Saturday, June 09, 2007


I listened to a podcast lecture yesterday by Harvard history of science professor Steven Shapin. Shapin argues that science is becoming so loose a term used by so many – think creation science, scientology, etc. – and so few people live by science, that perhaps the term has lost all meaning, and certainly that the modern consciousness is not scientific.

He cites a number of sad statistics about Americans – that more than 90% believe in God, 82% believe in a physical Heaven, 84% believe in the survival of the soul after death, more than 50% reject evolution, that more than 25% believe the sun revolves around the Earth, and so on – as evidence that while people talk as if they respect science, they don’t actually know what it is.

Furthermore he states he has never heard a convincing definition of the scientific method. Which prompts this entry.

Let me start with an interesting point Shapin makes. He points out that at some point in our culture, scientists conceded some important ground to religion. They began to argue that science had nothing to say about morality, in fact that science and morality were mutually exclusive. Science was not about morality, and morality was not about science. They were all too willing to surrender the hard questions to the mystics and the divines, the priests and the pastors, because they had no scientific answers to offer.

One of my goals for this blog is to find a way to bridge science and morality, to show that morality can be explained through a range of scientific discoveries, not least of which was the work of Darwin and his intellectual descendents.

In part this is an epistemological question. Scientists, if they were worth their salt, learned early in their careers that absolute certainty had no place in science. Science is not the search for absolute truths – in fact physics has proven that all is in a state of flux and impermanence, and there are no absolutes.

Aware of this, and no doubt influenced by the religious cultures in which they were born and bred, scientists in the Enlightenment began to argue that their endeavors were much humbler and more practical than those of the spiritual leaders. They operated on a different plane.

Today in America one frequently comes across a curious belief that religious convictions are sacrosanct, above question, and that anyone has the perfect right to believe any sort of nonsense if it seems to have a “spiritual” basis. The rules don’t apply. It’s the split between faith and reason.

This split often shows up in the individual themselves. Something over 50% of American scientists, people who make their daily living from rationality, believe in a God, and seem quite comfortable with this split brain. Orwell called it double-think – the ability to firmly believe in two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Prof. James T. Hall cites a lecture he attended given by an evangelical. The speaker distinctly contradicted himself in his talk. When Prof. Hall questioned him on this, his reply was too the effect that, yes it was true that he had contradicted himself, but that didn’t matter, because “this is not science, this is religion.” Oh. OK then.

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