Quote of the Week: The Holocaust and the Failure of Humanism

The Holocaust has commonly been conceived of as a revolt against reason, the ultimate example of the “irrational,” designed and executed by the pathologically insane. But if reason was the object of the revolt, it was also the chief ally, a dialectic so monstrously rational that it could override all the traditional bounds of morality.The Holocaust was not so much the overthrow of reason as its triumph over morality. It allowed a scientific ultrarationality—what Hitler called “ice cold logic”—to provide murder with rational justification.

—William Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research

via Humanity, Humanism, Holocaust – The war against the divine image in man – Universal Morality.

Knowledge and Morality

Review: Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir | The National Interest.

From the review of David Brooks‘ Book The Social Animal, (which is now ensconced behind TNI’s paywall), comes this interesting tidbit:

A great deal in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology remains speculative and controversial. Where they seem reasonably well established, the findings of these new sciences do not always support Brooks’s conception of virtue. Recent inquiry—as well as centuries of literature—may suggest that we should favor “the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self”; but it is hard to square this plural view of selfhood with old-fashioned notions of character. Advancing knowledge may undermine simpleminded rationalism, but it also undercuts traditional morality. As to the overall impact that science may have on human values, no one knows.

Emphasis mine.

More knowledge is not more character, or better character. Hence, more knowledge does not make us better people per se, and is thus no substitute for traditional morality.

Morality and knowledge are complimentary, not substitutes.

The Scientific Jihad

In a review of Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, Professor Christopher Norris of Cardiff University offers a riposte to Hawking’s contention that science makes philosophy redundant and philosophers a waste of space. Norris’ barbs strike deepest when he notes that Hawking takes up the tools of philosophy when the tools of science fail him.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the scientific enterprise stands or falls on the validity of counterfactual-conditional reasoning, that is to say, reasoning from what necessarily would be the case should certain conditions obtain or certain hypotheses hold. In its negative guise, this kind of thinking involves reasoning to what would have been the outcome if certain causally or materially relevant factors had not been operative in some given instance. Hawking constantly relies on such philosophical principles in order to present and justify his claims about the current and likely future course of developments in physics. Of course he is very welcome to them but he might do better to acknowledge their source in ways of thinking and protocols of valid argumentation that involve distinctly philosophical as well as scientific grounds.

Hawking and his fellow physicists declare philosophy dead, but in so doing have become philosophers, straying into a realm where science ceases to be a discipline, becoming instead systemic speculation detached from it’s own empirical foundations. The proposition has ceased to be hypothesis, and has become credo.

Hawking, in this, makes science into religion, albeit one without a deity. I suspect that what the eminent physicist finds wrong with religion and philosophy is not so much irrelevance (especially as he adopts their methods), but competitors for the hearts and minds of man. This is apparently something Hawking is unwilling to suffer. In the service of his beliefs, convinced that the ends justify him, he endeavors to de-legitimize the competition.

There is a term for such behavior when practiced among religions: jihad. How else can one describe the effort of one religion to condemn or purge opposing creeds?

It is time we follow Professor Norris’ lead and show the high priests of science that they have become the very thing they condemn.

 

Foes

If men like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens did not exist, we should be obliged to invent them.

For it is the skeptics who force the believer out of the lazy habit of rote belief and sends him on a spiritual hero’s journey. For an untested faith is a weak faith, unbefitting a Creator who merits worship.

Meeting of Mind and Soul

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in ha...

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It demands no great mind of science to deconstruct faith. It requires no saint to enumerate the shortcomings of science.

The truly brilliant will find in Faith a questing of a kind different from – but no less legitimate than – the Method.

And the truly Holy will see in science a new way to know the hand of G-d.

The great minds and the great souls will forge a path of tolerance, of mutual respect, of unity, for tey will apprehend a truth, a shared quest, and the complementarity of their journeys of discovery.

Self-Dealing in Science

Español: Investigadores en un laboratorio de l...

Scientists in a laboratory of the University of La Rioja. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a superb article in The Atlantic profiling Professor John Ioannidis and his work exposing the widespread issues with modern medical research, David Freeman wraps up with an interesting thought from his subject about wider problems in scientific research.

We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary – as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with a the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

All of which suggests a very un-pretty truth about science: that research is more about careers than truth. There is nothing wrong with that: everyone is entitled to a career. It does mean, however, that the facts are at a variance with the impression scientists try to give the public.

And it washes away the patina of monk-like purity that critics of faith have tried to confer upon scientists and their work. Purpose and self-interest play as much a role in science as innocent curiosity, if not a greater one. Ulterior motives abound, motives that do not make their way into the papers scientists write about their work and the results obtained thereby.

Until all scientists come clean about the self-interest and bias that informs their research, they do their work and their profession a disservice.

Science, Faith, and Limits

In an article in More Intelligent Life called “The Limits of Science,” Anthony Gottleib makes a point that many men and women of science have been reluctant to acknowledge to themselves, much less utter.

At the end of her book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History” (2009), Patricia Fara of Cambridge University wrote that “there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow”. This is surely an understatement.

Kudos to both Ms. Fara and Mr. Gottleib for having the moral courage to make the point. It is almost verboten these days for science to acknowledge its own shortcomings for fear such frankness would be used by anyone from quacks to pseudoscientists to creationists as a pretext to discredit science.

This is a great shame. As someone who is frequently critical of scientists who overstate the exactitude and definitiveness of the inexact and non-definitive in order to undermine religious beliefs, I also frequently find it hard to blame them. The religious assault upon science is as wrong-headed and narrow-minded as is the scientific assault against religion. The entire process has lead to a polarization with science on the left, faith on the right, and nothing in between.

This polarization must end. It is time for us to give heed to the voices of faith who eschew misguided attacks on science, give voices to people of science who do not engage in spurious attempts of deicide, and to rediscover a middle ground where the two outlooks are allowed to live in harmony.

It is time for people of faith to acknowledge that science is as much the creation of G-d as it is of man, and that for the thinking believer there need be no conflict between the rational pursuit of science and the supra-rational quest for meaning. We must stop thinking in terms of “Adam or Australopithecus:” we must seek to find the a path that reconciles both, but not one as pat and contrived as Intelligent Design. And the ad-hominem attacks must stop: it is time to acknowledge that disbelief and goodness are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, it is time for the people of science to acknowledge that at its best, science gives us the tools to describe existence, but not to give it meaning. Philosophy may be dead to Stephen Hawking, but his greatest discoveries lack the power to compel mankind to continue its existence, much less propel it to greatness either collectively or individually. And is time also to acknowledge that faith and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

These are steps we all can take without surrendering our own beliefs. They simply demand that we take the more challenging, the more humane step of acknowledging the value implicit in the way others think, and recognizing they are all of a piece.

I wonder who will find that more difficult?

The Searchers

In his superb article “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” Michael Lewis quotes the abbot of Greece’s Vatopaidi monastery , Father Arsenios, explaining the popularity of his domain as a destination for modern Greeks.

There is more of a spiritual thirst today,” he says when I ask him why his monastery has attracted so many important business and political people. “Twenty or 30 years ago they taught that science will solve all problems. There are so many material things and they are not satisfying. People have gotten tired of material pleasures. Of material things. And they realize they cannot really find success in these things.”

Leaving aside whether Vatopaidi is the right place to go for spiritual nourishment, he’s right, and what I think angers scientists is that science and technology are no longer recognized as the answer to all of mankind’s important questions. While their work is of profound material and spiritual importance, many of us are finding that scientific explanations, for all of their technical accuracy, are somehow inadequate.