Thursday, August 9, 2012

Something Worth Watching

The technical and scientific attitude has produced a certain kind of certitude… this has give humankind a certain freedom from anxiety and superstition, a certain power… but now there is a temptation to view as reasonable and therefore as serious only what can be corroborated through experiment and computation. This means that the moral and the holy no longer count for anything.

In the Beginning, 61

Reflection – Science and technology work. That is a principle argument, as I grasp it, of the New Atheists as they first (falsely) oppose science and religion, and then come down on the ‘side’ of science on that basis.

It works. Scientific experimentation leads to discoveries that translate into inventions and medicines that do what we want them to do. And so science is true. And because religion does not produce inventions and medicine, it is not true, or at least there is no reason to consider its truth claims seriously.

I think I’ve done justice to the New Atheist position there. If I have not, I am committing the logical fallacy of the straw man, which is the bane of the internet and much public discourse today: misrepresenting your opponent’s position and then critiquing your misrepresentation.

It is difficult for me to give a fair accounting of atheism, as I have little natural sympathy for the position. There’s not much atheist in me, and one of the hardest thing to do is give a fair rendering of a position that you have little respect or liking for.

At any rate, I think I did OK here. But the New Atheist position is so illogical! First, there is no real opposition between religion and science, and hence no need to choose one over the other. The actual practice of science proceeds on atheistic grounds—that is, science can only be done by seeking natural explanations for events—but there is no reason whatsoever that a scientist cannot be a person of faith. Many are. And there is no logical opposition whatsoever between scientific method and religious truth.

Meanwhile, the statement that ‘x is true’ does not immediately entail ‘not-x is false’. The truth of x precludes the falsehood of anti-x, not other truths besides x.

Simply because our reason works in one direction, towards material reality, in such a way as to understand and manipulate it, we cannot say on that basis that our reason can only work in that way. It is illogical and arbitrary to limit reason to scientific computation and experimentation, simply because we know those things work.

Humanity has 3000 years (and counting!) of reasoning about God, humanity, morality, the meaning and purpose of life, and this reasoning has produced, not toasters and TVs, but an outpouring of poetry, music, art, architecture, literature of unsurpassed beauty. Science gives us the i-pod; religion gives us Bach. Science gives us TV; religion gives us Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Eliot, Dickens… something worth watching, in other words.

In other words, the atheist arguing that ‘science works’ has weighted the scales by subtly defining the word ‘works’ in a narrow way that nobody really accepts. Who wants a world filled with technological gadgets and gizmos if there’s nothing worth doing with them? Who wants a world of medical interventions and life-saving treatments if life itself is a meaningless mess?

In other words, religion ‘works’, but in a wholly different way and according to a wholly different metric than science. Yes, religion does not produce certitude in the way science does. Yes, religion’s ‘products’ are of a different kind than science’s, and the mode by which religion begets all these cultural human artifacts is indirect and diffuse.

I won’t even go into the argument that one of the artifacts of religion is… well, science. For now, let’s leave it that the atheist argument that only science works and therefore only science is credible is illogical, arbitrary, and unproven. And hence (irony alert!) unscientific.