Can Scientists Think?
Euclid Cannot Explain a Hamburger
June 5, 2015
On the Unz Review I find a piece by Razib Khan, Can a Religious Person be a Good Scientist? His answer, yes, is inarguable since, as he points out, many good scientists are religious (Newton, a Christian, by most accounts did pretty fair work.) But why should it be necessary to ask such a luminously foolish question?
Because we live in luminously foolish times. Mr. Khan cites, not approvingly, a scientist who wanted to have another dismissed from his position for being an evangelical Christian. Why? Well, you see, the manner of thinking of religious people renders them incapable of science.
This makes sense only in terms of bitter hostility to religion. Why can a Christian scientist not study, say, the possibilities of rotaxanes as bistable devices in molecular computers as well as can an atheist or agnostic?
While Christians can think about science, I wonder whether scientists, as scientists, can think about anything else. Are their mental capacities not grossly limited in comparison with those of other people?
It is a question of blinkers. They think inside a box containing only a part of reality.
Logical systems, such as those to which scientists are tightly wed, depend on assumptions and undefined primitives. Their conclusions cannot go beyond results derivable from their assumptions.
Consider plane geometry, a field encompassing the behavior of planes, lines, points, and angles. Like many branches of science and mathematics, it produces interesting and useful results. Yet it rests on things that cannot really be defined. (What is a point? “An infinitely localized whereness” perhaps?) It cannot explain things not contained in its premises. For example, it has nothing to say about mass, energy, volume, or chili dogs. Yet these things exist. If a plane geometer thinks only within the postultes of his field (which of course no plane gemoteter does), he cannot understand the greater part of reality.
The silences as a whole enjoy the same strengths and suffer the same limitations. They deal with matter, energy, space, and time, however hyphenated, and nothing else. These are undefined. (Dorm-room definition: “Space is what keeps everything from being in the same place. Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”)
Science enjoys great prestige as it has led to great results, such as iPhones. Perhaps bccause of this scientists, for some reason thought to be smarter than the rest of humanity, are seen as oracles and almost as priests. Yet they have nothing to say, and can have nothing to say, about meaning, purpose, origins, destiny, consciousness, beauty, right and wrong, Good and Evil, death, love or loathing.
These are matters of some importance to normal people whose thinking is not crippled by strict adherence to the Laws of Motion. A scientist, as a scientist, must dismiss them as empty abstractions, simply ignore them, or provide unsatisfactory answers and quickly change the subject. A physicist may speak solemnly of the Big Bang, but it has no more explanatory power than Genesis. A child of six years will ask, “But where did God come from?” Or the Big Bang.
A man whose thinking has not been shackled by the restrictions of science can say, “This sunset is beautiful.” A scientist cannot not, not if he is thinking as a scientist. Beauty has no physical definition, the only kind allowable in the sciences. (I confess that in my ancient chemistry classes we accepted as the unit of beauty the millihelen, defined as “that amount of beauty necessary to launch one ship.”)
Trouble begins when one tries to stretch a system beyond its premises. Here we come to scientism, as distinct from science. A great many people, some of them scientists, want science to explain everything whatever. This of course is the function of a religion.
Scientism, like other varieties of political correctness, is de rigueur among much of the cognitive or approximately cognitive elite, and has been inculcated in the populace by endless repetition. The credo runs roughly Big Bang, stars form, planets, oceans, life, evolution, Manhattan. Acceptance—unexamined acceptance—of scientism is now regarded as evidence of right thinking. Most who accept it have no idea what they are accepting, but they know that it is the proper thing to do.
For much of the public, this is a sort of religion by Disney, the Force Be With You, with an origin of of the universe that, well, you know, the scientists understand it, and we are evolving upward and onward into like, better beings and all. And death? Let us speak of other things.
Here we come to Mr. Khan’s scientist who (as distinct from Mr. Khan) wants to remove Christians from the practice of science. A religion, however manqué, cannot brook any doubt whatever. A Christian cannot say, well, maybe Jesus was the son of God, but maybe Mary wasn’t a virgin after all. If he does, his faith no longer serves its function of providing certainty. Any doubt threatens the whole edifice.
So with scientism. Serious believers cannot abide heresy. The need to believe, to protect the edifice, is most commonly seen regarding the theory of evolution, any questioning of which results not in answers, but in fury.
The acolytes of scientism invariably see the enemy as Creationism, which they correctly if not consciously recognize as a competing religion. Thus the desire to remove believers in any religion from scientific posts. Thus the pathological outrage that arises if the schools of Kansas want to mention Biblical Creation. Why? Obviously doing so would not result in the burning of laboratories or crucifixion of chemists, and would be unlikely to discourage a kid from going into the sciences. This doesn’t matter. Heresy cannot be allowed.
Scientism is part of the curious culture-wide campaign to remove any trace of religion from public life. It is the equivalent of the Christian iconoclasm of the late Roman times: we must tear down the statues of those pagan gods. The purposes are identical.
Scientism requires a willful ignoring of undeniable aspects of reality, such as death. To a scientist, (again, thinking as a scientist), death means only the cessation of certain chemical processes. He says after the funeral, “John is gone,” but never, “Where has John gone?” But do not even atheists wake up at three a.m. and think, “Where are we? What is this all about?” And, ominously, “What comes next, if anything?” The atheist might reply, “Nothing”—but what if he is wrong? How does he know? Except to the religious, who don’t have the answers either, even to mention these questions seems slightly obscene.
Note that the premises of the sciences, if accepted other than provisionally for a paraticular investigation, lead to paradoxes, as for example the Aquarium Effect. Scientists view the universe as if it were an isolated system in a vast aquarium. They can look at it, poke at it with sticks and instruments, but they are apart from it. If they regard themselves as being within the system, problems arise.
For example, the brain is an electrochemical mechanism, all parts of which follow the laws of physics and chemistry. Successive states of a physical mechanism are completely determined by preceding states, just as they are in a computer. Physical systems cannot choose their behavior: a rock when dropped cannot decide to fall sideways. Our thoughts are therefore predestined. Are they then still thoughts?
Which leads to the obvious conclusion that one cannot simultaneously be part of a physical system and fully understand it. Like conjugate variables or something. But we are part of the universe.
Note that all science is physics. Chemistry is the physics of the interaction of atoms and molecules, biochemistry of particular classes of molecules. Consequently evolution is a subset of physics. (How is it not? Everything that happens in an organism from metabolism to mutation obeys the laws of physics. If this is not true, then physical behavior is affected by Something Outside of Physics—eeeeeeeeeek!)
Part of physics is the requirement of causality. Every physical event, which means every event, must have prior physical causes. Anything that doesn’t can’t happen. But do we really know this? A normal person can wonder. A scientist cannot.
To amuse ourselves, let us assume that something physically inexplicable actually happened. Let us suppose that the shade of Elvis appeared in my living room, sang Blue Moon over Kentucky, and disappeared in a flash of green light. Remember, for the moment we assume that it really happened. How could a scientist, or the science, handle this?
I could tell my friend the astrophysicist about it, but he would assume that I was joking, lying, or delusional. I could tell him that my neighbors heard it, but he would say that it was a recording. I could say that people walking in the street saw it though my window, but he would say that it was an Elvis impersonator. The event not being reproducible, I could not possibly convince him—even though it had actually happened.
Scientism appears at its most desperate in matters of evolution, where things clearly explicable in physical terms (astronomy, electronics, combustion) bump up against things not nearly so explicable (life, consciousness, motivations). Scientism always finds a way, however strained, to avoid the ravages of doubt. Conceding or even considering anything outside of that small scientific box would open up a Whole Lot of Doubt.
Consider Cochran’s Virus. Evolutionary theory of course says that traits that make for successful reproduction will flourish in a population. This makes sense and can be observed in many things. It fails badly in the case of homosexual men. As these produce no or few children, the selective pressure to eliminate them from the population would seem to be great. Yet they are not eliminated. Scientism cannot say that here perhaps is something not explained by the theory. That would shake the whole edifice. How does it manage this difficulty?
Desperatelly. The biologist Greg Cochran says that homosexuality is a disease caused by a virus. Which virus is that? We don’t know because it has not been discovered. What is the evidence for it? Why, homosexuality. Round and round….
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