There is one additional comment that I want to add at this point. It may seem harsh to describe the attitude to science that I have described above, which entails a de facto
rather than premeditated commitment to naturalism, as "godless". After all, there are many theists who share this attitude to science, and it doesn't prevent them from being theists. I was discussing evolution and the nature of science with just such a theist over dinner only two weeks ago. I'm sure he would take exception to his model of science being called "godless". He sees plenty of room for God to cause the "random" events that drive evolution.
There's a lot that could be said about this "God of the gaps" model, but for now I'd like to swing our perspective around in the opposite direction, to those who explicitly embrace naturalism as a foundation of science, and see it as necessarily
godless. The most candid and explicit example of this attitude that I know of can be found in Richard Lewontin's review of Carl Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
. In it, we find some extraordinarily robust claims about the nature of knowledge. For one, Science is "the only begetter of truth".
Second, to put a correct view of the universe into people's heads we must first get an incorrect view out. People believe a lot of nonsense about the world of phenomena, nonsense that is a consequence of a wrong way of thinking. The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of, for that vast project is, in its entirety, hopeless. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth. The reason that people do not have a correct view of nature is not that they are ignorant of this or that fact about the material world, but that they look to the wrong sources in their attempt to understand. It is not simply, as Sherlock Holmes thought, that the brain is like an empty attic with limited storage capacity, so that the accumulated clutter of false or useless bits of knowledge must be cleared out in a grand intellectual tag sale to make space for more useful objects. It is that most people's mental houses have been furnished according to an appallingly bad model of taste and they need to start consulting the home furnishing supplement of the Sunday New York Times in place of the stage set of The Honeymooners. The message of The Demon-Haunted World is in its subtitle, Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Immediately following this, we see our first glimpse of how this ties in to philosophical materialism, and how the supernatural is thus considered synonymous with ignorance, as I have argued earlier.
Sagan's argument is straightforward. We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities. The vast majority of us do not have control of the intellectual apparatus needed to explain manifest reality in material terms, so in place of scientific (i.e., correct material) explanations, we substitute demons.
It's not too surprising that philosophical materialism leads to "Science as the only begetter of truth" (or, in this case, that the latter is justified in terms of the former). Science is the study of the material world, and if you consider the material world to be the whole of reality, then science is the study of the whole of reality. This is a thoroughly naive view, of course: what of mathematics and logic, which are not material, yet without which there can be no science? Lewontin simply takes them for granted as truths, without conceding any ground to the supremacy of Science. Surely this is a problem, though? If mathematics and logic are truths which are not discovered through science, then they are exceptions to "Science as the only begetter of truth", and why should we think that they are the only
exceptions? No doubt Lewontin would want to pick and choose -- mathematics is in
, religion is out
-- but this starts to look like a case of picking favourites rather than rational argument.
But let's not dwell too much on the difficulties which appear under analysis. Philosophical materialism is superficially
supportive of Scientism, and this is the marriage we see here. But am I reading too much into this? Perhaps Lewontin has been exaggerating for effect? Not at all: he continues to drive the point home emphatically.
Most of the chapters of The Demon-Haunted World are taken up with exhortations to the reader to cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world. To Sagan, as to all but a few other scientists, it is self-evident that the practices of science provide the surest method of putting us in contact with physical reality, and that, in contrast, the demon-haunted world rests on a set of beliefs and behaviors that fail every reasonable test.
Science and the supernatural are presented as a dichotomy: a mutually exclusive and exhaustive set of alternatives. Sagan's message, says Lewontin, is simple: reject the "demons" and embrace naturalistic science. The dichotomy, however, is a shoddy one, philosophically speaking. Naturalism
and supernaturalism are a dichotomy, by definition alone. The idea that science necessarily entails naturalism is the unstated premise which takes us to a dichotomy of science
and supernaturalism. Lewontin does not use the language of logic, however: he says that supernaturalism has failed on some implied empirical basis, because it "rests on a set of beliefs and behaviors that fail every reasonable test." He also points out a widespread belief among scientists in the sufficiency of naturalism, as follows.
Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus. (I say "nearly" every scientist because our creationist opponent in the Little Rock debate, and other supporters of "Creation Science," would insist on being recognized.)
Again, this is superficially supportive of his position -- that is, until you remember that he presented a logical dichotomy, and the validity of that dichotomy rests on the idea that science necessarily entails naturalism. It's probably true that the bulk of scientists (most of whom haven't thought in any depth about the issue) consider mechanistic explanations to provide a fully sufficient account of observed phenomena, but even if that is so, it falls far short of establishing that science necessarily entails naturalism. Appealing to the intuitions of scientists on this matter seems like an unreliable method -- unless the idea was to present an argument from authority (in which case, "bravo, well played.")
Immediately following this, he makes an interesting distinction in relation to things believed for lack of evidence. This is interesting precisely because it is
We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in space ships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn't got any. On the other hand, if one supposed that they came from the planet of a distant star, the negative evidence would not be so compelling, although the fact that it would have taken them such a long time to get here speaks against the likelihood that they exist.
Note that the supernatural is not rejected for lack of evidence, but because of the alleged sufficiency of naturalistic explanations. Contrast this with little green men, whose existence would be an unequivocally material phenomenon. There, the lack of belief is justified by the lack of evidence. As I have said before, keep a close eye on this kind of thing: evidence against the existence of God can sometimes be presented as equivalent to evidence against the existence of little green men from Mars. Lewontin makes the distinction clear in this instance. The sufficiency of science is reiterated at the start of the following paragraph, for emphasis.
Sagan believes that scientists reject sprites, fairies, and the influence of Sagittarius because we follow a set of procedures, the Scientific Method, which has consistently produced explanations that put us in contact with reality and in which mystic forces play no part.
Lewontin goes on to talk about why he thinks Sagan's approach is not rhetorically effective. Much of what he says is interesting, but somewhat off topic given our analysis here. I recommend reading it, because it is quite candid about several things which those who take a position of scientism usually deny or downplay. I'll include one quotation, just to whet your appetite.
The standard form of a scientific paper begins with a theoretical question, which is then followed by the description of an experimental technique designed to gather observations pertinent to the question. Only then are the observations themselves described. Finally there is a discussion section in which a great deal of energy is often expended rationalizing the failure of the observations to accord entirely with a theory we really like, and in which proposals are made for other experiments that might give more satisfactory results. Sagan's suggestion that only demonologists engage in "special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble," is certainly not one that accords with my reading of the scientific literature.
This is a refreshing change from most who present The Scientific Method as the One True Path to Objective Truth. Usually the argument is based on the purity of The Scientific Method to protect against irrational contaminants. But here we have a scientist who admits that scientists are not above rhetorical games and rationalisations. It's like a breath of fresh air. In any case, after Lewontin has discussed the social impediments which hinder acceptance of Science as the One True Path -- impediments such as the counter-intuitiveness of some scientific claims, the failure to deliver on extravagant promises (e.g. cure cancer), and the prevalence of "just so" storytelling -- he explains that an a priori
commitment to naturalism is key to understanding why science is exalted above all else despite these foibles.
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
I don't think you'll find a more explicit statement of "materialism as premise, not conclusion" from a proponent
of Scientism anywhere else. It does raise some questions, though. Is it reasonable to hold to this premise so dogmatically and rigidly? The basis for the position seems to be that it is necessary for proper science (the "science entails materialism" thing again), but this idea is the one that has gone begging for support throughout our analysis. Will Lewontin now provide the missing argument? Surprisingly, no: the next thing Lewontin says reveals that the dichotomy isn't a dichotomy at all.
The mutual exclusion of the material and the demonic has not been true of all cultures and all times.
There's got to be a "but" coming soon, right? Well no, actually. What follows is a socio-historical explanation of how one US demographic came to resent another US demographic, and how the introduction of evolution into the national school curriculum came to be viewed as another part of that social conflict, setting the stage for an ongoing battle of materialistic science versus fundamentalism. This flows into a brief discussion of the problem of democratic governance, particularly the dissociation of political rhetoric from actual expertise. It's not discussed in enough depth to warrant much comment, and it leads only to a conclusion that the problem is difficult, and we don't know how to solve it.
Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
Obviously, this does not address the question we are asking here -- that of the relationship between science and naturalism -- so the problem remains. Reading between the lines, I can come up with no better justification than I already did in my previous post: the idea that "mechanistic explanations are better than supernatural ones", and thus an a priori
commitment to naturalism is nothing more than a commitment to seeking the best explanations.
It sounds reasonable, when put that way, but there are obvious difficulties. For one, naturalism is an ontological
commitment: it entails assertions about the existence (or not) of things, and puts those assertions beyond the possibility of scientific test, because it declares the naturalistic explanations better than the alternatives a priori
, without the need for specific case-by-case analysis. In other words, the explanation that life evolved from non-life through natural processes would be "better than" the explanation that God created life from non-life through an explicit act of intervention even if the former were false and the latter were true
. Surely any decent measure of "better explanation" is going to favour a true explanation over a false one?
At best, there seems to be a conflict here between Science as the "only begetter of truth", and the necessity of holding a naturalistic premise (or the use of naturalism to certify the science, which amounts to the same thing). The truth of the scientific conclusions will only be as good as the premises on which they rest, and the premises can't be verified by science.
In the final analysis, Lewontin's explicit premise of materialism seems either viciously dogmatic or detrimental to the idea that science is a reliable source of truth. I don't think he'd be happy with either choice in that dilemma, and I think that most proponents of Scientism shy away from giving materialism the status of "premise" precisely because they see this problem looming.