The Case Against Science?
Sorry - this is a long one. For my next blog post, I'll be taking a break from Vox so I can kick somebody else's ass and all of you who keep telling me to drop the Vox project will shut up. As to the length--I know it's taking absurdly long and I still have 13 chapters to go. I just wanted to do a critique that was so detailed that nobody would need to read the book to know what it says. I may have to go with the more concise plan, though, so I can finish this sometime, oh....before I die.
Vox Day seems to have a proclivity towards using odd anecdotal evidence gleaned from the writings of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens in order to formulate his arguments against atheism, and he continues in the same vein in chapter three. In short order, we discover that “New Atheists” harbor outright hatred for religion and that we “science fetishists” believe that science “dictates” human behavior, rather than merely describing or explaining it.
It is humorous to see Vox attempt to argue that science, not religion, has outlived its usefulness to humanity—a reference to Daniel Dennett's theory in Breaking the Spell. There are thousands of phenomena that have yet to be explained thoroughly, countless cures for illnesses, and an innumerable amount of problems that can only be solved through the use of science. Ironically, Vox practically contradicts his personal beliefs by claiming that humanity has survived “millenia of religious belief,” but due to things like over-population and global warming, as well as the aforementioned development of WMDs, we may not survive a mere four centuries of science. (Four? He later claims it's really 60 years.) Considering that the overwhelming majority of scientific advancements have been positive and improved our quality of life, and there is still much work to be done, this argument is not tenable in any way, not to mention that Vox doesn't even believe that global warming is occurring. (nb: He does attempt to semi-dodge by adding the disclaimer, “If the prophets of...are correct,” but I find that to be borderline dishonesty considering his personal opinion on the matter. Vox is spinning this with centrifugal force.)
To illustrate his point, he opens up the chapter with a quote from Sam Harris that seems to acknowledge the danger posed by some of these scientific advancements insofar as it gives those with no fear of death (ie—the religious folks who believe that this is merely the prequel to their “real” life in heaven) the ability to destroy all of humanity to fulfill their destiny, whatever they feel that may be. Mutually assured destruction is merely hastening the grand finale of god's plan for our existence and leaves our supernatural dictator to sort the wheat from the chaff. From that perspective, it almost seems like a good idea.
I have no idea what this has to do with Harris' “Enlightenment utopianism” or the argument that religions have never created an atomic bomb or a carbon-producing, petroleum-guzzling automobile. Religion has also never created a defibrillator or an antibiotic. Why would it? It has absolutely nothing to say about technology of any sort, other than when it is referred to as being evil in some way. It seems that Vox is really grasping at straws here. It's as if he has created a false dichotomy of the vilification of science and the justification of religion. They are, and should be, completely separate issues. One of the biggest issues that atheists have with religion is the refusal to butt out of science. Science is not the opposite of religion, nor is it a religion. It is a method of explaining facts and observations and the world in which we live—at least to the best of our ability given our limited knowledge at any one point. (Think Descartes in Meditations regarding action without perfect knowledge.) Of course, it's not as if the five major religions listed by Vox, which oddly excludes Judaism, have not had weapons—the stone and the machete are still popular in some Middle Eastern countries, and that is certainly more painful and torturous than being shot or nuked.
His ultimate conclusion here is that the real danger is science, not faith. He misses the point that religious belief provides the impetus to use that technology. Not to sound like an NRA spokesman, but weapons don't kill people: People kill people. Overpopulation, pollution, and advanced weaponry are caused in part by science, but not in the nefarious way that Vox seems to imply. The detrimental effects seen in the post-Industrial Revolution era were both created by science and discovered by science. Hopefully, they will also be solved or at least diminished by science. Abandoning science is certainly not the solution, not to mention the fact that I don't think anybody, Vox included, wants to go back to the era of plagues, premature mortality, and endless manual labor just to survive. If you do, have fun eating tree bark.
Vox attributes the “responsibility” for the development of advanced weapons to science. How can science be responsible for anything at all? It is a method, a discipline with no agenda and no ability to do anything for which it could be held responsible. Would it not be the specific people who utilized science in order to formulate the things that Vox considers detrimental? What he does here would be akin to blaming highways for the criminals who use them to escape from police, despite the fact that the vast majority of drivers are on their way to some mundane job. I assert that Vox either misunderstands the meaning of the word “cause” or is just padding his argument with spurious claims.
He does attempt to rebut the impending criticisms, some of which are used here, but I find that his analogies are inaccurate. Cigarettes don't cause cancer if you don't smoke them, so once again, the onus of responsibility lies with the person making the choice to smoke. Inanimate objects, material or immaterial, cannot cogitate and are only tools used by people. Some people may use pencils to stab people—is the pencil responsible? We can even flip this argument around and say that since religion causes or has caused some negative events, then religion itself is responsible and no amount of good makes up for those atrocities. Vox will argue here that the real danger lies in mutually assured destruction, which no amount of faith is going to cause. That's true enough on the surface, but what if that faith is the motivation to use such a weapon? Belief in an afterlife of perfection and bliss doesn't tend to make one prize their, or anybody else's, time here on earth. If science is responsible for the negative repercussions of technology, then religion should be held to the same scrutiny, and thus his argument that religion doesn't cause violence is moot.
Vox argues that adherents of a religion should not be blamed for the actions of other, more radical, believers if we insist that all scientists should not be held accountable for the actions of a fringe minority. Again, this seems to make sense, but the fundamental difference between science and religion is that a scientific worldview does not endorse any particular activities—it is not a set of proscriptions and laws upon which your eternal soul depends. His assertion that individual believers are held accountable for the actions of other believers is inaccurate—it's not the other believers, it's the belief system. There are no threats of hell or promises of heaven for certain behaviors inherent in science—only the temporal consequences of the justice system. The only way that religion can be viewed as not directly inciting violence is by claiming that the texts upon which a religion is based are allegorical or outdated. All throughout the bible and the koran, violence is encouraged and even demanded. The whole basis for christianity is that god has some kind of bloodlust because of the evil system which he designed that required first animal sacrifice, and finally human sacrifice. We are all deserving of death from the moment of our births (maybe even conception since their argument is that blastocysts are human beings) and without Jesus' propitiatory sacrifice, we would all go to hell to be tormented for eternity. Sounds like good wholesome family values.
If the scriptures of any religion are inaccurate or outdated, then one must admit that their god is not omnipotent or omniscient. One of them has to go. Either he couldn't ensure their transmission without error, or he was just wrong about what was going to happen. If they are outdated, then god cannot be eternally existent as there would be no moment at which his commands or desires would expire. The bible recounts many examples of god changing his mind, (think Abraham and Lot, for example) but such behavior would be impossible for a being that exists outside of time and is unchanging, which leads us right back to omnipotence and omniscience. The whole anthropomorphized omnimax creator being is a concept so absurd that even those who believe in it cannot explain it or agree upon its foundational attributes. That should be a clue as to its veracity.
That makes it extremely ironic that soon after the aforementioned defense, Vox claims that it is better in some instances for humans to remain ignorant of certain things to prevent the damage they may cause. He says, “I am merely pointing out that the evidence suggests that in some circumstances, ignorance may be preferable to knowledge, especially partial knowledge imperfectly understood and enthusiastically embraced too soon.” (p. 50) A better description of religious belief is rarely uttered, although his intent was to disparage science. We would be much better off without the so-called “knowledge” of religion and imaginary sky-daddys.
Certainly, the words of Feynman and Dawkins on pages fifty-two to fifty-three are indeed true—science gives one the power to do good and evil. What one chooses to do with it is not the fault of the method by which it was developed. The designers of the first automobile didn't know about carbon dioxide and pollution resulting in potentially catastrophic global warming. Should they be blamed? Even Henry Ford, who made the mass production of automobiles possible, had no idea what the impact would be. Unfortunately, we just can't see into the future. It's like pharmaceutical development—a small percentage of people may have adverse effects, but if it is beneficial to most, then the risk is worth taking. If it is no more effective than a placebo but still has adverse effects, then there is nothing redeeming about it and it should be eliminated.
Vox returns to the Harris argument that science and faith produce a toxic concoction which may eradicate humanity and claims that Harris' logic is flawed because the real danger is science itself. I think that Vox is missing the point that both components are necessary and the removal of one eliminates, or at least reduces, the danger of the other. Again, if religion is the impetus behind the use of a weapon, even if only insofar as the person who is utilizing it feels assured that a better life awaits in eternity, like a suicide bomber, then religion is to blame for the unjustified use of that which was scientifically developed. Given that science has, in a very short time period, done more good for humanity than religion has in thousands of years, and that the negative effects do not outweigh the positive, we can conclude that it is a worthy endeavor. Religion, on the other hand, has done what? There are a few soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and that's great, but atheists do that as well. A recent study showed that non-religious physicians were more likely to treat the under-served and impoverished than their christian counterparts. There are missions in other countries, but what good is building a church in Guatemala when people are starving? Is proselytizing to an African woman going to save her child from Kwashiorkor's disease (a malnutrition related and fatal ailment)? Meanwhile, we have killing in the name of religion, child molestation due to the repressed sexuality forced upon Catholic priests, suicide bombers killing people everyday, and catastrophic events such as 9/11 which kill thousands. Oh, wait, that must have been the fault of the Wright brothers and others who laid the foundation for modern airplanes. One must conclude that an individual's personal comfort derived from religion is not enough benefit to make up for all of the detrimental effects. Religion should be recalled.
Vox has a few examples of how religion supposedly doesn't subvert science, which we all know is untrue. Just the idea that believing things based on faith without knowledge is virtuous is an abhorrent concept that is taught to children all over the world. He does the stem-cell bit, which I'm not even touching because this would be another three pages if I did. Interestingly, he claims that science forms the basis for a system of ethics, which is absolutely ridiculous. A scientist could be a utilitarian, a hedonist, a determinist, a humanist, an anything-ist—science has no fundamental ethical or philosophical worldview. Science is a methodology. Yes, it can influence people and the decisions they make, but that doesn't make it a religion. Vox Day also doesn't seem to realize that statistics are meaningless out of their context, and the reason why the US (which is NOT a christian nation) produces more scientific output than France, which he claims as the most atheistic country, but I don't know where he's getting that data from, is because we have more money. Shocking, I know. I wonder how much of that scientific output is from his brothers in christ as they develop more sophisticated weaponry.
Science has at times been slow to adopt new theories. Vox uses the example of antibiotics, and there are more, such as hand-washing preventing childbed fever, which killed thousands of women after giving birth soon after that process was institutionalized. Generally, this is because the new idea or product must be proven to work. We have antibiotics now and we know all about germs and hand-washing, so it is apparent that the scientific community relented. Meanwhile, some religions still cling to creationism, whether literally or loosely interpreted, and they have historically balked at every scientific discovery since heliocentrism until it is so well established that they look silly. Then they just re-interpret their obscure ancient myths to fit the new data and make ludicrous claims like Mohammed knew about atoms. The push to clothe creation in science and insert it in schools is a travesty. It's bad enough that people choose to teach their children fairy tales and to claim certainty where there is none. Religion has, and will continue to, dumb us down, as it makes us complacent participants in some grand play in which we are all just marionettes anyway.