Saturday, April 9, 2011

On the value of upsetting atheists

There is, perhaps comfortingly, a clockwork predictability to the outrage spilling from some sections of the science community in response to the fact that Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, has accepted this year's Templeton prize. The million-pound award is given annually to those whose work in science has something to say about what the Templeton foundation describes as "the big questions." Lord Rees' life-long efforts "peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies" have been commended, on this occasion, for raising "questions" about "our nature and existence" and opening "a window on our very humanity." 

This seems fair enough. Many of us - when not flattened by the daily schlep of life - are at least inclined to ponder the mysteries of our existence; to wonder how and why we came to be this particular being, in this particular time, clinging to this particular planet in the vast chasm of space. For those who hail from the intellectual enclave inhabited by Dawkins and his compatriots, this kind of thinking is, however, nothing but the thin end of the wedge. To wonder aloud about what it might all mean - or what our lives might be for - is the start of a slippery-slope; one which leads inevitably, and in short order, to a murky bog of quasi-medieval bible-bashing, spooky superstitions and religious zealotry.

As many have pointed out, however, there is a fair whiff of fundamentalism - and a soupcon of hysteria - about the position of the militant atheist brigade. Dawkins and his ilk are, in their own ways, just as orthodox as any religious dogmatist. They have decided that the only 'big questions' are those that can be answered by a certain sort of science. That we are, in fact, only allowed to ask questions that can be answered by a certain sort of science; a science which limits its responses to describing the material components and law-like processes which - it has already been decided - constitute reality. In the humanities, we have a name for this belief, for the conviction that the workings of the world must be understood only on the analogy of clockwork, and that science represents the sole legitimate means of describing or discussing that reality. In order to distinguish it from the open-minded and inquisitive creativity of genuine 'science,'  this particular form of dogmatism is known as 'scientism' - it is the ideology that reality must be understood according to the reductive logic of material and machine.

In response to this charge, Dawkinsians will no doubt claim that science is not distinguished by any commitment to the nature of reality, that science is a method, one that relies on the formation of hypothesis, on the design and conducting of experiments, on the gathering and analysis of data. According to this logic, religious dogmatism is fundamentally different from scientistic dogmatism. Religion is irrational and based not on evidence, but on faith, or sheer groundless belief. It is, as Harry Kroto sneered in yesterday's Times, no more than "congenital wish-fulfillment," an inherited intellectual defect of those tender-minded souls too enfeebled to look a disenchanted universe straight in the eye. By contrast, science alone is a rational enterprise, and its methodology gives it privileged access to the heart of nature. By this reasoning scientistic dogmatism isn't, therefore, dogmatism at all, because it is, in essence, a zealotry of truth. By contrast, religious or philosophical beliefs are entirely suspect because...well, y'know, those guys just make stuff up.

There is, however, something entirely disingenuous about the radical atheist claim that their truth is uniquely free of all dogmatic metaphysical commitments about the way the world must be and is, instead, grounded only in methodology. For what is clear is that it has been pre-established by Dawkins and Co that science must not, on pain of death, give succour to the 'God delusion,' and this rules out, in principle, entertaining anything that cannot be easily explained by recourse to a materialist model of reality. An adherence to the metaphysics of materialism is not, therefore, simply the result of the careful and open-minded sifting of evidence, but is, rather, a fundamental presupposition of the Dawkinsian worldview. This fundamentally ideological aspect of the scientistic mind is most clearly revealed by the way it responds when the application of scientific method purports to turn-up something that flies right in the face of its basic metaphysical assumptions.

Let's take the case of Rupert Sheldrake, the plant biologist and sometime fellow of Clare College, Cambridge whose mainstream academic career hit the buffers when, in 1981, he published a field theory of morphogenesis in a book ambitiously titled A New Science of Life. The essential point about Sheldrake's theory is that it dares to explain the way plants and animals develop from their germinal states by positing something other that the action of genes and molecules, something not conventionally material and, therefore, from scientism's perspective, a little bit spooky. If it were the case that science's authority rests, as it repeatedly claims, purely on the application of method, then the response to Sheldrake should have been something like; 'Wow, that's pretty way out, but frankly, we've heard other crazy stuff - like relativity, and wave-particle dualities, and action at a distance - so, I don't know, why don't you go and make some predictions, design some experiments, and come back to us with some data." However, this is not what happened. Not in the slightest. What actually happened was that the editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox, published a review in which he speculated about whether Sheldrake's book was "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." The crime Sheldrake had committed that justified this extreme response was exactly that which has been used to justify the burning of books - and bodies - since the very first wars of religion. As Maddox admitted in a BBC interview some 13 years later, Rupert Sheldrake was guilty of "heresy."

If science were simply method, and not metaphysical commitment, then it would be impossible for any scientific theory to be heretical. For there to be heresy, there must be orthodoxy...and there must be things that it is sacrilege to say. The fact that Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist, and that his response to the science establishment was to behave exactly as a scientist should, was of no concern to scientism. For the last 30 years Sheldrake has been making predictions on the basis of his theory and testing them. He has masses and masses of data which claim to show statistically significant results. While I am in no position to assess these scientifically, what is most revealing about Rupert Sheldrake's story is not whether he is right, but whether the mainstream science community is prepared to follow through on its sloganeering, and allow the scientific method to establish whether he is right. This they will not do. For the last three decades he has been systematically ignored, what paltry engagement there is with his work being almost entirely directed at undermining his methods and discrediting his findings. As Sheldrake recounts, when he was interviewed by Dawkins for the tepidly-entitled Enemies of Reason, Dawkins told him that the "extraordinary" nature of his claims demanded that he provide "extraordinary evidence." When Sheldrake countered that the phenomena he was describing fell well within the bounds of many people's ordinary experience, Dawkins simply confessed that he didn't really "want to discuss evidence" because "that’s not what this programme is about.”

It is this kind of behaviour that gives the lie to the scientistic claim that it is not a dogma like any other.  Sheldrake is a heretic, not because of this methods, but because of his metaphysics. His claims are "extraordinary" because they challenge the scientistic assumption that only material explanations are right and proper. His work will be strenuously dismissed as "pseudo-science" irrespective of the rigour of its design, because it presents a worldview other than the one scientism allows. In this respect, Rupert Sheldrake's relation to the mainstream science establishment bears a significant resemblance to that of science's own heretic-hero, Galileo Galilei, to the medieval Catholic Church.

But does any of this matter in the grand scheme of things? What does something as academic and abstruse as metaphysics have to do with what they call the "real-world" - that ultimate arbiter of import? Are we really, while the Dow Jones falls and the waters rise, to spend our time worried with what reality is made of? Will we miss the enemy at the gate while counting angels on a pin?

In many many ways, however, what the world is made of really matters. It matters whether our environment is just a passive material machine that is there to be manipulated. It matters whether we perceive our food as just an assemblage of molecules to be otherwise arranged. And what matters above all, is whether we can meaningfully discuss the value and purpose of a human life, and the value and purpose of the animal and vegetable lives with which it is entwined. In the end, metaphysical assumptions have profound political consequences. Scientism, by insisting that we can only ask questions answerable in reductive material terms, has presided over the annihilation of value. Or rather, it has presided over the conversion of value into a variety of familiar quantitative variables - cost, benefit, risk, efficiency, productivity, growth - variables which we know tell us little about a life well-lived. The principal problem that currently confronts the left as it faces down what looks - at risk of melodrama - like a neoliberal endgame, is its inability to make a moral claim that rings out against the purported objectivity of economic indication. To do so we must entertain the scientistic heresy, we must recognize that more than matter matters.


  1. Surely there would be no scientific advancement if scientists were not prepared, as Einstein was, to consider the possibility that what we think we know is wrong or only a tiny part of the truth? It's not like scientific progress is a linear story of accumulated knowledge, it's (often) a story of one version of reality being debunked or rendered infantile-seeming by a new 'radical' version of reality. Don't you have to be an imaginative agnostic, humble enough to admit that the more you know, the less you know, to be a brilliant scientist? Fear, and it seems clear that the Dawkins camp 'book-burning' reactionism is very much fuelled by fear, is the enemy of creative thinking and of the evolution of human understanding. The universe is made mostly out of dark matter, and we don't know what dark matter is. Dawkins is clearly shitting bricks over that, even as he mocks fear-rousing religious dogma.

  2. You are my new favorite blogger ever. Well done, well done, well *done*, and thank you so much for giving me such a new and well-thought-out insight!