More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.

8 Comments

  1. 18 September 2007 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Nicely put.

    I think you’re right about this. The problem seems to be that we’re usually a lot more willing to be ambiguous in our language when the ambiguity supports our own position.

    PZ doesn’t actually say that the conclusion is scientific, he only says “we” draw it from a scientific worldview, not clarifying whether “we” means “scientists drawing a scientific conclusion” or “scientists drawing a reasonable, but non-scientific, conclusion”.

    I’m sure his defense would be that he never claimed it could be scientifically proved, only that it was the obvious conclusion, given the worldview science has provided. But the quote above doesn’t quite give that impression, and I think you’re right that this kind of thing undermines the reputation of science.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Harry
    19 September 2007 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Glad you liked it :)

  3. 20 September 2007 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you, Harry, though I’d quibble with one point.

    I think you have a point about the rejection of the “god hypothesis”, if neutrally considered by scientists, but I’m not convinced by it. The one difficulty I have with it is that religion doesn’t present the idea of a god or gods as a hypothesis. Rather, most religions discuss the idea of the world-beyond using figurative, not literal, language, which to me renders the available data scientifically questionable. It would be like trying to “prove” the “hypothesis” of the sword in the stone or of Beowulf and Grendel based upon the literature received about them.

    Because I’m a theist and a student of literature, this doesn’t bother me; I happen to believe that there’s a reason for figurative language, and that its function is to describe what lies beyond the concrete, factual universe, whether that beyond is imagination (and who’s to say that isn’t “real”?) or the supernatural (which may not be). I don’t know whether I’m saying that the “beyond” is unmeasurable. I don’t think we have yet got the tools to measure what isn’t physically observable, though we are growing closer, with quantum physics and the cognitive studies. And I don’t know that “god hypotheses” is in fact scientifically testable, as the languages that describe the physical world are factual, concrete, measurable, while those that describe the world of the “gods” are hyperbolic, figurative, and metaphorical.

  4. 20 September 2007 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Edit: I don’t know that “god hypotheses” are in fact scientifically testable

  5. Harry
    20 September 2007 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Certainly any religion that doesn’t make testable claims can’t be tested.

    Lots of religions do make claims about Godly interventions in the actual physical world, though, whether it’s faith healing or the power of prayer or weeping statues.

    And many believers do believe in the literal truth of varying amounts of scripture; Genesis has fallen out of fashion since the evidence against started mounting up, but things like the Resurrection and the feeding of the five thousand are still part of mainstream doctrine, I think? Anyone who says those actually happened is making a claim that is in principle testable. In practice we can’t prove whether or not they happened, but one can weigh up the evidence and consider how plausible it is.

    BTW, I think the more irritable atheists (among whom I would only sometimes count myself) might find the ‘God as metaphor’ approach even more frustrating than the literal versions. Because, you know, 300 years ago nearly all Christians believed in the literal truth of the Bible and were what we would now call Young Earth Creationists. In the face of the evidence theologians retreated from the testable claims, leaving more or less of their beliefs intact. For people like me, the idea that you can shrink your claims about religion right down to the point where you can call it metaphor or literature, and still call yourself a believer, and not go that little step further, is difficult to comprehend.

    But the world would be boring if we were all the same ;)

  6. 21 September 2007 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Two points.

    One, I don’t believe in God as metaphor. That wasn’t the intent of my post. What I referred to was the metaphorical language of religious texts, which is language that science is not equipped to examine. Scientific thought and argument is a rhetoric that thrives on literalism. Religious thought and argument is couched, and always has been, in mystery, poetry, transformation of experience into words.

    Two, I don’t accept that “300 years ago nearly all Christians believed in the literal truth of the Bible”, which is a kind of nonsense that is easy to spout but hard to sustain because the literal interpretation of that written document depends upon, well, literacy, which is something that began to spread the middle industrial age. What people believed in 300+ years ago were stories, not a book that sat still and offered itself up for scientific scrutiny. Stories are told to explain things that appear difficult or complex. People who are accustomed to stories and storytelling don’t regard tales as scientific data, but as guideposts towards understanding. I suspect that the current obsession with “scripture” as data — an obsession shared, apparently, by believers and sceptics alike — is in fact an anomaly, a blip on the face of the history of faith. Scripture is, above all, literature, art, an interpretation of reality, and not reality itself, and I suspect that most religious people, like most artists, understand this. That many don’t, and that those many are the most vocal of us, is a shame, but it’s not the standard by which I judge religion.

    Where you and I differ, of course, is that I regard it as an interpretation of reality; you regard it as fiction. That’s fair enough. The distinction is as it should be; art and literature are supposed to be interpreted differently. It’s this reason, among others, that makes it difficult for science to test, just as science finds it difficult to test (on the one hand) love, or (on the other) psychic experiences, or the existence of parallel worlds, or encounters with ghosts. The medium that expresses all of these is language, and symbolic or metaphorical language at that. Science’s response is to conclude that the people who say they have experienced most of these are liars. I’m not so sure.

  7. Harry
    22 September 2007 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Starting with your last point first; this is surely unfair:

    Science’s response is to conclude that the people who say they have experienced most of these are liars.

    Science’s response is to suggest that these people’s interpretation of their experiences are mistaken. Or at least I can’t speak for all of science, but that’s what I would say. The people concerned might find it just as irritating as being told that they’re liars, but saying that billions of people are wrong about something is different from saying they’re all lying.

    I agree it’s true and important that scripture is not data. The Bible is not an encyclopaedia or a copy of the Lancet. The primary relationship between text and believer is not, and should not be, of evidence and analyst. It would be a peculiar and dysfunctional religion where that was the case.

    And I agree that treating religious texts ‘scientifically’ is an anomaly, historically; not least because science is itself an anomaly. That is, scientific culture as we understand it today is still fairly new. Nonetheless, I think that for most of the past two thousand years, most Christians have believed it to be be ‘true’ that Christ died and came back to life three days later. That is, that it actually happened, and if you had been there you would have seen it. I can’t see that that claim is somehow different from the kind of things that science normally concerns itself with.

    No doubt it varied somewhat from person to person, from place to place and from sect to sect which Bible stories were believed in that way, from people who believed the whole kit and kaboodle was ‘true’, from the Garden of Eden at one end to the beast with seven heads and ten horns at the other, to people who only believed the New Testament, to those who believed the bare minimum—that Christ was the son of God who died and rose again. I suspect that there have been a lot of people (including thoughtful, educated, sophisticated, intelligent people) who believed that the whole lot was ‘true’, and that the proportion of the Bible believed in that way and the proportion of people who believed it that way has shrunk under the direct impact of increasing scientific knowledge (and historical, archaeological, textual knowledge). I’m not going to make any strong claims that way because I accept it’s not a subject I know well enough.

    But surely religion has to make some kind of specific truth claim, or what’s the point? I’m happy to make any amount of allowances for figurative language, symbolism, storytelling and whatever, but buried in the middle of it there must be some kind of proposition which is true or false in the same way it’s true or false that Tirana is the capital of Estonia, or what has all the fuss been about? Why the thousands of years of believers fighting wars and torturing each other over disputed points of doctrine?

  8. Harry
    22 September 2007 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    And, to complete that thought, whatever truth claims religions *do* make are fair game for science, although many of them are of course untestable in practice.

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