Atheistic Scientism Revisited

I recently had the great pleasure of reading The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinksi. (Many thanks to Roger Barnett for recommending the book to me.) Berlinski, who knows far more about science than I do, writes with flair and scathing logic. I can’t do justice to his book, but I will try to convey its gist.

Before I do that, I must tell you that I enjoyed Berlinski’s book not only because of the author’s acumen and biting wit, but also because he agrees with me. (I suppose I should say, in modesty, that I agree with him.) I have argued against atheistic scientism in many blog posts (see below).

Here is my version of the argumment against atheism in its briefest form (June 15, 2011):

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
  3. The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.

There is no reasonable basis — and certainly no empirical one — on which to prefer atheism to deism or theism. Strident atheists merely practice a “religion” of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.

As for scientism, I call upon Friedrich Hayek:

[W]e shall, wherever we are concerned … with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice…. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. [The Counter Revolution Of Science]

As Berlinski amply illustrates and forcibly argues, atheistic scientism is rampant in the so-called sciences. I have reproduced below some key passages from Berlinski’s book. They are representative, but far from exhaustive (though I did nearly exhaust the publisher’s copy limit on the Kindle edition). I have forgone the block-quotation style for ease of reading, and have inserted triple asterisks to indicate (sometimes subtle) changes of topic.

*   *   *

Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, … is not only an intellectually fulfilled atheist, he is determined that others should be as full as he. A great many scientists are satisfied that at last someone has said out loud what so many of them have said among themselves: Scientific and religious belief are in conflict. They cannot both be right. Let us get rid of the one that is wrong….

Because atheism is said to follow from various scientific doctrines, literary atheists, while they are eager to speak their minds, must often express themselves in other men’s voices. Christopher Hitchens is an example. With forthcoming modesty, he has affirmed his willingness to defer to the world’s “smart scientists” on any matter more exigent than finger-counting. Were smart scientists to report that a strain of yeast supported the invasion of Iraq, Hitchens would, no doubt, conceive an increased respect for yeast….

If nothing else, the attack on traditional religious thought marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion. From cosmology to biology, its narratives have become the narratives. They are, these narratives, immensely seductive, so much so that looking at them with innocent eyes requires a very deliberate act. And like any militant church, this one places a familiar demand before all others: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

It is this that is new; it is this that is important….

For scientists persuaded that there is no God, there is no finer pleasure than recounting the history of religious brutality and persecution. Sam Harris is in this regard especially enthusiastic, The End of Faith recounting in lurid but lingering detail the methods of torture used in the Spanish Inquisition….

Nonetheless, there is this awkward fact: The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot will never be counted among the religious leaders of mankind….

… Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?

If memory serves, it was not the Vatican….

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society….

Richard Weikart, … in his admirable treatise, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, makes clear what anyone capable of reading the German sources already knew: A sinister current of influence ran from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Hitler’s policy of extermination.

*   *   *

It is wrong, the nineteenth-century British mathematician W. K. Clifford affirmed, “always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” I am guessing that Clifford believed what he wrote, but what evidence he had for his belief, he did not say.

Something like Clifford’s injunction functions as the premise in a popular argument for the inexistence of God. If God exists, then his existence is a scientific claim, no different in kind from the claim that there is tungsten to be found in Bermuda. We cannot have one set of standards for tungsten and another for the Deity….

There remains the obvious question: By what standards might we determine that faith in science is reasonable, but that faith in God is not? It may well be that “religious faith,” as the philosopher Robert Todd Carroll has written, “is contrary to the sum of evidence,” but if religious faith is found wanting, it is reasonable to ask for a restatement of the rules by which “the sum of evidence” is computed….

… The concept of sufficient evidence is infinitely elastic…. What a physicist counts as evidence is not what a mathematician generally accepts. Evidence in engineering has little to do with evidence in art, and while everyone can agree that it is wrong to go off half-baked, half-cocked, or half-right, what counts as being baked, cocked, or right is simply too variable to suggest a plausible general principle….

Neither the premises nor the conclusions of any scientific theory mention the existence of God. I have checked this carefully. The theories are by themselves unrevealing. If science is to champion atheism, the requisite demonstration must appeal to something in the sciences that is not quite a matter of what they say, what they imply, or what they reveal.

*   *   *

The universe in its largest aspect is the expression of curved space and time. Four fundamental forces hold sway. There are black holes and various infernal singularities. Popping out of quantum fields, the elementary particles appear as bosons or fermions. The fermions are divided into quarks and leptons. Quarks come in six varieties, but they are never seen, confined as they are within hadrons by a force that perversely grows weaker at short distances and stronger at distances that are long. There are six leptons in four varieties. Depending on just how things are counted, matter has as its fundamental constituents twenty-four elementary particles, together with a great many fields, symmetries, strange geometrical spaces, and forces that are disconnected at one level of energy and fused at another, together with at least a dozen different forms of energy, all of them active.

… It is remarkably baroque. And it is promiscuously catholic. For the atheist persuaded that materialism offers him a no-nonsense doctrinal affiliation, materialism in this sense comes to the declaration of a barroom drinker that he will have whatever he’s having, no matter who he is or what he is having. What he is having is what he always takes, and that is any concept, mathematical structure, or vagrant idea needed to get on with it. If tomorrow, physicists determine that particle physics requires access to the ubiquity of the body of Christ, that doctrine would at once be declared a physical principle and treated accordingly….

What remains of the ideology of the sciences? It is the thesis that the sciences are true— who would doubt it?— and that only the sciences are true. The philosopher Michael Devitt thus argues that “there is only one way of knowing, the empirical way that is the basis of science.” An argument against religious belief follows at once on the assumptions that theology is not science and belief is not knowledge. If by means of this argument it also follows that neither mathematics, the law, nor the greater part of ordinary human discourse have a claim on our epistemological allegiance, they must be accepted as casualties of war.

*   *   *

The claim that the existence of God should be treated as a scientific question stands on a destructive dilemma: If by science one means the great theories of mathematical physics, then the demand is unreasonable. We cannot treat any claim in this way. There is no other intellectual activity in which theory and evidence have reached this stage of development….

Is there a God who has among other things created the universe? “It is not by its conclusions,” C. F. von Weizsäcker has written in The Relevance of Science, but by its methodological starting point that modern science excludes direct creation. Our methodology would not be honest if this fact were denied . . . such is the faith in the science of our time, and which we all share” (italics added).

In science, as in so many other areas of life, faith is its own reward….

The medieval Arabic argument known as the kalam is an example of the genre [cosmological argument].

Its first premise: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

And its second: The universe began to exist.

And its conclusion: So the universe had a cause.

This is not by itself an argument for the existence of God. It is suggestive without being conclusive. Even so, it is an argument that in a rush covers a good deal of ground carelessly denied by atheists. It is one thing to deny that there is a God; it is quite another to deny that the universe has a cause….

The universe, orthodox cosmologists believe, came into existence as the expression of an explosion— what is now called the Big Bang. The word explosion is a sign that words have failed us, as they so often do, for it suggests a humanly comprehensible event— a gigantic explosion or a stupendous eruption. This is absurd. The Big Bang was not an event taking place at a time or in a place. Space and time were themselves created by the Big Bang, the measure along with the measured….

Whatever its name, as far as most physicists are concerned, the Big Bang is now a part of the established structure of modern physics….

… Many physicists have found the idea that the universe had a beginning alarming. “So long as the universe had a beginning,” Stephen Hawking has written, “we could suppose it had a creator.” God forbid!

… Big Bang cosmology has been confirmed by additional evidence, some of it astonishing. In 1963, the physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson observed what seemed to be the living remnants of the Big Bang— and after 14 billion years!— when in 1962 they detected, by means of a hum in their equipment, a signal in the night sky they could only explain as the remnants of the microwave radiation background left over from the Big Bang itself.

More than anything else, this observation, and the inference it provoked, persuaded physicists that the structure of Big Bang cosmology was anchored into fact….

“Perhaps the best argument in favor of the thesis that the Big Bang supports theism,” the astrophysicist Christopher Isham has observed, “is the obvious unease with which it is greeted by some atheist physicists. At times this has led to scientific ideas, such as continuous creation or an oscillating universe, being advanced with a tenacity which so exceeds their intrinsic worth that one can only suspect the operation of psychological forces lying very much deeper than the usual academic desire of a theorist to support his or her theory.”…

… With the possibility of inexistence staring it in the face, why does the universe exist? To say that universe just is, as Stephen Hawking has said, is to reject out of hand any further questions. We know that it is. It is right there in plain sight. What philosophers such as ourselves wish to know is why it is. It may be that at the end of these inquiries we will answer our own question by saying that the universe exists for no reason whatsoever. At the end of these inquiries, and not the beginning….

Among physicists, the question of how something emerged from nothing has one decisive effect: It loosens their tongues. “One thing [that] is clear,” a physicist writes, “in our framing of questions such as ‘How did the Universe get started?’ is that the Universe was self-creating. This is not a statement on a ‘cause’ behind the origin of the Universe, nor is it a statement on a lack of purpose or destiny. It is simply a statement that the Universe was emergent, that the actual Universe probably derived from an indeterminate sea of potentiality that we call the quantum vacuum, whose properties may always remain beyond our current understanding.”

It cannot be said that “an indeterminate sea of potentiality” has anything like the clarifying effect needed by the discussion, and indeed, except for sheer snobbishness, physicists have offered no reason to prefer this description of the Source of Being to the one offered by Abu al-Hassan al Hashari in ninth-century Baghdad. The various Islamic versions of that indeterminate sea of being he rejected in a spasm of fierce disgust. “We confess,” he wrote, “that God is firmly seated on his throne. We confess that God has two hands, without asking how. We confess that God has two eyes, without asking how. We confess that God has a face.”…

Proposing to show how something might emerge from nothing, [the physicist Victor Stenger] introduces “another universe [that] existed prior to ours that tunneled through . . . to become our universe. Critics will argue that we have no way of observing such an earlier universe, and so this is not very scientific” (italics added). This is true. Critics will do just that. Before they do, they will certainly observe that Stenger has completely misunderstood the terms of the problem that he has set himself, and that far from showing how something can arise from nothing, he has shown only that something might arise from something else. This is not an observation that has ever evoked a firestorm of controversy….

… [A]ccording to the many-worlds interpretation [of quantum mechanics], at precisely the moment a measurement is made, the universe branches into two or more universes. The cat who was half dead and half alive gives rise to two separate universes, one containing a cat who is dead, the other containing a cat who is alive. The new universes cluttering up creation embody the quantum states that were previously in a state of quantum superposition.

The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is rather like the incarnation. It appeals to those who believe in it, and it rewards belief in proportion to which belief is sincere….

No less than the doctrines of religious belief, the doctrines of quantum cosmology are what they seem: biased, partial, inconclusive, and largely in the service of passionate but unexamined conviction.

*   *   *

The cosmological constant is a number controlling the expansion of the universe. If it were negative, the universe would appear doomed to contract in upon itself, and if positive, equally doomed to expand out from itself. Like the rest of us, the universe is apparently doomed no matter what it does. And here is the odd point: If the cosmological constant were larger than it is, the universe would have expanded too quickly, and if smaller, it would have collapsed too early, to permit the appearance of living systems….

“Scientists,” the physicist Paul Davies has observed, “are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth— the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient ‘coincidences’ and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.”….

Why? Yes, why?

An appeal to still further physical laws is, of course, ruled out on the grounds that the fundamental laws of nature are fundamental. An appeal to logic is unavailing. The laws of nature do not seem to be logical truths. The laws of nature must be intrinsically rich enough to specify the panorama of the universe, and the universe is anything but simple. As Newton remarks, “Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things.”

If the laws of nature are neither necessary nor simple, why, then, are they true?

Questions about the parameters and laws of physics form a single insistent question in thought: Why are things as they are when what they are seems anything but arbitrary?

One answer is obvious. It is the one that theologians have always offered: The universe looks like a put-up job because it is a put-up job.

*   *   *

Any conception of a contingent deity, Aquinas argues, is doomed to fail, and it is doomed to fail precisely because whatever He might do to explain the existence of the universe, His existence would again require an explanation. “Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary.”…

… “We feel,” Wittgenstein wrote, “that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” Those who do feel this way will see, following Aquinas, that the only inference calculated to overcome the way things are is one directed toward the way things must be….

“The key difference between the radically extravagant God hypothesis,” [Dawkins] writes, “and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis, is one of statistical improbability.”

It is? I had no idea, the more so since Dawkins’s very next sentence would seem to undercut the sentence he has just written. “The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple,” because each of its constituent universes “is simple in its fundamental laws.”

If this is true for each of those constituent universes, then it is true for our universe as well. And if our universe is simple in its fundamental laws, what on earth is the relevance of Dawkins’s argument?

Simple things, simple explanations, simple laws, a simple God.

Bon appétit.

*   *   *

As a rhetorical contrivance, the God of the Gaps makes his effect contingent on a specific assumption: that whatever the gaps, they will in the course of scientific research be filled…. Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again. The process is inexhaustible. Einstein created the special theory of relativity to accommodate certain anomalies in the interpretation of Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field. Special relativity led directly to general relativity. But general relativity is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, the largest visions of the physical world alien to one another. Understanding has improved, but within the physical sciences, anomalies have grown great, and what is more, anomalies have grown great because understanding has improved….

… At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

But by the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies. This is the conclusion suggested as well by more than six thousand years of artificial selection, the practice of barnyard and backyard alike. Nothing can induce a chicken to lay a square egg or to persuade a pig to develop wheels mounted on ball bearings….

… In a research survey published in 2001, and widely ignored thereafter, the evolutionary biologist Joel Kingsolver reported that in sample sizes of more than one thousand individuals, there was virtually no correlation between specific biological traits and either reproductive success or survival. “Important issues about selection,” he remarked with some understatement, “remain unresolved.”

Of those important issues, I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.

Computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail when they are honest and succeed only when they are not. Thomas Ray has for years been conducting computer experiments in an artificial environment that he has designated Tierra. Within this world, a shifting population of computer organisms meet, mate, mutate, and reproduce.

Sandra Blakeslee, writing for the New York Times, reported the results under the headline “Computer ‘Life Form’ Mutates in an Evolution Experiment: Natural Selection Is Found at Work in a Digital World.”

Natural selection found at work? I suppose so, for as Blakeslee observes with solemn incomprehension, “the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.” Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work, but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect.

What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: There is a sucker born every minute….

… Daniel Dennett, like Mexican food, does not fail to come up long after he has gone down. “Contemporary biology,” he writes, “has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that natural selection— the process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which improvements automatically emerge— has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs” (italics added).

These remarks are typical in their self-enchanted self-confidence. Nothing in the physical sciences, it goes without saying— right?— has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt. The phrase belongs to a court of law. The thesis that improvements in life appear automatically represents nothing more than Dennett’s conviction that living systems are like elevators: If their buttons are pushed, they go up. Or down, as the case may be. Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid….

… The greater part of the debate over Darwin’s theory is not in service to the facts. Nor to the theory. The facts are what they have always been: They are unforthcoming. And the theory is what it always was: It is unpersuasive. Among evolutionary biologists, these matters are well known. In the privacy of the Susan B. Anthony faculty lounge, they often tell one another with relief that it is a very good thing the public has no idea what the research literature really suggests.

“Darwin?” a Nobel laureate in biology once remarked to me over his bifocals. “That’s just the party line.”

In the summer of 2007, Eugene Koonin, of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health, published a paper entitled “The Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution.”

The paper is refreshing in its candor; it is alarming in its consequences. “Major transitions in biological evolution,” Koonin writes, “show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity” (italics added). Major transitions in biological evolution? These are precisely the transitions that Darwin’s theory was intended to explain. If those “major transitions” represent a “sudden emergence of new forms,” the obvious conclusion to draw is not that nature is perverse but that Darwin was wrong….

Koonin is hardly finished. He has just started to warm up. “In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history,” he goes on to say, “the principal ‘types’ seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate ‘grades’ or intermediate forms between different types are detectable.”…

… [H[is views are simply part of a much more serious pattern of intellectual discontent with Darwinian doctrine. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese mathematical biologist Motoo Kimura argued that on the genetic level— the place where mutations take place— most changes are selectively neutral. They do nothing to help an organism survive; they may even be deleterious…. Kimura was perfectly aware that he was advancing a powerful argument against Darwin’s theory of natural selection. “The neutral theory asserts,” he wrote in the introduction to his masterpiece, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, “that the great majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular level, as revealed by comparative studies of protein and DNA sequences, are caused not by Darwinian selection but by random drift of selectively neutral or nearly neutral mutations” (italics added)….

… Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch observed that “Dawkins’s agenda has been to spread the word on the awesome power of natural selection.” The view that results, Lynch remarks, is incomplete and therefore “profoundly misleading.” Lest there be any question about Lynch’s critique, he makes the point explicitly: “What is in question is whether natural selection is a necessary or sufficient force to explain the emergence of the genomic and cellular features central to the building of complex organisms.”…

When asked what he was in awe of, Christopher Hitchens responded that his definition of an educated person is that you have some idea how ignorant you are. This seems very much as if Hitchens were in awe of his own ignorance, in which case he has surely found an object worthy of his veneration.

*   *   *

Do read the whole thing. It will take you only a few hours. And it will remind you — as we badly need reminding these days — that sanity reigns in some corners of the universe.


Related posts:

Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Big Bang and Atheism
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Religion as Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
The Greatest Mystery
Landsburg Is Half-Right
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology
A Digression about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Religion on the Left
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
Nothingness
Pinker Commits Scientism
Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Some Thoughts about Evolution
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
Fine-Tuning in a Wacky Wrapper
Beating Religion with the Wrong End of the Stick
Quantum Mechanics and Free Will
“Science” vs. Science: The Case of Evolution, Race, and Intelligence
The Fragility of Knowledge
Altruism, One More Time
Religion, Creation, and Morality
The Pretence of Knowledge
Evolution, Intelligence, and Race

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