Thursday, November 24, 2011

Peter Atkins: thank God for philosophy!

"Science uber alles!"
Before traveling to Asia, someone pointed me to a recent debate between John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician, and Peter Atkins, the fire-breathing atheist and chemist at the same university.  During the debate, Dr. Atkins made the following astounding comment, in reference to Anthony Flew's conversion to theism:

"He's a philosopher.  And philosophers don't really understand the nature of the world.  Scientists understand the nature of the world.  Philosophers are pessimists, always putting (limitations on) knowledge . . . Worst of all are theologians, because they add obfuscation . . . Scientists are coming to give the real answers, the evidentially-based answers, the reliable answers." 

Someone described Atkins as "arrogant" and "condescending" in this debate, and I can see that.  What is more astounding to me, though, is the naive and unself-critical character of these comments.  Surely an educated man should know better than to say such silly things. 

Atkins is not the only one.  Adulation of scientists and the scientific method is one of the defining characteristics of the New Atheism, along with scorn for supposedly lesser modes of knowing, like philosophy, history, and of course theology.  The same attitude oozes from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion like carbon compounds from the La Brea tar pits.   

But scientists should, I think, thank God for philosophers.  First, because science grew out of philosophy historically.  Secondly, because science depends on philosophy to think.  And third, because those scientists who seem to most scorn philosophy, still make use of it in their arguments, though often poorly.  If they were to recognize the importance of philosophy, perhaps they would make better use of it. 

(1) Science grew out of philosophy.   Modern science first appeared (depending on whom you ask), either in Ancient Greece about the time of Aristotle, or in Medieval Europe some time between the 13th and 17th Centuries.  In both cases, science grew like a shoot off the trunk of philosophy -- and also theology. 

In The Christian Delusion, skeptic Richard Carrier marks Aristotle as the beginning point of ancient science:

"The truth is that the Greeks and Romans achieved tremendous and continual advances in science and mathematics after Aristotle.  Aristotle's generation marked only the beginning of the history of ancient science -- almost every amazing thing they discovered came after him.  And they discovered a lot." (Christian Delusion, 400, Carrier's emphasis)

Aristotle, of course, was the third great philosopher in a lineage from Socrates to Plato and on. 

Carrier then described a "sample" of scientific work from this time forward, beginning with Aristotle, the philosopher.  His next two examples are successors of Aristotle, lying therefore in the same lineage that began with the philosopher, Socrates. 

"Eureka!"  Archimedes figures
how to use water displacement
to test the gold content in the
king's crown, and expresses
 the spirit of Greek science,
with one fine word.
One might argue that Socrates was too theoretical and focused on society, and Aristotle and like-minded Greeks helped create something more practical by focusing on how things work in nature.  But there seemed to be no sharp divide in the ancient world.  The habit of thinking systematically about the nature of things, seemed to encourage and lead to empirical study of the artifacts of nature. 

Unexpectedly, Carrier also admits that theology was instrumental in the origin of ancient science:

"Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God.  Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons." (Ibid, 407)

Stark, however, was referring to the rise or rebirth of modern science in Europe, beginning in the Middle Ages.  He details the religious affiliation and depth of piety of the key founders of modern science in his book, For the Glory of God.  Most, he finds, were pious Christians, either Protestant or Catholic.

A number of books have told in more detail the story of how Medieval philosophy led to the birth of modern science.  A balanced account I recently read was James Hannam's The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.   Hannam, a British historian of science, shows that the origins of European science cannot be separated from either philosophy or theology.  One can see the connection in a comment by John Buridan, whom Hannam describes as "the most remarkable philosopher of the 14th century (my emphasis):"

"In the celestial motions, there is no opposing resistance.  Therefore, when God, at the creation, moved each sphere of the heavens with just the velocity he wished, he then ceased to move them himself and since then those motions have lasted forever due to the impetus impressed on the spheres."  (Hannam, 180)

Kepler and Newton clearly saw astronomy as a field of theology.  Robert Boyle helped invent Dr. Atkins' own field of chemistry -- when he wasn't sponsoring new translations of the Bible.  So if he were properly grateful, Dr. Atkins might thank theologians for inventing his craft, not simply accuse them of obscuritanism. 

(2) Science depends on philosophy to think. 

Philosophy, according to Funk & Wagnall, is in its first two meanings:

"1. The inquiry into the most comprehensive principles of reality in general, or of some limitted sector of it such as human knowledge or human values." 

2. "The love of wisdom and the search for it." 

The second meaning here explains the etymology of the word: "philo," or "love," of "sophia" or "wisdom." 

Obviously, no good scientist should object to the love of wisdom.  (However much bad scientists, or bad men who do science, may despise it in practice.)

Science is, in the normal manner of speaking, one particular kind of inquiry into the principles of reality, or some limited sector of it.  The same dictionary gives as its first two definitions of "science" the following:

(1) "Any department of knowledge in which the results of investigation have been logically arranged and systemetized in the form of hypothesis and general laws subject to verification." 

This broad definition might include law, history, and theology, as well as some forms of "philosophy."

(2) "Knowledge of facts, phenomena, laws, and proximate causes, gained and verified by exact observation, organized experiment, and ordered thinking."

This more narrow definition is what distinguishes the chemistry of Atkins or the zoology of Dawkins from "philosophy" or "theology" in the academic sense.  But notice that science involves not only "observation" and "experiment," but also "ordered thinking."* 

Ordered thinking is precisely what philosophers attempt to do.  And philosophy is defined, above, as inquiry into principles of reality -- which of course is also the goal of science.  So science can be seen as a compartment of philosophy. 

A more specific compartment of philosophy is epistemology, the art of knowing, and of knowing what we know.  (As the Chinese philosopher Confucius put it.)  Wikipedia rightly describes epistemology as a field of philosophy:

΅Epistemology . . . (from Greek επιστημη (epistēmē), meaning "knowledge, science" λογοσ meaning "study of") is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge." 

Anthony Flew has, for many decades, approached reality as a careful thinker.  In my own on-line debates, I have often found a higher quality to arguments made by academic philosophers than by scientists or other scholars.  Whether atheist or Christian, philosphers are trained to think clearly.  In my experience, this training makes a real difference. 

Atkins complained about philosophers placing limits on what we can know.  In fact, of course, science itself is finding such limits, as Atkins knows.  But the scope of knowledge is indeed a branch of philosophy.  It is also absolutely essential to any careful and respectable science.  Perhaps one of the reasons the New Atheists so often make such foolish and grandoise claims about areas of knowledge of which they are largely ignorant, is because they fail to attend to the limits of their own knowledge.  Perhaps scientific stardom has become a kind of drug for some of them, which having been indulged, predisposes them to such bombastic rants as Dr. Atkins indulges in, above.   

No science is possible without philosophy, since science is a special form of philosophical reasoning.  Sciences like biology and physics are less immediate and certain than some other forms of philosophy, like pure logic and mathematics. They carry the advantage of touching (by faith in our senses) objects in the real world, and the disadvantage of being less sure (because our senses can be deluded).  On the other hand, the physical sciences are more immediate than history, or other disciplines that depend on human testimony (which can also be deluded), like sports-casting, dating, or finding after-Christmas bargains on-line.  But the physical sciences do not tell us everything we need to know, either, which is why "faith" in other people, and ultimately in God, is so important.  Theology is, in part, the art of testing that faith.   

So Atkins is just confused.  C. S. Lewis said, "We need good philosophy, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy exists."  Scientists like Atkins depend on bad philosophy, because they forget that good philosophy exists and is a necessary component of good science.   

(3) Scientists who most scorn philosophy, still make use of it when they argue.

I've often noticed this, especially after my 2007 book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, came out.  There is a scientist who posts on the Amazon forum for that book, who calls himself "Scientific Mind."  Almost all his arguments against religion appear to be philosophical (in an often remarkably amateurish sense), or historical, not scientific.  The same is true of Richard Dawkins.  He might scorn theology, philosophy, even history, yet he frequently makes arguments from those fields to support his points.  In fact, I've never met one of these scientific atheists, who did not step into a phone booth and turn himself into an amateur (and often poor) philosopher, as soon as he began to attack religion.

Imitation is, they say, the sincerest form of flattery.  But I would rather Dr. Atkins take the following saying to heart, even if it is by a mere philosopher: 

"Know thyself."   

Footnote: Writing on Thanksgiving, 2011, I'm thankful today for many things, not least for family, exciting work, the beauties of mountains and forest and sea.  I'm also grateful for the many brilliant philosophers, theologians, and scientists I've been privileged to learn from.  I'm grateful for the wise thinkers -- belonging to these three, and other fields -- who are contributing to our upcoming book, Faith Seeking Understanding.  I'm also thankful for those of you who occasionally read my blog, and comment thoughtfully on the ideas posted here. 

(*There is a broader and older sense in which science is almost a synonym for philosophy -- that which is known, that which we try to know, and how we seek knowledge of it -- "systematic knowledge in general," as Funk & Wagnall put it in their 4th definition.)


Kerry said...

I really enjoyed reading this, I watched the debate between Atkins and Lennox and have another of Atkins and William L. Craig. Hit the nail on the head.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Kerry. Lennox is a favorite of mine; he shows class in that debate, as usual.

Anonymous said...

My favourite bit was Atkins attempt to lecture John Lennox (Professor of Mathematics) on Maths

David B Marshall said...

Anon: I missed that part. Humility in motion.