A couple of weeks ago, a puzzling piece appeared on The Conversation: the title “Restoring science’s place in society will help us resolve the big debates” naturally caught my eye, and I started reading it expecting to find some hints on how to surpass the common attitude that grants the same weight to opinion and evidence. Reading it, however, quickly became puzzling and made me experience a sort of dissonance discomfort. As a result, I posted the link on Reddit, with a very short and critical disclaimer (further explained in a subsequent comment), and then tweeted my disappointment directly to The Conversation.
To my surprise, Tom McLeish, the author of the original article replied to my rather blunt tweet (it’s official, Twitter is fine for praise, but it really doesn’t work for criticism, constructive or not), and we engaged on a short and very civilised exchange. As a result, I promised to articulate my discomfort in full, this post is my attempt to fulfil my promise, and you may want to check back on it as prof. McLeish is likely to reply.
I am openly in favour of voicing and addressing disagreements, as I believe that external criticism it’s the only way to overcome our own biases; I am therefore happy to try my luck here, but I am also very much aware that the subject is a minefield, so I’m a little worried that I may be unable to frame my thoughts in a constructive way, without watering them down. Please bear with me, and we’ll see together how it goes.
The author of the original article is Tom McLeish (see also @mcleish_t), Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and an Anglican Reader. It shouldn’t go without saying that his willingness to engage with the first nobody criticising him on Twitter (me) is rare and highly appreciated. To explain my concerns, I will shortly summarise my own reading of the original article: make no mistake, I know that I don’t fully understand its intended meaning, so please do read it in full. Better still, you may want to go the extra mile and read McLeish’s book, on which the article is based: Faith and Wisdom in Science. I haven’t read the book, so my comments are on the short article alone. Nevertheless, the following paragraphs are a necessary premise: without explaining what I think the article says, I can’t possibly describe my objections.
McLeish piece begins in a very agreeable way, it expresses a justified concern on the position that scientific knowledge occupies in our present society: the starting point (that I fully agree with) is that trust in science is low, and may be decreasing, especially because of the rhetoric employed by the political right (in Europe, but even more forcefully in the US). McLeish also points out that the polarisation of the debate leads to bad (policy) decisions and to confrontations that make none the wiser. Science is increasingly perceived as an isolated enterprise, not as part of the common cultural background, and of course, I agree that this trend is deeply worrying and we should all try to reverse it. In other words, as far as explicit premises go, McLeish and I are in complete agreement. Of course, however, I started to feel uncomfortable as soon as I reached the following passage:
To unearth a narrative of purpose beneath science, we cannot avoid drawing on religious heritage for at least anthropological and historical reasons. To restore faith in science, we cannot bypass the understanding of the relationship of faith with science. Here we are not helped by the current oppositional framing of the “science and religion” question, where the discussion seems to be dominated by the loudest voices rather than the most pressing questions.
At this point McLeish just lost me, I genuinely can’t claim that I fully understand what his proposed solution might be, but I have strong reasons to believe that it won’t please me at all. On one side, McLeish tells us that Science can and should teach us a better way to relate with the natural world (agreed!) but then the article ends with a paragraph that truly troubles me (emphasis is mine):
American author George Steiner once wrote, “Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.” Perhaps science can do that, too. If it can, it would mean that science, far from irreconcilable with religion, is a profoundly religious activity itself.
What are we discussing here? The common aim is how to drag scientific discourse (and with it, what evidence can teach us) out of its current ghetto and back into the cultural mainstream. And to me, it seems that McLeish is saying two fundamental things:
- The confrontational stance of prominent atheists (New Atheists, in common parlance) such as Dawkins is helping to produce a progressively larger divide between the scientific elite and the common feeling. This divide may soon become unbridgeable and therefore the trend urgently needs to be reversed.
- The way to reverse this trend is foster a new understanding, based on the recognition that science aims to allow us to gain the most profound knowledge of Nature. [From here I am imaginatively filling the gaps: I will be glad to stand corrected!] Therefore, from the perspective of a religious person, science aims to better understand God’s creation, and may or should be considered as a Theological effort.
If my reading is correct (a big “if”), I applaud the intention, but violently disagree with the feasibility of such an attempt. And I do so on the basis that I believe there is an unbridgeable methodological gap between Science and Theology (intended here as the study of God, not the academic study of religion as a human construct). The gap is plain obvious: at the first level of approximation, religion values ungrounded belief, science values generalised doubt. Where believing in unverifiable ‘truths’ is considered a virtue on the religious camp, it is the most terrible mistake for a scientist. The common objection to this view is that it is an oversimplification (and a typical example of how scientists are prone to over-reduce everything), and I am somewhat sympathetic with this claim: I know that doubt is not banned from the religious camp, and more so, I know that doubt is indeed the distinguishing trait of at least some of the most noteworthy theologians (St. Augustine springs to mind, here). However, I would find it disingenuous not to acknowledge that faith in the real world is practised in ways that are specifically well suited for eradicating or marginalising doubt.
On the second level of approximation, science knows no authority: in principle, it doesn’t matter who produced an argument, the only arbiter is empirical verification, and without that, no claim is considered trustworthy. Once again, religion goes in the opposite direction: depending on the specifics, Authority is granted to selected individuals and/or specific texts. And it is Authority with a capital ‘A’: in one way or the other it derives its force from God itself (or some supernatural source).
Finally, religion has an ever-repeating tendency to associate with political power, and, in the process, generate or support one of the greatest sources of suffering known to humanity: normative societies. On the other hand, science, when it does not degenerate into pseudo-science, can’t form a solid and long-lasting alliance with vested-interests, that’s the direct consequence of its reliance on doubt and in its impossibility of recognising any a-priori source of authority. [Of course, individual scientists, science-currents and technological experts can and do associate themselves with power, but science as a whole can never do the same.]
The consequence of this methodological gap is that I simply can’t fully agree with the first statement above (1.): we should start by granting the due credits to New Atheists, albeit I agree that the polarisation they are contributing to is worrying and unfortunate. First, New Atheism has, at least in the West, achieved, in a hopefully irreversible manner, an extraordinary goal: in our present society, it is finally perfectly normal to be god-less, the claim that atheists are by necessity somewhat immoral (or less-moral) is now almost universally recognised for what it is, an odious, ungrounded and indefensible posture.
Second, New Atheism has successfully showed that challenging ideas is a worthy effort in itself and that it does not, in any way or form, imply any form of disrespect for whoever may hold the challenged belief. Personally, I would go even further, and claim that respecting someone requires to challenge their beliefs. I can however agree with the claim that New Atheism is currently fostering a confrontational, adversarial discourse, and that this is unfortunate or somewhat counter-productive. This may be true, but is the direct consequence of intellectual honesty: the gap is there and denying its existence can only be done by wilfully ignoring the evidence of its existence, something that would be self-defeating (analogous to creating a vast state-funded controlling infrastructure to defend our freedom, a true oxymoron). The question therefore becomes: how do we bridge the gap, without pretending that it is not there? I don’t have a strong answer, but I know that we ought to try (after all, it’s what I’m trying here!), and I also know that McLeish’s attempt looks to me as going in the wrong direction: if he is not trying to negate the gap, then I completely misunderstood his main argument (quite possible, of course).
In the end, this should be enough to explain my violent reaction: I do see that McLeish is trying to defend the importance of science (and with it, the role of evidence), I also recognise that the problem he identifies is real and supported by evidence. This is why I claim to understand why he sees his attempt as “profoundly pro-evidence”. However, I can only reject what I think is the proposed solution: to my eyes, it requires to wilfully turn a blind eye, and ignore the existence of a possibly unbridgeable gap, and therefore it’s self-defeating attempt, and one that, by definition is not pro-evidence at all. My disappointment stems (along with another argument, see below) from recognising the common aim, and nevertheless, violently disagreeing on the way forward.
If you take my position as solid, there is another subsequent reason to be worried: McLeish receives funds from the Templeton Foundation, a private funding agency that apparently has very deep pockets and a known history of supporting the idea that science and religion are compatible. The aim may be worthwhile (and you may have guessed that I personally don’t think it’s viable), but it is extremely dangerous: as it is done by funding science (not by trying to influence religion!), it will always tend to favour self-defeating approaches similar to the one that I’m discussing here (again, if I understood it correctly). In the current state of our society, this is doubly dangerous, because research is being progressively denied public funding, therefore enhancing the relative weight of Templeton-funded research: the final effect is that it’s becoming easier to make the catastrophic error of “bridging the gap” by allowing science to be blind to some inconvenient evidence. This would make science a little more like religion, and a lot less scientific.
A pretty depressing situation. But is there some hope? Well, maybe. For me, there are two promising endeavours, that at least are not self-defeating, and are both alive and kicking (if not alive and well). The first one is almost taken for granted: education. And in particular, the effort of teaching critical thinking in schools. Parallel to this, is the praiseworthy battle against faith-schools, an effort closely associated with New Atheism and the Humanist movement (of course, this is another highly charged controversy, I will not discuss it here, but you may want to check out this old comment of mine).
The second effort is on the cultural and communication side: the Internet is allowing the flourishing of a new kind of culture, or, as John Brockman calls it, the Third Culture. In short, it is the effort of generating and communicating a view of the world that is firmly grounded on scientific knowledge, and that it is neither drier nor less engaging than the traditional humanities disciplines. There are plenty of examples, including of course Edge.org, The Conversation itself, Aeon Magazine, Mosaic, Science Seeker and many, many more (not to mention the individual efforts of fellow bloggers, some very prominent indeed). The richness and diversity of opinion that is made available via these initiatives (with apologies to the ones I’ve left out!) is nothing less than mind-blowing, so much so, that simply being a regular reader may generate the illusion that science culture is not an isolated silos any more. Unfortunately, I do agree with McLeish on this: scientific culture is nowhere near becoming mainstream, but there are signs of hope, and I personally will try to do my bit by concentrating on them.