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 argument 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

Analytical and Scientific Arrogance

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, Strategy for the West

I’m returning to the past to make a timeless point: Analysis is a tool of decision-making, not a substitute for it.

That’s a point to which every analyst will subscribe, just as every judicial candidate will claim to revere the Constitution. But analysts past and present have tended to read their policy preferences into their analytical work, just as too many judges real their political preferences into the Constitution.

What is an analyst? Someone whose occupation requires him to gather facts bearing on an issue, discern robust relationships among the facts, and draw conclusions from those relationships.

Many professionals — from economists to physicists to so-called climate scientists — are more or less analytical in the practice of their professions. That is, they are not just seeking knowledge, but seeking to influence policies which depend on that knowledge.

There is also in this country (and in the West, generally) a kind of person who is an analyst first and a disciplinary specialist second (if at all). Such a person brings his pattern-seeking skills to the problems facing decision-makers in government and industry. Depending on the kinds of issues he addresses or the kinds of techniques that he deploys, he may be called a policy analyst, operations research analyst, management consultant, or something of that kind.

It is one thing to say, as a scientist or analyst, that a certain option (a policy, a system, a tactic) is probably better than the alternatives, when judged against a specific criterion (most effective for a given cost, most effective against a certain kind of enemy force). It is quite another thing to say that the option is the one that the decision-maker should adopt. The scientist or analyst is looking a small slice of the world; the decision-maker has to take into account things that the scientist or analyst did not (and often could not) take into account (economic consequences, political feasibility, compatibility with other existing systems and policies).

It is (or should be) unsconsionable for a scientist or analyst to state or imply that he has the “right” answer. But the clever arguer avoids coming straight out with the “right” answer; instead, he slants his presentation in a way that makes the “right” answer seem right.

A classic case in point is they hysteria surrounding the increase in “global” temperature in the latter part of the 20th century, and the coincidence of that increase with the rise in CO2. I have had much to say about the hysteria and the pseudo-science upon which it is based. (See links at the end of this post.) Here, I will take as a case study an event to which I was somewhat close: the treatment of the Navy’s proposal, made in the early 1980s, for an expansion to what was conveniently characterized as the 600-ship Navy. (The expansion would have involved personnel, logistics systems, ancillary war-fighting systems, stockpiles of parts and ammunition, and aircraft of many kinds — all in addition to a 25-percent increase in the number of ships in active service.)

The usual suspects, of an ilk I profiled here, wasted no time in making the 600-ship Navy seem like a bad idea. Of the many studies and memos on the subject, two by the Congressional Budget Office stand out a exemplars of slanted analysis by innuendo: “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches” (March 1982), and “Future Budget Requirements for the 600-Ship Navy: Preliminary Analysis” (April 1985). What did the “whiz kids” at CBO have to say about the 600-ship Navy? Here are excerpts of the concluding sections:

The Administration’s five-year shipbuilding plan, containing 133 new construction ships and estimated to cost over $80 billion in fiscal year 1983 dollars, is more ambitious than previous programs submitted to the Congress in the past few years. It does not, however, contain enough ships to realize the Navy’s announced force level goals for an expanded Navy. In addition, this plan—as has been the case with so many previous plans—has most of its ships programmed in the later out-years. Over half of the 133 new construction ships are programmed for the last two years of the five-year plan. Achievement of the Navy’s expanded force level goals would require adhering to the out-year building plans and continued high levels of construction in the years beyond fiscal year 1987. [1982 report, pp. 71-72]

Even the budget increases estimated here would be difficult to achieve if history is a guide. Since the end of World War II, the Navy has never sustained real increases in its budget for more than five consecutive years. The sustained 15-year expansion required to achieve and sustain the Navy’s present plans would result in a historic change in budget trends. [1985 report, p. 26]

The bias against the 600-ship Navy drips from the pages. The “argument” goes like this: If it hasn’t been done, it can’t be done and, therefore, shouldn’t be attempted. Why not? Because the analysts at CBO were a breed of cat that emerged in the 1960s, when Robert Strange McNamara and his minions used simplistic analysis (“tablesmanship”) to play “gotcha” with the military services:

We [I was one of the minions] did it because we were encouraged to do it, though not in so many words. And we got away with it, not because we were better analysts — most of our work was simplistic stuff — but because we usually had the last word. (Only an impassioned personal intercession by a service chief might persuade McNamara to go against SA [the Systems Analysis office run by Alain Enthoven] — and the key word is “might.”) The irony of the whole process was that McNamara, in effect, substituted “civilian judgment” for oft-scorned “military judgment.” McNamara revealed his preference for “civilian judgment” by elevating Enthoven and SA a level in the hierarchy, 1965, even though (or perhaps because) the services and JCS had been open in their disdain of SA and its snotty young civilians.

In the case of the 600-ship Navy, civilian analysts did their best to derail it by sending the barely disguised message that it was “unaffordable”. I was reminded of this “insight” by a colleague of long-standing who recently proclaimed that “any half-decent cost model would show a 600-ship Navy was unsustainable into this century.” How could a cost model show such a thing when the sustainability (affordability) of defense is a matter of political will, not arithmetic?

Defense spending fluctuates as function of perceived necessity. Consider, for example, this graph (misleadingly labeled “Recent Defense Spending”) from usgovernmentspending.com, which shows defense spending as a percentage of GDP for fiscal year (FY) 1792 to FY 2017:

What was “unaffordable” before World War II suddenly became affordable. And so it has gone throughout the history of the republic. Affordability (or sustainability) is a political issue, not a line drawn in the sand by an smart-ass analyst who gives no thought to the consequences of spending too little on defense.

I will now zoom in on the era of interest.

CBO’s “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches“, which crystallized opposition to the 600-ship Navy estimates the long-run, annual obligational authority required to sustain a 600-ship Navy (of the Navy’s design) to be about 20-percent higher in constant dollars than the FY 1982 Navy budget. (See Options I and II in Figure 2, p. 50.) The long-run would have begun around FY 1994, following several years of higher spending associated with the buildup of forces. I don’t have a historical breakdown of the Department of Defense (DoD) budget by service, but I found values for all-DoD spending on military programs at Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables. Drawing on Tables 5.2 and 10.1, I constructed a constant-dollar of DoD’s obligational authority (FY 1982 = 1):

FY Index
1983 1.08
1984 1.13
1985 1.21
1986 1.17
1987 1.13
1988 1.11
1989 1.10
1990 1.07
1991 0.97
1992 0.97
1993 0.90
1994 0.82
1995 0.82
1996 0.80
1997 0.80
1998 0.79
1999 0.84
2000 0.86
2001 0.92
2002 0.98
2003 1.23
2004 1.29
2005 1.28
2006 1.36
2007 1.50
2008 1.65
2009 1.61
2010 1.66
2011 1.62
2012 1.51
2013 1.32
2014 1.32
2015 1.25
2016 1.29
2017 1.34

There was no inherent reason that defense spending couldn’t have remained on the trajectory of the middle 1980s. The slowdown of the late 1980s was a reflection of improved relations between the U.S. and USSR. Those improved relations had much to do with the Reagan defense buildup, of which the goal of attaining a 600-ship Navy was an integral part.

The Reagan buildup helped to convince Soviet leaders (Gorbachev in particular) that trying to keep pace with the U.S. was futile and (actually) unaffordable. The rest — the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR — is history. The buildup, in other words, sowed the seeds of its own demise. But that couldn’t have been predicted with certainty in the early-to-middle 1980s, when CBO and others were doing their best to undermine political support for more defense spending. Had CBO and the other nay-sayers succeeded in their aims, the Cold War and the USSR might still be with us.

The defense drawdown of the mid-1990s was a deliberate response to the end of the Cold War and lack of other serious threats, not a historical necessity. It was certainly not on the table in the early 1980s, when the 600-ship Navy was being pushed. Had the Cold War not thawed and ended, there is no reason that U.S. defense spending couldn’t have continued at the pace of the middle 1980s, or higher. As is evident in the index values for recent years, even after drastic force reductions in Iraq, defense spending is now about one-third higher than it was in FY 1982.

John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, was rightly incensed that analysts — some of them on his payroll as civilian employees and contractors — were, in effect, undermining a deliberate strategy of pressing against a key Soviet weakness — the unsustainability of its defense strategy. There was much lamentation at the time about Lehman’s “war” on the offending parties, one of which was the think-tank for which I then worked. I can now admit openly that I was sympathetic to Lehman and offended by the arrogance of analysts who believed that it was their job to suggest that spending more on defense was “unaffordable”.

When I was a young analyst I was handed a pile of required reading material. One of the items was was Methods of Operations Research, by Philip M. Morse and George E. Kimball. Morse, in the early months of America’s involvement in World War II, founded the civilian operations-research organization from which my think-tank evolved. Kimball was a leading member of that organization. Their book is notable not just a compendium of analytical methods that were applied, with much success, to the war effort. It is also introspective — and properly humble — about the power and role of analysis.

Two passages, in particular, have stuck with me for the more than 50 years since I first read the book. Here is one of them:

[S]uccessful application of operations research usually results in improvements by factors of 3 or 10 or more…. In our first study of any operation we are looking for these large factors of possible improvement…. They can be discovered if the [variables] are given only one significant figure,…any greater accuracy simply adds unessential detail.

One might term this type of thinking “hemibel thinking.” A bel is defined as a unit in a logarithmic scale corresponding to a factor of 10. Consequently a hemibel corresponds to a factor of the square root of 10, or approximately 3. [p. 38]

Morse and Kimball — two brilliant scientists and analysts, who had worked with actual data (pardon the redundancy) about combat operations — counseled against making too much of quantitative estimates given the uncertainties inherent in combat. But, as I have seen over the years, analysts eager to “prove” something nevertheless make a huge deal out of minuscule differences in quantitative estimates — estimates based not on actual combat operations but on theoretical values derived from models of systems and operations yet to see the light of day. (I also saw, and still see, too much “analysis” about soft subjects, such as domestic politics and international relations. The amount of snake oil emitted by “analysts” — sometimes called scholars, journalists, pundits, and commentators — would fill the Great Lakes. Their perceptions of reality have an uncanny way of supporting their unabashed decrees about policy.)

The second memorable passage from Methods of Operations Research goes directly to the point of this post:

Operations research done separately from an administrator in charge of operations becomes an empty exercise. [p. 10].

In the case of CBO and other opponents of the 600-ship Navy, substitute “cost estimate” for “operations research”, “responsible defense official” for “administrator in charge”, and “strategy” for “operations”. The principle is the same: The CBO and its ilk knew the price of the 600-ship Navy, but had no inkling of its value.

Too many scientists and analysts want to make policy. On the evidence of my close association with scientists and analysts over the years — including a stint as an unsparing reviewer of their products — I would say that they should learn to think clearly before they inflict their views on others. But too many of them — even those with Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines — are incapable of thinking clearly, and more than capable of slanting their work to support their biases. Exhibit A: Michael Mann, James Hansen (more), and their co-conspirators in the catastrophic-anthropogenic-global-warming scam.


Related posts:
The Limits of Science
How to View Defense Spending
Modeling Is Not Science
Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
Verbal Regression Analysis, the “End of History,” and Think-Tanks
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
AGW in Austin? (II)
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Words Fail Us
“Science” vs. Science: The Case of Evolution, Race, and Intelligence
Modeling Revisited
The Fragility of Knowledge
Global-Warming Hype
Pattern-Seeking
Babe Ruth and the Hot-Hand Hypothesis
Hurricane Hysteria
Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge
Much Ado about the Unknown and Unknowable
A (Long) Footnote about Science
Further Thoughts about Probability
Climate Scare Tactics: The Mythical Ever-Rising 30-Year Average
A Grand Strategy for the United States

Jonathan Swift Redux?

Bryan Caplan seems to be muscling in on Jonathan Swift‘s literary territory: satire. Consider Caplan’s post “Murder Equivalents“:

Economists’ [sic] have long struggled to get non-economists to put a dollar value on human life.  We’ve almost completely failed.  No matter how high the dollar value you use, non-economists hear callous minimization of human suffering.  Is there any way to quantify the magnitude of Awful without seeming awful yourself?

I say there is.  From now on, let us measure each horror in “Murder Equivalents.”  The Murder Equivalent of X, by definition, is the number of ordinary murders that would be just as bad as X.  The concept allows for the reasonable possibility that some deaths are less bad than a normal murder.  The Murder Equivalent of an accidental death, for example, might only be .5  The concept also allows for the reasonable possibility than some deaths are worse than a normal murder.  The Murder Equivalent for a death by terrorism, for example, might be 2.  A terrible war that lays a country waste might be twice the number of deaths from war crimes, plus the number of civilian deaths, plus .5 times the number of soldier deaths, plus one per $10 M in property damage.

Logically, this re-scaling is no better than a sophisticated Value of Life calculation.  Psychologically, however, it’s far better.  Comparing something to murder doesn’t sound callous.  Nor does it minimize the badness.  It only puts the world in perspective.  Many salacious front-page horror headlines are clearly less bad than one murder.  Thinking in terms of Murder Equivalents would help diffuse such distractions, reducing the risk of costly crusades against relatively minor problems.

Yes, I know that many people will angrily reject any metric that potentially implies their gut emotional reactions are unreasonable.  As usual, I’m working at the margin.  How can we get more people to think numerately about the horrors of the world?  Murder Equivalents is the best idea I’ve got.

Caplan’s modest proposal is Swiftian, even if it’s not meant to be. I refer, of course, to Dean Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, wherein the author (an Anglo-Irishman) “suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.”

Numerate thinking about the horrors of the world seems to belong in a category with Swift’s idea. Why, pray tell, is thinking numerately about the horrors of the world an improvement on thinking emotionally about them? An emotional reaction to horror is a valid reaction. Murder and terrorism are abhorrent, and ought not be smoothed over by equating them with accidental death or death by old age. Yet, that’s what Caplan’s cold-blooded alternative invites.

Death by old age is death by old age; death by accident is death by accident; death by murder or terrorism is neither, and can’t be calibrated with either of them by an arbitrarily assigned coefficient. Murder is an intentional act that can be deterred and avenged. (The best way yet devised of deterring murder is by executing murderers, swiftly (no pun intended) and surely. Not only does execution send a “message” to would-be murderers, many of whom will heed it, but it prevents murderers from murdering again.) Terrorism is an intentional act that can be prevented, deterred, and avenged, it’s not just another “risk” — like being struck by lightning — as some fatuous economists would have it. Murder and terrorism are not merely death by accident or old age with higher coefficients.

In any event, how would the coefficient (relative value) of death by murder or terrorism be assigned? By a know-it-all professor of economics like Bryan Caplan? Even a first-year student of economics could tell you that the only meaningful relative value is the one that results from a market exchange between a willing seller (the prospective victim) and a willing buyer (the prospective murderer). In a word: price. The problem (for Caplan) is that every murder would have a different price, and a lot of murders would have a price of infinity, because the prospective victims would be unwilling to be murdered at any price.

Pinker Commits Scientism

Steven Pinker, who seems determined to outdo Bryan Caplan in wrongheadedness, devotes “Science Is Not Your Enemy” (The New Republic,  August 6, 2013), to the defense of scientism. Actually, Pinker doesn’t overtly defend scientism, which is indefensible; he just redefines it to mean science:

The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.

After that slippery performance, it’s all smooth sailing — or so Pinker thinks — because all he has to do is point out all the good things about science. And if scientism=science, then scientism is good, right?

Wrong. Scientism remains indefensible, and there’s a lot of scientism in what passes for science. You don’t need to take my word for it; Pinker’s own words tell the tale.

But, first, let’s get clear about the meaning and fallaciousness of scientism. The various writers cited by Pinker describe it well, but Hayek probably offers the most thorough indictment of it; for example:

[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 blind transfer of the striving for quantitative measurements to a field in which the specific conditions are not present which give it its basic importance in the natural sciences, is the result of an entirely unfounded prejudice. It is probably responsible for the worst aberrations and absurdities produced by scientism in the social sciences. It not only leads frequently to the selection for study of the most irrelevant aspects of the phenomena because they happen to be measurable, but also to “measurements” and assignments of numerical values which are absolutely meaningless. What a distinguished philosopher recently wrote about psychology is at least equally true of the social sciences, namely that it is only too easy “to rush off to measure something without considering what it is we are measuring, or what measurement means. In this respect some recent measurements are of the same logical type as Plato’s determination that a just ruler is 729 times as happy as an unjust one.”…

Closely connected with the “objectivism” of the scientistic approach is its methodological collectivism, its tendency to treat “wholes” like “society” or the “economy,” “capitalism” (as a given historical “phase”) or a particular “industry” or “class” or “country” as definitely given objects about which we can discover laws by observing their behavior as wholes. While the specific subjectivist approach of the social sciences starts … from our knowledge of the inside of these social complexes, the knowledge of the individual attitudes which form the elements of their structure, the objectivism of the natural sciences tries to view them from the outside ; it treats social phenomena not as something of which the human mind is a part and the principles of whose organization we can reconstruct from the familiar parts, but as if they were objects directly perceived by us as wholes….

The belief that human history, which is the result of the interaction of innumerable human minds, must yet be subject to simple laws accessible to human minds is now so widely held that few people are at all aware what an astonishing claim it really implies. Instead of working patiently at the humble task of rebuilding from the directly known elements the complex and unique structures which we find in the world, and of tracing from the changes in the relations between the elements the changes in the wholes, the authors of these pseudo-theories of history pretend to be able to arrive by a kind of mental short cut at a direct insight into the laws of succession of the immediately apprehended wholes. However doubtful their status, these theories of development have achieved a hold on public imagination much greater than any of the results of genuine systematic study. “Philosophies” or “theories” of history (or “historical theories”) have indeed become the characteristic feature, the “darling vice” of the 19th century. From Hegel and Comte, and particularly Marx, down to Sombart and Spengler these spurious theories came to be regarded as representative results of social science; and through the belief that one kind of “system” must as a matter of historical necessity be superseded by a new and different “system,” they have even exercised a profound influence on social evolution. This they achieved mainly because they looked like the kind of laws which the natural sciences produced; and in an age when these sciences set the standard by which all intellectual effort was measured, the claim of these theories of history to be able to predict future developments was regarded as evidence of their pre-eminently scientific character. Though merely one among many characteristic 19th century products of this kind, Marxism more than any of the others has become the vehicle through which this result of scientism has gained so wide an influence that many of the opponents of Marxism equally with its adherents are thinking in its terms. (Friedrich A. Hayek, The Counter Revolution Of Science [Kindle Locations 120-1180], The Free Press.)

After a barrage like that (and this), what’s a defender of scientism to do? Pinker’s tactic is to stop using “scientism” and start using “science.” This makes it seem as if he really isn’t defending scientism, but rather trying to show how science can shed light onto subjects that are usually not in the province of science. In reality, Pinker preaches scientism by calling it science.

For example:

The new sciences of the mind are reexamining the connections between politics and human nature, which were avidly discussed in Madison’s time but submerged during a long interlude in which humans were assumed to be blank slates or rational actors. Humans, we are increasingly appreciating, are moralistic actors, guided by norms and taboos about authority, tribe, and purity, and driven by conflicting inclinations toward revenge and reconciliation.

There is nothing new in this, as Pinker admits by adverting to Madison. Nor was the understanding of human nature “submerged” except in the writings of scientistic social “scientists.” We ordinary mortals were never fooled. Moreover, Pinker’s idea of scientific political science seems to be data-dredging:

With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively.

As explained here, data-dredging is about as scientistic as it gets:

When enough hypotheses are tested, it is virtually certain that some falsely appear statistically significant, since every data set with any degree of randomness contains some spurious correlations. Researchers using data mining techniques if they are not careful can be easily misled by these apparently significant results, even though they are mere artifacts of random variation.

Turning to the humanities, Pinker writes:

[T]here can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate [sic] and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

What on earth is Pinker talking about? This is over-the-top bafflegab worthy of Professor Irwin Corey. But because it comes from the keyboard of a noted (self-promoting) academic, we are meant to take it seriously.

Yes, art, culture, and society are products of human brains. So what? Poker is, too, and it’s a lot more amenable to explication by the mathematical tools of science. But the successful application of those tools depends on traits that are more art than science (bluffing, spotting “tells,” avoiding “tells,” for example).

More “explanatory depth” in the humanities means a deeper pile of B.S. Great art, literature, and music aren’t concocted formulaically. If they could be, modernism and postmodernism wouldn’t have yielded mountains of trash.

Oh, I know: It will be different next time. As if the tools of science are immune to misuse by obscurantists, relativists, and practitioners of political correctness. Tell it to those climatologists who dare to challenge the conventional wisdom about anthropogenic global warming. Tell it to the “sub-human” victims of the Third Reich’s medical experiments and gas chambers.

Pinker anticipates this kind of objection:

At a 2011 conference, [a] colleague summed up what she thought was the mixed legacy of science: the eradication of smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. (In that study, another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science, public-health researchers beginning in 1932 tracked the progression of untreated, latent syphilis in a sample of impoverished African Americans.) The comparison is obtuse. It assumes that the study was the unavoidable dark side of scientific progress as opposed to a universally deplored breach, and it compares a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century, in perpetuity.

But the Tuskegee study was only a one-time failure in the sense that it was the only Tuskegee study. As a type of failure — the misuse of science (witting and unwitting) — it goes hand-in-hand with the advance of scientific knowledge. Should science be abandoned because of that? Of course not. But the hard fact is that science, qua science, is powerless against human nature, which defies scientific control.

Pinker plods on by describing ways in which science can contribute to the visual arts, music, and literary scholarship:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world.

As for literary scholarship, where to begin? John Dryden wrote that a work of fiction is “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot.

I wonder how Rembrandt and the Impressionists (among other pre-moderns) managed to create visual art of such evident excellence without relying on the kinds of scientific mechanisms invoked by Pinker. I wonder what music scholars would learn about excellence in composition that isn’t already evident in the general loathing of audiences for most “serious” modern and contemporary music.

As for literature, great writers know instinctively and through self-criticism how to tell stories that realistically depict character, social psychology, culture, conflict, and all the rest. Scholars (and critics), at best, can acknowledge what rings true and has dramatic or comedic merit. Scientistic pretensions in scholarship (and criticism) may result in promotions and raises for the pretentious, but they do not add to the sum of human enjoyment — which is the real aim of literature.

Pinker inveighs against critics of scientism (science, in Pinker’s vocabulary) who cry “reductionism” and “simplification.” With respect to the former, Pinker writes:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

It is reductionist to explain a complex happening in terms of a deeper principle when that principle fails to account for the complex happening. Pinker obscures that essential point by offering a silly and irrelevant example about World War I. This bit of misdirection is unsurprising, given Pinker’s foray into reductionism, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I examine here.

As for simplification, Pinker says:

The complaint about simplification is misbegotten. To explain something is to subsume it under more general principles, which always entails a degree of simplification. Yet to simplify is not to be simplistic.

Pinker again dodges the issue. Simplification is simplistic when the “general principles” fail to account adequately for the phenomenon in question.

If Pinker is right about anything, it is when he says that “the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.” The resentment, though some of it may be wrongly motivated, is fully justified.

Related reading (added 08/10/13 and 09/06/13):
Bill Vallicella, “Steven Pinker on Scientism, Part One,” Maverick Philosopher, August 10, 2013
Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes Against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013 (gated)

Related posts about Pinker:
Nonsense about Presidents, IQ, and War
The Fallacy of Human Progress

Related posts about modernism:
Speaking of Modern Art
Making Sense about Classical Music
An Addendum about Classical Music
My Views on Classical Music, Vindicated
But It’s Not Music
A Quick Note about Music
Modernism in the Arts and Politics
Taste and Art
Modernism and the Arts

Related posts about science:
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Modeling Is Not Science
Physics Envy
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Demystifying Science
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
The Candle Problem: Balderdash Masquerading as Science
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
The Glory of the Human Mind

Something from Nothing?

I do not know if Lawrence Krauss typifies scientists in his logical obtuseness, but he certainly exemplifies the breed of so-called scientists who proclaim atheism as a scientific necessity.  According to a review by David Albert of Krauss’s recent book, A Universe from Nothing,

the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.

Albert’s review, which I have quoted extensively elsewhere, comports with Edward Feser’s analysis:

The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how the energy present in otherwise empty space, together with the laws of physics, might have given rise to the universe as it exists today. This is at first treated as if it were highly relevant to the question of how the universe might have come from nothing—until Krauss acknowledges toward the end of the book that energy, space, and the laws of physics don’t really count as “nothing” after all. Then it is proposed that the laws of physics alone might do the trick—though these too, as he implicitly allows, don’t really count as “nothing” either.

Bill Vallicella puts it this way:

[N]o one can have any objection to a replacement of the old Leibniz question — Why is there something rather than nothing? … — with a physically tractable question, a question of interest to cosmologists and one amenable to a  physics solution. Unfortunately, in the paragraph above, Krauss provides two different replacement questions while stating, absurdly, that the second is a more succinct version of the first:

K1. How can a physical universe arise from an initial condition in which there are no particles, no space and perhaps no time?

K2. Why is there ‘stuff’ instead of empty space?

These are obviously distinct questions.  To answer the first one would have to provide an account of how the universe originated from nothing physical: no particles, no space, and “perhaps” no time.  The second question would be easier to answer because it presupposes the existence of space and does not demand that empty space be itself explained.

Clearly, the questions are distinct.  But Krauss conflates them. Indeed, he waffles between them, reverting to something like the first question after raising the second.  To ask why there is something physical as opposed to nothing physical is quite different from asking why there is physical “stuff” as opposed to empty space.

Several years ago, I explained the futility of attempting to decide the fundamental question of creation and its cause on scientific grounds:

Consider these three categories of knowledge (which long pre-date their use by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld): known knowns, know unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Here’s how that trichotomy might be applied to a specific aspect of scientific knowledge, namely, Earth’s rotation about the Sun:

1. Known knowns — Earth rotates about the Sun, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

2. Known unknowns — Earth, Sun, and the space between them comprise myriad quantum phenomena (e.g., matter and its interactions of matter in, on, and above the Earth and Sun; the transmission of light from Sun to Earth). We don’t know whether and how quantum phenomena influence Earth’s rotation about the Sun; that is, whether Einsteinian gravity is a partial explanation of a more complete theory of gravity that has been dubbed quantum gravity.

3. Unknown unknowns — Other things might influence Earth’s rotation about the Sun, but we don’t know what those other things are, if there are any.

For the sake of argument, suppose that scientists were as certain about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang as they are about the fact of Earth’s rotation about the Sun. Then, I would write:

1. Known knowns — The universe was created in the Big Bang, and the universe — in the large — has since been “unfolding” in accordance with Einsteinian relativity.

2. Known unknowns — The Big Bang can be thought of as a meta-quantum event, but we don’t know if that event was a manifestation of quantum gravity. (Nor do we know how quantum gravity might be implicated in the subsequent unfolding of the universe.)

3. Unknown unknowns — Other things might have caused the Big Bang, but we don’t know if there were such things or what those other things were — or are.

Thus — to a scientist qua scientist — God and Creation are unknown unknowns because, as unfalsifiable hypotheses, they lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Any scientist who pronounces, one way or the other, on the existence of God and the reality of Creation has — for the moment, at least — ceased to be scientist.

Which is not to say that the question of creation is immune to logical analysis; thus:

To say that the world as we know it is the product of chance — and that it may exist only because it is one of vastly many different (but unobservable) worlds resulting from chance — is merely to state a theoretical possibility. Further, it is a possibility that is beyond empirical proof or disproof; it is on a par with science fiction, not with science.

If the world as we know it — our universe — is not the product of chance, what is it? A reasonable answer is found in another post of mine, “Existence and Creation.” Here is the succinct version:

  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.

Another blogger once said this about the final sentence of that quotation, which I lifted from another post of mine:

I would have to disagree with the last sentence. The problem is epistemology — how do we know what we know? Atheists, especially ‘scientistic’ atheists, take the position that the modern scientific methodology of observation, measurement, and extrapolation from observation and measurement, is sufficient to detect anything that Really Exists — and that the burden of proof is on those who propose that something Really Exists that cannot be reliably observed and measured; which is of course impossible within that mental framework. They have plenty of logic and science on their side, and their ‘evidence’ is the commonly-accepted maxim that it is impossible to prove a negative.

I agree that the problem of drawing conclusions about creation from science (as opposed to logic) is epistemological. The truth and nature of creation is an “unknown unknown” or, more accurately, an “unknowable unknown.” With regard to such questions, scientists do not have logic and science on their side when they asset that the existence of the universe is possible without a creator, as a matter of science (as Krauss does, for example). Moreover, it is scientists who are trying to prove a negative: that there is neither a creator nor the logical necessity of one.

“Something from nothing” is possible, but only if there is a creator who is not part of the “something” that is the proper subject of scientific exploration and explanation.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps

Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life

Scientism is “the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation.” When scientists proclaim truths outside the realm of their expertise, they are guilty of practicing scientism. Two notable scientistic scientists, of whom I have written several times (e.g., here and here), are Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. It is unsurprising that Dawkins and Singer are practitioners of scientism. Both are strident atheists, and a strident atheists, as I have said,  “merely practice a ‘religion’ of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.”

Dawkins, Singer, and many other scientistic atheists share an especially “religious” view of evolution. In brief, they seem to believe that evolution rules out God. Evolution rules out nothing. Evolution may be true in outline but it does not bear close inspection. On that point, I turn to the late David Stove, a noted Australian philosopher and atheist. This is from his essay, “So You Think You Are a Darwinian?“:

Of course most educated people now are Darwinians, in the sense that they believe our species to have originated, not in a creative act of the Divine Will, but by evolution from other animals. But believing that proposition is not enough to make someone a Darwinian. It had been believed, as may be learnt from any history of biology, by very many people long before Darwinism, or Darwin, was born.

What is needed to make someone an adherent of a certain school of thought is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to that school, and are believed either by all of its adherents, or at least by the more thoroughgoing ones. In any large school of thought, there is always a minority who adhere more exclusively than most to the characteristic beliefs of the school: they are the ‘purists’ or ‘ultras’ of that school. What is needed and sufficient, then, to make a person a Darwinian, is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to Darwinians, and believed either by all of them, or at least by ultra-Darwinians.

I give below ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs in the sense just specified. Each of them is obviously false: either a direct falsity about our species or, where the proposition is a general one, obviously false in the case of our species, at least. Some of the ten propositions are quotations; all the others are paraphrases. The quotations are all from authors who are so well-known, at least in Darwinian circles, as spokesmen for Darwinism or ultra-Darwinism, that their names alone will be sufficient evidence that the proposition is a Darwinian one. Where the proposition is a paraphrase, I give quotations or other information which will, I think, suffice to establish its Darwinian credentials.

My ten propositions are nearly in reverse historical order. Thus, I start from the present day, and from the inferno-scene – like something by Hieronymus Bosch – which the ‘selfish gene’ theory makes of all life. Then I go back a bit to some of the falsities which, beginning in the 1960s, were contributed to Darwinism by the theory of ‘inclusive fitness’. And finally I get back to some of the falsities, more pedestrian though no less obvious, of the Darwinism of the 19th or early-20th century.

1. The truth is, ‘the total prostitution of all animal life, including Man and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute virus-like substances’, genes.

This is a thumbnail-sketch, and an accurate one, of the contents of The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins….

2 ‘…it is, after all, to [a mother’s] advantage that her child should be adopted’ by another woman….

This quotation is from Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, p. 110.

Obviously false though this proposition is, from the point of view of Darwinism it is well-founded

3. All communication is ‘manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender.’

This profound communication, though it might easily have come from any used-car salesman reflecting on life, was actually sent by Dawkins, (in The Extended Phenotype, (1982), p. 57), to the readers whom he was at that point engaged in manipulating….

9. The more privileged people are the more prolific: if one class in a society is less exposed than another to the misery due to food-shortage, disease, and war, then the members of the more fortunate class will have (on the average) more children than the members of the other class.

That this proposition is false, or rather, is the exact reverse of the truth, is not just obvious. It is notorious, and even proverbial….

10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle for life ‘do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.’

This is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81. Exactly the same words occur in all the editions….

Since this passage expresses the essential idea of natural selection, no further evidence is needed to show that proposition 10 is a Darwinian one. But is it true? In particular, may we really feel sure that every attribute in the least degree injurious to its possessors would be rigidly destroyed by natural selection?

On the contrary, the proposition is (saving Darwin’s reverence) ridiculous. Any educated person can easily think of a hundred characteristics, commonly occurring in our species, which are not only ‘in the least degree’ injurious to their possessors, but seriously or even extremely injurious to them, which have not been ‘rigidly destroyed’, and concerning which there is not the smallest evidence that they are in the process of being destroyed. Here are ten such characteristics, without even going past the first letter of the alphabet. Abortion; adoption; fondness for alcohol; altruism; anal intercourse; respect for ancestors; susceptibility to aneurism; the love of animals; the importance attached to art; asceticism, whether sexual, dietary, or whatever.

Each of these characteristics tends, more or less strongly, to shorten our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both. All of them are of extreme antiquity. Some of them are probably older than our species itself. Adoption, for example is practised by some species of chimpanzees: another adult female taking over the care of a baby whose mother has died. Why has not this ancient and gross ‘biological error’ been rigidly destroyed?…

The cream of the jest, concerning proposition 10, is that Darwinians themselves do not really believe it. Ask a Darwinian whether he actually believes that the fondness for alcoholic drinks is being destroyed now, or that abortion is, or adoption – and watch his face. Well, of course he does not believe it! Why would he? There is not a particle of evidence in its favour, and there is a great mountain of evidence against it. Absolutely the only thing it has in its favour is that Darwinism says it must be so. But (as Descartes said in another connection) ‘this reasoning cannot be presented to infidels, who might consider that it proceeded in a circle’.

What becomes, then, of the terrifying giant named Natural Selection, which can never sleep, can never fail to detect an attribute which is, even in the least degree, injurious to its possessors in the struggle for life, and can never fail to punish such an attribute with rigid destruction? Why, just that, like so much else in Darwinism, it is an obvious fairytale, at least as far as our species is concerned.

A science cannot be wrong in so many important ways and yet be taken seriously as a God-substitute.

Frederick Turner has this to say in “Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate“:

Does the theory of evolution make God unnecessary to the very existence of the world?…

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists’ sin. The evolutionists’ sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one….

The third sin is … dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some — who do not much care about it as such — to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state’s well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

And that is my issue, not only with the likes of Dawkins and Singer but also with any so-called scientist who believes that evolution — or, more broadly, scientific knowledge — somehow justifies atheism.

Science is only about the knowable, and much of life’s meaning lies where science cannot reach. Maverick Philosopher puts it this way in “Why Science Will Never Put Religion Out of Business“:

We suffer from a lack of existential meaning, a meaning that we cannot supply from our own resources since any subjective acts of meaning-positing are themselves (objectively) meaningless….

…[T]he salvation religion promises is not to be understood in some crass physical sense the way the typical superficial and benighted atheist-materialist would take it but as salvation from meaninglessness, anomie, spiritual desolation, Unheimlichkeit, existential insecurity, Angst, ignorance and delusion, false value-prioritizations, moral corruption irremediable by any human effort, failure to live up to ideals, the vanity and transience of our lives, meaningless sufferings and cravings and attachments, the ultimate pointlessness of all efforts at moral and intellectual improvement in the face of death . . . .

…[I]t is self-evident that there are no technological solutions to moral evil, moral ignorance, and the apparent absurdity of life.  Is a longer life a morally better life?  Can mere longevity confer meaning?The notion that present or future science can solve the problems that religion addresses is utterly chimerical.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science

Physics Envy

Max Borders offers a critique of economic modeling, in which he observes that

a scientist’s model, while useful in limited circumstances, is little better than a crystal ball for predicting big phenomena like markets and climate. It is an offshoot of what F. A. Hayek called the “pretence of knowledge.” In other words, modeling is a form of scientism, 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 Myth of the Model,” The Freeman, June 10, 2010, volume 60, issue 5)

I’ve said a lot (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) about modeling, economics, the social sciences in general, and the pseudo-science of climatology.

Models of complex, dynamic systems — especially social systems — are manifestations of physics envy, a term used by Stephen Jay Gould. He describes it in The Mismeasure of Man (1981) as

the allure of numbers, the faith that rigorous measurement could guarantee irrefutable precision, and might mark the transition between subjective speculation and a true science as worthy as Newtonian physics.

But there’s more to science than mere numbers. Quoting, again, from The Mismeasure of Man:

Science is rooted in creative interpretation. Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers, and interpreters are often trapped by their own rhetoric. They believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers.

Ironically, The Mismeasure of Man offers a strongly biased and even dishonest interpretation of numbers (among other things). When a leading critic of physics envy falls prey to it, you know that he’s on to something.