Sometimes science must give way to religion : Nature News & Comment

CSID Senior Fellow Dan Sarewitz has another piece out in Nature that’s sure to cause a stir:

Sometimes science must give way to religion : Nature News & Comment.

Here’s The New York Times: “The Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass … Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.” Fair enough. But why “a cosmic molasses” and not, say, a “sea of milk”? The latter is the common translation of an episode in Hindu cosmology, represented on a spectacular bas-relief panel at Angkor Wat showing armies of gods and demons churning the “sea of milk” to producean elixir of immortality.

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more ‘scientific’ than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

Sarewitz sounds a bit like a modern-day Hume. The plausibility of seeing the Higgs field as a “cosmic molasses” and the implausibility of the Hindu idea of a “sea of milk” can be traced, Sarewitz claims, to faith rather than rationality. We are in the habit of accepting science, but there is no rational reason to prefer it over religion — it’s a matter of faith.

Surely there is something right here. But maybe there are a few things wrong, too.

First, science is after empirical evidence of the existence of the Higgs. Yes, those of us who don’t understand the math will accept what scientists say about it — but the “faith” we exhibit in doing so will be faith in the expertise of the scientists, not faith in a “cosmic molasses.” Perhaps there’s a similar operation at work in our minds; but it may also be different, especially if we think of religious faith as belief in something for which there is no rational evidence. Moreover, those who can follow the math must be basing their belief on reason rather than faith.

But why suppose that there is a strict dichotomy between “faith” and “rationality” — as if they were not somehow connected? Granted, it’s a common belief, and one the preceding paragraph references: ‘faith’ is reserved for those beliefs that go beyond the bounds of ‘reason’ (as Kant might say). But is this right? Surely we exhibit a “will to believe” in things that cannot be proven rationally. But to what extent is this sort of “faith” different in kind from so-called “rational” beliefs? Perhaps, as William James suggests, it’s a difference in degree: some folks are cautious and tend to believe only things for which we have rational proof; others are less cautious and tend to believe also some things for which we lack rational proof. But in either case, at the bottom of each tendency is a pre-rational, prerequisite will. What our beliefs tell us, then, is something about ourselves.

I think this is what’s right about Sarewitz’s article: that we believe in the scienific molasses and discount the sea of milk shows the extent to which we have become cautious in our beliefs; but more importantly, it shows that we are content to let others (in this case, scientists) do our thinking for us.

Are we too quick to defer to the expertise of others? This is the real question Sarewitz poses. What do you think?

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2 Responses to Sometimes science must give way to religion : Nature News & Comment

  1. Steve Fuller says:

    You’re right that Sarewitz is playing Hume — but in reverse. Hume used science to play it off against the epistemic pretenses of religion but Hume himself didn’t believe that science could take the place of religion (unlike, say, Newton or maybe even Descartes). There wasn’t much more in science for Hume than empirical regularities. Sarewitz makes the reverse move of using religion to play off against the epistemic pretenses of science but, again, not because Sarewitz believes that religion could take the place of science. Both Hume and Sarewitz are atheists — about both religion and science. And just as you are Zen with a happy face, Sarewitz is Zen with a sour puss.

  2. Yes, this is precisely what I meant in comparing Sarewitz a modern day Hume. In a sense, it’s a kind of conservatism: take the more extreme of the dominant customs (in our culture, it’s belief in the veracity of science) and ‘correct’ them — that is, bring them back from the edge, put our beliefs on a more even keel.

    As for my being Zen with a happy face, I suppose that’s as good a tag as “crypto-Buddhist.” ;-)

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