Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why did he write this?

I ran across this quote by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin in a book that came in the mail when the elder teen was considering Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). It's refreshing to see someone so forthrightly admit his prejudices, but I wonder what drove him to write it:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
This apparently came from a 1997 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Essentially, he's admitting that his philosophical preferences drive his interpretation of any data turn up. If God Himself were to turn up in the data, in other words, Lewontin would by his own admission be neither willing nor able to recognize the fact.

I think it's silly, but at least Lewontin 'fesses up to his religion. I don't know if Dawkins has 'fessed up to his, but somehow I doubt it.


Bill Lutter said...

Collin, are your comments directed to the personal struggle of faith in God versus materialism or verification of the existence of "God" via the scientific method?

Certainly, there is a role for faith in the development of science. String theorists have "faith" in the beauty of the math. They have planned experiments that could lead to indirect proof of the general scheme of string theory and direct proof that the standard model of physics is wrong. All of this is based on mathematical models.

Given enough failures, string theory will be discarded in favor of loop quantum dynamics or whatever.

How does one design an experiment to show that God exists or that the material world isn't enough? What mathematics can be derived from faith in God which then lends itself to be tested by experiment? If string theory is right and there are say 11 dimensions, this would just add to the material world - unless you want to call one of these the "God" dimension.

It's like doing brain localization studies using MRI/MEG methods on meditating nuns to find the "god" dipole localization. How absurd. Scientific method is limited to what may can be observed (the dipole localizations).

collin said...

The former. Dawkins talked about religious beliefs as not being rational but driven by what one *wants* to believe -- in other words, based more on presuppositions/prejudices than on evidence.

My comments are in the direction of "Prejudices? Of course I've got 'em. But it's not just rabid religious fanatics that have 'em; prominent scientists have 'em. So do you."