In a recent post about Sam Harris’s new ideas about morality, Massimo Pigliucci decided to take a few shots at the “scientism” supposedly espoused by Richard Dawkins and me.
As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well.
I’m not exactly sure what Massimo’s beef is with Richard and me, but it seems to have something to do with our presumed lack of respect for philosophy:
I don’t have a copy of the God Delusion with me at the moment, but both Dawkins and Coyne have repeatedly made disparaging remarks about philosophy during talks I’ve seen. Coyne even did it while giving a research seminar at Stony Brook a few years ago (I was in the audience), and Dawkins made a joke during a talk about having to hold back from criticizing philosophy because Dennett was in the audience…
I don’t remember what I said at Stony Brook, but I clearly don’t dismiss all philosophy—just what I see as bad philosophy. (Yes, there is some: for a specimen, see What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini). I have enormous respect for the kind of philosophy which, as Russell Blackford points out, can approach science in its ability to find truth through reason. (One example that I cite constantly is the demonstration by Plato and others that much of morality doesn’t derive from religious dogma but is antecedent to it.)
But I don’t want to talk about Harris’s take on morality here (see the bottom of this post for a few comments). Instead, I’d like to address Massimo’s notion that the supernatural is simply impervious to scientific analysis. As he said in a comment on his own post:
. . . my problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.
Okay, let me get one thing clear at the outset. I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having. Some answers worth having involve subjective taste: which bistro should I eat at tonight? Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce’s The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.) Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold? And there are the moral questions, such as “Is abortion wrong?”
Now some of these questions are at least potentially susceptible to empirical investigation and falsification (I may find, for example, that I first heard Beethoven during a really good time of my life, and that this somehow conditioned my neural response to the music.) But science certainly can’t “do everything.” It can’t relieve the tears of a bullied child; it can’t bring civil rights to blacks and gays; it can’t bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Still, many of the answers to these questions can be informed by scientific analysis. If our answer to the question about abortion involves knowing whether a fetus can feel pain, well, that can—in principle—be studied scientifically.
Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books. I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools. If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.
But Pigliucci is off the mark, I think, when insisting that we can’t apply science to the supernatural. We’ve gone around about this before, but I want to make the point one more time. This view is pretty common; it’s held not only by Massimo, but also by people like Eugenie Scott, who once told me that the supernatural is simply immune to scientific analysis.
Here’s the point. Virtually every religion that is practiced by real people (as opposed to that espoused by theologians like Karen Armstrong) makes claims that God interacts with the world. That is, most religions are theistic rather than deistic. And to the extent that a faith is theistic, it is amenable to empirical study and falsification—that is, it’s susceptible to science.
Here is a short (and very incomplete) list of all the ways that science already has tested the supernatural assertions of faith:
- The earth was suddenly created, complete with all its species, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This was falsified by science. The falsification likewise goes for other religions’ creation myths, like those of Hindus and the Inuits.
- God put the earth at the center of the solar system and the universe. Also falsified.
- God is both omnipotent and benevolent. Falsified by the data.
- All humans descend from Adam and Eve, who also lived a few thousand years ago. Falsified by genetic data.
- Praying for sick people makes them better. Falsified by the intercessory prayer study.
- People who lived in the past can be reincarnated as modern people, complete with their earlier memories. Investigation has shown no evidence for this.
- Jonah was swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish (or whale). Probably impossible; nobody has survived such an occurrence.
- God confounded all the languages at once at the Tower of Babel. False: languages diverged gradually from common ancestors.
- Tribes colonized North America from the Tower of Babel several thousand years ago. (Book of Mormon). No evidence.
- Faith by itself can cure dire diseases and medical conditions, which result not from organic conditions but from imperfect belief. (Christian Science). No evidence for such faith healing.
- U.S. soldiers will return to South Pacific islands bearing wonderful goods for the inhabitants. False: won’t happen.
I don’t think I need to go on. The point is that all of these assertions dealt with supernatural claims that were part of mainstream or widely-practiced religions. They were disproved by science, and many (but not all) of the faithful have discarded them. This shows by itself that Pigliucci is wrong: science can be applied to supernatural claims.
Now there are other supernatural claims that haven’t yet been disproven by empirical tests but could be, at least in principle. Here are a few:
- Performing special dances to propitiate the gods will bring rain for the crops.
- Likewise, sacrificing animals will propitiate the gods and bring good fortune.
- Mary’s body was taken directly to heaven, with no bones remaining on Earth.
- The cloth that covered Jesus’s body miraculously retained his imprint.
- Praying to God can help cure cancer.
I’m sure all of you can considerably expand this list.
Now maybe Pigliucci’s definition of “supernatural” is this: the supernatural is that which cannot be studied by science. In that case his assertion is merely a tautology. But I think most people conceive of the “supernatural” as something more than this: something numinous, beyond our normal experience (that’s what most of us would call “preternatural”); something like the dogmas espoused by religion. As my friend Russell Blackford has pointed out, the definition of “supernatural” is pretty slippery, and varies from person to person. I claim that in its common usage, in which miraculous events occur on Earth through the intercession of gods, the supernatural can often be tested with science. Any philosophy that claims it cannot is either espousing a tautology or is misguided. And that is a kind of philosophy I cannot get behind.
Footnote: I’ve watched Sam Harris’s Ted video about his forthcoming book, and tried to keep up a bit with the ensuing debate, but there’s simply too much to cover. I feel better withholding judgment on Sam’s ideas until I read his book. So far I think that Sam’s detractors invoke the naturalistic fallacy too quickly, and that there may indeed be something about “is” that can be transferred to “ought.” Suppose, for instance, that we really do find that nearly all human judgments about morality rest on a common denominator of increased well-being? Wouldn’t that give us some guidance toward “ought?” I do appreciate the opportunity that Sam has given us to ponder all this. On the other hand, I’m not yet clear what Sam means by “well-being”? Does he mean the well-being of humanity as a whole, or of (as John Rawls might say) the least advantaged individual? Would it not be possible to commit palpably immoral acts and still increase the world’s net well-being, or would the mere occurrence of such acts (say, of torture) inevitably reduce overall well-being by eroding standards? And aren’t there different acts that have identical effects on well-being (say, Marc Hauser’s railroad-track question) but which we judge as morally non-equivalent? There’s a lot to think about here, and I want to read Sam’s book before weighing in.