The Guardian has an interesting dialogue between Sam Harris and Robert Winston on the subject of science and faith. I have some problems with both gentlemen, but, surprise!, I have bigger problems with Winston. Let’s consider some excerpts. Harris first:
Religious language is, without question, unscientific in its claims for what is true. We have Christians believing in the holy ghost, the resurrection of Jesus and his possible return — these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable.
I certainly agree with that first sentence, but the second sentence is more problematic. Biology and physics do not say that the holy ghost cannot exist, or that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible. They say simply that such things are not credible if we limit ourselves solely to natural causes. I fail to see, though, why a scientist could not believe that God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.
You could certainly argue that there is no good evidence for such beliefs, or that it is unreasonable to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, or that religious claims to truth should not be given the slightest credence in a scientific context, and you would have my complete support. But for all of that it just seems a bit silly to suggest that biology and physics can somehow rule out any possibility of the holy ghost or the resurrection.
Here’s Winston’s reply:
You talk as if science is an absolute, and I don’t think it is at all. It isn’t the truth either, because I don’t believe there is such a thing as “the truth”. You rail against the ultimate truth of what some people believe — ie religion, God, Jesus, whatever. I don’t, because I don’t think it makes any more sense than railing against scientific truths. I say “truths” in inverted commas, because truths have a habit of being altered as we develop our knowledge.
Yikes! That’s really dumb.
No such thing as the truth? Really? I could go along with a statement that our ability to know the truth is limited by various practical considerations, or that science has more to do with control and predictability than it does with absolute truth. If that is all Winston intended then I agree, but I would add that it has little to do with what Harris said. What Harris rails against is the evidence-free nature of religious claims, coupled with the extreme importance placed upon them by their adherents. I don’t see him claiming that science is an absolute, whatever that even means.
But as phrased Winston’s statement makes little sense. I’d say there’s a pretty big difference between scientific truths and religious truths, wouldn’t you? Scientific truths have a habit of proving themselves in practical situations, say by curing diseases or developing nifty new technologies. Religious truths do not submit themselves to such testing. Somehow I suspect that Winston believes that in comparing doctors to faith healers, it is the former who are more likely to have the truth on their side. This sort of relativism can make you look measured and open-minded in debates, but it is completely unworkable in practice.
Continuing where we left off:
SH: I wouldn’t dispute that the horizon of what we know and consider true changes, but we do this in the context of a background reality which we are dimly coming to understand. I suspect that while you are reluctant to think we can ever grasp absolute truth, we can still recognise falsehood, or how implausible certain [religious] claims are.
RW: I suppose I really wonder why you’re so angry.
SH: [laughs] Do I sound angry?
RW: Yes. You write angrily, too.
SH: I’m more worried than angry, and perhaps impatient. I don’t see any reason to believe that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely. I am worried that religion is one of the forces that has balkanised our world – we have Christians against Muslims against Jews.
Harris definitely wins that round. But I would add that there is ample reason for folks to be angry at religion’s representatives. The anger arises from the extraordinary arrogance of the claims made on behalf of religion. Keep in mind that it is religion, not science, that is in the habit of claiming a monopoly on absolute truth, or of describing its leaders as infallible, or of holding out its holy texts as a source of truth to which all other truth claims must yield, or of claiming that it is only by believing as they do that one can have a basis for morality. Yes, it makes me angry that religion routinely makes such claims. And that’s before we even come to the frequently appalling behavior of religious institutions, whenever they are given the slightest power over the lives of other people.
RW: But the irony is that books like yours and [Richard Dawkins's] God Delusion balkanise the world a good deal more, because they polarise views. The God Delusion has caused very aggressive reactions from [people who] previously weren’t aggressive. In my book, I try to talk about our responsibility as scientists, one of which is to indulge in dialogue with people who are not scientists. One of the ways [atheist science writers] make dialogue is by being aggressive or angry with people who don’t agree with your view.
When I first read this I thought Winston was claiming that New Atheist writing is a source of balkanization even more potent that religion. Rereading it, though, I suspect his intention was simply that NA writing leaves the world more balkanized than it was before that writing existed.
But I don’t buy that either, except in the utterly trivial sense that advocating strongly for any view angers people who don’t agree with you. I think you can count on one hand the number of people who were made aggressive (again, whatever that means) by reading NA writing. And the notion that people like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens make dialogue by becoming angry or aggressive with people who don’t agree is just nonsense. They make no secret of their views, but in their public presentations they are among the most civilized people you will ever meet, far more so than their critics, I would add. Even their books are nowhere near as nasty as the critics pretend. You have to go pawing through them pretty carefully to find the really choice bits.
RW: I think his reasoning is not relevant to the sequencing of the human genome, which is what he’s famous for. I’m certainly not going to stand up for [Collins's] view of Jesus or religion.
SH: But you believe he’s entitled to believe it as a scientist?
RW: I think he’s entitled to believe it as a human being. I think it’s important for scientists to be a bit less arrogant, a bit more humble, recognising we are capable of making mistakes and being fallacious — which is increasingly serious in a society where our work may have unpredictable consequences.
SH: I agree with all that. I just think you have humility and arrogance reversed in this case. Humility is very much on the side of science and honest self-criticism. The arrogance is claiming to be certain about truth claims of Iron Age philosophy, which someone like Collins does.
Harris is absolutely right regarding the balance of humility and arrogance. But I do object to his phrasing about someone like Francis Collins being “entitled” to his religious beliefs as a scientist. If Collins brings his beliefs into the lab and makes them the basis for his scientific work (in the way that young-Earth creationists do) then there is certainly something objectionable. Or if he claims in public presentations that science confirms religious truths then I would be in favor of criticizing him strongly. But it seems to me that outside of the lab he is “entitled” to believe whatever he wants, without being presented as some sort of traitor to science. Why not just criticize him for believing things it is not reasonable to believe, or for making bad arguments in defense of his religious faith (as he does in his writing)? That’s a project I am happy to get behind!
SH: You’re suggesting that a scientist can practice his science in isolation from the rest of the scientific worldview. In the States you find biochemists who are young-earth creationists, who think that Genesis is a literal story of cosmology.
RW: I think they’re entitled to their view. I think they’re wrong, but so what?
I have problems with both of them here. First, I suspect Winston is being disingenuous. Of course they are entitled to their view in some trivial, abstract sense. But what does that mean in practical terms? If Winston were running a biology department, and a job applicant wanted to pursue creation science as his research specialty, would Winston not think that a legitimate ground for not hiring him? Would he be gracious towards a doctor who believed faith-healing was more reliable than antibiotics? Being wrong has consequences, a simple fact I suspect Winston is happy to apply in his daily life.
But I also object to Harris’ implication that somehow a religious scientist must practice his science in isolation from his religion. I just don’t see it. It’s like saying a religious chess player must isolate his religion from his chess. While he is playing the game he adheres to its rules, and this is just separate from his views on religion. Likewise, why couldn’t a religious scientist say that he is honoring God by studying His creation through methods that have proved their worth, without also believing that science comprises some sort of all-encompassing worldview that governs every aspect of his life?
Time to bring this home:
SH: You wouldn’t say that a doctor is entitled to believe his patients were sick from the evil eye, or voodoo. You wouldn’t say Francis Collins is free to deny the germ theory of disease. You’re recommending he practises his science in a walled garden. That’s an intellectual problem. Every scientist has to admit what is offered as true in the context of religion is scientifically unjustified.
RW: Ever since I first debated this, going back 10 or 15 years, with my friend Richard Dawkins, I don’t think it has produced any real enlightenment. It reinforces the prejudices on both sides. I can’t argue with the title of your book, it’s very neutral. Much as I like and admire Richard Dawkins, I do think that to call a book the God Delusion is very worrying because the title implies that if you don’t believe in what I believe then you are “deluded”. That, I think, is a dangerous concept and one that is unlikely to win hearts and minds.
Harris is right about voodoo and the evil eye, but the sin that is being committed in those cases is improperly mixing science and religion. A person who brings his religion into science is deservedly condemned. I agree further that anyone who claims their religion is scientifically justified, or prattles about dialogue between science and theology, deserves all of the derision he gets. But for all that I think a lot of religious folks are perfectly happy to agree that their beliefs are not scientifically justified. They just think that science isn’t everything.
As for Winston, I won’t rehash here all of my reasons for thinking the success of the New Atheists is one of the very few promising developments in American culture in the past decade. I don’t know how much enlightenment Dawkins has produced (though I suspect the quantity is considerable), but he and his allies have unquestionably done much to advance the cause of atheism and reason, which, yes, I see as very closely related.
So there you go. On the substance Harris has by far the better of it here, as he usually does. But I do wish he would be a bit more careful about his rhetoric in certain instances.