More of the same: ‘science vs religion’ as a byproduct of ‘science vs critical thinking’
The discussion around Carroll’s post rages on (and I would like to stop for a second and reflect on the mediatic power of a blog like Cosmic Variance, where one controversial post becomes able to ignite thousand others…mine included of course), and on the Underverse blog I’ve found two of the most sensible contributions to it, which also resound nicely with some of the points made by me in my previous post.
The author observes how scientists tend to often make unqualified claims about religion, suddenly oblivious of the very rigour they seem to always apply in scientific matters. The author mentions Scott Atran as an example of informed approach to religion, and I agree with the example. In fact, whoever is interested in this whole discussion should read Atran’s comments on Edge, published after a conference in 2006 called Beyond Belief (a delicious video taster to be found here), where he absolutely annihilates the weak, uninformed, and hatred-fueled ‘arguments’ of that dangerous man named Sam Harris.
In a second post, underverse quotes Carroll from a comment to Mooney’s blogpost:
Debating about definitions is tiresome. The relevant point is: belief in the supernatural in all its forms, from life after death to the necessity of God to understand the origin of the universe or the special nature of the human soul, is incompatible with what science has taught us about the world.
Yes, defining one’s terms is tiresome. Scientific experiment is tiresome; thankless, in fact! It’s much easier to assert things one believes to be true without substantiation, like Aristotle did when he reported that women have fewer teeth than men, or that one can cure insomnia in elephants by rubbing their shoulders with olive oil (actually, maybe that one is true).
I think that this confession from Carroll is extremely telling indeed. Linguistic speculation is boring and tiresome: let’s talk about what’s so evident to everyone that needs no qualification! This kind of attitude (If i may, so typical of a certain intellectual school of American pragmatism, not that Carroll is aware of that) is precisely what makes this whole debate amazingly sterile (i wonder: do the atheists really think that ‘religion’ will disappear thanks to their books and blogposts?). More importantly, it once again underlies a worrying lack: Carroll is only an example here, an example of a product of a scientific training that keeps out of classrooms any kind of critical reflection about their own discipline. This is the problem of the ‘two cultures’ if you like, a point that I’ve previously made, the observation that for the average scientist philosophers, sociologists, historians and so on are a curious bunch of unproductive people, strangely uninterested in scientific ‘truth’.
This mindset is of course the product of a certain training (in turn produced by a set of historical circumstance which created today’s University curricula), one that produces–in the vast majority of cases–scientists which completely rely on the power of the scientific method. But, and this is crucial, to defend the scientific method saying that it fosters doubt and forces you to revise your position constantly is not the same as putting under scrutiny the scientific method itself, in its historical, intellectual and philosophical context. And here I am slightly parting ways from underverse’s point, where he observes that it is necessary to employ scientific method even in the ‘science vs religion’ debate. It is also the reason why I have some uncertainties around Atran’s own definition of religion, as any other.
In any case, I have already observed how many scientists involved in the debate seem to be self-proclaimed experts of what ‘religion’ is. What I would like to add to that is: how many of them are versed in the historical debate around their own discipline? If the ‘science wars‘ and the hay-days of the strong programme (see David Bloor) are now in the past, the debate about contextual, ideological and political influxes on science is very well alive (one example of a relatively recent must-read on the topic here. See also a forthcoming conference). What most people seem to miss is that the ‘science and religion’ field/debate/conflict is one of the best places where these influxes are to be observed.
In this discussion credibility, morality, the value of humanity and authority are all at stake, on both sides. I am too cynical to believe that anyone is selflessly fighting for the glory of ‘Science’. Call it God, call it Peer Review, it is all human-made authority.
EDIT: For an interesting blogpost around the alleged distance of science from metaphysics see here.