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Militant Scientism

October 7, AD 2015 5 Comments
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This is the first book in the “Spiral Arm” series.

One of my favorite series in science fiction is the “Spiral Arm” series written by Michael Flynn. This series is set in the future, during which mankind has colonized one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, only to fall into a dark age in which much knowledge and even technology is lost. The series takes place after mankind has re-established interstellar travel, and follows the adventures of several secret operatives of the two major interstellar governments of the spiral arm.

One interesting plot element used in this story is that men have recovered much of their forgotten technology, but not the underlying knowledge of how it works. Einstein and Newton and other famous historical scientists are invoked as gods whose decrees over nature are obeyed, and not merely men who discovered the laws of nature. It is a society skilled in engineering (or re-engineering) technology, but not in discovering knowledge about the universe or the understanding and creativity to develop new technologies. What is depicted is a high-tech and low-culture civilization, of sorts, and one whose technological prowess is advancing but lucky re-discoveries of old technology, and yet whose culture is stagnant at best.

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Or “sign the certificate,” or “legitimize the license,” etc.

I am reminded of these stories of a society on the edge of returning to decay whenever I read an essay like the recent article by physicist Lawrence Krauss in the New Yorker. There, Dr. Krauss calls on all scientists to become “militant atheists.” Though he devotes much of his article to discussing the recent jailing of Kim Davis and the Obama Administration’s assault on religious liberties—he is in favor of both—he does devote some space to discussing why he thinks that all scientists should become militant atheists:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

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Image source.

There is an old adage that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. A gentler error of the same sort is that when your only tool is a hammer, you tend to look for the nails and ignore things like screws, nuts and bolts, staples, etc. So too with scientism. Since Dr. Krauss has limited himself to using only science—or so he himself appears to be claiming—he becomes blind to anything which science cannot also see. The crux of Dr. Krauss’ argument—essentially, that God is not presupposed by any scientist in the process of “doing science” and thus is unnecessary to and ultimately precluded by science—has been amply rebutted by Dr. Feser:

“Is this a good argument? Only if this parallel piece of “reasoning” is also a good argument:

“Checkers is an atheistic enterprise. My practice as a checkers player is atheistic. That is to say, when I move a game piece across the board, I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my career as a checkers champ. In my more than thirty years as a checkers player, I have never heard the word ‘God”’mentioned at a checkers tournament. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of the game.”

“So, it isn’t just science—even checkers proves atheism! Who knew?

“Of course, the fallacy in the latter ‘argument’ is obvious. That we need make no reference to X in the course of doing Y doesn’t prove that X does not exist. We need make no reference to general relativity when studying dentistry, but that doesn’t cast doubt on Einstein’s discovery. We need make no mention of the physiology of tapeworms when engineering bridges, but that doesn’t mean that reports of people having tapeworms are all bogus. Similarly, the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful.”

Professor Krauss continues by stating that

“Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.”

This smug aside is not so much the crux of Dr. Krauss’ argument as its desired conclusion. Of course, where the argument fails, so must its conclusion. I am not here interested in investigating whether or why “science…draws people away from religion,” though any field which has as its current gatekeepers those who are hostile against religion will tend to have that effect on those who wish to enter that field. Instead, I true to the latter statement, that knowledge of the universe tends to dispel notions that there is a purpose behind the universe.

The idea of “purposefulness” is ultimately tied to final causality: the very thing which many scientists and would-be philosophers of science have attempted to banish from the endeavor of science! We could, in other words, re-phrase Dr. Krauss’ statement as, “The more committed we become to a philosophy which denies final causes, the fewer final causes we will discover.” Again, this is a rather tautological statement. Yet this is in essence what is being asserted by Dr. Krauss here.
Students Guide Natural ScienceOf course, even science cannot entirely escape from final causes, try as it might. It may not need to invoke final causes to be successful, though as Professor Stephen Barr and others have noted, there are final causes in science:

“Newtonian mechanics is also ‘mechanistic’ in the sense of dispensing with ‘teleology’ [1], which played so important a role in Aristotelian science. That is, in Newtonian physic the behavior of a system can be predicted without invoking any ‘final cause’ (any future ‘end’ towards which it is tending, or ‘goal’ towards which it is striving). Rather, it is enough to know the past state of a system and the laws of physics [3]. This fact contributed to the idea that nature is ‘bind’ and without ‘purpose.’ It should be noted, however, that a somewhat more teleological way of looking at Newtonian physics is possible. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…powerful ways were developed to reformulate Newtonian physics in terms of the so-called ‘least action principle.’ A similar principle for optics, called the ‘least time principle,’ had been formulated a century earlier by Pierre Fermat…The analogous principle in mechanics says that any system will evolve from its initial configuration to its final configuration by following the series of intermediate configurations (called the ‘trajectory,’ ‘path,’ or ‘history’) that minimizes the quantity called the ‘action’ (usually denoted S).

“This way of formulating Newtonian mechanics is mathematically equivalent to the older way or formulating it in terms of forces, in the sense that it gives exactly the same answers. However, the action-principle formulation is more beautiful, powerful, and profound. In the older formulation, one start off with as many ‘equations of motion’ as there are coordinates needed to specify the state of the system (and for a complex system that number can be exceedingly large). With the least action principle, however, one starts off with the single fundamental quantity, S, and the requirement that the trajectory minimizes it [which] allows one to derive all the equations of motion. One thus sees another kind of unification taking place: many laws (or equations) flow from a single dynamical ‘principle’ involving a single fundamental quantity.”(A Student’s Guide to Natural Science, pp. 44-45).

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Porpoises must pursue their final cause, their purpose, like everything else.

That there are final causes even in the sciences, indeed even in that hardest of sciences which is physics [4], should give pause to those who reject the very notion of final causes. And where there are final causes, there are hints and glimpses of purpose. But science as science does not train us to look for purpose—indeed, centuries of “modern” muddling have practically trained us to look away from purpose. Rather, modern science has long been concentrated upon efficient causes—the “what” and the “how” of the universes’ workings, but not the “why.” Science is descriptive but rarely prescriptive or proscriptive. These latter tasks fall to philosophy and theology, which can (and should) of course draw from the knowledge gained by science, by history, and even by simple experience when forming their judgments.

What Dr. Krauss and his ilk are advocating when he says that “all scientists should be militant atheists” is not science but rather scientism. It is not so much a matter of following the evidence provided by science as eschewing the possibility that we can gain knowledge through other avenues. It is to make the nakedly philosophical assertion that no philosophies matter, to embrace the dogma that there are no final dogmas. Down that road lies madness. Down that road, even science will ultimately find itself in ruins.

 

—-Footnotes—-

[1] In his conclusion, Dr. Krauss writes that

“I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered ‘sacred.’ Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may ‘offend.'”

While I agree with parts of this conclusion—we should strive to combat ignorance, since this is contrary to Truth—the context of this statement is ominous. He is arguing, in essence, that this pursuit of knowledge should trump the right of conscience and the right to life. As an ironic aside, he argues here that abortion is not a religious issue, but rather is a social one. This, after decades of hearing from the pro-abortion side about how it is not a social or political issue, but rather a religious one, and thus that it had no place in the public square.

[2] Teleology means the study of “telos,” that is, “ends.” That is, it is a study of final causes.

[3] Of course, “the system will do this in order to obey the laws of physics” is itself a sort of statement of final causality.

[4] To say nothing of the other hard sciences. Biology is replete with final causes, as Etienne Gilson shows in his From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again.

About the Author:

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

  • james

    Now, maybe you have just a hint of how ignorantly militant the church’s stance is by not giving the … ‘pseudo’ sciences of astrology, numerology, ect, the respect they deserve. These very ancient disciplines involve high mathematics and complex symbolism that reflect a …purpose.

    • Nate

      The Church is Gods body her magisterium is always right. We humans are flawed, sinful beings. It really bugs that people commenting here think they can question God. Whenever someone defends any traditional teaching they get attacked

      • james

        My point is science bashes the Catholic Church for its mythology, mysticism, and unproven metaphysical concepts. For longer than the church existed
        concepts involving the movement of stars and planets – think of three wise Men from the East and Math (numbers, numerology) – were in use. This
        author lamented the contempt science has for the Church while I pointed
        out the contempt the Church (and science) has for the former. The premise
        of the piece is why won’t science respect religion enough to investigate its
        concepts with respect while I asked for the same courtesy from the Church.

      • Nate

        I misunderstood you com

  • another post about Krauss’s screed (with interesting comments) has been given on Matt Briggs blog… see

    http://wmbriggs.com/post/16827/

    The point is that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. That, like other beliefs–esthetics, value judgments, why science works–is outside the realm of empirical testing, which is a crucial element for science.