July 28, 2005

Fred Reed on Science and Humility

Back in 1999, I wrote an article entitled "Darwin's Enemies on the Right:"

Darwin seems to lose out with the public primarily when his supporters force him into a mano-a-mano Thunderdome death match against the Almighty. Most people seem willing to accept Darwinism as long as they don't have to believe in nothing but Darwinism. Thus, the strident tub-thumping for absolute atheism by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins, author of the great book "The Selfish Gene," is counter-productive....

The smug atheism rampant among prominent evolutionists today is reminiscent of that of the physicists in 1899, just before the 20th Century unleashed a host of unwelcome surprises upon them. Unfortunately, biologists don't know enough of the history of physics and cosmology to see how atheistic dogmatism can mislead and slow scientific progress...

the two most scientifically fruitful theories in 20th Century cosmology -- the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle of Intelligent Design -- were partially cribbed from theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas, much to the dismay of cosmologists.

In 1927 Father Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and mathematician, devised what's now called the Big Bang theory. Most scientists found its similarities to Genesis' "Let there be light" and the famous prime mover proof for the existence of God to be unsettling. Thus, they largely turned toward the less subversive Steady-State theory. This postulated that the creation of matter wasn't a one-shot cataclysm of Biblical proportions, but a routine, small-scale event. The 1964 discovery that you could watch the electro-magnetic static generated by the Big Bang on your TV disproved this comforting scenario, however, ushering in an era of rapid scientific advance.

Then in 1974 cosmologist Brandon Carter revived the ancient Argument from Design for the existence of God. This had held that the existence of a well-designed item like a sword or a bird's wing implies the existence of a designer. Darwin's theory of natural selection had seemingly disposed of that chestnut by demonstrating that the differential reproduction rates of competing variations could eventually produce superbly engineered organisms without a designer. Carter, however, showed that our universe appears to be fine-tuned to support the evolution of intelligent life. A host of seemingly arbitrary physical parameters such as the strength of gravity, coincide superbly well to foster a stable, long-lived universe. The odds against such a coincidence happening by chance appear, well, astronomical.

Once again, a quasi-religious notion did wonders for the fecundity of cosmological theory. To avoid admitting a Designer, cosmologists had to postulate that beyond our natural world, there must exist a, shall we say, "supernatural" world. Rather than a hairy thunderer shouting "Let there be light," maybe, they say, there is a "superuniverse" comprising an infinite number of universes, all with different natural laws. And maybe life only emerges in the universes with the right law, like ours. And maybe, to make the Darwinian metaphor complete, universes compete somehow against each other.

This infinite universes concept is a sensationally creative idea. Of course, in its utter untestability, it's not exactly science. In truth, it is theological speculation at its most grandiose. Philosopher Robert C. Koons notes, "Originally, atheists prided themselves on being no-nonsense empiricists, who limited their beliefs to what could be seen and measured. Now, we find ourselves in a situation in which the only alternative to belief in God is belief in an infinite number of unobservable parallel universes! You've come along way, baby!" At minimum, we now know that our natural world cannot account for its own existence. To do that, we need to assume the existence of some sort of supernatural word. And even if some enormous breakthrough let us validate the existence of this superuniverse, we'd probably end up having to assume that it was brought about by some sort of hyperuniverse beyond that, and on and on.

Now, Fred Reed has written an important column "Of Knowing and Not Knowing" along similar lines:

My father told me of driving one night with a friend in hill country, whereupon a large truck appeared suddenly over a crest, soundless, lights blazing, too close to avoid. They drove through it without effect. “Did you see what I saw?” asked my father of his friend. “Yes,” replied the friend, shaken. They did not, he said, tell anyone.

Now, I can offer the usual explanations. These people all suffered from temporary insanity, there is no proof that they weren’t actually making up the stories, their memories were playing tricks (whatever that means), or they were dreaming and thought they were awake—all of which seem convenient evasions... Is that really what is happening? Maybe. But saying so doesn’t make it so. My father was a hard-headed mathematician, not given to the occult.

Note that the sciences are incapable of recognizing such phenomena. For the sake of discussion, let us suppose that some unscientific event actually occurred—say, that the shade of Elvis in fact appeared in my living room one night, sang Blue Moon Over Kentucky, and then vanished. Would science, or any scientist, be able to know it?

I could tell a physicist that I had seen Elvis, of course. He would assume that I was joking, lying, or deluded. I could report that the neighbors had heard Blue Moon, but the physicist would say that I had played the song on my stereo. I might show him video that I had shot of the appearance, but he would say that I had hired an Elvis impersonator, or that I had faked the footage with video-editing software.

In sum, even though it had really happened, he could never know that it had.

The difficulty is that the sciences can apprehend only the repeatable. If I could summon Elvis at will, again and again in an instrumented laboratory, physicists would eventually have to concede that something was happening, whatever it might be. While scientists defend their paradigms as fiercely as Marxists or Moslems, they can, after sufficient demonstration, be swayed by evidence. But without repeatability, they see no evidence.

Not uncommonly, those in the sciences say that they “do not accept supernatural explanations.” One might observe that the world remains the same, no matter what they accept. I might choose not to accept the existence of gravity, but could nonetheless fall over a cliff.

Yet those who do not accept the supernatural never say just what they mean by “supernatural.” By “nature,” do we not simply mean, “that which is”? If for example genuine premonitions exist (which I do not know), how can they be supernatural, as distinct from poorly understood?

I think that by supernatural scientists mean “not deducible from physics.” But of course a great many things are not so deducible—thought, consciousness, free will if any, sorrow, beauty. Scientists do not accept things which seem to have no physical cause, and of course as scientists should not accept them. If a comet were suddenly to change course, it would hardly be useful if an astronomer said that it just happened, or that a herd of invisible unicorns had pushed it from its path.. He, properly, would want to find a gravitational influence.

This is an important point that both sides in the current debate have trouble accepting. As I wrote:

Anti-religiousness is the appropriate professional prejudice of scientists. The Sidney Harris cartoon summed it up. A lab-coated researcher is filling the left and right sides of a black board with equations, but the only thing connecting the two clouds of symbols are the words, "Then a miracle occurs." Another scientist suggests, "Maybe you could give us a little more detail on that middle section." Relying on miracles in science is like relying on the lottery in retirement planning.

The problem comes when scientists try to inflate this useful professional prejudice into the primary principle of the cosmos.

Fred continues:

Trouble comes when the sciences overstep their bounds. It is one thing to study physical phenomena, another to say that only physical phenomena exist. Here science blurs into ideology, an ideology being a systematic and emotionally held way of misunderstanding the world. A science is open and descriptive, an ideology closed and prescriptive. A scientist says, in principle at least, “Give me the facts and I will endeavor to derive a theory that describes them.” The ideologist says, “I have the theory, and nothing that does not fit it can be a fact.” Having chosen his rut, he never sees beyond it. This has not been the way of the greats of science, but of the middle ranks, adequate to swell a progress or work in a laboratory.

In the limitless confidence of this physics-is-all ideology there is a phenomenal arrogance. Perhaps we overestimate ourselves. As temporary phenomena ourselves in a strange universe we don’t really understand, here for reasons we do not know, waiting to go somewhere or nowhere as may be, we might display a more becoming humility. [More]

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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