UPDATE: I left a comment after Kolossváry’s piece simply saying that I analyzed his argument in this post, and giving the link. That comment has been removed.
By now I’m well familiar with arguments that science, like religion, is based on faith. That argument is often made by religionists to try to drag down science’s epistemology to the level of religion’s, and it’s bogus. It’s bogus because, as I’ve argued before, “faith” in science really means “confidence based on experience”—which is not at all the same thing as religion’s “faith” as “belief without evidence.”
Now, however, a religious blogger at Patheos—a guest poster on The Evangelical Pulpit site—has taken the reverse tack, claiming that in fact decisions about good art, good music, and good religion can be made scientifically, on a basis identical to that used to adjudicate scientific fact. He is, of course, wrong.
What makes this claim—that objective truth is equivalent to subjective opinion—so weird is that it’s being made by a scientist, István Kolossváry. Here’s how he’s described (complete with the advantages he sees to faith) at the site:
István Kolossváry is a scientist and professor working in the research field of computer simulations of chemical and biological systems. He holds multiple advanced degrees from the Budapest University of Technology and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. István has been a researcher at various universities and pharmaceutical research labs in Europe and in the United States including Columbia University and most recently a New York based private research organization. He won the 2006 Hungarian Academy of Sciences Book Award in Chemistry for co-authoring Introduction to Computer Aided Drug Design. Over 25 years in his career as a scientist, István has privately grappled with the chasm between science and theology, two disciplines he holds dear. In his debut work The Fabric of Eternity, István shares results from years of scientific inquiry into the works of divine providence and concludes there is solid scientific evidence to suggest that rejecting God and His loving care is against human nature. www.istvankolossvary.com
And here are some arguments from his piece, “Is the scientific method exclusive to science?” It is an attack on some of the arguments in my latest book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. I’ll try not to spend a lot of time on this; I’m bringing it up only because Kolossváry makes claims one doesn’t see very often. Here’s his thesis:
. . . In this blog post I am not going to argue pro or con [whether “science is based on verifiable facts whereas religion is based on unprovable faith”], I simply want to advocate a straightforward generalization of the scientific method and suggest that it can be used beyond the scope of science, including the arts and religion. The way the scientific method works is quite simple, and it has been amazingly successful for the past five hundred years. Observation of natural phenomena and/or pure theoretical thinking (nowadays aided by computer simulation) lead to ideas that will crystallize in a scientific theory.
Jerry Coyne and the new atheists dismiss religion, because religion is based on faith and not fact. Interestingly, the new atheists, or nobody for that matter dismisses the arts, though. So, how is art tested? What works of art are refuted and what works of art are here to stay? I argue that art is tested by the same scientific method—with people replacing the apparatus in the experiment.
So how does this work? It’s by a consensus of subjective opinion!:
Some would say that the most sensitive experimental device is a pencil standing on its tip; the tiniest push would make it tip over. I would argue, however, that the human person is infinitely more sensitive and is an ideal instrument to experimentally verify artwork. Why do we listen to Mozart and not Salieri, what crystallizes the collection of pieces displayed in the great art museums of the world over time, and what works are delegated to the dungeons of underground storage, once acquired by museum curators as prospective works of art? The masterpieces of art are selected by the same scientific method, by how much they touch the souls of people and the selection process takes a long time, all too often beyond the years of the artist so he or she can enjoy success. The exact same thing in literature, what will determine which novels or poems people read a hundred years after they had been written? Bad literature, bad music, bad paintings are repudiated by the scientific method using people as the experimental apparatus.
Well, there are a lot of people who prefer Hemingway to Fitzgerald, and vice versa, and few people agree with my opinion that Thomas Wolfe was certainly in that 20th century pantheon as well. (In fact, English professors have told me that Wolfe was simply a bad writer, which I contest strongly!). I and some others thought the movie Tree of Life was pompous and execrable, but many critics deemed it a masterpiece. Who is right? How can we tell?
In truth, there is no consensus of opinion about art nearly as solid as the consensus that a normal water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms, or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. And how do you objectively resolve the question of whether Andy Warhol’s paintings were masterpieces, or that Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was also one? Public opinion on many of these issues vacillates (remember that many of Sinclair Lewis’s novels were once seen as masterpieces, but many find them hackneyed today, though he won a Nobel Prize for Literature). In contrast, many scientific “facts” are unlikely to change: they are as close to absolute truths as we can get. And when scientific consensus does change, it’s not just a shift in opinion, but a shift in opinion that reflects new data, as when we learned, from various methods, that the continents were actually drifting after all. What new data has led to Thomas Wolfe falling out of favor?
Now it is true—even likely—that some things appeal to people aesthetically because they evoke a neuronal reaction based on culture or evolution. E. O. Wilson, for example, has suggested that we prefer grassy landscapes with trees (and a view from a hill) because that was the landscape on which we evolved in Africa (and being on a hill has adaptive advantages). But does this mean that someone who prefers a desert landscape is wrong? We may find that preference for one type of painting versus another, say Rembrandt versus Jackson Pollock, rests on consistent ways the human brain is organized.
This may explain a consensus of opinion about art, but does it make Rembrandt objectively better than Pollock? What about the person who prefers Pollock? Can you say she’s just wrong? Surely not in the sense that the person who says that the Earth is 10,000 years old is wrong! And that is Kolossváry’s error. While subjective opinion may, at bottom, be grounded on objective facts about the brain, this does not mean that, in the absence of that information, we can accept the vagaries of human opinion about art as “true.” For brains differ, and opinions differ, and we all know that even are evolved preferences don’t make those preferences “right.” We may have evolved to be xenophobic, but in today’s world that doesn’t work so well.
Kolossváry then extends the “truth” argument to politics and religion:
Similar in political systems. The ones that people tolerate stay longer and the ones that oppress people will be thrown over, sooner or later. I believe that the same scientific method can be applied to religion. The new atheists don’t seem to understand the difference between God and religion and between faith and religion. We are talking about religion here, the main branches Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism with all their factions, and hundreds of other religions. Religion is a shared human response to God’s calling and it is a unique and precious human experience.
In this sense politics is like morality, which I believe at bottom rests on subjective preferences for what kind of society you want. If you favor democracy (or utilitarianism) because you think it has certain salutary effects, you can certainly test whether those effects really obtain, at least in principle. But in the end your preference for one political system (e.g., a Republican versus a Democratic administration) is based on preferences that cannot be objectively justified.
Religion is even worse, for one’s “preference” is, by and large, based on where you lived, and who your parents were. Which religion is “right” is an unresolvable question, at least by “scientific” methods, and Kolossváry makes it even worse by asserting, without any “scientific” evidence, that “God’s calling” really exists!
So if Kolossváry really thinks that a choice among religions—which one is better or “truer”—can be made on scientific grounds, let him justify that. For his method for “verifying” religions, which seems to mean which ones are “true” in a scientific sense (remember, he’s claiming here that one can “test” the verify of religions in the same way science tests its propositions) is ludicrous:
Religions are in large part man made, especially in their every day manifestations at temples, churches, mosques, congregations, assemblies, etc., and they change over time. What if not people would be best suited to test them? The scientific method can be applied to religions similar to the arts; the more they touch the human soul and the more they make people agents of good the more they are verified but when they do harm, they are repudiated. It is people who test religion through their ultra sensitive souls far more advanced than any man made instrument. The statement so loudly voiced by the new atheists that religions are irrational, simply does not stand to reason.
Well, if you claim—and this again is based on subjective preferences—that the effects of religion on human behavior should be X and Y, then that can n principle be tested as well. But defining what “agents of good” really do may be very different for a Quaker and for a radical Muslim! Many Muslims feel, for instance, that Islam, as the “final” revelation from God, is the right religion, and so it’s okay to call for the execution of gays and apostates.
Well, religion has been “tested” à la Kolossváry , and here are the results (again largely reflecting not people’s cogitation about different faiths and then choice of the “best” one, but simply the vagaries of history and geography). Religion has never been a matter of voting with your feet, but simply where your feet first touched the ground when you were a child.
Which religions have been “verified”, and which “repudiated”? I would claim that Islam is, at present, more harmful than Buddhism, but neither has been repudiated. Since there are more Muslims than Buddhists, does that mean Islam is a “better” or “truer” religion?
In truth, Kolossváry doesn’t even seem to know the difference between judging something by its effects and judging something as objectively true. His last sentence, saying that religions can’t be irrational, is confused in just that way: it mistakes the actions motivated by religion with whether their epistemic claims have any basis in reality.
h/t: Jeff G.