*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

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I attended a forum at Cornell a few months ago, framed as a dialogue between two scientists, one Christian and the other atheist. To be frank, the entire thing gave me a headache. I was disappointed at both sides, but for quite different reasons.

The Christian plasma physicist Dr. Ian Hutchinson spent much of his time railing against a notion which he described as "scientism", the philosophical belief that the only valid source of knowledge is scientific inquiry. At no point did he name any relevant person or theory that could be accurately categorized as submitting to this fallacy, but he was nevertheless quite passionate in ridiculing it. Following this, he then claimed that there exists no conflict between science and faith, going so far as to admit that he believes the laws of nature can be broken at any time and place.

To my great frustration and disappointment, his atheist partner in this discussion, Nobel laureate Dr. Roald Hoffmann, failed to counter Hutchinson at any of these junctures. What's worse, Hoffmann abandoned a number of key epistomelogical pillars of secular humanism, stating that he felt analyzing and describing human behavior at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters was overly reductionist and threatened to destroy the magic of such experiences as beauty and love. Although I would like to take the time to expound more on reductionism, it is outside the scope of my current focus.

My problem with Hutchinson's argument is quite simple: he created a very plush strawman in scientism and proceeded to whip it mercilessly. If this were just a footnote in his proposal, there would be no qualm here. Unfortunately, Hutchinson places scientism as the primary source of conflict between science and faith.

"There is an intellectual confrontation that could reasonably fit the warfare metaphor. It is not between science and theology, however. It is between scientism, the predominant faith of the twentieth-century academic, and other faiths, including Christianity."

The notion of scientism finds its roots in common stereotypes about intellectuals, academia, and science in particular. It's another version of the Ivory Tower: modern scientists are disconnected with reality and fail to consider the existence of the rest of the world in their arguments and epistemologies. This is by no means a baseless accusation - science is currently doing a piss-poor job of making itself accessible to the public and academia is elitist practically by definition. Then there's the general prevalence of agnosticism and atheism in scientific fields - only 7% of natural scientists in the National Academy of Science identify as holding a belief in a personal God (contrary to what Hutchinson says). It is in this observation that I believe Hutchinson bases his claim that the modern academic can be characterized as subscribing to scientism.

Yet, I would firmly say that no intellectually legitimate scientist believes that only science is capable of discovering real knowledge, just as no intellectually legitimate Christian believes that Christianity has a monopoly on truth. Certainly, individuals of such a variety exist in both camps, but so ignorant a stance can be immediately dismissed as hogwash. A cursory glance at history can provide incontrovertible evidence of individuals across every spectrum of belief that successfully manage to further human knowledge and ingenuity. Our ancestors were not using the scientific method when they figured out how to domesticate animals, nor did whisperings from the gods inspire the discovery of the Golden Ratio.

Science is a methodology, a process, a strategy for engaging in inquiry and producing accurate results and reliable predictions. I do not need the scientific method to determine that I am a 23-year old male because I have a completely different set of tools (e.g. memory, perception, emotion) with which to answer that query. Part of the human challenge is picking the right tool for the job. The scientific method is probably not the right way to determine if you should get married, just like how your emotions are generally not the best tool to decide which stocks to invest in.

For all the time Hutchinson spends attempting to define science, there exists a quite simple distinction that he fails to mention: falsifiability. It is not possible to prove that something does not exist (proof by a negative), which is why science will never be able to demonstate that there are no gods, that miracles cannot or never have occurred, and that angels and demons do not accompany us everywhere we go. It is the nature of these concepts that they are untestable; as such, it is not possible for science (nor anything else) to make any definitive claims concerning them.

The conflict between science and faith that Hutchinson seeks to explain is quite easy to see, in this light. We have a profession whose progress (and very existence!) depends upon working exclusively with concepts that can be falsified; is it any surprise that these individuals would not subscribe to a set of ideas that are categorically unfalsifiable? Hutchinson's comment on this is woefully unsatisfying.

"Why, if there is a God, does he not make himself scientifically provable? Why does God seem to be only rather obliquely discoverable in science? A big part of the answer, I maintain, is that a transcendent God can never be scientifically testable, for otherwise he would not be transcendent."

Hutchinson's (circular) argument rests upon the fact that there exist many features in our daily reality that are not scientifically testable, but are nonetheless quite real. The example he uses is love; indeed, there are no tests to prove or disprove one's love for another. This does not mean you accept it without evidence. If you say you love someone, there is an expectation that your actions will conform to some ideal of loving behavior. Given time and persistence, it becomes so obvious that it would be foolish to deny the existence of that love.

This is, however, not proof. You might describe someone's love as being a fact, but this is an expression of certainty, not truth. Love is not falsifiable, and that is in fact one of its qualities; by nature of being uncertain, love requires the development of trust. Trust is not binary; you might trust your lover more than you trust your boss, but that does not mean you do not trust either person. Instead, trust is probabalistic. How likely is it that they'll be on time? That they're telling the truth? That they'll be faithful to you? The answers to these questions form the basis of certainty.

This is what makes love different from the existence of God. You might not be able to devise a de-facto test for love, but each of us have developed our own tests for accurately determining its presence with some certainty. The same is not possible for God. There are no questions that may be asked or tests that may be performed which bring one any closer to knowing, with any more certainty, anything about God. It is not scientism that creates the divide betwen science and faith, but faith's reliance on unfalsifiable concepts of fundamentally indeterminate probability.

It may very well be the case that God exists and actively intervenes in the real world, but has deigned to make his presence untestable by all of the greatest minds and methods throughout history. This seems, to me, to be vanishingly unlikely. Knowing the tendencies of human beings, with our propensity to cognitive bias, the strength of social reinforcement in maintaining belief, and our general tendency to stick with the ideas with which we were raised, I have yet to find evidence worthy of the kind of trust necessary to overcome such astronomical odds. It is, in the end, trust that has determined my faith (and the lack thereof).
posted by MC Froehlich at
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Habeas corpas?

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