Matt Jones

The misguided idea of scientific fundamentalism

What follows is an edited and abridged email I sent to a friend as part of a debate on the topic of ‘scientific fundamentalism’ and the proposal that ‘science can’t explain everything’.

Science as a big stick

As the opening sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey reveal, humans have always applied our knowledge to build tools to kill for food, defend ourselves and dominate and populate other lands. Science isn’t a new and dangerous development in the history of the human race; we’ve always sought to acquire knowledge about the world in order to give ourselves a competitive advantage over others.

The fact that humans have done terrible things with knowledge is irrelevant to the fact that the truth about our world and the universe is there for us to discover, and it’s up to us to use science in a positive way.

Beyond Darwin

The notion that accepting the theory of evolution as the absolute truth in explaining our origin is somehow ‘scientific fundamentalism’ is, to me, a deeply corrosive and worrying train of thought.

The theory of evolution doesn’t just stop at Darwin, his theories have been proven by the sequencing of the genome of many species including humans. We know that every single living thing on this planet shares a common ancestor, and humans are at the end of a small branch on the tree of life. It’s a fact, like the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun once per year. Those who dispute this fact are rightly ridiculed, yet, in the 21st century, 150 years after Origin of Species, and after decades of gathering mutually supporting evidence, the theory of evolution is still being disputed, and opposing ‘theories’ are still taught in schools.

Eugenics is always raised as a kind of red warning light in the discussion of the theory of evolution. It’s a bit unfortunate that it was Darwin’s cousin that started the Eugenics movement. The basis of what Darwin discovered was that what humans had been doing for thousands of years, i.e the modification of animals - in this case for our own benefit - had been happening naturally for billions of years. Galton took Darwin’s work and experimented with how disease could be selectively bred out of humans. I expect his intentions were good (if a little naive) at the time. It took the madness of Hitler to take Eugenics to the extreme of genecide and of attempting to breed a master race.

People call Dawkins a scientific fundamentalist, which, in my view is wrong. I’m going to quote this Dawkins article in the Times:

"Do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will."

On the claim that science can’t explain everything.

I’m not sure it’s possible to make the claim that science can’t explain everything. Surely it’s like someone in the 1500s saying ‘We won’t be able to prove the Earth orbits the sun.’

If we’re talking about what explains our morality, then there’s certainly no reason to think that religious belief provides us with our moral code. The question of why cultural shifts happen, such as the abolishment of slavery and rights for homosexuals (to name but a few), is a complex one to answer. But I would suggest that knowledge has played a big part in these shifts. Surely you wouldn’t argue against the fact that hatred, bigotry and intolerance come from lack of knowledge and ignorance, and science and reason are the antidote for this?

Our social interactions are extremely complicated and a result of the complex societies and social groups in which we live. The social interactions of many other animals are also extremely complicated, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be studied and understood.

On attacking religion

If certain beliefs are causing harm to people, isn’t it our moral imperative as a society to put a stop to it? Take for example, the belief that a woman should not have the right to an abortion. The belief that abstinence should be practiced instead of contraception. The belief that homosexuals are sinners and are going to hell? Surely these harmful beliefs are borne of ignorance and should be reviled and attacked? I’m very much with Dawkins (and Hitchens) on this one.

Is it more important to be happy than right?

'If ignorance is bliss, then religious people must be very happy" - Patrick Moore

I think I’d prefer to be happy and right. I have no formal scientific education, yet I’m now more interested in science, particularly astronomy, now than ever before. For me, finding out the truth is a deeply rewarding experience. Relatively simple things like how the tilt of the Earth’s axis combines with our orbit around the sun to create our four seasons, in turn creating the cycle of life on the planet. How gravitational forces between the Earth and Moon create the tides, and how many species have adapted to, and rely on these tides. I love to think about stuff like that, that’s my ‘sprituality’, if you like.

To conclude

In my opinion, it is not reasonable to that claim that scientists are as fundamentalist as the religious leaders they criticise, and that science itself is some kind of quasi-religion. To do so is to belittle the positive things we achieved with science over the last 400 years, and the positive outcomes do outweigh the negative.