering the fact that, after all, even a healthy scientific culture will go on wild goose chases. It would hardly do to write off all dubious scientific work in the name of epistemic humility.

But while I’m not yet sure that the hour is “late indeed,” it certainly seems to be later than most people think.

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