Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scientific faith

Back when I was an apprentice scientist, I found the history of science fascinating. The accidents and ironies of those who are remembered and those who are not inspired some thinking about the nature of science and what lies underneath dogma.

About the same time I started hearing Richard Dawkins evangelising atheism, and I have to say he got right up my nose. His smugness and unshakable faith in his own rightness irritated me enough to swear I'd never read his books.

Over the years, though, I've softened my stance. His utter disrespect for all religious belief is matched only by most religions' utter disrespect for atheism. More strongly in Dawkins' defence, is that society as a whole reflects the religious position - it's perfectly reasonable to demand that we all respect all religions, but it's fine to dismiss and misrepresent atheists.

Dawkins has a point - we should be questioning such things as why all religions are automatically granted tax-free status. Our whole society pays for religion to carry on business as usual, and it is completely fair that we should engage in a dialogue about the value of this business to us all.

Nevertheless, I still have a gripe with the line Dawkins takes on faith. He ridicules it. My problem with that, is that underneath the science that informs Dawkins, is a faith that there exists an observable, describable universe. I share this faith, but if I go looking for independent evidence to support it, I struggle. The most obvious response is that the assumption is very productive - it's worked pretty well so far. The problem with this response, is that "productive" is measured in scientific terms. Science has defined the terms of reference. How exactly does one measure the success of this assumption if one removes all the consequences of the assumption from the measurement? The fact that we've observed and described a great deal is rather meaningless if it's all illusion.

I don't mean to cast science as religion. It isn't. Science has challenge and questioning built into its foundation. While science is anything but objective (the strangest of all the science myths - I have no idea how anyone can know anything much about science and call it objective), the heroes of science are those who overthrow conventional wisdom.

Still, I think if one wants to declare one's own way of thinking superior to that of others, it is essential to declare your own articles of faith. Dawkins is not just an atheist, he is a scientist. He fails to believe in gods, but that doesn't mean he fails to believe in anything. And while science has the questioning of its results built into the system, it has been as resistant as religion to questioning of its over-all worth, validity and moral obligations.

For this reason, Dawkins should be calling for scorecards on science as well as religion. I think we could also add economics, law and other prevailing structures. Of course, I have no clue what framework we use to measure this stuff, but that doesn't mean the discourse shouldn't begin.

For all this, I now love hearing him speak, because I have an affection for really well expressed pomposity, and I feel that world needs a few Dawkinses to balance up the religious conservative voices. Oh yeah, and I essentially agree with him.

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