A challenge to the common Humanist argument that science is not like a religion
Author’s Note: This article of mine exploring the similarities between science and religion, or rather exploring the ways that science and religion are typically thought of and operate in the world, was published in 1997 in The Humanist, the magazine of the American Humanist Association. The article has been one of the most frequently quoted I’ve ever written, and has been the subject of some rather “interesting” attacks and interpretations around the internet — usually based in some pretty fantastical misinterpretations of my ideas or strange assumptions about who I am and what I believe. There was also an article that was written by a woman who is either my coincidental parallel universe soulmate or simply someone lifting my ideas very generously without deeming fit to cite me or pay me a royalty, in a 2006 Harper’s Magazine review of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Anyway, since Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the whole pseudo-scientific “rational” attack on “religion” has only snowballed into mega-fame since then, I’m re-posting my old article about the topic.
Contrary to popular belief, the world is not round. And the tale of the world’s alleged roundness is not the only mythology that modern science has passed onto mass culture. It is this dubious role as “mythological web spinner” that science and rational thinking play in our broader culture and in actual human lives which many Humanists often avoid exploring.
The 1996 Humanist of the Year, Richard Dawkins, for example, in his article, “Is Science a Religion?” in the January/February, 1997 issue of The Humanist, has a tendency to speak very glowingly about Science with a capital ‘S’ and Rational thinking with a capital ‘R’. He speaks about Science being “based upon verifiable evidence,” and “one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines,” and about it having “none of [religion’s] vices.” But is all this the actual reality of science as it is practiced in the world, or is all this a reified, idealized, and almost mystically fantastical dream about What Science Might Be In a Perfect World? After all, if we distill almost any prominent religion down to its capital ‘R’ form, it will always claim to be about living intelligently, rightly, honestly, based in Truth, etc. Sounds pretty nice. But of course, when we assess religion as a whole, we look at what it is in actual practice. We factor in the advocation of genocide on page 237, the way the hierarchy of experts creates blind followers, and the way the whole vast conceptual structure is founded on some highly questionable assumptions which often lead to unnecessary wars. Humanists go through this process because in the final analysis, Humanists care most not about idealized concepts, but about real people and actual lives. So if we want to compare science and religion fairly and objectively, let us not compare Science The Fantasized Ideal to religion in human reality, but science in human reality to religion in human reality. And here is where the role of science as spinner of myths, as deluder of the masses, as intensely repressive force, must be confronted.
So let us look for a moment at the actual role of science and rational thinking in human society.
Scientists once widely believed that the world was flat. ‘There is ample proof,’ they said. And they had proof. Objectively, the world looked pretty flat, particularly on prairies and next to oceans. People did not fall off or feel like they were upside-down anywhere on the planet. No one had proof they had ever gone around the world. In fact, people had so much confidence in this line of rational thinking that when others began to argue the world was round, they were often looked upon with extreme skepticism, as evangelical believers in fantastical gobbledygook.
‘Rational thinkers’ have not always been the most insightful and open-minded of people. Throughout history, ‘thinking rationally’ has often become a guise for repressive attitudes towards the new or unconventional.
Indeed, science and rational thinking have had a dubious and ragged history in our culture, exhibiting a constant and sometimes savage battle between the ‘rational’ and the ‘radical.’ Many scientists — most famously the early promoter of hand-washing, medical doctor Ignaz Semmelweiz — were widely ridiculed for their speculations about invisible creatures that caused illnesses. Even by the time Einstein was being awarded the Nobel Prize, relativistic mechanics was still so controversial amongst physicists that he was instead given the award for other aspects of his work. Which is to say, well into this century a plethora of top scientists still believed in Newtonian mechanics as the best model for activity in the universe and were much more interested in adapting the old model to the new evidence than in accepting a radically new model. Which is not at all unlike the process religious institutions have often used as they have tried to adapt to changing times: retain the old system of beliefs, but slightly revise it so it coincides more readily with new, contemporary beliefs and observations. And indeed, the history of science does not, as Dawkins implies, show simply a vast group of reasonable people testing each other’s theories in warm camaraderie. The history of science has often been and continues to be and will continue to be a history of completely debunking established belief systems by positing entirely new belief systems in their place, or significant progress more often by revolution than evolution. And because science has always been so heavily founded in vast, systemic views of the world, the mainstream scientific community has always been extremely, I would argue repressively, conservative when confronted with radical new notions which threaten to change too much too fast. Again, it acts much like its institutional brethren in the religious field. Americans need only look to the 1950’s and 60’s in their own country to see a virtual plague of cases of scientists involved in advocating the banning of scientific books and the dismissal of professors, victims including the likes of Wilhelm Reich, Timothy Leary and Linus Pauling.
Meanwhile, through all the political struggling over the years, the ultimate issues of Fact and Truth have remained elusive due to fundamental problems within the whole nature of Science and Rationality (with a capital ‘S’ and a capital ‘R’). These deep quandaries within science and rational thinking are perhaps best made explicit with reference to Descartes, that quintessential enlightenment thinker. Descartes sought to remove all mythologies and assumptions in order to build a philosophical system based on objectively verifiable fact. When he felt he had removed all his assumptions, he stated that all he knew for certain was that he existed. He thought and felt that he existed, after all, and even if he were utterly insane, there would still have to be some thing which was insane; therefore he must, indeed, one way or another, exist. From this cornerstone in objectively verifiable, undeniably rational, scientific fact, Descartes went on to rationally build an entire philosophical system which even, amazingly enough, proposed the existence of God. There was only one problem. Descartes forgot all about the second option: that he might actually be utterly insane. After step one, he simply ceased considering that as a possibility.
‘Insane’ seems a bit of a harsh moniker to toss on a long-deceased gentleman philosopher, but certainly one could argue that he was not being altogether clearheaded. His momentary lapse of rigor let him go on to continuously neglect a host of assumptions he was making: that he was rational, that thinking was a reliable tool, that it was not worth questioning what “I”, “to think,” and “to exist” really meant, and so on.
And this brings us to the basic, underlying problem of science and rational thinking as a whole. It may all just be plain wrong. Ultimately, what we call ‘rational thinking’ may just be a highly sophisticated and powerful method of self?delusion, and we do not have an experiment we can conduct to definitively prove or disprove that.
In typical Humanist fashion, Dawkins asserts: “Science is based upon verifiable evidence.” This is partly misleading. Science uses verifiable evidence, but in the final analysis it is based on working assumptions and faith. For example, let us use his example of evolutionary theory, which is, of course, also a cornerstone of much Humanist thought. Dawkins says that he believes in evolution because the evidence for it is “overwhelmingly strong.” In this case, he is using the apparent facts to concoct a theory. This is acceptable science. But his facts may be wrong or misinterpreted, and his theory may be misguided. A Creationist could simply say, “God has made it appear as though evolution has occurred.” Yes, indeed, this argument gives us a hypothesis based in blind faith that is extremely difficult to verify or rebut, but then, it merely exposes how much the belief in evolutionary theory is ultimately based on a similar kind of blind faith. It shows there is no definitive, final proof for evolution, either. There are just a lot of suggestive facts that make some of us formulate an argument, every bit as tautological as the quote-the-Bible-to-prove-Creationism-is-right arguments, which goes something like this: “Evolution seems to have occurred; therefore, evolution has occurred.”
In truth, what proof do we have that anything about science is correct? Most of us point to technology as evidence, but technology is also just a reflection of science successfully using apparent facts, not establishing their Objective Truth. Technologies may come about as a result of scientific discoveries and hypotheses, but just because something works does not mean our theory about why it works is right. Just because we all get monthly electric bills for our toasters does not conclusively prove that our current model of electronic activity is correct. It simply means that, regardless of whether we are right or not, our suppositions work well enough for us to not really care. Toast is toast and we are hungry. And that is remarkably similar to what many religious believers may say, is it not? Christians know they cannot objectively prove that God does indeed enter the hearts of all who truly believe in Him, but as far as the believers are concerned the process works well enough! Believe He is in ye, and ye do indeed feel Him in ye. The religious joy of the television audience unravels and the checks roll in, and they do not really care that they do not ‘ultimately, objectively’ know. They are hungry, and wafers are wafers.
As we see, then, religion in our society is a rather pragmatic, rational activity, albeit one based on some inherently questionable presuppositions. And that is a reasonable description of technology as well.
When it comes right down to it, we do not have a clue if our current model of electricity is ultimately correct or not, any more than we can be completely certain of anything else. Sure, we have lots of evidence to suggest our theories might be close to being accurate about certain things, but ultimately, we could be simply insane. Or, to put it in more scientifically-friendly and historically verifiable terms, we may not be quite insightful enough yet. We do not know what is holding this universe together or blowing it apart, and we do not know what the essence of material substance is nor where to find it. We do not know why there is something as opposed to nothing at all, nor why that ‘something’ seems to obey certain physical laws at times.
Still, Dawkins contends that “the main vice of religion . . . is faith”, and by that he implies blind faith, or faith which allows no questioning at all. When contrasted with blind faith, science is clearly a more open?minded pastime. But it may not be that blind faith is religion’s main vice, because it is arguable whether that is even the kind of faith that most religious believers have. As Dawkins himself points out a little further on, religion, in a sense, has always been “bad science.” Religion has sought to “offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence.” This is the point. For the vast majority of people, religion is not a blind faith; it is more like a messy hodgepodge of rational and mystical beliefs, unconscious assumptions and genuine convictions borne of differing amounts of analysis and reflection. This is the main vice of religion, and it is precisely here that we see the dividing line between religion and science fading completely. Because science does not exist in a perfect world, either. Scientists can be tired, ornery and incredibly irrational when they wake up in the morning; they do lie, they do falsify data, they do have moral beliefs strongly directing their investigations, they can be greedy, they may well have weak powers of logic while no one else has the time or money to debunk their arguments, they may well use statistical data that is misleading or that can be misinterpreted, etc etc.
Dawkins does have a response to this, however. He suggests that the definitive difference between scientific zealots and religious ones, is that scientists are “content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don’t kill them.” Well, many, many religious believers are content to simply argue, too. So it is with acute irony that Dawkins interprets the troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East as evidence of the dangerous “virus of faith,” while failing to note the extraordinarily important and equally powerful role played in the physical violence and emotional fervor in these places by modern weaponry and communications systems; by the relentless march of science and technology through cultures. Which is truly more destructive, the half-baked religious belief that fires a missile, or the half?baked rationality that constructed the missile in the first place?
The central problem with rational thinking then, is that it may not work much better than religion when it comes to fundamental issues of truth and understanding of life. Just because we believe it works better, we think it works better, and people who believe in rational thinking believe they have proof that it works better, does not necessarily raise rational thinking above the level of a remotely tolerant religion.
Rational thinking is a tool which seems to help with powerful effectiveness on a very superficial level of human functioning. (You want toast, we can give you toast.) But a total prescription for understanding oneself, the world, or for founding a philosophy of life it is not. (What is toast? Should toast be considered the be?all and end?all?) Not unless you are the kind of person who is content to merely believe moral and ontological statements without much questioning, until someone convinces you to believe something else. If you are not that kind of person, if you are eager to live a life based on continually learning and discovering and not on accumulating beliefs of any kind, then you must confront the shaky foundations upon which rationality is based as you explore the essence and nature of life and existence.
If we really wish to go beyond the mythologies and illusions that the mind projects, beyond the half-baked theories it routinely spews, fights to defend, and only much later discovers to be false, then we must find ways to understand the world and ourselves which go beyond rational thinking. Rational thinking obviously has an important role to play in the modern world, in thinking, in science, in functioning, and in discussion, but the truly serious person must at all times be skeptical. We must always be exploring and discovering that which lies beyond the rational, inside and outside ourselves; we must be open to the possibility of the new and the radical. Such a person can then be touched by art, by meditation, by the experience of the sensual and so much more. Many well?known rational thinkers, like Einstein, have spoken much of sudden inspiration and spontaneous insight; quasi?indefinable things which apparently also reach beyond the rational.
And why is it so important to always be exploring that which lies beyond the rational? Because we want to understand the world, and rationality alone cannot do that. Rationality possesses dangerously deceptive qualities due to its inherent superficiality and its need to always have working assumptions. It must be tempered with far less tangible things like eager open-mindedness, sensitivity, insight, enduring affection, and rigorous skepticism. Truly straight lines, after all, are just a mythological theory. Nobody has ever seen one. And contrary to the popular myth that science has propagated, the world is not round. From a distance, it looks somewhat like a pie. Other learned knowledge will suggest a sphere. The actual fact of the matter seems to be that it is a rugged, erratic, uneven, unnamable shape which, when its surface is made relative to its overall bulk, gives the appearance from a distance of being somewhat round?like.
Now, if you are the kind of person who always calls a line that runs from the floor of Death Valley up across the Himalayas and down into the deepest holes of the Pacific ocean and back up across the Rockies a smooth and constant convex curve, then hey, I yield to your mystical, God-given level of insight into these matters. But I still might suggest we go out for a long, meditative hike one day and explore it for ourselves before we start telling people what shape the world is, and how best to look at it.