The Authority of Scientists

 Posted by on 8 December 2002 at 11:39 am  Uncategorized
Dec 082002

And just when I was feeling hopeful about the rationality of science, Arthur Silber pointed me to this Wired article “The New Convergence.” Here’s a sample from the introduction:

In recent years, Allan Sandage, one of the world’s leading astronomers, has declared that the big bang can be understood only as a “miracle.” Charles Townes, a Nobel-winning physicist and coinventor of the laser, has said that discoveries of physics “seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law.” Biologist Christian de Duve, also a Nobel winner, points out that science argues neither for nor against the existence of a deity: “There is no sense in which atheism is enforced or established by science.” And biologist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, insists that “a lot of scientists really don’t know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings.”

Ever so gingerly, science has been backing away from its case-closed attitude toward the transcendent unknown. Conferences that bring together theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science now sponsors a “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.” Science luminaries who in the ’70s shrugged at faith as gobbledygook — including E. O. Wilson and the late Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan — have endorsed some form of reconciliation between science and religion.

One of the more bothersome aspects of such claims to harmony between science and theology is the fallacious appeal to the authority of the scientists. Appeals to authority are rightly considered fallacious, but in such theological debates, the scientist isn’t even an authority at all! Scientists are experts in their chosen domains of science, not in analysis of arguments about the existence and nature of supernatural beings and events. So in speaking about God, such scientists are speaking as laypersons, not as experts. Their opinions tell us nothing about the truth of claims about God. (In particular, such scientists seem not to understand that appeals to mysterious supernatural events actually provide no more explanation for the phenomena in question than a confession of ignorance.)

Let me make an analogy to make this issue more clear. Back in 1949, Albert Einstein published Why Socialism?. In that article, Einstein claimed that humankind was facing a crisis of meaning created by “the economic anarchy of capitalist society.” This crisis could be averted “only through [man] devoting himself to society.” As such, Einstein advocated

…the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Over the years, I’ve actually heard people advocate socialism based upon the endorsement of Albert Einstein. But the simple fact is that Einstein’s genius in physics does not give him any authority in ethics, politics, or economics. Rationality and insight in science does not guarantee rationality and insight in other areas of life.

The exact same principle works for the alleged authority of scientists in theological matters. They are no more experts on the complex issues surrounding God and the supernatural than Einstein was an expert on social systems. Consequently, we ought not give their opinions more weight than they deserve.

As an addendum, for a lucid explanation of the problems of attempting to integrate God with physics via the strong anthropic principle, read Kenneth Silber’s excellent article Is God in the Details? published in Reason a few years ago.

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