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In Reply to The Myth of Science

March 20, 2010

I think the question Justin poses in his post The Myth of Science is an important one:

How can we get people to recognise the authority of science over the authority of religion.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the characterisation of science that Justin puts forward. To start things off, I think it’d be useful for me to clarify exactly what I’m talking about when I use the word science.

Science isn’t a body of knowledge or a black box that gives us answers to whatever we ask of it. Science is a tool, or a process, that we use to ask and hopefully answer questions about the physical world. It is the process by which we make observations, form hypotheses to explain these observations and then, in repeatable and verifiable ways try to test these hypotheses, along the way refining, strengthening or, if necessary, rejecting them. It is not an infallible system; I know Carl can share some stories of when the peer review system breaks down badly. But the important aspect of science is recognising this infallibility and continuing to ask questions of what we know.

There is in a sense a requirement for faith of a kind. When I say “Science tells us that the world is approximately 4 billion years old”, I am of course relying on “faith” in the scientific method, but I know that, with some training in the relevant fields, I could reproduce any one of the multiple lines of evidence that lead us inexorably towards this conclusion. I could in principle verify this claim. It is not religious faith in the “belief in the absence of evidence” sense of the word. Science has in some cases reached conclusions that no rational person could argue against for long. The age of the world, evolution, climate change.

This brings me to the point in his post where Justin likens the phrase “Science tells us that…” to “The Bible tells us that…”. I’m not sure from his wording if he’s saying that both are appeals to authority as a logical fallacy, so I’ll just clarify that I don’t think they are.

An appeal to authority can be a logical fallacy, but it need not be. Flicking through my informal logic textbook reveals a whole section discussing this. It’s important when analysing an appeal to authority to ask a few questions.

  • Are we appealing to a relevant, competent authority or just to one that is prestigious, popular and sounds good?
  • Are we interpreting what the authority has to say correctly?
  • In principle, can we verify what the authority is say as fact?
  • If two authorities were to disagree over the statement we are appealing to, is there a mechanism for deciding between them (or should we claim uncertainty)?

I think it’s pretty clear that one of the bible and science fulfils these and the other doesn’t, as long as we don’t ask questions of science that aren’t relevant to it. Justin gives some of the problems with converting people from religion to science.

What stories would we have to tell them? How do we turn dry science into spirituality? How do we destroy ignorance and violence in a secular world? How will a New Inquisition make the world a better place? How do we make people happy in our brave new world?

This asks too much of science. Science can be glorious, it can fascinate and tell stories that take us to places we can barely imagine. But it can’t provide everything Justin asks for. That is why we have art, literature, philosophy, music, sport and coffee. Science is the tool with which we ask and attempt to answer questions about the physical world, the spiritual and moral domains do not belong to it.

Now, to my main issue with Justin’s post. The phrase

…but let’s face it: Science is an organised religion.

I’m not sure where this came from, and I don’t see an argument to justify it. I couldn’t disagree more. The scientific method doesn’t require a belief in a supernatural being. It doesn’t require unquestioning, blind faith in the words of a holy book. It doesn’t place any emphasis on holy days, places or objects. It doesn’t allow me to communicate with a supernatural deity through prayer. It doesn’t let me claim sure and certain knowledge of anything. This last point in particular is one that has been annoying Carl and I; how can we give convincing arguments for science if we always have to leave an element of uncertainty, no matter how small? Is inculcation in the ideals of asking questions of our knowledge a bad thing? Is it indoctrination to tell people that belief in the lack of evidence is bad? I don’t think so.

How do we go about getting people to think that science should take precedence over religion? There needs to be an emphasis on questioning what we’re told. Don’t take someone’s word for it, look at the arguments for and against, make an informed decision. This doesn’t just apply to questions of the physical world and science. I’ve been told that without accepting Jesus as my saviour I can’t improve myself morally. The person telling me this had never questioned this statement and couldn’t justify it or defend it, or tell me why it might be true other than via a true appeal to authority. It’s important that the limits of science are clearly spelt out. We’re not trying to explain everything, and a theory that does explain everything explains nothing (to quote Karl Popper again).

Now, I’m sure this is preaching to the converted, but why do we need to do this? So that people can say things like this:

When I became convinced that the universe is natural—that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world—not even in infinite space.

I was free—free to think, to express my thoughts—free to live to my own ideal—free to use all my faculties, all my senses—free to spread imagination’s wings—free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope—free to judge and determine for myself—free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past—free from popes and priests—free from all the “called” and “set apart”—free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies—free from the fear of eternal pain—free from the winged monsters of the night—free from devils, ghosts, and gods.

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought—no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings—no chains for my limbs—no lashes for my back—no fires for my flesh—no master’s frown or threat—no following another’s steps—no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain—for the freedom of labor and thought—to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs—to those whose flesh was scarred and torn—to those by fire consumed—to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)

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