As I noted recently, Massimo Pigliucci has left his Rationally Speaking website to found a new one: Scientia Salon, which will, it seems, host a greater diversity of authors.
Alan Sokal has put up a new post (actually part 2 of 3) at Scientia Salon ; the title of the tripartite essay is “What is science and why should we care?”, and you can find part 1 here. Part 3, which was published yesterday, is here (I don’t yet know the permalink).
You will remember Sokal as the physics professor who perpetrated the greatest scientific spoof of our time, the famous “Sokal Hoax,” in which he submitted a bogus, postmoderny article to the pomo journal Social Text, and got it accepted and published. It’s a really funny spoof, using real quotes from postmodern science-distorters, and is indistiguishable from most of the pomo science criticism that was pervasive then from people like Judith Butler and Stanley Aronowith. The title of Sokals piece was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“, and if you haven’t seen the article, the link takes you to it. If you were too young to know about this hoax, do at least look over the “Hermeneutics” piece, which has howlers like this:
But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity”. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.
That piece was a terrific embarrassment to the editors of Social Text, particularly to the prolix and overrated editor Stanley Fish, who accepted it without any scientific review (if a physicist had looked at that article for about two minutes, it would have been outed as a fraud). As it was, Sokal later revealed the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. The Social Text editors counterattacked, saying they thought the article was real (indeed, which shows what tripe can pass for academic discourse among pomo “scholars”), and that Sokal had behaved unethically. But their defenses weren’t convincing, and I think Sokal’s hoax was partly responsible for the slow disappearance of postmodernism (and its claim that science doesn’t provide objective truth) from the humanities departments of American universities.
But that’s background. If you’re familiar with Sokal’s work, including his book with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, you’ll know much of what he says in his new three-part essay. He deals with the nature of science (Sokal conceives of it, as do I, as a toolkit for studying the empirical realities of nature, but adds that it’s also the accumulation of facts gathered by those tools), and with the abuse of science by “other ways of knowing,” including pseudoscience and religion.
I don’t think Massimo will be down with everything that Sokal has to say, for Sokal conceives of “science” broadly, including—gasp!—plumbing: in other words, every discipline that uses reason and empirical study to find out truths about the cosmos. To Sokal, as to me, every “way of knowing” that tells us something about nature’s reality comes from the application of the tools of science.
Massimo doesn’t like “science” to cover such a broad spectrum of disciplines, preferring to use the word “scientia” instead. But that’s just a semantic squabble.
Here is a good quote on that from part I of Sokal’s essay (my emphasis):
Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test. One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).
. . . I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)
Massimo gets really exercised when plumbers are said to use science, and has criticised me several times for that analogy. So be it.
But I’m glad to see Alan on my side here, because what’s important is not how we precisely demarcate the boundaries of science to distinguish it from what is done by, say, historians or plumbrs, but that one demarcate science from pseudoscience and non-science, which have a different (and ineffective) toolkit for finding truth. Of course, people like David Bentley Hart (I’m still reading him) will claim that religion isn’t in the business of making empirical claims, or at least that Hart isn’t: he’s just telling us how God is conceived of by Sophisticated Theologians™, so that atheists can know what they’re attacking. (Let me add that Hart’s God contrary to his claims, does not completely comport with all the attributes of God adumbrated by either Church fathers or “regular believers,” and so it does no work towards helping us to understand the real, empirical claims of modern faith. Hart’s God, for example, is at odds with the God of Catholicism, and with many of its practices that are justified by the will of their God. Hart’s God is his alone, stripped of all the accoutrements added by the historical theologians he cites, and one suspects Hart defines this apophatic God precisely to immunize it from empirical scrutiny.)
But I digress. In part II of his essay, Sokal distinguishes religion from science, showing how they’re incompatible. I’ll quote in extenso, but there’s a lot more, so go read the essay. It’ll take about an hour. I’ve put one paragraph in bold.
And so, if I were tactically minded, I would stress — as most scientists do — that science and religion need not come into conflict. I might even go on to argue, following Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion should be understood as “nonoverlapping magisteria”: science dealing with questions of fact, religion dealing with questions of ethics and meaning. But I can’t in good conscience proceed in this way, for the simple reason that I don’t think the arguments stand up to careful logical examination. Why do I say that? For the details, I have to refer you to a 75-page chapter in my book ; but let me at least try to sketch now the main reasons why I think that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world.
. . . Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.”  It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.
But of course we never apply these lax standards of evidence to the claims made in the other fellow’s holy scriptures: when it comes to religions other than one’s own, religious people are as rational as everyone else. Only our own religion, whatever it may be, seems to merit some special dispensation from the general standards of evidence. [JAC: Note that this is similar to John Loftus’s well known “Outsider Test for Faith.”]
And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.
Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations. Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts. But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones? At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?
Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?
As John Shaft would say, “Right on.”