09 Sep 2017

Our Culture’s Touching Faith in Science

Deep Thoughts 41 Comments

I am not saying that sarcastically. I mean every bit of that title literally. First, our culture has (non-scientific, which is not the same as unscientific) faith in science. And second, I find it touching.

My recent Twitter commentary on (physicist) Brian Greene motivated this post:

I’m guessing many of you read Greene’s post and want to give him a “hell yeah!”

But why? How do you know that his statement is true? Did you run a double-blind experiment? Are you using science to tell you that science is better than non-science?

What if I tell you that the Bible says the Bible contains more wisdom than science? I’m guessing you won’t be persuaded, because you know–going into the analysis–that science is the best way to discover truth.

(And if so, it’s not surprising that when you test your faith in science–by using the scientific method–the answer comes back, “Science FTW.”)

41 Responses to “Our Culture’s Touching Faith in Science”

  1. Darien says:

    A friend of mine is partial to the claim that deductive reasoning and a priorism are useless, and that the only way one can know anything is through empirical testing. Whenever I ask for a link to the empirical proof for that claim, he accuses me of playing semantic games. Curious.

  2. E. Harding says:

    Sometimes, Bob, your pedantry reveals something useful. This is one of those times.

  3. Tel says:

    Science supports evolution.

    Evolution says, “survival of the fittest”.

    Religion has survived.


    • E. Harding says:

      Religion hasn’t survived in Japan and China, for the most part. It’s survived in most of the West, India, Burma, and Islamic World because there are systemic doctrines there that are socially encouraged and taught from birth. People have low levels of critical thinking when they’re children, and it’s hard for people to abandon religion when it’s systemically socially encouraged.

      • Tel says:

        That’s why China invented so many things! Everything from internal combustion engines all the way to iPhones came from China, because those dopey westerners had such low levels of critical thinking.

        When it comes to science, the Western scientists needed to borrow their entire system of units from the Chinese… and the Western scientific discoveries were copied too. Isaac Newton got his ideas from an old Chinese scroll (not a lot of people known that) and then Einstein came along and found an even better Chinese scroll.

      • Stephen Dedalus says:

        “People have low levels of critical thinking when they’re children…”

        And for E. Harding, this has continued into adulthood!

      • Andrew_FL says:

        China is a very bad example to use. You might as well have pointed out religion hasn’t survived in the Czech Republic.

    • Harold says:

      “Evolution says, “survival of the fittest”.
      Religion has survived.”

      The obvious answer is that religion has been beneficial for survival. I believe this to have been the case, as religion provides a social glue and encourages “altruism” in a broad sense, cooperation if you like. Societies have not had a better mechanism for growth so far, hence all large societies have grown with a religion.

      This has nothing at all to do with the “truth” of religions. It is likely that they have been beneficial whilst also being broadly wrong. In fact, it is certain that most are broadly wrong because all major religions say different things. However, they a have all been successful.

      It remains to be seen whether the benefits seen in the past are still necessary, or are still beneficial.

      • Craw says:

        Eek. A thread so bad Harold is the voice of reason.

      • Tel says:

        It’s that but also more. The first principle of science is observation. If you don’t have clear observations then you aren’t even starting to do science.

        So in terms of studying the history of science and technology, one surprising observation would be to look at the hugely disproportionate number of inventions and scientific discoveries coming out of a relatively small cultural group… and the strong correlation between that and structured religious thought.

        Comparison between China and Europe on the basis of population alone should suggest that almost every significant historic invention should be expected to have come out of China… if it were simply random.

        We know that there have been no shortage of competent people in China… partly from their other products such as artwork, music, ceramics, weapons, etc. and also we know this because the Western scientific world has produced a whole range of academic tests to determine competency in a whole range of areas. When Asian individuals have migrated to either Europe or North America they tend to statistically do quite well … even to the point where North American universities admit they feel the need to “adjust” the scores to prevent too many Asians getting in the door.

        You also have the “magic soil” theory where perhaps some special force-field exists in Europe that doesn’t exist anywhere else. This theory has been disproven by Europeans moving to North America and the “magic soil” moved along with them. Indeed after the 1950’s we saw South Korea and Japan suddenly turning into technological powerhouse nations, and strangely enough this also correlates strongly with the rise of Christian belief in both of these places.

        So if you rule out biological aspects of the people themselves and you rule out “magic soil” basically that leaves culture. Some cultural approaches produce a lot of science and technology, and organized religion seems to be a part of that… possibly an accidental offshoot, or possibly it provides suitable social structure. It’s difficult to disentangle, you could have all sorts of theories… but the observation is quite robust.

        • Craw says:

          Well, not any organized religion. Bob’s. Christianity does seem to have been a key ingredient.

          • Tel says:

            I’m not claiming anything beyond correlation. Not possible to separate the ingredient from the by-product. Nor would I limit it to Christianity, although the Christians have a significant part to play.

            You couldn’t entirely ignore Judaism… maybe we could argue that from a structural perspective there isn’t such a huge difference.

            I think it’s also fair to at least give some credit to the polytheists as well. When you look at the Greco-Roman scientific developments they came a long way in areas such as mathematics and philosophy. Also, the Hindus gave us number zero (something Romans struggled with), and they gave us a few other mathematical bits and pieces.

            Here’s an interesting comparison: The Hindu goddess “Durga” represents “Truth” but she is described as deploying an ablative process (hence the need to plenty of well-armed sidekicks). You will never see Durga without the tools of her trade in hand: swords, spears, arrows, etc. Nothing delivers “Truth” better than cold steel… if you remove all falsehoods then pretty much by definition what you have left must be “Truth”, right?

            However Western scholars have tended to work with a constructive process for obtaining “Truth” so you start with an axiom and use it like a building block, and you stack a theorem on top of that and start working your way to heaven from there.

            Other ideas on the same theme: the Greeks and the Romans and later the Muslims encouraged eclecticism. This is to avoid the trap of the “not made here” syndrome. All three cultures were happy enough to conquer other people, but also willing to sort through the ideas of the conquered in the hope of discovering something worthwhile. They transported these ideas to other people (whom they either conquered or traded with). I think the Chinese had a strong inward looking “not made here” mentality and they were worse off because of it.

            The old Japanese religion “Shinto” is very backward looking: preserve the past at all costs, wisdom can only be found by reviewing old stuff, not by trying something new. Our English word “research” literally means “to search again” because of course no one would ever be out there searching the first time.

          • Craw says:

            “I’m not claiming anything beyond correlation.”

            I am! I have been persuaded by the sociologists of religion and science. I have read several things about this, but the only name that comes to mind is Rodney Stark. For Islam there’s a convincing book The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which is not about this but is pertinent.
            The basic idea is belief in a rational god who acts in accord with reason was an important factor in the growth of science.

        • Harold says:

          “you rule out “magic soil” basically that leaves culture.”

          I have also seen geography as the reason. Large land masses were beneficial for certain levels of development, hence China and India were advanced at one time, but ocean going transport meant Europe had an advantage when ships developed.

          I would have to look up the details, but the point is there is not only culture.

          • Tel says:

            I recognize that from Jared Diamond “Guns Germs and Steel” but there’s some limitations to that. A good book BTW.

            So if you look at cases like Papua New Guinea or New Zealand, then yes they are very isolated by geography, and you have a small population stuck without access to the rest of the world. I can see a reason why technological progress would be difficult in those fringe cases.

            However, Asia in general has never been in this situation. There has been trade, war and travel through Asia for all of history. Diamond puts forward the theory that China is too centralized and thus became dominated by a single Emperor, but that still leaves all the peripheral regions like Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, never dominated by the Han and yet always able to communicate and trade.

      • Stephen Dedalus says:

        “In fact, it is certain that most are broadly wrong because all major religions say different things.”

        All sciences must also be broadly wrong, since all sciences say different things!

        • Harold says:

          Stephen, very clever, but I will clarify by saying mutually exclusive things.

          • Craw says:

            You often say mutually exclusive things. I have complained repeatedly.

            • Harold says:

              I agree you have complained repeatedly, but not about the mutually exclusive things.

              Who was it that complained about my comment that Obama was thwarted because Democrats controlled both houses? I can’t remember now. That was an example of a complaint that was both wrong and irrelevant.

  4. Major-Freedom says:

    Ah yes, the good ol’ self-referential analysis to expose flaws in arguments. Personally it is very satisfying to experience those instances when you first understand how an argument says so much that it nullifies itself.

    Of course, every time this is brought to the attention the person committing it, the only choice is to accept it amd admit that the argument is wrong, or, assert an exception and say the statement is not an opinion.

  5. Miguel says:

    Scientific method: “use empirical observations to update degrees of belief on hypothesis about the world”. Obviously, only way to acquire knowledge about the world

    • Darien says:

      The punch line is so obvious I’m not even going to write it.

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      “Obviously, only way to acquire knowledge about the world…”

      But, but… “science” wasn’t created at least until after 1600. You’re saying that our species survived for a million years… with NO “knowledge about the world”?! Man, do you ever believe in miracles!!

      And you gotta love the mindlessness of “empirical observations”: as opposed to, say, NON-empirical observations?!

      • Miguel says:

        Come on 🙂 the scientific method has been around since people started to shape hypothesis about the world based on experience and observations – that is the “scientific method”.

  6. Harold says:

    “But why? How do you know that his statement is true? Did you run a double-blind experiment?”
    Not a double blind experiment, but that is only one way to do science. Certainly empirical observation supports the claim.

    The proposal is about the workings of nature. Just about everything I know about the workings of nature have come from science and almost none from the bible. Given this evidence, I reckon the smart money is on science.

    We cannot of course prove that only science can do this.

    If you want to find out about other things – say the meaning of life, or how to live a good life, the nature of beauty or what to get your wife for Christmas, then science may not be the go to place.

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      “Just about everything I know about the workings of nature have come from science…”

      Horseshit. 95% of what we know about “the workings of nature” we discovered before 1600, when science as we know it started to arise.

      • Harold says:

        Stephen, I said “what I know”, not what we know. I was basing it on personal experience. Most of my knowledge comes from textbooks.

        However, I am interested in your conjecture. It seems so obvious to me that the vast majority of what “we” know about the workings of nature has been acquired through the scientific method that I feel sure we must be talking about different things.

        I can justify my conjecture by pointing to the repository of knowledge that is in scientific papers.

        I am not sure what you are thinking of. Perhaps you would point to the fact that we successfully navigated the world before science and therefore must have an understanding of the workings of nature. If that is the case then the same applies to all animals.

        Can you clarify what you mean, because I do not understand your point.

        • Harold says:

          Stephen, just seen your comment below which explains your position.

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      Chimpanzees know that if they collect a certain five tools, they will be better able to break into beehives and collect honey with minimal stings. Now, you can either expand your definition of “science” to the point where you declare that chimpanzees are “scientists,” in which case, “scientist” just equals “successful living creature,” or you can admit that humans, and all other creatures, gained most of their knowledge of nature way before anything remotely resembling modern science existed.

      • Harold says:

        I am quite happy to say that chimpanzees possibly have used aspects of the scientific method in the broadest terms. However, they do not use the scientific method in its entirety as they lack the communication and review aspects. We cannot ask chimpanzees how they arrived at their behaviors, so it is also possible they did not formulate any hypotheses along the way but arrived at behaviors through random movements.

        It is totally clear that “scientist” does not equal successful living creature. A scientists is not even any human, nearly all of whom use some aspects of the scientific method.

        A scientist is someone who applies the scientific method systematically.

  7. Craw says:

    If I say arsenic is poisonous, and that a diet of arsenic is unwise, am I showing a touching faith in the consumption of non-arsenic? I think I am merely showing that I have learned a bit about arsenic. Same thing if I add cyanide and strychnine to my list. So if I have this list of things tried and failed, and suggest we do something else …

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      And you know what? People knew about poisons WAY before “science” arose!

  8. Khodge says:

    In the feeds I read, one person asserted that only one of the major parties believes in science, which brought the obvious response Tha science is a methodology not a belief.

    Years ago I read an article pointing out that it was a freak of history that around the time of Roger Bacon empirical methods gained ascendancy over astrology. Having done modeling, it is obvious that a problem with science is that the scientific method picks neither the topic of study nor the approach to the problem and, in fact, the only time a topic is settled is when that great scientist, AlGore, proclaims it so.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Thanks Khodge. Yeah, I could tell from the reaction on Twitter that most people didn’t get my point.

      Indeed, on this thread I think Major Freedom is the only non-suspect person (including myself), since he’s pretty hardcore atheist (do you use that actual term MF?) but gets why Brian Greene’s confident assertion was more metaphysical than the famous physicist probably realized.

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      “Roger Bacon empirical methods gained ascendancy over astrology.”

      Astrology was highly empirical! Just read some real history, rather than BS pop history.

  9. Ben Kennedy says:

    Think in terms of the classic example of maps and territories. Everyone pretty much agrees that at least part of the territory is our local, observable reality. Everyone pretty much agrees some maps are better than others for describing this territory. In this context, “science” and “religion” are competing map-making methodologies.

    The comparison of maps does not require a priori assumptions about the validity of the scientific method. The question is whether the map is practically useful or not. If it gets you to where you want to go, then it is good. And if a given methodology produces more useful maps over time, then it starts to gain trust.

    People don’t have “faith” in science at all, they have learned to trust if because it produces lots of useful maps!

    • Harold says:

      Ben, I like this analogy.

      Could we stretch it further and say science will produce maps that will get you to where you want to be, but science won’t tell you where to go or what to do when you get there?

      • Ben Kennedy says:

        That’s definitely fair, science definitely does not address questions of true purpose. Though it could explain why people might have a sense of purpose at all (evolutionary biology), or why a person could feel a particular purpose (psychology). It just can’t attach truth value that some purpose is the right one, while religion does do this

    • Craw says:

      Well put.

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