Is Science Unnatural?
I’ve just been reading Robert McCauley’s provocative essay The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of Science, a piece to be included in the forthcoming book Explanation and Cognition from MIT Press. (PDF file is here.)
McCauley writes: “…neither the contents of scientific theories that dispute received views nor the forms of thought required for such critical assessment come to human beings very readily. The contents of most new, popularly unassimilated scientific theories agree with common sense no more (and often a good deal less) than do the most fantastic religious beliefs.” p.12
This I think is a problem for militant atheists.
It’s a long article, well worth reading in full. What strikes me about it is that it confirms a feeling I’ve long had: That the conviction of certain leading intellectuals —that in time the vanquishing of religion, and in particular the vanquishing of the influence of Christianity on society can only encourage people everywhere to rely on empirical reason alone instead of faith —strikes me as naïve, if not dangerous. But this is the position of Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett and others who come to mind, like the enjoyable and thoughtful science/math bloggers PZ Myers and Jason Rosenhouse (I like my atheists straight up, please, not on the rocks).
McCauley argues that the methods and tools modern scientists developed for their daily routines did not arise inevitably in the course of our history, and further, he writes that the more rarefied and esoteric that branches of science become, the less meaning they have for everyday people. It makes no difference, for example, that appeals to the empirical verifiability of a theory like Darwin’s vs. the narrative in the Book of Genesis are more persuasive because they can be tested. A careful correct explanation of Natural Selection is far more difficult to get across than the world being created in six days. Likewise quantum mechanics makes no more sense to Joe Sixpack than a careful explanation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Ironically, Dennett draws attention to this in his book but doesn’t seem to be aware that explaining the origins of religious belief doesn’t make explaining the origin of species any easier or more palatable to most people.
As McCauley writes, “If religion is as natural and science is as unnatural as I have argued, science poses no challenge to religion. Indeed, if my analysis is correct, it is the preservation of science that should concern us—its current prominence notwithstanding…those historians and philosophers of science who point to two critical episodes in the history of Western thought hold that science was once lost and had to be reinvented. One consequence of my view is that nothing about human nature would ever prevent its loss again.”
If that doesn’t sum up the problem facing science and modern civilization today, I don’t know what does. I think this supports Chris Mooney’s contention that fostering some understanding—at least civil dialogue—between scientists and conservative Christians (especially Christian scientists) is a better idea than outright in-your-face hostility, which PZ and others favor (however entertaining it often is).
The assumption that suppressing and/or undermining organized religion can only be of service to the advancement of empiricism and reason is therefore naïve in McCauley’s view, and I think he is persuasive.
Update: PZs’ post today is a perfect case in point.
To be honest, I much prefer stories where religious people in ornate garments say crazy stupid things, because I want to see their authority diminished.
The assumption of course is that reason would fill the four corners of the world once this happened. Yet there is no evidence to suggest this at all. Rather the opposite.