Oracles of Science

[S]cientism“—an exaggerated and ideologically explainable respect for a certain mistaken image of science. Indeed, two of the most remarkable figures in thrall to “scientism” were Freud and Marx themselves. Their own theories must be reinterpreted in order to free them from this incubus.

Alexander Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science, 2016, p. 156.

[S]cientism is] an exaggerated and often distorted conception of what science can be expected to do or explain for us. One aspect of scientism is the idea that any question that can be answered at all can best be answered by science. This, in turn, is very often combined with a quite narrow conception of what it is for an answer, or a method of investigation, to be scientific. Specifically, it is supposed that canonical science must work by disclosing the physical or chemical mechanisms that generate phenomena. Together these ideas imply a narrow and homogeneous set of answers to the most diverse imaginable set of questions. Everywhere this implies a restriction of the powers of the human mind; but nowhere is this restriction more disastrous than in the mind’s attempts to answer questions about itself.

John Dupré, Human Nature and the Limits of Science, 2002, p. 2.

Science as Pseudo-Religion

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, one of the greatest particle physicists of the twentieth century, assured his readers that the universe was “pointless” in his classic The First Three Minutes, still selling briskly a quarter century after its initial publication. We look in vain, says Weinberg, for a purpose for human existence or anything else and must console ourselves selves with the knowledge that science can lift the human experience above its natural level of “farce” and give it the “grace of tragedy.” (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 40-43)

[Oracles of Science argue] that outside science we cannot find respectable truth; this, of course, is scientism, not science…. Scientism is a belief that serves its adherents very well, assuring them that only science provides vides a valid paradigm for assessing knowledge claims. Scientism is, however, an obviously self-defeating ideology. Its claims about its own epistemology are not the consequence of any scientific investigation but rather reach outside itself into the very realm that it claims does not exist. The claim that there is no valuable knowledge outside science certainly cannot be supported from within science. This is an extremely simple philosophical error, akin to a child claiming that because all the people he knows are in his house, that there cannot be any people outside his house. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 565-570)

When we reflect on science—its aims, its values, its limits—we are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it. Dawkins is a good scientist and a brilliant communicator and certainly would have been an effective lawyer or politician, but he seems strangely unaware that he is an abysmal philosopher and an even worse theologian. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 570-573)

How a scientist becomes a disciple of scientism is mysterious, because science and scientism are incompatible. Science owes its success to its restricted focus—its acknowledged inability to even address questions like those raised by scientism, much less answer them. Scientists concentrate on very particular subjects, generally astonishingly narrow, and use rigorous methods to study them, submitting their hypotheses to careful scrutiny and avoiding extrapolations or unwarranted generalizations. In contrast, scientism is an unsupported generalization, bad philosophy masquerading as science or one of its consequents. This qualifies as a virus of the mind, to use Dawkins’s own terminology. Most of scientism’s disciples are casual and probably not even aware that they hold this philosophy, but when scientism is seriously adopted, it becomes a sort of pseudo-religion, providing a meaning to life, and an ideal for which one will fight. Conversion to this strong form of pseudo-religious scientism often derives from two related factors: a disillusionment with some form of traditional religion, and the discovery that science is wonderful and seems to provide meaning and values, in addition to knowledge. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 573-579)

There are indeed important values associated with scientific work, and the progress of science contributes to their spread. Progress in crucial aspects of contemporary culture reflects the spread of scientific values. But as most practicing scientists have discovered, one can work in science, easily mixing its values with unrelated extra-scientific interests. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 579-580)

Dawkins points, repeatedly and with enthusiasm, to the diversity of religions and concludes that their very diversity proves that no one of them is reliable. Of course, Dawkins’s ideas are themselves much debated among scientists, and serious disputes do indeed exist regarding the very aspects of evolutionary theory that he champions. This, however, hardly constitutes an argument that all these various points of view are equally vacuous and that there can be no serious discussion about them. Dawkins seems strangely unmoved by the large number of thoughtful scholars—including his colleagues leagues at Oxford University, like Keith Ward, Alister McGrath, and Richard Swinburne—whose religious beliefs are accompanied by serious reflection and considerations of evidence. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 580-584)

There is, to be sure, a great difference between the general unanimity of science and the diversity of religions. But there is a considered response to this. We reach the peculiar agreement and intersubjectivity of natural science only when we deal with repeatable patterns in the natural world. Scientists have the luxury of gathering together in laboratories to share common, repeatable, and predictable experiences. It is no surprise that when we pose problems related to meaning and spiritual realities, it is more difficult to reach agreement. When we insist on testability, empirical control, quantification, repeatability, and so on, we should be aware that we are confining our study to those realities that meet these criteria. This study is both wonderful and exciting, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the scientism that would impose its straitjacket on the human mind, denying the value or validity of other explorations. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 584-589)

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The Ideological Uses of Evolutionary Biology in Recent Atheistic Apologetics

Why should we be concerned about biology and ideology? One good reason is that the use of biology for non-biological ends has been the cause of immense human suffering. Biology has been used to justify eugenic programs, enforced sterilization, experimentation on living humans, death camps, and political ambitions based on notions of racial superiority, to name but a few examples. We should also be concerned because biological ideas continue to be used, if not in these specific ways, then in other ways that lie well beyond science. Investigating the past should help us to be more reflective about the science of our own day, hopefully more equipped to discern the ideological abuse of science when it occurs. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

One of the most remarkable developments during the opening years of the twenty-first century has been the appearance of a number of high-profile populist books offering an aggressively atheist critique of religion.’ This “clustering” of prominent works of atheist apologetics in the period 2004-7 is of no small historical interest in its own right, and is widely taken to reflect a cultural reaction against “9/11”-the suicide attacks tacks in New York in September 2001, widely regarded as being motivated by Islamic extremism. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Yet the appearance of these works is of interest for another reason. A central theme of two of them is that developments in biology, especially evolutionary biology, have significantly negative implications for belief in God. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, both published in 2006, express the fundamental belief that the Darwinian theory of evolution has such explanatory power that it erodes many traditional metaphysical notions-such as belief in God-through its “universal acid.” This represents an extension of the basic lines of argument found in earlier works, in which an appeal to biological understandings of human origins, subsequently amplified to include accounts of the origins of human understandings of purpose and value based on evolutionary psychology, which was made in order to erode the plausibility of belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

From its first appearance, some saw Darwinism as a potential challenge to at least some aspects of the traditional Christian view of creation. Yet it is important to appreciate that most early evolutionists, including Charles Darwin himself, did not consider that they were thereby promulgating or promoting atheism. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, serious ous Christian thinkers had come to realize that at least some metaphorical interpretation was demanded in considering the early chapters of Genesis, so that their possible incompatibility with evolution was not the major stumbling block for the intelligentsia that might be expected (see also Harrison, Chapter 1, this volume).’ Nor is there any shortage of later significant evolutionary biologists who held that their science was consistent with their faith, such as Ronald A. Fisher, author of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), and Theodosius Dobzhansky, author of Genetics and the Origin of Species (193’7).’ The emphasis upon Darwinism as an acid that totally erodes religious belief, though anticipated in earlier periods, appears to have reached a new intensity in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

This chapter sets out to explore the emergence of this focused appeal to evolutionary biology in Dennett’s and Dawkins’ recent works of atheist apologetics, both considering it in its historical context and offering an assessment of its impact on the popular understanding of Darwinism in the early twenty-first century. This appeal to biology in the defense of atheism is complex and nuanced, and there are significant differences of substance and emphasis between atheist writers who adopt such an approach. Nevertheless, some common factors emerge, which suggest that this is an appropriate line of inquiry to pursue, of no small intrinsic intellectual interest to both historians and evolutionary biologists. (Alexander and Numbers 2010, emphasis added)

As my concern in this chapter is specifically with biological issues, I shall not engage with the more general argument, also embedded within some recent atheist writings, that the natural sciences as a whole make faith in God intellectually irresponsible or risible.’ This argument occasionally reflects an implicit presumption, generally not defended by an appeal to historical scholarship, of the permanent validity of a “warfare” or “conflict” model of the historical interaction of science and religion.” It is clear that this model has continuing cultural authority, especially at the popular level. It may have been radically revised, even discredited, by academic historians; it is, however, clear that this development has yet to filter down to popular culture. While this atheist argument merits close attention, as it has relevance for the calibration of traditional Christian approaches to evidence-based apologetics, it is not a topic that I propose to address further here. My main theme is the manner in which Darwinism has been transposed in recent atheist apologetics from a provisional scientific theory to an antitheistic ideology. My focus is on the ideological use of the biological sciences, especially evolutionary biology, in recent atheist apologetics, a topic which I believe is best considered under three broad categories: (1) the elevation of the status of Darwinism from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview; (2) the personal case of Charles Darwin as a role model for scientific atheism; and (3) the use of the concept of the “meme”-a notion that reflects an attempt to extend the Darwinian paradigm from nature to culture-as a means of reductively explaining (and hence criticizing) belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Darwinism as an ideology

One of the most interesting developments of the twentieth century has been the growing trend to regard Darwinian theory as transcending the category of provisional scientific theories, and constituting a “world-view.” Darwinism is here regarded as establishing a coherent worldview through its evolutionary narrative, which embraces such issues as the fundamental nature of reality, the physical universe, human origins, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies. While being welcomed by some, others have expressed alarm at this apparent failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other. In the view of some, this transition has led to Darwinism becoming a religion or atheist faith tradition in its own right. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

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Science as a Social Activity

Most sociologists and anthropologists agree on the definition and the domain of their disciplines; the same holds true for many psychologists, political scientists, and almost all economists. The same cannot be said for philosophers and philosophy. Philosophy is a difficult subject to define, which makes it difficult to show social scientists why they should care about it—the philosophy of social science in particular…. [T]he subject is inescapable for the social scientist…. [W]hether as an economist or an anthropologist, one has to take sides on philosophical questions. One cannot pursue the agenda of research in any of the social sciences without taking sides on philosophical issues, without committing oneself to answers to philosophical questions. (Rosenberg, Alexander. Philosophy of Social Science. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 2016; p. 1.) 

(…) Questions about what ought to be the case, what we should do, and what is right or wrong, just and unjust, are called normative. By contrast, questions in science are presumably descriptive or, as sometimes said, positive, not normative. Many of the normative questions have close cousins in the social and behavioral sciences Thus, psychology will interest itself in why individuals hold some actions to be right and others wrong; anthropology will consider the sources of differences among cultures about what is good and bad; political science may study the consequences of various policies established in the name of justice; economics will consider how to maximize welfare, subject to the normative assumption that welfare is what we ought to maximize. But the sciences—social or natural—do not challenge or defend the normative views we may hold. In addition to normative questions that the sciences cannot answer, there are questions about the claims of each of the sciences to provide knowledge, or about the limits of scientific knowledge, that the sciences themselves cannot address. These are among the distinctive questions of philosophy of science, including questions about what counts as knowledge, explanation, evidence, or understanding. (Rosenberg 2016, 2-3)

PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE

If there are questions the sciences cannot answer and questions about why the sciences cannot answer them, why should a scientist, in particular a behavioral or social scientist, take any interest in them? The positions scientists take on answers to philosophical questions determine questions they consider answerable by science and choose to address, as well as the methods they employ to answer them. Sometimes scientists take sides consciously. More often they take sides on philosophical questions by their very choice of question, and without realizing it. The philosophy of science may be able to vindicate those choices [or undermine them]. At least, it can reveal to scientists that they have made choices, that they have taken sides on philosophical issues. It is crucial for scientists to recognize this, not just because their philosophical positions must be consistent with the theoretical and observational findings of their sciences. Being clear about a discipline’s philosophy is essential at the research frontiers of the disciplines, it is the philosophy of science that guides inquiry…. [T]he unavoidability and importance of philosophical questions are even more significant for the social scientist than for the natural scientist. The natural sciences have a much larger body of well-established, successful answers to questions and well-established methods for answering them. As a result, many of the basic philosophical questions about the limits and the methods of the natural sciences have been set aside in favor of more immediate questions clearly within the limits of each of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. In the absence of agreement about theories and benchmark methods of inquiry among the social scientists, the only source of guidance for research must come from philosophical theories. Without a well-established theory to guide inquiry, every choice of research question and of method to tackle it is implicitly a gamble with unknown odds. The choice of the social scientist makes it a bet that the question chosen is answerable, that questions not chosen are either less important or unanswerable, that the means used to attack the questions are appropriate, and that other methods are not. (Rosenberg 2016, 4)

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The reason for the everlasting interaction between science and philosophy transpires clearly. The human mind musters an admirable ability to think up equations for physical systems. But equations need to be interpreted in terms of physical models and mechanisms. Science requires conceptual understanding. This understanding employs fundamental philosophical notions. (….) The scientific enterprise comes with philosophical commitments, whether the scientist likes it or not. The scientist needs philosophical ideas, simply because amongst the experimental and mathematical tools in the toolbox of the scientist there are conceptual tools, like fundamental notions. The despairing scientist may ask: ‘Will we ever get an answer?’ The philosopher replies: ‘Not a definitive answer, but a few tentative answers.’ Recall that the philosopher (and the scientist qua philosopher) works with conceptual models. At any one time only a few of these models are in circulation. They cannot provide the definitive answers of which the scientist is fond. But this is typical of models even in the natural sciences. (Weinert, Friedel. The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; 2004; pp. 278-279. )

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Science is not above criticism. On the contrary, because of its influence on modern society, science and scientists need careful scrutiny as much as they deserve admiration and support. As Helen Longino eloquently puts it, science is a social process, and one that is far too important to be left in the hands of scientists alone. Perhaps the most dangerous fallacy a scientist can commit, often subconsciously, is to only do science and never think about it. Yet many scientists who I know are not aware of the broad discussion about how science is done (or shouldn’t be done) that permeates the literature in philosophy and sociology of science. Worse yet, when asked, they positively sneer at the idea of doing philosophy or sociology of science. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)

This lack of understanding of philosophy and sociology of science by scientists is, of course, at the root of … scientism … [When] a scientist of the caliber of Noble Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg can even go so far as writing a book chapter entitled “Against Philosophy,” in which he argues that philosophy is not only useless, but positively harmful to the scientific enterprise … [we see a] sort of hubris that offends many [religionists] … (not to mention philosophers), and they have every right to be offended. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)

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