Oscillator

I’m realizing that perhaps in yesterday’s post I took everyone’s love and understanding of postmodern feminist theory for granted so I’m going to start a little series of posts that I think will slowly introduce some of the issues that I spend a lot of time thinking about and hope that other people will too. Today I’m going to jump right into it by posting the essay I wrote for a horrible class I took about science and religion called Belief Options for a Practicing Scientist. The assignment was to write a five page essay on what the best belief option for a scientist is and why. I think that through my barely disguised disdain for the course and for the silliness of the assignment I end up hitting on the beginnings of some of the issues that I’m interested in (and will hopefully get into in more depth later)–why focusing only on abstract ideas of perfect truth and rationality and not acknowledging how emotional and social prejudices can be embedded in and unjustly perpetuated through scientific work (and even rejecting the call to be aware of such prejudices as “woo”) can be problematic and counterproductive for scientists and for society. Rational, critical thinking done by emotional, social beings has gotten us the tremendously beautiful and powerful knowledge of the world around us that is celebrated on blogs like this one. Let’s keep that open-minded, questioning rationality when we think about the limits of our personal rationality and social issues in science.

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i-3f61faab72409b1c8057f31e8502c230-star-trek-spock1-thumb-250x225-50237.jpgScience began during the enlightenment, the “age of reason” beginning in Europe in the 17th century. Science as the rational, empirical, logical analysis of the natural world was constructed in opposition to the irrational, emotional world of human affairs. The ideal of the perfectly rational, emotionally detached, completely objective scientist has dominated the scientific discourse since then. Today, scientists use this kind of “objective” analysis in order to justify their personal religious beliefs, whether they believe in God(s) or not. However, recent evidence from cognitive psychology and neurology has indicated that the ideal of emotionally detached rationality is an unattainable fantasy, for scientists and everyone else. Science and scientists would be well served by understanding and accepting the emotional and the irrational in human constructions and interactions, including scientific and religious discourse. This argument leads to only one conclusion in the search for the “best” belief option for a practicing scientist: scientists can believe whatever they want.

Scientists and public intellectuals with deeply held religious convictions like Francis Collins or C.S. Lewis have used an appeal to reason, to a rational weighing of the evidence found in the natural world, in order to justify their religious beliefs to an increasingly antagonistic scientific establishment. These thinkers see the existence of God as a rational extension of the beauty and power of nature and the existence of cooperation and altruism in human societies, and reject as irrational the counterarguments that invoke evolutionary or cosmological arguments such as the multiverse theory or group selection. In cases where religious dogma actively conflict with empirical data, primarily in the form of miracles described in the Bible, this “rational” argument for religion often appeals to a different set of natural laws, or to the notion that natural laws as defined by human science are incapable of explaining a God, who must exist outside of nature as he created everything that exists in the first place. In many cases, the literal interpretation of events described in the Bible have given way to a looser reading that incorporates scientific data and theories, primarily in the case of evolution by natural selection, which is currently supported by several high ranking religious officials as well as the vast majority of scientists with strong religious beliefs (although not necessarily by the vast majority of religious people in general, which raises many issues for education and the progress of science but which are beyond the scope of this essay).

On the other hand, rational arguments are also used by those who challenge religion and advocate atheism as a belief system for scientists and non-scientists alike. Scientists and pop-science (and/or anti-religion) authors like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins use reason to deny the existence of God. They make probabilistic arguments as to the origin of life and the evolution of complex traits and social arrangements, including the sense of ethics or morality, and they argue that religion is in fact anti-rational. They cite cases where religious convictions have led to irrational and extremely destructive actions by groups of people: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and Islamic Jihad to name a few well-known and extreme examples, often saying that any religious belief at all is an approval of such atrocities. These writers equate rationality with science, further claiming that scientific approaches are the only ways to discern the truth of our natural world, and that science proceeds with rationality that cannot and should not be sullied by the interference of irrational adherence to non-scientific superstition and religion.

How can rational arguments be used to both support and oppose religion? If reason is the infallible way to eliminate human biases and emotional baggage and ascertain the complete truth, how can rational arguments lead to two entirely opposite conclusions? While some would argue that one group or the other is not using a “true” rational argument to support their beliefs, I would like to instead call attention to the impossibility of “true” rationality in the first place, how personal decisions about what to believe, whether you agree with certain theories, even how a scientist will decide to interpret data, cannot be isolated from an emotional, irrational, human component.

A clear example is given to us from a recent case in clinical neurology, where a brain tumor patient lost a substantial portion of his orbital prefrontal cortex after undergoing surgery to remove malignant tissue (This story is highlighted in the November 17, 2008 episode of WNYC’s RadioLab entitled “Choice”). While by all measurable tests of motor skills, intelligence, and reasoning ability he had survived the surgery with no lasting effects, his emotional responses were clearly disrupted, in that he was unable to respond emotionally to any stimulus, never becoming angry, sad, or happy as he once had, in a way that many use as the definition of “humanness.” While this numb existence has many obvious drawbacks, one striking result of this emotionlessness was a striking inability to make even simple decisions. Everyday decisions, what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, which pen to use, became an endless struggle in his mind between all the rational arguments for one way or another. Without the push from his emotions, the patient was never again able to come to any decision.

What this means for rationality in general and science and religion in particular, is that while reasoned arguments can be used to better understand and convince others about truths in the natural world, the actual decisions that all of us make in response to these rational arguments in the end is in large part emotional. When emotion is set up as the opposite of reason in scientific culture, then this becomes deeply threatening. If all reasonable arguments for a scientific theory eventually come down to the personal, emotional, “irrational” decision of each individual scientist, how can science progress as the objective description of Nature? Objectivity is a valiant goal in such pursuits, but science and scientists have justified many dangerous and irrational beliefs in the guise of “objective truth”, including but not limited to the assertion that women are ill-equipped for learning and must be kept from education and that members of any number of minority groups are “racially inferior.” By accepting that scientists are subject to the same irrational, emotional, cultural forces as everyone else, we can better interpret scientific claims that pertain to social issues (including religion), and we as scientists can better understand our own decisions and the evolution of scientific theories. Even what we think are our most rational arguments are mixed with a little bit of human irrationality, and by accepting and embracing the differences in each person’s individual irrationality, we can hopefully escape some of the discrimination subtly or not-so-subtly perpetuated by scientists and religious people alike, and work together for a more complete understanding of the world around us.

What this means for religious beliefs is that each person (and scientist) must decide for themselves, using their experiences, their knowledge, and their unique cultural and personal perspective as a guide. With such a system for belief in place we must also respect the decisions of others, knowing that beliefs can change and that they cannot always be rationally explained in a way that anyone else will necessarily understand. My hope is that such sensitivity and acceptance could prevent both the wars and violence based on religious doctrines, as well as the counterproductive name-calling by scientists and thinkers on either side.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    June 1, 2010

    I would argue that a large part of what distinguishes rational thought is precisely the stance taken toward belief. Seeking rationality requires teasing apart the beliefs that can carry some kind of truth value from those that serve to carry conviction, passion, and social impetus, to treat the former fairly as objects of study rather than as a flag to rally around, and to refrain from pretending that discoveries about the former are ever enough to wholly entail the latter. Which is not to say that the latter are not important or not practiced. It’s perfectly fine for a scientist to favor or oppose legalized abortion, as example. What the scientist cannot do, nor any rational individual, is pretend that that political stance is entirely a matter of truth. Such stances may be informed by facts. But those who are rational have some notion of where their convictions and ethical positions and social views come into play, above and beyond what can be argued as fact.

    Which means, also, that the rational individual cannot call for belief the way that a preacher can. Your comparison between the believers and atheists misses a significant asymmetry: the primary argument made by the atheists is simply that the believers’ views are not rational, that their arguments are not adequate to their claims, and that they fail to provide argument where argument is needed.

  2. #2 Coriolis
    June 1, 2010

    For about 2000 years or so people thought that heavier objects fall faster then light objects, which is such a basic issue that anyone could test it easily in about a day. Why? Because a guy named Aristotle said so, and he was supposed to be really wise. Well, when people eventually bothered to test it, it turned out he was wrong, and that was that.

    At a basic level this is all that science is about. It’s having a model that predicts something, and that prediction actually being right.

    Of course with anything as successful as science has been, alot of mythology has sprung up about what science is, or how scientists are, etc. Words like “objective”, “reason”, “unemotional” and the like get bandied about. Frankly I’ve seen enough variation between scientists that I cannot take any of that crap seriously. Scientists can have very different personalities – the only thing that’s necessary is a willingness to question – your results, your views, other people’s results, other people’s views. Otherwise, you cannot come to any new conclusions about the world.

    And here is where your post is getting it wrong about the science/religion debate. You say “How can rational arguments be used to both support and oppose religion”? Of course they can – there are rational arguments about issues in science all the time! For example, when Einstein disagreed with quantum mechanics he advanced the EPR paradox as an argument for why it couldn’t be correct. It was what you’d call a “rational” argument, and so was the argument that ended up mostly resolving the paradox, which was published by Bell. On a much smaller scale such arguments are a daily event in the life of a scientist.

    Which is where we get to the next problem here – what you are in effect asking is that we stop discussing the issue – the non religious will be non-religious, the religious will be religious and we should just respect each others views and stop arguing about it. But if there’s an outstanding question, and a scientist is interested in that question, how could you expect them to stop trying to argue about it? When scientists disagree, the issue does not get resolved simply by each side making a camp and never talking to one another.

  3. #3 G.D.
    June 1, 2010

    “I would like to instead call attention to the impossibility of “true” rationality in the first place, how personal decisions about what to believe, whether you agree with certain theories, even how a scientist will decide to interpret data, cannot be isolated from an emotional, irrational, human component”

    This suggests a deeply fallacious line of reasoning, related to what is generally known as the “genetic fallacy” – confusing causes and reasons. The rationality of certain arguments or evidence gathering (without providing a full-blown theory of rationality) is a question of following certain rules or methods that are likely (or in the case of deductive reasoning, certain) to give you correct results. Scientific methods, for instance, are very good at this. Thus, whether your beliefs and reasoning is rational or not depends on whether your justification for a claim is based on rational and reliable methods.

    The fact that people are often influenced by biases, emotion, anecdotal evidence and vivid examples is no counterexample. It just shows that people are often not rational, not that the notion of “fully rational reasoning” is void. The point is wholly irrelevant. Consider the apocryphical story of Newton discovering the laws of gravity by being hit in the head by a falling apple. The apple might have been the cause of Newton coming upon his theory. That doesn’t mean that his theory is not based on reason. It just means that him (causally) coming to hold it wasn’t fully due to mechanisms or reason. Whether the theory would be rational to believe is completely independent on how Newton came to believe it in the first place – that is a question of what (evidence) actually justifies the theory.

    So the answer to your question is relatively straightforward:

    “If all reasonable arguments for a scientific theory eventually come down to the personal, emotional, “irrational” decision of each individual scientist, how can science progress as the objective description of Nature?”

    You’re equivocating. It might be true, for all I know, that one’s belief for a scientific theory “come down to the personal, emotional, irrational decision of each individual scientist”. That might be the cause for coming to a theory. And that has nothing to do with whether they are justified or not. Science can “progress as the objective description of Nature” insofar as the justification for holding the theory is rational. Science progresses as the objective description of Nature because the methods for which evidence for the theories are gathered are fully reliable and rational. Again, the fact that people often engage in irrational thought processes and are often not swayed by evidence obtained this way is irrelevant to this.

    Of course, there is still an important psychological and sociological question to be asked about how scientists come to ask the exact questions they do and what they are interested in; a completely different matter is the objectivity of the answers they arrived at. Kuhn famously equivocated here – he provided lots of interesting arguments for the first part, but wanted to conclude that the answers reached by scientists were sociological constructs as well, which is silly and would have required a completely different sets of arguments, arguments neither he nor radical postmodernist relativists have ever come close to providing.

    I am sorry to conclude that your equivocation on what causes someone to hold a belief and the objective strength of that person’s justification for holding that belief also undermines your conclusion. I stick with Dawkins because, as far as I can judge, his arguments are indeed generally rational (even though he is surely partially motivated by irrational mechanisms), whereas his opponents’arguments are generally not rational arguments, whether or not they think the arguments are rational. Your whole point comes down to a unfounded, Giberson-like or Fish-like relativism and attempt to remove the grand metaphysical claims of religion from rational scrutiny, and you don’t succeed.

  4. #4 G.D.
    June 1, 2010

    Ok, that was a rant. Let me put it slightly more succinctly:

    Assume that having an apple fall on his head was the cause of Newton coming to a theory of gravity. Yet Newton, if he was rational, would surely never cite that as a reason for believing the theory – rather, he would cite the evidence and perhaps the methods used to obtain the evidence (of course, the methods are not foolproof, but scientific methods have proven to be pretty reliable overall).

    The point is: the question of the rationality of a belief is not a question about the mechanisms by which you came to believe it. Rather, it is a question about the strength of the reasons you have for holding it. And that is an objective measure (scientific methods of induction, deductive reasoning etc.). It is not a question for psychology. The fact that humans often do rely on emotions, vividness etc. in our actual reasoning is irrelevant to the question of rationality. A belief is rational or not depending on the actual reasons or evidence, not the psychology of the believer.

    Of course, you are surely right that people choose religious convictions not based on evidence and rational reasons. Understanding the psychological mechanisms for belief forming is certainly relevant for understanding why people have the convictions they do. But in your last paragraph you draw a normative conclusion from this rather mundane observation: “What this means for religious beliefs is that each person (and scientist) must decide for themselves, using their experiences, their knowledge, and their unique cultural and personal perspective as a guide.”

    No. What this means for religious beliefs is that they are probably not arrived at for rational reasons, not that they cannot or should not be measured by rational standards, and these standards don’t give a damn about personal experiences and cultural perspectives. Religious beliefs are probably not truth-conducive (after all, “the religious method of inquiry” hasn’t had much success at predicting novel observations, for instance). An argument to the conclusion that the stance one should take towards such beliefs is a live-and-let-live one requires a completely different set of arguments than the one you provide, and the considerations you do provide are completely irrelevant.

  5. #5 Nora Femenia
    June 2, 2010

    Yes! “reasoned arguments can be used to better understand and convince others about truths in the natural world, the actual decisions that all of us make in response to these rational arguments in the end is in large part emotional.”

    Thanks for this post! I appreciate this line of research very much. Years ago, I published a paper supporting the “emotional actor” metaphor to replace the calculating, rational actor proposed by schools of international relations and decision making.

    http://falklands-malvinas.com/emotionalactor.htm

    Perhaps at the time it was too radical an attack of the myth of rational, calculating decision making. Now, we can revise the proposition that we are logical beings defending our interests and give a place to emotions-based behavior without this flimsy, logical cover up.

  6. #6 Raymond Griffith
    June 2, 2010

    I think there may be a semantic distinction that is often missed. We often equate “reasoning” with “rational”, yet they are not equivalent. Other false dichotomies pit “thinking” against “feeling” or “sensing v. intuition” and “judging v. perceiving.” Myers-Briggs “personality science” has done a disservice to the science of thought processes.

    The word “rational” comes from the idea of a ratio, in which two items are compared. “Rational thinking” embodied the notion of solving the unknown by comparing it to what was known.

    “Reasoning” on the other hand, is something of a cause-effect kind of thinking. “The reason this happened is because of such and such.” We reason when we consider “why” something has occurred.

    Reasoning and rational do not actually have to go together. Reasoning is heavily used in superstitious thinking. “I had a bad day because the stars are out of alignment” or “New Orleans has suffered destruction because it is an immoral city.”

    It is when reasoning and rational thinking are used together that we begin to work with scientific thinking. We use the known to solve the unknown. “Why” does not have to be untestable or mysterious.

    Human beings are complex creatures, and we are hard-wired to make conclusions based on observations, even if the conclusions are wrong! So scientists may reason their religious beliefs, but that “reasoning” certainly is not based on “rational” thinking. We “reason” where “love” is concerned as well, and emotions are certainly involve thinking and reasoning processes. But emotions are not likely to be rational.

    So perhaps if we clean up our semantics a bit we might shed more light on a complex issue. Experience has demonstrated that ambiguity in one’s definitions can prevent understanding. And if we understand the problems with semantics and work to correct them, we are using rational thinking.

    Regards!

  7. #7 yogi-one
    June 3, 2010

    OK, this whole thing strikes me as a philosophical conversation. So here’s my philosophical outlook:

    A basic tension between science and religion is that whereas science is based on reasoning and rationality, or better, observation based on rigorous testing, humans are emotional animals.

    I think human responses are driven by two main factors: instinct, and social conditioning (enculturation).

    Humans are not basically rational animals, and they are most certainly not reasonable, rational beings somehow separate from the animal world.

    There is no scientific foundation for the supposition that humans are separate from the animal kingdom because they can reason and think rationally, and I am saying there is no behavioral foundation for it either.

    If we were, we would respond rationally to our cultural and environmental challenges. But we aren’t, so we don’t. Case in point, AGW. Most people know the globe is warming, and that big changes are needed in lifestyle, and big societal changes are needed regarded how we create our energy to run our society.

    But do we make those changes? No we do not. What we do is go on doing what feels instinctively good, and is backed up by our enculturation. We go on using coal and oil because it feels safer, more secure, and is most familiar to us. Is that the rational response? Of course not, it’s the instinctive and emotional response.

    We go on trying to do what we have always done, and when society breaks down and stops working we panic, riot and war with each other. Is that the rational response? Of coure not, its the instinctive/emotional response.

    Actually, I would go on to argue that the human animal is not an intelligent species, using the exact same argument. If we were, we would respond intelligently to the challenges our species faces. But we don’t do that. We respond in a way that is highly predictable from the viewpoint that we are animals governed by instinct and mammalian emotional drives.

    Tribal and racial discrimination, war, and dictatorships are not rational solutions to life’s challenges. They are driven by instincts such as the drive for domination, and enculturations such as the glorification of the warrior or other types of mythological narratives.

  8. #8 Felipe Budinich
    June 10, 2010

    If all reasonable arguments for a scientific theory eventually come down to the personal, emotional, “irrational” decision of each individual scientist, how can science progress as the objective description of Nature?

    It’s a sliding scale that goes from Spock to Tazmania. The closer to Spock, the better, even if your anecdotal example is true for all cases, and 100% rationality is not desirable.

    Even the middle point is good enough to make progress on the objective description of Nature as the scientific method is self correcting (we don’t rely on the biases of one person).

    Objectivity is a valiant goal in such pursuits, but science and scientists have justified many dangerous and irrational beliefs in the guise of “objective truth”, including but not limited to the assertion that women are ill-equipped for learning and must be kept from education and that members of any number of minority groups are “racially inferior.”

    Are you saying that: Since some scientists have failed to overcome cultural dogmas, and because of them they have justified horrendous acts, then why bother, just accept all kind of dogmas?

    It’s a self defeating argument, if you consider that irrational belief systems such as racism, sexism and religion are basically the same thing. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are on the right track when denouncing religion, because it is usually considered a “force of good”, despite evidence of the contrary (you don’t need to go back to inquisition to make a case, people is dying and being oppressed today because of them).

    Anyway, i don’t worry about it, just like pseudoscience (eugenics, drapetomania, phrenology) and cultural dogmas (racism, sexism), we will overcome religion.

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