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.


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?