PLEASE NOTE:


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CCNet ESSAY, 28 November 2002
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NEW CONVERGENCE SPLITS ON OLD DISTINCTIONS: WISHFUL THINKING SINKING
              
By Jon Richfield <richfield@telkomsa.net>

NEW CONVERGENCE splits on old distinctions;
Wishful thinking sinking

 

Straw men and dropped names *

Science and Religion or Science as Religion? *

What is Religion then? *

So how is Science not Religion? *

Science, evidence, and near-proof *

Answerable, if it were only askable? *

Why dogma as the diagnostic criterion? *

Simplistic solecisms *

Beyond science and religion: philosophy *

Lost in the bran tub *

Intelligence and "Intelligent design" *

Gadarene plaint *

 

 

Straw men and dropped names

 

Without materially engaging a single scientific position, Gregg Easterbrook patronisingly dismisses the validity of science (that he does not understand) free from "spiritual" elements (that he never defines) on the basis of assertions that have nothing to do with science, which in turn he gets muddled up with religion -- the very thing that he conflates with spirituality and philosophy, which in turn he opposes to science. In fact he is so masterfully incoherent that it is difficult to summarise his view well enough to dismiss it.

For substance, which is tedious to collect and demanding to structure, he substitutes name dropping, a far more convenient and tractable option. Living or dead, if a Big Name said something, or presumably said something, or Easterbrook thinks he implied something, then that constitutes unanswerability. Weinberg, Darwin, Collins, Dressler, Sagan, Lemaître, Hoyle, Wilson, Gould and several other mutually uncomfortable bedfellows, he parades as solemnly as if their every speculative remark within or beyond their fields, constituted concrete evidence.

Monod for example, pronounced that science has refuted religion. Well, Monod may have been a biochemist to command our attention, but that does not make him a philosopher whose pronouncements we necessarily take as meaningful, let alone (you should excuse the word!) gospel. The National Academy of Sciences, apparently in opposition, declared: "Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought". Case closed, says Easterbrook. Really? What case? In whose favour? Nothing in Easterbrook's essay even says what this means, let alone why it matters. Until we can identify a sufficient and necessary distinction between religion and science, or even how religion and science may meaningfully be defined as entities, this is all wasted reading time.

Easterbrook invokes Townes and de Duve for no more apparent reason than their Nobel prizes. He presents as cogently scientific, the pronouncements that the discoveries of physics "seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law" and that "there is no sense in which atheism is enforced or established by science."

As for Sandage understanding the big bang only as a miracle, perhaps his understanding is right -- or perhaps not. Perhaps he meant it literally and seriously -- or perhaps not. Not having read the original in context, I cannot guess. Either way, before I take the statement seriously, even (gasp!) from Sandage, I need to know what he means by a miracle and how to distinguish the miraculous from the merely unexplained and surprising, and in either case why Easterbrook thinks this is worth quoting as supporting his view, whatever he thinks that may be.

Treating myself to a favourite quote of my own, Goethe said: "Mysteries are not necessarily miracles." How many pulverised "miracles" litter the path of research from say, the seventeenth century on? How many others must we take on faith as the Truth, simply because they will never be materially refuted in science? Examples of such irrefutable miracles include that a fairy dies every time a child says he does not believe in fairies, or that Zeus in the form of a golden shower seduced Danae. (Hmmm… That one might carry conviction in some sense or other…)

And horror of horrors! Some biologist, presumably speaking for biologists in general, establishes Easterbrook's position beyond context or challenge: he "insists" that "a lot of scientists really don't know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings." Insists, mind you, insists! Can't you hear him? "They don't, they don't, they really, really don't, I insist they don't know what they are missing…!"

Really conclusive that is! It is, it is, it is!

Proof by assertion, it seems, never is more assertive than when it must compensate for meaninglessness. Because "a lot of scientists really don't know what they are missing", we presumably must assume that they are producing non-spiritual, and correspondingly bad, or at least insipid, science. Presumably a lot of them also don't know what they are missing by not getting wired on crack or acid; whether Easterbrook thinks from personal experience or published spiritual research, that this matters, he does not say, but it would be equally meaningful.

Mind you, "…conferences that bring together theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions…" so you can tell it is all science. Easterbrook also finds Wilson, Gould and Sagan endorsing "reconciliation between science and religion". You can hardly get more scientific than that, let alone more spiritual than that, can you now?

What in all that is sacredly scientific or scientifically sacred, gives Easterbrook the impression that all that means anything?

Science and Religion or Science as Religion?

Let us ask whether there are criteria for distinguishing science from religion, if only because I grow hoarse harping on the meaninglessness of Mr Easterbrook's quotes. It is no good dropping my name as warranty of infallibility, because my Nobel prize seems to have been delayed in the mail, so rather than demanding immediate acceptance, I positively invite correction or improvement. What follows is neither faith nor proselytisation, but opinion; inquiry rather than persuasion, so don't be shy!

In this context science and religion resemble each other in that both primarily involve the convincing of others of the persuasiveness of bodies of ideas -- bodies of theory, if you like. Nothing forbids a hermit to worship without preaching, or a scientist such as Cavendish to work without publishing, but for the purposes of this discussion, we may ignore religious or scientific introversion as irrelevant, however devout or profound. At the least such practitioners work to convince themselves of the validity of their own ideas.

Arguments in either science or religion may or may not involve material evidence and the search for new insights. Each has groups of adherents and within each group the adherents disagree violently among themselves. As a rule of thumb the more passionate the adherent, rather than more logical, the more passionate the dispute. Where science and religion tend to differ from each other in practical ways, is largely in how they establish opinions and how they defend them or extend them. Science in particular demands the construction of arguments with which, if he pleases, a sceptic may convince himself, using his own methods and data, rather than having to accept assertions unquestioned. Even if all he achieves is the conviction that he has as yet no conclusive counter-argument, that is progress up to a point.

But those are all details rather than fundamentals. What we need are diagnostic criteria according to which we can distinguish between science and religion -- a need unrecognised by Easterbrook. We must be able to say something like: "X is (is not) science (or religion) insofar as it meets (or fails to meet) criterion Y."

Are such criteria possible? It may seem like a forlorn hope; even Easterbrook, in spite of contrasting science and religion, invokes the cliché that science is merely an instance of a religion. Is there merit to the suggestion?

The cliché certainly is not to be refuted on the grounds of the infallibility of science, nor Easterbrook's fantasy of " science-has-all-the-answers" -- indeed, he seems to think that religion has all the answers that science lacks. This is ironic, because one of the cardinal strengths of religion is that it does not need answers, particularly not logically cogent answers. It does very nicely, thank you, on answers imposed ex cathedra (or from whatever the local godhead might be) or on comforting non-answers. Religious answers do not as a rule need to stand up to logical or even factual criticism.

Science is based on the opinion of the scientist. Its reliance on observation and cogent theory does not alter this fact; the scientist has nothing but his own opinion to justify his certainty of the reality or accuracy of his observations and theories; he has no more ultimate justification for these views than any religious zealot. In fact I suspect that scientific research in one form or another has produced wrong answers and trivialities about as frequently as answers that survive the tests of future generations and that get adopted as useful principles and data, or as scientific "laws". It survives and progresses by its heuristic nature, not the infallibility of its practitioners.

Also, though progress that flies in the face of entrenched perceptions in science is seldom resisted as dramatically as popular writers like to portray, resistance is not especially rare. Scientific "proof" is based on "induction", which unlike formal induction, is not logically compelling, not logical proof at all.

Even the so-called analytic sciences, logic, mathematics and the like, are founded on belief -- and belief in the formal proof of anything may be an error. Errors occur in the formal disciplines as well as in laboratory or field research. The merest logical or arithmetic slip can turn what should have been formal proof into a delusion, often a delusion of great vitality and longevity.

What is Religion then?

If we are to deny that science is a religion, then according to what criteria are we to show that science is something distinct from religion?

To work that out, let's first see what religion is; is it science, or at least no better than science? We have a difficulty. Science may not be homogeneous, but it is positively monolithic in comparison to religion. At least scientists usually understand each other's curses! (May your appropriation be delocalised between the Dean's office and the bank! May your prize protégé mistake a smudge on his lens for his definitive observation and may he be caught falsifying his results to defend his error, after you have added your name to his list of co-authors! May Rifkin and Duesberg unite in praising your work in the popular press!)

What is it that unites say, Nama/Kung Mantis veneration, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judeo-Christian-Muslim beliefs, Marxism, Norse, Classical, aboriginal American and Australian religions? Far from being no more than mutually contradictory, many of them are effectively mutually incomprehensible. In fact the closest approach to unanimity among religions, be they never so in favour of ecclesiastical rapprochement, is that each necessarily asserts or implies that the others are in error. (This view is violently unpopular nowadays, being politically incorrect, but it is inescapable. If the others were not wrong, they would not be different beliefs. The claim that they are the same beliefs expressed in different ways, holds no water, and would not fundamentally affect this point if it did. As Bierce put it: "Nothing is more logical than persecution. Religious tolerance is a kind of infidelity.")

What a miscellaneous lot! Might as well jack it in, surely?

Except:

All religions do have at least one thing in common apart from mutual dissimilarity: dogma. Here the sense of the term "dogma" is not specifically pejorative; it does not refer to closed-minded assertion as such. It is the technical term for that part of a body of belief that is given as non-negotiable. If you like, it is the statement of that part of a religion that adherents unconditionally believe in. Some religions wisely forbid that their dogma be so much as questioned or even discussed; others do permit some questioning, as long as such questioning unthreateningly leaves the dogma intact, on pain of charges of heresy. Sometimes even being too helpful in suggesting rational support has been dangerous; to suggest that support might be necessary is in itself heretical!

Lately, secular restlessness has led to an increase in the flexibility of interpretation of the semantics of dogma, but that is a detail of circumstance, not a refutation of the principle of founding a religion on a body of prescribed belief.

Historically most dogma has been formulated arbitrarily or ad hoc and accordingly is rife with absurdity, fossil topicality and wishful thinking. It therefore is a frequent rationalisation in religions, to represent faith, that is to say, belief without logical or factual justification, as a positive virtue. In such faith the worshipper deliberately renounces his reason in embracing the desired absurdity or even meaninglessness.

Dogma may take stronger or weaker forms:

Strong forms say: This creed is what you believe, no matter what any fancied reason or evidence might show to the contrary (The less secure the religion, the stronger the dogma, and the more probably it will add codicils to the effect that your questioning is evil, and prescribe in its compassion, a therapeutic grilling at stake or stoning, plus eternal damnation for the good of your soul.)

Weaker forms of dogmatism used to be much rarer than they are nowadays, simply because they were unnecessary in the old days. Their modern popularity has arisen largely from the increasing need for previously impregnable theocracies to incorporate sufficient flexibility to weather the prevailing climate of rationalism. Fortunately for them, driven as it is by the reigning standards of rationality, that climate is tempered to the shorn apologist, but it still has required some feverish darning of embarrassing rents in the dogmatic raiment. In previous generations no one would have dared to remark on these because some very humourless theocrats kept some very humorous functionaries to explain that asking embarrassing questions was a Wrong Thing.

Nowadays many major countries refuse to grant religions the power of large-scale violent compulsion and persecution. Furthermore, the greater prevalence of more or less functional literacy and communication, and the incoherent hordes of the fourth estate, ranging from scholarly to rabble rousing, are so uncontrollable that a great deal more weaselling is in order to pacify the flock. In a civilised theocracy they could have been brought to heel by the merest growl of the sheepdog, or sending the bell wethers to market for the entertainment and instruction of the faithful, but all good things come to an end.

The weaker forms of dogmatism will typically say (more or less): Such and such an absurd detail of our tradition is patently mythical. It either is included to test our faith or is a parable that remains true in spirit, when subjected to appropriate hermeneutics. A more sophisticated form is: This non-Occamist view is presumably unfalsifiable. It is the substance in which you must believe, but if you find really compelling evidence against it, very well, we shall adjust our view accordingly. (An example is the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, far more respectable than say, the grudging papal back-peddling in the face of centuries of cumulative hints that perhaps Galileo had a point.)

If a body of belief has nothing corresponding to dogma in any such form it is hard to know how to call it a religion, except that some religions, or at least schisms, are too incoherent to define any clear body of dogma; they amount to politics or con games, but their members do insist that great truths underlie their belief and that rivals are mistaken or evil. The more pernicious examples include a few of the grosser evangelical scams and movements like the People's Temple or Scientology. Others are blander, tailing off into tea parties for the rich and inept.

Religions typically are not abstract but have specific imperatives, such as worship. They may be good, evil, or incoherent, but that is not what defines them as religions; intrinsically Satanism and dogmatic atheism are as much classes of religion as Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Hindu-etc. (Agnosticism may be a religion, or may not, depending on the details.)

The dogmas defining any religion have little to do with the private beliefs of individual members (heresies) or their private deviant behaviours (sins) or their sociology and politics. Actually, in most religions only a minority of the members have the slightest grasp of the dogma that they theoretically espouse. (In fairness, only a minority of practising scientists could coherently discuss philosophy of science. How much this actually matters in either case, is debatable.)

So how is Science not Religion?

So much for religion. And science? Science differs from religion in that it intrinsically has no conceptual scope for ideological dogma. Science is essentially a range of processes for finding and using information for constructing, urging, or selecting the strongest candidate hypotheses for settling any reasonably meaningful question. No appeal to dogma has any cogency in science. It is not that scientists loathe or love dogma, that it is evil or stupid, but that it has no meaningful role. Even in scientific controversy, appeal to authority often may be tempting (Also sprach Einstein…) but it constitutes no more than an argument of convenience, a substitute for time-consuming exploration of probably unrewarding avenues. As a polemical bludgeon it is stuffed with feathers and intimidates only the fledgling disputant.

In religion, to differ with the revelations of the charismatic and the authority of the ancients is a sin of pride. The punishment could range from grilling by your spiritual counsellor to grilling at stake.

In science the sin of pride (and futility) is to demand that others do not differ with your pronouncements and wisdom. The matching sin of humility is to forebear to differ when your insights suggest a flaw in the received wisdom of authority. The punishment in either case is likely to include painful levels of cognitive dissonance.

In particular, although hardly anyone routinely devotes all his time and resources to systematically opposing received wisdom and established opinion, there is no prescribed penalty for doing so. No anti-dogma police descend unexpected, and drag heretics off to the COMFY CHAIR. Anyone at any time may ask in effect: "How does the establishment position make more sense than alternatives proposed in the light of new findings or new arguments, or for that matter, old work that has gone unnoticed?" Granted, withholding of tenure, honour and lucre are sometimes represented as being almost as effective, almost as barbarous even, as religious persecution, but actual religious martyrs faced with physical, brutal torment and death, might be unimpressed. Even Galileo and Urban VIII would probably have snorted dismissively.

Conversely, the newness of a proposal is no more an argument for establishment supporters to adopt it, than the fact that it is accepted wisdom is a reason for pioneers to refrain from criticising it. Cold fusion and quantum theory, jumping genes and polywater, introns and N-rays, each encountered resistance in its turn. From the point of view of science their respective rejection or acclaim had nothing to do with newness. The point of view of individual scientists might be another matter, but had little significance in the long run. It is true that it may take time for people to get used to an idea, mentally to integrate its attractions, its incogencies and its potential, but that is a reasonable consequence of the difficulties of dealing with imperfect information on unfamiliar material, not a merit or demerit of an idea being new as such.

Political persecutions such as of Vavilov by Lysenko have nothing to do with science. Whether to class them as religious is moot. This discussion is not much concerned with discriminating between politics and religion.

Science (as incarnate in the body of scientists and scientific record) does not deny spiritual planes or intelligence in the universe; it largely ignores them until someone can show which phenomena to observe, in order to obtain material upon which one could found hypotheses in terms of relevant conceptual structures. If you like, you could say that until we have some idea of how to talk about what we think we are talking about, we are not talking science.

This has no more to do with Kuhnian paradigms and scientific sociology, than the sins, heresies and sociology of the faithful have to do with a religion's fundamental dogma or philosophy. Classes of techniques and procedures have been developed for choosing between rival hypotheses in science, but again, these do not define science any more than prayer in general defines religion, they are just the currently established tools.

Science, evidence, and near-proof

Roughly speaking there are two classes of science: formal and empiric (or analytic and synthetic).

Formal activities are those based on defined axioms and operations. Examples are mathematics, logic and, in some of its forms at least, philosophy. Formal assertions can only be criticised meaningfully in terms of their consistency with their own axioms and operations, which in turn can only be criticised in terms of internal consistency (or paraconsistency), completeness, parsimony, elegance, relevance and the like.

In contrast, empirical science deals with the world we seem to see ourselves in. In empirical science we have no unconditional axioms about that world -- we can do no more than propose theories based on assumptions about our observations and the perceived behaviour of the world. For instance we generally assume that:

- the world operates on principles consistent enough for us to generalise meaningfully

- such information as we can derive about the world from our sensory perceptions forms a practical basis for a mental image, a model that has relevant and practical isomorphisms to some sort of presumed underlying reality that has a meaningful relationship to that which is apparent to us

- the theory of probability may for practical purposes be assumed to be isomorphic with relevant behaviour of the perceived universe. This is the basis of the ubiquitous applicability of statistics as a practical and philosophical tool in science.

The current discussion is mainly about empirical science -- formal disciplines have little to do with belief, since one can construct as many independent axiomatic structures as one likes, to be compatible with practically any coherent belief one likes. These structures would not differ in "correctness" but only in their interest or usefulness and applicability. Whether such formal disciplines are relevant to anything is another matter.

In spite of the popularity of the phrase: "scientific proof", empirical science has little to do with formal proof. Because of their inherent uncertainty, observations cannot formally prove anything, but they do permit us to compare the defensibility of rival hypotheses that imply observable phenomena. Observations that constitute confirming instances of predictions, can be used as a basis for establishing working hypotheses, a weak form of support that can be assessed in terms of statistical theory.

This is all on the assumption that the hypothesis has been suitably expressed for the procedure to be meaningful. The design of experiments is a treacherous field because it is subject to the principle of GIGO. Even modern scientific practice produces a great deal of wasted research work and outright delusion. The fundamental reason that much of such work is wasted is that it is based on misconceptions or misformulations, and yet a fair number of peer-reviewed publications are based on just such research; having missed the hidden conceptual flaw the researcher may perform the rest of the work coherently and competently, and it may be very difficult for a reviewer to spot the flaw, or if he does, to justify his view that the paper is ill-founded. A major source of such disasters is not poor work, so much as experiments based on preconceptions or poorly constructed or inapplicable questions. Even flawless work on meaningless questions produces meaningless answers, and preconceptions often mask or rationalise that meaninglessness.

Whether the experiments have been well designed or not, if the observations are too poorly consistent with the predictions, we discard the hypothesis, modify it, or try again with a totally new hypothesis. We NEVER prove it. We NEVER forbid anyone to doubt our work or re-test the hypothesis or propose alternatives or extensions. We NEVER demand that anyone accept a hypothesis. We ONLY refuse, when anyone proposes an alternative, to accept such an alternative before we in turn have convinced ourselves of its merits.

It does not matter whether this is necessarily because "we" as "scientists" are so virtuous, so liberal minded, that we would never dream of imposing our diffident opinions; if we did try to impose them it would have little effect. That is how the process works. It depends on conviction. Conviction by compulsion certainly has worked very frequently and widely in history and in contemporary education, religion and politics, but as conviction goes, it is transient. Future generations, a century or a professional lifetime or sometimes even a year on, will hold it to scorn.

It does not follow that because a hypothesis is untestable by any observation accessible to me, it is not investigable and falsifiable by some other subset of the scientific community, perhaps even by just a single member. Members of such a subset may be perfectly scientific in their work. Nothing in the nature of science guarantees that every proposition that is meaningful in terms of falsifiability to one worker, must be equally meaningful to every other. There might be differences in skills, in equipment, in resources, in chance observations. How is one to react to a scientific claim that one is not in a position to test personally? Is every such claim meaningless by definition to everyone but the observer in person?

Not necessarily. It depends on our personal world view and intellectual taste, how high a level of confidence we demand before we are willing accept a given assertion as a working hypothesis. The principles of science neither demand that we believe, nor that we disbelieve. The world is too large for everyone to investigate all of it personally in detail. In discriminating between rival hypotheses, we need not consider only formal falsifiability by personal experiment; it is reasonable and in practice it also is necessary, to give appropriate weight to weaker evidence, such as:

- a claim's consistency with our experience and opinions

- the word of other observers

- the opinions of persons whose skills we respect

- its consistency with coherent and logical bodies of theory

- other criteria than direct evidence, such as parsimony and explanatory richness.

None of these is proof either, but they are useful in practice and historically have been of enormous power and value.

Weak or indirect evidence still is evidence -- evidence is everything that has weight in rationally influencing one's choice of particular hypotheses as being the most persuasive. Strong evidence carries the most weight; weaker evidence carries correspondingly less. There is no general cogent basis for assessing the weight to assign to any item of evidence; its strength keeps changing according to context, and in any case one's appraisal of context and weight necessarily are largely arbitrary. Except in religion there is theoretically no such thing as absolute evidence, only a range of cogency that extends from an interesting speculation at one extreme, to repeated, independent, precise, practical observation, predictable, quantitative, and explicable, at the other.

Answerable, if it were only askable?

There is another problem with the concept of formal proof in empirical science. One never can show formally that one has listed all possible meaningful hypotheses about something that is observable in principle. It is not so much as possible to prove that the correct hypothesis (the "god's-eye-view", or some simplification or representation thereof) either is the one that your observations support best, or even that it is one of the alternatives that have been considered. One cannot even be sure in principle that one's conception of the phenomenon is framed in terms that can meaningfully be related to the "god's-eye-view". Someone at the level of technological sophistication of the typical hunter-gatherer, who for instance had no conception of electricity or magnetism, would have great difficulty formulating a meaningful theory about how a battery operated fan works. We in turn have no idea at present, how many levels of sophistication we stand below the TOE of the god's-eye-view.

It is a well-established and repeated observation in the practice of science, that the greatest scientist is not necessarily the one who finds the best answers, but very likely may be the one who frames the best questions.

Framing relevant questions in meaningful terms is in fact a major problem in the design of meaningful experiments. If one asks whether that fan works because it has trapped the spirit of a dragonfly or alternatively because it has trapped the spirit of a hummingbird, statistical analysis of our experimental results might well yield high significance, but an engineer who designs fans might have a hard time explaining why in spite of significance at a level better than p = .00001 this does not constitute strict proof that the fan works because it has in fact captured the spirit of a hummingbird.

In our case, say in our conception of modern cosmology, we do not know whether we are any nearer understanding the universe in terms more meaningful than the hunter-gatherers' conception of the principle of the operation of the fan. Would the Olympians with their god's-eye-view laugh at the idea of the multiverse? Of superstrings? Of the Big Bang? Of red-shift? We don't know. But we can go on asking, doubting, thinking, measuring, synthesising, and falsifying.

Humble activities, no doubt, but, possibly counter-intuitively to some, they have yielded proud results time after time.

Note again that these principles we observe in today's science are not dogma. They are based on views that have developed through the centuries and have taken coherent form in particular during the twentieth century. Whether formal or empirical, they are at all times subject to review and dissent. Any improvement to the underlying view may be disconcerting, but is always welcome once it has outlived the old and the young fogies. The problem is to persuade the community (or let it persuade itself) that some particular view is preferable (for now, in some particular context). It is no part of science to prove it formally, or force anyone to believe it by moral or physical pressures.

This no more suggests that any particular person who does work in scientific fields is dogma free or religion free, than that any religious person must be without sin, heresy or doctrinal error. Many a professor of a field of scientific study does in effect accept something as dogma and forces it on his students, and most of his students will swallow it as dogma, often without even token inquiry. Many of the top scorers will object bitterly if asked to accept views as conditional; they want matters of hard fact that they can master for the examinations. Some of them will never outgrow such childhood diseases.

So? The dogma is the creation of the professor, not a component of the field of science. That makes no difference to the demands placed on the professor's rivals or associates. The proposition it asserts might be robust or it might be transparent delusion. All that the scientific community requires is that the work that a dogmatist presents is subject to the same scrutiny as that of anyone else. If the dogmatist takes that as a personal affront, as many do, then so be it.

In science the word "scientist" as applied to a person, is of far less importance than the word "scientific" as applied to his behaviour. Furthermore, non-scientific work performed by someone under total misapprehension as to its meaning often has produced material of value. One could argue that, until perhaps two centuries ago, that was rather the rule than the exception. What the scientists of two centuries in the future will say of science in our time, we can only guess, or if we prefer, wait and see.

Why dogma as the diagnostic criterion?

Science necessarily and sufficiently can be distinguished from religion by the absence of dogma. This is sufficient as a basis for saying whether something that must be classified as either religion or science, is one or the other. It is not to say that there is some mystical justification by which our spiritual eye can see that if something is based on dogma, it is religion, otherwise it is science. Rather, our distinction is a basic operation in the formal discipline of systematics:

- identify the (super)set you are dealing with

- find by inspection of some subset of elements, one or more attributes that are not attributes of the rest of the elements of its superset

- by definition you have established two subsets whose membership can be diagnosed, using those attributes as criteria.

How useful these diagnostic criteria are, is another matter. It depends on such things as:

- how practical the diagnosis is (can one rely on identifying elements and telling which elements have which attributes?) and

- how relevant it is (Is it evidence, i.e. is it calculated to affect anyone's opinion?)

Given n objective, mutually independent attributes of elements in a set, there could be up to 2 to the power n ways of partitioning it into subsets. We simply choose the one that is most useful in context. If anyone can demonstrate a more coherent and relevant (i.e. more useful) partitioning, we are free to reconsider.

In our current exercise of separation of the sheep from the scientists, the diagnosis is pretty comfortable and the distinction that emerges is in fact the point at issue, so, yes, I think we quite easily can justify the choice of dogma as a practical criterion.

Note that this does not deny that there are other ways of splitting the set. It does not even imply that we have inspected the set of belief structures comprehensively. We have performed a notional exercise and it seems to meet the needs of our discussion. It also seems sufficiently persuasive that if anyone rejects the view that our superset is indeed usefully to be partitioned in that way, we can invite them to produce counter-examples that destroy the thesis or at the least demand adjustments.

Scientific behaviour can be distinguished from non-scientific behaviour primarily by the attitude to falsification or some functionally similar principle. Science can indeed be applied to the study of religion, personal experience, emotional views and the like, to the extent that the statements of such can be expressed in falsifiable terms. The only secure faiths are those that avoid falsifiable statements.

I feel almost guilty, pointing out all this in the light of Easterbrook's patent ignorance of what dogma is: "the dogmas embraced by science tend to be more flexible than those held by theologians. If empirical evidence of God were to appear, science probably would accept it eventually, if grudgingly; while religion, if presented with an empirical disproof of God, might simply refuse to listen." Granting that he should have said "scientists" rather than "science", Easterbrook inadvertently has precisely illustrated in a couple of sentences, the difference between bodies of belief based on dogma and those not bound by dogma. With it, he has exemplified the difference between science and religion. He even gave a vivid instance of how non-dogma works in science. A proper tour de force!

Simplistic solecisms

Once we recognise dogma as the criterion for distinguishing religion from science, the meaninglessness of most of Easterbrook's statements stand out in stark relief. For instance: "…in science, the pure materialistic view that reigned through the 20th century, holding that everything has a natural explanation, couldn't keep other viewpoints at bay forever. The age-old notion that there is more to existence than meets the eye suddenly looks like fresh thinking again."

What specifically empirical scientific view regards a "natural" explanation as anything but material? How would you frame a meaningful empirical question in any other terms? What is an "unnatural" explanation then? What are the those "other viewpoints" if they are not material? Does Easterbrook equate "materialistic" views of explanations with "material" views, and if not, what makes "natural" views "materialistic"? What does it matter whether thinking is "fresh" or not? Science is not concerned with freshness, only robustness. The proposition stands or it falls. If it cannot be challenged it neither stands nor falls, but fades into meaninglessness, be it never so fresh or mummified. It is not the freshness of a new idea that invalidates an old one, but its greater resistance to falsification and its greater explanatory power. Easterbrook's own attitude to freshness is revealing: he denigrates the multiverse concept, though it is decidedly fresh thinking; very adventurous indeed. Too adventurously fresh for Easterbrook, it seems.

"…decades of inconclusive inquiry have left the science-has-all-the-answers script in tatters." What script was that? No scientific script, to be sure! Personally I tend to accept more questions as meaningful than many professionals would; e.g. for over a century many scientists and philosophers have been dismissing all suggestions that science could deal with questions concerning say, emotional matters. I in contrast, think there is a lot of scope for work along those lines. But even I can think of many questions, in fact many classes of questions, that science, as a process of investigation, cannot answer even in principle. For the most part these are questions that we cannot frame in suitable (meaningful) terms, or where we demand unattainable precision, or on which all relevant information has fallen prey to entropy, or is inaccessible from our position in the universe.

In this context it also might be worth remembering our earlier discussion of questions that for practical purposes might be answered conclusively by one researcher for his own purposes, but be at best available at second hand for others. This is no novelty in either the philosophy or practice of science, but it makes a mockery of Easterbrook's "script".

Such identification of questions outside the ambit of scientific investigation makes nonsense of the idea that there ever was such a "science-has-all-the-answers script". The scientific community has long denied that it ever could have all the answers, or even that the concept of "all the answers" is meaningful.

And what is all this about "the two Really Big Questions: why life exists and how the universe began"?

- The question of "why life exists" is not even defined. Until you define it sufficiently for preliminary discussion, at least loosely, you cannot examine it meaningfully, let alone scientifically.

- "…both Really Big Answers were assumed to involve strictly deterministic forces". Were they? Not where I grew up, even as a schoolboy, they weren't! And anyway, why should they be? Determinism has suffered considerable reduction in its applicability during the last century.

- "…the more scientists have learned, the more mysterious the Really Big Questions have become." Well, they would, wouldn't they? The longer you play with meaningless questions, the woollier the reasoning and the more vacuous the answers become.

- What is more, in real science, dealing with real questions, it is a commonplace that each new answer presents many new questions. Why didn't Easterbrook concentrate on THAT one if he is on the lookout for thrilling mysteries in science?

- "Perhaps someday researchers will find wholly natural explanations for life and the cosmos. For the moment, though, discoveries about these two subjects are inspiring awe and wonder…" That is just what natural explanations do inspire; it is the wimps like Shelley who drink to "confusion to Newton, who took the colour out of the rainbow" because they failed to see the new colours that science opened our eyes to. Any self-styled scientists who "are reaching out to spiritual thinkers to help them comprehend what they're learning" had better ask themselves seriously from what they think they are running and to what.

- For that matter, what sort of awe and wonder would non-natural explanations inspire? Are we reduced to Just-so Stories? To the creation of Ouranos and Gaia or Ginnunga-gap? Is this what we are supposed find inspiring of more awe and wonder than natural explanations? A curious point of view, to put it kindly!

 

 

Beyond science and religion: philosophy

 

Disciplines such as ethics and semiotics are examples of applied philosophy. (I have partisan views on how to discriminate between applied and formal disciplines, but that is material for another discussion.) People who demand that "science" should display ethics, thereby display their own ineptness in associating attributes with entities. Scientists and bodies controlling the role of scientific activity in society can have ethics, but those are different kinds of entities and therefore different kinds of matters. Their basis for establishing ethical standards is necessarily philosophical by definition. The basis of the ethical standards does not necessarily have anything to do with religion as such, because it does not necessarily have anything to do with dogma as such.

Does that mean that the establishment of ethical standards is science, because it involves no dogma?

Not at all. Firstly, it may or may not involve dogma. Our criterion for telling science from religion does not promise that every mental activity must be either religious or scientific, only that any candidate for one classification or the other should be separated or even split on the criterion of its dependence on dogma. Mental activities could be say, philosophical, irrational or hedonistic instead, without any necessary connection to belief or opinion. And in dealing with ethics, the concept we encounter is that of philosophy. Thinking about thinking, as some put it. Getting that wrong is a dangerous error.

In particular, it is hard to imagine more dangerous rubbish than: "…as the era of biotechnology dawns, scientists realize they're stepping into territory best navigated with the aid of philosophers and theologians." First of all, this theme that runs through Easterbrook's essay, of separating science and philosophy and conflating religion, spirituality, and philosophy, is nonsense. Obviously he knows neither what philosophy is, nor what it is good for. It has no fundamental connection with spirituality or religion. For millennia theocrats have tried to dictate the Truths and Rights of philosophy as well as of science and have succeeded mainly in imposing dictatorial abuses and logical garbage for their successors to rationalise. They have cut no better figure in dictating sense than in dictating science.

For millennia too, theologians have failed dismally to "navigate the territory" of everyday biology, never mind biotechnology. The hysterical and incoherent flounderings of those who are mystically obsessed by the evil of biotechnology would be pathetic if they were not so pernicious. In spite of what Easterbrook says, this "greatest era of science-religion fusion since the Enlightenment last attempted to reconcile the two, three centuries ago" has reconciled the two only insofar as the religious are willing to retreat to the gaps and to re-assess their ethical principles in the light of increasingly intrusive realities. Science remained unaffected; there has been no need of adjustments apart from the demands posed by its growth in scale and sophistication with maturity.

Lost in the bran tub

All this is painfully explicable in terms of what science is and what religion is, which is what moved me to identify the divide. Easterbrook's profound revelations that the universe is big and that we have not yet seen its edge, froth ineffectually against the uncompromising principle in science, that we must establish intellectual defensibility before we can achieve meaningfulness in science. Maybe the universe has some sort of boundary in some sense, and maybe not. Certainly we have not seen any yet on this side of the red shift horizon.

Does that prove that the boundary is non-material? Spiritual? Metaphysical? Non-existent? A matter for religion rather than science?

It is less than sixty years ago that radio astronomy first let us look outside our own little galaxy to any extent! It was not religion that allowed us that first peep into what had hitherto been metaphysical. Religion had made no progress in the matter in the last fifteen thousand years or so; had even opposed progress.

And yet Easterbrook recommends that science harnesses the spiritual powers of religion in solving that mystery! What confused vision of his "science-religion fusion" is he conjuring up for himself? Prayer for a vision beyond the veil, once radio telescopes fail? Hymnal hypotheses? And what religion would work the miracle? They all disagree, as I already have pointed out, so only one should be right. Christian Science or Scientology have promising names, but their research record is spotty. Will Easterbrook be establishing a new Church of the Laboratory Communion?

Suppose for example this large, partly observable, universe of ours did explode from a point, then what makes it more likely that at some time in the future religion will tell us how or why, than that science will? Nothing in the definition of science promises that it will tell us, but what in the history of religion has ever told us anything at all about the material world? If it did tell us, what could we do with the answer? Scientific and philosophical answers are the basis for more questions and answers; can apologists claim the same for religious answers?

Note that this is not as such a criticism of religion; religions do not generally undertake to subsume the role of science, and accordingly it would be pointless to criticise them on the grounds that they fail to yield scientific answers to scientific questions; answers to questions that they usually never could have imagined and accordingly could not have undertaken to answer. It is however a criticism of such as Easterbrook, who confuse the two roles and try to force the two fields into functions alien and irrelevant to their respective natures.

Anyway, does Easterbrook, as he " harnesses the spiritual powers" find any explanation how that primordial "point" of the Big Bang could have no dimensions? Or does he mean it has dimensions of magnitude zero? I suppose he thinks that an event horizon has zero thickness? And in any case, how does he suggest that religion should resolve such questions? In the same way that swigging enough rye would do -- by stopping anyone from caring?

Digging shoulder-deep into his bran-tub of the ineffable, Easterbrook reminds us that "Nobody knows beyond foggy conjecture what caused the big bang, what (if anything) was present before that event, or how there could have been a prior condition in which nothing existed." Leaving out a few prickly points about meaningful questions, such as those concerning the nature of generalised cause, existence or precedence, I still don't see how we could expect to get meaningful answers by fiddling with our rosaries. But don't let me pin religion down to a few faiths that use rosaries. If Easterbrook proposes that instead we shall get the answers from shamanism or Shinto, I shall listen for as long as my patience lasts.

That is the scientific way, even for a non-scientist.

"…cosmologists tended to assert that the cause and prior condition were unknowable." If so, they were pretty confident cosmologists! There are certainly hypotheses according to which no information could pass by known channels into our universe from beyond the space where we began, but this did not prove that there neither were options for alternative theories, nor other channels, nor deductive reasoning by which we could deduce some constraints on whatever preceded our universe, however incomplete and uncertain. By this time I trust that Easterbrook would begin to understand the reserve with which I regard his flat assertions. Maybe if he co-opted a sangoma or a cardinal I would find their assurances as to what the pre-primordial non-universe looked like, more convincing?

"…no matter how you slice it, calling on unknown physical laws sounds awfully like appealing to the supernatural." No doubt it does to Easterbrook, but to a scientist it merely sounds like something that must survive query if it is to be taken seriously in the long run. Easterbrook's assertions don't strike me as particularly robust in such respects either.

And of course, we have that weary chestnut about the cosmic coincidences… They certainly are interesting, and we don't yet know where research into the matter will take us, but here are some questions for Easterbrook to resolve by "exploring his spiritual feelings":

- Why should we think that just because it is an interesting observation or an outright puzzle now, we will never be able to derive and establish a meaningful answer in the future? (The whole subject is only decades old, if one excludes meaningless pre-scientific arguments for divine providence.)

- Why should the whirling of a dervish, the Omming of a Brahman, the chanting of a cantor or the prayer of a Christian, be likelier to solve the problem than the meditations, the maths and measurements of the scientists, who after all were the first ones to discover the riddles and did so without benefit of religious counsel?

- Given the observation that we live in a universe that accommodates the anthropic principle, how is that sufficient to demand purpose in the universe as a logical necessity? That strikes me as a far, far more ambitious logical leap than its most naive alternatives! It makes faith in the tooth fairy look positively pedestrian in comparison.

Easterbrook in turn reckons that the multiverse idea rests on assumptions that would be laughed out of town if they came from a religious text. Having looked at a few religious texts in my time, I am of the opinion that he sadly belittles the power of religious faith. The devout routinely believe whatever their faith demands, irrespective of comprehension or manifestation However, if he thinks that the multiverse idea is science, in the sense of being comfortably established, testable theory, I don't know where he got that from. The idea of the multiverse is a stimulating line of thought that, suitably followed, might lead to something valuable. It is brainstorming, not assertion. Nothing in science promises that early speculations are guaranteed sound. That is in sharp contrast to most religions, where anyone arguing with the founding ideas is likely to encounter traumatic ecclesiastical friction.

"As a scientific concept, extra dimensions are ambiguous at best; none beyond the familiar four have ever been observed, and it's far from clear that a higher number is possible." Isn't that one a beauty? Go back just one century and speak of observing "our familiar four dimensions" and see how quickly you wind up in the booby hatch! And yet Easterbrook who has the nerve to speak of suspension of disbelief, parades his four dimensional dogma with blasé casualness and gross incomprehension of the implications of supernumerary dimensions in physics, while deriding the idea of more universes, that same Easterbrook who couldn't even draw an unambiguous four-dimensional dog! (Spare me a tesseractic terrier, especially bearing in mind that a tesseract is not a four dimensional cube!)

Intelligence and "Intelligent design"

As for Easterbrook's views on "Intelligent design", biogenesis and evolution, have mercy! At least for as long as he stuck to physics, philosophy, and cosmology our shared ignorance constrained me to my usual modestly tentative responses. However, in combination his blank ignorance of biology and information theory are just too obscene to bear. One can hardly believe such claptrap: "The theory is spiritual, but it's not bound by Scripture, as creationism is. A designer is a nondenominational, ecumenical possibility, not a dogmatic formula," he says!

For some reason obscure to me, evolution, a simple concept, but fraught with intellectual traps and demanding a considerable knowledge of detail if one is not to make a comprehensive fool of oneself, seems to be an irresistible tar baby for idiots who think that hand waving is a substitute for substance, and camouflage for cant and that accordingly just anyone can talk persuasively on the subject. This delusion equips them only for addressing the fundamentalist fringe and the pretentious lecture circuit. Trying to impose their presentation on biologists is no kindness to either their audience or their image. It is a classic example of a field where tyros make bigger fools of themselves by speaking up than shutting up.

Gadarene plaint

What annoys me most about Easterbrook's essay is that I have no one but myself to blame that I permitted myself to be irritated into rushing in and plunging into wasting time on it. At least when I argued with panspermists, the points were intelligible, the themes were tremendous and the implications were important. This time the points were immaterial, the erudition sophomoric and the implications limited to political correctness. Reading the essay, the likeliest prospect for significance is that some fundamentalist barrel scraper will be citing Easterbrook in support of creation science.

Jon Richfield 2002



CCCMENU CCC for 2002

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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.