Physicists plumb depths of science & religion





On Tuesday evening December 6 I heard two physicists air their sharply diverging views on the supremacy of “science.” This prickly dialogue took place at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the association’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DOSER) program.

I’ve attended a number of DOSER programs over the past few years, and this was first I’ve been to that drew an overflow crowd. Presumably the draw was a best-selling author and media darling, Lisa Randall, a Harvard University physicist and author of best-selling popular-science books. Her latest is Knocking on Heaven’s Door; How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.

Randall was paired in this dialogue with Ian Hutchinson, a physicist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. The dialogue at this event was prickly throughout.

(Disclosure: I have not read either book. As of today, for what it’s worth, Randall’s book has an “Amazon best-seller rank” of 754. Hutchinson’s book has a rating of 1,789,704.)

According to Hutchinson, science can’t explain everything. (I agree.) Yet “scientistic” thinkers say it can, and does. (I define “scientism” as the belief that the scientific world view and the scientific method are the only ways of producing valid knowledge.) “The mass media reflect pervasive scientism,” and it’s scientistic thinking that underlies what he calls the “fundamentalist” atheism espoused by popular scientists/media figures such as biologist Richard Dawkins.

Hutchinson is the first natural scientist I’ve heard properly identify the social critique that became the focus of the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s as a critique of scientism, not a critique of science. His thesis is that science produces a certain sort of knowledge. Other approaches to knowing produce other sorts of knowledge, which are not scientific but are also valid. (During Q&A he was criticized for declining to define “knowledge”….)

Originally “science” meant knowledge, he said. Today “science” does not equal “knowledge.” Science today is typically defined as the study of the natural world. However, defining science as the study of nature is problematic because the concept of “nature” is ambiguous, as it has been for centuries. (A social constructivist such as myself would say that nature is a rhetorical construct.) Hutchinson proposed defining science functionally, by its key characteristics and strategies.

Randall began by describing art, religion, and science as three different approaches to “the sublime,” which she defined as “beautiful and scary stuff.” I have to confess I was left wondering what she meant…. Her scientistic bent showed, at least to me, in various ways, such as talking of “science versus religion” and claiming that ultimately scientists “want The truth to come out.” She observed that it’s currently “portrayed” – by whom? I wondered – “as embarrassing or quaint” for scientists “to be earnest about facts or logic.” She also claimed that “really rational thinking (is) under attack” in politics.  (My reaction? So what else is new?)

During Q&A a Dominican monk asked Randall, How do you know when the materialistic world view fails? Her fuzzy response hinted,to me that she doesn’t think the materialistic world view has any limits.

Overall I found Hutchinson engaging and Randall unimpressive. I was especially unimpressed by Randall’s rapid-fire, partly mumbled speaking style – not very audience-friendly.

A postdoctoral student I know with a Ph.D. in the natural sciences had a different experience of the dialogue. She, like some audience members, was critical of Hutchinson’s failure to provide a definition of “knowledge.” As a social scientist, I’ll observe that what “knowledge” is depends on who you are and where and when you live and a whole slew of other contingencies. Go chew on that for a while!



2 Responses to “Physicists plumb depths of science & religion”

  1. ER 13065 Says:

    Helpful review. Can you point me to a link where i can watch a video or get the transcript of this exchange? Fyi, i’m currently reading Hutchinson’s book right now. It certainly deserves a wide reading. He argues with clarity the fact that there are many other areas of knowledge that are valid, important and relevant yet not scientific (e.g. sociology, politics law, etc.). Thus scientism’s claim that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge and non-scientific knowledge is not is patently false.

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