Saturday, October 4, 2014

But Is It Science?

This week someone close to me brought to my attention an article in the online New York Times called God, Darwin and My College Biology Class, by Professor David P. Barash.

Not surprisingly, Barash refutes the literalist view of the Genesis creation narratives (which I, coming at the issue from the literary rather than the scientific side, actually agree with).  But Dr. Barash goes much further in his claims for evolutionary science; in fact, he stops just short of claiming that it renders belief in God impossible.  Barash takes exception to the view put forth by Steven Jay Gould that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria".  A "magisterium" is an authoritative source of knowledge, and "non-overlapping" means that religion and science as sources of knowledge are not actually in conflict, because they deal with entirely separate spheres of human experience.  Gould's view of science and religion in terms of non-overlapping magisteria is called "NOMA" for short.

Barash's article explains how every year he gives his new biology students "The Talk," in which he presents evolutionary science as progressively removing any place left in human thought for the existence of God.  As he puts it:
These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish. As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God. The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. . . Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon. . .

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. . .

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering. . . The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
All this sounds fairly damaging to religion, and Barash concludes his article by pretty much giving God a pat on the head and saying He hasn't necessarily struck out yet-- but it's clear that in Barash's mind it's the bottom of the ninth and evolution has been pitching a no-hitter.  But what it looks like to me is not that science's magisterium overlaps to the point of overwhelming religion's magisterium-- rather, it's that Barash does not seem to understand the real difference between the two.

Barash conflates the functions of science and religion, treating religion as if it were just another way (a failed way) to answer the questions addressed by science, and treating science as if it were fundamentally capable of answering the questions addressed by religion or philosophy.  Joe Hinman on Metacrock's Blog: The Ideology of Scientism (Part 1) defines this common misconception of the nature of religion as follows:
God is evoked where knowledge runs out. That is a wrong concept because it imposes the wrong view of religion, that religion is failed primitive science. . .The problem with it is that it seems to imply that religion only takes over where we have no facts, thus implying that religion [like science] is also about understanding the workings of the world but it just doesn’t proceed by collecting facts.
But the primary purpose of religion has never been to answer questions about how the physical world works. It's true that humans have at times used religion to answer such questions, but those questions have always been a side issue for religion. The real purpose of religion is to address issues of transcendent value, meaning and purpose, and to mediate spiritual experience.

Science, on the other hand, is defined by the online Webster's Dictionary as:
knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method; such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena.
"Scientific method," of course, refers to the hypothesis-experiment process of collecting information about the world through data.  Webster's again:
principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.
So if science is ultimately concerned with the way the physical world works, why is it treated as if it were the arbiter of all reality, capable of shrinking any possible role religion might have played until it pushes religion out entirely?

Hinman's article explains the problem:
Modern thought tells us science is pure objective observation of facts and direct proof of all that is reality. . . [But] when we examine the nature of modern science, especially in so far as it is used in opposition to belief in God, we find that there is no pure objective science, unsullied by the ideological impulse to impose a truth regime upon reality. . . 
Of course science is about a deeper understanding “of the world.” What does that mean? Is it about understanding the world of metaphysics? Or is it about understanding the world of politics, or the world of meta ethics? What kind of understanding? Is that quotation limited to the “natural” world? Does it mean all “worlds” of our conceptualizing? The more varied the definition the looser they become. We see the definitions drifting away form [sic] the concept of systematic understandings of the workings of the physical world and nothing more. It’s in those “stretches” of definition that are probably designed to allow flexible field of study that we see creeping in various agendas such as the ruination of religion. This is strictly speaking not a goal of science, not even part of science’s business.
However, if we look closely at the kind of claims that Barash's NY Times article is making for evolutionary science, he is actually addressing issues of philosophy or religion.

Any statement about what might or might not exist outside/above or in addition to the physical world is a metaphysical statement.  Even to say that there is nothing except the physical world involves making metaphysical assumptions that cannot be supported by physical evidence.  It cannot be proven scientifically that everything that exists can be proven scientifically.  This is because science by its very nature can only find physical phenomena-- either past or present.  To say science can prove that nothing except the physical world exists, is like saying there is no such thing as air pressure because you can't measure it with a ruler.  Anything non-physical, while it may cause physical traces or "footprints" in the natural world, cannot itself be directly tested or proven by science.  But that doesn't mean it cannot exist.

Science also cannot say that because there is suffering, there are therefore only natural, amoral processes. Barash has set up certain parameters for what kind of world he thinks God would create, and then eliminates God because this isn't that kind of world. But Barash's conclusions are not science, nor do they come from science. The questions, "Is this a good world? or "Is there any meaning in suffering?" are questions of philosophy. Not science.

To claim there is no God because humans are not apparently divinely central to the universe, is the same sort of thing.  Barash says that evolution somehow shows that there is no divine spark in humanity.  But any divine spark in humanity is exactly the sort of thing that science would be unable to find, because divinity is not part of physicality. And to claim there is no God because humans don't appear to be physically distinct from the rest of creation is to make an assumption about what God would be likely to do if God existed.  But "If there were a God, what would God be likely to do?" is a theological question.  Also not science.

Further, the point of religion is not to say something like, "The world is complex because God."  That kind of religion is a straw man that hides fearfully in the ever-shrinking gaps of what we still can't explain about how the physical world works. But religion, though it can be, and has been, used to explain the physical world, is not really about such explanations.  These things are completely peripheral to religion in terms of human religious culture and experience.

So what Dr. Barash has done is claim that religion is losing out to science because religion is meant to do the same things science does, but just doesn't do them very well.  Also that science is defeating religion because its methods alone (and not the philosophical conclusions of people like himself in interpreting its data) are succeeding in answering the questions of transcendent value, meaning and purpose with "no such things," and in mediating spiritual experience by denying it.

Bararsh is committing the error called "scientism."  Scientism is defined in Webster's as:
an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).
Science can help us in matters of morality by informing us, for example, whether a particular thing is healthier for humans than another, upon which "do unto others" would kick in to instruct us to seek the healthier thing. But science cannot decide whether "do unto others" itself is morally good or not. That takes humans making philosophical or religious judgments.  Scientists make those kinds of judgments just as much as anyone else-- but what underlies them is not science.*

Barash would object to a religious preacher using the Creation narratives of Genesis to teach on matters of science. But I find it just as objectionable for a science professor to use evolutionary science to teach on matters of religion. Science professors should teach science.

Just because a person is a scientist or science professor, does not qualify them as an expert in religion or philosophy. In fact, a man like Dr. Barash, who is in a position of authority, lecturing to students whose grades are dependent on his favor, needs to be very careful on how he uses that authority. Barash's "Talk" is designed to undermine religious belief.  Sure, at the end he kindly gives his students permission to hold onto their religious beliefs-- if they can.  But Barash is a professor, and they are only college kids.  Barash speaks as an expert, while they sit in the position of learners. And these students, especially the young ones just out of high school, probably have not acquired enough understanding to see the flaws in Barash's assertions.

The power differential is completely in the professor's favor.  So I think he should be asking himself, "Is it right for me to attack the religious beliefs of young people who have neither the background nor the authority to be able to rebut me?"

One thing is for certain.  Whatever answer he gives to that question, it will not be science.



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*In fact, from a naturalistic point of view which strives to be objective, it's debatable whether humans thriving is a good thing or not.  It's good for humans, certainly, but has historically been very bad for the thriving of many other species.

4 comments:

K. Elizabeth Danahy said...

Fortunately, Barash's high view of science is not the norm. Still, as a graduate student in chemistry, I'm disturbed by his worship of science. Science is still, at best, very incomplete, and our understanding of it less so. To (basically) dismiss God based on science alone places a confidence in science and human reasoning that just isn't deserved.
It's also disturbing to me that (in addition to the manipulate power dynamic between him and his students), he's supposed to be introducing freshmen to the fundamentals of (biological) science. And he's not doing that. At best, he's teaching a (poorly argued) variant of philosophy; at worst, he's deceiving them by saying science can do what it cannot.
(I also wrote a response to his "argument" here: http://adelasteria.blogspot.com/2014/09/religion-and-evolution-without.html).

Anonymous said...

An excellent commentary, Kristen. The NYT only selects a handful of letters for publication, and there were some excellent letters of rebuttal, including one from a Rabbi. The letters are worth reading. Here's the link. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/opinion/sunday/science-and-religion.html

Your Sis

Kristen said...

Thanks, sis!
I enjoyed the letters to the editor, but none of them pointed out the power differential. I think it needed to be said-- and read. Oh well.

JBsptfn said...

That Barash guy seems like a Richard Dawkins clone to me. Sad.