Just Because It Sounds Science-y Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Faith-Based*

Beyond the limits of reasonable expectation.

There is a perception out there that whatever issues from the mouth or pen of one who wears a white coat is completely rational, reliable, evidence-based and trustworthy.  While this is more probably true when the white-coat is discussing some matter of little social or political import – electron spin, say, and not neuro-physiological differences between the sexes, etc. – we shouldn’t be too certain that this is always the case.  Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the failings of reason and intelligence that goes along with being a member of our species.

This all comes to mind as I was flipping through the latest edition of Scientific American (cover pictured to the left).  This ‘special issue’ includes a number of essays by some far-out looking people about the future of ‘Science’ and where it’s going to take us.  Of course, the contents of these essays are interesting (entertaining, to be more exact) but fundamentally have no real basis for some of the claims they make – rather they are expressions of faith that Science will continue to uplift, enlighten, and transform the human race into whatever the authors of these pieces would like for humans to be.

Here’s a guy who looks like he has predictions you can trust. Just look in his eyes.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that per se – we all have to have faith in something, after all – but we should recognize religious-style beliefs for what they are, even if they come with the trappings of Science, because Science/science has a place of privilege among powerful decision-makers [1].  And when powerful people can be convinced that something is a good idea on the basis of Science, a lot of money, effort, and time can be wasted on pointless endeavours.

SETI is a paradigm example of this dynamic in action.  A number of scientists got together and convinced important people in the US government that there is a high enough probability that alien life is somewhere out there that it would be worthwhile to set up (at grand cost to the taxpayer) a series of listening-stations to see if we couldn’t pick up ancient signals travelling across the void.  Presumably they used math to help bamboozle the decision-makers in question. Now, there are a number of practical problems with the program [2] but there are even nastier issues on the purely conceptual side of things.

Specifically, the program only makes sense if one has a reasonably high estimation of the probability of there being other intelligent beings out there, but at the time that the program was being set up there was really no (good) reason to think that such is the case.  Sure, there were inferences and assumptions drawn from what we knew/know about how the world actually is – paraphrase: “it is simply inconceivably improbable that in a universe this vast in which intelligent life has arisen once, intelligent life should not have arisen multiple times” – but none of this constitutes any reason to think that it is so.  Perhaps it is improbable that a universe with laws and a history such as our own should only have intelligent life emerge once.  OK, so perhaps we happen to live in a really improbable sort of universe?

“But we can’t know if we don’t check!”  Ah, yes, true, but here’s the difference between SETI-fans and myself: I don’t expect (or hope) to discover anything and, moreover, I don’t think that a failure to find evidence would demonstrate anything about the universe we inhabit (remember those practical difficulties I mentioned?).  But if one believes without evidence that there must be life out there – or that it’s inconceivably improbable that there isn’t – it does raise the question of why this is believed.  Perhaps, like me, they find the grandeur of a well-populated universe appealing or, also like me, they find the prospect of human solitude infinitely depressing.  But those are not scientific reasons, to be sure, and today, after the program has been running for several decades without any positive results, it seems ever more probable that we are alone.  “But we can’t give up!  What if we do and we miss our chance to know?  It would be horrible!”

No, it wouldn’t.

USA! USA! (They’d’ve actually mooned Russia too, if it weren’t for decompression-related issues. This seemed the next best thing.)

Granted, this does not comprise reason not to engage in the program.  For all the bluster about the advancement of science that has flowed from NASA, the real point of the thing was never really about ‘Science’, was it?  It was more about having the best vantage point in the universe from which to flip Russia the bird (also, something about weaponizing space).  The science stuff has been a nice bonus but I sincerely doubt that it was what was foremost on JFK’s mind when he decided that humans would set foot up there.  And this is fine because we don’t need to have Science decide what our every act, individual and collective, should be – what more reason do we need for landing on the moon than “because it’s awesome” (awesomeness, I note, is not a property of objects/events measurable by ordinary scientific methods).  But pretending that because SETI might have some scientifically valuable side-effects means that it is principally a scientifically driven enterprise is simply misleading – it’s a(n ugly) Hail Mary for those who wish that ST:TNG was a documentary film.

An ugly cathedral of sorts. Did I mention ugly?


* Not the catchiest title ever, so perhaps I ought to have gone with the alternate title for this entry: “SETI Is a Waste of Time, Effort and Money and Should Be Shut Down.”  That one is a bit on the blunt side, though.  Oh well.

[1] Despite much upset about the “War On Science” being perpetrated solely by those nasty Republicans (after all, who else could possibly have any non-scientific reasons for rejecting scientific findings) there really isn’t anyone (important) who is actually against science as an endeavour, just findings that are inimical to his or her particular agenda(s).  Whenever I hear the phrase “War On Science” trotted out I immediately start wondering whose research agenda is being impeded or whose political agenda stands to gain by painting the other guys as low-brow, fundamentalist rubes.

[2] I can think of a few off the top of my head.  First and most simply, there is no guarantee that any radio signals that an alien civilization might have sent into space would reach Earth without having degraded in pure noise.  Second, there is the matter of timing.  Could such signals even have had the time to reach us if they did exist and if so, how do we know they haven’t already gone by and we’ve missed our chance?  Heck, maybe we are the first intelligent lifeform to develop technologies that would send signals out into space (in which case, listening stations: no dice).  Third, why should we assume that any alien civilization will be using media enough like our own that we could even recognize their communications for what they are – alien tv broadcasts may just look like noise to us (and vice versa).

Naturalism: Either Vacuous or False

We hear talk of ‘naturalistic’ metaphysics, ethics, science, and epistemology, but it is never quite clear just what work it does when prefixed to any of these – or at least, it is not clear to me.  Now, in practise ‘naturalistic’ can often be taken as a code-word that stands in for something like ‘atheistic’ or ‘non-supernatural’, and that is fine (so far as it goes), but if naturalism is nothing besides atheism or anti-supernaturalism, what point is there in using that word instead of one of the others?  Unless, of course, its use is meant to disguise the actual content of the view in question (whatever motivation  there might be to do so, I’m sure I don’t know what it is) or because, by design or accident, it helps views to slip past the critical faculties of reasoners without sounding alarms.  This is not so outlandish – think about the effect that terms like (to choose two) ‘Christian’ or ‘Democrat’ have on people’s faculties of critical reasoning.  And as a concept naturalism lends itself quite well to this sort of role for, despite its being appealed to so very, very frequently, it is sometimes hard to sort out just what its supposed contents are.  Personally, I think the concept is either vacuous or false and so should be junked.

This is a strong claim, but I think it to be the right one.  Thinking about what naturalism might mean, it clearly has something to do with the denial of supernatural entities or phenomena – but in what does that denial consist?  On its simplest plausible construal, naturalism is the claim that there is no such thing as ghosts, say, because ghosts are super-natural entities that don’t observe the natural laws of the universe.  This is true, of course – there are no ghosts – but it is a perfectly meaningless statement.  Imagine for a moment that we lived in a world like our own in most relevant respects (for example, gravity has the same force and effects on matter, etc.) but with the exception that this world contains ghosts.  Obviously, the ghosts must in at least some ways causally interact with that world, else we couldn’t know of their existence.  Moreover, the ghosts would exhibit certain regularities in their existence, behaviours, and powers.  They must, since everything that exists does – in fact, it is due to the exhibited regularities of things that we can agree that there are such things as cocker spaniels and mousetraps and that they are different sorts of things.  Since the ghosts would causally interact with the world in regular ways, we would be able to postulate and identify mechanisms and laws [1] by which such interaction is possible.  So in this world ghosts exist and are governed by the laws of that world, which makes them a natural part of that world – naturalism would be every bit as true in that world as in our own, even though it is a world that possesses ‘supernatural’ entities!

A critic could object, of course, that this is simply a counterfactual scenario and that of course he doesn’t mean that ghosts are compatible with some postulated set of natural laws, but that there are no supernatural elements that are allowed by our set, the actual physical laws.  But what exactly might he mean by ‘the actual set of physical laws’? 

If by this he means to say the set of laws as revealed by a future ideal science[2], then he is again saying nothing of substance – if, on the way to our ideal science, we discover that telekinesis is real and governed by natural laws, then it would be (and always have been) part of our ‘naturalistic’ universe, skeptics be damned!  Moreover, if our ideal science is the litmus test of what counts as ‘natural’ then, since it accurately describes the actual laws of the universe, of course there could be no ‘supernatural’ phenomena – such phenomena would simply be those that are impossible under that set of laws.  If, on the other hand, our critic means by the actual set of physical laws those that are revealed by our current best physics, two things fall out of this.  Firstly, he should not properly be called a ‘naturalist’ – he is, more accurately, a physicalist.  Secondly, if he is a physicalist, then he is almost certainly wrong.  Honest scientists are rather open about the fact that modern physics is not an ideal science and, consequently, that cherished theories may have to be altered or abandoned on our way to such an ideal science.

If my reasoning is correct, then, ‘naturalism’ is either vacuous or false and can be usefully disposed of without doing harm to any philosophical or scientific enterprise.


[1] Even if such laws/mechanisms were found to be ‘fuzzy’.  Fuzziness is not a thing that should bother the denizens of an age comfortable with quantum mechanics.

[2] For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that an ideal science is capable of fully explaining all possible phenomena within the world to which it pertains.  I don’t know that this is true, but that is beside the point here.