The (non-) existence of God is ostensibly the defining characteristic of atheism. But my experience of the recent Atheist Convention and subsequent discussion, convinces me that the real issue at stake is the nature of science. The link is obvious: if science is the only source of objective knowledge, there is simply nothing to say about anything outside of science. But what if our view of science is wrong?
In a previous blog post I suggested that “science must take some things as given before it can start its work” and I also mentioned some ‘non-scientific’ beliefs that I thought most atheists would go along with. In this post I suggest that science isn’t the simple, methodical, truth-guaranteeing project we sometimes think it is. This view of science, gestated over a few hundred years, was born as positivism in the first half of the last century. It was mercilessly put to death in the second half by philosophers and reflective scientists. It is a view of science as a pure pursuit of sure knowledge, with the corollary that all other knowledge claims are pretenders. But it is a view that ignores much that is intrinsic to the logic and practice of real science.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we are talking of science as it is practised today. And let’s accept what the philosophers call ‘methodological naturalism’. That means, in the words of philosopher of science Michael Ruse, “miracles lie outside of science, which by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law.”
So if science is not as simple as the phrase ‘the scientific method’ implies, how should we understand it? What is this thing called science? (to borrow the words of Alan Chalmers’ book of that title.)
Science is an intrinsically human enterprise. It is a cultural product of the Western world, and it is rife with beliefs, commitments, intuitions, trust, subjective judgements, tacit knowledge, skills, creativity and presuppositions. It is not that science should be anything else: it can’t be. We have woken from the dream of 17th Century philosopher René Descartes, who hoped to find certainty by casting aside all that could possibly be doubted. This does not mean that it is unreasonable to trust scientific consensus. But it does mean we ought to pay attention to the historical, philosophical and empirical evidence which shows that science is no impersonal rule-governed enterprise resulting in sure knowledge.
History is littered with scientific theories that were ‘known’ to be true and subsequently overturned. Ptolemy’s universe was earth-centred before Copernicus came along. The Newtonian world was absolute before relativity arrived. Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science with a PhD in physics, changed forever our understanding of science with his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn says that a scientific theory goes largely unquestioned until a revolution unseats the reigning paradigm, replacing it with a new vision of what is true. SSR, as the book is affectionately known, argues that the idea of a universal and rigorous scientific method is a myth. While Kuhn has his critics, there is widespread agreement that science does not follow a rule-based method and that there is no neutral umpire to arbitrate between two competing scientific theories. Even rules of thumb such as simplicity and beauty cannot be defined, and depend on human judgement.
As well as what is revealed by its history, a philosophical inspection of science also leads to a more nuanced understanding. I mentioned the so-called ‘problem of induction’ in a previous blog post. (No matter how many black crows you see, there is no way of proving that all crows are black.) Another difficulty is that there are any number of theories that will fit the evidence; it depends on how many assumptions you want to include. Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe was propped up in the face of contradictory observations by introducing more assumptions. For 1400 years it was renovated as historical need arose. The sun-centred Copernican view prevailed, not because it simply explained the facts, but for reasons ranging through politics, religion, personal alliances and an appeal to simplicity. In the words of Max Planck, the Nobel prize winning father of quantum theory, “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In addition to anything found in text books, the expert scientist brings creativity and tacit knowledge to bear. There are many things we know, but cannot explain. Most of us know how to ride a bicycle. But few of us know what it is that we know. And if we could describe the laws of physics governing bicycles, it would be no use to a four-year-old astride a bike for the first time. Recognising rock specimens or identifying new diseases or species are examples of the intangible knowledge of the expert. This is an ‘added extra’ that cannot be explicated. In the end a human judgement has to be made. In the words of scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, “into every act of knowing there enters a tacit contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection, but a necessary component of all knowledge.”
When we see that this is how science works, says Polanyi, then we will desist from the “vain pursuit of a formalized scientific method”, and instead, recognise “the scientist as the agent responsible for conducting and accrediting scientific discoveries.” While the scientist’s procedure is methodical, those methods are “the maxims of an art” which the scientist applies in their own original way to the problem they have chosen. Nobel prize winning physicist, Max Born says, “Science is not formal logic–it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art.”
So scientific discovery too, is an art as well as a science, driven by the passions and intuitions of the enquiring genius, which cannot be formalised. At sixteen Albert Einstein was dreaming of flashlights and moving trains. Convinced that his intuitions were correct, it took him years to put mathematical flesh on the bones of relativity theory. He knew more than he could explain, and driven by passionate belief, he persevered to convince the scientific establishment. Like most of the great discoveries of science, relativity did not arise from new information. Such discoveries occur when old information is seen in a fresh light, and without being able to explain the process, the scientist cries “Eureka! I have found it.” Polanyi said that to see a problem is to see something that is hidden, “to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars.” And Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Scientific knowledge is also a complex and undefinable web of trust, hinted at by the ‘third law’ of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Polanyi puts it more analytically: “the knowledge comprised by science is not known to any single person. Indeed, nobody knows more than a tiny fragment of science well enough to judge its validity and value at first hand. For the rest he has to rely on views accepted at second hand on the authority of a community of people accredited as scientists.”
Human judgement, trust, tacit knowledge, creativity, are all intrinsic to science as we know it. Is this a reason to abandon science? No. Is this a reason to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change? Not at all. But it is reason to recognise the limits and the very human nature of this thing called science. It is not all-encompassing. It does not guarantee truth. But when it comes to knowledge of the natural world, science is all that we have, and it seems to have a good track record. Which of course begs the question of induction, but one has to stop somewhere.
Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.
We’re adding audio from the Convention: first to appear are Tamas Pataki (sadly without that important question and answer re Scandinavia – we didn’t record it) and Ian Robinson. You can find Tamas Pataki here and Ian Robinson here. Scroll through to the foot of each post. More audio will be added tomorrow.
At morning tea, Sunday, conference attendee Kirsty Machon reflects on the way the discussion has been going:
It has been both illuminating and frustrating to be a part of this conference. As an atheist, I came to this conference not to have my beliefs either confirmed or affirmed, but rather, to hopefully hear some serious reflection on how we might develop a practical collective ethics, derived from materialism, in this world. Taslima Nasrin’s story is a very powerful demonstration as to why this practically matters, and a reminder that in many circumstances, the consequences of blasphemy are real, and violent. So we need to get beyond slogans on T-shirts (Religion is Retarded being just one example). I didn’t come here to hear people called ‘drongos’. Tamas Pataki elicited a surprisingly hostile response from some twitterers, and yawns of boredom and complaints from others, but I thought his point, that it does not follow that a world without religion is necessarily practically better is an interesting one. It might be, or it may not be so: our challenge is to make it so. There are also many people here who clearly stake all their faith in ‘science’, narrowly defined at that. I wish I could be so sanguine but I don’t think it’s a sufficient answer. Issues like anthropogenic climate change show us that the need to move from thought to practical action has never been more real or serious: conducting the debate in terms of ‘drongos’ and ‘smart people’ seems to be not only dull, but spectacularly beside the point.
Kirsty Machon is a post-graduate student at the University of Melbourne
Today the Convention is getting meatier, and the talks more contentious. Philosopher Tamas Pataki dared to criticise Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens. I have no jokes, he said, no desire to ridicule religion, I want to do some philosophy and some other speakers are seriously mistaken. Well, that was food for thought.
Pataki set out to establish terms for the discussion: what was required in rational enquiry. ”Usually we argue to the conclusion which is indubitable on the evidence before us although we acknowledge that conclusion is not incorrigible.” Thus, ”there indubitably is no God but I may be wrong”.
Then more definition: “…the fact is that popular contemporary atheism is not principally about atheism at all – it is about opposition to religion or more exactly to the malign influences of religion especially in its opposition to humane values and rational enquiry.”
[I liked the way that inter alia out of this concern for definition, Pataki’s talk made atheism emerge as a tradition, with a history and a developmental story. He introduced a spot of historical thinking into a context where there has been a dearth of it.]
There is no mutual entailment between atheism and opposition to religion, Dr Pataki said. And then he added: he was not convinced that the world would be better without religion. It was by no means obvious that an entirely religion less world would be desirable, even if it were possible. There are many different categories of religious – and a humanist atheist is obliged to try and understand complexity of religious experience and the social conditions that give rise to it. For religion can go very deep indeed: “many of our prominent atheists have failed in their sympathetic understanding.”
So where was that taking us? In Dr Pataki’s view those prominent atheists have misunderstood the ongoing psychological functioning of religious beliefs, practices and institutions.
“I insist on religion’s many intellectual and moral vices but religion can satisfy profound emotional needs and nobody knows whether religion can be extinguished without problems.” What for example would happen to the ‘wretched of the earth’ (for whom it may function in that little understood way)? Religion may be noxious, but perhaps for all we know a world without religion may be a worst place than it is today. We cannot compute all the relevant variables in something as dramatic as the final departure of religion from human life. So argued Dr Pataki.
And thus, he said, secular humanists are presented with an exquisite dilemma: if religion does all those noxious things (foster superstition, deception and delusion), could any self-respecting person choose to let it survive? “Can any of us lesser folk participate in the perpetuation of such deceptions and not be consumed by them?”
[Were we travelling down the road to the twentieth century?]
Someone asked if what might happen when religion disappeared had been demonstrated in the experience of Scandinavia. Not enough data or understanding re that psychological functioning of religion said Dr Pataki.
Outside, an older attendee was intrigued: a difficult idea, that religion might be necessary.
Listen to audio of Dr Tamas Pataki’s lecture: [size: 28.7 MB Dur: 31.22]
As far as we can tell, consciousness – the ability to reflect on our existence in this world, in this cosmos, and the ability even to reflect on that reflection – has evolved in human beings to a very high degree compared to other animals (yes, I do believe in evolution). To my mind, this is one of the defining traits, if not the defining characteristic of being human.
And we express and explore consciousness, mainly using its primary tool, language, in many modes: rationally and logically, through mathematics and science; and symbolically, metaphorically, through the arts, music, literature, and, dare I say it, religion. All these pursuits seemed to emerge with consciousness, and are a product of it.
Of course, in practice, these activities cannot be so neatly diced and cubed. As well as cold rational logic, scientists bring to their enquiries such faculties as emotion and intuition. And religion requires rationality and logic. But I would argue religion is primarily an artistic and symbolic activity, grasped through ritual, story, meditation, rather than one that can be fully appreciated through rational examination and argument.
Another characteristic of being human is the wide diversity and variation amongst our species, and this extends to consciousness. We each seem to have affinity for, or favour some modes of consciousness over others. Through the ages this is reflected in philosophical enquiry.
An early example is the difference between Plato and his pupil, Aristotle. Both were interested in universals, but started at opposite ends in their quest to understand them. Plato began with universal abstract ideas, and argued that the everyday visible world we experience with our senses is but a pale reflection of the real world of ideas, and it is only knowledge of these ‘forms’, or ideas that is real knowledge. Platonism is conducive to expressing religious ideas, and was attractive to the early Christians. John’s Gospel in particular uses similar concepts to express key ideas about Jesus (eg that Jesus was the pre-existing logos, or word).
Aristotle’s basic approach was the opposite: he argued that the way to understanding universals was through examining particulars in the visible world. So he developed methods of close observation and logical categorising that is one of the bases of the modern scientific approach.
Closer to our own era a similar difference can be seen between two seventeenth century French philosophers, Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal. Descartes is perhaps the philosopher of the Enlightenment, and came up with the aphorism summarising the Age of Reason, expressed in Latin: ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This emphasised the thinking rational self.
Pascal, who, along with Descartes, was also an eminent scientist and mathematician, opposed this over-emphasis on reason, summarised by his famous aphorism: ‘le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, ‘the heart has its reasons which reason hardly knows’.
Following in this vein, some scientists in modern times have praised a more intuitive approach. While Albert Einstein was emphatic that he did not believe in a conventional God or religion, he wrote the following extraordinary words:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger…is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of the devoutly religious men.
So, to experience the truth and power of one mode of consciousness does not necessarily make other modes wrong. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his celebrated essay, The Crack-Up, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ The challenge for the blinkered atheist and religionist alike is to become ‘a first-rate intelligence.’
Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer, reviewer, and video producer, and has a Master’s degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.