Three ideological confrères produce a questionable piece of accommodationism

February 16, 2022 • 1:30 pm

The Heterodox Academy has a subgroup, Heterodox STEM, which deals with “heterodox” views of STEM—most of them being criticisms of the new “woke” initiatives that are invading the sciences. Heterodox STEM has a Substack, too, where you can see a number of people standing up against the “successor ideology”. A splendid example of that is Ilya Revakine’s recent post, “On Cancel Culture and Anti-Semitism in Academia”, a defense of the opprobrium that descended on Anna Krylov et al. after they posted an honest-to-good reviewed critique, “Scientists must resist cancel culture” in the chemistry-news journal Nachrichten der Chemie. In fact, most of Heterodox STEM seems dedicated to resisting cancel culture in science, and I’m pretty much on their side.

I was thus surprised to see an accommodationist and pro-religious piece on the site, which you can read by clicking below. You’ll recognize the last author, Dorian Abbot, as our University of Chicago professor of Geophysical Sciences, whose “heterodox” views on DEI got him into trouble with his department here (the administration stood by him), and then, because of his views, he was disinvited from a prestigious invited lecture at MIT that had nothing to do with DEI. That caused a huge kerfuffle that even made it into the New York Times. Abbot was badly treated then, and it’s brought a lot of shame on MIT.

Here, though, Abbot espouses accommodationist and religious views in a piece written with two co-authors: Daniel Selvaratnam, a Research Fellow in autonomous systems at the University of Melbourne, and Wesley Farrell, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy. (Farrell recently wrote another piece on the site, “Cancel Culture in Science is Real.”)

It’s in the spirit of collegial debate, then, that I offer a critique of their piece, a piece that tries to show that both religion and science offer valuable methodologies to contribute to our understanding of the universe. I would normally tell the authors to read my book, Faith versus Fact:Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, as well as my 2013 piece in Slate, “No Faith in Science“,  but what fun would that be?

Since “heterodox” means “going against accepted opinion or beliefs”, and because accommodationism really is the norm in America (though not necessarily among scientists), I offer a critique that is both heterodox and, I hope, constructive.c

The piece makes a number of claims that I’ve discussed in my book, but let me lump them into three categories. The bold headings are mine, while the arguments of Selvaratnam et al. (henceforth “SFA”) are indented—with the exception of my quote from Slate given further down.

Claim 1. Science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why questions.” SFA:

At a fundamental level, science is a methodology for the discovery of knowledge about the natural world designed to answer the question, “how?,” which is the true question the young boy on the beach was asking. But science cannot, even in principle, answer the deeper question of the grown man: “why?.”  As Bishop Robert Barron has argued, “though the sciences may be able to understand the chemical compounds that make up paper and ink, the sciences will never understand the meaning of a book.” We can investigate the physical properties of the book using science, but the ideas within it, the meaning of the symbols, the eternal truths or errors that may be held within those pages, simply cannot be reduced to an arrangement of molecules. The same is true for art.  We can explain with basic physics how the violin makes noise of a certain pitch, but are completely at a loss when we attempt to explain why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is beautiful using the scientific method. Nor can science provide us with a framework to tell the difference between right and wrong.  Consider Fritz Haber.  A German scientist, Haber won the Nobel Prize for his role in the development of industrial synthesis of ammonia, a revolution that has saved billions from starvation. Yet this same invention was used to manufacture munitions, and Haber also used his scientific talents to develop poisonous gasses that led to the slow and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands in the First World War.  Science did not provide an ethical or moral framework for Haber because it cannot: it is merely an amoral method we can use to increase our knowledge about nature.

. . . All of this is to say that, not only is there no inherent conflict between science and Christianity, but the Christian worldview actually motivates and supports the scientific enterprise. Both science and Christianity are systems of thought based on logic, reason, and evidence which complement and build off each other. How much greater is the believer’s wonder at creation given its tremendous magnitude and complexity that have been revealed by modern science? How could science work without the axioms that flow naturally from Christianity, and what ultimate motivation could we have for doing it? Whereas science excels at answering “how?” questions and has dramatically improved the physical conditions under which we exist, Christianity deals with “why?” questions, motivates the fundamental assumptions necessary to do science, and provides us with a reason to continue existing at all.

As you’ll see, SFA tout Christianity as being able to answer the “why” questions, and so we have two nonoverlapping magisteria, or NOMA as Gould called them. Religion and science can snuggle together happily, after all.

But in fact this is not the case. As I show in FvF, religion does ask “how” questions, as many religions are grounded on factual beliefs—beliefs that in principle could be tested and, if they can’t be disproven, there’s no reason to accept them. In fact, the faith extolled by SFA, Christianity, makes many statements of fact: Jesus lived, he was divine and the son of/part of God, he was crucified and then resurrected, and by accepting this fact and taking Jesus as our saviour we are vouchsafed eternal afterlife. Indeed, you can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t accept those “truths”.

And here are some “how” issues that are empirical claims, and are even mentioned by SFA:

The Bible makes two profound claims that are relevant to science. First, that the universe was created by a good, powerful, and wise Creator, who endowed it with structure and beauty, and constantly upholds it by his power.

. . . The second Scriptural claim is that man is both flesh and spirit. We are flesh, and so our bodies are subject to the laws of physics. But we are not only flesh. As spirits, we have a God-given ability to reason, to search for truth, and to discover the God who made us in his image. This worldview provides truly fertile ground for robust scientific inquiry. Within it, our five axioms are no longer arbitrary. Science has flourished in the West, not in spite of its Christian foundation, but precisely because of it.

Let’s leave aside the dubious claim that Christianity kick-started science (in fact, it impeded science for centuries, and, in the form of creationism, still does so). Neither of the claims above can be tested, and, if you’re a Bayesian, you might even claim that the priors of Christianity are low, for there’s precious little evidence for a “good, powerful, and wise creator”. (The world is a mess, and little kids die all the time for no discernible reason.) Likewise, there’s no evidence for “spirit”, which is undefined except that it seems to have something to do with our ability to reason, which of course can be explained by evolutionary biology.

Further, religion doesn’t answer the “why” questions, for every religion has a different answer to questions like “why is there physical (or moral) evil in the world.” Why did humans appear? Why should we behave morally? In the end, all of these “why” questions have a simple answer: “Because God wanted it that way.” But that’s no answer.  For it leads to other “why” questions like “why is there a god” and “why does God want us not use contraceptives?” Further, if you ask for evidence for such a God, accommodationists punt, saying, “We don’t need no stinking evidence, we have faith.” But more on faith later.

Many philosophers have shown repeatedly that religion is not itself a source of ethical beliefs but a filter for them. As Plato showed in the Euthyphro Dialogue, asserting that “God is good” raises the questions, “Is God good because everything he dictates is good? Or is God good because he decrees a set of values and actions that seem to us a priori good?. And the latter was Plato’s answer. We have a pre-God-ian idea of what “good” is, and have constructed our god to comport with that.

Yes, you can derive ethics from whatever dictates your God has, but every religion has a different species of morality. If you’re a Catholic, you see homosexual acts as a grave sin that will send you to hell, Not so for many other faiths. If you’re a Muslim, you’re morally obliged to kill apostates and to many sects, women must cover their bodies lest they excite the lust of men.  Religious “morality” dictates what you eat, what you wear, what you eat, and who and how you have sex with. The alternative—humanistic morality, or simple secular ethics—is not even considered by SFA as a valid way of addressing “why” questions, and even there we have the problem that all morality is, at bottom, subjective, based on what you see as desirable or undesirable. But those who argue that religion is our fount of ethics seem unaware of the long history of secular ethical philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks and through Spinoza to modern philosophers like Grayling and Rawls.

In the end I’ll say this:

Religion doesn’t answer the why questions, it addresses them. Religion has no way to answer “why questions”

In contrast, science can and does answer the how questions.

I don’t think I need to list the “how” questions science has answered.  I’ll give just one: “how can we immunize people against Covid-19?”

Claim 2. Both science and religion are based on “faith”. ASN:

Some believe that science is a superior alternative to faith. But if we peer a little deeper, we see that the scientific method actually requires a great deal of faith before it can even get off the ground. For example, here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:

  • The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.
  • Our observations provide accurate information about reality.
  • The laws of logic yield truth.   
  • The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.
  • Truth ought to be pursued.

None of these can be proved by science; they must be assumed in order to do any science at all. They are articles of faith. The fourth point especially bears elaboration. Our ability to think rationally must be assumed before any of our thought processes can be trusted. [JAC: See Pinker’s new book, Rationality, as a refutation of this argument.] Without this assumption, we can get absolutely nowhere. Though every human must make it, critically, not all worldviews are capable of supporting it. Consider that no other rational species exists on Earth or has yet been found in the entire universe. Clearly evolution cannot be relied on, or even expected, to produce rational beings. Moreover, if all our thoughts are simply the product of chemical reactions, governed solely by the laws of physics, then there is no reason for them to have any correspondence with the truth. Assuming that we can think rationally, the atheist’s account of our origins offers us compelling reasons to doubt the validity of that very assumption.

This discussion is familiar to me, and because I saw it so often I wrote the Slate article nearly a decade ago to clarify the difference between the usage of “faith” in science and “faith” in religion. I’ll quote myself here:

A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason. Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion.

But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:

“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”
“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”
“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”
“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”

All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

In contrast, the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

To reiterate: religious faith is based on scripture, religion, and authority, and is impervious or immune to empirical verification. Mark Twain put it bluntly: ““Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” To be charitable, I’ll amend that to “Faith is believing things for which you have no evidence, but that belief satisfies your emotional needs.”

Science, on the other hand, starts with assumptions that are tested over time to see if they help us understand the cosmos in a way that comports with other people’s understanding. There’s only one kind of science, which is based on assumptions that have been justified because they provide further empirical understanding. Or, as Richard Dawkins said, “Science works, bitches!”

In contrast, there are a gazillion religions, no two of which have identical beliefs, truth claims, and moralities. There’s no way to know which one is right. But there is a way to know whether the continents move or are static, whether infectious diseases are caused by airborne “humors” or microorganisms, and whether a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms or eight. That way is science. There is no way that religion can tell us the truth about reality, and, in fact, theology has not advanced an iota in the last millennium. Do we know more about God than Aquinas or Augustine did? Not a whit. We just have a lot more fruitless lucubrations that have provided employment for theologians.

SFA, then, seem misguided when they assume that the “faith” we have in science (assumptions that bring confidence when they are repeatedly justified) is the same thing as the faith they have in religion (beliefs that are neither evidenced nor justified).

As for Science Faith Claim #5, “Truth ought to be pursued”, that differs from the other claims because it’s an “ought” rather than an “is”. I’d argue that that “ought” is justified by utilitarianism—that if you want to cure diseases and improve well being and understand how the planets move—you have to pursue truth. Science works, bitches.

Finally, the last claim, which can be disposed of easily:

Claim 3. Science and religion are compatible because there have been famous religious scientists. SFA:

The assumption that God’s creation is not random and chaotic, but rather orderly and rational, was necessary for scholars to begin to pursue knowledge via what is now known as the scientific method (see Theology and the Scientific Imagination by Amos Funkenstein).  Even atheists today implicitly make use of this fundamental assumption.  And it also explains why so many deeply religious people have been among the most important scientists historically.  For example, Galileo, despite his differences with the Church, was a pious Catholic. Newton, although certainly not an orthodox Christian, was nevertheless a believer.  James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin were both devout Presbyterians, with Kelvin commenting that “[t]he more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe science excludes atheism. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion.” Gregor Mendel made some of the most important contributions to the theory of genetics, and was also an Augustinian friar.  The Big Bang was first theorized by Belgian priest Georges Lamaitre. Examples abound.  The view that science and Christianity are incompatible is not only incorrect, it is disproven by history.

Yes, and you can argue that science and pedophilia are compatible because some famous scientists were pedophiles (Schrödinger is the latest one accused of this). The fact is that humans can hold two incompatible ideas in their head at the same time, and that fact does not make those ideas compatible. When Maxwell went into the lab, he discarded his religiosity and practiced science, as all good scientists do, as an atheistic discipline, with no need to consider gods or the supernatural. But when he went to church, he suddenly accepted a bunch of palaver that even small children can see through. Does that fact make science and religion compatible? I don’t think so. But you can read a fuller discussion of all of these questions in Faith Versus Fact.

Finally, why am I taking issue with three colleagues whom I’ve joined in a campaign to keep STEM free from ideology? Simply because I think faith is also a bad “ideology”. It does bad things to the world by misleading people, setting group against group, and, most of all, making people think that they can apprehend reality through revelation, authority, and scripture. Faith and science are not only incompatible, but opposites.

35 thoughts on “Three ideological confrères produce a questionable piece of accommodationism

  1. I love Heterodox Academy, but HeterodoxSTEM unfortunately turned out to be an absolute dumpster fire (unlike one of the other communities that I belong to), and I decided to leave the group.

    For those who are curious about Heterodox Academy, its main goal is to promote constructive disagreement. It’s true that many members are opposed to ‘woke’ ideology (because woke ideology is often take-no-prisoners and its followers quite often practice cancel culture) and a disproportionate amount of time is spent discussing this, but it is not the raison d’etre of HxA. HxA exists to ensure that the academy recognizes the value of viewpoint diversity in the pursuit of truth, the core arguments in favour of which are laid out in chapter 2 of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.

    The University is in trouble, and I would recommend that any faculty member join HxA.

  2. The fundamental error of that op-ed, and glaringly common in North American articles, is this Eurocentric conflation of ‘God’, ‘Christianity’, ‘spirituality’, and ‘meaning’. If I can play Nirvana’s advocate, the historical Buddha’s first noble truth was ‘the root of all suffering is desire’. Which means the historical Buddha was not espousing a religion, or a ‘God’, but a sociological truth.

    And these Christians have a desire to make their God supreme, and their belief systems supreme, and this leads to a whole lot of suffering. To say nothing of a 6 : 3 Biblical advantage in your US Supreme court, which leads to a whole load of idolatrous questionable rulings.

    1. “Which means the historical Buddha was not espousing a religion, or a ‘God’, but a sociological truth.”

      It’s not a truth; it’s just a tautology. Desire is suffering, and suffering is desire. If I desire food, it’s (usually) because I’m hungry. If I don’t eat for long enough, i will start to suffer. Notice how I’m not applying this to material goods/luxuries. People usually desire to make their lives more livable. If there are too many things you lack, your life is not as livable as it could be, or you could even die. What you desire is dependent on what level of life you live. If you’re a starving African child, you desire food and water. If you’re a millionaire, you desire more money to make your life even more comfortable and fun, or you desire to do good works because that makes you feel good. But, even if you donate every moment and cent you have, you’re doing it because it makes you feel good, and we all desire to feel good, whether we’re starving or have billions in the bank.

      Yes, if I don’t have food for long enough, you could say my mind’s reaction to starvation is a “desire” for food, and, by extension, my “desire” is the cause of my “suffering.” But, here in the world where the great Buddha doesn’t matter a whit, I desire food so my body can continue to function. I desire water so I don’t become dehydrated. I desire an education because I desire a good job, because I desire money, because I desire a more comfortable life, and to be able to support charitable causes and people I care about. Yes, it’s a sliding scale of what is desired, and why, but it all goes to the same place: we desire things that we think will make us feel better, and we can’t simply stop desiring, because stopping “desire,” at least in the sense of that quote you brought up, is committing suicide. THAT is the logical endpoint of that quote from the Buddha. And that is why the idea of not “desiring” makes absolutely zero sense.

      It’s something that sounds deep and profound, but is neither.

      Let’s not replace one religion with another, eh? And let’s not say, “the historical Buddha,” as if that legitimizes anything written under that supposed person’s name as more truthful than something written by the more mythical “Jesus.”

      1. ‘stopping “desire,” at least in the sense of that quote you brought up, is committing suicide. THAT is the logical endpoint of that quote from the Buddha. And that is why the idea of not “desiring” makes absolutely zero sense.’ Actually if you consider non-existence to be a better state than existence it makes perfect sense. And note that it is possible to come to the conclusion that not existing is better than existing without any religious dogma, think of antinatalism (See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/14/anti-natalists-childfree-population-climate-change ).

        1. Oh, I agree! In fact, I would say that suicide — or, in more palatable terms, the cessation of existence (after all, we are each mere versions of the human being — a collection of atoms, electrical signals, and chemical reactions that form a “consciousness — and that consciousness ceases to exist when we die, just as it didn’t exist before we were born) — is not a negative thing at all, in isolation. Cessation of consciousness is neither good nor bad in itself, and may be good if (1) the conscious person lives a life of suffering and would rather not live at all, and (2) his death would not diminish the quality of life for the people around him more than the loss of quality of life he experiences as he continues to live.

          But that is definitely not what the Buddha or religion that grew around him teaches.

        2. And, just to be clear, I am not an antinatalist. I think human life has value based on the value it holds for any given human, as well as that of the people around him. But a life, taken in complete isolation (which is impossible), is not “worth” anything.

    2. Yes, Buddhism, like Deism, is a quite different kettle of fish to the Abrahamic religions. Both, for example, downplay, or flat out reject miracles.

    3. I don’t see any reason to accept any organized superstition’s claims that their myths describe actual history – as we know they shouldn’t and don’t – and especially with mythological founders. Conveniently they are all claimed to exist before written history, this example of the very many is no exception. And it isn’t until after the invention of the printing press that we se that they are suddenly all snake oil salesmen in history – who would have known!? 😉

      What these myth collections describe is fluid and decidedly not “noble” in any meaningful sense of the word. But at the core of them all are magical ideation. In this short myth excerpt reference we have magic of object “essence”, human “soul”, “afterlife”, “rebirth”, and of universal states of “pain” and “no pain”. None of that exist empirically – on the contrary organisms are biochemical cell machinery. Organisms inevitably reproduce and die – cease to exist as organisms – in evolutionary populations, and pain is a physiological state that can be expressed in animals.

      Don’t forget that philosophical “truth” states depends on the axiom set context – same as in math where such logic is often used – while facts do not have such dependency. I doubt the described magic is a sociological “truth”, whatever that context is supposed to mean, or if it refers to supposed fact that sociology is just mistaken.

  3. “Faith is believing things for which you have no evidence, but that belief satisfies your emotional needs.”

    I find that quite charitable indeed – emotional comfort has high hedonic value. That comfort can impede further insight, of course. And lack of emotional comfort can also make your life more difficult. But I think that’s a good and honest and charitable notion.

  4. I’ve never understood the “science cannot deal with “why?” questions” claim.

    Why did the elephant head towards the water hole? Because it was thirsty.

    What is unscientific or non-scientific about that?

      1. Yes, agreed. I presume Jerry is well aware of this, but their (likely) reply would presume a “foundational” view of science. In this view, we have to start with axiomatic assumptions, such as logic and the idea that we are rational and that observations tell us about the world. Science is then built on that edifice. This assumes a one-way direction of validations. They would then regard it as cheating to use down-stream conclusions about Darwinian evolution to validate the foundational axioms, in the same way that a house’s roof cannot support the foundations.

        But this view is wrong. Neurath proposed a much better way of thinking about it, with his analogy of a floating raft, where you can examine and replace any plank in the raft by standing on the others, you just can’t do all of them at once. Thus, the truer picture is that science is iterative, and we can indeed use any part of it to validate other parts — as you are doing there by using Darwinian evolution to validate any assumption of rationality on our part.

        The foundational view of science would indeed leave science as arbitrary as theism, since there would be no way of validating the fundamental axiomatic assumptions. But this view of science is wrong, and adopting it seems to be the underlying error of the entire piece.

        1. I’ve never really understood the ‘logic is axiomatic’ argument given that there are many logics, and we clearly pick which ones we apply based on empirical observation of which one most accurately represents what we observe. IOW they are treated like hypotheses, not axioms. Is OR or XOR taken as axiomatic? They can’t both be true for any given relationship. Well we look at the phenomena. We test how that phenomena behaves. Then we use OR or XOR (or some other logical function) to describe it based on which function most accurately predicts the behavior we observe.

          1. Is OR or XOR taken as axiomatic?”

            Neither, since an axiom would normally be (within the symbolic language) what is an assertive sentence in a natural language. A logical connective is only a component of a sentence. There are 16 binary connectives, OR , XOR, etc. etc. as you undoubtedly know. There is no meaning to whether some connective is true or untrue.

            But you are probably just abbreviating what you really mean here.

            I do not think there are any non-standard logics which are relevant to anything seriously scientific. One can expand things from the usual basis of propositional, then 1st order, logic, add modalities, add higher order, reformulate in terms of category theory. But stuff like quantum logic, and especially some of the more ridiculous so-called philosophical logics, especially junk from people like Graham Priest, never get to 1st base, despite great universities like Columbia having seriously good people in philosophy departments which yet hire some who never contribute anything except entertainment for lazy minds. Logics connected to the intuitionism introduced by Brouwer are an exception here, somewhere in between logic which is relevant to science, and logic-messing-around used for tenure consideration in certain less then stellar philosophy departments.

            I think the little book of John Burgess in Princeton Phil Dept. (can’t remember the title but it will be obvious which) is a very good selection of what is worthwhile in this direction.

            I do not doubt that many logic extensions within theoretical computer science, such as those related to program correctness, are very valuable. Unfortunately, there is at least one place with which I have been seriously connected, where the attempted introductions of what the CS teachers there call logic, is simply logic-notation-name-dropping, going nowhere, and give theoretical CS an undeserved bad name with students in mathematics who should study more of it, if not specialize in it.

            In any case, the word “true” belongs to the connection of logic to other things, not to logic itself.

            Thus ends today’s sermon! Amen.

    1. It is also far from clear (to put it mildly) that religion can lay any claim to being good with the why questions:

      Why is there suffering in the World? Because God works in mysterious ways.

      Hmmm.

  5. Clearly evolution cannot be relied on, or even expected, to produce rational beings.

    Evolution: Organism with needs/interests + social interdependence + struggle for existence give rise to rational, cooperative, pro-social behaviors.

    What’d I miss?

    1. Only that this is generally true but often honored in the breach rather than the application.

      Thus chimps are mostly cooperative and pro-social, but they also sometimes give false ‘warning, predator’ alarm calls when they find a nice fig tree, so they don’t have to immediately share figs with their troupe. IOW, they lie out of selfishness. And when they feel threatened by another troupe, they don’t just fight for territory or put on shows of force for dominance like you might see in herd animals, they sneak into the other troupe’s area at night, preferably with overwhelming numbers, and attempt to kill everyone – males females and children – in their sleep. Hardly pro-social behavior.

      Likewise, we can expect evolution may have provided humans with adaptations for mostly rational, cooperative, and pro-social behavior, but there’s no reason to think that ‘always rational/cooperative/prosocial, all the time’ is the either the optimal adaptation, or that it is the adaptation we got.

  6. Every scientist believes: “The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.” But note they don’t have faith that is true. People comb through astronomical data to check whether constants are in actual fact constant. On Earth my favourite example is Oklo (a uranium deposit) to check whether the atomic fine-structure constant is indeed constant.

    As to why questions … indeed science teaches us to be a little circumspect about Why? But the fledgling evolutionary psychology is having a crack at why, we have beliefs, morality, etc.

    1. My take on the “science can’t answer the why questions” is that they mean the big why questions – why are we here?, why does the world exist?, etc.

      The reason science can’t answer these questions is that there are no reasons for these things. There are causes but not reasons. Reasons require beings (god).

  7. here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:

    The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.
    Our observations provide accurate information about reality.
    The laws of logic yield truth.
    The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.
    Truth ought to be pursued.

    None of these can be proved by science; they must be assumed in order to do any science at all.

    Pure bunkum.

    #1 is not assumed, it is a provisional best conclusion based on the evidence we have, and subject to revision should new contradictory evidence arise.

    #s 2, 3, and 4 are not believed at all, they are often wrong, and scientists know this. Science includes peer review and reproduction as critical components to the scientific process precisely because we don’t believe #2 to be true. #3 confuses logical validity with logical soundness, and we clearly don’t believe #4 since we give kids math tests. You don’t test someone’s ability to do math (and watch as they almost inevitably get less than 100%) if it’s the case that “human minds recognize the laws of logic and apply them correctly.”

    #5 is a social value and certainly not necessary for science. Hate to burst their bubble, but that psychology lab taking some venture capitalist’s grant money to run yet another telepathy test with Zener cards isn’t doing it because they think some unknown truth about ESP ought to be pursued. Scientists want to discover new knowledge, but that desire isn’t necessary to do solid lab work.

    1. Seems to me that #1 has never been asserted explicitly by genuinely thoughtful scientists, rather they realize that any such law can be changed, probably then becoming very much uglier, but now actually dependent on time. That is, any such law could be modified, probably becoming complicated and ugly, but in such a way that absolutely every humanly known piece of evidence, one which does not conflict with the time independent law, also does not conflict with the new ugly time dependent law.

      To see this, let’s go way back more than a century to an example law which everybody here likely knows, say, F=ma of Newton, and believe ‘that law will never change’. Now choose a sufficiently huge number ‘H’. The new law will be simply to multiply the ‘ma’ on the right side by the ratio (H-1 divided by H). Note that that last ratio will be extraordinarily close to 1.

      But this also remains so when pure number H is changed to the number of (trillion trillionth of a second)s which have elapsed since some time before the Big Bang (or maybe just before the sun came into existence). That is true in Newton’s time and has remained even more so as time has proceeded, getting even closer to 1. The law is just as valid empirically–does not contradict any measured evidence which the Newton law does not contradict. And it does ‘change with time’, actually gets closer and closer to Newton’s law. No scientist would deny that, but it’s uglier than sin. (We speak of atheist sins of course!)

      I have, off the top of my head, probably made this much more complicated than it needs to be. Note also, for experts, that the 1 subtracted from H must be not the pure number 1, but the physical quantity: one trillion trillionth of a second. But the ratio above then is, as it must be, a pure number.

      Whoever formulated #1 in the essay is simply a science-careful-thinker-ignoramus, with the two other authors likely even more so.

      What #1 really should be is a discussion about the beauty of the actual, but approximate so far, physical laws, and how our great geniuses like Newton and Einstein were able to discover this beautiful simplicity. I have argued even here that it is not out of the question that some general notion of mathematical structure, maybe not quite known yet, may exist, and that the phrase ‘physically exist’ may be most sensible in the statement that nothing physical exists except as part of some particular abstract mathematical system, the ‘final theory’, probably never discovered by humans in the finite span of that species’ existence. So this kind of Platonism would simplify Plato. But that’s just dreaming by me; I’ve never seriously discussed it with anyone. In any case, any physical scientist parroting the claim, that mathematics is merely a language, I would vehemently disagree with!

      Again, pardon the length.

      1. I agree! I’ve actually participated (briefly, in a minor way) in a test to see if half-lives are constant. The mere fact that we test such constancy should be a clue to these folks that scientists don’t “believe” in absolute constancy in an axiomatic or religious sense; rather, we treat the stability of our laws as a well-supported theory or hypothesis. Provisional and open to refutation, but not something a smart person bets against.

        But it’s all a bit of rhetorical shell game. The goal of such claims is to draw a false parallel between science and religion, for the purposes of making religion sound ‘just as’ credible as this thing people respect. Such statements are not so much a deep philosophy claim about method, as they are postmodernist evangelism; intended to sway, not illuminate truth.

    2. blockquote>Pure bunkum.
      Yes. But I am interested in a different question: Were the authors aware of their misrepresentation?

      The foundational framework of science is empirically justified just like its successful theories.

      They too are scientists and the five points are wrong, or are oversimplifications and should at least have been discussed further. They are not saying anything new — the issues have been discussed before.

      This is when I begin to ask questions of the intellectual honesty of the people. Is this what they really think? Or are they being political in pushing an ideology?

      In the article, they make assumptions about what science may or may not reveal in the future. It is almost as if they want to demarcate a region that is, by definition, unassailable by science and rational thinking. Why do that?

  8. Because there are religious leaders who are also rapist pedophiles, I believe that the two are compatible (when you wouldn’t think they would be). Boy, god has mysterious ways.

  9. “For example, Galileo, despite his differences with the Church, was a pious Catholic.”

    Do I surely, correctly recall that Galileo placed the Church under house arrest, and threatened to do worse? Is that right?

  10. I don’t believe in the Theory of Evolution. There, I’ve said it.

    I do accept the Theory of Evolution as the best explanation we have, subject to any future changes. Although I also accept that a grand overturning of the ToE is most unlikely.

    People generally resist changing their beliefs which form part of their worldview. My ‘acceptance’ is provisional.

  11. “…and you can argue that science and pedophilia are compatible because some famous scientists were pedophiles…”
    And you could also say that religion and pedophilia are compatible because (many) catholic priests are pedophiles. Talk about holding two incompatible ideas in one head at the same time

  12. I can’t help but think religion has a use – but not when you believe it, only when you use it as a thought experiment or social construct. The author himself said it in a way the other day when he was talking about free will. Very few people stand up for free will and choice as much as Dr. Coyne does, as most left (and some right) libertarians do. But Jerry Coyne does not actually believe in free will, rather a broadly deterministic universe where even the mind / brain is subject to chemical and physical laws, and choice rarely (if ever) enters into his philosophy. Behaving AS IF there is free will is crucial to preserve the airy notions of justice, but also the hedonic factor – humans LIKE having the illusion of free will and it makes us behave slightly better towards our fellow humans, and therefore we have a more pleasant time of it. Is it fair to say that “free will” is Jerry’s religion? Religious beliefs used well are that which cannot be proven, that which is probably illusory, that which could probably be proven false, but offers help, hope, support, good feelings, and improves everyone’s collective and individual actions. We could say the same of love – it’s chemical pair bonding, family bonding, kin choice, all those things, but it makes our lives better. I feel like the difference between the use and abuse of religion is like the difference between performance magic and fraud. Great rationalists like Penn and Teller and, of course the amazing Randi, perform “magic” but don’t make you believe that it exists. They help you enjoy the mystery and wonder of being fooled, all the while admitting to you that it’s illusion. Uri Geller is a fraud – using the illusion to lie to you and tell you that he has supernatural powers. I feel like there’s room for “I use this to make me feel better,” over “this is.”

  13. Finally, why am I taking issue with three colleagues whom I’ve joined in a campaign to keep STEM free from ideology?

    It’s weird that this could even be a question. I mean, if you can’t be heterodox about your heterodoxy, what’s the point?

  14. Science is a tool, and if you need faith to drive a nail with a hammer you are not using it properly.

    On the recurrent claim that secular people need to be “atheists” or that religion [“religious faith”] is impervious to empiricism I make my usual point, twice today.

    The first time was in response to a comment under the new religious effirt to mix superstition into science, described in the awful article “Can religion and faith combat eco-despair?” [ https://theconversation.com/can-religion-and-faith-combat-eco-despair-173177 ].

    What is the role of philosophers and people of faith in this bigger discussion around the environment and sustainability? Rita D. Sherma is co-chair of a research initiative aimed at bringing the beliefs of religion, spirituality and ethics to the study of sustainability. Here she explains the core ideas behind “green spirituality,” how religion and environmental protection are closely intertwined and the role faith can play in restoring hope amid the drumbeat of discouraging environmental news.

    Rita D. Sherma goes to such lengths as to describe the inner claims of organized superstition for readers.

    My response to a comment that praying won’t help was:

    I often have to point out that I stopped labeling myself on the scale of religiosity after 2018. That was when repeated cosmological measurements [Planck 2018 data release] showed beyond reasonable doubt that the entire universe is a result of a natural process [universal expansion constrained by general relativity]. I call myself secular today.

    The corollary is that magic action such as the one you mention is insignificant, and that I have to agree with what you said so well.

    Of course theologians and philosophers can raise unreasonable doubt about anything. But their assumed methods observably gives no knowledge – they can’t agree.

    Unfortunately this corollary is too pity to write a book about it. :-/

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