Wednesday, December 27, 2006

science, religion, and the dispassionate search for truth

Sam Harris: "The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower."

Given the choice of religious closed-mindedness vs. the dispassionate search for truth, who would not favor the latter over the former! The problem is this portrait of science exists only as a figment of Harris' and his followers' imaginations, a fairy-tale created to justify their attacks on the straw-man of religious belief Harris' creates. What is striking when reading Harris even more than how little he knows about religion (one would have thought that a "dispassionate consideration of evidence" might demand that one study theology before writing a vicious attack on its tenents) is how little his philosophy of science corresponds with reality.

From a summary of Thomas Kuhn's “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”:

Kuhn also maintained that, contrary to popular conception, typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers. Rather, they are conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught and apply their knowledge to solving the problems that their theories dictate…

…As a consequence, scientists tend to ignore research findings that might threaten the existing paradigm and trigger the development of a new and competing paradigm. For example, Ptolemy popularized the notion that the sun revolves around the earth, and this view was defended for centuries even in the face of conflicting evidence. In the pursuit of science, Kuhn observed, "novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation."

Rigid thought, conservative adherence to a paradigm even in the face of contrary evidence, resistance to change – is this the "dispassionate consideration of new evidence" that Harris so admires? The history of science reveals a stubbon adherence to doctrine that rivals...well, that Harris would say rivals religion. In Kuhn's own words:

Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus' death. Newton's work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. The difficulties of conversion have often been noted by the scientists themselves…And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

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