Sean Carroll and the Fallacy of Scientism

Philosophy

Cosmology2

_____________________

I am a strong supporter of science.  I believe that one of the problems with the U.S. education system is that there is too little focus on science.  This lack of education leads to ill-informed citizens, which leads to bad public policies even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of known problems (e.g. climate change).

However, one of the ironic side effects of a lack of scientific education in the U.S. is that there is also not a proper understanding of the limits of science and the boundaries of what questions science can answer.  Unfortunately, this conception is perpetuated by many leading scientists who, quite naturally want to speculate on areas such as philosophy and metaphysics, which can be informed by science, but are ultimately outside the boundaries of science.  This tendency is called scientific, materialistic reductionalism.

[As an aside, this is a common trait of many really smart, successful people.  I am a corporate attorney by background, and I do a lot of work with emerging technology companies.  I come across many exciting technologies developed by brilliant scientists who want to commercialize these technologies and start a company. One flaw some of these scientists have is the belief that their raw brain power and success in science will necessarily translate into business success; after all, science is hard and business is easy, right?  Hence, they try to do everything themselves rather than surround themselves with strong, experienced businesspeople.  These companies generally do not get funded as scientific success, without requisite training and experience, often does not translate into business success].

A recent example of scientific, materialistic reductionalism is from Sean Carroll, senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology.  I am a big fan of Sean Carroll.  He does outstanding work in theoretical cosmology.  More importantly for a scientific lay person such as myself, Dr. Carroll has an outstanding ability to translate his scientific research into language and concepts that non-scientists can understand.  I highly recommend Dr. Carroll’s three mainstream books on relativity and the search for the Higgs Boson, as well as any interviews you can catch of Dr. Carroll.  

Unfortunately, in a recent article discussing why he does not take funds from the John Templeton Foundation, Dr. Carroll also has a tendency to extend his wonderful scientific knowledge to metaphysics, and specifically the absolute principle that science and religion are at conflict:

“I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise”.

Carroll is an avowed atheist, which is fine.  Carroll uses science to support his atheism, which is also fine.  Where Carroll is intellectually disingenuous is when he states “God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work.”  Carroll completely misses the point.  The ontological branches of theology and philosophy do not attempt to understand how things work; rather they attempt to explain what things are and why they are they way they are.  When Carroll or others leave the realm of items that can be empirically verified through experiments or mathematics, they are leaving the field of science and entering the field of philosophy.  Hence, the statement, whether it be express or implied, that they are doing science and hence their conclusion (whatever it may be) “trumps” philosophy, theology or religion is simply not accurate.

That is not to say that science and philosophy can not speak to each other.  To the contrary, I strongly believe they are complementary ways of searching for ultimate truths.  Reasonable people can use science to support the ontological concept of atheism, just like reasonable people can use science to support Christianity or other theistic or non-theistic religions.  However, science does not “prove” atheism any more than science “proves” the existence of any particular type of religion.  (This is one problem that advocates of “Intelligent Design” have with scientific, materialistic reductionalists).

Dr. Austin L. Hughes, evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina, summarized the tendency of some scientists to confusingly pretend they are being scientific when they step into areas of ontology in his excellent article in The New Atlantis on “The Folly of Scientism”  Here is a key excerpt:

“Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.”

In summary, I will continue to enjoy reading and listening to leading scientists such as Sean Carroll, Stephen Hawkins and Leonard Mlodinow, both on science and ontology.  I will give eagerly learn from their great scientific knowledge on how the universe works while weighing their ontological positions against great philosophers and theologians who, in my opinion, have a better understanding of the ultimate reality.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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8 Responses to Sean Carroll and the Fallacy of Scientism

  1. Mr. Ockham,

    While I applaud your civilized disagreement with Dr. Carroll (to often these discussions devolve into shouting matches) I think you may be confusing his position and expanding it beyond what he himself would argue. Based on the material you quoted we can reduce Dr. Carroll’s position to two points:
    1) Science and Religion fundamentally conflict with each other.
    2) Science provides a better explanation for observable facts than Religion

    I’ve left out the “God does not exist” claim because I think Dr. Carroll is probably using this as short-hand for “We are unable to reject the hull hypothesis that God does not exist.” Dawkins further qualifies this common position as, on a scale of 1-7 with 1 being God Definitely Exists and 7 being he definitely does not, most atheists are a 6. That is, we have no proof and it doesn’t seem likely. So your argument that science can’t prove or disprove God is rather missing the mark, but it’s understandable because Dr. Carroll was not clear on this point.

    Next, I’d like to point out that we’re talking about Science vs. Religion. It seems that through the course of your argument you broaden this conflict, unnecessarily, to Science vs. Religion, Theology, and Philosophy (using your quote from Hughes). I think this is a category error – Religion is usually taken to mean the set of beliefs and practices involved in worshiping a particular deity which depends on faith for it’s validity (at least primarily). Theology is merely philosophy that operates with a different set of assumptions, but primarily utilizes Reason and operates in support of a particular religion. Secular Philosophy then is a step further removed because it does not depend on religious faith-based claims as founding principles.

    Claim #1 is based on the similar goals of Science and Religion, i.e. Truth, but the tension is how that truth is obtained. In Science it is primarily through the operation of reason and evidence to generate a working-draft of truth while religion relies on faith to substantiate an inflexible dogma. When we arbitrate between the two approaches, Faith vs Reason, we move into the realm of Philosophy, specifically epistemology. In this discipline, one of the most common notions of what Knowledge is, is “justified, true belief.” Religion has rigid belief, but not justification (or weak justification of the assume God exists, and that he wrote the Bible, and the Bible proves God’s existence variety) and we are unable to determine whether that belief is true in an objective fashion. Science has a flexible belief, based on the best available evidence, subject to verification by independent replication. Therefore, the conflict between Science and Religion occurs in the realm of Epistemology, which finds religion lacking.

    Claim #2 is evident and is widely admitted by religious people. Carroll is arguing against the God of the Gaps, which modern, mature religious do their best to avoid. However, it would be only fair to acknowledge that there are many religious individuals who do embrace some form of the God of the Gaps. The Catholic Church, the most theologically robust religious group I know, nominally supports the idea of miracles – i.e. “God did it.” This is a weak remnant of the God of the Gaps because it sees Science as insufficient to explain a phenomena.

    To sum up, the conflict between Science and Religion is properly arbitrated in the court of Epistemology, where Religion is found wanting. Furthermore, the continued existence of religious claims about Miracles demonstrates that Religion continues to project itself into the realm of testable hypotheses, again putting the two in conflict.

  2. Dear Mr. Kerns:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is nice to have an intelligent, respectful discussion with a person of good will. Even if we do not agree, I will have learned something. I have responded to your specific comments which I have put in [brackets].

    [Based on the material you quoted we can reduce Dr. Carroll’s position to two points:
    1) Science and Religion fundamentally conflict with each other.
    2) Science provides a better explanation for observable facts than Religion]

    I would agree with that summary. As I will argue later, I would also stated that Dr. Carroll is taking the stronger atheist position: “God does not exist” on its own terms. However, that is not central to my argument.

    [[It seems that through the course of your argument you broaden this conflict, unnecessarily, to Science vs. Religion, Theology, and Philosophy (using your quote from Hughes).]]

    Yes, I have broadened the debate, in part because it is the broader debate that Dr. Carroll is not having. He is adopting a narrow and unfair interpretation of “religion” and an unduly broad category for science (i.e. mixing science up with philosophy) as shown further below. W

    [[Religion is usually taken to mean the set of beliefs and practices involved in worshiping a particular deity which depends on faith for it’s validity (at least primarily). Theology is merely philosophy that operates with a different set of assumptions, but primarily utilizes Reason and operates in support of a particular religion. Secular Philosophy then is a step further removed because it does not depend on religious faith-based claims as founding principles.]]

    I would define these terms differently. Using the ever-reliable Wikipedia:-), “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” This broad category is broken down into other categories: epistemology (nature and scope of knowledge), metaphysics (nature of being and the world), ontology (categories of being) and theology (existence and nature of God). These four concepts, while different, are all different angles of asking the fundamental nature of reality. These are the “what” and the “why” questions of humanity, the universe and beyond.

    [[Religion is usually taken to mean the set of beliefs and practices involved in worshiping a particular deity which depends on faith for it’s validity (at least primarily). Theology is merely philosophy that operates with a different set of assumptions, but primarily utilizes Reason and operates in support of a particular religion.]]

    I would define Religion as the practical application of the study of philosophy, metaphysics, ontology, epistemology and theology. Here, I am showing my cultural biases here in a number of ways. The terms used above are Western Greek philosophical terms which were incorporated into Christianity. However, ever very human culture as far back as we can tell has addressed these same “what” and “why” concepts even if they used different terms and thought process.

    Further, religion does not necessarily involve worshiping a deity or deities. For example, Buddhism, which I and most people consider a religion, is largely agnostic with respect the existence of a diety. However, they have a belief system and practices based upon their underlying philosophical inquiries (the “what” and “why” questions). Similarly, I consider atheism to be a “religion” in the sense they atheists have a practical application of their belief system.

    Science, in its purest form, focuses on the “how” questions of how the world is organized and how it operates. This is in contrast to the branches of philosophy described above, which ask the “why” and “how” questions. According to Dr. Hughe’s article, citing Karl Popper, science is limited to those items which could be proven false:

    “A falsifiable theory is one that makes a specific prediction about what results are supposed to occur under a set of experimental conditions, so that the theory might be falsified by performing the experiment and comparing predicted to actual results. A theory or explanation that cannot be falsified falls outside the domain of science.”

    [[Religion has rigid belief, but not justification (or weak justification of the assume God exists, and that he wrote the Bible, and the Bible proves God’s existence variety) and we are unable to determine whether that belief is true in an objective fashion. Science has a flexible belief, based on the best available evidence, subject to verification by independent replication. Therefore, the conflict between Science and Religion occurs in the realm of Epistemology, which finds religion lacking.]]

    As described above, religion (at least in its adult form) is the application of theology. Theology certainly can change and be modified as new facts become available. For example, among the oldest religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are all very different in the 21st century than they were at their origins. Moreover, at least the first four have survived, across many cultures and generations.

    Further, and more importantly to my basic point, Dr. Carroll is confusing “science” (the “how” question) with ontology (the “what” and “why” questions). One of Dr. Carroll’s presuppositions is that there is no reality beyond material existence. This position is a religious belief, just like theism, in the sense that it attempts to answer the “what” and “why” questions but ultimately can not be proven by the scientific method. This sleight of hand is what I refer to as scientific, materialistic reductionalism, or “scientism” for short. Dr. Carroll’s logical fallacy is that he is attempting to draw an ontological conclusion based solely upon his presuppositions. It is similar to the blind person saying that light does not exist solely because he can not see it.

    [[Claim #2 is evident and is widely admitted by religious people. Carroll is arguing against the God of the Gaps, which modern, mature religious do their best to avoid.]]

    I 100% agree with you. Carroll equates the transcendent God of Christian theology is the very limited God of the Gaps, which is not really God at all. Carroll is forced into these position because his view of reality is one-dimensional (OK, four dimensional). Carroll presupposes that nothing exists outside the four-dimensional space-time that we can currently measure. God of the Gaps is bad science and bad theology (which is why mainstream Christians abhor the so-called “Intelligent Design” argument because it gives credence to the poor philosophy of scientism without having the benefits of good science).

    An excellent book on this subject is “War of the Worldviews” by Deepak Chopra and Leonard
    Mlodinow as two leading thinkers who debate this ontological question in a frank and respectful manner. I have issues with Chopra’s overall ontology but he does a good job of arguing against scientism. Similarly, Mlodinow does a good job of arguing for scientism in a fair and open manner while acknowledging his presuppositions (unlike Carroll, Dawkins, etc.).

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Mr. Ockham,

      I think you have hit upon the core difference between us: you espouse a belief in an “ultimate reality” to use your words whereas you said of Carroll:

      “One of Dr. Carroll’s presuppositions is that there is no reality beyond material existence. This position is a religious belief, just like theism, in the sense that it attempts to answer the “what” and “why” questions but ultimately can not be proven by the scientific method.”

      The only sense in which I would agree with you, that the assertion that material existence is the only reality constitutes a religious claim, is that it speaks to a topic that the world religions lay claim to. In essence, I think religious people believe we are on your turf when we make claims of this sort.

      I’d like to reiterate a previous point, namely that no scientific atheist thinks they can prove a negative. When atheists make statements such as “There is no God” or “The only reality is material existence” we are using this as shorthand for “We cannot reject the null hypothesis and furthermore the positive hypothesis seems unreasonable.” This is in the same sense that I might say “there are no real elves” to a Tolkien fan. I can’t prove the negative, but there is no evidence to support the existence of elves and furthermore it seems very unlikely given what we know about the world.

      Asserting that there is something else besides material existence requires proof, and in the absence of that proof we are entitled to say “material existence is all there is.” This is the opposite of what is normally considered a religious claim, it is not based on faith, but reason and makes no invocation of a deity. What is actually is a resting state of “we have no proof” combined with a estimation of probability of the positive claim being true based on available information.

      I disagree that Science is or should be strictly about “how” and not “what.” Scientists know that the first step in explaining the “how” is describing the “what.” If I do not first have a understanding of what an atom is, I cannot explain what it means to split or fuse an atom.

      To deal with a separate point, you discussed how theology and the social features of religion changes over time. This is not in dispute. Thinkers have naturally altered and debated opinions since the founding of religious. In the case of social practices, these often have little to do with the actual religion. For example the syncretic traditions of modern Christianity are evidence in the celebration of Easter and Christmas for their inclusion of pagan symbolism. This, however, does not speak to the flexibility of core doctrines, or the acquisition of new knowledge. Theology does not add new facts, the facts are set forth in a holy book and are not to be changed. What changes is the interpretation.

      Science, on the other hand, is constantly acquiring new information, new knowledge, in addition to opinion which is later tested. This is what I referred to as flexibility. You mentioned Popper and falsefiability and this is crucial to the endeavor of science. Religious claims are inherently non-fasefiable and I would request a rationale for why they should be exempt from this criteria.

      Thank you for your well written article and your detailed response.

      • Dear Mr. Kerns:

        Thank you again for your detailed and well-reasoned response. My responses to specific points are set forth below:

        [[The only sense in which I would agree with you, that the assertion that material existence is the only reality constitutes a religious claim, is that it speaks to a topic that the world religions lay claim to. In essence, I think religious people believe we are on your turf when we make claims of this sort.]]

        This inquiry belongs to the broad area of philosophy, of which religion is a practical application of a subset of philosophy. Religions certainly do not claim exclusivity on this turf. This inquiry as to the meaning of existence (or lack thereof) is as old as human consciousness. It is an integral part of the human person. This in and of itself is a profound data point as Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, insightfully pointed out.

        [[“I’d like to reiterate a previous point, namely that no scientific atheist thinks they can prove a negative. When atheists make statements such as “There is no God” or “The only reality is material existence” we are using this as shorthand for “We cannot reject the null hypothesis and furthermore the positive hypothesis seems unreasonable.” This is in the same sense that I might say “there are no real elves” to a Tolkien fan. I can’t prove the negative, but there is no evidence to support the existence of elves and furthermore it seems very unlikely given what we know about the world.

        Asserting that there is something else besides material existence requires proof, and in the absence of that proof we are entitled to say “material existence is all there is.” This is the opposite of what is normally considered a religious claim, it is not based on faith, but reason and makes no invocation of a deity. What is actually is a resting state of “we have no proof” combined with a estimation of probability of the positive claim being true based on available information.]]

        This proves my major point that scientism, or the belief that there is no reality beyond the material world, is ultimately an ontological belief because it can not be proved or disproved. There is much evidence based upon science, philosophy, art, human emotions (love, joy, inquiry of meaning), music, beauty and human experience to believe in a divine Creator or to believe that there is more to existence than the material realm. Atheists (or at least thoughtful ones) look at the evidence and believe that there is nothing beyond the material realm. This is no different than theists who look at the same evidence and conclude that there are dimensions of reality beyond the material world. Both positions are logically valid, but since neither can be proven using the scientific method, both are ultimately beliefs as to the ultimate nature of reality.

        [[To deal with a separate point, you discussed how theology and the social features of religion changes over time. This is not in dispute. Thinkers have naturally altered and debated opinions since the founding of religious. In the case of social practices, these often have little to do with the actual religion. For example the syncretic traditions of modern Christianity are evidence in the celebration of Easter and Christmas for their inclusion of pagan symbolism. This, however, does not speak to the flexibility of core doctrines, or the acquisition of new knowledge. Theology does not add new facts, the facts are set forth in a holy book and are not to be changed. What changes is the interpretation.]]

        Any religion that has survived 1,000+ years has had to adapt to across cultures and generations. Each of these religions has had to adapt to new information (scientific, philosophical and otherwise) and in new ways. The true core doctrines of each of these religions are very small in number (but very profound in impact). For example, for the three Abrahamic religions, core doctrines include: (i) there is a dimension to reality beyond the material realm; (ii) there is a single Creator of reality, including humans and the Universe; and (iii) all of created reality is inherently good.

        The understanding of these core doctrines can change dramatically over time. For example, Judaism for the first ~1,000 years was based on temple sacrifices, not unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, Judaism dramatically changed their understanding of God and adopted Rabbinic Judaism. Similarly, Christianity, adopted the core of Temple Judaism, and married it to Greek philosophy and pagan beliefs over the first few centuries of its existence.

        In current times, the inspiration for the name of this blog, Teilhard de Chardin, was a world-famous paleontologist who one of the leaders of the team who discovered “Peking Man” (now known to be Homo Erectus) wanted to integrate new scientific knowledge of evolution into Christian theology. Unfortunately, he was silenced during his lifetime (yes, all disciplines that have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, whether they be of a theistic or atheist nature can be narrow minded and dogmatic). However, in the last 50 years, Teilhard’s ideas have had dramatic influences on the nature of Christian theology that had almost exclusively been based on a Thomistic/Aristotelian philosophy for 500 years.

        [[Science, on the other hand, is constantly acquiring new information, new knowledge, in addition to opinion which is later tested. This is what I referred to as flexibility. You mentioned Popper and falsefiability and this is crucial to the endeavor of science. Religious claims are inherently non-fasefiable and I would request a rationale for why they should be exempt from this criteria.]]

        My major point is that philosophical claims, such as theism or atheism, are not able to be subjected to the scientific method. Any attempt by scientists such as Dr. Carroll is a logical fallacy. (As an aside, there is one religion, Christianity, that is at least theoretically falsifiable. If someone were to find conclusively find DNA of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity collapses).

        Peace,
        W. Ockham

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  4. urdum says:

    Here is an easy, “Ockhams Razor” answer for ya: people love conflict. Cubs vs Cardinals. Bears vs Packers. Science vs Religion. Thus, they will always be at odds. Not because they really are, but because people want them to be.

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  6. Sergey Gubkin says:

    He clearly demonstrates Dunning Kruger effect where people overestimate their competence in areas they are not. And I am am agnostic atheist.

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