Thursday, September 01, 2005

Science and God

OK, let's get one thing straight: Eminence in science does not automatically qualify one as an expert in religion. Yet such is the prestige of science in our culture that the opinions of scientists are regarded as having a unique credence. What Harry Emerson Fosdick said decades ago still holds, "We have come to the point that the greatest compliment that can be paid to God is that some scientist believes in him!" The opposite is true as well. If a scientist says science undermines belief in God, that is thought to be especially devastating to religion. Nonsense.

The fact is that science as science has nothing to say, absolutely nothing, about God one way or the other, and a scientist as scientist has no more authority on the subject than bar tenders, taxi drivers slightly intoxicated prostitutes. pimps, or Tom DeLay -- all of whom have on occasion. regarded themselves as experts. In fact, most everyone thinks he/she can speak with authority about religion.

When scientists deny the reality of God, they are offering a philosophical overbelief that cannot be tested empirically and yields no scientifically testable hypotheses. It is not a scientific statement. Frequently what underlies scientific atheism is an assumption that can be called scientism. It goes like this: What cannot be known by science is not only unknowable but is not real. This proposition is then fatuously offered as a necessary implication of science in ignorance of the fact that the scientist in question has left science and is speaking as a philosopher. That is fine, but let us not be fooled into believing that this sleight of hand gives scientific credibility to the underlying scientism.

One hears from some scientists that religion is the source of fanaticism, violence, war, persecution, and a host of other evils. Some think we would be better off if we were enlightened enough by science to get rid of it altogether. A few seem reluctant to admit that religion had any role in social progress, e. g., in combating slavery, the oppression of women, and promoting civil rights. No one outdoes me in pointing to the dark side of religion. But what the critics neglect is the ambiguity attached to religion as to all human endeavors. Religion inspires good and evil, compassion and violence. These scientists could look equally to politics and point out the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, e. g., and conclude that we should abolish government.

And what about science? It was not Baptist preachers who gave us nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. J. Robert Oppenhemier, one of the creators of the first atomic bomb, said if nuclear weapons were to be added to arsenal of usable weapons, "then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima." Again, "the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose." He confessed that he had "blood on his hands." Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi, themselves notable scientists, wrote that the bomb could not be justified on any ethical ground and added, " It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light." Why not abolish science?

Current research in the life sciences sometimes gets into areas that are morally problematic. Yet, as Robert Pollack observes, ". . . for more than three decades, there have been no reports of any scientist, in any field, precipitating a voluntary moratorium on any line of active basic research in order to establish a regulated system of approval for further work." Robert Pollack, "A Place for Religion in Science"?
Cross Currents (Summer 2005)

What we need is an examination of the scope and limits of scientific knowledge. The resolution of this issue requires philosophical reasoning in which scientists may engage, but let us not be seduced into believing that science as science can resolve it, although it may contribute valuable, even essential, data. Let us note that scientists and philosophers hold a variety of views on the nature, scope, and limits of scientific knowledge. There are realists, idealists, positivists, pragmatists, and so on. Yet they can work side by side in the laboratory doing scientific research that is entirely unaffected by the conflicting philosophies they hold on extra-scientific matters. Likewise, atheists and theists can cooperate in scientific projects without any conflict whatsoever.

If there are realities that scientific method cannot as such discern, then we need other modes of thought to complete our understanding of things. Let us take some easy examples. Science as such cannot give us direct knowledge of pain, consciousness, or purpose. Yet most of us believe they are real. Science cannot observe pain. Scientists can observe the physiological correlates of pain and note the behavior of organisms experiencing pain, but they cannot detect the pain itself. Why do you think doctors ask you for a subjective evaluation of your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? They do not ask you what you think your blood pressure is or what the sodium levels in your blood or your HCT are. They measure them quantitatively with their instruments. Likewise, consciousness cannot be observed by scientific procedures, although the physical processes that underly and are associated with consciousness can. Science studies the brain not the mind. Science cannot observe purpose in organisms. They can only observe behavior that they can infer seems to imply internal purposes. Noting this, psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed simply to devise rules of behavior without any necessary reference to mind, consciousness, purpose, or mental processes. That does not mean that what he excluded is unreal but only that science has limits in what it can directly know. Science discerns only those aspects of reality that are open to inspection by its methods.

Alfred North Whitehead figured all this out long ago with a knowledge of science and philosophy that few in our time or any time have had. I quote from his Modes of Thought: "Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience."

I would just note that what Whitehead means is that science can only deal with that half of the evidence that is provided by observing things from the outside as objects. The half it neglects is the internal experience of organisms as subjects who have purposes of their own that cannot be observed as such from the outside. Some organisms are conscious, and sometimes they feel pain or joy or sadness or love, all of which are as real as the entities entertained in scientific inquiry.

What we need is a philosophy that puts all this together in a coherent manner and that is consistent with all the evidence provided by our sense experience of objects and our internal experience as feeling, thinking, purposing subjects. This philosophy, I believe, has to include a reference to God. Science as science and scientists as scientists can neither confirm or refute the reality of God, although valuable data is provided by scientific inquiry that in our time must be included in a total philosophy that is theoretically cogent and existentially adequate.

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