Monday, October 30, 2006

Delusions of faith as a science - Henry Gee on Richard Dawkins

Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature who has handled many of the most important papers on palaeontology over the past decade, has weighed in on Richard Dawkins’s latest polemic, The God Delusion, in an online column for Nature. I take issue with practically everything Gee says, but exploring the issues raised is a useful way of finding your feet in debates about religion, and the relation of religious thought to scientific thought. Gee’s piece is short and my response long because I think a number of confusions get run together in a very short space in Gee’s column, and it takes a while to unpack what I see as the errors. So here goes, taking it from the top (I suggest you read Gee’s column before going any further).

The column kicks of with a story of Dawkins’s boast of disabusing a young child of a belief in Santa using scientific reasoning. Gee suggests that for Dawkins to argue against the existence of Santa Claus, and to doubt his ability to speed round the world delivering gifts to all the good children in the world, on the basis of the current state of scientific knowledge is nonsensical. Gee writes:

Santa can do everything he claims provided he is a macroscopic quantum object. In this way he can be in as many places as he likes, provided that he remains extremely cold, and nobody is watching. Not only does this trounce Dawkins' objections, it also works better as a scientific hypothesis, because it accounts for more of the evidence: we now know why Santa is traditionally associated with cold places, and why he does his work while everyone is asleep.

It is hard to know what to make of this ‘rebuttal’. There are at least two readings of Gee here. One is that, strictly speaking, scientific knowledge does not refute the existence of Santa, because we can invoke some scientific ideas to render the Santa proposal plausible, even though the notion of Santa who consciously chooses who gets gifts and delivers them personally is hard to square with a macroscopic quantum object.

This response brings to mind religious apologists, recruited to defend positions of dogma that from time to time come under attack. The task of the apologist is often not to put forward a positive set of arguments to support the position they wish to defend, but merely to show that the position could, in some conceivable way, be possible. Gee does much the same. Santa, as traditionally conceived and presented to children, is a normal three-dimensional object (of not a normal man) who flies round the world in a reindeer-powered super-sledge dispensing his gifts. What we know about the world rules out such a possibility: it would take too long, Santa couldn’t carry all the gifts, and the reindeer would vaporise through heat friction at the speeds at which they would have to travel.

So what does it show to say, “Well, if Santa is a macroscopic quantum object, it all makes sense”? Not much. There’s no reason to suppose that there is an entity answering to the name of Santa, and therefore no reason to posit either a normal or quantum object that we can identify as Santa. And indeed, it’s not clear that the idea of a quantum mechanical explanation of Santa even makes sense; it might not be a scientific alternative at all, and in any case it is an extremely desperate and unconvincing proposal (think apologists again!). Furthermore, the macroscopic quantum object idea hardly makes better scientific sense of the gift-receiving phenomenon that we have to explain, for we know that parents put the presents under the tree for their kids. There is no reason to believe that Santa exists — there’s not even a need to suggest he exists! — and the current state of knowledge suggests that the object we normally call Santa — fat jolly man with a big white beard and a bright red suit — could not do what he is charged with doing. If a child believes that Santa exists, and he doesn’t believe that parents supply presents each year, then the child could be challenged by appealing to scientific facts (not that I’d recommend this — I’m not defending Dawkins’s debunking per se, but merely the intellectual justification for it). No wonder the lampoon isn’t cited in The God Delusion.

The other reading might go like this: scientific evidence and reasoning are not relevant to the child’s belief in Santa, and so Dawkins’s approach is as ridiculous as Gee’s idea, which on this reading is Gee being deliberately silly. In one sense, this is right: kids don’t believe in Santa on the basis of reasoned reflection – they believe in him because it’s one of the more benign cultural myths we pass on to our kids. But this doesn’t mean that scientific evidence is irrelevant to either the child’s reflection on a belief in Santa as the child grows up, or our assessment of the reasonableness (in the epistemological sense) of the child’s belief. The evidence offered up by science argues against the existence of Santa, and nothing argues for it – as the parents who supply the presents will readily tell you. So if this reading is correct, it has no import at all, other than to say “Kid’s don’t reason their way to a belief in Santa”. We know this; the question is whether a belief in Santa would be supported by the evidence.

Gee goes on to say “My intention was to show that Dawkins' use of science to question the existence of Santa is nonsense. The reason is that science and belief are two quite different things, and a child's conviction that Santa exists lies firmly in the latter camp.” Of course belief and science are different things. I can believe all sorts of things that may be true or false – there is cheese in the fridge, wasps sting, pixies live at the bottom of my garden – but they are not science. However, that doesn’t mean there is no connection between belief and science. If I believe that there is cheese in the fridge, there’s an easy way to find out: open to door and take a look (of course, if it’s quantum cheese it’s location may be everywhere and nowhere until its wave function collapses and gives it a definite location; I’m talking about standard cheddar here). This is a scientific approach to addressing whether my belief in the cheese in the fridge is on the money – scientific in the sense that the hypothesis ‘there is cheese in the fridge’ is held up to an empirical test that will be answered by the facts of the world. So scientific investigation can provide ground for believing things and not believing things, and those beliefs that are supported by empirical investigations of the world might be called scientific beliefs.

Again, we have to ask what Gee means and intends to convey when he says “The reason is that science and belief are two quite different things, and a child's conviction that Santa exists lies firmly in the latter camp”. Here my reading of the statement. There is a body of hard-won knowledge, theories and hypotheses that we call science, and the notion of Santa doesn’t have a place within its walls. Nonetheless, some children still believe in this entity. Which makes me ask: so what? People believe in all sorts of things that are rightly not part of the corpus of scientific knowledge because they do not, in fact, exist (pixies, for one). The fact that the Santa idea is not scientifically supported or even defensible is a reason not to believe in Santa, even as a child (perhaps a precocious one). Children cannot be expected to realise this, particularly when they’re probably designed to be credulous with respect to the claims of their parents. To get back to the issue, the fact that a child can believe in Santa, and that this belief is not in the domain of science (and for good reasons!), doesn’t tell us a thing about the validity of the child’s belief (validity in the epistemological sense – you’re entitled to believe the moon is made of cheese if you wish, no matter how wrong you are). Of course, the point about Santa is an analogy, but what’s the point of all this? To demonstrate that some people believe some things that aren’t supported by science? Quick, stop the press!

All this leads Gee to “contest [Dawkins’s] central assumption, that the existence of God (or, if you like, Santa) is a hypothesis that can be tested scientifically.” This idea seems to be the most troubling one to people who adhere to religious beliefs. I think there’s a simple reason why: to accept that the claims made by the various religions are hypotheses, whether they are intended to be so or not, opens up the possibility of their disproval, and religious belief is almost designed to be irrefutable (not because the case for religious beliefs is watertight – it’s designed to be irrefutable in principle). Now, I’m not religious, but what am I supposed to make of the claim that people have souls, or that God underwrites moral law, or that we go to heaven or hell (or whatever your preferred destination is) after death? Are they not claims – factual claims – about the way the world is? They’re not metaphors, are they? They’re not allegories, or merely the expression of hopes and desires, are they? No, the claim that humans have souls seems to me to be a scientific claim on a par with the existence of the ether through which light travels or the phlogiston theory of combustion. Both had currency for a while, and then were displaced by improved scientific explanations. As far as the soul goes, there is nothing in the findings of modern science that suggest we need to invoke the notion, and no good reasons offered by anyone else that we do, in fact, have souls.

More broadly, the claim that there exists a God or gods who created the universe and set it in a motion is surely about the way things once were, and why they are the way they are now. If modern cosmology offers a narrative of the universe that conflicts with religious accounts, we can’t seal off the latter in a protective space and say, “Oh, actually, the claims religions provide are not supposed to be empirical claims about the universe”. If they aren’t, what on earth are they? Dawkins suggests that if the universe was created by a benevolent entity with certain characteristics and interests, then we should expect it to look one way; if it is instead the result of the operation of blind, indifferent physical laws, then we would expect it to look significantly different. Looking at the world as it actually is therefore relevant to adjudicating between the competing visions. (Of course, the existence of terrible suffering, childhood cancer, natural disasters and so on, which seem prima facie cases of facts of the world that point in the opposite direction to a divine and beneficent creator, can always be explained away by clever rhetoric in the style of Gee’s Santa theory – but when what you say about the way the world is can be made compatible with any future state of the world, you’ve offered a pretty empty explanation.)

I’ve dealt with the first four paragraphs of Gee’s piece – phew! Let’s move on. Gee’s next gambit is this:

The whole point about faith is that it should not be subject to scientific investigation or attempts of proof.

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Strangely, however, Gee follows this with:

Douglas Adams (Dawkins' late friend and author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) said, in the voice of God: "I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing." Given Dawkins' frequent quotation from Adams, it is odd that this most apposite of statements does not appear in The God Delusion.

Of course, with reasons and evidence in hand you don’t need faith (although it seems to me that the lack of reasons or evidence for God is the basis for insisting that belief in this entity should be based on faith!) The idea that beliefs based on faith are, according to the dictates of the faith system of which the beliefs are a part of, supposed to be immune from criticism, of either the rational or evidential kind, is not a point that is lost on Dawkins (he doesn’t need to quote Adams on this point, which in any case seems to contain an element of ridicule: what sort of a being demands that people believe in its existence, but refuses to provide any reason and instead insists that people take a blind leap of the mind and just say, “OK, I believe”; if I were that sort of God I’d have no respect for the people that did believe in me for no good reason). This protectionist notion of faith is one of the central issues that drives people like Dawkins and myself up the wall.

This is why. We all have beliefs about an almost limitless number of things. Some of these beliefs, such as the belief that the ground beneath our feet will remain solid, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that an object falling towards us will continue until it hits us without intervention, operate beneath consciousness and are almost never questioned (at least the latter two seem to be part of our innate knowledge of physics). We also have beliefs that are more prominent in conscious reflection. These might include the belief that smoking causes cancer, that human activity is causing the planet to heat up, or that organisms evolved. In all these cases, people agree that your conclusions about the issue at hand should be based on reason and evidence – surely Gee wouldn’t publish a paper on evolutionary biology that offered mere assertions.
Then there is another set of beliefs that relate to the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts, fairies, the power of crystal healing, and the various Gods of the world’s major (and minor) religions (I suspect that being lumped in this category will upset some people, but stick with me for a moment). These are claims that certain things exist and exert a causal influence on the world. In that sense, they are claims to be assessed like any other claim (such that protons exist, or that gravity curves space-time)*.

Now, of course, Gee and other religionists will object at this point and say, “No, you’re definitely not supposed to evaluate my claim about God like you do other things – it’s a matter of faith!”. At which point I ask: how on earth do decide in advance what areas of knowledge you should to fence off under the protective veil of faith? And isn’t it odd that religious traditions say, “Believe this, but don’t question it”. Does it not sound like a scam to get people to believe things that are palpably not true? Can you imagine if you went to a used-car salesman and he said, “This car goes like a dream – but I’m afraid you can’t take it out for a test run, or examine the motor. Take my claim on faith, and please don’t question my claim with demands for evidence”. You’d run a mile.

Gee perhaps thinks that having beliefs based on faith is some sort of virtue, but from my perspective it’s about the most serious intellectual vice one could have. It raises so many problems it makes your head spin. What should I have faith in? The God of Judaism, the God of Christianity, the God of Islam? Thor? Poseidon? The tooth fairy? How does faith even get going (obviously from a developmental perspective it’s something usually drummed into kids). As an adult, if three people come to me with different claims about supernatural entities, each telling me to have faith in their claims, and each touting the virtues of faith, how could I possibly decide what to believe, except by thinking “Oooh, that sounds nice”? Fair enough if that’s how you choose what to believe in, but you must recognise that you are therefore communicating to everyone else that there is absolutely no reason to listen to you when you claim that your belief is true. (Of course, most people don’t go around telling everyone else what they think is true, and what other people should therefore believe, but intellectual integrity means that if someone says “I believe X” they are saying “I believe X to be true”, and should be willing to defend that position – or else they should just say, “I believe X but I don’t claim it’s true – I just think it sounds good”, but no one does this).

We’re not done yet. The idea that religious belief, being based on faith, is immune to rational or evidentiary criticism has an important corollary that religious folk should take note of. Making this claim is, in effect, removing yourself from the realm of reasoned and reasonable discourse. If I meet someone who says “I believe X, and this belief is based on faith, and I will not subject this belief to logical, rational and empirical scrutiny”, then there is absolutely nothing left for me to say in reply to continue the conversation about the belief. The person has just shut the door to a rational conversation – worse still, they’ve cut themselves free from the tether of rationality and are floating free in their own realm of faith-based beliefs. Of course people are entitled to do this, but they must recognise that it is an absolute dead-end to further conversation. Which is why it is almost impossible to seriously engage in debate with anyone who has faith-based beliefs about those beliefs (unless of course you agree with them already).

This has been long and perhaps a bit pedantic, but the issues really matter, and so I can cope with being accused of over-nitpicking.

*Gee makes what I see as a superfluous distinction between ‘believing’ and ‘subscribing’ when he says “I ‘believe’ in God, but also ‘subscribe’ to evolution”. I’m in no way suggesting that philosophical debates about the nature of beliefs and knowledge, and what constitutes either state, are easy or settled, but if we uncontroversially take ‘belief’, as used in it’s everyday context, to mean “accept a proposition as being true” then why the distinction? In cases about the empirical world, we all, Gee included, have a number of beliefs: that fire is hot, the ground solid, and what is in our fridge (and sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re proved wrong, in both everyday life and science). So on this reading, Gee ‘believes’ in evolution along with a bunch of other stuff. He also believes in God. So why not just say that? Is saying ‘subscribe to evolution’ supposed to denote a more provisional acceptance of this claim than of the existence of a God, which Gee ‘believes’ in? I don’t know.