A curious thing happened as I was reading a blog post from Thony Christie’s blog Renaissance Mathematics; I became inclined to agree with the author as I read more only to only to abruptly and vehemently disagree with the author’s conclusion. In the post, “Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudosciences has not always been bad for science”, the author delved into how pseudoscience has been a boon for science as a whole; for instance, while alchemy and astrology may not have panned out, they did lead us down the road to more productive avenues of research. Alchemy led to the development of the mortar and pestle and other measurement tools one would find in a chemistry lab. And astrology gave us the earliest observatories that enabled the future discovery of planets. Crossing the line into what isn’t scientific helps us to define what science is. Exploration is indeed a part of the scientific endeavor, but it comes with risks. One could find themselves persona non grata in the scientific community if their hunches don’t pan out.
Stepping outside of established science can be rewarding, as our author points out, because we can discover new avenues of research. But this does not mean that pseudoscience is a worthwhile endeavor nor that adherence to the rational is tantamount to dogmatism, however. Fortuitous outcomes breed mistakes and stepping outside of the realm of what is practical, empirical, pragmatic, or falsifiable means that we risk relying on unreliable information. Not to mention basing our view of reality on unreliable information can be counterproductive and risky. Skepticism towards nonscientific claims is warranted as a precaution at least until we can verify the evidence through some kind of rational means. But this means that if a scientist steps out on a limb they are taking a calculated risk with their career. It also means that fraudulent claims can be kept in check before they can do too much harm. We must guard ourselves against pseudoscientific claims.
There are many examples of pseudoscientific claims that have done more good than harm. Chiropractic manipulation is not, as a rule, pseudoscience, but when practitioners espouse a belief that a vital force in the spine is responsible for healing ailments in the body and that aligning the spine is certain ways releases an innate intelligence, we have stepped outside of evidence-based medicine. Using a chiropractor solely for a mechanical problem is not necessarily harmful, but seeking a chiropractor to heal a metaphysical ailment can result in life-threatening unnecessary complications such as brain hemorrhaging, artery dissection, or myelopathy. The irrational can be deadly. But I am not here to argue that an adherence to rationality means scientists are extolling the gospel of scientism. Instead, I am here to argue as Susan Haack did that there are indeed many rational tools of inquiry that are verifiable. These tools are diverse and ever-evolving. Scientism is a pejorative term for an over-reliance on the scientific method. Critics will decry something as scientism when they believe the use of the scientific method is elitist or discriminatory against other ways of knowing.
For instance, C.S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy decrying what he perceived to be the overwhelming scientism in Western society in the twentieth century. Lewis weaves the story of how an amoral scientist named Professor Weston kidnaps a handicapped child to serve as a human sacrifice to appease an alien society on Mars; when he is thwarted in his attempt to murder an innocent boy, he instead kidnaps the protagonist Elwin Ransom, who had unwittingly wandered onto his estate. As the story progresses, Weston starts out as a devious atheist, foil to our pious Ransom, but slowly becomes morphed into a Liberal Christian; which is worse than an atheist, we are to believe. Weston explains to Ransom by the third book in the trilogy that he is now a profoundly spiritual person; he no longer pursues the lofty goal of humanity’s hegemony among the stars by way of human sacrifice. Now he merely seeks to spread human spirituality. And if he has to enslave or exterminate alien races to assure that more people have a sense of the divine, then his ends justify his means. Weston trades his myopic belief in rationality for the myopic belief in Christianity spirituality. Lewis seems to imply that science is a religion just like Christianity is, albeit in a bastardized form.
Lewis’ hyper-rationalist Weston is, in effect, Christie’s straw man argument. Granted, our blogger isn’t going about this in as heavy-handed a way as Lewis did, yet the premise here is arguably the same. But the concept of scientism that scientists worship at the altar of science and bristle with indignation at the thought of one questioning the validity of their work is a caricature. Christie makes the claim that there are limitations to rationality, and pursuing avenues that might not appear to be fruitful can sometimes ultimately pay off. I agree. But I do not think that irrationality should be lauded or even pardoned because of the potential for serendipity. Arguably, Weston’s amoral actions are the exact opposite of scientism because to behave amorally is to behave in such a way without any rational system to guide one’s behavior. That is why we must explore rational ways to understand morality. Morality involves study of human behaviors and brain states, which we know can be studied in social psychology and neurology Science can study systems of morality rationally and offer objective answers to moral questions without invoking God. Indeed, if science is to live up to the expectations of its proponents, or at least dispel the criticisms of its naysayers, then it must tackle problems of morality in a rational way. The moral sciences must be cultivated in order to develop objective moral values; if the moral claims of the spiritually-inclined cannot be tested, then they cannot be studied objectively, and they cannot be found to be true or false.
Science is not a hindrance to morality; it can actually inform our understanding of right and wrong. Sam Harris gives an analogy to explain how science can be used to inform our moral values without deferring to the supposedly objective moral values of theistic religions. The science is morality is indeed a verdant field of future research, but only if scientists can recognize that logic and reason can indeed inform our moral values. Logic is the name that we give to our brain’s ability to process information, in this case, in the form of claims about morality; this is analogous to digestion being the name that we give our stomach’s ability to process food. There is no law to logic just as there is no law to digestion. We can, however, use science to come up with a list of nutritional needs. We can determine whether one’s diet is “good” or “bad” based on how well it meets the nutritional requirements of a human being. And just as there are no perfect foods, there are no perfect moral values. Similarly, we can come up with a list of spiritual needs that are “good” or “bad” based on how well they nourish our well-being. So moral claims could be tested and vindicated or falsified. We would likely find from this scientific study of religious morality that every religion espouses a unique mix of adaptive and maladaptive values. Therefore, we can surmise that values are really statements about human well-being. From there we could compare how religions support the well-being of human beings. Some religions would undoubtedly be found to be better for our well-being than others. Granted it can be hard to nail down just exactly what we mean from words like “good” or “bad”, but it’s not an impossible endeavor. Even if we found that all religions were equally good at nourishing human beings, this would be a worthwhile result. Perhaps it would alleviate sectarian violence around the world if followers knew all religions were unambiguously proven to be equally good. Or bad.