Blog, Religion + Spirituality

The Atheist Delusion: Why Science Is Not Always Rational!

The God killers are very popular these days!

I am referring of course to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Apparently, they have struck a deep chord with those who see religion as the fundamental source of all evil in the world and rationality and science as the only hope of saving ourselves. The only trouble is that Harris and Dawkins paint an overly one-sided view of religion, rationality, and science. On the one hand, they present religion in the worst possible light; on the other, they present a super idealized portrait of rationality and science. If Harris and Dawkins had merely limited themselves to criticizing and portraying religion in a bad light, I might have been able to go along with them.

I admit openly that I am deeply suspicious of, and even hostile towards, organized religion. While I am not religious in any sense of the term, I do consider myself deeply spiritual. In brief, I despise the dogma, the close-mindedness, the rigidity, and the bureaucracy of formal, organized religions. I dislike intensely how religions divide people and exclude those who are not members of the “faith.” But at the same time, I also recognize that religion was one of the most powerful forces in the Enlightenment, responsible for the very rise of science itself! Harris and Dawkins don’t talk much about this.

Although I have been a social scientist for over 40 years, my Ph.D. is in Engineering Science from U.C. Berkeley. The thing, however, that sets me apart is that while I was studying for my Ph.D. in Engineering, I took a three and a half-year minor in the Philosophy of Social Science. I was then and, to my knowledge, I am the only student since to have taken a minor in the Philosophy of Social Science while majoring in the College of Engineering. In truth, my minor became my major.

I am thus in a unique position to comment on the workings of rationality and science. Indeed, my first book, which was published in 1974, was entitled, The Subjective Side of Science. It was an intensive study of the Apollo Moon scientists over the course of the Apollo missions. It showed in no uncertain terms how science really works. It is not a pretty or a flattering picture of science. It certainly does present science as “fully rational.”

For instance, is anyone naïve enough to believe that the scientists—it turns out the very best—who are bold, creative, and smart enough to create a theory for the origin of the Moon will give up their beautiful theories just because the first-returned rocks from the Moon do not support them? Hell no they won’t! They will do everything in their power to reinterpret the evidence so that it supports their pet theories! They will even reformulate their theories so that the evidence is compatible with them.

The top 42 scientists that I interviewed repeatedly over the course of the Apollo Moon missions argued vociferously that outright bias played a very important role in science. It would not serve science well if a scientist abandoned his or her pet theories too soon. A scientist ought to abandon his or her pet theories only after he or she has done everything in his or her power to preserve them and the evidence against them is finally overwhelming, a process which could take years.

The point is that the vaunted objectivity of science is not—repeat not!—a property of individual unbiased scientists, for there are no such beasts. Instead, it is a property of the entire institution of science extending over hundreds and even thousands of years.

The great German scientist Max Planck famously observed that, more often than not, a new scientific truth does not triumph because it logically convinces its opponents, but because they die out and a new generation grows up—with new biases we might add! So much for the perfect rationality of science.

This does not mean that I do not believe in science. I do. It merely means that I recognize the limitations of science. After all, all-too human beings do science. In fact, in a lab experiment done some years ago, it was shown that Protestant ministers actually followed the dictates of the scientific method more that practicing scientists! Again, so much for the perfect rationality of science. In the end, I believe deeply in science as one of the best ways that humans have discovered to discover the truth. But, it is not the only way.

Even though I do not like religion, I recognize its truths as well. I do not take the “truths” of religion literally, but I do take them mythically and symbolically. I believe deeply in the power of myths to give meaning and purpose to our lives, a meaning and purpose that rationality and science cannot give.

Finally, something else bothers me about Harris and Dawkins. They seem to have no awareness that when they utter propositions like “Evolution is true everywhere” or “Evolution is one of the best theories that we have” that they are not making scientific assertions, but metaphysical ones. They have crossed over the line from science to philosophy. (As a grad student in philosophy, Harris ought to know better.)

Statements about the whole of reality—what reality is really like—are philosophical statements. They are not propositions that can be tested in the lab by science alone for they have to be assumed before science is even possible. One cannot observe through a microscope or a telescope that the Universe is ordered. All one observes is subatomic particles on the one hand, and huge galaxies on the other hand. One does not observe directly concepts, let alone metaphysical principles. Instead, it is the other way around. One has to assume philosophically, i.e., metaphysically, that the Universe is ordered in order to observe the Universe in orderly ways!

These assumptions are not only philosophical, but spiritual in the best sense of the term. To his credit, Harris openly admits that he is spiritual. Whether he is a “spiritual progressive” is another matter. Dawkins is consistently hostile to religion and to spirituality to the very end.

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