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Scientism or skepticism? November 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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There have been quite a few comments in recent months—in articles, debates, etc—proposing the evils of scientism.  Religion and science, say many thinkers, are compatible and to see otherwise is to see science’s reach as going beyond its fingers.  John Haught, for example, defines scientism this way:

Sicentism may be defined as “the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth.”  Scientism, it must be emphasized, is by no means the same thing as science.  For while science is a modest, reliable, and fruitful method of learning some important things about the universe, scientism is the assumption that science is the only appropriate way to arrive at the totality of truth.  Scientism is a philosophical belief (strictly speaking an “epistemological” one) that enshrines science as the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.

(Science and Religion: from conflict to conversation, page 16)

John Haught

Now, John Haught is considered, by many, to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the relationship between science and religion.  And while I don’t deny that he has a lot to say about both science and religion, much of it valuable, I agree with Jerry Coyne (as well as Eric MacDonald) that his fundamental views about the intersection of science and religion is problematic if not down-right absurd.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).  The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical.  People like Haught have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.

But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things.  Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, we are right to be skeptical.

And that’s precisely it, isn’t it?  It isn’t about science per se, but skepticism.  The critics of us scientistic people think that we are claiming that we can design laboratory experiments in order to find answers for all questions, even their magic ones.  They think that when we say that science can answer questions about morality (for example), that we mean that people in lab coats can sit around with complicated bunson-burner experiments to determine what types of things to value, what meaning is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is a rather silly caricature, isn’t it?

Truth and the scientific method

If we are concerned with what is true, then we need to find tools which can help us find clues as well as shift through them to determine which of those clues can help.  But further, we need to find the best tool-set to use, how to use them, and how to know when they are not working.  Over the millennia human culture has developed a complicated history to how we determine the truth.  From the early days of philosophy and rationalism through the enlightenment which brought us more powerful tools of empirical research, we have developed what we now refer to as the scientific method.

It is through this method that we have the best information about what is likely to be true.  No other methodology is close to competing in terms of practical success or theoretical power.  This perpetually leaves me asking people who are critical of the scientific method what they could even try to put up against it.  There is no competition.  Cake or death, or something….

But despite this success of the scientific method, many people (especially postmodern philosophers and theologians) try and argue that neither empiricism and/or logic can tell us what is true.  That is, we have to assume some axioms, we must assume some things, to get anywhere with any of these methods.

Well, of course we do.  The question is whether A) other methodologies would have to accept the same axioms (such as non-contradiction, existence, and reliability of sensory perception) and B) whether this actually damages the method itself.  All important questions, but also beyond the scope of this post.  Instead, I want to take another related path here.

Do you value truth? Does it matter to you to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible?

As a preliminary, I must address the issue of whether I should have to justify why we should desire truth.  Having to justify the desire for truth when considering what methodology to use in determining truth is akin to justifying hunger when considering nutritional value in deciding what meal to eat.  If you aren’t ever hungry, there is no point in making such a decision.  If you don’t value truth, there is no point in the consideration of methodologies.

Is it not a value of yours to know true things? If so, then just stop reading.  Just go somewhere else, play some video games, and have a few drinks because nothing you say, do, or think is relevant any more concerning anything I have said here.  If you don’t care about what is true, or if what you prefer to be true is more important than verification, then there is simply no talking with you about epistemology, methodology, etc because you don’t care enough so it does not matter.

If you do care, then it should be your value, as a direct logical descendant of that prior value of truth-having, to utilize the best methodology for determining if things are true.  To accept any other method would be absurd, because it is not as good at determining if something is reasonable to accept as true.

And the best methodology for determining truth is, well, science right?  Well, partially.  The best methodology is actually…

Skepticism

That is, after all, the central theme of this blog.  “The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic,” right?  The first two terms in that title are qualifiers of the last; they tell you what kind of skeptic I am.  But further, I believe that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (and possibly polyamory; a topic for another day), but that is beside the point that I am a skeptic first, which should imply that if the evidence were to point elsewhere I would be otherwise.  Because evidence is what matters.

One of the primary ideas in skepticism is the idea of the null hypothesis.  Now, I realize that in every day practical science this ideal is not a reality, but a s a rule of scientific inquiry in general it is essential as a part of the philosophy of science.  It basically says that you should wait for sufficient evidence before accepting a hypothesis as true.  That is, you withhold belief until enough evidence, or at least rational justification, is given to accept something as having a basis in reality.

Obviously the amount of evidence necessary to accept a claim is proportional to the claim; I don’t expect you to withhold belief in the claim that I ate pizza for dinner tonight; it’s not an extraordinary a claim that is worthy of serious skepticism, and accepting it even if false has little to no consequences generally.  A supernatural being who created and controls aspects of the universe is a different matter, one worthy of skepticism and requiring good support to accept.  As far as I have seen, no good support exists for such a claim.

Skepticism involves many tools and ideals beyond crude empiricism.  Empirical testing, verification through demonstration of material effect, logic, reproducibility, etc.  It is a large tool set which together give us a very powerful detection apparatus for what is true, what exists, and what is not sufficiently verified to rationally accept.

It is this method, that of skeptical inquiry, which the scientistic people are on about.  It is not science per se but the whole set of empirical  and logical tools which I call skepticism.  It is thus my proposition that rather than call us “scientistic,” we should just call ourselves skeptics and have done with it.  Rather than argue against scientism in the science/religion debates, we should be framing the debate as one about skepticism versus non-skepticism.

It is my contention that many fans of NOMA or other angles on the science/religion compatibility side are being non-skeptical, or at least not properly applying skepticism to all aspects of their beliefs, worldviews, or reality.  I think this has been the crux of the issue all-along.

Religion

Against skepticsm, religion has a hell of a time competing.  This is not to say that religion does not use logic, empiricism, or skepticism at all.  It just often subverts them under the wing of revelation, authority, tradition, etc.  Many theologians (including William Lane Craig) have said that if it came down to what science says and what their scripture says, they stick with scripture.

But of course many other religious thinkers, such as John Haught and Francis Collins, believe that the methods of science (and perhaps of skepticism) are compatible with their religion.  But the problem with this is immediate, at least to me; religion is often essentially reliant on certain unquestioned propositions (sometimes referred to as “facts”) such as the crucifixion, the miracles of this or that deity or holy person, or the existence of a deity in the first place.  These questions, when pressed against the methods of skepticism (and not merely science), do not stand.  It has been one of the themes of this and many other “new atheist” blogs to demonstrate this week after week.

But when we open our skeptical tool boxes in the presence of ideas accepted due to tradition, faith, or unsupported personal experience we are told that those tools cannot reach there.  We are told that the substance of those things, the nature of their meaning, or even there very ontological status is beyond material manipulation.

But we, as animals with material nervous systems which make up all that we are, are not exceptions to the universe.  We ar enot privy to some magical bridge to some supernatural world.  This has to be supported first.  Haught and his cohorts on sciency-religious love-fests have to demonstrate that there is anything to their revelatory experiences in the first place.  They have to demonstrate that there is any reason to accept that there really is a separation of nature from supernature before they start making claims that the questions about them need different tools.

Science and religion are incompatible because while they both deal with the real world, the extra stuff that religion is supposed to have exclusive access to are not credible in the first place.  There is no reason to think they are real at all.  Only the best set of truth-testing tools that we have can reliably determine what is likely to be true, and those tools don’t expose the presence of the magic world which religion claims propriety over.

If the science/religion discussion is about who can say what about what is beyond the scope of skeptical analysis, then I vote that we let religion have it.   The result is that theologians get to play in imaginationland and skeptics and scientistics can go on having (as Haught says) “the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.”  What Haught and others don’t seem to get is that the rest simply is not rationally acceptable as real.

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