Can Science eliminate Religious Faith?

July 27, 2010

Naturalists are not impressed by reasons offered for believing in anything supernatural. Naturalism’s disdain for the supernatural basically appeals to a methodological thesis that could be termed the Principle of Insufficient Reason : where there is not enough rational justification for a belief, one should be skeptical instead (this is the basis for atheism). Naturalism’s skepticism towards religion’s views is grounded on this methodological principle of rationality.

However, skepticism towards religion’s views is one thing, while skepticism towards religious belief is quite another. Even if nothing supernatural really exists, the existence of religious beliefs is spectacularly unaffected. This disappoints naturalists and all others who endorse the Principle of Insufficient Reason, since religious believers can evidently maintain conviction despite the non-existence of their object of faith. Are religious believers just that willfully irrational?

Naturalists have to come to terms with the fact that the existence of religious belief, and the believers who holds such beliefs, stubbornly remain part of the natural world. Science can helpfully explain matters going on within nature, including human beliefs. But an even greater prize awaits. Can science’s knowledge itself be directly brought to bear against not just religious belief, but also the supernatural object of religious belief? Some naturalists are sounding highly optimistic about this victory. This philosopher is not one of them, because the struggle is far more complex than many suppose.

Here then is a clarification, much needed nowadays, about the chances of success here. Perhaps scientific knowledge of nature and humanity, by itself, is not enough to eliminate either faith or the object of faith.  Naturalizing religious beliefs is not the same as showing that only nature exists.

Example: The Psycho/sociological explanation of faith. If beliefs are essentially psycho-sociological phenomena, best understood by a scientific examination of human psychology and sociology, then we can naturally understand religious belief like any other kind of belief. Let’s formulate a typical argument, seen in aggressive naturalistic attempts to eliminate both faith and the object of faith.

1. Religious faith in the supernatural frequently satisfies some important and universal psycho/sociological needs of humans.

2. Humans naturally tend to prioritize and protect things which satisfy their important psycho/sociological needs.

3. Hence, humans naturally tend to prioritize and protect religious faith.

4. This explanation of the strength and near-universality of faith is entirely naturalistic.

Therefore,

5. Nothing supernatural is needed to explain the psycho/sociological basis of faith.

And therefore,

6. It is unreasonable for anyone to have religious faith in the supernatural.


This argument would, it seems, supply a complete victory for naturalism over religion and gods. However, a psycho/sociological counter-defense of religious faith is easily constructed, from that argument’s own naturalistic premises. Here is an example (which you have probably already heard) of the way that religious defenders reply:

1. Humans naturally prioritize and protect religious faith because it satisfies major psycho/sociological needs.

2. Unless religious faith often damages other vital human needs, it is naturally reasonable to prioritize and protect it.

3. Hence, religious faith is typically and frequently reasonable (and where it isn’t, religion should be modified).

4. The naturalist is unreasonable to demand the entire surrender of religious faith in the supernatural.

Therefore,

5. Many of those who have religious faith are holding reasonable beliefs in the supernatural.


Well, that is not a desirable conclusion for the naturalist. What went wrong? The naturalist must short-circuit this religious response somehow. (By the way, if you are tempted to say instead that religion mostly has only harmfuly damaging consequences for believers, it becomes difficult to naturalistically explain religious belief, since religion would have weeded itself out long ago -- but that is a discussion point for another time.)

When dealing with naturalizing arguments of this sort, extra premises are needed somewhere. To prevent religious faith in the supernatural from appearing to be naturally reasonable, there are basically two argumentative options, A or B.

(A) Humans should not want to satisfy these major psycho/sociological needs that justify faith. We need to artificially build and promote a non-religious culture that produces different adults who simply don’t have such psychological/social needs. If these needs prove to be mostly genetic, this new secular culture will have to overcome nature too in addition to religions. If these needs prove to be primarily from culture, then this new secular culture need only outwit and outlast religious cultures. WE MUST OVERCOME NATURE.

Alternatively, (B) Humans should satisfy these major psycho/sociological needs using natural substitutes. We need a non-religious culture that offers purely naturalistic alternatives which are equally or even more satisfying. WE MUST SUPPLEMENT NATURE.

On some other occasion we can examine these two options. Either way, the point made here is simply that nature’s processes by themselves cannot prove the unreasonableness of a religious belief. Reasonableness remains a stubbornly normative matter, and science must be supplemented. By “overcoming nature” and “supplementing nature” we are not talking about using supernaturalism or anything religious to overcome or supplement nature. But we are now talking about philosophical matters, over and above science.

Naturalists must be very cautious about leaping from a verdict that religious beliefs are entirely natural in order to reach a farther conclusion that such a natural belief cannot be about anything supernaturally real. When dealing with arguments of this sort about "naturalizing" religious beliefs, bridging those logical gaps requires additional normative judgments, to the effect that secular beliefs should be promoted. And so they should -- but naturalists must explicit about their supplemental premises.

Comments:

#1 Kritikos on Tuesday July 27, 2010 at 12:15pm

Everything in this article after the first paragraph baffles me. In reading it I sometimes get the impression that you mean to defend a position that I would favor myself; but your formulations make it difficult for me to understand what position you are trying to put forward. For instance:

However, skepticism towards religion’s views is one thing, while skepticism towards religious belief is quite another.

What are “religion’s views” supposed to be if they are not simply religious beliefs? To me, this reads much as if you had said that skepticism toward religious beliefs is one thing while skepticism toward religious beliefs is another. Is the pertinent distinction supposed to be between “views” and “beliefs”? Between religion and religions? Between belief and beliefs? In any case, I can’t understand what distinction you are trying to draw here. The remaining part of the paragraph doesn’t help me:

Even if nothing supernatural really exists, the existence of religious beliefs is spectacularly unaffected. This disappoints naturalists and all others who endorse the Principle of Insufficient Reason, since religious believers can evidently maintain conviction despite the non-existence of their object of faith.

Yes; people have beliefs about things in whose existence there is not sufficient reason to believe. This is news?

Can science’s knowledge itself be directly brought to bear against not just religious belief, but also the supernatural object of religious belief?

“The supernatural object of religious belief” would be God, I presume. So your question is whether we can bring “science’s knowledge” (=scientific knowledge?) to bear “against” God Himself. This, again, I don’t understand. We can bring scientific knowledge to bear against a disease, say, by investigating the disease to find a cure for it, and, if we find one, putting it to use. What would be the analogous thing to do to God?

Perhaps scientific knowledge of nature and humanity, by itself, is not enough to eliminate either faith or the object of faith.

Again, I can’t make sense of this. “Eliminating faith” would mean, I take it, bringing it about that faith ceases to exist (i.e., that people no longer have it), just as eliminating a disease would mean bringing it about that the disease ceases to exist (i.e., that people no longer have it). So “eliminating God” would have to mean bringing it about that God ceases to exist. Since presumably you do not grant that God exists in the first place, you can’t possibly mean this. So what do you mean?

Perhaps you are alternating between two senses of “eliminate.” One would be the sense in which I have been understanding the verb (causing to cease to exist); the other would be a sense antonymical to “posit.” In the latter sense, to eliminate something is not to make it cease to exist but to get along without positing it, i.e., without holding it to exist in the first place. This would make sense of your speaking of “eliminating the object of faith.” But that is presumably not what you mean by “eliminate” when you speak of “eliminating faith.” There, you mean “eliminate” in the sense of “make cease to exist,” don’t you?

I’ll leave it at that, though I could have gone on. Perhaps when you have clarified a few of your statements, the rest will become intelligible to me.

#2 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday July 28, 2010 at 3:12pm

“By the way, if you are tempted to say instead that religion mostly has only harmfuly damaging consequences for believers, it becomes difficult to naturalistically explain religious belief, since religion would have weeded itself out long ago—but that is a discussion point for another time.”

Er, sure, just like the way sickle cell anemia and countless other genetic diseases have been weeded out of populations.  It’s a fallacy to suggest that all harmful traits will necessarily be weeded out of populations by natural selection given enough time.  Sometimes harmful traits survive because they’re tied to the presence of other beneficial traits, because they’re not harmful in a way that creates strong selective pressure (for example, reproductive strategies based on rape), because they used to be beneficial and now circumstances have changed so that they are harmful but the trait hasn’t caught up yet, or for one of a variety of other reasons.

In addition religion is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon based on the effects and side effects of a huge number of different genes.  Getting rid of something like that is even more difficult than getting rid of the harmful single-gene mutations that cause many of the genetic diseases which have a continuing presence in our population.  As long as religion isn’t bad enough to kill us off (which it may yet become, with the advent of nuclear weapons), it can persist even if it holds us back from reaching our full potential.

#3 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday July 28, 2010 at 3:58pm

Also, in regard to the main thrust of the article (or, at least, what I *think* the main thrust is supposed to be), a couple additional points.

Naturalists must be very cautious about leaping from a verdict that religious beliefs are entirely natural in order to reach a farther conclusion that such a natural belief cannot be about anything supernaturally real.

Right.  I shouldn’t leap from the fact that there’s a natural explanation for why people believed in Thor to reach the further conclusion that this naturally-derived belief cannot be about anything supernaturally real.  *Technically* the fact that there’s no evidence whatsoever for Thor and his mighty works combined with the fact that there’s a perfectly good explanation for why people might believe in Thor even if he doesn’t exist doesn’t 100% prove that Thor doesn’t exist.  But it sure does make a Thor-less world seem like it’s by far the most parsimonious (and least ridiculous) interpretation of the evidence.

Also, I think it’s rather a rather simplistic interpretation of naturalistic explanations for religion to suggest that those explanations are saying that everybody’s got a god-shaped hole in their life that has to be filled by religion, and that all alternatives are therefore unnatural while religion is natural.  Certainly, human religions (which, if the naturalistic explanation is to be believed, are as artificially constructed as any alternative we might propose, since they are human inventions) do seem to perform functions which some people find desirable, just as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, LSD, and cocaine perform functions which some people find desirable.  Does this mean that those who are regular users or abusers of intoxicants have intoxicant-shaped holes in their lives, and that anything which they might construct for themselves as an alternative to intoxicants should be viewed askance because it is “unnatural”?

Just because the presence and persistence of religion can be naturally explained doesn’t mean that we can’t find something better for ourselves if we work at it.  We’re not constrained to living in small, mutually suspicious nomadic tribes, dying from smallpox, or doing without electricity just because at one point in time these disadvantages were characteristic of our natural state and our ingrained cultural assumptions.  We’re perfectly capable of inventing better ways of living than those our ancestors know, and of eventually adopting those better ways of living on a societal scale.  One might even say that improving the way we interact with the world comes naturally to us.

So it seems pretty silly to me to adopt the defeatist pose that religion is natural and alternatives to religion are artificial, so therefore we’d just better give up on the enlightenment project and accept that we’ll always be endarkened.  We’ve been figuring out ways to do better for ourselves for millenia.  Why do you think we’re going to stop now?

#4 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday August 09, 2010 at 9:07am

In addition religion is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon based on the effects and side effects of a huge number of different genes. ACH

I doubt it.  I doubt that it is the product of genes.  “Religion” is an artificial abstraction into which a huge number of ideas, enormously varied, hardly uniform in any aspect, hardly unanimous in any conclusion, subject to all levels of inconsistent adherence and changing substance.  I don’t think that “religion” is the result of protein manufacture.  I think to believe that, in the absence of any evidence or even a rationally scientific definition of the subject, is superstitious.

I think that religious belief is the product of people thinking about their experience, at least in one sense in which the word is used.

#5 Anne C. Hanna on Monday August 09, 2010 at 12:33pm

Sigh, Anthony, I’m not trying to say that religion is entirely genetically determined.  That would be a ridiculous oversimplification.  But certainly its development and persistence (in the face of all evidence to the contrary and all lack of evidence in its favor) must depend in some way on the kind of creatures we are.

We have hypersensitive agency-detection systems (because it’s better to occasionally see a tiger that’s not there than to occasionally fail to see a tiger that is there), we are averse to death (as death mucks up our reproductive mission), we are social creatures which need ways to assure ourselves that our fellows are committed to the persistence of our communities and to assure our fellows of our own commitment (because community membership is essential for our survival), and so on and so forth.  Many of these and other survival-promoting behaviors are to some degree instinctive, most likely because a propensity toward such behaviors has been built into our genes by evolution to some degree.

The vulnerability of our minds to religious ideas is almost certainly *based on* the effects and side effects of a huge number of genes which affect the workings of our brains.  The particular religious ideas which take hold in a particular individual are instead more likely to be based on that person’s experiences.  These two statements are in no way contradictory.

I also think it’s silly to suggest that because we don’t have a perfect scientific definition of religion, we can’t talk about it as a result of natural processes.  Just because the content of many religious beliefs is wildly different doesn’t mean we can’t identify overarching themes, for example concern with what happens after death and the proper disposal of the dead, community-building rituals, and attribution of person-like causes to seemingly causeless and arbitrary natural events.  There will always be exceptions and grey areas, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a reasonably good idea of what the common features of religion are and start to construct some reasonable understanding of why these commonalities exist.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday August 10, 2010 at 4:30am

It’s not that there is a perfect scientific definition of “religion” it’s that there is none and there is no reason to believe that one is possible.  Not if you take the, perhaps, most basic requirement for performing science seriously, identifying a discrete phenomenon which you treat with the legitimate processes of science.  There is no one thing which is “religion” I doubt there is one “thing” which is “Christianity” or even “a Christian”.  And you could, quite literally, say the same thing about each and every named religion down to the individual adherent.  Religious adherence isn’t a fixed, reliably consistent phenomenon, it changes, in variable ways, at variable rates within the lives and minds of religious believers.  It’s a lot like political identity in that.

If this fact makes life difficult for the would be cognitive and behavioral “scientist” or philosopher or materialist fundamentalist in trying to do their various things with “religion” that’s just too bad.  Science can’t be done without its necessary prerequisites, it ceases to be science if it attempts to do that.  That is, unless you want science to become unreliable, which is the whole point of science to begin with. 

You might want to check the morning newspaper about a relevant matter.

#7 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday August 10, 2010 at 4:38am

Oh dear, the link to the story about the apparent scientific malfeasance of Mark Hauser and his colleagues seems to not have been accepted by the commenting system here.

You can read about it at the Boston Globe.  If you go to the bother, note these passages:

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

...“This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in an e-mail. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’

This isn’t the first time Hauser’s work has been challenged.

In 1995, he was the lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at whether cotton-top tamarins are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Self-recognition was something that set humans and other primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, apart from other animals, and no one had shown that monkeys had this ability.

Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.

“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence — scientific or otherwise — that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,’’ Gallup said in an interview.

#8 Anne C. Hanna on Wednesday August 11, 2010 at 2:51pm

Anthony,

I really don’t see how that article (which I had already seen before) is relevant to the subject at hand.  One man’s possible scientific errors or malfeasance really don’t seem to me like they’ve got much to do with the question of whether it’s possible to identify some common features shared by most of the human behaviors identified as religion, and to use those common features in an attempt to understand why humans are religious (given the overwhelming absence of any evidence favoring the major claims of any religion, and the towering presence of evidence against many of the claims of most religions).  Try Pascal Boyer as one example of someone who’s attempted to seriously investigate this subject.

It’s absolutely true that there’s still a lot of work to be done to develop a genuine scientific understanding of the growth and persistence of religion, but it seems to me that people’s negative attitudes toward the scientific study of religion have been a much greater barrier to this research than the actual difficulties of the subject.  After all, one of the primary ways religious beliefs protect themselves from rational debunking is by claiming that it’s inappropriate to question the sacred scripture.

While it’s true that there are grey areas between religion and non-religion and between different religions, it seems pretty silly to me to suggest that it’s impossible to find any scientifically useful and investigatable definition of religion, or of Christianity.  After all, it’s easy to point to things that are not religions, or not Christianity.  Mathematics, the Phildelphia City Council, and eggs?  Not religions.  Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism?  Definitely religions, but not forms of Christianity.  Surely if we iterate this process sufficiently we can come up with something that’s at least good enough to give us a rough idea of what’s going on.  The definitions may not be quite as precise as the definition of the strong nuclear force or the definition of a water molecule, but that’s always a problem in the social and behavioral sciences, and it doesn’t mean you can’t do science.

Any time you can discover distinctions and patterns you can engage in the distinction-discovering and pattern-matching process called science, and religious behaviors definitely show distinctions and patterns.  If not, we wouldn’t have a word for “religion”, and we wouldn’t have different words for different religions, because we wouldn’t be able to tell religion apart from non-religion or one religion apart from another.  To approach all human behaviors as if they were some kind of muddy undifferentiated mass that we can’t possibly analyze seems to me to indicate either a deep failure in observational skills, or an overpowering intellectual laziness.

#9 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday August 12, 2010 at 4:38pm

Any time you can discover distinctions and patterns you can engage in the distinction-discovering and pattern-matching process called science, and religious behaviors definitely show distinctions and patterns.  If not, we wouldn’t have a word for “religion”, and we wouldn’t have ...

You need a lot more than that to practice science, you need a specific phenomenon which you can identify with sufficient reliability from which you can exclude identifiable phenomena which are not the same phenomenon, though which might seem to be like it, you have to be able to observe that phenomenon in order to derive data from it which is quantifiable and which can be analyzed.  That the behavioral sciences have a long and sorry track record of publication on an enormous range of publication that in some way violates any of those absolute requirements, only to be put aside like an embarrassing letter and not mentioned again, should show that except for relatively simple phenomena, the effort can’t become a part of science.  Not unless you want to change the only reason that science was invented to start with, enhanced reliability, and turn it into a compound of ideological, political and philosophical (of a sort) assertion for the purpose of lording it over other people.

#10 Anne C. Hanna on Thursday August 12, 2010 at 10:51pm

Anthony, all that means is that behavioral science is hard.  It doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  Again, one can still describe general trends and find correlations even if complete certainties aren’t available.  If, for example, Hauser’s work is overturned (as it may well be), this will be more evidence that it was indeed possible to distinguish good research from bad even in such a difficult field.  Otherwise, how would anybody ever have been able to detect the problems in his work, and on what basis could one say that his published work was incorrect?  Again, again, the fact that we can have conversations like this at all means there’s room for the seeking of knowledge and the doing of science.

You seem to have a very narrow view of the pursuit of knowledge.  You also seem to be more interested in muddying the waters and protecting religion from rigorous investigation than in actually trying to engage in the scientific process of systematizing our knowledge of the world.  What’s your real beef here?  What sacred cow are you trying to defend?

#11 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday August 13, 2010 at 4:30am

all that means is that behavioral science is hard.  It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. ACH

It does if the behavioral sciences can’t do what you need to do to do real science, and the evidence indicates that it can’t.  The reliability of science is derived from the rigor of its methods and the honesty of scientists about their procedures.  It doesn’t come from saying “well, that’s too hard to do”, the blanket response of people in the social sciences to a rigorous critique of its practices.  Eventually, the things alleged to be found through shoddy practices, are overturned and become an embarrassment.  Though in the behavioral “sciences”, the rate of abandonment is more like the fashion industry than the physical sciences. 

If they want to look at stuff like complex behaviors in the real world, which isn’t honestly susceptible to the exigencies of science, they should come up with other criteria and less pretentious presentation of what they conclude than they do now. It isn’t really science.  At this point, I’d say that it isn’t as reliable as history, the facts of which are often, though not always, far more reliably real.  I’d think that ideally, the best that psychology and its allied fields can hope for is a level of reliability somewhere between honest history and philosophy.  The nature of their chosen field of study isn’t really able to produce a higher level of reliable knowledge.

You seem to have a very narrow view of the pursuit of knowledge.  ACH

Ah, no.  I have a realistic view of what you have to do to produce science.  I wasn’t the one who came up with the methodologies of science, I didn’t give those methods the test of time and logical analysis of the results.  I also didn’t come up with the history of psychology and the pantomime of science that was resorted to because the exigencies of real science aren’t able to be fulfilled when looking at behavior or consciousness.  I will, acknowledge, that there are some very stodgy practitioners of sociology who seem to do better than they do in most of the so-called sciences.  But they don’t usually get the buzz that folks like Hauser have gotten.

Seeing that I don’t believe that all of human experience can be reduced down to the level where real science is practiced, but that human beings have to act in those areas, consulting valid science when that is necessary, I’d think I have a far wider idea of the pursuit of knowledge than materialist fundamentalists pretending to scientific rigor do.  I just think they should be honest about the nature of what they conclude and the limited shelf-life that knowledge might carry.

#12 Anne C. Hanna on Friday August 13, 2010 at 8:42am

Anthony, please provide examples of science that fits your definition of “real”.  Have you ever actually examined the process of doing science in any field at all?  It’s usually pretty messy even outside the behavioral and biological sciences.  The only way anybody ever figures anything out at all is by pushing through the mess and categorizing and pattern-matching as best they can until something meaningful emerges.  In almost every area of science, definitions are rife with exceptions and grey areas (look into the definition of “life” for example, or “species”, or “planet”, for that matter).  I sincerely doubt that anyone in the history of the world has ever done “real science” according to your ridiculously narrow definition.  If you think you can point to some discovery or other as an example of “real science”, I would suggest that it’s most likely because you don’t actually know anything about the history of that discovery beyond the neat-and-clean “it was obvious in retrospect” one-paragraph summaries one finds in high school science textbooks.

Also, once you’ve gotten done finding examples of “real science” that are as unambiguous and perfectly-definite as you insist real science must be, can you please explain what meaningful alternative knowledge-generating system you’re proposing we use to supplement or replace science?  This “materialist fundamentalist” nonsense is just getting kind of tired.  Do you know of a better way to learn about how the world works than by applying pattern-matching and trend-detection to the results of observation and experiment?  Science is a pretty slow and painstaking process, so if you have something useful to propose it could sure save the rest of us an awful lot of time in developing and testing new ideas.  Otherwise, I guess we “materialist fundamentalists” will just have to keep muddling forward with the best system for knowledge generation that anybody’s ever developed, imperfect though it may be.

#13 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday August 14, 2010 at 5:36am

Real sciences?  The usual list.  Physics, Chemistry, Biology, excluding the ever worsening invasion of the methods and practices of psychology into it, Geology, the physical sciences in general.  The honest study of things that can be identified, observed, measured, analyzed and verified.  All the things that the so-called sciences exempt themselves from actually doing. 

Have you ever actually examined the process of doing science in any field at all? ACH

Obviously,  I have. You should hear what the physical scientists I’ve talked to on these subjects say about the soc-sci hacks who have wormed their way into bureaucratic oversight of their work.  They’re not very happy about it.  I’ve suggested that they refuse to submit to it and I hope they will start that effort soon.

Many of the more thoughtful physical scientists I’ve talked to and have read know the contingent nature of what they do, that their work is subject to the effects of that contingency.  Only they’ve got a better track record of producing stuff that doesn’t go out of fashion only slightly less quickly than styles of interior decoration.  The social sciences are closer to phrenology than they are the physical sciences, with a very few exceptions who generally don’t get much notice in the wider world.

#14 Anne C. Hanna on Saturday August 14, 2010 at 10:34am

Seriously?  You’re gonna play the “physical science is the only real science” game?  I guess at least you covered your butt a little by including biology as a physical science (which is really kind of an iffy choice given the usual use of that term).  I have to say you’re the first person I’ve seen do that.

Anyway, yes, social science and behavioral science are harder than the sciences you call “physical sciences”.  Yes, social and behavioral science results are more difficult to validate, so true progress in these areas is slower and more uncertain.  And, yes, because of this, it’s easier in these fields for hacks to get away with being hacks for longer.  Although Jan Hendrik Schoen was, you know, a physical scientist, and probably only got caught when he did because he was sloppy enough to reuse a faked graph.  Oh, and then there was that Korean guy with the faked human cloning, who seems to have been caught mostly because of investigations into allegations that his female subordinates had been pressured into donating eggs for the research.

But, as I pointed out before, the mere fact that ideas *do* go out of fashion in the social and behavioral sciences (and that people like Hauser get caught even in the social and behavioral sciences) is evidence that these fields also have the potential for the same kind of self-correction as other sciences.  If a researcher’s work can’t be validated, eventually people start to question it.  If an initially promising idea goes too long without convincing support being discovered, people lose confidence in it and it begins to be supplanted by a different idea.  In many of these fields, it may be true that the one right unifying idea hasn’t been found yet, or that there isn’t really a single unifying idea that’s appropriate and a conglomeration of several ideas will be required.  So what’s going on right now is they’re trying on a bunch of different things, in the same way the early chemists (that is, the alchemists) tried on the four elements and phlogiston and other such things before they hit on modern chemistry.  What you’re witnessing in these fields is people going through the difficult work of trying to develop the foundations of a science, which is a hell of a lot harder and messier than the work that people do within the confines of an existing well-established foundational theory, as one has in most of the sciences you call physical.

And I notice that you did not answer my question about what alternative process to the processes of science you would suggest we use to attempt to understand the phenomena encompassed by the behavioral and social sciences.  I regard people who are willing to take the risk of trying to do science in such uncertain areas as bold pioneers.  They are taking on what your own arguments point out as a very difficult task, and as a result, any small increments of progress they make should be seen as great victories.  Given the challenges behavioral and social science researchers face, it seems to me churlish to attack these entire fields of study rather than only those individual researchers who fall short of their obligations to scientific rigor and honesty.

Of course, the least impressive contention you make in your whole argument is surely your statement that you know some physicists who know some social scientists who are dumbasses.  As someone who is actually a physicist (you know, the most physical of your list of physical sciences), I’d like to assure you that I know plenty of physicists who are dumbasses too.  I’ll grant that it’s often true that someone with a background in one area can have perspectives on how science should be done that are not appropriate to other areas of study, as I’ve discovered (in an often frustrating and embarrassing fashion) in bringing my physics background to work with mechanical engineers on projects in their area.  But it should be obvious that this has little bearing on the appropriateness of the approaches of a particular discipline in the area of that discipline.  One really does have to go and see how the methods of social science work for the problems of social science before condemning them just because they’re not the best approaches for physics.

Your careless bigotry against certain disciplines truly does sadden me, because it seems to me that you’re closing yourself off to a lot of the fascinating knowledge that’s been discovered in these areas in recent years.  The only real cure I can think of for this is for you to actually go read some good social science and behavioral science writing.  Try Daniel Dennett and Pascal Boyer.  Try some of the great anthropologists and investigators of the great apes.  Try actually understanding and appreciating these people’s amazing work rather than simply dismissing entire fields with contempt because it deals with hard questions which you seem to have decided in advance are unanswerable.  Try opening your mind just the tiniest crack, for crying out loud.

#15 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday August 14, 2010 at 6:30pm

Seriously?  You’re gonna play the “physical science is the only real science” game?

Unless you can identify it, observe it, quantify it, analyze it, publish reviewable data, it’s not science.  I could go into the requirement to have randomly chosen representative samples and other such requirements but that’s more in the realm of statistical validity which tends more towards mathematics and logic.  The rules for research governing the social sciences pretty much precludes the social sciences having those. 

If that means that what you want to study, whatever it is, physical or non-physical, can’t fulfill the requirements, that’s just too bad.  It being impossible doesn’t negate those ground floor requirements.

Daniel Dennett, you really don’t want to get me started on what I think of his delving into sciency stuff.  He believes in memes, for crying out loud.

There’s a big difference between having an open mind and having one which grasps at whatever is desired.  I try not to let wishful thinking rule me.

#16 Hugh Laue (Guest) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 at 2:40pm

Can I butt in here? Just having fun on brandy tonight following an evolution of a link from my daughter to the “dont believe what God tells you ... ” or something and I don’t drink much and my motor coordinatin is definitely impaired. I’m understanding what it means to “see double”. I’m really concentrating on this key-board. So am I “here and now” or am I just “babbelas”. That’s a South African [removed]Afrikaans) for drunk. I’m South African English. What does that mean? What’s this thread about? I’ve forgotten? OK let’s check. OK - lotsa scrolling - got it. The answer is NO! Or YES! Dependds on how you define “religious faith” doen’t it? The FACT is that empirical science can say nothing about religious faith. Unless you can show me that religious faith can be measured in terms of the units of mass (kg), length (m), time (s), etc.
Love ya all
Hugh or Hughie as I feel tonight. (And how to measure that?)

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