if you believe in science, you’re doing it wrong

October 10, 2009

I have a confession to make. Despite writing hundreds of blog posts that tear into creationist arguments and show the hypocrisy of many verbal attacks on atheists, I’ve never read any of the awareness-raising books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or even Richard Dawkins’ blockbuster The God Delusion. Sure, I did pick up copies at the local bookstore and leafed through them to see if anything jumped out at me and caught my eye and what I noticed were either primarily philosophical arguments or conclusions to which I came to as a teenager. This is not to say that the books in question don’t have their merits, but for me, they were preaching to the choir. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in your ideas but that assurance doesn’t need to be constant.


Another problem with a number of popular atheist books is their constant ventures into philosophy, the tired, old stomping ground of anyone who thinks he has a profound idea and wants to discuss it without having to base the case on real world evidence and observations. But why should the people who understand that we’re not as knowledgeable as any human could be after reading a book or two and look for tangible evidence as a means to understand the world around them have to plunge into this rhetorical morass? Why not just stick to science and the facts? Why not just let the Chris Mooneys, the Terry Eagletons, the Nicholas Wades and the Karen Armstrongs of the world waft in the clouds while staying planted on terra firma to deal with the tangibles and observables? It’s fun to dream and ask what if, but you also need evidence to go with your big ideas.

And it’s at this point when post-modernists perk up and bring forth their epistemological noise. How could you know anything for sure? Don’t you know that everyone’s opinions are valid? Science is just a belief too and all the conclusions you get from your evidence are just your dogmas. It’s as if with each quote they’re trying to be as obtuse and metaphysical as possible, crafting shallow arguments and infusing them with enough rhetoric and high brow terminology to make them sound profound and insightful. I wonder how they could function in the real world if they really thought this way all the time. Did they wake up or do they believe they just woke up? Did they drink a cup of coffee or do they simply believe they drank something and it’s their belief that courses through their bloodstream to make them more alert? Did they go to work or do they just do something which may look like work to an outside observer? It’s this level of ridiculous, over the top doubt in everything that led Descrates to come up with his infamous brain in a jar conjecture best summarized in the Matrix trilogy.

When we step down from their mental ivory towers and really think about it, the assertion that science is just a belief or another way of creating dogmas is monstrously stupid. Simply put, if you believe in science, you have no idea what science is. You don’t believe that that there’s a couch in a coffee shop. You see it there. You can touch it, move it, smell it and it won’t suddenly vanish into thin air when you look away. You don’t believe in the sky being blue on a sunny day, you just look up and see it. And when was the last time that you believed in the existence of cars and planes? Looking at what’s out there, taking note of it, studying its properties based on what you can see, touch and smell is science. I never say that I believe in evolution because it’s a ridiculous thing to say. Instead, I looked at the available evidence on the subject and agreed that yes, this is the best way to explain how life came to be the way it is on this planet based on the available data.

The post-modernists can complain about the limitations of our senses and our technology but what seems to be lost on them is the cardinal rule of the scientific thought process. If you have no proof for it, you can’t insist that it’s real or objective. Because we don’t know something, we can’t randomly jam anything we want in there and pretend it’s a good idea. And this is exactly what we do when we involve deities for which we don’t have a shred of proof into processes we otherwise understand and want to explore in farther depth. To equate a way to describe the natural world through objective means with simply inserting one’s own opinion in the gaps of our knowledge and chalk both up to belief is an absurd assertion that can only be made by people who don’t understand the nature of science and can’t wrap their minds around the fact that it’s simply a methodology by which people accumulate and connect facts, not a set of answers to questions or ready made opinions.

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  • Kyle Grove

    I’m a potential member of your sympathetic audience, however, I have to disagree, both on the basis of some your internal parts of your claim and on some observations regarding the scientific method. First, your argument is half-straw man and half-begging the question–you literally say “when we….really think about it, the assertion that science is just a belief or another way of creating dogmas is monstrously stupid”.

    The thing you describe as science–“Looking at what’s out there, taking note of it, studying its properties based on what you can see, touch and smell is science”–describes the method used by Francis Bacon. The problem with the idea that we can systematically record facts and correspondences between facts is that there are more variables in any environment than is discernible by the Baconian method.

    This method was superseded by the empirical scientific method, in which we have to artificially isolate the variables of interest from the environment with experiments. This abstract mapping between experiments and hypothesises is key to everything in scientific progress since Bacon, yet your post claims that everything in science is what is immediate.

    Also, Bayesian methods, which are prominent and becoming more so in the cognitive and other sciences, are very successful while having as a core feature the concept that probabilities denote degrees of belief, and that the scientific method is at heart a belief revision process. This is the very idea that you lampoon, unsuccessfully.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    I live not far from a major (well, big, anyway) university, and while I venture on campus once in a while I’ve yet to muster the courage to approach the Philosophy Dept.

    Nonetheless, from chitchat picked up there and online, I’ve gotten the impression that post-modernism has already had its day, particularly in the everything-is-subjective form. What remains appears to be mostly the study of subjective experience per se, minus the grandiose claims that Immanuel Kant handled so much better two centuries ago.

    In fact, the only encounter I’ve had in years with the stereotypical postmodernism cited by our host was in the form of a handout from a group of Christian apologeticists, as part of a thoroughly hopeless attempt to claim comparative validity for their ideology. When that’s all you got, you ain’t got squat.

  • Greg Fish


    I’ll concede that I may have been begging the question here. However, the position I’m talking about is no strawman. I’m taking the literal words of accommodationists who comment here, on The Intersection, Bad Astronomy and Pharyngula.

    “This abstract mapping between experiments and hypothesises [sic] is key… yet your post claims that everything in science is what is immediate.”

    Not at all. All I said is that science is based on evidence and to equate it with pure belief is grossly erroneous. Take the example of the couch in the coffee shop.

    Saying that you can see couches in coffee shops, therefore it’s very probable that coffee shops have couches, is a scientific statement. It’s based on tangible evidence.

    But pontificating that you believe that all the couches are placed there by spirits of everything that’s comfortable and that no scientist can disprove they exist because of their limited tools, hence you are just as correct as the person who hypothesizes about the frequency of couches, is not only unscientific but woefully illogical.

  • Anonymous

    What I think the blogger wants to say is that postmodernism has no first principles, and is absolutely cynical. His expressed viewpoint is, I think, the other extreme, and equally bad: all knowledge is generated through the senses. As a cognitive scientist, my object of study is the senses themsleves, and I can tell you that the senses are limited and often hackish (as they evolved for survival, not the discovery of truth), and provide guesses, hacks, and outright illusions (but in quite clever ways) in many cases. This is why we have optical and cognitive illusions, blindspots, dont see in infrared, etc…ad nauseum. What science gives us is a non-perfect, but useful methodology that we dont have to trust our senses absolutely.

  • reggie

    Interesting post. I have been thinking of ways to deal with the question of “belief”. I have been asked if I believed in evolution, and my response usually is that I do not “believe” in it. I accept it based on the mounds of evidentiary support. Belief suggests a blind acceptance of assertions.

    Of course this belief question extends to less philosophical areas, also. For many people I encounter in my day to day life, “belief” is simply how they know something and it has less to do with the reality or evidence and more to do with their feelings and emotions on the matter.

  • Thorne

    reggie said: “Belief suggests a blind acceptance of assertions.
    Of course this belief question extends to less philosophical areas, also. For many people I encounter in my day to day life, “belief” is simply how they know something and it has less to do with the reality or evidence and more to do with their feelings and emotions on the matter.”

    I have this same problem. I think it’s similar to those who claim that evolution is “just” a theory. The commonly used terms don’t have the same meaning as they do in more rigid, scientific arenas. I am frequently frustrated by those who say they can’t understand how I could “believe in atheism.” Just saying that points out their total lack of understanding of what atheism is! The same with evolution. One cannot believe in facts. The sky IS blue. Water IS wet. Evolution DOES occur. There is nothing to believe or disbelieve.

    Unfortunately, there is no way to take back these terms from the public use. We have to figure some way to refine our comments so people understand the differences between beliefs and facts. Given the state of scientific education here in the US, I have my doubt about being able to do that.

  • Sandro

    His expressed viewpoint is, I think, the other extreme, and equally bad: all knowledge is generated through the senses

    That’s clearly not the case, as knowledge of formal systems needs only thought. However, all knowledge of the real world is indeed acquired via the senses.

    Which isn’t to say that our senses are foolproof, but that we know some ways that our senses are accurate, and we have calibrated our measurement instruments to report data in these ways so we can sense it reliably.

  • reggie

    Thorne said: “I am frequently frustrated by those who say they can’t understand how I could “believe in atheism.” Just saying that points out their total lack of understanding of what atheism is!”

    I suppose this is why it is often said that atheists believe in nothing?

    “We have to figure some way to refine our comments so people understand the differences between beliefs and facts.”

    A tough road. I’m afraid that even a refined way of phrasing something will not overcome uncritical thinking and general ignorance.

  • I have written on this topic as well: Is Science Faith-Based? Basically, the answer is “no”. Evidence != faith.

  • Gfish, you are blithely skipping over all the difficult epistemic issues here. Postmodernists (or at least, quite a few of them) endorse radical epistemic relativism, which claims that scientific methods fail to produce anything that amounts to objective knowledge.

    You also seem not to grasp that the point of the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is precisely to illustrate the problems with the sort of naive realism that wants to say “I see a couch, thus a couch exists”. (As an aside, I should point out that one can be anti-realist without endorsing epistemic relativism — the latter is a much stronger position.)

    I suggest reading Larry Laudan’s Science and Relativism. It’s very short, aimed at non-specialists, and written with the explicit purpose of countering the claims of radical relativists. Speaking as someone who does not at all buy in to radical relativism, I don’t think that the claims of the radical relativists are obviously wrong. Indeed, one learns a great deal about epistemology in the course of carefully refuting those claims.

  • Nagarjunary

    Several points:

    1) Dawkins et al *are* indeed preaching to the choir, because that’s (for the most part) their intended audience. Dawkins, in particular, is more about rallying the troops than converting the unconverted. His assertion is that atheists and secularists need to get off the fence and defend their point of view, lest their freedom to partake of it will lose out to alternative points of view.

    2) What’s the big deal with the philosophy and all these abstract notions of what is and what isn’t? After all, when approached with a similar notion (in this case, by George Berkeley, that things exist only insomuch as they exist in the mind), Samuel Johnson replied “I refute it thus” and kicked a stone.

    The philosophical points of view seek to map out a conceptual mechanism through which we create mental models of phenomena; if these phenomena exist in the “real world”, we call it science; if they don’t, perhaps we may call it fiction, or in some cases, pure mathematics.

    Part of this endeavor is to demonstrate, as Daniel Dennett points out, the explanatory power of mechanistic means, through what he calls “cranes” versus “skyhooks”. In his analogy, cranes are foundational building blocks that accumulate from previously established facts, in the manner that we are accustomed to science working, whereas skyhooks are magical deux-ex-machinas that provide some alternative explanation for a particular phenomenon by asserting that no crane-like mechanism exists to explain that particular phenomenon — a god-of-the-gaps sort of explanation.

    Part of the scientific method’s reliability is due to this deep explanatory power, and this deep explanatory power relies on asking abstract questions that go beyond “I refute it thus” to demonstrate that a particular phenomenon, however abstract or otherwise socially constructed, may indeed obtain from mechanistic foundations. Whereas you may not necessarily like their route, you can thank the people who have done the deep inspection for the demonstrated soundness of certain strong arguments in favor of scientific empiricism.

    3) It is important to acknowledge alternative perspectives insomuch that any comprehensive theory of existence must necessarily account for all potential interpretations of phenomena, however farcical or nonsensical they may seem. That is not to say that hallucinations, delusions, or fictions necessarily obtain or have truth value, but rather that a) people *HAVE* these experiences (that is, they are not lying), and b) these experiences themselves most likely have mechanistic causes.

    Thus, as Dennett points out in his book Breaking the Spell, rather than simply dismissing things outside of intuitive notions of science as hogwash, it is important to understand them scientifically, for they are both veridical, insomuch as these experiences are actually held by many people, and moreover potent in swaying the tenor of the argument regarding any ultimate explanation for what is true and what isn’t. A practical argument, but a valid one nonetheless.

    4) The post-modernist simply lets go of strongly-held assertions in analyzing a domain as a “text” (much as an artist would actively defy preconceptions to force his/her audience to interpret a piece in a novel manner), and thus the slippery slope of relativism. However, that is not to say that the strong relativist does not hold on to some (perhaps ultimately arbitrary) standards for evaluating truth within a text, and more often than not, these criteria themselves map onto the criteria of a physical, “real” world (otherwise anything goes).

    Ultimately, if you take the post-modernists at their word, it’s an arbitrary gesture as to where you plant your flag, regarding what you hold as the ultimate set of functions for the evaluation of truth within any domain or set of domains. Then, the argument becomes why one particular node within this set of evaluations is more worthy than others, to which one can site the wealth of internal consistency that a mechanistic, scientific understanding of the world provides; alternatively, it is also plausible one may wish to live in the la-la land of magical thinking (e.g., the GOP), and whereas you may not necessarily convince them that your perspective is more robust, you can at least provide evidence that your particular choice of where to plant your flag is a valid one; moreover, as per Dawkins, you may convince other reasonable persons to join you in their defense of such a perspective.

  • Greg Fish

    “…the point of the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is to illustrate the problems with the sort of naive realism that wants to say ‘I see a couch, thus a couch exists.'”


    It’s hard to call realism “naive” when it’s based on tangible evidence. When you rely on being able to inspect something before confirming that it really does exist, you’re being a lot more thorough than someone who goes off the philosophical deep end pontificating on things that may or may not exist, using epistemological arguments as a crutch.

    There’s a Greek story about a philosopher who said that a runner will never finish a dash because he has to cover half the distance, than half of the remaining distance, than half of the rest of the remaining distance and so on. In reply, a runner simply finished the dash. Moral of the story? Don’t invent problems that aren’t there by diving headfirst into irrelevant topics. They generally won’t apply to the real world anyway.

    Ultimately, our imperfect senses and our admittedly imperfect tools are all we really have to come up with a framework for the universe as we know it. And while we may not always be right about the kind of evidence we collect, we’re at least doing more than just pontificating without providing anything to show for it but rhetorical writhing. There’s a time and place for philosophy and relativism, but it’s not when we have to tangle with the reality of the world before us and collect the relevant facts about it.

  • Wow, the comments certainly took off from the post’s original points.

    First off, I think the question of “believe” versus “know” is a difficult thing to address, mostly because “believe” isn’t defined distinctly enough to apply objectively. One person saying, “I believe that’s so” may be indicating their deep commitment to the concept, or indicating that they have never had it adequately proven but support it based on hearsay, or simply avowing that they have faith. On hearing that phrase, however, I may have a tendency to apply my own definition to it, but that hardly means it agrees with theirs. Then it’s simply an argument over semantics, which rarely establishes anything useful.

    I feel much the same way about philosophy and postmodernism. They both have little to no predictive value and contribute nothing towards human advancement (unless you consider long drawn out arguments that reach no conclusions as “advancement,” but even semantics has a hard time making that one stick.)

    All of our experience – what we see, hear, feel, etc. – is subjective, to a certain degree, true enough. But arguing that it may therefore be false is simply playing silly buggers. There would be no way you could establish such objectively, and no point in trying. I once argued with someone over the idea that experience could simply be imagination by pointing out that if such were true, my arguments were only a figment of his imagination, and yet he was still getting his butt kicked. What did that say about human condition? I never received any answer…

    It’s also easy to show how little commitment people have to subjectivity of experience by picking up a sharp object or a lit candle, and approaching them with the instruction of, “Prevent this from causing you pain.” I learned that one from Bill Nye the Science Guy (okay, not really.)

    Our minds are really cool things, but they produce more utter crap than deep insights. Telling the difference virtually always comes down to empirical testing. The only people that seem to have a problem with that are the ones that aren’t favored/supported/vindicated by empirical testing.

  • JimmytheTongue

    What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.

  • lynn

    I have to say atheist are a sad lot. Choosing not to believe in anything then looking down your nose at others while doing so is so childish. I choose to live in a world where God exists even if you could prove he didn’t (which you can’t prove).

  • Proud Kuffar

    Lynn is a godbot. “You believe what?” (point and laugh) muahahahah!

  • what do people call them self when they only believe in scientific knowledge, im not looking for a religious term and im not looking for an argument- im writing a paper for school,

  • Michelle

    I agree with everything you’ve said, thank you for writing this.

    Just one point though: Atheistic belief systems do the same thing as religious belief systems in that they come up with answers (i.e. there is no God) based on what is known, and don’t account for the fact that there one day may be evidence to support God. Science is the nature of all things AS WE KNOW IT, and is always changing. I don’t think atheism should hold the upper hand in our society, and I don’t think it should be upheld in science, because it interferes with the scientific method by limiting divergent thinking (i.e. maybe supernatural powers can exist in a scientific way!)