Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eugenie Scott - Part 3: Conclusions and Reactions

Before going to hear Eugenie speak, I didn't really know much about her. There were many things I liked about her presentation.

Among those that I did like was her model of the three levels of science (Core, Frontier, and Fringe). While I think most of us scientists instinctively know this and understand the differences, it's hard to verbalize and Eugenie's model is an excellent way to communicate this. This also serves to illustrate precisely why, as Eugenie explained in the morning session, ID doesn't deserve a place in the classrooms (religious agenda aside).

Another aspect of her talk I especially appreciated with the explicit noting that there are many other junk sciences out there other than just Intelligent Design/Creationism. Her references to dowsing were quite welcome.

I'm also very strongly with both Dr. Scott and Dr. Miller when they say that science is just one way of knowing and doesn't necessarily give us the whole picture. As Reasonable Kansans has pointed out this is where many bloggers are disagreeing (don't bother paying too much attention to anything besides her first few paragraphs in that post though as it's all creationist drivel which is probably why she received the title of stupid blog of the week).

On one side, there's the scientists who are hard line atheists like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. On the other, there's moderates like Pat Hayes, Miller, and Scott.

The former maintain that people like Miller and Scott are too soft on religious nonsense and in doing so, is repeatedly allowing them to wedge their foot in the door and continue to insert religious nonsense. The latter feel that religion is generally no danger to science except for the extreme fringes which should be dealt with appropriately, but that we should continue to respect the moderate religious crowd.

So I figured I'd take a moment to toss out my .02 on the subject and explain where I stand and why.

The answer is that I'm in both camps, depending on what question is asked. If someone were to ask me whether I, as a scientist felt that religion was a danger to science, I'd firmly agree with the latter crowd in saying that the two are completely compatible. In no way do I feel that religion detracts from science. In fact, I can recognize that science would benefit from the tenacity of religious individuals seeking to uncover what they perceive to be God's handiwork.

People like Ken Miller and the many other theistic scientists working both today and throughout history show that it's entirely possible to do good science while being a person of faith. To ignore their contributions because one is scared of what fanatical extremists seek to do to science is cowardly. To me it would suggest that those who hold this position somehow feel that science is too week to stand side by side with religion and that we must somehow hide it away. Given the track record of science with people of faith working in the field, I have no doubt that science will continue to push forwards even with theists working side by side.

As a scientist, I do, however, recognize the inherent danger of junk science being forced through by religious fundamentalists but do not feel that we need to exclude all people of faith just to keep these out. No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater as it were.

So how, as I previously mentioned, do I stand in the camp of Dawkins and Myers? I would stand in their camp as an atheist. As an atheist, I feel that religion is illogical as believing in Santa Claus and that there is no reason to coddle it by pretending that it is legitimate. I feel that religion is the single most divisive force in the world today that drives deeper divisions between people than any political ideology, racial allegiance, or national pride ever could. In this regard, I stand firmly with PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (although I wouldn't go so far as to call religion “child abuse” as Dawkins does).

What's the difference between these two though? My first consideration is my opinion as an aspiring scientist. The latter is a theological opinion. The heart of the matter is that theological opinions carry little weight and, as Eugenie pointed out, aren't the most convincing. Thus, since I can recognize that my disdain of religion is a theological position, I am able to separate it from my professional opinions and would not seek to enforce it upon science, which is inherently neutral.

Unfortunately, some like Myers and Dawkins seem unable to make this distinction and, as I see it, are just as guilty at not hanging their beliefs at the door when they step into a professional role as President Bush is. This is the reason that I will only occasionally agree with them, as it depends on the role which I am playing at the given time.

But the sad fact of the matter is that Myers and Dawkins aren't the only ones that can't make this distinction. The creationists are also stunningly inept in this regard. This is why we get silly claims that evolution is inherently atheistic.

Ultimately, what's important to realize is that just because a scientist says it, doesn't mean he's speaking as a scientist. We all have many roles in life and at times, we must step into them all.

6 comments:

Grady said...

Its pretty simple, really.

Where Dawkins, Harris, and PZ Myers (although Myers is hardly in the same league as Dawkins and Harris) go wrong is that they go way beyond "science" in making their pronouncements. You might call it philosphy, or even politics, but it sure ain't science.

Jon Voisey said...

Exactly my point. They're scientists, but when they go beyond the limit of what science is capable of, they're no longer speaking on that authority. I think it's disengenuous for Dawkins and the rest to pretend they are.

Sridhar said...

Hi Jon,

I appreciate your being able to make the difference. I am a firm theist but don't see why science and religion have to fight. Leave them to those who believe in them.

Since you are so level-headed for a scientist, can I ask you a question? Science does explain laws behind everything (mostly), but can we really explain why the laws behave as they do? Why does gravitational laws behave like that? Why do atoms have quantum states? and so on. I am not a scientist (although I studied computer science), so I don't know if there are answers to these questions.

Jon Voisey said...

Hi Sridhar,

You pose an excellent question and a very difficult one to answer the spirit of. As many people are aware, science inevitably raises more questions than it answers. Each time we find a new answer it spawns countless more questions.

Cheif among these new questions is what lies beyond this new horizon. In ages past, it was thought that elements were the fundamental building blocks of our universe.

From there, we asked what lied beyond that horizon and eventually discovered the existance of protons, electrons, and neutrons. But we didn't stop there and continued to push the limits and discovered quarks, gluons, and a whole array of subatomic particles.

But now again, we're faced with a horizon over which we cannot peer and we're forced to ask ourselves "Why do quarks act this way?"

This is an important question in science, but it's also equally, if not more important in my opinion to realize that they are not the final question.

Explanations such as string theory exist. But should these ever be verified, we will still have no final answer because we will, yet again, be able to ask, "Why do strings behave this way?"

Similarly, should we have an explanation of why gravitational laws function as such, this will still never be the final horizon to cross. Such is the nature of science.

Additionally, many suggest that the question of "why" may be inappropriate for science since "why" suggests an intent. Rather, it's suggested, that science's endeavour is to answer the "how".

Regardless of which you ask, there are many that find this unsatisfying, that science will never likely never be able to proudce such a "final" reality. Personally (and this is my philosophical position), I have no problem accepting that there is always more to learn. I find this wonderfully exciting.

But for those that aren't comfortable with this, I feel that this is the proper and natural place for religion. And I can fully respect people that believe in this manner.

What I cannot respect, however, is those that are so frightened by the fact that we are, in fact human, that they use this as an excuse to reject that which we have uncovered through science and instead, substitute dogma for reality. This is the position of creationists who frequently cite the tenuous nature of science as cause to dismiss logic all together.

But in response to your specific questions: I cannot fully explain why gravity function the way it does. Some theories predict that it is the work of the yet undiscovered gravitons. It's been described as the result of distortions of space time resulting in potential wells. I've also seen it argued that it has to do with the second law of thermodynamics in that, through acting, gravity helps to increase entropy. Yet, as with everything else in science, once you find the answer, you can keep on asking why.

For atomic orbitals, this has to do with the quantum mechanical notion that on the quantum level, nothing is actually a solid as we think of it. Instead, particles have a rather "fuzzy" nature in which their position is best described by a probability. Mathematically, we describe this with a series of waves, known as wavepackets. Ultimately, the way these stack up reveals that there's some places (the spaces between atomic orbitals) where the probability of the electron being found is effectively zero.

This, of course, begs the question of "why are things fuzzy" and again, reveals that science thrives on questions.

I apologize for being so long winded, but I hope I've answered your question adequately.

Grady said...

Its pretty simple, really.

Where Dawkins, Harris, and PZ Myers (although Myers is hardly in the same league as Dawkins and Harris) go wrong is that they go way beyond "science" in making their pronouncements. You might call it philosphy, or even politics, but it sure ain't science.

Sridhar said...

Hi Jon,

I appreciate your being able to make the difference. I am a firm theist but don't see why science and religion have to fight. Leave them to those who believe in them.

Since you are so level-headed for a scientist, can I ask you a question? Science does explain laws behind everything (mostly), but can we really explain why the laws behave as they do? Why does gravitational laws behave like that? Why do atoms have quantum states? and so on. I am not a scientist (although I studied computer science), so I don't know if there are answers to these questions.