Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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English: John Watson, founder of American beha...

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

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Pannenberg on Christianity and Science

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Wolfhart Pannenberg

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If a theologian told a physicist or biologist, “Your science will be more successful in understanding nature if you accept Christianity,” the scientist would most likely label the theologian as a Creationist or as kook. But that is what the contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has affirmed. Pannenberg is neither a Fundamenalist nor a Young-Earth Creationist. Rather, he is one of the most significant mainline Lutheran theologians of the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He was already well-known for accepting the bodily resurrection of Christ which had been rejected by theologian Paul Tillich and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann–and their view was the majority opinion among German mainline theologians. In this sense, Pannenberg is “conservative,” although he eschews labels such as liberal, conservative, or moderate.

Professor Pannenberg is thoroughly familiar with the literature of the philosophy of science as well as the literature on the relationship between Christianity and science. The most dominant recent model has been the “two realms view,” in which science stays in its world, religion in its world, and never the twain shall meet. Scholars as diverse as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould have affirmed this thesis.  But Pannenberg’s view is the polar opposite of a two-tiered view of Christianity and science. He opposes the methodological atheism with which science has operated since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and more explicitly since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Pannenberg argues that if God is Creator of the Universe, a scientist cannot adequately understand the universe if he holds to methodological atheism or agnosticism. Thus, a scientist who accepts the doctrine of creation in the course of doing science will be able to make discoveries that a scientist who is methodologically atheistic. It also follows that the theologian must bring the best insights of modern science into theology. This is something that Pannenberg puts into practice with his view that the Holy Spirit is a “force field” (Pannenberg has extensively studied field theory in science, beginning with the work of Michael Faraday).

I have never been comfortable with the position that science and Christianity are in two radically different realms. Such a view lends itself too easily to D. Z. Phillips‘ denial of the literal nature of key Christian doctrines such as the bodily resurrection of Christ, since he believes that Christianity does not make factual claims in the sense that science does. Christianity and science are playing, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology, two different “language games.” But even Wittgenstein does not accept a radical separation between language games–there are “family resemblances” of varying degree between language games. Christianity, like science, makes truth-claims about reality. To say that the truth claims of Christianity and science are sealed off from each other like an impenetrable wall does not even fit the history of science. Philosophical and religious systems have been an important part of the growth of science: Neoplatonism (Copernicus); the notion of the “music of the spheres” (Kepler); the Christian doctrine that since the world was created by a rational God, it can be understood through reason (about all the major scientists through Isaac Newton), and a Stoic-like deterministic pantheism (Einstein).

There are problems that must be resolved for a scientist to accept Pannenberg’s position. The scientist must take care to make predictions that are testable (in a very broad sense, not in the narrow sense supported by the Vienna Circle). The scientist must take proper care with data–nature constrains what the scientist can rationally say. To be published, the scientist must keep to himself any Christian or other philosophical/theological presuppositions that connected with his scientific work. I am not willing to rule out the possibility that a Christian scientist can apply his metaphysical/theological beliefs to the practice of science. There are dangers (such as those found with the Young-Earth Creationists) of holding positions dogmatically that do not fit the world of nature. Pannenberg does not give many specifics on how a contemporary scientist can practically operate with theological presuppositions included in his data set. But his proposal is an interesting twist in the long-standing debate over the relation of religion (Christianity in particular) to science.

The Dispute over Global Warming: Americans and the Scientific “Priesthood”

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Mean surface temperature change for the period...

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The late philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that the United States should separate science and state (and the rest of society) just as the U. S. (so he claims) separates church and state. He argues that scientists have become the new priesthood, analogous to religious priesthood, who establish orthodoxy and punish heresy. To Feyerabend, this setting of boundaries marks not only censorship of controversial ideas, but also persecution of those who deviate from established scientific “orthodoxy.” He calls for a pluralism in education that allows all points of view, “scientific” and nonscientific, to be taught so that individuals can make up their own minds about the nature of reality.

Most scientists who study climate believe that the current upward trend in average global temperature is due to human pollution of the atmosphere with gases that promote the “greenhouse effect.” This effect, which has made the planet Venus a hellhole with a constant temperature of around 800 degrees F., traps heat inside the atmosphere so that it cannot radiate into space. These scientists claim that unless limitations are placed on the emission of greenhouse gases, the climate will continue to warm, raising water levels worldwide and having perhaps devastating effects on weather patterns.

There are a minority of scientists who oppose this theory. While few would deny global warming all together, some believe such warming is due to normal climate variation rather than due to human activity. This issue, of course, has become a political hot potato, with supporters of man-made global warming accusing opponents of ignoring science and supporting policies that damage the environment and opponents claiming that supporters of man-made global warming are socialists who use it as an excuse for greater government intervention in business.

Americans themselves are divided over man-made global warming. Why? Why would many Americans ignore the majority of scientists and not accept man-made global warming as a fact.

One reason is the moralistic tone of scientists. Scientists have placed themselves in the role of the “new priesthood” who set standards of how humans ought to behave. So scientists appear in interviews telling people what to eat, which light bulbs to use, which spray cans to avoid, how much water to use, and they imply that those who do not go along with their recommendations are either unintelligent or morally suspect. Americans who still have a libertarian streak resent this moralism. It reminds some Americans of the Fundamentalist preachers in their childhood churches.

Plus, the new priesthood has misled the public in the past. The eugenics movement of the first three decades of the 20th century was supported by many of the most esteemed scientists in the U. S. Thousands of mentally handicapped and mentally ill individuals were sterilized. Racist scientists supported the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which black males with syphilis were observed, but not treated, for their disease. This program was only halted in 1972. Thus, scientists are no more infallible than a religious priest or minister.

Scientists often whine about Americans who are hostile to their claims. They ought to look at themselves in the mirror, tone down their arrogance, moralism, and preachiness, and use an evidence-based approach in making a case to the public. Instead of excommunicating dissident scientists, they should openly debate them in the “public square” so that people can hear both sides of an issue. Let’s have supporters and opponents of man-made global warming have public debates. Bring both sides to conferences and have them engage in scholarly debate in those settings. If the scientific establishment continues to be arrogant, it will continue to be ignored by a good number of the American people, including on the issue of man-made global warming. And the scientific establishment will be getting exactly what it deserves.

Science and Politics

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Photograph of Alfred Wegener, the scientist

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Most people probably have not heard of Alfred Wegener. Wegener (1880-1930) was a German scientist who worked in meteorology and astronomy. But he is most famous today for being the first scientist to propose (in 1913) the theory of continental drift, the position that continents do not remain in one position but move vast distances over geological time. Continental drift is universally accepted today, but Wegener’s theory was ridiculed and his reputation suffered during and after his lifetime. Professional geologists did not believe a non-geologist could come up with an good theory. I remember reading a children’s book on science when I was a child–the book said that Wegener’s theory of continental drift had no real evidence in its favor. Wegener died a broken man because of the dirt heaped on his reputation by the scientific establishment.

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more and more scientists accepted continental drift due to advances in developing a theory behind it. Eventually plate tectonics, the view that continents float on semi-molten plates that can move vast distances over millions of years, was accepted. Wegener, who was long dead, would have been proud. But why would scientists, who are supposed to be open-minded, reject Wegener so strongly?

The reason is that science is not nearly as objective as it claims to be. It is, to a large extent, a political enterprise. Some theories are “in”; others are “out” in the political circles of the scientific establishment. Today, with millions of dollars of government grants at stake, few scientists are willing to question the establishment, lest they get ostracized, lose grant money, and fail to receive tenure due to lack of publications if they work in higher education. The pressure on an innovative scientist can be enormous.

More cases could be named: the failure of most psychologists to accept the existence of seasonal affective disorder despite strong evidence that it is a real entity. Another example is the failure of oceanographers and meteorologists to accept the existence of single large waves that sometimes occur in fair weather and topple ships. This was thought to be a sailor’s myth until the existence of such waves was revealed in a satellite photograph. The existence of psi (ESP and psychokinesis) has overwhelming evidence to support it, but the majority of psychologists claim that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. This is not because they examine the evidence fairly, but because they have a prior philosophical bias against the existence of these abilities. These psychologists then use their political influence to stop funding for psi research. An examination of much of the skeptical literature of psi reveals a selective reading of parapsychological literature. Some skeptics present such a distorted picture of parapsychology that the only reasonable conclusion is that they are either self-deceived, or worse, they lack integrity.

In the life of the state, there is often a battle between politics and truth. This is the same with science. The scientific community is like a new priesthood, declaring what is heretical and what is orthodox. The problem is that many of scientific heretics have been right.

The Arrogance of Scientism

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The late American philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that scientists were arrogant and need to be put in their place. I agree–with one caveat–I would say “many scientists” instead of “scientists.” Universal affirmative claims are very hard to justify.

No one would deny, outside of nutty postmodern relativists, that science has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the natural world. Science has also given us the wonders of modern technology, from electric lights to super-fast computers and the Internet. Science has also given us the atom and hydrogen bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, but even those terrible inventions reflected the knowledge physicists had gained about the atomic and subatomic worlds. Aside from the ethics of technology, then, what is the problem with many scientists?

The problem, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom, is that many scientists accept the doctrine of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. So introductory science textbooks often downplay alternate sources of knowledge (although in my experiences there is a welcome improvement in this area) and portray scientists almost as a “new priesthood” (Feyerabend has made the same point). The claims of philosophy, theology, art, and literature to give us insight into the way the world words are dismissed, and only those who follow the “scientific method” can, it is claimed, gain knowledge of the world.

There are a number of flaws in the philosophy of scientism. First, the idea that there is only one effective scientific method is a myth. A study of the history of science reveals different methods at work, from primarily inductive methods before Newton, to primarily deductive methods after Newton, to experimental methods, to field study methods (used in anthropology and to some extent in sociology). The naive method of (1) collecting facts, (2) noting relations between those facts, (3) forming a hypothesis, (4) testing the hypothesis by a well-designed experiment(s), resulting in (5) either a confirmation or disconfirmation of the hypothesis is inaccurate in its very first claim. No scientist collects facts without some idea of what he is looking for. Usually a scientist already has a theory in mind he wants to test in order to know what facts to find. Any idiot can sit down and write thousands of facts about trees; but a scientist needs more than a collection of “bare” facts. And there are no “bare facts”–all facts are theory-laden; thus, if I identify an object as a “table,” I must have at least implicitly some low-level theory of what a table is in order to be able to identify it. This does not imply that there is no such thing as “facts” or that facts are arbitrary. The real world does constrain our selection of facts–and theories. But there is no sharp separation between theory and facts.

Those who espouse scientism frequently claim that empirical testability is what makes scientific knowledge the only valid form of knowledge. But what about string theory, which cannot be tested by current technology–the ability to adequately test high-level theories in physics, especially Grand Unified Theories, may be centuries away. How, then, do physicists decide between theories? They usually appeal to “epistemic values” such as simplicity, elegance, and beauty to make their decision.

But if someone who espouses the philosophy of scientism sticks to his guns and says that only scientific claims are empirically testable, what about his claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge? Is that a scientific claim? Or, rather, is it a philosophical claim that has to be justified or refuted by the tools of philosophy? It is the latter; scientists are free to make philosophical claims as long as they admit they are such; but they have no right to call them scientific claims. In any case, philosophy does appeal to both experience and reason in its attempt to answer questions. Even theology, though authority-based to some extent, can appeal to experience and reason in order to better understand its faith commitments. To deny these fields their claim to give insight into the world without argument is an arrogant claim–and scientists who espouse scientism are arrogant–and wrong.