He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Anthropomorphosis of Science

A number of atheists I've dialogued with or whose debates I've observed in the past have pointed out that it's not fair to give credit to God for the events we like and not blame God for the events we don't like.  Which is odd, because plenty of people do blame God for events that they don't like.  Most theists have probably been angry at God for precisely that reason at some point in life.

Some of the more philosophically sophisticated atheists chose to point out instead that it wasn't fair to give credit to God for what one's surgeon had done to save one's life.  Instead of giving credit to the proximate cause of our healing (a good surgeon with good tools), we superstitious theists would invoke the ultimate cause of the universe that we called God, anthropomorphizing distant forces that we didn't actually understand.

It is with this background that I've observed the rhetoric around the recent March for Science.  Undoubtedly, plenty of those who are part of the March for Science are theists.  Many theists are scientific realists right along with most atheists.  I certainly was.

But it is not just theists who engage in anthropomorphizing abstract causes which are not proximate to the outcome.  Exhibit A from the March for Science coverage is an article in Salon which is entitled, "Science saved my life" and contains a genuinely touching description of how science kept her from going down a dangerous path of addiction and an unfulfilling life.

It's not very different from the AA or NA testimonies I've read or heard in person.  But instead of finding God being the cause of her ability to relinquish her addiction, it was finding science.

Except, it wasn't science in an abstract sense that she found.  She had an encounter with methodical, practical learning, the pursuit of knowledge which gradually drew her out of her reliance on old addictions as coping mechanisms.  And she fell in love with this kind of learning, the grand unveiling of the mysteries of the universe insofar as we tiny-brained hominids can unveil them.

Like most people who found something more enticing than an addiction to alcohol, or marijuana, or prescription painkillers, or various other and more profoundly mind-altering substances, our erstwhile convert to scientific realism attributes her transformation to the system of ideas abstracted into one concept rather than just owning that she found something healthier than her old addictions to shape her life.

Just as my grandfather attributed his abandonment of his old addictions to his finding religion, the author attributes her abandonment of those same old addictions to finding science.  This is, of course, not a bad thing to find something healthier to replace our addictions.  Even if the replacement is just as addictive and we are overly attached to it, it may nonetheless be far less damaging than our old addictions.

This should indeed be celebrated rather than being mourned.  I'm genuinely glad that she found science and that it allowed her to be freed of those old addictions to transient pleasures.

At the same time, I can't ignore that this is part of a broader trend.  The popular conception of science, like the popular conception of God, has become reductively abstracted and oddly anthropomorphic.

Science is now treated more frequently as a causal explanation ("It's science!" a la Bill Nye and memes) rather than a body of methodologies that gradually allow us to uncover our numerous errors about the world and our experience of it.

Science is no longer that unpopular but necessary discipline for discovery and innovation that codifies the best of human learning heuristics into a broad field of study, it's become a popular invocation of epistemological authority.  We can see this in a variety of other popular memes.

As someone who is very pro-science, who wants to support science education, scientific research, and political decision-making more informed by science, this trend is a troubling one.  When religion becomes a tool used to make claims unthinkingly (and simultaneously authoritatively) such that it's difficult to question it, that's a serious problem for free inquiry.

And what I see today is science being used the same way religion has been by people who have a poor and popular understanding of it, so I worry that scientific inquiry may be compromised by a popular perception of it completely at odds with the free inquiry it ought to manifest and indeed fulfill.

This is why I'm generally opposed to the anthropomorphosis of science.

Related:  The Benefit of Doubt: The Question of Science

Note:  The above is a picture I took of part of one of my science fair trophies.

1 comment:

  1. Those are some very telling observations, Sam. I like to look at the word "science" from a linguistic perspective. The Arabic word for "science" is "'ilm", which is the same as the word for "knowledge." Our English word for science also means "knowledge," but we just don't recognize it because it's Latin: "Scientia."

    If science simply means the body of human knowledge that has been obtained through careful observation and study over hundreds of years, then of course it is very valuable. The problem is that trying to reduce all human knowledge to that which can be directly or indirectly observed or measured leaves us blind to some of the most important truths that there are, most notably those truths that regard transcendental values and our relationship to one another ("Is life worth living? Is human life valuable? Is it okay to hurt my neighbor if it benefits me or my family?").

    Scientific concepts have helped me in my own life, as a better understanding of human behavior in general has helped me to uproot some of my old habits and replace them with better ones. I don't find it helpful to separate God from this process, as if he had wound up the Universe like a clock 14 billion years ago and is now just sitting up somewhere watching each of us on little television screens. Rather, in learning more about human behavior and about the Universe, I learn more about the mind of God and the intelligibility He has put within the universe and its laws.

    Although the ancients obviously held to some beliefs that are scientifically incorrect, due to their own ignorance, I think we often don't give them enough credit. The modern narrative is that ancients were a bunch of religious, superstitious buffoons, until "science" came swooping in and rescued humanity from its ignorance. Except that the ancients--even those who were very religious--were quite practical when it came to knowledge related to survival. They had to read the signs of the sea, the weather, and of human behavior much closer than we do now--there was no safety net, no Weather Channel, no Coast Guard. Read the last few chapters of the book of Acts. What did St. Paul say to the Centurion and ship owner who wanted to continue the trip toward Rome in spite of the bad weather? "Keep on sailin' boys....Jesus'll protect us! He ain't never abandoned me yet! Alleluia!"

    No! He said, "You idiots, you can't keep sailing in the winter! You're gonna get everybody killed!!" And then, when the idiots still didn't listen, then he prayed that Jesus would protect himself, his comrades, and the idiots.

    Then there's also the problem that statements such as "Science saved my life" or "Only scientific statements are valid forms of knowledge" are not themselves strictly scientific, but this has been pointed out by many before me.