Saturday 8 September 2012

A response to a wayward defence of a concerted critique of a bad argument about science and religion

And breathe. 

Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online Editor of Nature Magazine, has penned a strident defence of this remarkable piece by Daniel Sarewitz on science and religion. In his response, Bhattacharya takes issue with my critique of Sarewitz's arguments, which you can read here.

I've responded to Ananyo, but the moderators at Discover magazine don't seem to work weekends (fair enough) so I've copied below my response.


As the “one critic” that Ananyo cites, I guess I ought to respond. I have a lot of respect for Ananyo, but his post strikes me as a muddled mix of non sequiturs and rapidly shifting goal posts.

First, the example of MRI is a straw man. I argued that the scientific method is the best way of understanding reality but this in no way reduces the mode of that understanding to any one form of investigation. I could just as easily adopt a scientific method to explore the psychology and phenomenology of a person’s response to the Dark Knight and, in doing so, learn a great deal about emotion and cognition. Unless, that is, Ananyo is arguing that psychology isn’t a real science, or that studying the brain is the only way to understand mental processes (I sincerely hope he isn’t).

To give Ananyo the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is instead referring to the hard problem of consciousness, that no amount of scientific enquiry can ever fully illuminate the subjective experience of another person. In other words, could I ever know whether your experience of the Dark Knight is the same as mine? Some philosophers, like Dennett, have argued that the hard problem is itself an illusion, but even if it is a genuine question then the answer may lie behind a technological barrier rather than a philosophical one. Unless there is a ghost in the machine, or a supernatural world beyond our ability to study, anything that can be ‘experienced’ can conceivably be measured and studied in a scientific manner.

Second, Ananyo argues that because I believe the scientific method is the best way of understanding reality that me and other critics are “bash[ing] those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe”, and “dismiss[ing] culture without a second thought”. 

This is another straw man, and a mildly offensive one at that. My point in responding to Sarewtiz was simply that such feelings of awe and wonder – such us religious experiences – tell us nothing about reality. End of. A scientific study of wonder and awe itself could tell us about the basis of those emotions, but simply experiencing something is not the same thing as studying it or understanding it. I would argue that to understand something requires us to interpret our experiences through a rational filter.

Third, in my critique of Sarewitz I said that science is not just the best way of understanding reality, but the “best and only”. I agree that the use of “only” here is debatable, and whether others agree or not may depend on their definition of what science is. There is no real consensus on the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be “scientific” but my view is quite open, which is to say that science – in it’s most basic form – is simply a way of appraising evidence through logic. The way in which this methodology is applied, and the stringency, varies across academic disciplines. But the scientific method is by no means the purview of the traditional sciences; many disciplines in the humanities (e.g. history) adopt what I would regard as a form of the scientific method, and historians I know agree.

For anyone interested, Neuroskeptic’s post on ‘what is science’ is well worth reading.

Fourth, Ananyo equates the criticism of Sarewitz with logical positivism. I’ll happily admit my knowledge of philosophy isn’t great, but my understanding is that the arguments by me and others are equally consistent with postpositivism. And if not, why not?

Finally, it’s disappointing to see the pejorative “scientistas”, as though the critiques of Sarewitz are necessarily an argument for scientism (yet another straw man, sigh). Perhaps Ananyo means this in a tongue-in-cheek way, but reading it as written it does come across as an insult to many readers of Nature magazine. Good luck with that one mate!

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can wade into the debate(s) touched on between you and Sarewitz or Ananyo, but I think it might be worth pointing out something from the liberal arts that I think impinges on the general question at stake here, which is whether or not our toolkit must consist of science alone.

    Science is conducted by human beings, and verified by repetition from one person to another (I accept this as the primary method by which we externalize our knowledge and are able to say "I can reasonably assume that what I know is true not just for me but for all"), which necessitates communication. I say communication and not just observation, because it is necessary for knowledge to be framed. What I mean by this is that we have to give it a sort of beginning and end; a "chunking" of our experience. Part of this is done by our brain; when a young chimp watches her mother use a stick to eat ants, the child must assume that the process begins not at the start of the day but from the moment the stick is selected, or perhaps from the moment the ant mound is discovered. It also must surmise that the success of the endeavor ends when the stick is put away; that what happens "next" is unrelated to the ant eating. Most of this structuring of a thinking being's conscious experience is done by the brain, automatically - perhaps instinctively. Other times a person must actively attempt to indicate beginnings and ends to help their audience along, because the brain often struggles to separate the wheat from the chaff even with all its instinctive chunking and sequencing abilities.

    Either way, our observations come to us not as pure information, but as narratives. Having briefly outlined how our observations are narratives, I presume it would be fairly trivial for me to illustrate how our subsequent understandings of these constructed narratives involve metaphor, to say nothing of the issue of mentalese vs. thinking in natural languages. Indeed, some fairly good minds do think that narrative and metaphor comprise some of the most basic components of the human thought mechanism: &

    It seems to me, then, that not only is non-scientific narrative and metaphor a valuable means of understanding the world (at least, I assume it is valuable because of where our thinking has got us in understanding the universe thus far), but it also necessarily underpins the project of science, at least for human science. I suppose one could refute this by showing me how metaphor and narrative are scientific, but right now (on little sleep) I'm just not seeing it.

    A science fiction novel, while not scientific in any rigorous sense, can be a useful tool for imagining how things might be. It adds no new information - but it DOES reorganize information (imagined or real) in a way that humans can more effectively parse. It could be that when we first understand things through narratives and metaphors as opposed to science, it later leads to scientific understanding that could not have happened without first understanding its narrative.

    So I don't think science is the only valid way of understanding the universe. We arbitrarily define things; reduce them according to the scientific narrative. Why and how do we pick out a tree in a forest and say "this is an organism separate from the other organisms around it," or look at a single atom and say "this is a single atom, distinct from the other atoms around it." One might as well say "there is no atom; it is a part of a larger energy field." Indeed, it seems very strange to me that the sciences which have advanced by distinguishing one thing from another seem to be hell-bent on unifying our understanding of the universe and saying "ultimately it is all one thing."

    I will see your criticisms of this point of view as an opportunity to learn.