Why so many scientists are so ignorant

After that silly nonsense from Simon Jenkins yesterday, here’s something about the other side of the “Two Cultures” divide, a post by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry about the philosophical illiteracy of many leading scientists.

And then there’s another factor at play. Many, though certainly not all, of the scientists who opine loudest about the uselessness of philosophy are public atheists. The form of atheism they promote is usually known as “eliminative materialism,” or the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. This theory is motivated by “scientism,” or the notion that the only knowable things are knowable by science. Somewhat paradoxically, these propositions are essentially religious — to dismiss entire swathes of human experience and human thought requires a venture of faith. They’re also not very smart religion, since they end up simply shouting away inconvenient propositions.

Fundamentalism is not a belief system or a religion, it’s a state of mind. There can be fundamentalist religion, fundamentalist atheism, fundamentalist socialism, fundamentalism libertarianism. What all of them have in common is, in David Bentley Hart’s words, “a stubborn refusal to think.” The fundamentalist is not the one whose ideas are too simple or too crude. He’s the one who stubbornly refuses to think through either other ideas, or those ideas themselves.

Which is more or less what I’ve been saying about Richard Dawkins, who seems to have been treated as an Atheist Pope, for a long time.

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6 Responses to Why so many scientists are so ignorant

  1. It’s eye-opening to read atheists from earlier decades, who acknowledged the presence of religion in public and private life as a social force, and understood full well how it and science address different needs. My own take is that the discourse on this subject started becoming coarsened and cheapened around the time Stephen Jay Gould died. He was a major proponent of the idea that scientific investigation and religious faith were not in fact adversaries, but allies.

    I don’t believe in any particular god, but I do understand the need some people have for one. I don’t count myself in their number, but I also understand full well why the need exists. As long as they don’t get in my way, I won’t get in theirs — but the militant-atheist mindset seems to think that any presence of religion anywhere, even when it poses no direct existential threat, is a net negative.

  2. hpcaban says:

    I am an atheist, although not a “militant” one. My position with regard to religion is that, even when not posing a direct existencial threat, it remains a net negative because it is based in superstition and mythology without any evidence nor valid argument in its favor. Why should I believe in the existence of unicorns, leprechauns and garden fairies in the absence of evidence? I find it impossible to believe in something simply because I would want it to be so!

  3. Tim Hall says:

    @Serdar

    I wonder how much Richard Dawkins is a cause and how much he’s a symptom. Was he just in the right place at the right time to place himself as the self-appointed leader of the backlash against the rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism?

    @hpcaban

    Talking about unicorns and leprechauns is a bit of a straw man. There’s a big difference between religious traditions with a coherent intellectual framework behind them and folk superstitions.

    In recent years we’ve seen enough examples of secular cultures displaying the same failure modes as organised religion to suggest that belief in God(s) isn’t the problem. I could point to the silliness of Roko’s Basilisk, or the way Tumblr-style social justice has devolved into something that resembles the worst bits of Calvinism,

  4. Synthetase says:

    “…the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. This theory is motivated by “scientism,” or the notion that the only knowable things are knowable by science. Somewhat paradoxically, these propositions are essentially religious — to dismiss entire swathes of human experience and human thought requires a venture of faith.”

    No, it doesn’t. It’s a lack of faith, because the existence of material things and their behaviour doesn’t require any special pleading. It’s readily demonstrable and so far manages to explain pretty much every question anyone has ever asked.

    Putting forth ‘human experience’ as though its a meaningful argument is just silly. ‘Human experience’ tells us that Elvis is still alive (and apparently frequenting a coffee shop not far from where I live), that little grey men routinely make crop circles (for whatever reason), and that world leaders are all actually a cabal of secret lizard people (or something). It’s a well known fact that human memory is fallible and that people consistently post-hoc rationalise experiences to fit into their over-simplified world-view. The scientific method avoids human experience precisely because it is unreliable and unfalsifiable.

    The fact of the matter is that if the supernatural exists, then it is unknowable (by definition). However, if it exists but interferes in the natural world, then is ought to be detectable on some level, because changes in the natural world require adherence to natural laws (so therefore not really supernatural in the first place). Since no-one has ever been able to demonstrate that it does actually exist, it is not a position of faith to simply accept the null (there’s another use for NULL, Tim :) ) hypothesis and assume it’s all a crock until demonstrated otherwise. A position of faith would be to claim that any of the myriad (and often contradictory) arguments for the supernatural hold any water whatsoever without a shred of evidence for them, whilst a veritable mountain of evidence suggests the opposite.

  5. PaulE says:

    I’ve been trying to come up with a definition of Fundamentalist Agnosticism, but I’m not sure that such people exist. :-)

  6. Tim Hall says:

    It’s like an extremist moderate, isn’t it?