Laugh or Cry

HOWARD A. GARCIA

No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe. By MattYoung. lstBooks Library, 2511 W 3rd St., Suite 1, Bloomington, IN 47404, 2001.
ISBN 0-75961-089-4. 349 pp. Softcover, $21.79.

Reprinted with permission from Skeptical Inquirer, March/April, 2002, pp. 51-52.

Matt Young's Home Page

Link to Skeptical Inquirer

Howard A. Garcia is a solar physicist working at the Space Environment Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry," wrote evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in a 1981 magazine article lamenting the emergence of a new, particularly virulent strain of resurgent creationism. The venue of his discomfiture was the courtroom of Federal Judge William Overton; the occasion was a hearing on the constitutionality of an Arkansas law mandating equal treatment of creation science vis a vis biologic evolution in the Arkansas school curriculum; and the cause was the need, once again, to explain that the 4.5-billion-year geologic record of Earth, evident in exposed sedimentary strata, was not the result of the "great flood," reckoned by biblical scholars to have occurred less than 10,000 years ago. This episode is by no means an isolated incident, but one of a long series of legal battles instigated by conservative religious factions intent upon subverting the American educational system to meet the strictures of their particular sectarian viewpoint.

But the broader issue goes far beyond the contentious argument between empirical science and religion concerning biologic evolution; it also involves the larger contest between science and anti-science that dates from the first time a human began to question supernaturally inspired traditional beliefs and began to trust his own intellect to interpret his physical environment using reason and experiment. There have always been two basic forms of anti-science: religion and non-theistic mysticism of one sort or another. Each is as old as history itself, and though similarly steeped in spirituality they have been more often antagonistic than allied. Religion adheres tenaciously to an ancient creed while mysticism is protean, constantly seeking new metaphysical bases for good and evil, human destiny and the universe.

It is the misfortune in this war of ideas that few scientists care to engage in a fruitless argument with a sometimes clueless but fanatical adversary. To them such arguments are an extravagant waste of time. Long and painful experience has demonstrated that neither cogent argument nor evidence, gleaned from centuries of research, makes any impression on the mind of a fundamentalist or mystic. The scientists' energies are more profitably spent pursuing their own field of dedication. Among those few willing to accept the challenge, many are ill-prepared to debate in a totally unfamiliar arena--a society of closed minds. The result is usually a debacle for science.

The need has clearly arrived for a carefully reasoned exposition by a competent scientist, properly equipped to rebut anti-science forces on a thesis-by-thesis, case-by-case basis on anti-science's own turf, be it Old Testament arcana, creationism, astrology, postmodernist theory, etc. No Sense of Obligation is such a work. Matt Young is that scientist. (A physicist retired from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, he is an adjunct professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines. His article "Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe" appeared in Skeptical Inquirer's Science and Religion 2001 issue, September/October 2001.) Young enters this arena as an eclectic scholar thoroughly acquainted with both sides of each issue, first developing the argument from the other side's perspective--before blowing it out of the water, exposing its inconsistencies, unfounded assumptions, distortions and pure inventions.

Young states his objective with blunt and crystal clarity before the short first chapter is concluded: "I will examine the case for the existence of God." Then, "This book has two purposes: First to convince you, if necessary, that the only truly reliable knowledge is knowledge that is based on careful observation, reasoning, and experimentation.... My second objective will be to apply scientific method to the hypothesis that the universe is governed by a creator."

In a nutshell that is what the book is about, but the path is strewn with pedagogic gems. To begin we learn what the scientific method means and how it differs from the theologic method: "Scientists do not choose a hypothesis and assume that it is true; rather they seek the best among competing hypotheses. Religion draws its conclusion first and then sets about to prove that conclusion rather than to examine it objectively." This theme recurs several times in different guises in the book.

The chapter "Science, Evidence, and Nonsense" introduces an idea perhaps foreign to most nonscientists: the principle of falsifiability. This idea goes to the very heart of science and is the main firewall between science and anti-science: any hypothesis must be subject to be proven wrong. Any hypothesis that fails this test is not scientific; moreover, failing this test renders its conclusions suspect. It also leaves the impression that putative evidence that reverts back to the unfalsifiable original hypothesis cannot be trusted, i.e., a circular argument. Evidence in support of a hypothesis must be obtained independently of the hypothesis.

"Signs, Wonders, and Anecdotes" deals with the nearly insuperable task of winning an argument using logic, citing evidence, following the strict rules that govern repeatability criteria with someone who discards logic in favor of a predetermined scenario, offers specious evidence, and makes the rules as he chooses to ensure a more desirable end result for himself. Young considers an ancient dilemma. "Why righteous people suffer is a serious problem for those who believe in miracles and in a personal god who protects them." Many determined believers have no problem with this question: they can improvise. Firstly, in their worldview, God always has a purpose. No matter how obscure, how apparently contrived, convoluted, and inconsistent with his other purported attributes, his reason is incontestable and paramount. His omniscience always trumps human understanding and exonerates the Almighty of any possible error or bad intention.

In "Questioning Authority" Young resignedly avers, "it is almost impossible to respond..." to the absolute certainty with which some theists couch their arguments. While scientists freely admit that their trade inherently is composed of theories and hypotheses that inevitably contain errors, often of unknown magnitude, how does one deal with a belief system founded on the premise of absolute certainty in all things, particularly when many such systems exist today and countless others have existed in the past, virtually all claiming to be the sole receptacle of truth?

The answer is that one can't. There are, no doubt, some scientists who are willing to concede that some overlap exists where science and religion share a common ground. There are, no doubt, religionists who would agree. However, the idea is not popular among many scientists. E.O. Wilson, professor of science at Harvard University, had this to say, "Although many theologians and lay philosophers like to deny it, I believe that traditional religious belief and scientific knowledge depict the universe in radically different ways. At the bedrock they are incompatible and mutually exclusive."

Science is confident that its motivation to understand nature and to inform society of its discoveries is its proper role. Generally, it sees no obligation to accommodate itself to religion or any other belief system not founded on empirical evidence.