bookmark_borderMore on Naturalism and Consciousness

Dianelos Georgoudis replied at length to my earlier posting on metaphysical naturalism and consciousness, and I would like to continue the conversation. I characterize metaphysical naturalists as committed to the causal closure of the natural universe, i.e., to the claim that natural phenomena, to the extent that they are caused (and not, say, random or brute facts), are caused by natural entities, forces, processes, etc. In other words, to parody the slogan about Las Vegas, what causes things in the universe, stays in the universe.
Dianelos comments:

“I have two observations with the idea that according to MN the universe is a causally closed system. I agree that there is overwhelming evidence that all physical phenomena can be explained using only impersonal naturalistic entities, causes, and mechanisms – specifically excluding any supernatural personal entities such as gods, ghosts and souls. My first observation is that physical phenomena are by far not all the data we have, for there is also our subjective experience of life. My second observation is that the fact that the universe appears to be causally closed does not imply that it is.”

I am puzzled by the first observation because it appears simply to beg the question against MN. Subjective experience appears to me to be a natural phenomenon. Thinking, feeling, imagining, willing, and so forth seem to be activities (voluntary or involuntary) of physical beings accomplished via the functionality of their bodily organs, like breathing or exercising. The phenomena of subjective experience therefore seem to me no more mysterious or otherworldly than tap dancing (less so, if you have two left feet like me). People dance with some body parts, digest with others, and do predicate logic proofs with yet others. To be a counterexample to MN, we would need to experience consciousness in a disembodied context. If Marley’s ghost appeared to me tonight to warn me of the consequences of my sins, and I could not explain the apparition away, as Scrooge tried to do, as the effect of a bit of underdone potato, then, yes, I would regard such a visitation as a counterexample to MN. Clearly, though, all such purported counterexamples—encounters with ghosts or gods—are highly controversial and would not be accepted by naturalists.

The second observation is surely correct. The fact that anything appears to be so does not entail that it actually is so (except maybe for famously “incorrigible” phenomena like seeming to have a headache). Still, it seems plain good sense, even in metaphysics, to say that if something manifestly seems to be so, then we should tentatively regard it as so until and unless we have reason to think otherwise. So, my intention expressed in my earlier post to put the burden of proof onto non-naturalists seems to be justified. How heavy should this burden be? Well, nothing succeeds like success, and methodological naturalism seems an excellent candidate for the most successful heuristic assumption of all time. We assume that natural things have natural causes, we doggedly look for those natural causes, and we keep finding them—broader and deeper ones all the time.

Vitalism was the last outpost of supernaturalism in respectable science, and it expired in the early 20th Century. Prior to vitalism’s last gasp, many supernatural accounts had fallen victim to the realization expressed in Laplace’s quip to Napoleon, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The fecundity of naturalistic theories and the poverty and failure of supernatural ones led scientists, even pious ones, to stipulate, well before Darwin, that science should focus on “secondary” (i.e., natural) causes and leave discussion of the primary cause (i.e., God) to theologians. In short, the naturalistic research program has succeeded spectacularly and the supernaturalistic one has gone extinct, despite the desperate efforts of “intelligent design” theorists to re-animate the corpse. Generalizing upon the spectacular success of the naturalistic heuristic, it appears that natural causes are sufficient for all caused phenomena in the natural world. That this is the plain appearance of things, requiring proof otherwise, was already obvious to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century: “Now it seems that everything in the world stems from sources other than God, since the products of nature have their source in nature; deliberate effects can be traced back to human reason or will as their source. There is no need then to assume that God exists (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, art. 3).”

As Dianelos notes, I am deeply suspicious of efforts to elucidate the nature of ultimate reality, for many of the reasons that Kant gave. However, since ultimate questions are inevitably so fascinating to us, and since a rigorous agnosticism is very hard to maintain, I think it is OK if we try to come to the most reasonable conclusions we can, always marking that part of our epistemic maps with “here be dragons.”

So, which is the more reasonable postulate, that reality is ultimately natural or supernatural? As Dianelos puts it:

“Does reality ultimately consist of entities that act and are acted upon in accordance with regular, impersonal, and universal laws (as naturalism has it), or does reality ultimately consist of entities that act and are acted upon in accordance with free, personal, and universal will (as theism has it)? Or alternatively: Is knowledge about reality ultimately based on the former premise or on the latter premise? Are the most comprehensive explanations ultimately based on mechanical causality or on agent causality?”

I opt for the former, as I say, mostly by default, i.e. because of the utter lack of any reason to postulate any other kind of thing. I know that natural things exit; indeed, I know that the natural sciences have had enormous success explaining natural things in natural terms. I am unaware of any phenomena that would be better explained in supernatural terms. Natural causes appear sufficient. In fact, the supernaturalistic explanations I am familiar with seem to be woefully devoid of explanatory efficacy, certainly vis-à-vis accepted naturalistic ones. Supernatural accounts are pretty consistent: their modus operandi is to create a mystery where there is no mystery, and then to invoke some putative supernatural entity, like God or souls, that appears tailor-made to provide a pseudo-explanation for the pseudo-mystery. The “explanation” provided then leaves me even more puzzled than I was before. Inevitably, such “explanations” work by postulating untestable hypotheses invoking inscrutable entities which are asserted to wield occult powers to produce effects in some unknowable way. So, if asked to place my bets about what substantial reality consists of, I say the entities that constitute the space/time universe.

Dianelos says:

“By the claim that ‘consciousness is a scientifically unnecessary concept’ (or, similarly, that ‘experience is a scientifically unnecessary concept’) I mean that the best explanation of physical phenomena need not make use of such concepts, the same way that the best explanation of fire need not make use of the phlogiston.”

This is a bit confusing. We don’t explain fire in terms of phlogiston, because we know that the phlogiston theory is false. An eliminative materialist might compare consciousness to phlogiston, meaning that they are both discredited notions, but I know that Dianelos does not intend to do so in that sense. He continues:

“Conversely we believe that atoms exist in as far as the best explanation of phenomena (of Brownian motion say) requires them. Similarly we know that a monkey’s behavior is best explained by the electrochemical processes in its brain. Now one can name a particular pattern of neuron firings in a monkey’s brain ‘disappointed’ (or say that the behavior caused by such neuron
firings evidences that the monkey is disappointed) but such naming conventions add nothing to the explanation; one might as well name the same pattern P342. Indeed, it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize phenomena in contexts where no consciousness is present.”

But there is no one “best” way to explain the monkey’s behavior. It depends on the kind of question we are asking and the kinds of observations we are seeking to explain. The question that Tinklepaugh was asking in the experiment referred to in the earlier post was why the monkey behaved the particular way that it did when it turned over the cup and found lettuce rather than banana. The behavior is readily explicable upon the postulation of mental states—the mental representation of banana under the cup and a consequent experience of disappointment upon finding lettuce instead—and not explicable, or certainly not readily so, in terms of unconscious stimulus-response processes. So we appear to have a clear case of inference to the best explanation, which, in this case, involves the postulation of conscious states. There is no basis for regarding such inference as anthropomorphic unless we assume that only humans are capable of having conscious states.

But is the postulation of consciousness necessary here? Couldn’t we, in principle, explain the monkey’s behavior merely by detailing its physiological antecedents? Sure we could, just as we could explain any piece of human behavior in precisely the same way—hence the philosophical problem of other minds. But if we hold that conscious processes (e.g., thinking, willing, feeling) are fully realized in physical processes (patterns of neuronal firings, etc.), then explanations in terms of consciousness are fully compatible with, and, in fact subsumed by, physiological explanations, which are in turn subsumed by explanations in terms of chemistry and physics. However, the fact that explanations in terms of A’s subsume explanations in terms of B’s does not mean that B’s do not exist or are not useful, indeed, indispensable, at certain levels of explanation.

Why, at the end of the “Gloria” section of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis did Beethoven make the orchestra suddenly go silent while the chorus shouts out the final “Gloria!” into the empty air? Suppose we ask just why Beethoven composed it that way. A complete description of all the relevant states of Beethoven’s brain, qua brain states, as he was composing the end of the “Gloria” would, of course, leave us dissatisfied. We want to know why it seemed aesthetically right to him to suddenly yank the orchestral accompaniment out from under the chorus. We would like to know what he was feeling, i.e., what his musical intuitions were telling him. Surely he realized that the effect would be breathtaking, as indeed it is. But if Beethoven’s artistic intuitions were fully realized in his brain states, then even the creativity of a Beethoven can, in principle, be subsumed under physiological explanation (without thereby obviating explanations in terms of aesthetic intuitions).

Dianelos continues:

“…my argument is not about why or how a material system becomes conscious, nor about the explanatory gap between scientific and experiential knowledge; these are distinct problems on their own right. I simply observe that from science’s point of view the hypothesis that consciousness (including experiential phenomena, states, and processes) exists serves no purpose. If true my premise falsifies all naturalistic ontologies according to which only concepts which are required by science refer to elements of objective reality.”

There appears to be an equivocation in Dianelos’ use of terms like “required” and “necessary.” He seems to equate these terms with “…serves no purpose.” But to say that a concept is not required or necessary certainly does not mean that it serves no purpose. Could we, in principle, produce explanations of monkey or human behavior that make no reference to consciousness? Again, of course we could. Indeed, we often do, even in everyday contexts. Why did Billy Bob drive his F-250 the wrong way up I-45? Because he had a blood alcohol level of .24. But this does not at all mean that scientific explanations that postulate conscious states are never warranted by the evidence or do not constitute the best explanations of a set of data. If such explanations do serve a purpose, then Dianelos’ assertion that they do not is simply false. Do they serve a purpose? Perhaps the more philosophical question is “Could they serve a purpose?” The answer seems to be, plainly, “yes.” There is no reason whatsoever why postulating conscious states cannot be confirmed in the same manner and to the same degree as the postulation of any other unobservable. Why not? Does Dianelos think that the possession of consciousness can have no testable consequences, or that experimental results could never justify the inference to the postulation of conscious states? Why would he think that?

Dianelos responds to my suggestion that perhaps we will someday just stop asking Chalmers’ hard question just as we long ago stopped asking questions about final causes in chemistry and physics. We didn’t stop asking questions about final causes because we discovered that there weren’t any. Rather, we just decided that such questions were pointless and unproductive and that it was a waste of time to ponder them. Dianelos objects:

“But what about other questions, such as which material systems are conscious? Such questions cannot be dropped because they are morally relevant. Correlates will not help us decide whether, say, cockroaches are conscious beings, or whether intelligent computers are conscious. Correlates will not help us decide whether our experience and personal identity can survive the destruction of our brain. Or whether it is reasonable to believe that our brain produces our consciousness in the first place (that’s the second conceptual problem I have pointed out.) So I don’t think naturalism’s problem with consciousness will ever go away.”

But why couldn’t we devise experiments that would give us the means to answer questions about cockroach or computer consciousness? Again, questions about cockroach or computer consciousness appear no different in principle than questions about any other kind of unobservable, and there is no reason to see why such questions could not be addressed with the general types of scientific inquiry we use to answer other such questions. Of course, a computer could be programmed to appear to have consciousness and so might defeat any test we could devise. Likewise, a Cartesian evil genius could defeat any empirical test we might have about anything, but this is no reason to stop empirical testing or to question its findings.

In summary then, I see no reason why there cannot be scientific explanations that legitimately invoke or postulate conscious states to explain observed phenomena. So, Dianelos’ claim that appeal to consciousness is “unnecessary” in science is either false or irrelevant. It is false if by “unnecessary” he means that appeals to or postulation of conscious states can serve no purpose in scientific investigation. They can. It is irrelevant if he means that it is possible to adduce explanations of human or animal behavior that make no mention of conscious states. This is true but it does not follow that there are no scientific contexts in which the postulation of consciousness is warranted and useful.

bookmark_borderLiberals for religion

Reading Liberalism for a New Century (Jumonville and Mattson, eds.) recently, I was struck by the backward-looking nature of allegedly cutting-edge liberal thought.

I’ll admit a certain bias: I keep a distance to American liberalism, though I invariably end up grudgingly voting Democratic. Liberals are far too conservative for my taste. And in this book too, liberal writers complain that liberalism has been marginalized in US politics because it has been insufficiently nationalistic, associated with secularism, and antagonizing to the business classes. The solution, naturally, is to be even more Republican-lite, only perhaps replacing conservative righteousness with a characteristically liberal smugness.

But more than that, the book is dripping with nostalgia for the 1950’s, when the Cold War allowed liberals to demonstrate that they too could stand up to Unamerican subversives, and when liberal political thought was unapologetically informed by theology. They have Niebuhr-style liberal theologians in mind, naturally, not the Falwell’s of the era to come.

And I suppose that would be better. American politics is almost invariably religious politics. And if the center-right liberalism of some Democrats is better to give secularists some breathing space than the reactionary conservatism Republicans favor—and that seems certainly to be the case—well, I can only hope the less loony theologians win out.

Still, I have to wonder. The older style of liberal theology, which had some pretense of intellectual substance, seems to be at a seriously low point in terms of enjoying a public base. The politically centrist religious figures of today are not clones of Niebuhr but people like Wallis, Cizik, or Warren (ick). They’re at best lukewarm toward secular constituencies—amenable to working together with on some subset of issues, perhaps some environmental concerns, but no more.

In times like this, I feel fortunate that my political and religious views are completely out of the American mainstream. I have no hope of affecting anything anyway, so I can just continue my useless carping from the sidelines no matter what comes to pass.

bookmark_borderReligion in College

Inside Higher Ed reported on a study looking at how different major choices in college affect attendance at religious services.

There is little in it that is surprising. Business and education majors show an increase in religiosity. Humanities and social science majors show a decrease. None of these effects are large. Science majors remain more or less the same.

This possibly fits in with previous observations. Postmodern relativism, many have suggested, is corrosive of traditional religiosity, though it does not necessarily do anything against supernatural belief per se. Such relativism mostly lives in the humanities and social sciences. And it’s pretty well known that though science departments are very secular places, this is largely due to self-selection at every stage in the pipeline, including undergraduate choice of major. That is, the less religious are more likely to go into science in the first place, rather than becoming less religious as a result of their training.


In disputes between supernaturalists and naturalists, one of the minor themes has to do with uniqueness and identity. Naturalists inclined toward functionalism usually think that the mind, for example, is what the brain does, while religious people tend to believe in souls and spirits. But functionalists then also have to think that copies of minds might also be made, since another physical system that realizes the same functions would be equivalent. A soul, on the other hand, conveys a kind of uniqueness on us: we can’t be copied.

As is so often, most ordinary intuition recoils at the more naturalistic views, I think. We think we must be unique. If we make a copy of a person, only one of them must be real. And not a few more secular philosophers favor uniqueness when dealing with personal identity. If we make a functionally equivalent copy of a person, it still does not share the causal history that belongs to the original. Its memories and so forth seem fake, in some sense. Some would argue that if you kept the copy and destroyed the original, there would be something fake here, even if the functional aspects of a personal history proceed seamlessly, with barely a blip. The causal continuity has been disrupted, and somehow this matters.

I wonder if it would help to move out of the swamp of disputes about personal identity for a moment. Let’s look at a different, personality-free example. Say we want a spy to recognize a contact, by presenting a unique artifact. An easy way would be to rip a cardboard box in two, in a jagged fashion, and give the two halves to the spy and the contact. The rip would be very complex in a certain sense. Another ripped piece of cardboard perfectly matching the other half is extremely unlikely. If the pieces match, the spy and contact can be confident they’ve found each other. (Unless it’s been intercepted by enemy agents. But ignore that. It’s just a story.)

Now, technically, it may be possible, though extremely difficult, to make an exact copy of one of the cardboard halves. Say this was doable, and the spy was some day presented with two practically identical copies of what is supposed to be the other half of his cardboard box.

If this happened, the spy should be very concerned. This is because for his purposes, ensuring uniqueness is functionally—vitally—important. Seeing another copy not only makes this alleged contact, but the whole process of identifying contacts useless. The matching complexity of the rip-pattern, a functional characteristic, no longer indicates a unique causal history, which is what it supposed to accomplish.

I wonder if the secular unease produced by person-copying fantasies has similar roots. That is, it’s not really about souls or functionalism so much as caring for uniqueness and personal idiosyncrasies being accurate reflections of a unique causal history that makes us what we are.

But then, perhaps in the science-fiction scenario that we get the sort of technology to make back-up copies of individuals, we wouldn’t care about that sort of thing so much. It might, for example, be a good thing to make a back-up copy of yourself before engaging in dangerous sports. If you kill yourself skydiving, a backup can be activated, missing nothing but a recent thrill. Uniqueness would be preserved, but only because we might socially still want that. And the decoupling of functional properties from causal history would not, after all, be complete, since the backup would not have its particular insanely complex pattern if it not for the causal history behind its original. There is an indirect kind of causal continuity that remains. Whether this indirection matters depends, I think, entirely on what we care about. And I also think that having only a “pure,” direct causal continuity is an odd thing to care about.

In any case, I don’t see what souls would contribute to these sorts of discussions, except perhaps as a way of enforcing caring about the original. But it would do this quite artificially, and I think we’re best rid of that particular sort of confusion.

bookmark_borderAgainst community

I just finished another book that’s an example of postmodern Muslim blather, Anouar Majid’s Unveiling Traditions. Typical of the genre, it’s full of moral posturing against colonialism, capitalism, Orientalism, secularism, and the modern world in general. It presents itself as politically leftist, but it’s the sort of anti-Enlightenment left that traffics in romantic nostalgia about peasant societies rather than any substantial politics.

After that, I feel like I should say something good about capitalism for a change. Sure, our present version of capitalism is insanely rapacious. It may well be the death of us all through the environmental consequences of the plunder it organizes so efficiently, though my guess is that we’ll get away with just a mass extinction and the collapse of civilization. But let’s give credit where it’s due: capitalism has also been very destructive of traditional communities. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing on balance. I think that traditional communities, with their all-pervading religiosity, are stifling to a degree that gives me horrors to merely contemplate.

Not that modern capitalism undermines religion per se, mind you. Majid-style postmodernists overlook it by constantly wringing their hands about authenticity, but it’s pretty clear that fundamentalist and charismatic religions do very well in the present environment. And I do prefer that sort of madness to premodern religion—it may be politically obnoxious, but modern religiosity is more likely to leave some breathing space for secular ways of life. Yes, even the fundamentalists.

bookmark_borderTheistic Evolutionists

I often suggest that there are at least cynical reasons to encourage those scientists who proclaim the compatibility of modern science and traditional faiths. The need for such a protective coloration to present to the public is especially plausible when trying to keep creationists out of the hair of scientific interests.

Still, I admit that there are reasons to feel uncomfortable about some varieties of theistic evolutionist and other compatibilists as well. For example, Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk, Christian scientists, have an op-ed in USA Today, “We believe in evolution — and God.” It’s fine as far at it goes. It’s full of the standard kinds of intellectual laziness, but then, as I said, I’m somewhat in favor of exploiting such laziness to protect science from the even worse species of loonies. But there is a problem when theistic evolutionists don’t just indulge in the usual vapid “evolution is God’s way of creation” nonsense but start pushing bullshit with more substance. For example, Giberson and Falk say that

Evolution is not a chaotic and wasteful process, as the critics charge. Evolution occurs in an orderly universe, on a foundation of natural laws and faithful processes. The narrative of cosmic history preceding the origin of life is remarkable; the laws enabling life appear finely tuned for that possibility. The ability of organisms to evolve empowers them to adapt to changing environments. Our belief that God creates through evolution is a satisfying claim uniting our faith and our science.

In other words, the Francis Collins claim that while intelligent design doesn’t appear in biology, it shows up in physics. (No accident, since Giberson and Falk are involved with BioLogos.)

I guess that if I had to choose, I’d prefer the BioLogos kind of intelligent design to the Discovery Institute version. Nonetheless, it annoys me that we have to put up with any sort of intelligent design at all.

bookmark_borderRabbis against swine flu

According to Haaretz, recently

Dozens of rabbis and Kabbalah mystics armed with ceremonial trumpets took to the skies over Israel on Monday to battle the swine flu virus. . . About 50 Jewish holy men chanted prayers and blew shofars (ritual rams’ horns) in an aircraft circling over the country in the hope of stopping the spread of the virus. . . “The aim of the flight was to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it,” Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying.

Read the full story.

For the vast majority of the human race, doing things like this is eminently reasonable. Yes, I know this, I try to keep up with the science that attempts to explain this, and I don’t even always mind this—it’s a reliable source of amusement to me. But in the back of my mind, I also can’t get entirely rid of of an aesthetic sense of disapproval of all the miracle and supernatural beliefs. Sigh.

bookmark_borderSeparate spheres

In educated, liberal circles today, the conventional wisdom about science and religion is that they are compatible. Each belongs to a different sphere. In one popular formulation, natural science produces naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena, while the sphere of religion is knowledge about an entirely different realm, the supernatural. Or, possibly, science is about a narrow subset of reality that can be empirically probed by a “scientific method,” while other kinds of knowledge, such as morality, are in the domain of religion.

None of this is actually true. Science and religion are both ambitious enterprises with a habit of overstepping boundaries. But the notion of separate spheres is politically very convenient as a way of diffusing tensions between these ambitious enterprises. There is always a temptation to discover that what is politically convenient is inscribed into the nature of things. It would be easier to keep the peace if the very nature of science, properly done, prevented science from offending religious sensibilities. It would be best if the nature of religion, properly understood, prevented it from interfering with investigations of nature. If we believe this to be the case, our behavior would be channeled in politically safe directions. And yet, the notion of separate spheres is almost certainly mistaken.

Nonetheless, let me explore how a defense of separate spheres on political grounds might work. Perhaps publicly, scientists and others interested in the continued flourishing of the scientific enterprise should endorse the compatibility of science and religion. If they find themselves unable to speak in favor of such an intellectually weak position, they should then shut up and let others be the public face for science. We want Francis Collins rather than Richard Dawkins to represent science to the public, not in spite of but because of the fact that Collins has produced some seriously bad arguments for religious belief.

I will make two main assumptions. Both come down to expecting that current trends will continue.

In science, I expect that a broadly naturalistic approach will continue to be successful. Supernatural agents will continue to be out of place in our best explanations. If we ever obtain solid evidence for miracles, psychic powers, quantum healing, or intelligent design, the issue of compatibility will become moot. Science will not just be compatible with, but supportive of, the notion of supernatural agency. I very much doubt any of this will ever happen.

In religion, I expect the continued success of the more doctrinally conservative, strongly supernaturalistic, and populist forms of faith. This will translate into increased political power, putting more pressure on science to adapt to a political environment shaped by religion. If secularization turns out to apply to regions other than Western Europe with its unique history, or if fundamentalist and charismatic styles of religion suddenly go into retreat in the rest of the world, the pressure will come off and the issue will again become moot. I see no reason to think anything like this is going to happen, though I acknowledge that in observing social developments, it would be surprising not to run into surprises.

In that case, science will remain a thoroughly secular enterprise, where religion does not enjoy much influence outside of private convictions. Science and technology are examples of where Enlightenment hopes for human progress have been most unambiguously realized. Therefore secular liberals, including liberal religionists, will continue to have plenty of motivation to keep science healthy. Religious nonbelievers will have an extra motivation to favor a healthy scientific enterprise, since the results of science will probably continue to intellectually support nonbelief.

But a world where the modern forms of conservative religion add to their already impressive political successes is one where scientific institutions will have to tread more carefully. In that case, preserving the secular ambience and skeptical flavor of science will call for not attracting public attention to this skepticism. In conditions where secularism as a more general political position has been defeated, defenses of pockets of secularity will require not overly publicizing this secularity, let alone nonbelief. Presenting a quasi-official scientific view of separate spheres will be useful, particularly if this is, as is usually the case, a liberal theological position. The liberal bit might still arouse suspicion, but at least science will be more positively associated with faith.

The nature of this defeat is also important. Conservative religion has succeeded democratically, as a popular and populist force. Ordinary citizens, from all kinds of backgrounds and social classes, can be mobilized on the basis of piety. For most people, public morality is inseparable from religion. Some variety of acceptable faith is a requirement for political leaders and a legitimator of political regimes. Aside from some anomalous and minority cases such as Europeans, religion is the default mode for how humans do politics. And the most successful faiths are the more miracle-mongering, revelation-peddling, intensely supernatural sorts of religions.

Pious people—modern, politically active and technologically savvy people; not peasants—will naturally demand that publicly supported activities, such as science and education, support their religious convictions. At the least, they will not accept science and education undermining their faith. An impression of neutrality might be acceptable, especially since modern religious environment are pluralistic. And even an irredeemably elitist enterprise such as science can be tolerated in a popular democracy, as long as it has no great political or cultural power. Science will presumably continue to make itself useful for commercial and military endeavors, which gives it some more insulation from cultural politics. The persistent confusion of science with technology will also help, since people favor technology and this rubs off on science. But even so, science will be in a precarious position if it is perceived to harbor nonbelief. Conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, have already shown that they are quite willing to attack science if science appears to give political or religious offense. In a position of weakness, science will have to be much more careful about not giving offense, or at least not publicizing it.

In fact, the continued success of conservative religion will probably result in science having to retreat further than what we are accustomed to today. For example, I expect that creationism will eventually appear in secondary education. There is, indeed, no legitimate way to stop this—education is a political matter. What we might still be able to do is keep creationism out of mainstream natural science, though not applied science. It will not be a disaster; we will learn to live with it. After all, creationism is already a considerable popular success, which has very little effect on how the scientific community conducts its business. Science education is already something of a failure, especially in terms of public science literacy. Let’s be honest, students hate science, and the vast majority are in school to be warehoused or to be molded into future corporate drones anyway. We still have more than enough talent coming to us to keep science functioning very well.

The notion of separate spheres has already been doing good political work for a very long time in the United States, helping isolate science from religious pressure. It is already the conventional wisdom. So scientists will not have to learn anything new, never mind spending a lot of effort adapting to post-secular politics. In conditions where secularism has been more thoroughly defeated, it may well serve to limit the damage.

bookmark_borderUnscientific America

Chris Mooney, journalist and author of the eye-opening The Republican War on Science, teamed up with Sheril Kirshenbaum, a scientist involved in science policy, to write Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.

It has its good parts. But possibly because I expected more from Mooney, my overall impression is one of faint disappointment. There is too much in the book that is unimaginative and superficial. Mooney and Kirshenbaum too often approach the cultural problems of science in our present environment as difficulties calling for better public relations efforts on the part of scientists.

Their main recommendation is that scientists should pay more attention to popularizing their work, getting involved with policy debates, and otherwise coming down from their ivory tower and communicating more effectively. That is, indeed, a good idea. Few scientists of my acquaintance would disagree, though all too many might prefer that somebody else should do the job.

But making that the centerpiece and almost the only theme of a book on the unfortunate cultural position of science in the US today is perverse. Mooney and Kirshenbaum want scientists to be better attuned to our corporate, entertainment-driven media environment. We have to sell ourselves and our work, and an important component of that selling job is to avoid giving offense to those political and religious constituencies that might be less opposed to science if they felt less threatened.

This better-PR prescription seems naive at best. How much would it help for scientists to be more eager to communicate science to the general public, when our pop culture, political institutions, and economic system all work together to severely shorten attention spans and time horizons? How do scientists, even if we got our act together, penetrate the dominance of depth-free entertainment, personality contests as politics, and a plunder mentality in commercial enterprises? Our becoming more media-savvy would, I suspect, only have a marginal effect. And the book presents nothing like the substantial argument and evidence that would change my initial suspicion. It takes for granted a work-within-the-system reformism that lacks the imagination even to consider that there may be more fundamental difficulties, let alone explore if there are any more radical options.

A perhaps deeper problem with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s approach is that in constantly recommending better PR and not stepping on powerful toes, they lose sight of what not just science but any intellectual enterprise is about. For example, early on, they castigate scientists for getting involved with the postmodern Science Wars while ignoring politically more potent right-wing opposition. That may well be true from a political standpoint. But the Science Wars was not just a battle over academic politics—there were, and continue to be, important intellectual questions raised during the debates. And if science is to remain one of the few institutions around that can entertain long time horizons, we should be able to devote some attention to engaging such questions.

Indeed, such observations suggest that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are somewhat lacking in their understanding of the nature of science, which makes it especially annoying when they try to make pronouncements about the philosophy of science. One of their targets in the book are scientists who argue that science provides reasons for skepticism about those supernatural realities claimed by socially respectable religions. The authors do some expertise-shopping to selectively cite views of science that can be read as friendly to a better-PR prescription, presenting the most superficial form of compatibilist conventional wisdom about science and religion as if it was settled truth. They ought to have known better.

It may well be true that especially “new atheist” rhetoric hurts the public standing of science in a strongly religious country such as the US. It’s hard to say with any certainty, but that has some plausibility. Still, Mooney and Kirshenbaum need to do more. After all, criticism—including criticism of faith-based positions—is one of those things that cannot be suppressed in any genuinely intellectual enterprise. In the sort term, being more deferential to faith may well help. It might protect the funding levels of science. But in the long term, is that the sort of intellectual climate we want? Eventually, the scientific community as a whole might decide that bashing religion in the name of science is unacceptable. But if so, for the integrity of the enterprise, compatibilism should enjoy an intellectual victory, not just the advantages of political convenience.

This is a well-meaning book. But it does not seem thought-through well enough. It comes across as rushed; worse, it seems like a preconceived better-PR thesis is driving everything. As a result, Unscientific America elevates a useful recommendation, that scientists should be more publicly engaged, to an overly central position. Examining the ambiguous cultural position of science in the US calls for a far more complex analysis. This is an oversimplification with the wrong emphasis.