Thursday, March 15, 2012

Christopher Hitchens on Science and Reason

Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), xxi.
There is…no special reason to credit “science” as the father or godfather of reason. As in the case of the doctors mentioned earlier [ed. note: e.g., Nazi physicians, etc.], a commitment to experiment and find evidence is no guarantee of immunity to superstition and worse. Sir Isaac Newton was prey to the most idiotic opinions about alchemy. Joseph Priestly, the courageous Unitarian and skeptic who discovered oxygen, was a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of Darwin’s greatest collaborators and progenitors, was a dedicated attender of spiritualist sessions where “ectoplasm” was produced by frauds to the applause of morons. Even today, there are important men of science—admittedly a minority—who maintain that their findings are compatible with belief in a creator. They may not be able to derive the one from the other, or even to claim to do so, but they testify the the extreme stubbornness with which intelligent people will cling to unsupported opinions.

This one kind of goes off the rails a bit toward the end, the paragraph concluding with a point that is tangential to the one with which he began. But one gets the point (or, points, as it were…).


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8 comments:

Matthew Frost said...

I'm not sure it does go off the rails -- it seems to me to be a consistent argument. Root point: science does not produce rationality. Cases in point: scientists who follow the method but believe irrational things, these being inconsistencies in their purported scientific rationality. Newton and alchemy, Priestly and phlogiston, Wallace and ectoplasmic revivalism, and (let's say) Polkinghorne and God.

Science doesn't produce rationality -- one can still judge the rationality of scientists by their opinions. Clearly Hawking is more rational, and proves it over and over again by attempting to tear down belief in a creator deity through application of physics. He applies his perfect rationality through science to do away with superstition in pursuit of the truth about the universe.

Matthew Frost said...

The root claim is epistemological: rationality is only believing as true what can be verified from evidence, modulo canons of acceptable evidence. Generally, empirical and repeatable sense observation. Science is therefore a rational path, but not the root of reason.

W. Travis McMaken said...

By going off the rails I meant that bit about compatibility.

Matthew Frost said...

Right, but the whole thing looks to me to be about compatibility. I saw that bit as an expansion of the problem with the whole set of cases. The principle of non-contradiction. If you hold two opinions that, taken to their logical ends, result in contradiction, one of them is wrong. They are not compatible -- one is rational, and the other not, by comparison with the missing third term: observable reality. And Hitch claims to know which is which.

Now, Polkinghorne claims explicitly that his practice of physics and his practice of belief in a divine creator cohere. That they are compatible, and that religion and science are compatible doxastic practices. But Newton also practiced alchemy along with math and physics, and you could likely say the same about many more examples than he gives. Holding two incompatible beliefs at the same time without perceiving the conflict is irrational. And science won't save you from irrationality -- it doesn't prevent the scientist from irrationally holding incompatible beliefs, much less acting scientifically in the pursuit of the irrational one. The whole setup is designed to paint theistic belief in a creator as the equivalent of phlogiston, ectoplasm, and alchemy -- and more distantly to connect it with the ideologies of far less rational scientists. All are people who claim that the results of two patently incompatible doxastic practices are coherent, even though they could not possibly derive the results of one from the other. (For Hitch, at any rate.)

Matthew Frost said...

As someone who work in R&S from the perspective of doing theology as its own proper science, this might actually be a devastating critique. Because the notion here is that just because you can baptize it in the scientific method, doesn't mean you have a rational pursuit. Barth's project in I.1, for example, doesn't make theology rational -- it just makes it wissenschaftlich. Rationality, in Hitch's argument here, is judged by the coherence of the object with reality -- its compatibility with other rational objects. The ability to derive understanding of this object by means independent of it -- the same means you use to derive understanding about everything else.

W. Travis McMaken said...

It's the "by the same means" bit that makes the argument not work because in any scientific pursuit the object under study sets the terms of understanding & method. One could argue that in all the cases Hitch mentions, the "science" in question betrays this insight.

Alexander said...

Sometimes incompatibility becomes obvious when two statements are thought to reinforce one another, while one actually is satire - that is, until scientific reductionism comes in. "Samuel Butler's famous aphorism, that the chicken is only an egg's way of making another egg, has been modernized: The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA." (EO Wilson, Sociobiology, 3)

W. Travis McMaken said...

Very interesting, Alex, on when science makes the jump from method to belief system.