Science is not about certainty and neither is Religion

Due to the extent of the comments over a rather innocuous link in one of my “Friday Roundup” posts, I want to stop and devote an entire post to some of the issues that came up in that discussion.  I should note the conversation is still ongoing.
The conversation started when I agreed with an atheist writer that it was religious fundamentalism that gave rise to most atheism.  This was challenged by Bernard who wondered if even progressive Christian beliefs could also be responsible for someone turning to atheism.  My response was that while it was possible, I simply haven’t run into it or heard an atheist giving it as a reason and it certainly wasn’t what the atheist writer had noted.  The belief he thought might do this was the belief in an objective morality and JP noted a belief in life-after death or a soul.  I was then told that these beliefs might push someone toward atheism because they clashed or conflicted with science.
My response was that there was no clash or conflict with “science” per-se, only philosophical naturalism/materialism/empiricism.  I was then told that, no, these were not philosophical disputes but ones where the “science” had made it fairly clear one could not hold to both the current facts or findings of science and still believe in these things.  Assertions were prefaced with, “Science tells us…” and other similar preambles.  Yes, I was actually told that.  Who knew, right?  I guess I would have expected bold headlines, atheists dancing in the streets, the abandonment of churches and houses of worship.  I would have thought there would have been parades and speeches with secularists celebrating and religious people wandering about shell-shocked.  I don’t know, maybe I missed all that.  I do get quite busy sometimes.  Anyway, one can read all the comments up to the present in the June 6th Friday Roundup post.
Putting all that aside, I came across this and thought it spoke somewhat to this conversation and might help clarify some things.  First of all, this is a purely postmodern take on science and is another example of how more and more people in the sciences are beginning to grasp the shift from the modern to the postmodern.  He makes the postmodern point clear when he writes:
“If this is so, then the idea that we have data and theories and then we have a rational agent who constructs theories from the data using his rationality, his mind, his intelligence, his conceptual structure doesn’t make any sense, because what’s being challenged at every step is not the theory, it’s the conceptual structure used in constructing the theory and interpreting the data. In other words, it’s not by changing theories that we go ahead but by changing the way we think about the world.”
The real point of his essay however is that science is not about certainty.  And I would add that neither is religion, or at least, not progressive Christianity.  Now he does address a sort of clash between religion and science but it is noted around this very idea of certainty.  He writes:
“The final consideration regards just one comment about this understanding of science, and the long conflict across the centuries between scientific thinking and religious thinking. It is often misunderstood. The question is, Why can’t we live happily together and why can’t people pray to their gods and study the universe without this continual clash? This continual clash is a little unavoidable, for the opposite reason from the one often presented. It’s unavoidable not because science pretends to know the answers. It’s the other way around, because scientific thinking is a constant reminder to us that we don’t know the answers. In religious thinking, this is often unacceptable. What’s unacceptable is not a scientist who says, “I know…” but a scientist who says, “I don’t know, and how could you know?” Many religions, or some religions, or some ways of being religious, are based on the idea that there should be a truth that one can hold onto and not question. This way of thinking is naturally disturbed by a way of thinking based on continual revision, not just of theories but of the core ground of the way in which we think.”
Now, when he says this is unacceptable in religious thinking, he must be thinking of fundamentalist religion.  In progressive Christianity there is much room for mystery and we are quite comfortable with the questions that don’t have simple answers or perhaps any answers at all.  And what we believe, we hold knowing we could be wrong.  He also must be thinking of fundamentalist religion when he infers the need for certainty and the idea that science can prove or confirm the religious person’s beliefs.  There is indeed a clash between fundamentalist religion and science, something I’ve never denied.  Certainty is what fundamentalism (secular or religious) is all about.  The Bible “clearly” teaches this…or Science “clearly” tells us that…  “We are certain!” is their battle cry.  The cry of progressive Christianity is the cry we hear in one of the Gospels: “Lord, I want to believe—-help my unbelief.”  What he makes very clear however is that there need not be and should not be a conflict between science and philosophy/humanities.
In the recent conversation already noted, I referenced a quote from the Stanford University philosophy website.  Some disagreed with it, some agreed, and others have not responded.  My point there was that cause and effect is not explanation.  The “how” doesn’t always answer the “why” question.  This also goes to the relation between facts and theory.  He writes:
“If I can make a final comment about this way of thinking about science, or two final comments: One is that science is not about the data. The empirical content of scientific theory is not what’s relevant. The data serve to suggest the theory, to confirm the theory, to disconfirm the theory, to prove the theory wrong. But these are the tools we use. What interests us is the content of the theory. What interests us is what the theory says about the world. General relativity says spacetime is curved. The data of general relativity are that the Mercury perihelion moves 43 degrees per century with respect to that computed with Newtonian mechanics.
Who cares? Who cares about these details? If that were the content of general relativity, general relativity would be boring. General relativity is interesting not because of its data but because it tells us that as far as we know today, the best way of conceptualizing spacetime is as a curved object. It gives us a better way of grasping reality than Newtonian mechanics, because it tells us that there can be black holes, because it tells us there’s a Big Bang. This is the content of the scientific theory…
“…So, to sum up, science is not about data; it’s not about the empirical content, about our vision of the world. It’s about overcoming our own ideas and continually going beyond common sense. Science is a continual challenging of common sense, and the core of science is not certainty, it’s continual uncertainty—I would even say, the joy of being aware that in everything we think, there are probably still an enormous amount of prejudices and mistakes, and trying to learn to look a little bit beyond, knowing that there’s always a larger point of view to be expected in the future.”
And to a certain extent, this is what sums up the mind-matter problem.  It is why it will be at the level of theory (based upon a comprehensive understanding of the hard data) where we will move forward and to dismiss what philosophers are doing at this level is, I think, a purely un-scientific and close-minded view.  He addresses this very issue:
“This takes me to another point, which is, Should a scientist think about philosophy or not? It’s the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude naïve, for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas.
Even Maxwell, Boltzmann—all the major steps of science in the past were done by people who were very aware of methodological, fundamental, even metaphysical questions being posed. When Heisenberg does quantum mechanics, he is in a completely philosophical frame of mind. He says that in classical mechanics there’s something philosophically wrong, there’s not enough emphasis on empiricism. It is exactly this philosophical reading that allows him to construct that fantastically new physical theory, quantum mechanics.
The divorce between this strict dialogue between philosophers and scientists is very recent, in the second half of the 20th century. It has worked because in the first half of the 20th century people were so smart. Einstein and Heisenberg and Dirac and company put together relativity and quantum theory and did all the conceptual work. The physics of the second half of the century has been, in a sense, a physics of application of the great ideas of the people of the ’30s—of the Einsteins and the Heisenbergs.”
He is of course speaking as a physicist.  However, what he is saying would apply to every scientific field including biology.  Next he goes to a point that I’ve made over and over on this blog, which is we all operate out of some narrative, some philosophy, some perspective and in this sense, we all are philosophers and in fact, this is inescapable:
“When you want to apply these ideas, when you do atomic physics, you need less conceptual thinking. But now we’re back to basics, in a sense. When we do quantum gravity, it’s not just application. The scientists who say “I don’t care about philosophy” —it’s not true that they don’t care about philosophy, because they have a philosophy. They’re using a philosophy of science. They’re applying a methodology. They have a head full of ideas about what philosophy they’re using; they’re just not aware of them and they take them for granted, as if this were obvious and clear, when it’s far from obvious and clear. They’re taking a position without knowing that there are many other possibilities around that might work much better and might be more interesting for them.
There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science—which is even more narrow-minded. Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other.”

couldn’t agree more.  No matter which side it is coming from, it is narrow-mindedness.  And this is also why I go back and say that my beliefs in an after-life or soul do not clash or conflict with science, they conflict with a materialistic perspective.  The problem is when one assumes, because he is simply unaware he is doing it, that science and his philosophy are the same thing.  Science cannot prove, one way or the other, whether there is a soul or an after-life.  If someone wants to tie those beliefs to what we know about consciousness—that is fine, but what we know is that we don’t know some very critical things.  And what we do know is cause and effect, not explanation.  Thus, again, it is not “science” telling us.  It is people trying to articulate theoretically what the findings might mean.  And theories resulting from the findings of science can try and argue one way or another, but that is not the same thing as saying “science tells us…” or claiming that those who disagree with one’s philosophical perspective clash with the “science.”

And if science is not about certainty, it is hard to see how my views could clash especially in an area that is still wide open, ongoing, and where many different models and theories are reasonably held.
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5 Responses to Science is not about certainty and neither is Religion

  1. Burk says:


    I think you are underselling yourself when you claim that … “In progressive Christianity there is much room for mystery and we are quite comfortable with the questions that don’t have simple answers or perhaps any answers at all.”

    If you were questioning in the basic and thorough way the author promotes, why be Christian at all? Hasn't that whole corpus been blown away as unbelievable fairy tales? You hold on to faith as a rock and that is a problem, fundamentalist or not. Belief should be conferred on things that are likely to be true, not just traditional things that you recognize are likely wrong.

    Anyhow, the issue of souls and disembodied minds are not matters of edgy frontier science. They are matters of age-old human intuition, ironically brought about by the exquisite design of our brains, which confers various optimized illusions of continuity and abstraction. Even the Hameroff corpus, bizarre and theoretically swiss-cheesy as it is, is a materialist proposition about how microtubules help nerve cells work in some (insert tech-talk here) way. The rational boundaries of the question have been clear for a long time. But the solution will surely become clearer, progressively. The physicists are in a much more difficult state, since their problems are so unbounded and empirically intractable. That is why you hear about physicist talking about philosophy. What I sincerely doubt, however, is that philosophers will be of any help to them. What do you want to bet on that?


  2. Darrell says:


    “You hold on to faith as a rock and that is a problem, fundamentalist or not…”

    No more than you hold onto your faith in materialism—the difference is your holding is entirely fundamentalist.

    What do you want to bet you can’t show where Hameroff’s views clash or conflict with what we know scientifically, rather only with the theories of other people working in the field?

    And, if you can’t, then neither do my views clash nor conflict with the science since his are not reductionist either.

    And by the way, if you read his essay, he pointed out how philosophy has always been a help and always will be–it will never be a help to the narrow-minded however, which are those who are always spouting a philosophy just unawares. So no need to bet on something that has already happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.


  3. Burk says:


    Working from the very interesting recent Hameroff piece in physics of life reviews, I read: “Recent Orch OR publications have cast tubulin bits (and quantum bits, or qubits) as coherent entangled dipole states acting collectively among electron clouds of aromatic amino acid rings, with only femtometer conformational change due to nuclear displacement“.

    This is precisely what Tegmark dismisses as a fantasy… physically impossible to maintain entangled states for any useful length of time in this setting. There is much more, but it would take a long time to wade through.

    I might also differ with your TNR author on the source of Einstein's inspirations. The key was the empirical speed of light, which was the big problem at the time. Not Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, et al. The theory was insufficient, and Einstein came up with a new theory. So the portrayal in the article was, in my view, purposely slanted to create the impression that he is saying something new when he is not. The point for me is to ask.. where is the record of contemporary philosophers influencing Einstein? And are contemporary philosophers now going to have any documentable influence on the progress of physics?


  4. Burk says:

    Possibly Kant had some influence on Einstein. That is the best I can do. But this is marginal, and not directly related to the content of his theories.. more like an inspiration to dismiss intuition as a boundary.


  5. Darrell says:


    Here are several links that show disagreements over theory and interpretation, not the fundamental science or some consensus fact. This is still an open debate. So the bet is still on.

    Interesting if Tegmark has settled the issue that he’s on the same panel with Hameroff…do you suppose he stormed off the stage—unwilling to address such a hack?

    Right, as I suspected this link reveals that this is simply reasonable disagreement where both sides make their points. Nowhere is Tegmark calling Hameroff “bizarre” or some fringe or pseudo-scientist. You are just wrong here.

    The other issue you are missing here is that Penrose and Hameroff’s theories are not the only quantum or non-reductionist theories. I don’t necessarily agree with these two guys, but nowhere is anyone saying their views “clash” or “conflict” with science, as in science as a settled fact or treating them like fortune tellers.

    “The point for me is to ask.. where is the record of contemporary philosophers influencing Einstein? And are contemporary philosophers now going to have any documentable influence on the progress of physics?”

    The record is history as noted by the TNR writer and he makes it fairly clear there is influence as we speak. His greater point, because you missed it, was that every scientist is a philosopher. Some know it (the wise ones) and those who don’t are simply to be pitied and…made fun of…


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