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.