Monday, June 29, 2015

The Religion of Science

"With this metaphysical confidence—I wouldn’t want to call it faith—in rationality comes an implicit hierarchy of logical rigor. First comes mathematics, then theoretical physics as the shining achievement of empirical applications of mathematical rigor, then the other “hard” sciences, like applied physics, chemistry, and perhaps, biology. Straggling far behind are the dubious ambiguities of the social sciences and the humanities.

"Atheists, as devotees of rationalism, point to the reason and empiricism of science as the foundation of their catechism. A compelling positive formulation of atheism, therefore, more than simply the denial of theism, is the affirmation of science and the promise it holds to lay bare all the mysteries of the universe. Michael Shermer defines the “scientific worldview” as the one “that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.” If atheism inherits its moral compass from humanism, it gets its sanctimony from a scientific worldview, or to be more precise, from scientism.

"Here’s the rub. Science doesn’t exist. Which is to say, science as a unity doesn’t exist. Scientific activity is a plurality that the word science neatly obscures as a unity. There is no scientific method, per se, only a hodgepodge of scientific methods. Scientists interact with the world in a proscribed, yet flexible way to arrive at relatively stable conclusions about cause and effect. Yet even with those razor-sharp minds, scientists are people too. Like the rest of us, they struggle to bring to bear on their work clumsy bodies and messy relationships.

"Here’s another one of science’s dirty little secrets: its purpose is to predict the effects of causes, but it works best when its methods of inquiry are used on relatively simple, isolated systems. That’s, in part, why theoretical physics enjoys such a privileged position in the scientistic pantheon. Take Newtonian mechanics—so elegant, so pure, so mind-bogglingly predictive. We’ve used its insights to put a man on the moon. However, as any physicist will tell you, even Newtonian mechanics becomes a nonlinear farrago with no predictive power when it tries to accommodate more than two or three massive bodies interacting via the single force of gravity.

"The sad truth of scientism is that the more complex a system under scrutiny, or the less isolated that system, the less predictive scientific methods become. In these frequently occurring scenarios, scientists must abandon the steely comforts of causation. They’re reduced to quibbling over the strength or weakness of correlations between ever more ornate abstractions and their real-world consequences."- Sean Miller, What's So Funny About Atheism

Some interesting arguments in an article that overall brings to bear many flippant generalizations about atheists, who are a broad and disparate group. The main thrust seems to pertain mainly to nu-atheism of the Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins sort.  I've even found myself clinging to this kind of limp rationale that "I believe in science" rather than faith, but he does make a good point that science is rarely an exact science and that faith still maintains the foundation position of any scientific belief system.  I'm not going out and testing theses myself. I'm putting faith into pedagogy with the implicit understanding that the experts know what they are talking about.  Likewise, I'm sure churchgoing folk things ministers, pastors, popes, dead relatives know what they're talking about, even if they're haunted by recurring evidence of god's non-existence.

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