The Power Of Science And The Danger Of Scientism

The Power Of Science And The Danger Of Scientism

“Can you be a strident defender of science and still be suspicious of the way it is appropriated within culture? Can you be passionate about the practice and promise of science, yet still remain troubled by the way other beliefs and assumptions are heralded in its name? If such a thing is possible, you may be pro-science but anti-scientism.

An Interesting Dismantling of Naturalistic Atheism

William Lane Craig explaining, indirectly, all the reasons why Richard Dawkins doesn’t want to debate WLC. He is very effective.

I am a firm believer that there are very effective atheistic arguments out there, but I think this movie explains why it takes a particularly selective look at philosophy to connect a naturalistic viewpoint with out-and-out atheism.

You can see some of this tension as Stock admits that he’s some sort of undefinable agnostic-atheist composite.

Why Do Young People Become Atheists?

Why Do Young People Become Atheists?

Something that is very interesting.

Christianity: “A polite form of humanism.”

Church service: “Shallow, harmless and ultimately irrelevant.”

“Positive feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embrace Biblical teaching.”

Atheism didn’t start in high school but was already there

“With few exceptions students would begin by telling us that they were atheists for exclusively rational reasons but as we listened… it was a deeply emotional transition.”

Quantum Mechanics and Ontological Certainty

The other day I was having an altogether uncivil conversation with a self-declared defender of science, America and reason itself. The poster was judge, jury and executioner. I was accused of being a ‘TrueChristian,’ written with ominous significance, and probably–worse–a Roman Catholic. They would deign to chat with me but there should be no confusion that I, in spite of my ostensible protestations to the contrary, or perhaps because of them, had no idea what science really was.

Inevitably the conversation turned towards some more philosophical considerations. One that came up was whether ‘something can come from nothing.’ I readily admit my favoritism for classical logic. Unsurprisingly Quantum Mechanics was conscripted into another cause. One day it’ll be allowed to trundle its way from super hadron collider to super hadron collider. That’s not today. 

Luckily the conversation veered away from Solid State Theory. I have seen atheists declare, serenely and apparently unaware, that it has been completely dormant in recent years. 

Everyone agrees on some underlying facts, or is at least familiar with them. QM is a deterministic theory and Schrödinger’s equation gives a unitary evolution. Given a boundary condition and Schrödinger’s equation, everything is set. The kicker is that the non-determinism lies in the measurement problem, since the collapse of the wave function is not a unitary process and is subject to randomness.

Yet we keep it around because it correctly predicts experiments. At least, we think it is able to predict experiments. There is not one scientist who is unaware of the limitations to what we are able to measure. Since it involves concepts that we’re not able to measure directly (such as the ‘wave function’) and doesn’t predict everything we might want it to (such as the outcome of a single measurement) it does seem to violate quite a few assumptions we have about the world.

The argument presented was based off a misconception but a popular one. The misconception, simply put, is that because scientists are not able to appropriately identify the creation and disappearance of particles then the particles themselves must appear and disappear. Thus ‘something comes from nothing.’ The universe, presumably, can then pop into existence or something marginally more banal.

The problem is that the statement commits a subtle but significant categorical error. Quantum mechanics concerns itself with probabilities (e.g. a particle has a 20% chance of appearing here, disappearing there; ‘teleporting’ from here to there). It is not expressed by statements, but is essentially a set of instructions that we accept when we accept the theory. Quantum mechanics does not tell scientists anything about probabilities. At best, it instructs them to assign probabilities in a certain way. Since instructions are neither true nor false, this part of quantum mechanics cannot be interpreted as ontological. It is not a description of the world as it is but of a world as we perceive it. 

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s quite significant to the field. It explains, in part, the defining contradiction between General Relativity and QM. Ultimately, the ‘probabilities’ associated with quantum mechanics are a problem because, as it has often been posed, how can one consider the logic of quantum mechanics when the mathematics used in quantum mechanics depends in such a thorough fashion on classical logic (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’)?

Scientists in the field affirm the functional logic of events’ probability must be defined, so every event of algebra must be assigned a probability but the algebra of events in quantum mechanics cannot be closed under the conjunction of events and satisfy ‘every measure is defined’ (a requirement of Boolean algebra). Yes, we are returning to the ole’ can’t know where it is and where it is going at the same time. Hence the algebra of events in quantum mechanics is not defined by a Boolean algebra, because every Boolean algebra is closed under conjunction.

Boolean algebra, for this who may need a refresher, is simply the ‘type’ of algebra that involves ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements. We’re most familiar with it in binary coding: “10001101” is an expression of Boolean algebra.

The issue is, however, is that journalists and scientists–or, at least, a few of the former–sometimes produce soundbites that are misinterpreted. Yes, scientists do not use ‘classical’ logic in working with quantum mechanics (though, confusingly enough, classical logic is used as the foundation for quantum mechanics) **operationally**. But that is something altogether different from ontological certainty.

Yes, very few people who are in the field make the claim **ontologically**. Even though it is impossible to define (operationally) certain features of quantum mechanics with complete certainty it is still a far cry from ‘knowing’ certain features (ontologically). Thus, while scientists of that field will use as an operational precept ‘something comes from nothing’ they are not making an ontological claim because they do not have that sort of evidence. Most are not even considering it.

Turn back to the old cat metaphor, the one with a poor felix and poison. The point of the metaphor is not concerning itself with whether the cat is alive or dead. Saying ‘the cat is dead’ or ‘the cat is alive’ would be an ontological claim. Yet, if you notice, that is never defined because quantum mechanics is not (chiefly!) concerned with such statements. As the metaphor plays out the focus shifts to ‘us’ and how we, operationally, compensate for the lack of our ontological knowledge. To try and twist the metaphor into an expression of ontological certainty would explode it. Equally, to try and assert ontological principles (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’) from QM would do a grave disservice to the field not to mention my patience.

Theism: Today’s Gnostical Turpitude

On June 4, 1859 two armies met at the town of Magenta. One, representing the French monarch Louis-Napoleon’s desire to challenge Austrian control of Lombardy, was composed partially out of French Legionnaires. The other side, composed out of a multicultural array reflective of the Hapsburg’s crown jewel, Austria-Hungary, was chiefly Croatians. Fun fact, the Croatians were soldiers who preferred executing prisoners and the wounded. Some historians accredit them with singlehandedly inspiring the Geneva Convention of 1864 or, at the very least, providing a visceral example for the convention’s supporters to point to.

As the 2nd Corps of legionnaires and zouaves stood poised the town, their commanding officer arrived (Patrice MacMahon) and, “as he trotted past the Legion, uttered the statement that today adorns the wall of almost every Legion bar: “Voici la Legion! L’affaire est dans le sac!”

“The Legion is here. It’s in the bag.” If only that always was true! Not unlike our Patrice MacMahon, later Duke of Magenta, many otherwise astute individuals are ready to declare victory presumptuously and inaccurately. Considerate thinkers, and those less so, assume that there is a division between the secular and the religious before the discussion has even taken place. Just as importantly, this tension has already been answered in favor of ‘science’ without ever questioning why there needs to be a tension in the first place. ‘Science is here. It’s in the bag.’ If only!

To paraphrase, those silly theists and ‘religionists’ can chat up their deities as much as they want—preferably out of sight and in a personal space. Personal is, of course, a euphemism for hiding. Preferably in doors and inside their bedrooms, perhaps even under the sheets (the last, or newest, home of social deviancy). As long as everyone realizes that once ‘science’ arrives and religious thinking “is in the bag” there will be no problems. If anyone questions that then we should simply expect another McVeigh or 9/11. There will always be a few crazies, but once everyone is properly informed religion dissipates. I call this entrenchment of certain, ingrained theological assumptions ‘scientism.’ I am not alone in this assumption but while there have been several active academics bringing to light this false dichotomy quite a few prosaic and perfectly improbable assumptions take place within the public sphere daily.

Part of this normative thinking I lay at the feet of Immanuel Kant. Our world is so radically steeped in the thoughts of Kant it is hard to properly formulate a trajectory of belief that is not related to the ‘Kantian Revolution.’ There are things that I can experience (like oranges) and things I cannot (the law). One is absolute, or nearly so, while the other is open to ‘judgment.’ Look no farther than art: God becomes a part of Impressionism. Oranges never do.

Too often, those who rock these assumptions are—like in Vladimir Nabakov’s Invitation to a Beheading—sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude.” A grievous crime made more so by its lack of definition. Those who try to mix the noumenological and the phenomenological are viewed as radicals—perhaps, even, dangerous ones. Even to those who do not grasp the finer philosophical and theological points there is a sense of impoliteness about trying to bridge the gap: those who did, then, are violates of an undefinable crime. In a sense, even the most ardent defenders of ‘rationality’ have become, as it were, transrational on the subject.

Take, for instance, Alvin Platinga, “One of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.” When a man or woman is assured of his immortal soul and the existence of the body—or, alternatively, the ‘self’ or the past or the fact that some physical objects cause others to do things—they have to only explain their belief in a God delivered immortal soul. That is the world we live in.

What interests me the most is that the noumenological is almost always a matter of unassailable subjectivity, tightly held. Ironically, its only absolute is that there is no absolutes. There seems to be a widespread consensus that reason is reasonable, the senses are sensible and casual relationships are identifiable. If you deny causal relations you’re viewed as a crackpot (unless you have a PhD in front of your name or your name starts with D and ends with Avid Hume). Same for the ‘sanctity’ of experiential data and rationality. Yet no matter how many PhD’s one has there is no way ‘I believe in a theistic entity’ sounds good. If the phrase, somehow, leaps out then one is guilty of gnostical turpitude. That is, holding a set of (admittedly) arbitrary assumptions that are (at the very least) as unassailable as our other philosophical assumptions.