The sun rises and sets, people busy themselves with the tasks of life, wars are fought, dreams are crushed, love is born … and yet another installment of my review of John Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist, is completed and presented to a waiting world.
In this installment we take a look at chapter six, “The Lessons of Galileo, Science, and Religion.” Loftus states his ambitious intent in the first paragraph:
“I’ll show that when compared to science, theology has little or nothing to contribute, and that the results of science are clear and decisive.” (127)
Let’s call this statement “Loftus’ Thesis” (LT). It seems to me that LT has two immediate problems and it is on these that I shall focus.
The Secondary Problem: “the results of science are clear and decisive”
The secondary problem is that the results of science are not “clear and decisive” for a couple reasons: science itself is always in revision and the boundaries of science are debated. Let’s consider each of these points.
To begin with, the results of science are themselves always provisional and open to revision. As atheist Chet Raymo beautifully put it:
“Let this, then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or will ever have, is as an island in a sea [of mystery]…. We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring. And occasionally, at certain disquieting moments in history (Aristarchus, Galileo, Planck, Einstein), a tempest of mystery comes rolling in from the sea and overwhelms our efforts, reclaims knowledge that has been built up by years of patient work, and forces us to retreat to the surest, most secure core of what we know, where we huddle in fear and trembling until the storm subsides, and then we start building again, throwing up dikes, pumping, filling, extending the perimeter of our knowledge and our security.” (Cited in Skeptics and True Believers, p. 47)
It is a matter of endless fascination to me that so many folks who claim to love science seem to forget the essential place for epistemic humility in all scientific endeavor. Even if you are a critical realist (rather than, say, an instrumentalist) qua scientific advance, you still need to be prepared for an endless series of future disappointments, dead ends, inexplicable conundrums, and unimaginable surprises.
This brings me to the second point: the very boundaries of science are themselves fuzzy. Discussions of the essentialist nature of science belong to the philosophy of science. And one simply need open any introductory textbook on the philosophy of science to see that the quest for the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be present for a line of enquiry to count as “science” is very much a live debate.
Loftus quotes Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland to this effect: “There is no such thing as the scientific method, but rather there is a cluster of practices and issues that are used in a variety of contexts and can be loosely called scientific methodologies.” (Cited in p. 135) After producing this quote, Loftus provides the following reply: “But if this is truly the case, I’m all ears waiting for him [Moreland] to explain why science has produced a massive amount of knowledge and continues to advance without a method.” (p. 135)
Loftus’ reply here is very perplexing, for he seems to be assuming that Moreland has taken some sort of anti-realist stance toward science. However, he hasn’t: Moreland is thoroughly modernist and has been among the fiercest Christian critics of postmodernity. He doesn’t deny that science pursues rational investigation via formal methodologies. He merely denied that there is a single methodology that all scientists pursue which constitutes their investigation as “science”. Set against the backdrop of contemporary philosophy of science, Moreland’s observation isn’t controversial: it’s thoroughly mainstream. (Needless to say, once again Loftus shows little “charity”, or even competency, when presenting the views of those he disagrees with.)
Next, Loftus writes: “Moreland tells us that ‘scientists discover things by accident'” and that science faces “unsolved problems” and “conceptual problems” (p. 135-6). Loftus seems to be recounting these facts in an attempt to present Moreland in a subversive fashion, but all this is also trivially true. Just last week I was the speaker at a summer camp for Christian medical doctors and dentists. And I heard these medical professionals banter back and forth about the perplexing fact that a surgical procedure or medicinal treatment will work for one patient but not another. Scientists discover things by accident all the time. Indeed, you might even call serendipity the mortar holding together the bricks of scientific advance (now there’s a nice image!).
Interestingly, Loftus seems to know enough to be aware of the credibility of Moreland’s observations. After all, he then concedes that “A definition of the scientific method that applies across the board to the various disciplines of the sciences may be difficult to arrive at with exact precision.” (p. 136) This concession may be made with extraordinary understatement, but it is a concession nonetheless.
So why is Loftus so unwilling to admit the fuzzy boundaries of scientific investigation, the often serendipitous nature of scientific advance, and the mystery lying over the scientific horizon? The reason, so far as I can see, is that conceding these points erodes the precision he requires regarding the nature and future direction of science to spur on the conflict thesis of this chapter. In other words, Loftus is allowing his ideological precommitments to act as a procrustean bed into which he must fit science.
The Primary Problem: “when compared to science, theology has little or nothing to contribute”
Now for the primary problem. Loftus claims: “when compared to science, theology has little or nothing to contribute”. But he never explains to what it is that theology has little to contribute. Unfortunately, Loftus leaves this task to the reader.
With that in mind, I find a hint on page 132 where Loftus quotes Neil DeGrasse Tyson raising an argument against “biblical literalism”. Tyson writes: “I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religious document.” (Cited in p. 132) Later, Loftus writes,
“if there is any integration taking place [between science and theology], religious beliefs are always the one that have been forced to integrate with science and not the other way around, so why not just admit science sets the boundaries for what we believe?” (p. 134)
It seems to me that here we find an essential clue to Loftus’ core argument that theology has little to contribute when compared with science. In short, he believes it has little to contribute to our understanding of the natural world. Loftus is critiquing theology (and “religion” and “Christianity”; these various categories tend to merge into an amorphous soup in Loftus’ work) simply because it isn’t science.
This becomes clearer on page 137 when Loftus states that he is an adherent to “weak scientism”, the definition of which he draws from Moreland and William Lane Craig:
“[Weak scientism will] allow for the existence of truths apart from science and … grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious and most authoritative sector of human learning…. Fields outside science gain if they are given scientific support and not vice versa.”
Ultimately, then, the argument in this chapter rests on one’s willingness to join Loftus in accepting the truth of weak scientism. It would seem the only reason that Loftus even attempts to provide for weak scientism is the success of science itself. But the success of science underdetermines the truth of weak scientism. And thus, Loftus can’t appeal to the success of science to support his philosophical position. This creates a critical problem for Loftus’ apologetic argument. Given that he doesn’t provide any arguments for weak scientism, the best that he can do is keep talking about the success of science and hope that eventually this will create the impression of a force majeure that will sweep the reader up in its rhetorical flow.
I see nothing to commend weak scientism and many excellent reasons to reject it. Truths of logic and mathematics are not scientific truths, and yet they surely have more than mere “minimal, positive rationality status”. Nor do they depend on “the support of science”.
The same can be said for moral truths. I know that rape is wrong, and my knowledge that rape is wrong stands independently of the cumulative results of science to this point in history. One way to make this clear is to note that the Maasai warrior who knows nothing of the cumulative results of science can still know, as surely as do I, that rape is wrong. Moreover, moral facts like this have something far more than “minimal, positive rationality status”.
The same is also true of history. It provides us with multiple facts that have more than “minimal, positive rationality status”. And of literary criticism. And economics.
So what’s the solution? Perhaps Loftus might expand his understanding of “science” to encompass some or all of these spheres. But this maintains the thesis at the cost of diluting the concept of science itself until it means little more than “knowledge discourse”. And a definition that broad is quite useless for Loftus’ rhetorical purposes.
And what of weak scientism itself? It is not itself a product of science, and thus by definition if we accept it we must concede that it has nothing more than “some minimal, positive rationality status”. But that is surely inadequate justification for the audacious claim of weak scientism.
Loftus owes the reader a defense of weak scientism and the categorical demotion it applies to every non-scientific field of discourse from politics to philosophy to literature to history to theology. Until he does that, this chapter serves absolutely no function in the cumulative case of this book and is little more than a tedious exercise in hand waving.