Oct 14 2009

On quoting scientists-3: What about statements about god?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I have said in the previous two posts that we should take scientists seriously when they talk about science (even outside their immediate fields of study) because they have their reputation for credibility at stake and they value that more than almost anything else professionally.

But what about when scientists go even farther afield and infer from that what they know about science to what they believe about god? Then the strength of their case rests only on the quality of the argument they make and the nature of the inferential reasoning they use. It does not rest on their scientific expertise except as far as the truth claims of the science on which they base their arguments is concerned. This affects the way we should use and evaluate the use of quotes.

The only purpose of using quotes in these cases is because the author has said something very succinctly or pithily and one wants to use their words in order to give them proper credit for expressing an idea. The quote by itself is never evidence either for or against the existence of god and the supernatural, but it is evidence as to the beliefs of the person who made the quote about the phenomenon. So a quote about what Darwin believed and said about god would not be evidence for or against god. But when it comes to the issue of Darwin’s views on the existence of god, what he actually said would be relevant and well worth quoting.

Religious people tend to misunderstand this. They sometimes comb through the writings of famous dead scientists to find quotes that seem to suggest a belief in god, and use them as if it strengthens the case for god. This is a waste of time because it doesn’t. For example, Charles Darwin died not believing in god. While there is no doubt whatsoever that his theory of evolution has made god increasingly redundant and strengthened the case for atheism, his disbelief by itself is not evidence against the existence of god.

Darwin’s disbelief bothers some religious people and they think that if they could show that he was a believer in god, that discovery would undermine atheism. Such people sometimes even repeat the thoroughly debunked story of him having had a deathbed conversion to Christianity or make a big deal about the fact that Darwin explicitly rejected the label of atheist and embraced the term agnostic. They are misguided in their efforts. Neither of those things are relevant to the point that the theory of evolution seriously undermines belief in the existence of god.

Even if Darwin actually had made a deathbed conversion to Christianity, it would not prove anything about god either way. All it would have shed light on was about Darwin’s state of mind as he lay dying. After all, his co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection Alfred Russell Wallace later in life seemed to embrace some forms of mysticism. Even the great scientist Isaac Newton believed in god in some form. But all that such stories tell us is what those people believed about those phenomena. By themselves they are not evidence for or against god or the supernatural.

One can sometimes use the consensus views of scientists about religion as evidence for some propositions about religion. As an example, suppose we take the new atheists’ statement that science and religion are incompatible. The basis of this claim is that advances in science have made the god hypothesis increasingly redundant, that there is simply no need to believe in the existence of such an entity, and to invoke it is to turn one’s back on methodological naturalism which is a foundational principle of modern science.

One consequence of this argument is that science as advanced even more, we would expect that the number of disbelieving scientists, especially those who are leaders in their fields and thus more intimately familiar with the frontiers of scientific research, should increase with time. As Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins said: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

As a result we might expect some circumstantial evidence in support of the claim that increasing depth of knowledge about science leads to greater disbelief. And there is. In medieval times or earlier there is no evidence that many scientists were disbelievers, unless they were keeping it secret. This is possible since death was a common punishment for heretics. But we have no way of really knowing the situation back then.

But with the enlightenment things began to change for the better. As Edward Larson and Larry Witham reported in a study published in Nature in 1998, at least in the 20th century there has been a steep drop from nearly 28% to 7% in the number of leading scientists who believe in a ‘personal god’, while the number of disbelievers and doubters rose from nearly 74% to 93%. If the numbers had gone the other way, that as science learned more and more about how the world worked that the number of religious scientists increased, then that would cast some doubt on the claim of the new atheists, although such data, depending as it does on people’s beliefs, can never be conclusive about the truth or falsity of any proposition.

Next: God as metaphor

POST SCRIPT: No, let’s not leave it there

Jon Stewart on the vapidity of the cable news shows.

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