Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Is Nothing Sacred?

I mean that as a serious question. Consider this essay from Lawrence Krauss, who thinks that science teachers should attack religion head on:
One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.
Which makes me queasy. There are plenty of scientists who hold things sacred, and some of the most radically creative scientists, from Einstein to Lynn Margulis, have held a lot sacred: the universe, life, humanity.

Of course "sacred" has two meanings that are colliding here; in a narrow sense it means "divided from ordinary life and dedicated to God"; in a broader sense we often use it to mean "very important." Krauss probably thinks many things are very important, or he wouldn't write op-eds encouraging us to teach science in a way that will denigrate religion and promote environmental awareness. He is only using the phrase "nothing is sacred" to insist that no dogma should be accepted if science contradicts it.

But is doubt enough? Is it enough to question, or do we, in the end, have to decide to believe in something? If so, is science of any help?

Religious believers often say (they do -- I read their web sites) that without God there is no possible basis for morality, or for valuing anything other than evolutionary success. I have two responses to this. The first is that I don't have any trouble believing much more firmly in right and wrong than I have ever been able to believe in God, and so far as I can tell there are plenty of other moral agnostics and atheists in the world. The second is that since all the religious believers I have ever known pick and choose which parts of their traditions to take seriously, when it comes to the practical question of deciding what to do they are on no firmer ground than I am. So the assertion that only belief in God can justify morality seems to me doubly theoretical, and I am happy to wave it away.

But Krauss's scientism leaves me equally cold. It is simply not true that training in science makes people particularly skeptical of bogus political or moral "truths." To prove this one need only point out that thousands of scientists are libertarians. History provides more evidence: in the nineteenth century, many scientists were racists; in the early twentieth, many were communists; in the 1960s, a majority were Republicans. The pacifist Einstein and the moderate Robert Oppenheimer were brilliant scientists, but so were the ardent Cold Warriors Edward Teller and John von Neumann. In the present American moment scientists are on average more liberal than the non-scientific population, but I suspect this is an artifact of the alliance between the Republican party and conservative Christians, and the resulting prominence of evolution and climate science as partisan issues. On moral and political questions I trust scientists no more than other people.

My view of the world is shot through with science. I was recently reading a memoir by an American Christian who was waiting for a sign from God to decide for him whether to stay in Philadelphia or move to Louisiana, and I thought, dude, there are 500 billion galaxies, and you see God in some random sentence from a book that fell off a shelf? I simply can't take a lot of what passes for religion seriously. But I am not at all willing to write off the notion of the sacred. To me, some things matter a lot. Can I justify my hatred of cruelty, or my mourning at the disappearance of mammoths? Not really. So? Part of what science teaches us is that we are clever, upright apes, with brains evolved for solving the problems of life in a band of hunter-gatherers. I'm not at all surprised that I have trouble figuring out the great mysteries of the universe. Actually, I marvel that we have understood so much.

With our small brains, our eyes, our hands, we understand the world as best we can. Most of us also find much to love about life, and much to hate. To me, this is life: knowing, feeling, creating, preserving. These things I call sacred, and I am troubled by the notion of life without belief in sacred things.


Thomas said...

I think a lot of people use the word "sacred" to mean "not to be confronted or challenged." As in sacrilege.

I've found that arguing for repeatability in health care is an effective way of making a point about the need for scientific method. How can we choose to use, say, homeopathy, on a large scale, if there is no evidence of repeatability. By its nature, if I eat a certain root and live, that doesn't mean the root is the reason I lived, and that everybody should eat that root. Repeatability is the key for making sound decision on a large scale - Does this work? When does it work? When is it harmful?

Explore past scientific myths, and how they fell by the wayside. How did doctors in the past explain and treat infection?

I was reading about the history of number theory a while back, and the book was full of examples of people asserting things that were not true, based on a very small number of examples.

The statements were what mathematicians would nowadays call "conjectures," but that distinction was rarely made by early mathematicians. Having checked up to six digit numbers was enough.

John said...

That's a good definition of sacred; I suppose the attack is on people who don't want evidence applied to their beliefs.

Thomas said...

I was surprised a few years back when a relatively smart person I knew treated evolution as if it was a moral system that offers to replace religious morality.

It has nothing more to do with morality than gravity has.

John said...

That's what conservative Christians worry about. Most of them don't really care that much about Creation vs. Evolution, except that they see evolution as an attack on morality.

G. Verloren said...

Encouraging scientists to attack religion is a phenomenally bad idea, and I say that as a total advocate of science.

Stand up for science? Sure. Argue rationally against unscientific policies and behaviors that have a direct harm on people? Absolutely. But attacking religion? That's just asking for a blowback of zealotry and violent irrationality.

No, leave religion be. It is not our place to force science on those who refuse to see the logic and benefit of it. Some minds simply won't be changed, and many others which might change simply won't do so if they feel threatened or attacked.

Science needs to lead by example - not by force. People will come around to reason eventually, but not if they feel attacked. That just makes them dig their heels in and resist all the more.

pootrsox said...

When I look out at the ospreys and herons, or see a fawn nursing from its mother, I am immediately struck by the beauty of the sacred.

But as Thomas said, most of the time nowadays people who say "sacred" mean "not to be challenged."

I think your post is extremely well-said and right on target.