Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty

Excerpts of a long post at Liberty Corner II:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626),
British philosopher, essayist, statesman.
The Advancement of Learning, bk. 1, ch. 5, sct. 8 (1605).

Science begins with doubts -- questions about the workings of the world around us -- and moves bit by bit toward greater certainty, without ever reaching complete certainty. Philosophy and religion begin with certainties -- a priori explanations about the workings of the world -- and end in doubts because the world cannot be explained by pure faith or pure reason. But philosophy and religion can tell us how to live life morally, whereas science can only help us live life more comfortably, if that is what we wish to do.

Scientists -- when they are being scientists -- begin with questions (doubts), which lead them to make observations, and from those observations they derive theories about the workings of the universe or some aspect of it. Those theories can then be tested to see if they have predictive power, and revised when they are found wanting, that is, when new observations (facts) cast doubt on their validity. Scientific facts may sometimes be beyond doubt (e.g., the temperature at which water freezes under specified conditions), but scientific theories -- which are generalizations from facts -- are never beyond doubt. Or they never should be. . . .

Einstein stands as a paragon among scientists: unwilling to run with the herd, unwilling to "follow any fad or popular direction," as Smolin puts it elsewhere in the essay quoted above. Now we seem to have herds of so-called scientists who cling to certain theories because those theories are popular and dominant. They may be great scientists -- or hacks -- who have come to a certain worldview and are loathe to abandon it, or they may be followers of renowned scientists who lack the imagination to see alternative explanations of phenomena. Whatever the case, a "scientist" who insists on the truth of his worldview has abandoned science for something that might as well be called religion or philosophy.

In the case of global warming, we've seen the herd instinct at work for many years. It has become an article of faith among academic and government scientists not only that global warming is due mainly to human activity but also that it is "bad." . . .

Now we come to evolution. I have written elsewhere about the tendency of evolutionary biologists (and their hangers-on at places like The Panda's Thumb) to act like priests of a secular religion. . . .

[T]he scientific consensus seems to be that any scientist who even entertains intelligent design (ID) as a supplementary explanation of the development of life forms has somehow become a non-scientist. . . .

I think it really boils down to this: Anti-ID scientists cannot prove that ID is unscientific; pro-ID scientists cannot prove that ID is anything more than a convenient explantion for currently unexplained phenomena. It's the scientific (or non-scientific) version of a Mexican standoff. . . .

It is impossible to eliminate any explanation of the origin of life or the development of life forms, as long as that explanation doesn't conflict with facts. Similarly, it is impossible to eliminate any explanation of the origin of the universe, as long as that explanation doesn't conflict with facts. Staunch evolutionists -- those who resist Creationism, intelligent design, or any other unfalsifiable or unfalsified explanation for the origin of the universe, the origin of life, or the development of life forms -- are merely invoking their preferred worldview -- not facts.

The best that science can do, under any foreseeable circumstances, is to investigate how life developed from the point in the known history of the universe at which there is evidence of life. But many (perhaps most) evolutionists and their hangers-on aren't content to pursue that scientific agenda. . . .

Scientific elites and their hangers-on, like paternalists of all kinds, would like to tell us how to live our lives -- for our own good, of course -- because they think they have the answers, or can find them. (They would be benign technocrats, of course, unlike their counterparts in the old USSR.) And when they are thwarted, they get in a snit and issue manifestos.

But, as I said at the outset, science isn't about how to live morally, it's about how to live life more comfortably, if that is what we wish to do. To know how to live life morally we must turn to a philosophy that promotes liberty, and we must not reject the moral code of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which one finds much support for liberty.

I'm very much for science, properly understood, which is the increase of knowledge. I'm very much against the misuse of science by scientists (and others) who invoke it to advance an extra-scientific agenda. Science, properly done, begins with doubts and ends in certainties, but those certainties extend only to the realm of observable, documented facts. Science has no claim to superiority over philosophy or religion in the extra-factual realm of morality.

I close by paraphrasing my son's comment about my post on "Religion and Liberty":
The basis of liberty is extra-scientific; thus the need for non-scientific moral institutions.