Every age, said Jacques Ellul in his important work Propaganda, creates its own myths, to which propagandists must always appeal, or no one will listen to them. "Democracy" and "Socialism" were among the myths Ellul named, but in his time and ours "Science" is no doubt the most celebrated such myth.
"Aha!" I hear a reader saying. "Marshall is finally showing his true colors! He called science a 'myth!' He's trying to drag it down to the level of faith! This proves he has a low view of science! Under the facade he's just another science-denying faith-addict!"
Thanks for dropping by, John. I'll hear you out, and explain where you -- and most Gnus -- go wrong about science, reason, and faith -- again. (And where you go wrong in "reading" my book, as philosopher Victor Reppert was quick to recognize).
1. Loftus' Wild Accusations, Close-up View
David Marshall opines, “Those who make wild
claims about the scientific method often base their arguments not on good human
evidence, but rumor, wild guesses, and extrapolations that would embarrass a
shaman.” [From The Truth Behind the New Atheism, pp. 28-30] This sentence
of his expresses a such very low view of science and its method that one wonders
if he is Amish. People of faith must denigrate science in at least some areas,
simply because science is the major threat to their faith. That’s the nature of
faith. People of faith must deny science. To maintain their faith believers must
remain ignorant of science. Yes, scientists have made mistakes in the distant
past, but Marshall cannot possibly say this with a straight face about modern
science. Yet he did.
As one can plainly see from this paragraph, John Loftus holds a low view of English grammar. Clearly, if he had feelings for his native language, he would not mangle syntax and meaning so baldly as he does here.
Let's start with those last two sentences. Scientists have "made mistakes" in the distant past? What does that imply, that they have acted infallibly in the recent past? But that's an historical quibble, let's leave that implicit whopper to the side and concentrate on grammar.
The final short sentence claims that I "did" something. Did what? The previous sentence identifies my culpable act as saying something "about modern science with a straight face." What did I say about science with a straight face? Obviously, Loftus is referring here to the quote he led the paragraph with.
And what is the subject of that sentence? "Those who make wild claims about the scientific method."
How did a critique of "those who make wild claims about the scientific method" (my words) evolve, in the space of a single short paragraph, into a critique of "modern science" (what John claims I am disrespecting here)?
Who makes wild claims, according to Marshall? "Science?" Of course not. Science is a discipline, not a sentient being with a voice box and a set of vocal cords, and anyway, I make no reference to it. "All scientists?" But I say nothing about scientists here, either. If John thinks "those who make wild claims about the scientific method" means "all scientists," fair-minded scientists may well take that as an insult on John's part, not mine.
Was I talking about scientists at all? Neither is that clear in this sentence. It may be, grammatically or in reality for all we know, that most people who make wild claims about the scientific method are butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.
The subject of the sentence John quotes is not "modern science," or even "modern scientists." So all the bombastic generalizations in John's paragraph are totally unsupported by the sentence he quotes to illustrate those generalizations. He cites no angry rants against "modern science," no "denial" of science, no "low view of science," whatever that means -- we will return to the question of what a proper view of science should be later -- at all.
So who or what am I denigrating here? What sorts of "wild claims" am I referring to?
2. Loftus' Wild Accusations, Wide-Angle Version
John tells readers to read the whole chapter, which of course I hope they will. But he implies that if they do read that chapter, they'll see how I disrespect science. He just doesn't have time to type it all out, you see. Or apparently, he can't even type out the parts that really do prove his point, wherever they are supposed to be hiding.
Well, here. Let me help him.
The subject of the chapter is the rationality of Christian faith. The chapter is entitled, "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?" The subtopic in which this particular passage appears is called "What is Faith, and Why is it Useful?" What I aim to do in that section, is describe four levels of rational faith -- in the mind, senses, other people, and God -- how they relate to one another, and why each can be useful, but must be tested by reason to be useful. Science, I argue, is one of several ways of knowing things -- epistemologies -- that is valid, though fallible, and that tends to depend on these different kinds of rational faith.
Here are three of the paragraphs in which this sentence was originally imbedded, with the allegedly offending sentence in italics:
Of course there are hoaxes. One can fall for a mirage, trap door, traitor,
or archeologist who plants specimens in the ground at night and 'uncovers' them
during the day. This is why reason is vital. We were given minds, said
Augustine, and heaven forbid we don't use them. And heaven forbid we lean too
heavily on friendly Web sites, he might have added -- as we will see, that's one
thing that gets Dawkins in trouble.
The idea that science is the only vallid way of finding out things is called
positivism. Among those paid to think carefully, this view has fallen out of
favor, partly because it disproves itself. Why believe that only truths
grounded in scientific evidence are worth believing? That idea itself can't be
proven scientifically! Another problem is that one extreme often pushes us to
its opposite, like a swing or pendulum. Those who make wild claims about the
scientific method often base their arguments not on good human evidence (which
they discount), but rumor, wild guesses, and extrapolations that would embarrass
Dawkins tells us that 'atheists do not have faith.' But most atheists in
modern times have been Marxists. If the Marxist-Leninist enterprise didn't
involve canyon-spanning leaps of unwarranted belief, what did? The past two
centuries have seen an unending succession of pseudoscientific cults, of popular
hoaxes and swindles, of wild guesses that have struck the cognosphere like the
24-hour bug: Freud, Kinsey, Mead, Ayn Rand, Haeckel, Galton, Skinner, a quack in
every pot. It seems that the alternative to reasonable faith is not science,
but unreasonable faith.
So not only is "modern science" not the subject of the sentence Loftus quoted, it is not even the main topic of the immediately surrounding sentences, the section it is imbedded in, or the chapter as a whole. In fact my most specific criticism of Richard Dawkins, the scientist I criticize most in this passage, is that he seemed to rely on Google too much when he wrote The God Delusion. (See my previous post, which also implicates Dawkins and Loftus, "Does Google Make Atheists?")
Is googling the definition of the scientific method, now? If not, John shouldn't take this as a criticism of the scientific method.
Of course one might also take this passage as implying a "low view of science," if one is a logical positivist, which I am also criticizing. I point out that philosophers have mostly been forced to abandon strict logical positivism, partly because it is self-contradictory, and partly because it does not describe how we really make discoveries.
The examples I give of people who "make wild claims about the scientific method" are mostly not even scientists -- as Loftus points out, bizarrely thinking this somehow tells against my view of science. But what this shows is that I wasn't mainly thinking of scientists at all. I was thinking of pseudo-scientific quacks, or scientists (largely so-called "social scientists") who become foolishly dogmatic about highly dubious findings, and then attract a large, fanatical following.
I can see, to be fair, why any New Atheist might feel a bit faint upon hearing such criticism.
But does Loftus even deny that most of the people I listed were quacks? Does he deny that they made a big deal of their alleged scientific credentials, or the alleged scientific credentials of their theories, as Ellul's theory predicts?
Is it an insult to real science, to criticize false science? If I am not attracted to transvestites, does that mean I don't care for natural-born women, either? If I spit out tofu steaks in disgust, should cattlemen take that as an insult to their profession? Does it show disrespect for gold, when one chooses not to invest one's retirement account in fool's gold?
I don't see why.
There is, then, no insult against science in this passage, whatsoever.
3. Is Science History?
I responded to John with some amusement, and without what we used to call "a repentant heart." Perhaps I did mean to tweak him in revenge for his silly insults, in the process of making an important point about the nature of science:
Actually, John, I would say that almost all scientific evidence
COMES TO US as historical evidence. Science is, in effect, almost a branch of
history, as it transmits knowable and systematically collected and interpretted
facts to our brains.
This inspired a second outraged, but this time in some ways rather clever, post from John:
What then? Does the fact that you're not a scientist, and therefore have to
trust what scientists say, entail that you don't have to trust science when it
contradicts what you find in an ancient pre-scientific holy book based on the
supposed historical evidence?
John is jumping ahead of me here -- this supposed entailment hadn't even entered my mind. No, I was simply stating what I regard to be a fact about how in practice science allows most of us to acquire knowledge.
Here's what I really meant.
All or almost all scientific knowledge reduces to historical claims about events in the past, patterns derived from those claims, and generalized predictions about the future based on past events. David Hume, I think, understood this well. Water boils at 100 degrees C at normal atmospheric sea level pressure? We know that because thousands of people have conducted the experiment, and found it so. Planets revolve elliptically around suns? Kepler learned that by pouring over charts compiled by Tycho Brahe.
Each piece of data on those charts was an historical record.
Every subsequent observation of heavenly objects has also been a bit of historical data.
Even if you do the experiment yourself, reliance on your journals, or even memory itself, involves trusting human minds historically. I know gravity works, because I have thrown objects into the air, and seen them fall to Earth. I am not doing that right now, and can't even see my home planet (aside from a few walls) from where I am standing. But I trust my memory, and therefore hold to a general concept of gravitation.
Does it follow, as John leaps to the assumption, that every historical or scientific claim must therefore stand on level ground? Not at all. Some scientific claims, like "Gravity is a force that acts to pull objects having mass towards one another proportionally to the inverse square of their distance" are far stronger than some historical claims, like "Alexander the Great was born on July 20th." But on the other hand, some historical claims -- like "George W. Bush was president of the United States" -- are far stronger than many scientific claims -- like "the planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb has an average surface temperature of about -220 C."
Am I dissing, deriding, denigrating, or otherwise dismissing science to deny that it always gives us clearer answers than history, or googling, or even (on occasion) gossip?
Of course not. Science is not a "wonder-working stead," to quote the sarcastic retort of a prison scientist to a communist bureaucrat in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's great First Circle. Science, like history, is an art, sometimes crude, sometimes marvelous, not an idol to worship, but a tool that people of all creeds make good or bad use of.
Is that a "low" view of science? No, I think it is a correct view. A practical, respectful view.
A view of science, or of anything, that is too high, does not compliment the object of its admiration, but distorts and abuses that object. As C. S. Lewis said, if you make a good thing (other than the real God) divine, it becomes a demon.
We wouldn't want that to happen to science -- again -- would we?
4. Loftus finds another argument against Christian faith. But John Loftus is like a Catholic who thinks he sees an image of Mother Mary in a muffin. Wherever he goes, he sees arguments against Christianity. This is no exception:
Historians do not have at their disposal very much
evidence to go on in many instances, especially the farther back in time they
go. A miracle cannot be investigated scientifically since if it happened then
the past is non-repeatable. Science however, progresses in the present with
experiments that can be replicated in any lab anywhere on the planet. The only
reason you want to bring science down to the level of the historian's very
difficult but honorable craft is because you need to believe your faith-history
is on an equal par with scientific results, only you place it above science
because you say science is a branch of history, and not the other way around.
You are therefore an ignorant science denier. You could become informed. You
could visit a lab. You could notice the consensus of scientists on a vast number
of areas. But no, you'd rather stay in your ignorance in order to believe in
talking asses and that a sun stopped and moved backward up the stairs. Science
or faith it is, and you choose faith. I choose science. The divide could never
be more clearer.
Here, one might concede, John is being more clever. What I said about science, I said because I think it is true, and perhaps also to tweek him and his followers with a paradox. that I rather expected them to misconstrue. (After having been accused of hating science, etc, I was in no mood to be too easily understood. If they want to think like fools, let them; maybe it comes of reading too much Gandalf.)
But if science can "almost" be described as a branch of history (I didn't fully equate them), it of course does not follow that history is a branch of science. Nor does it follow that even if science could be fully described as a branch of history, it might not be a special branch, with peculiar characteristics that make it especially useful, in some situations.
Yes, science in principal involves tests that "anyone" can repeat. In practice, however, this is not the case: few of us have access to the Large Hadron Collider, or COBE satellites, or the Burgess Shale. Some of us don't even own petri dishes, or know how to use them if we did. Even the most ground-breaking scientific works -- Origin of Species, for instance -- almost always rely heavily on scientific -- that is, historical -- reports from other researchers, because no one can be everywhere at once, doing all that needs to be done to make great discoveries.
I explained some of this in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. After doing so I sent those chapters to three experienced scientists: a physicist at Oxford University, a biologist at Oregon State, and another biologist at Seattle Pacific. Those scientists offered helpful criticism on particular points, which of course was why I asked them to read the chapters. But none suggested that I had it in for science. Nor have any other scientists who have read the book since then said anything so silly, so far as I know. Most so far seem to have liked the book, as a matter of fact.
5. What does this say about miracles?
John is partly right, in that miracles can, in fact, only be confirmed or disconfirmed historically. And it may seem plausible (especially to a materialist) to say that the tools of pure historical method can never be enough to prove a miracle. But it is better to say that historical evidence should not be viewed in a vacuum, apart from the general question of initial probability.
Deciding whether a miracle (or any other event) happened or not, involves that is not one but two vital questions: (1) Is the particular evidence for that event good? and (2) How likely, on other broader considerations and experiences, is it that the event in question might occur?
That doesn't, of course, mean that one can never say, "This miracle does not appear to have happened," or "There isn't enough evidence that X occurred."
If that's what John means by "faith" (and it is), then he is over-interpretting my comments, to put it mildly.
6. So do you, punk?
For the record, no I do not "hate" science. Why should anyone hate an epistemology? It is possible that scientists will discover things that are disconcerting, for me, or for anyone else. Certainly many skeptical scientists expressed discomfort when the evidence showed that our universe really did have an origin in time, for instance, as astronomer Hugh Ross shows in Creator and the Cosmos.
But my feelings about science are generally warm. I loved chemistry and physics in high school, and physics in college -- the chemistry course I took was less well-taught -- and might have gone down some related path if I had done a bit better in advanced first year calculus. Since then, as anyone who has read my writings I hope recognizes, I've retained or developed interest in the stars, glaciology, weather and climate (the debate over Anthropogenic Global Warming has encouraged an interest that living in Alaska birthed in me), tectonic geology and rocks, and in the history and nature of life. As with C. S. Lewis, scientific reasoning seems easy for me to grasp, though I also lack sufficient math to study it in great depth. (Nor do I usually have time to do so, except when focused on some particular issue.)
Scientists are like other scholars. When I meet someone who knows a lot about something that interests me -- whether exoplanets or hidden cultures or the evolution of HIV -- I tend to attack them with questions. Few working scientists seem to interpret those "attacks" as deriving from hostility towards their profession, most seem to appreciate the questions. But they also generally seem to recognize my work as involving valid lines of inquiry, so the relationship tends to be more like to students comparing notes, than a groupee and a rock star. Maybe, from the perspective of groupees, that appears presumptuous.
It's a good thing I don't hate science, by the way, because my son may well be designing the aircraft you fly on in the future. :- )