Monday, January 17, 2011

Science versus nonsensisms

I originally began this piece with just religion in mind but some months afterward, I wrapped it up with other varieties of “woo” in mind.

When theists take part in “science-vs-religion” arguments, they tend to try one of two things:

1. Show religion to be useful in the way science is useful.

2. Show science to be useless in the way religion is useless.

The second one sounds silly, but it’s actually a much more popular line of argument these days.

Examples of the first one would be: “Albert prayed for rain and it rained”, or “Sarah used the Bible Code to predict the stock market with breathtaking accuracy.” This contingent of arguments is pursued by a large minority, but tends to make more “sophisticated” believers cringe, because they are all too aware of what religion’s track record in those areas really looks like when an actual empiricism is applied. Hence, sophisticated theists prefer variations of the second line of argument.

The second line of argument involves many phrases which have become canards. “Scientists have faith too.” “Scientists still don’t know (the origin of the universe)/(the basis of mathematics)/(how to cure the common cold).” (And non-scientists do?) “Science is really another religion, with its own close-minded hierarchy of orthodoxy-defending priests.” “Science doesn’t answer the questions that matter.”

It’s been pointed out that the “Science (and/or atheism) is another faith” argument is generally delivered in an oddly sneering tone, rather than the welcoming tone with which theists usually praise such things as faith and religion. However, this is not entirely an inconsistency on the theists’ part. Rather, the argument as a whole is that something-like-faith is inescapable — all assertions about reality are “faith-based” in some non-trivial way. Hence, science has no better claim to “truth” than anyone else, at least empirically and in certain bodies of knowledge (especially those which directly concern us humans, like how our minds work). Then, within the realm of this thing called “faith”, one finds not only science but a plethora of religions. Now, since all these worldviews are really faith-based, one must use faith-based means to tease them apart and rank their efficacy. The “faith” criterion first makes the Bible is as good as a science textbook, after which some other faith-based criteria (which are almost never specified) render it superior.

In the course of that last paragraph, we drifted away from “sophisiticated” theists to the thinking of the hard-core literalists, but this is partly in keeping with the actual continuum of mindsets, ranging from a genial NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria), to a mild distaste for but resignation to science, to an outright declaration that one’s religious method serves as superior to the current scientific method. (I say “current” because different literalists will differ on the subject of whether science itself is at fault, or whether current institutions, a different beast from “real” science, are simply doing science incorrectly.)

When one pursues the arguments long enough, the fuzzy, “deep” wording must either vanish or give way to more concrete assertions, because a true discussion cannot be had with fuzz. If the only response recieved is “Whatever works for you, man”, then there is little that can follow such a rejection of truth in favor of an inconsistent politeness. For example, is my skepticism as valid as your credulity, or is it only the world’s relgions, spiritualities, and psuedosciences that earn this gracious acceptance? Often, it seems the answer is that everyone except atheist rationalists are okay (despite apparent contradictions among all the other groups) because “you have to believe in something.” Specifically, in something whose actual existence can only be believed in and never shown — solely believing in the apparently real stuff makes you boring and/or intolerant.

It’s like insisting that everyone root for a sports team, and it doesn’t matter which team or what sport, so long as the players and equipment are invisible, inaudible, and otherwise beyond the realm of empirical detectability. Cold materialists, why do you hate the Fighting Unicorns so?