Reactions to Mixing Metaphysics and Modern Science

Reactions to mixing metaphysics and modern science

We see from all this that a slow revolution has been occurring in science's backyard, as it were, reformulating scientific methodology and epistemology. Not all practicing scientists are happy with this turn of events. They feel that these efforts are based, not on experiments but on extrapolations, inspired more by analogy than by analysis; where the purpose of hypotheses is not to explain or derive experimentally observable data, but to confirm religious visions and sometimes to plead for a return to anthropocentric physics.

They are not sympathetic to picturing elementary particle interactions as the Dancing Divine, or to the claim that when Chinese philosophers spoke of yin and yang they were referring implicitly to wave-particle duality. Nor are they persuaded by the thesis that the Book of Genesis formulates the principle of evolution in metaphorical meters. They are appalled to see Planck's quantum hypothesis used for propounding a theory of consciousness, and microcosmic indeterminacy used as a springboard for a physics-based proof of resurrection. They do not accept the claim that receding galaxies provide experimental confirmation of what cabalists had already recognized in medieval times, much less are they fascinated by efforts to link esoteric formulations of quantum physics (such as the S-matrix theory) with Buddhist sutras.

Paul Kurtz et al edited a whole anthology of essays, entitled, Science and Religion: Are they compatible? The essays generally argue that notwithstanding all the voluminous output of well-meaning scholars, when it comes to the details of understanding the world, and the methodologies of the two fields, science and religion are essentially very different. The book is an elaboration the emphatic answer, "NO" to the question posed in the subtitle of the book.

The lamentation of no-nonsense hard-core scientists about the scientific darkness into which, they feel, we are fast plunging, has been forcibly articulated by a number of scientists. As they see it, one of the ironies of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been that there was a steady revival of belief-systems of ages past. Millions of people are still convinced that winged angels hover over their homes, that the stock market is affected by Jupiter's position in relation to Saturn's, that names which add up to certain numbers will bring good health and high-paying jobs, and that witches are wandering in the atmosphere.

In The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan talks about the general lack of appreciation and understanding on the part of the general public as to what science is all about, and the related intellectual consequences for society at large. He gives painful portraits of intelligent people harboring the most unscientific beliefs, be it about Atlantis or Nostradamus. He refers to tabloids which spread canards like the discovery of temple ruins on the Martian surface. He mentions the periodic reports on aliens: the illegal ones who come without green cards but with green bodies sometimes. He refers to UFOs of whose existence, like that of Elvis Presley, many people do not have the slightest doubt. He analyzes the nature of apparitions and visions. He discusses obstinate assertions about spirits. He talks about popular mystery mongering like the Bermuda Triangle, the Big Foot, and the Loch Ness monster. Many enlightened minds who care for the sanity of civilization, have written about the anti-science forces that are becoming more and more assertive in our age.

In this day of easy publishing and Internet channels for propagating information and misinformation, many preposterous ideas are propagated on a daily basis. Leon Lederman is really irked by the "true charlatans," as he calls them. "These folks," he says in his highly entertaining, informative, and popular book The God Particle, "guarantee eternal life if you restrict your diet to sumac roots. They give firsthand evidence of the visit of extraterrestrials. They expose the fallacy of relativity in favor of a Sumerian version of the Farmer's Almanac. They write for the New York Inquirer and contribute to the crackpot mail of prominent scientists. ...." He goes on explain that the tragedy in all this lies not in the fact that sloppy pseudoscience writers abound, but in "the damage done to the gullible and science-illiterate public, which can be easily duped. The public will buy pyramids, pay a fortune for monkey-gland injections, chew apricot pits, go anywhere and do anything to follow the huckster who, having progressed from the back of the wagon to the prime-time TV channel, sells ever more flagrant palliatives in the name of "science".

Fascination for mythology may be an understandable urge, and could even contribute to the aesthetic dimension of life. But it is important to distinguish poetic visions from scientific findings. Sometimes even clear-headed thinkers fail to distinguish the scientific discovery of a phenomenon from the adoption of a philosophical perspective. Thus, many decades ago, Oswald Spengler who wrote perceptively on the Decline of the West, was not very happy with the introduction of statistical methods in physics because they retreated from the classical goal of precise prediction of the course of events. He was even less enthusiastic about the Heisenberg principle which he described as suggesting that "the living person of the knower methodically intruding into the inorganic form world of the known."

What is serious about such misperceptions of science is that they can impinge seriously on policy-making in free societies. This point was emphasized by Gerald Holton in his Science and Anti-Science where he warns us: "In a democracy, no matter how poorly informed the citizens are, they do properly demand a place at the table where decisions are made, even when those decisions have a large scientific/technical component. In that lies the potential for erroneous policy and eventual social instability.... History has shown repeatedly that a disaffection with science and its view of the world can turn into a rage that links up with far more sinister movements."

Pseudo-science, uncertain science, and anti-religion

Most scientific thinkers have little faith in palmistry, numerology, or astrology. However, there are fields which relate to phenomena that could be related to some as yet unknown features of the physical universe, and to the as yet not fully understood capacities of the human mind, brain, and consciousness. James Gribbin, in a book called White Holes, suggested: "Perhaps tachyonic link even provides a clue to such mysteries as poltergeists." Arthur Koestler, a superb writer and careful scholar, was convinced that there was something to phenomena like clairvoyance, and that the prejudice of scientists is keeping these away from mainstream science. His Roots of coincidence builds a persuasive case for paranormal phenomena. It goaded a number of good scientists, even physicists, to the conviction that there are aspects of the world that transcend the essentially matter-energy based physics. Some non-scientists have elaborated on the matter by convenient quotes from distinguished scientists. At least one physicist of renown, John Wheeler, is known to have been rather annoyed by such appropriations. Many physicists may not show much interest in topics like the physics of consciousness, but such subjects have been growing in significant measure in recent years.

One result of all this is that some scientists have become overtly anti-religious in their writings. In former times, unbelieving scientists generally kept their atheism to themselves, so as not to offend others or the public. But now, some scientists and philosophers have come out of the closet, as it were, and have become quite vocal, not just in arguing for atheism, but also in condemning traditional religions harshly.

One of the more articulate thinkers of this category is Richard Dawkins. His virulence against religion may be seen in one of his letters to the editor to a newspaper where he stated that child abuse, though unpleasant, "may do less permanent damage to the children than bringing them up Catholic in the first place." Dawkins is a distinguished zoologist, brilliant mind, and man of erudition, but he is also a passionate advocate of no-nonsense science. In his plea for basic scientific commonsense as well as in his piercing critique of religion, he continues the tradition of Bertrand Russell. In Unweaving the Rainbow, he explodes the myth that science is bereft of poetry. In the Blind Watchmaker he resolves the puzzle of an ordered universe by saying that we need no Creator for this, for mindless laws of the universe constitute the watchmaker who creates stars and planets, oceans and life. In a collection of superb essays, provocatively entitled A Devil's Chaplain, one can see the sharpness of his intelligence when he tries to discredit religion and mysticism. Peter Atkins, another scientist who has only contempt for religion, states that that reconciliation between science and religion is impossible, because "Science is mightier than the Word, and that the river of religion will (or, at least, should) atrophy and die."

The brilliant philosopher Daniel Dennett published a provocative essay in which he described people who had rid themselves of all traditional religious beliefs as Brights, without using any epithet for those who haven't. He expanded on this idea his Breaking the Spell (of religion). Here he writes with evangelical zeal: "I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You'll hardly notice the drop!" In an "I-come-to-bury-Caesar-not-to-praise-him" tone, Dennett is not out to decry, degrade, or destroy religion, but only to analyze it from scientific perspectives. His analysis of religion and its emergence is as informative as that of a master anthropologist about an exotic culture.

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