Science as Religion Revisited (RJS)

Back a month ago or  so I posted on some back and forth between two philosophers on the New York Times website regarding naturalism and the basis for naturalism What is Naturalism by Timothy Williamson a reaction, Why I am a Naturalist by Alex Rosenberg, and a response by Timothy Williamson On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism.

Philosophers shouldn’t have the last word on science, naturalism, and religion, however, and about the same time Alan Lightman posted a nice article entitled Does God Exist? on the Salon website. Lightman is a physicist and novelist, currently an adjunct professor of humanities, creative Writing, physics at MIT (faculty page). Lightman’s article received a response much like Williamson’s. In this case Daniel Dennett felt compelled to defended the atheist position in an essay When Atheist Fib to Protect God where he chides Lightman for being too easy on religion and believers. Lightman responded with a third short piece of his own Why Atheists Should Respect Believers.

These essays were brought to my attention this week through a commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald by Barney Zwartz, Science as Religion. This opinion piece makes an important point – especially important in the context of the discussion noted above and many on more local and personal levels. For many in our increasingly secular west scientific naturalism is the new religion. You can argue about how I define “religion” but scientific naturalism is a deep and central worldview that defines acceptable thinking, tells a story, and is founded on an central assumption – not just that there is no God, but that the natural world with is intelligible natural laws is the sum total of existence. Zwartz  brings this out reflecting on Lightman’s first essay:

It is axiomatic among many philosophers that the foundations of our various worldviews, the first principles, have to be assumed for the project of our reasoned lives to operate, and these principles are often unprovable. For theists, this tends to be the existence of God (that’s not to say there are no reasons for belief, which I could not concede, but that religious commitment does not depend purely on reasons).  For atheists, the first principle tends to be a commitment to reason or to science.

What is the foundation of the Christian world view?

How does this compare with the functional worldview in the West?

Zwartz refers to Lightman’s discussion of what he calls the “Central Doctrine” that “all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.”

Thus, the doctrine goes, though we do not know all the fundamental laws now, and what we do know may change (as Einstein’s law of gravity replaced Newton’s), they exist and are in principle discoverable by humans. But of course, as Lightman admits, this cannot be proved. It is, as I said, a leap of faith.

Science becomes as religion when this central doctrine becomes the foundation of all knowledge. Zwartz concludes:

So another scholar, Bruce Lincoln, says that, rather than a singular thing or essence, religion is better understood as a form of discourse that makes a claim to a particular kind of authority. What makes a discourse religious is when it claims an authority that is believed “to transcend the human, temporary and contingent, and claims for itself a similarly transcendent status”. Without anyone necessarily intending that to happen, I suggest that for many a belief in science has slipped into that category.

Belief in science has slipped into a category of dogmatic faith not to be challenged. This is a significant points of conflict in our culture and one that I think will grow – among educated nonscientists even more quickly than among scientists. For many science has become religion and dissent is not to be tolerated lightly. It is a place where pastors and those active in college ministry should be particularly aware. This is the environment that is shaping an increasingly large portion of our intellectual discourse. It is in the air and in the water. Science is not a serious challenge for Christian faith – all of the supposed conflicts can be resolved – but not by defensive reaction and defending the boundaries. Belief in science is a serious challenge that faces many and we must be prepared with an answer and an approach.

Lightman concluded his response to Dennett:

We live in a highly polarized society. We need to try to understand each other in respectful ways. To that end, I believe that we should make room for both spiritual atheists and thinking believers.

Truth isn’t found by dogmatic assertion – in any kind of “religion” but in an openness that takes in all the data and searches for answers. This is a lesson we should all take to heart.

What do you think?

How does belief in science slip into religion?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    Great post RJS.

    I honestly don’t think that the typical Christian worldview in the West is all that different from a naturalist one, mainly because I think the typical Christian worldview in the West is largely deist. Most Christians believe in an afterlife; we believe that Jesus is Lord of heaven, but no so much Lord of earth in any real sense other than judge of what happens here–after life. This results in the practical necessity to serve other ‘gods’ while on earth, gods that get things done here and now. For the most part, this god is money, even in the church.

    On a related note, I think most teenagers and college students become aware of this at a gut level, which becomes a “faith” ready to fall. Ultimately, they follow what they’ve been taught: trust and follow money (naturalism’s power center) for this life; say your prayers for the next.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    You can argue about how I define “religion”

    Okay, will do! :)

    but scientific naturalism is a deep and central worldview

    Are all ‘worldviews’ necessarily ‘religions’?

    It is axiomatic among many philosophers that the foundations of our various worldviews, the first principles, have to be assumed for the project of our reasoned lives to operate, and these principles are often unprovable.

    Just because you can’t use evidence to decide on fundamental axioms doesn’t mean all possible axioms are equal, that there’s no principled way to choose among them. There is at least one distinction that can be made among such ‘candidate axioms’: Some propositions fall into the category of “unfalsifiable… but useless”. E.g. solipsism, or the idea that our reason is radically incompetent to reach any conclusions. Or rejecting Ockham’s Razor.

    Some propositions are futile to embrace. It’s not that they couldn’t be true. It’s just that if they were true, they’d inevitably and automatically render everything else pointless.

  • phil_style

    Ray “if they were true, inevitably and automatically render everything else pointless”

    Can you clarify what you mean by “pointless”/ “futile”? Do you mean that it makes no practical difference either way whether you accept them or not? i.e. that there are no implications..

  • Ron Spross

    Thanks for providing all the links to some interesting articles.

    One observation or suggestion: If science “as relgion” is not a good thing (for the reasons elucidated in your post), then religion “as religion” has no better standing.

    Science is the best, most reliable tool we have for investigating and learning about the world we have around us. Scientific investigation uses (because it must) to great effect and benefit the tool of functional or operational naturalism. But extrapolating that naturalism to possible existence that transcends the material world is presumptive. We love to make this point in criticizing science “as religion”. By the same logic there is absolutely nothing whatsoever that makes religion “as religion” inherently more reliable than, or superior to (much less equivalent to) science “as relgion”.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Belief in science has slipped into a category of dogmatic faith not to be challenged… For many science has become religion and dissent is not to be tolerated lightly.

    So, wait… if Christianity is a religion, too… does that therefore mean that it’s a ‘dogmatic faith not to be challenged’ and ‘dissent is not to be tolerated lightly’?

    If it’s possible for Christianity not to be a ‘dogmatic faith’, then is it possible for science to be practiced sincerely, passionately, and wholeheartedly, and yet not be ‘dogmatic’, too? Or is it only ‘science religions’ that must be ‘dogmatic’?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    phil_style –

    Can you clarify what you mean by “pointless”/ “futile”? Do you mean that it makes no practical difference either way whether you accept them or not? i.e. that there are no implications.

    Well, the links were intended to do just that, but let’s take solipsism as an example. Solipsism is the notion that we can only be sure that our own minds exist. The outside world, let alone other minds, might be illusions or delusions or just mistakes.

    It’s true that there’s no way to disprove this. No evidence of any kind could possibly be mustered to contradict the idea… since any such evidence could just be more illusion. You can’t prove that the outside world exists, that the sense-data coming in has some relation to an actual external reality. You have to take it ‘on faith’.

    Except… hold up. Let’s assume the converse for a moment. Okay, fine, have it your way. We’ll grant that nothing but your own mind is real and everything else is just a dream you’re having.

    Now what?

    You’ve just rendered everything pointless. Solipsism and related brain-in-a-vat models are internally consistent, but practically useless. If our senses don’t correlate at all with an external world… then what? Assuming that sort of thing inevitably leads to futility. The alternative idea – that the senses do relay data that in some way informs us about an outside world – doesn’t have that inevitable implication, and has the bonus of being at least potentially falsifiable.

  • T

    Ray,

    At least for my part, and I’m sure I am representative of several Christians on this point, I don’t care whether we talk in terms of religions, metanarratives, worldviews, paradigms, etc. Whatever terminology is used is fine, but the key is that Naturalism, Deism, Theism, etc. are each over-arching understandings of the world. Each of them are “faiths” in the sense that “central doctrines” of each cannot be proven. Is one of the other terms preferable?

  • C

    The parallels between sciencisim and conventional religions should be obvious. The naturalist take, for example, is predicated on a simple cause and effect model AKA determinism. I would argue that solo scientia dictates a world view much like Calvinistic predestination. That is, ultimately we do not have control over our lives because who we are and our decisions have been mathematically been laid out since the beginning of time, or God determined the entire course of history before it began- and these things are now simply being played out. The premises change, but the structure and conclusion of the argument remains the same. What I don’t understand from either worldview is how we can now claim justice, morals, free will, or responsibility on REAL basis without betraying the deterministic principles central to both beliefs.

    Whenever I converse with either a naturalist or a Calvinist and realize that I am getting nowhere I always have the option to throw my hands up and say “I’m sorry, this is just the way that I am! God/Science has spoken so there is nothing that I can do about it! /s”

  • phil_style

    Ray,

    I am aware of silopsism, I’m just wondering why you refer to it as being “pointless” and “futile”. I would say it’s pointless because it has no implications – it doesn’t matter either way if it’s right or not. I think that’s what you’re getting at, but I just wanted to check, in case you see futility/pointlessness as being something else.

  • Josh T.

    I think the word “faith” is more applicable to the issue here than “religion,” per se. The issue of faith–which has many levels and nuances of meaning–is something that I think human beings cannot get away from, including those who are merely nonreligious or genuine anti-theists.

    One of my religion professors at a local university had done his doctoral work on John Henry Newman, so we were assigned to read Newman’s Grammar of Assent. There was one quote that has always stood out to me as relevant to this issue: “Life is for action. If we insist on proofs for every thing, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith” (From the Chapter 4 section on “Real Assents”).

    Now, to be sure, not all types of faith are directed toward religious propositions or are manifested as trust in an invisible being or beings. Even so, it seems that faith of some sort is needed for action to be possible in life. Given that common experience (and other things not immediately relevant here), my personal opinion is that we (whether religious or nonreligious) should walk in humility on this issue and not be quick to judge anyone as ignorant, unthinking, or otherwise, while keeping the door open for fruitful discussion–something I think Jesus Creed is generally very good at.

  • Joe Canner

    Josh #9: I definitely agree that there is a close connection between faith and action. But how does this play out with respect to science? Of course there are obvious ways in which we (usually without thinking much about it) put our faith in science: taking medicine, flying airplanes, etc., but I don’t think that’s what you are referring to. In other words, with respect to the kinds of scientific inquiry implicitly referred to in this post (origins, mostly), what does it mean to have faith in science?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    phil_style – I would say it’s pointless because it has no implications – it doesn’t matter either way if it’s right or not.

    Actually, that’s not what I mean. If solipsism is correct, then, for example, my wife and kids don’t actually exist. It doesn’t matter that I do anything for them; they can’t benefit or suffer in the slightest no matter what I do. If I jump off a building, I won’t really hit the ground at high speed – there’s no ground to hit.

    Nothing I do or fail to do, in fact, can have any effect on anything at all.

    That’s what I mean by ‘pointless’.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Josh T. –

    The issue of faith–which has many levels and nuances of meaning

    And I usually find a lot of disagreements in this area boil down to equivocation about what is meant by the term ‘faith’.

    For example, I’ve contended that there are pragmatic grounds for rejecting solipsism, for believing that my reason is capable of reaching correct conclusions, and for employing Ockham’s Razor. The ‘pragmatic grounds’ being that the converse of those ideas leads to automatic futility. Does that mean I accept, say, Ockham’s Razor “on faith”?

    If so, is that the same kind of faith I have in my wife, which has been built up over a shared life of many years?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    C –

    The naturalist take, for example, is predicated on a simple cause and effect model AKA determinism.

    So anyone who accepts quantum mechanics is, ipso facto, not a naturalist?

  • rjs

    Ray,

    I see an interesting parallel in the discussion about the “faith” basis of scientific naturalism and the in-house Christian discussion about Genesis and young earth creationism.

    The proponents of YEC will often claim that if we merely let the text speak we would see that there is only one meaning. In fact Ken Ham is quoted as saying that he doesn’t interpret, he just reads scripture. Those with eyes to see will find this obvious.

    I claim that a YEC position actually requires as much interpretation as the positions I take … There is always interpretation and assumption.

    In this discussion about naturalism Lightman is observing, and I agree with him, that there is a faith assumption that underlies the worldview of scientific naturalism. Dennett and others come back from the position that “for those with brains to think” it will be self- evidently obvious that naturalism is the only reasonable position.

    Dennett’s claim seems to me to be a serious error – and Lightman rightly objects in his response. This doesn’t mean one must rationally favor religion – just that we should be honest in framing the discussion.

  • phil_style

    Ray “It doesn’t matter that I do anything for them; they can’t benefit or suffer in the slightest no matter what I do……Nothing I do or fail to do, in fact, can have any effect on anything at all”

    No strictly true under the “all in my head” scenario, because it would have an effect on you. You (your mind) would still be affected by the trauma/joy of having perceived these events, even if the events were not “real” on the outside. So you’re incentivised to “act” in certain ways based on the effect they would have on your ability to preserve your own sense of well-being in that “virtual” world. Even if you knew it was a virtual world, unless you were able to escape it (death or other means) or over-ride the rules (which implies the existence of another reality anyways) you would still have to avoid rolling around in the cacti to avoid feeling pain. This “virtual” world has meaning, value or “a point” because those things are value judgments placed on that reality by the participant/observer.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    rjs –

    Dennett and others come back from the position that “for those with brains to think” it will be self- evidently obvious that naturalism is the only reasonable position.

    Although you used double-quotes there, I presume you didn’t mean that Dennett had actually used those words, right? I couldn’t find any examples of him doing so… although you call it “Dennett’s claim”.

    Nor have I seen examples of any of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ claiming that naturalism is all that obvious. Well-supported, consistent, effective, convincing, reasonable, even correct – sure. But obvious on a moment’s reflection? Not so much.

    Can you provide some?

  • Josh T.

    #11, Joe– I haven’t delved all too deeply into the implications of how “faith” works in regard to scientific inquiries, but I think that assumption, trust, and devotion are such unavoidably human activities that they make their way into everything we do to some degree or another. And whether they recognize it or not, I think some of the more strident atheists exhibit those ideas (assumption, trust, devotion) as they defend their philosophical position (scientific naturalism).

    #13 Ray– I agree that a lot of disagreements seem to deal with the definition of “faith.” It’s sort of like the word “love,” but I think faith may convey a greater variety of meaning than that. Faith in Ockhams’s Razor vs. faith in your wife? There’s definitely a difference (not least the fact that one is an idea and one is a person), but I wouldn’t know how to begin to do the issue justice (nor do I have the time). I think you might even be able to break down the idea of faith in your wife into some nuances of meaning.

    Not to sound like a Newman apologist (‘cuz I’m not), I found his discussion about this sort of thing interesting, at the very least (I haven’t read Grammar of Assent since my class in 1997). If anyone is interested I found an online copy here: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/grammar/index.html

    Wish I had more time to discuss, but I need to get back to work. Thanks. :)

  • AHH

    Perceptive post. Whether one calls it a religion or not, the worldview that science and nature are all there is when it comes to reality and truth is becoming more common. I don’t really like the term “naturalism” because of its ambiguity; I prefer “scientism”.

    Such a view is, of course, incompatible with Christianity. What is unfortunate is that many Christians follow the lead of people like Dennett and fail to separate the science from the extrapolations into metaphysics, and therefore act as though the only way to preserve theism in the face of this challenge is to oppose the science itself. And/or to think that science needs to be able to prove God (or at least some designer) in order for theism to be valid.
    If some on the science side did not push so hard to make scientism inextricably tied to the science itself, there would probably be less misguided overreaction by Christians in the form of things like legislative efforts to oppose teaching evolution in public schools.

  • Chen

    The problem with religion is that even when they claim to not believe in reason and evidence, they still rely on it, they simply make the existence of god and exception. That is why they are inconsistent.

    It is impossible to talk about any religious faith without reason and evidence. Even the very sentence God exists makes no sense if you don’t believe in the validity of reason, but if you do, why make his existence an exception? There has to be a good reason for that.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    T-

    Whatever terminology is used is fine, but the key is that Naturalism, Deism, Theism, etc. are each over-arching understandings of the world.

    I’m willing to grant that. On the other hand, there are significant differences between them.

    Each of them are “faiths” in the sense that “central doctrines” of each cannot be proven.

    Yes… and no. There are a few basic axioms everyone takes in practice – even though they can’t be ‘proven’ – because not accepting them is pointless. It does seem to me that theistic worldviews go beyond that, for (what seem to me) inadequate reasons.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Even if you knew it was a virtual world… you would still have to avoid rolling around in the cacti to avoid feeling pain.

    Eh, sort of. If even the pain isn’t real…

    This “virtual” world has meaning, value or “a point” because those things are value judgments placed on that reality by the participant/observer.

    Note that that means that someone’s life can have meaning without a God to dictate it. :)

  • Kev

    It is nice to see that there are some scientists who understand that that their world view is founded on a belief system. In Lightman’s essay of faith, and on his beliefs that the laws of the universe are indeed “immutable”, is a perfect example. I have no such faith, but I found his thoughts interesting. I am very intrigued by the honesty. However it is strange to read an objective mind make such a large statement of faith. For me, it is all just speculation. For me, it is like standing on a bubble, upside down, on a grain of sand, embedded in an ice cave, in complete darkness, arguing about the taste and essence of Guano. From the outside looking in, we all know it is very subjective, and anyway, I guess it would be only interesting when you live it. But really, when you know the big picture, you can smile in knowing the truth:)


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