Thursday, August 9, 2012

Something Worth Watching

The technical and scientific attitude has produced a certain kind of certitude… this has give humankind a certain freedom from anxiety and superstition, a certain power… but now there is a temptation to view as reasonable and therefore as serious only what can be corroborated through experiment and computation. This means that the moral and the holy no longer count for anything.

In the Beginning, 61

Reflection – Science and technology work. That is a principle argument, as I grasp it, of the New Atheists as they first (falsely) oppose science and religion, and then come down on the ‘side’ of science on that basis.

It works. Scientific experimentation leads to discoveries that translate into inventions and medicines that do what we want them to do. And so science is true. And because religion does not produce inventions and medicine, it is not true, or at least there is no reason to consider its truth claims seriously.

I think I’ve done justice to the New Atheist position there. If I have not, I am committing the logical fallacy of the straw man, which is the bane of the internet and much public discourse today: misrepresenting your opponent’s position and then critiquing your misrepresentation.

It is difficult for me to give a fair accounting of atheism, as I have little natural sympathy for the position. There’s not much atheist in me, and one of the hardest thing to do is give a fair rendering of a position that you have little respect or liking for.

At any rate, I think I did OK here. But the New Atheist position is so illogical! First, there is no real opposition between religion and science, and hence no need to choose one over the other. The actual practice of science proceeds on atheistic grounds—that is, science can only be done by seeking natural explanations for events—but there is no reason whatsoever that a scientist cannot be a person of faith. Many are. And there is no logical opposition whatsoever between scientific method and religious truth.

Meanwhile, the statement that ‘x is true’ does not immediately entail ‘not-x is false’. The truth of x precludes the falsehood of anti-x, not other truths besides x.

Simply because our reason works in one direction, towards material reality, in such a way as to understand and manipulate it, we cannot say on that basis that our reason can only work in that way. It is illogical and arbitrary to limit reason to scientific computation and experimentation, simply because we know those things work.

Humanity has 3000 years (and counting!) of reasoning about God, humanity, morality, the meaning and purpose of life, and this reasoning has produced, not toasters and TVs, but an outpouring of poetry, music, art, architecture, literature of unsurpassed beauty. Science gives us the i-pod; religion gives us Bach. Science gives us TV; religion gives us Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Eliot, Dickens… something worth watching, in other words.

In other words, the atheist arguing that ‘science works’ has weighted the scales by subtly defining the word ‘works’ in a narrow way that nobody really accepts. Who wants a world filled with technological gadgets and gizmos if there’s nothing worth doing with them? Who wants a world of medical interventions and life-saving treatments if life itself is a meaningless mess?

In other words, religion ‘works’, but in a wholly different way and according to a wholly different metric than science. Yes, religion does not produce certitude in the way science does. Yes, religion’s ‘products’ are of a different kind than science’s, and the mode by which religion begets all these cultural human artifacts is indirect and diffuse.

I won’t even go into the argument that one of the artifacts of religion is… well, science. For now, let’s leave it that the atheist argument that only science works and therefore only science is credible is illogical, arbitrary, and unproven. And hence (irony alert!) unscientific.


  1. Father Denis,
    I have a really hard time with this. It is at times vets difficult to appreciate statements like this. I think if I wrote more, it would be upsetting for everyone. I hate that. So, can you write more and again about this?

    1. It's hard for me to respond, Catherine, when I don't know what you find difficult about this. You know, I write in this vein because there is a considerable movement of people who want to de-normalize religion - religion 'ruins everything' and religion in parents is even child abuse... this is a really serious debate, with chilling consequences. If intelligent (I hope!) Christians are not supposed to talk about what the value of religion is and what it brings to human civilization out of some concern for... what, niceness? - then we are conceding the field to those who mock and despise religion. This is a serious dereliction of duty on my part, if I do that.

  2. Father Denis,
    Well, the thing is I am not clear about what it is that bothers me here.
    Because I am involved medicine I am steeped in science and technology. People come to me for western medicine and I dispense it, please God in love. But, deep down I am scientist and I chose my methods and remedies largely by what there is scientific evidence for. From research I know which remedies impact in which way and choose these accordingly. I am trained by eduction and experience to chose the methods for whch there is scientific evidence for. Some of these remedies I feel certain about and others less so and I share what I Know and invite others decision making when appropriate. All of these decisions are made in love and respect and with God's help. Daily I make choices for science and these choices, and in doing so I am NOT saying that the moral and the holy do not count for anything. i am just going with what I know- what God gives me to see with.
    Then I reason, perhaps you do not mean me. You are talking about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens..or someone else. Right?
    Except, that I know myself well enough to say that there is probably a bit of Dawkins in me too. Or maybe, it is just arrogance, I dont know. I maybe, will never be able to see things black or white. Kant and not-Kant, etc. etc.
    I am not asking that you stop talking about this stuff. I am sorry, I did not realize until you wrote in the comments that what you were doing was actually defending religion... YOur statement "this is a serious debate with chilling consequences" startled me a litle bit
    I am coming to this stuff- looking for a way to understand myself and others, name what seperates, perhaps learn to love more.
    I am a little disappointed in your comment "for ...what niceness". Kindness is a virtue, isn't it? We would all do better to defend that more.
    Anyway, the thing is- I so appreciate that you wrote here everyday. Really. I do want to read more about this.
    Thanks for putting up with me.

    1. God bless you. The key thing here is not science or anti-science - the Church has always (contrary to the stereotypes) been emphatically pro-science. It is the attitude of 'science alone and nothing else' that is unacceptable and has to be critiqued.
      Science literally cannot tell us 'why' to take care of sick people or 'why' this machine or that device or that technology are good things that will help us. Questions of goodness and purpose and what will serve humanity are, by definition, not scientific questions (in the modern sense of the word science). And so we have to go elsewhere - religion has been the primary place to go for those 'why' questions, and I have grave doubts about our ability to address these questions in a secular way successfully. But that's for another post (and yep, I will keep writing about all this stuff - your feedback actually is really helpful in knowing what things are unclear in what I have written!).

  3. Father Denis,
    God bless you too. Okay, I am properly comforted. :).
    Marie Javora (with her gentle wisdom) told me once that theology was just another reason to love God. I hung onto that for years, it gave me such clarity.
    In a certain sense reading all these thoughts, and thinking about anothers thoughts on like walking around in someone else's heart.
    No easy deal.
    THank you for sharing yourself in this way...

  4. Fr. Denis,

    As someone who is an atheist, I have no problem understanding the religious point of view because I one was religious. Similarly, you, who is now religious should remember you were born an atheist, with no belief in any God and only through your family was a belief in a specific God introduced into your life.

    With regards to science, it's not that science works, it's that the scientific process works at least as far as it gives us a way to know we are not fooling ourselves into believing something that is not true. Quantum Mechanics, to use an example, may be wrong. Yes it gives very accurate results (to 10 decimal places in some cases) bt that does not make it true. On the other hand we know classical physics is wrong. That is gave very good result in most cases kept it in vogue for so long but when pushed to the limit, it was found to be incomplete and quantum mechanics now prevails. Is it correct. Nobody knows, but we do know that classical physics is wrong and we should not accept it.

    Yes science is unproven. No scientist worth his or her salt, would ever maintain absolute truth (only mathematical proofs are proven) but science has the humility to say that all scientific knowledge is tentative and the courage to actively seek to disprove itself (the greatest rewards in science are for those who overturn the status quo). Religion doesn't do that, never changes its doctrines and dogmas and reserves its highest disapprobation for those who question the status quo.


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