Scientists and Superstitious Simpletons

bfbI am sick and tired of hearing about the supposed “objectivity” of science and scientific inquiry.

The claim goes like this: Belief systems, whether religious or secular, deal in supernatural issues like the afterlife, morality, and the state of the soul. Science, on the other hand, deals in brute facts, and therefore needs to be taken seriously.

It’s an incredibly modern kind of claim, if you think about it. And I am just postmodern enough to be suspicious of it.

It was Jean-Francois Lyotard who summed up postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarrative.” By metanarrative, Lyotard meant any overarching story that grounds all of existence, a foundational worldview or set of principles that contextualizes everything else. To that, Lyotard said, the postmodern attitude is one of heel-digging and discomfort.

In other words, there is no “view from nowhere.” The desire to gain an objective view of anything is simply folly, for we cannot escape ourselves, our lenses, or our own perspective. The postmodern thinker, therefore, sees each so-called worldview as actually a local narrative, a perspective that is not universal but bound by context and borders.

Where does science fit into all this?

The claims of many hard scientists are quintessentially modern. “We are completely disinterested reporters of brute facts,” they claim. “We just follow the raw data and report our findings objectively.”

Poppycock. Or “cockypop” as I like to say.

The agreed-upon and adopted context in which scientists operate—“We live in a closed system of nature and cause and effect with no outside or supernatural intervention”—is itself a local narrative, and a highly-contested and counter-intuitive one at that. Indeed, at its core the scientific narrative is not scientific at all (since you can’t scientifically prove that x or y does not exist). Rather, it is a narrative more beholden to a-scientific claims about the non-existence of souls and angels than it is to anything objectively verifiable.

My point?

I am not trying to denigrate science (the way scientists try to denigrate me). Rather, I am simply attempting to put scientists on the same level as the rest of us superstitious simpletons. We all operate according to a host of untested, and often untestable, assumptions, and none of us is any more objective than anyone else.

A little humility is in order, is what I’m saying.

In a word, if I am looking for fruitful and healthy dialogue, I would rather seek it from someone who is unsure whether God exists than with someone who is absolutely certain that he does, or absolutely certain that he doesn’t. 

19 Comments

  1. […] (Read More) […]

  2. MrJosephWheatAugust 26, 2015

    You have a way with words, good sir. Your last point reminded me of an illustration my youth pastor (at a Calvary Chapel, mind you) brought up. He drew a circle, called it “everything there is to know” then drew a tiny sliver on it and labeled it “everything humanity knows”. He went on to berate the atheist idea that we haven’t found proof of God. We know so little, and have experienced such a small percentage of the universe, yet people think that God is an impossibility. It’s not objective in any sense.

    Anywho, I like what you’re doing, keep it up!
    ~J Wheat

  3. JasonAugust 26, 2015

    Thanks, Joseph!

    I was recently watching an old SNL monologue by Louis CK, and interestingly he made the same point: “Wait, you KNOW that God doesn’t exist? How? You can see, like, 100 yards if there’re no buildings blocking your view, and yet you KNOW that God’s not out there!”

  4. ZrimAugust 26, 2015

    I do get a kick from atheists who balk at the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and offer up an alternative doctrine of evolution where we started out fish and over time turned into human beings. When you think about it, it takes at least as much faith to believe fish *somehow* turned into people. What, because your theory includes “over time” you’re the sane one?

    The other kick I get is when Christians ape this kind of thing and berate Mormons for their silly doctrines of gold plates in the ground, secret magic skivvies, interplanetary afterlives. Right, because Christianity doesn’t have doctrines that rational objectivity couldn’t have a hay day with. Don’t get me wrong, teasing others is fun, but if you want Christianity to be well heeled and respectable in the modern age you really should dispense with stuff about virgin births, ascensions, resurrections, waters into wines, and beatific visions.

  5. JasonAugust 26, 2015

    Totally agree. Forgive the Crossian link to myself, but:

    http://heavyforthevintage.com/2015/04/15/mysticism-secular-religious/

  6. mariusAugust 27, 2015

    “none of us is any more objective than anyone else.”

    a friend of mine is a lecturer at a local university and a post-modern philospher. he influenced me greatly the last 3 years or so, and he also said what you said.

    i donned the postmodern mindset myself for a short season because of him. the thing got me rethinking postmodernism though (while i remain greatly sympathetic to postmodern thinking on the issue of objectivity/subjectivity) is that the statement you made which I quoted remains asserted as though it is objective.

    if it is an objective statement, then it is undercuts itself because it tries to claim the opposite. if it is a subjective statement, then there’s no salient way of embracing it.

    maybe you have some thoughts on this that might shed light on the issue for me?

  7. mariusAugust 27, 2015

    sorry wrong word i meant “no meaningful way of embracing it”

  8. JasonAugust 27, 2015

    Hey Marius,

    I agree that my statement is not objective, it comes from me, a subject who sees the world through a particular set of lenses that differs from yours.

    It does get murky here, I’ll admit. Perhaps it would be better to just formulate the statement the way I did above (and in the article): we could shy away from “Nothing is objective” and focus more on the fact that none of us is unembedded or without context?

  9. GregAugust 27, 2015

    Jason, very well said. As both a scientist and religious believer, I’ve resigned myself to the reality that none of us knows anything, we’re all just trying to figure it out in our own way.

    That last paragraph though, was more than just a word.

  10. MariusAugust 31, 2015

    its going to sound like I’m nitpicky (and maybe I am), but I cant help myself. saying that it’s either subjective (what we want to avoid) or not without context is still seeming to say that we don’t know anything, which puts me in the position that I have no reason to embrace what is being communicated – because it may not be my context (according to my own judgement of course).

    i can only imagine if the church’s magisterium had to take that stance. the logical conclusion truly seems inescapable.

  11. MikeSeptember 15, 2015

    I still don’t understand what you are saying the “scientific narrative” is. I don’t think any self respecting scientist, during the course of an experiment, really cares if souls, angels, demons, or god his/her/itself exist or not. I think any scientist would tell you that he or she is his or her own worst enemy. In order to combat that personal bias or worldview or whatever, they repeat experiments ad nauseum, redo calculations, meet together to compare notes and results.

    The ironic thing is that it seems you are implying the “science narrative” has a holier than thou mentality. Like science has all the answers. Sounds familiar…. I really don’t think any scientist would tell you they have all the answers and would probably tell you they might be proved wrong one day and that they would be ok with that. I think that’s the distinction between scientists and what you call “superstitious simpletons” (aww shucks). It’s not elitist. It’s not snobby. It is what it is based on what we’ve figured out so far, and for the stuff we don’t know yet, why not keep working at figuring it out without worrying about what possible god we have offended or not offended.

  12. mariusSeptember 15, 2015

    howdy,

    let me just say that, christians have never said we have the answers to everything. no matter how much you think we did, no matter how much secular society tells you we did, we really didn’t. christianity only speaks to issues of faith and morals, not science.

    now science, likewise, only speaks to issues of science, and not to issues of faith and morals. the problem, and i think the “narrative” that jason speaks of has more to do with scientists like richard dawkins and sam harris et al, who reject the notion of god based purely on a scientific framework. philosophicall/logically this is problematic.

    science is a framework for a specific kind of knowledge. science generally concerns itself with pragmatic tests and results. if god exists, then a laboratory is just not the kind of place to recognise the existence or non-existence of god. this is the problem jason is referring to.

    god’s existence or non-existence is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

  13. MikeSeptember 16, 2015

    Hi Marius,

    It may not be the type of Christianity you ascribe to, but there are plenty out there (I used to be one of them) that are, in their minds, the holders of all of the answers through their interpretation of the “word of God” and nothing will change their minds. They hold their faith and morals out as fact and that’s a problem for me. I think that’s where I am having the disconnect on equating science and religion and the christian narrative with the science narrative.

    I totally agree with you that questions of religion and the existence of a god a philosophical in nature. I would take it further and say they are at odds with one another. I do not understand why they have to be on a level playing field when one (traditional evangelical christian world views) is completely close-minded and resistant to anything that might change that perspective and the other (scientific world view) is open to change and the possibility of being wrong.

    I guess one way to tackle it is to ask what’s the end goal of each. At their fundamental cores what are Christianity and science all about?

  14. JasonSeptember 16, 2015

    Hi Mike,

    The ironic thing is that it seems you are implying the “science narrative” has a holier than thou mentality. Like science has all the answers.

    In my experience it is the pop scientists and pop atheists who imply this.

  15. MikeSeptember 16, 2015

    Hey Jason,

    But do you think that it could just be a reaction, whether intentional or not, to the attitude/demeanor that many Christians (who enjoy a large majority, at least in America) bring to the table? While I do think some of the pop atheists and scientists come across arrogant and rude, they almost have to be when dealing with certain my-way-or-the-highway Christians. I also think it’s a rather effective method in bringing to light inconsistencies and certain absurdities that many Christians may never have thought about before about their religion. I’d like to think that most pop scientist and pop atheist intentions are not to to belittle Christians, but get them to really think about what they believe and why they believe it and why it might not be the Truth.

  16. JasonSeptember 16, 2015

    Yeah, I do think that smug certainty begets more smug certainty on the other side, which was my point in this post: Both sides should unclench and recognize that at the end of the day there’s way more that we don’t know than what we do know.

  17. MikeSeptember 16, 2015

    I agree that everybody needs to lighten up and admit none of us really know what the hell we’re talking about. I just think scientists, skeptics, atheist, agnostics (of course), humanists, secularists and their “narratives” are more receptive to that notion than the majority of Christians. Maybe that’s why I can’t equate the narratives.

  18. MariusSeptember 16, 2015

    “It may not be the type of Christianity you ascribe to, but there are plenty out there (I used to be one of them) that are, in their minds, the holders of all of the answers…”

    I understand this more than I might be letting on, it’s just that I feel there’s a reason for me to back-peddle on this: I don’t think it’s right to judge an entire group by a minority within that group that shouts the loudest. The problem is that the minority shouts the loudest and give the impression that they are a majority, and therefore represent the majority. but honestly they don’t. So to be fair to christians broadly speaking, a few bad apples doesn’t define the entire group. We see minorities frequently acting loudly in other areas of life, as though they represent the whole of a broadly defined social grouping.

    Likewise Dawkins et al don’t represent all scientists. fairness requires that i don’t judge all scientists by Dawkins’ example. But fairness goes both ways, so as explained above, the same courtesy should be extended to christians as a large and broadly defined social grouping.

    therefore, even though i sympathise with you in that you were “one of those christians” (believe me, i was once one of them too), i don’t think your or my experience (and this is seriously not to downplay your experience, so forgive me if it comes across as that) can be a justifiably applied to the group as a whole. it cannot.

    “I agree that everybody needs to lighten up and admit none of us really know what the hell we’re talking about. I just think scientists, skeptics, atheist, agnostics (of course), humanists, secularists and their “narratives” are more receptive to that notion than the majority of Christians. Maybe that’s why I can’t equate the narratives.”

    as with my elaboration above, i don’t think scientists and skeptics are more receptive to truth than christians. such a position begs the question and unfairly applies the emotional issue to christians and unfairly tries to evade the same emotional slant that is applicable to the skeptic/scientist.

  19. MikeSeptember 18, 2015

    I don’t think it’s right to judge an entire group by a minority within that group that shouts the loudest. The problem is that the minority shouts the loudest and give the impression that they are a majority, and therefore represent the majority. but honestly they don’t. So to be fair to christians broadly speaking, a few bad apples doesn’t define the entire group. We see minorities frequently acting loudly in other areas of life, as though they represent the whole of a broadly defined social grouping.

    Maybe I should have said I was talking about in the U.S. Do you think the evangelical christian right is a minority in America? I could see you saying westboro baptist church is a minority within christianity but I find it hard to believe that more liberally leaning christians that are open to ideas that go against their dogma are in the majority. Maybe that’s changing. I hope so.

    as with my elaboration above, i don’t think scientists and skeptics are more receptive to truth than christians. such a position begs the question and unfairly applies the emotional issue to christians and unfairly tries to evade the same emotional slant that is applicable to the skeptic/scientist.

    But emotion is an integral part to christianity and, I would argue, not so much in science. If scientists approached issues and experiments without setting aside their personal bias and worldviews or some preconceived notion of the ways things were and have always been, I think we’d all be in trouble.

    My point is, scientists deliberately set aside emotion and if they don’t, there’s always another scientist who would question it, which I think is impossible to do in christianity, so the two are completely incompatible in my mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t co-exist. It just means that you really cannot justify equating the two and everybody should stop arguing about it.

Comments are closed.