We’ve met Dave Pruett before in the pages of our favorite accommodationist rag. A bit more than a year ago, he published a dreadful PuffHo screed arguing that the weirdness of quantum mechanics—and our current inability to understand consciousness—argued for the validity of Other Ways of Knowing, i.e., religion. He predicted, in fact, the advent of a Grand Unified Theory of Science and Woo:
But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Like a dog returning to his own vomit (2 Peter 2:22), Pruett is back again with a remarkably thin and misguided piece criticizing the fundamentalist excesses of both science and faith. It’s called “Science’s Sacred Cows (Part I)“, which of course implies that there will be a Part II—so much the worse for my digestive system. Note that he calls it “Science’s Sacred Cows,” not “Religion’s Sacred Cows,” for although he pays lip service to the excesses of religion, what he really wants to do is go after science.
Pruett, by the way, is an emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which makes him a colleague of my friend (and staunch opponent of accommodationism) Jason Rosenhouse. Like me, Rosenhouse went after Pruett’s first column in a post at EvolutionBlog.
But on to Pruett’s latest, which, I claim, has the most fail per word of any accommodationist post I’ve seen on PuffHo. He begins with Pope John Paul II’s claim that “there can be no real contradiction between science and faith”, based on the quasi-Gouldian stance that they are separate and autonomous areas of inquiry BUT, says the Pope, “finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects.”
Right there you see claim that faith does discover reality about the universe, and so is not really a distinct magisterium but a distinct way to find the the same kind of reality as does science (“converge”). And Pruett apparently endorses this:
Given centuries of animosity between science and religion, the pontiff’s admission astounds for several reasons. First, it stresses the complementarity rather than the antagonism of rational and intuitive modes of knowing. Second, it grants autonomy to both revelatory processes, implying that neither should seek to manipulate or triumph over the other. And third, it suggests that ultimate truth — so far as we can know it — emerges from the concerted efforts of external and internal explorations.
Now Pruett doesn’t tell us what he means by “ultimate truth,” but you can be pretty sure that he means something about a divine being or the numinous: that is, whatever religion can find out about the universe that science can’t. (I use the words “find out” ironically, since the concerted efforts of religion have never found out any truth, ultimate or otherwise.)
Then, to make sure he positions himself judiciously in the center, thus proving himself superior to both atheists and fundamentalists, Pruett calls out religion for overstepping its boundaries, citing the Galileo and Bruno affairs and modern incursions of creationism into American public schools.
After he gets that out of the way, it’s science’s turn for a drubbing:
Science’s infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion’s domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma.
Scientism is “equally damaging to the human spirit”??? Only someone blinded by his accommodationist mission could make a statement like that. Look at the damage that religion has caused, not just to the human spirit but to the human body. Think of the millions murdered because they were Protestants or Jews or Muslims who were of the wrong sect, or were girls and simply wanted to go to school. Think of the millions forbidden to divorce or use contraception, who contracted AIDS because their church told them condoms were out. And speaking of the human spirit, think of all the children terrorized by thoughts of hell, or of the women—half of humanity—disenfranchised by faith, unable to even begin to strive for their goals. Or those whose sex lives have been forever crippled by the foolish prudery of faith.
And Pruett dwells on the “damage of the human spirit” caused by scientism? I have to bite my tongue here lest I use invective, but I will quote Orwell again: “One has to belong to the intelligentisia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
So what, exactly, are these wounds to the spirit inflicted by scientism? As usual with accommodationists, Pruett doesn’t list them:
Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses, albeit senses heightened by modern marvels such as the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material. Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.
There’s that fundamentalism trope: we’re “cocksure and inflexible.” Here Pruett seems to be drawing a distinction between methodological naturalism (we do our work without assuming divine intervention) and philosophical naturalism (there isn’t divine intervention because there is no God.) But, as Barbara Forrest and others have noted, there’s a continuum between these two forms of naturalism. For after centuries of science making progress without assuming a god, and without getting any evidence for god (though there could in principle be some), and, indeed, seeing evidence against god (e.g., undeserved suffering), we can take it as a provisional working assumption that there is no god.
Why can’t people like Pruett realize that this good working assumption is not “cocksure and inflexible,” but simply a philosophy of work that has been fruitful? It is a worldview, to be sure, but one that has never been contradicted, and which, compared to its alternative religious incarnation, actually leads to understanding. Are plumbers “cocksure and inflexible” because they assume that there is no divine power that clogs up toilets?
And if it is scientism to say that science is the best way to make sense of the world—if by “making sense” you mean “understanding what is out there and how it works”—then by all means I am guilty before the bar. It’s curious but telling that Pruett gives not a single example of how science has overstepped its bounds, or injured the human spirit. Does philosophical naturalism injure people’s spirits? Does saying that someday we might understand love as a biochemical process “injure people’s spirits?” Of course one can “make sense of the world” without science—that’s what religion does. But the operant question is this: does how you make sense of the world involve invoking realities for which there’s no evidence?
In the end, Pruett just lines up accommodationist tropes like tired old horses on parade. You know where he’s coming from when he uses the giveaway word “humility.” What Pruett is doing here is praising himself for being better than the fundamentalists or those awful cocksure scientists, for he knows what it is to be humble. But it’s science that is humble, not Pruett and not religionists. Pruett has not one iota of evidence that there is some “ultimate truth” accessible to religion and not science.
Philosophical naturalism is not cocksure and inflexible, for if there were evidence of the divine, or of paranormal phenomena like ESP, we wouldn’t ignore it—we’d study it. And, indeed, things like ESP, near-death experience, and intercessory prayer have been studied empirically. How does Pruett explain that if we are determined that those phenomena don’t fall within the current paradigm of materialism?
Listen, my children, to the mindless litany of accommodationism:
Ultimately, science and religion should serve rather than dominate the human societies from which they emerged. Each, I believe, serves best from a stance of awe and humility that assumes as little as possible. The best from both worlds — the greatest scientists and the most profound religious thinkers and teachers — have always practiced these two qualities. Childlike awe motivated Einstein. “All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren,” he accepted. “The real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.” Similarly, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invoked both humility and awe when he asked, “Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?”
What I love is the fact that we can use science to drain that sea of infinite mystery, turning it into a fount of knowledge. Religion can’t do that, and never has.
By the way, Pruett’s piece is in the HuffPo Science section.
Your turn, Jason.