Dear Mark, Seth, and Wes,
Thanks for the shout out on the The Partially Examined Life blog. First of all, I want to apologize for my snarky and apparently misleading comments on your Facebook page; let me know when I’ve expended $10 worth of annoyance and I’ll make another donation. 🙂
Now that I’ve got your attention, though, let me try to articulate my concerns more coherently, to hopefully inspire a more substantive critique. It is pretty verbose, though, so I’ve posted a reply on my own blog, below. You can reply either there or on your own post, whichever is more convenient.
To start with, let me clarify a few points:
- I am not a post-modernist, though I can see how you got that impression. I am actually a prefuturist, though since I just made that term up it probably doesn’t mean much to you. 🙂
- I do believe there are a great many things that can be rationally known and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, such as the Holocaust, an age for the earth and the universe in the billions of years, evolutionary descent of species from a common ancestor, and the fact that the earth has been warming due to human activity.
- By “irrational belief”, I specifically don’t mean “anti-rational”, in the sense of willfully denying obvious facts. I mean something more like “supra-rational” beliefs, things which might possibly be true but we cling to with an intensity not justified by the evidence.
- I am not interested at this time in trying to “prove” theism (my Diablogue was over five years ago, and I am no more eager than Mark to dive back into that). Like I said, I think you treated the existing arguments for the existence of God quite fairly, but somehow I feel like both sides of that argument somehow miss the point. What that “point” is something I’d like to understand and discuss further, but will first require considerable groundwork and learning, at least on my part.
What I do want to discuss is Harris’ assertion (apparently uncontested by you) that science is essentially rational whereas religion is essentially irrational. To me, that seems a very naive reading of both the history and philosophy of science. My critique is not a post-modern dismissal of all knowledge. Rather, it is more similar to Humean skepticism, though less severe even than that.
To be sure, my background is science (like Dylan), not philosophy, but the critique fits what I observed in practice. In fact, I don’t think my fundamental claim is really all that controversial, which is why I felt it was more a matter of neglect on your part than actual disagreement.
I assume you are all familiar with Kuhn, and plan to cover The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at some point in the future. Within that framework, I think Harris’ claim applies well to “normal science” — and indeed, I concede that “normal religion” is certainly far less rational and empirical than “normal science.”
However, Harris’ framework seems to completely overlook the role of “supra-rational” beliefs in creating Kuhnian paradigm shift. By definition, every new paradigm shift is a) not provable within the existing paradigm, and b) not immediately obvious from the existing data.
For a scientist to innovate in that way requires believing that an alternative theory both a) exists, and b) is possible for him or her to prove, before they have conclusively demonstrated that either is the case. In fact, it is both common and historically accurate to refer to such “pre-paradigmatic” beliefs a “religious”, as demonstrated by the cult of Pythagaros, the numerology of Newton, and the deism of Einstein.
You have to be a little irrational to break with the herd. Indeed, this is why both innovators and crackpots are pariahs, and you don’t know until much later which is which. If you don’t believe me, try asking a group of random physicists whether string theory is “real” physics.
That doesn’t mean we can believe anything we want. In fact, as I always told my first-year physics students, the issue is not “faith vs. reason”, but “bad faith vs. good faith.” Good faith means we:
- State our assumptions explicitly
- Derive our predictions rigorously
- Measure the results precisely
- Adapt our hypotheses scrupulously
More specifically, as mentioned in the post I linked, there is an apparently “irrational belief” at the heart of modern physics: that the fundamental forces of the universe must follow elegant mathematical rules. Why? Ironically, this is an area where the theologians actually have a rational answer: my MIT calculus textbook in 1985 simply stated, “God is a mathematician.” Conversely, I dare say Hume could make a strong case that believing such a theory must exist is nothing more than a superstition, no?
The other point that science and theology have in common is that once you commit yourself to a given point of view, certain things that seem unreasonable from outside are considered perfectly reasonable (even if unprovable). I myself am perfectly convinced that the fundamental assumptions of modern physics reflect “reality as it is” to a very large degree. Thus, I believe that quarks are real, that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, and that quantum particles act acausally and can be in two places at the same time. I can’t prove that those things are true, but they follow from a theory with extremely strong predictive power and theoretical elegance.
In the same way, as a Christian and a theist I choose to believe that the Bible reflects a faithful account of God’s working in history. I am not an inerrantist; I am more than willing to accept transcription and translation errors, as well as even imperfect human memory on the part of the writers. But I believe that Christ rose from the dead as recorded in the Scriptures, because I find that worldviews which acknowledge that fact that greater predictive power and theoretical elegance than those which deny it.
And having bought into that paradigm, I don’t see anything terribly irrational *in principle* about believing in a virgin birth, answered prayer, or supernatural miracles; at the same time, I maintain a healthy skepticism *in practice* about specific claims — just as believing “in science” doesn’t obligate me to uncritically accept every result reported by scientists.
In short, my understanding of “healthy science” and “healthy religion” is based on essentially the same epistemology. Both require me to accept as either true or possible a great many things that those outside those communities consider ridiculous or unprovable, but that’s hardly surprising given that they have different paradigms. Sure, it is easy to find lots of examples of naive credulity and unhealthy deference to authority in religion, but the same holds truer in science that we’d like to admit.
And if I may be so bold, doesn’t the same hold true of philosophy? Isn’t your belief in the value of studying philosophy in some sense a “religious” one — motivated by a subjective experience of personal value, not a rigorous a priori justification? Does it not lead you to believe certain things are true or possible that seem ludicrous and unprovable to most people outside your community?
If so, then is it too much to ask for a little more humility and self-awareness in your critique of belief systems you personally find irrational? In particular, is it unreasonable for me to ask you to be more open (and open to critique) regarding your own epistemology, biases, and assumptions — including the assumption of the rationality of your own core beliefs?
Ernest N. Prabhakar
Ph.D. ’95 Caltech, Experimental Particle Physics
S.B. ’88 MIT, Physics