Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Calling all scientists and mathematicians

[This post doesn't really fall into the topics this blog is supposed to be about, but it's reasonably close. And besides, my other blog is too frivolous for it anyway.]

Jerry Coyne has a new essay in the New Republic on the split between science and religion, about "the never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail". Blah blah. I am of the firm opinion that the matter cannot be settled either way and this essay, like most others, manages to settle nothing. (See this rather interesting, but rather tendentious, response by Jim Manzi and this one by Alan Jacobs).

The reason for this post though is that I found some of the reasoning that Coyne uses near the end of his essay to be grossly misleading, although again, I can't make a cut-and-dried case for anything. Here is the objectionable graf:

The NOMA [Stephen Jay Gould's idea of science and religion being Non-Overlapping MagisteriA] solution falls apart for other reasons. Despite Gould's claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces. In a letter to the American biologist Asa Gray, Darwin noted:

Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design. If I could be convinced thoroughly that life and mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable force, I should be convinced. If man was made of brass or iron and no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing.

Similarly, if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God's celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea "God did it" has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, "Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la," "I have had no need of that hypothesis." And scientists have not needed it since.

In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that "if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God's name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics." Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

There is an interesting sleight-of-hand at work here. "If a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City", Coyne says and if this was "convincingly documented", most scientists would start believing in God. You think so? I don't. There are a number of reasons why I think so but they call center on the meaning of the term "convincing documentation". How does one decide whether the documentation is "convincing"? Is there a definition of the term that most scientists would agree on? Because you see, if the documentation is not convincing enough then I can reject the nine-hundred feet tall statue of Jesus as the work of a scam artist while still asserting that science is not a priori indisposed to the idea of God.

Coyne further goes on to say that science is not philosophically committed to materialism; that rather, this is a pragmatic commitment, that scientists use it simply because it works. Again, I am unconvinced. I agree with Giberson's claim that "if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God's name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics." Coyne says this is nonsense, that were this to happen, he and his fellow scientists would convert to Christianity and take the scriptures literally. He, in fact, goes on to list other phenomena that will make him believe in God: "faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky".

Nice try. But I'm not buying. My contention is this: should any of these things happen, not one scientist will take them as evidence of the existence of a Christian God. Rather, several other things will crop up: the validity of the documentation will come up, fraud will be suspected -- and at the end of it all, most scientists will believe that there is some unknown causal explanation at work here, something that will surface once more work is done -- and get to work on it pronto. (What do you think?)

Why does Coyne bring this up? I suspect this is a rhetorical gambit intended to play upon the image of the man of science in our culture today. This image, which most of us have, says that the scientist is a man who changes his mind by looking at the facts, that he never lets his facts be dictated by theory, that instead he changes his theories once the facts change. As opposed to this, the religious believer is one who doesn't change his mind even when when the facts say otherwise. So Coyne is saying: "Look, we scientists are ready to change our minds if such and such happens, whereas religious believers aren't even prepared to say such a thing!"

I am not saying that there isn't some truth to this popular image of religion and science. And I am pretty clear about which side I am on. But this notion in the popular imagination that there is something called a "fact" which scientists have easy access to, and which they use to change their theories has got to be contested -- at least a little bit. One of the reasons why science is so successful at what it does is precisely because scientists do not change their minds easily, that they stick with a problem, despite many setbacks they encounter at solving it. Thomas Kuhn's point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (a book I will talk about in length perhaps in another blog post in the future) is that the development of science proceeds in two alternate steps: a conceptual revolution that is followed by a period of what Kuhn calls "normal science" which is again followed by a conceptual revolution. In "normal science" scientists settle down with problems, which they model as puzzles. In doing so, they build their concepts further. While doing "normal science", scientists will massage their concepts to fit the data but they refrain from changing their concepts drastically. In other words, they do not lose their faith in their concepts, do not abandon them until a "crisis" (Kuhn's term) is reached. Then, and only then, do the concepts get radically revised.

I am oversimplifying what Kuhn says. But my broader point is that scientists have to have some kind of "faith" in their concepts in order to do normal science -- no science would get done if concepts were radically revised at the drop of a hat! The terms "normal science" or "puzzle solving" aren't meant to be pejorative either. They may sound unexciting -- who, after all, would want to do "normal" science? But the point is that these puzzles themselves are extraordinarily challenging even for the best and the brightest -- and cracking them gives a scientist fame and recognition among his colleagues. The community of scientists, to quote a metahpor used by (I think) Michael Polanyi, is like the blind man with a cane. He uses his cane to see what comes ahead, he gets better and better at using it with practice but he also has faith that the ground will not drop away under his feet suddenly. Scientists grope their way to knowledge. My point here is that science, like liberalism, has a set of implicit metaphysical commitments. These are not unchanging, they have evolved over the last five hundred years but nevertheless they exist.

Here's a thought experiment to see what I mean. Suppose there is an omnipotent God. Suppose that there is a woman in the last stages of a deadly cancer. Finally suppose that there is a faith healer. The faith healer appeals to God to save the woman. God decides that he will grant the healer's wish and the woman's cancer starts going into remission. Will the scientist accept the healer's explanation that God did this? Well, no. To a scientist a result is only a result if it is replicable as widely as possible. So the said scientist takes the healer to another woman who has the same condition as the healed woman, more or less. Now however God decides not to honor the faith healer's wish; there is no remission. Ergo, the scientist's point, that the faith healer is a scam artist, and the woman's remission was due to some unexplained causes which further research will bring to light. Well, you say, what will it take for the scientist to accept the healer's point, that it was indeed God who healed the woman? Here's my guess. He would take the healer to N number of similarly ill women and ask him to heal them. Even if all of them did get better (God allowing), the scientist is still free to think that the reason for this is some yet to be explained metabolic similarity between these women. Indeed, what may change is that the scientist now believes the healer to be sincere yet self-deluded and not, as he believed earlier, a scam artist.

I am not really sure where I'm going with all this. And I am sure there are many loopholes in what I have said. But that's just my point: there is no water tight way of saying that science is incompatible with literal belief. And frankly, aside from the policy implications for a democracy, by itself, it is an uninteresting question by itself.