Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Trouble with Science Is That It Has Never Been Tried

I'm not yet quite halfway through Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative Account of Philosophy (Princeton, 2004), but so far it's very impressive, though disturbing in many ways.  At the point I've reached, Neiman shows that Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Kant, and David Hume were trying, not to vindicate Science and Reason as the legitimate heirs to religion, but to show that Science and Reason could not make sense of the world any more than religion does, and that the Enlightenment critique of religion was invalid in many important respects.

Hume, for example, wrote in The Natural History of Religion (1757):
Even at this day, and in EUROPE, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds them with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate cooperation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it [quoted by Neiman, 153].
The Argument from Design* has filtered down to the "vulgar" in our day: people who've never studied philosophy have invoked it to me, though usually as a reason why I should believe in an omnipotent creator, not why they believe in one.  As Neiman observes, "These sorts of claims concern psychology" (154), that is, why people find religious or other claims convincing, rather than the validity of the arguments used.  Natural religion, or natural theology as it was also called, was a somewhat confused philosophical project.  It was the work of educated people, rather than the "vulgar," intended to provide rational support for belief in God, though this generally led to a God who wasn't the god of Christianity.  But it was also meant, as Neiman shows, to produce a new religion, a rational religion, free of superstition and miracles and priests, that a modern rational person could accept.

This should sound familiar. When I was criticizing the philosopher Philip Kitcher's book Living with Darwin a few years ago, I connected him to nineteenth-century liberal Christianity, which was true enough; I forgot that he is also the heir to the philosophes a century earlier, who also thought that Reason and Science could govern the world much better than religion had.  But Hume seems not to have shared that illusion; he was, Neiman tries to show, as interested in demolishing the pretenses of Reason as he was those of Revealed Religion.
He described the innocent heathen's view of the doctrine of the Real Presence to suggest that mythological reasons do less violence to intellect.  Later he attacked most any form of conventional worship by suggesting that all ascribe to God "the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion]".  But traditional dogma was an easy target in England.  The Dialogues were bolder.  They proceeded to show that the natural religion allegedly founded on common sense is in fact less reasonable than other hypotheses.  As myths go, monotheism is not only less salutary but less scientific than alternatives.  Natural inductive procedures will lead us to polytheism [Neiman, 156].
Hume, like Voltaire before him, showed that the world does not make sense, and that Reason is of limited use in dealing with its senselessness.  (That he used Reason to demonstrate that isn't self-contradictory; that a tool is only of limited use doesn't mean it's of no use whatever.  I can't build the Great Pyramid using only a hammer, but that doesn't mean I can't use it to drive a nail.)  This is the road where modern non-theist scientists and philosophers generally prefer not to follow Hume.  They're happy to applaud his demolition of revealed religion, but they mostly have great faith in reason.  So we get revivalists like Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye arguing that science can resolve moral problems like abortion, or how to govern a society.  In a free country they're as entitled to bloviate as any minister or Pope, but they have no authority in these subjects and shouldn't be taken seriously.  G. K. Chesterton famously declared, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."  But as the Christian writer Graham Shaw riposted in The Cost of Authority (SCM / Fortress, 1982) , this is "glib deceit." 
It gains its plausibility from the guilty awareness of all believers of the distance between profession and life, but if true it would be a devastating verdict on Christianity.  Few ideals have so preoccupied the imagination of men, or inspired more utter devotion.  If therefore the ideals are still untried, it may well be that they are inadequate to guide men through the complexities of life.  The same simplicity which gives them their imaginative power to haunt and obsess may also condemn them to ineffectiveness in actual life [5].
Reason and Science may not have been as widely popular as Christianity, but they have inspired many, and certainly their devotees would also claim that they have not failed but found difficult and left untried.  But that, to the extent it was true, would also be an indictment of those who claim to speak in the name of Science and Reason, but unscientifically and irrationally; even dishonestly.

Scientists will concede, a bit uncomfortably I think, that science has not been an unmitigated source of Good in the world.  True, Science has given us vaccines and rockets to the moon; it has also given us atomic bombs and eugenic sterilization.  Like Christian apologists, they will protest that it's not their fault or the fault of Science, it's because Men have misused Science to their evil ends.  (That's the Problem of Evil: Why do Men do bad things, and why does Science let them?  Because we don't have free will!) No True Scotsman comes in handy: those who did these bad things were not True Scientists or Christians.  To the extent that this is true, it undercuts the claim that Science (or Christianity) is basically Good; at best they should be judged neutral, without inherent moral content or consequences.  Since Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears to be the big celebrity scientist nowadays, I'm going to focus on his well-intentioned but blundering attempts to deal with this problem.

Tyson told NPR:
You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective ... leading nations into battle. No, that doesn't happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there's this little speck called Earth and you say, "You're going to what? You're on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?" ... Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
Here he is saying that "the cosmic perspective" would direct us better than whatever its opposite would be.  Of course, any religious believer could also claim to possess or have access to "the cosmic perspective."  The cosmic perspective on war can be found in the Bhagavad-Gita, and was summed up by whoever said "Kill them all, God will know His own."  Tyson, however, was talking about a perspective that he presumably associates with science.

But he also told a Scientific American blogger,
Lastly, you speak as though all War is bad. I tend to agree with you on a personal level. But I know as a matter of political awareness that not all wars are unjust and some wars are, in fact, worth fighting. Many scientists who serve military interests do so because they believe deeply in the value of their work to the security of our country
So maybe you will find someone with the cosmic perspective leading, or at any rate following, nations into battle.  I think as a description of reality, whether religious or scientific, that's more accurate than Tyson's fantasy about the moral effects of the cosmic perspective.  But the real problem is how we mere laypersons are supposed to tell who truly grasps the cosmic perspective and who doesn't.

This is a more serious problem.  On the one hand Tyson has denounced attempts by religious believers (whom he represents as "a few," though they probably greatly outnumber scientists in the US) to "control the behavior of everyone else." "That's no longer a free democracy," he says, though I wonder if we've ever had one by that criterion.  On the other, Tyson believes that "astrophysicists should be under no obligation to poll the public. I don't care how deeply affectionate you felt for these objects [the former planet Pluto, in this case] that we had talked about."

Still, alas, in America scientists are at the mercy of the dang sheeple.  In theory, at least.  So Tyson told Scientific American, "I can scream at lawmakers without limit, but their duty is to serve their constituents. And so it’s the electorate that I, as a scientist and educator, will always target for my messages."  I've pointed out before how doubtful it is that the lawmakers' constituents are the electorate, but at the moment I'm more interested in how Tyson feels as a scientist about public input into the science budget.  Scientists tend to view any restrictions on funding for their research as an intolerable infringement of their freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead them, no matter how far, and have greatly lamented the decline in government spending on science since the end of the Cold War.  Tyson admits that he directs his persuasive efforts to the electorate, but his successes appear to have been through patronage from our elites. Contrary to liberal Democrats' view of George W. Bush and the Republican Party as anti-science, Tyson told the Daily Beast,
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress. What does Congress do? Allocate money. That’s really what they do. So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent—and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.

Also, he appointed me! There may have been some science that he hadn’t learned yet or didn’t know fully, but he’s not creating legislation based on it. Speeches are politics, so you can’t fault a politician for saying something political.
What the voters want, then, doesn't matter much, nor does Tyson think it should.  I can understand his position, but it hardly bespeaks a devotion to either Reason or "free democracy."

Education, including science education, is also accountable to the voters, so it may not be surprising that the general population doesn't accept Science as much as Tyson and other scientists would like.  Large numbers of people, not just the few of whom Tyson speaks, don't believe in non-theistic Darwinian evolution.  That's mostly because of resistance to teaching it in schools below the university level, I know, but I can't help wondering whether part of the problem might also be that science isn't taught all that well.  Rather like history.  Remember that students' ignorance about historical facts has remained the same since the first research into the topic a century ago.  In history class students mostly are forcefed propaganda; in science class they dissect frogs and do basic experiments of the kind that physicists did before Galileo.  Under those circumstances, is it surprising that they don't understand the neo-Darwinian synthesis?  One thing I feel pretty sure of, though: you won't teach evolution or persuade people to accept it by the vitriolic abuse that constitutes so much public discourse on science education by liberal and progressive writers.  Whatever else you can say about it, that rhetoric does not model rationality.  Neither do Neil DeGrasse Tyson's less than coherent ramblings about science and society.

It might be argued that the trouble is scientists' and secularists' failure to be rational; if they were, their counsel would be faithful and true, and we could look to them to lead us infallibly into the future.  Maybe so, but they claim to be rational already, and again I wonder how I am supposed to tell whom to believe and follow.  The same dilemma is presented by religion, even if you limit it to one religion.  There is wide disagreement about what Christianity, for example, teaches about specific issues, a disagreement that goes back to the earliest days of the cult.  There are no authorities on whom we can rely without question.

We might start by teaching critical thinking from elementary school onward, but that course would meet fierce opposition from the religious and the non-religious alike.  Besides, it doesn't seem that reason and science now have the knowledge needed to make decisions, any more than religion does.  Rationalists have faith that someday all will be understood, and all manner of thing will be well; I think that's Pie in the Sky, and it doesn't help us in the meantime anyway.  For now we must recognize the limits of both science and reason.  That doesn't mean abandoning them for religion -- which religion? which minister or pope or mullah or lama?  That Darwinian evolutionary theory has serious problems doesn't mean that Genesis or some other creation myth of your choice is true.  Refusing to admit the limits of one's wisdom and knowledge is a common fault of both religion and science, despite the lip service both pay to that admission in principle.  Reason won't save us, nor will religion; we must make our own decisions and judgments, knowing that we make them from incomplete and inadequate knowledge.

This, I think, is the point of Sartre's existentialism, not the blank-slate vacuousness Mary Midgley ascribes to him.  But I'll go with something like Walter Kaufmann's version, as he developed it in Without Guilt and Justice: we must decide; no one else can do it for us; we must think hard about our choices but in the end we must act (even refusing to act is an act). If we turn out to be wrong we must take responsibility for our action and do our best to repair or ameliorate the damage.  If you have a better idea, let's discuss it.

Which brings me back to Evil in Modern Thought. Modern philosophy emerged, Neiman argues, from attempts to resolve the Problem of Evil.  Christianity can't do it; indeed, the Problem of Evil is a particular stumbling block for conventional Jewish and Christian monotheism, and the rationalist project showed this forcefully.  But that was a negative result; rationalists couldn't prove how we ought positively to deal with the painful finitude of human existence.  I'm looking forward to seeing how Neiman's account proceeds.

*Antony Flew argued, I think correctly, that it would better be called the Argument to Design rather than the Argument from Design, since  involves arguing from the regularities we see in the world to claim that they must be the result of design rather than happenstance; the move from there to a Designer is less of a leap.