The Science Delusion


Science, Religion and Power

Since the late nineteenth century, science has dominated and transformed the earth.  It has touched everyone’s lives through technology and modern medicine.  Its intellectual prestige is almost unchallenged.  Its influence is greater than that of any other system of thought in all of human history.  Although most of its power comes from its practical applications, it also has a strong intellectual appeal.  It offers new ways of understanding the world, including the mathematical order at the heart of atoms and molecules, the molecular biology of genes, and the vast sweep of cosmic evolution.

The scientific priesthood

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a politician and lawyer who became Lord Chancellor of England, foresaw the power of organised science more than anyone else.  To clear the way, he needed to show that there was nothing sinister about acquiring power over nature.  When he was writing, there was a widespread fear of witchcraft and black magic, which he tried to counteract by claiming that knowledge of nature was God-given, not inspired by the devil.  Science was a return to the innocence of the first man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Bacon argued that the first book of the Bible, Genesis, justified scientific knowledge.  He equated man’s knowledge of nature with Adam’s naming of the animals.  God ‘brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them, and what Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof’. (Genesis 2: 19–20)  This was literally man’s knowledge, because Eve was not created until two verses later.  Bacon argued that man’s technological mastery of nature was the recovery of a Godgiven power, rather than something new.  He confidently assumed that people would use their new knowledge wisely and well: ‘Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion.’[1]

The key to this new power over nature was organised institutional research.  In New Atlantis (1624), Bacon described a techno-cratic Utopia in which a scientific priesthood made decisions for the good of the state as a whole.  The Fellows of this scientific ‘Order or Society’ wore long robes and were treated with a respect that their power and dignity required.  The head of the order travelled in a rich chariot, under a radiant golden image of the sun.  As he rode in procession, ‘he held up his bare hand, as he went, as blessing the people’.

The general purpose of this foundation was ‘the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’.  The Society was equipped with machinery and facilities for testing explosives and armaments, experimental furnaces, gardens for plant breeding, and dispensaries.[2]

This visionary scientific institution foreshadowed many features of institutional research, and was a direct inspiration for the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1660, and for many other national academies of science.  But although the members of these academies were often held in high esteem, none achieved the grandeur and political power of Bacon’s imaginary prototypes.  Their glory was continued even after their deaths in a gallery, like a Hall of Fame, where their images were preserved.  ‘For upon every invention of value we erect a statue to the inventor, and give him a liberal and honourable reward.’[3]

In England in Bacon’s time (and still today) the Church of England was linked to the state as the Established Church.  Bacon envisaged that the scientific priesthood would also be linked to the state through state patronage, forming a kind of established church of science.  And here again he was prophetic.  In nations both capitalist and Communist, the official academies of science remain the centres of power of the scientific establishment.  There is no separation of science and state.  Scientists play the role of an established priesthood, influencing government policies on the arts of warfare, industry, agriculture, medicine, education and research.

Bacon coined the ideal slogan for soliciting financial support from governments and investors: ‘Knowledge is power.’[4]  But the success of scientists in eliciting funding from governments varied from country to country.  The systematic state funding of science began much earlier in France and Germany than in Britain and the United States where, until the latter half of the nineteenth century, most research was privately funded or carried out by wealthy amateurs like Charles Darwin.[5]

In France, Louis Pasteur (1822–95) was an influential proponent of science as a truth-finding religion, with laboratories like temples through which mankind would be elevated to its highest potential:

Take interest, I beseech you, in those sacred institutions which we designate under the expressive name of laboratories.  Demand that they be multiplied and adorned; they are the temples of wealth and of the future.  There it is that humanity grows, becomes stronger and better.[6]

By the beginning of the twentieth century, science was almost entirely institutionalised and professionalised, and after the Second World War expanded enormously under government patronage, as well as through corporate investment.[7]  The highest level of funding is in the United States, where in 2008 the total expenditure on research and development was $398 billion, of which $104 billion came from the government.[8]  But governments and corporations do not usually pay scientists to do research because they want innocent knowledge, like that of Adam before the Fall.  Naming animals, as in classifying endangered species of beetles in tropical rainforests, is a low priority.  Most funding is a response to Bacon’s persuasive slogan ‘knowledge is power’.

By the 1950s, when institutional science had reached an unprecedented level of power and prestige, the historian of science George Sarton approvingly described the situation in a way that sounds like the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation:

Truth can be determined only by the judgement of experts . . .  Everything is decided by very small groups of men, in fact, by single experts whose results are carefully checked, however, by a few others.  The people have nothing to say but simply to accept the decisions handed out to them.  Scientific activities are controlled by universities, academies and scientific societies, but such control is as far removed from popular control as it possibly could be.[9]

Bacon’s vision of a scientific priesthood has now been realised on a global scale.  But his confidence that man’s power over nature would be guided by ‘sound reason and true religion’ was misplaced.

The fantasy of omniscience

The fantasy of omniscience is a recurrent theme in the history of science, as scientists aspire to a total godlike knowledge.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a scientific mind capable of knowing and predicting everything:

Consider an intelligence which, at any instant, could have a knowledge of all the forces controlling nature together with the momentary conditions of all the entities of which nature consists.  If this intelligence were powerful enough to submit all these data to analysis it would be able to embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atoms; for it nothing would be uncertain; the past and future would be equally present for its eyes.[10]

These ideas were not confined to physicists.  Thomas Henry Huxley, who did so much to propagate Darwin’s theory of evolution, extended mechanical determinism to cover the entire evolutionary process:

If the fundamental proposition of evolution is true, that the entire world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed, it is no less certain the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic vapour, and that a sufficient intellect could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of the fauna of Great Britain in 1869.[11]

When the belief in determinism was applied to the activity of the human brain, it resulted in a denial of free will, on the grounds that everything about the molecular and physical activities of the brain was in principle predictable.  Yet this conviction rested not on scientific evidence, but simply on the assumption that everything was fully determined by mathematical laws.

Even today, many scientists assume that free will is an illusion.  Not only is the activity of the brain determined by machine-like processes, but there is no non-mechanical self capable of making choices.  For example, in 2010, the British brain scientist Patrick Haggard asserted, ‘As a neuroscientist, you’ve got to be a determinist.  There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey.  Under identical circumstances, you couldn’t have done otherwise.  There’s no “I” which can say, “I want to do otherwise.”’[12]  However, Haggard does not let his scientific beliefs interfere with his personal life: ‘I keep my scientific and personal lives pretty separate.  I still seem to decide what films I go to see, I don’t feel it’s predestined, though it must be determined somewhere in my brain.’

Indeterminism and chance

In 1927, with the recognition of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, it became clear that indeterminism was an essential feature of the physical world, and physical predictions could be made only in terms of probabilities.  The fundamental reason is that quantum phenomena are wavelike, and a wave is by its very nature spread out in space and time: it cannot be localised at a single point at a particular instant; or, more technically, its position and momentum cannot both be known precisely.[13]  Quantum theory deals in statistical probabilities, not certainties.  The fact that one possibility is realised in a quantum event rather than another is a matter of chance.

Does quantum indeterminism affect the question of free will?  Not if indeterminism is purely random.  Choices made at random are no freer than if they are fully determined.[14]

In neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory randomness plays a central role through the chance mutations of genes, which are quantum events.  With different chance events, evolution would happen differently.  T. H. Huxley was wrong in believing that the course of evolution was predictable.  ‘Replay the tape of life,’ said the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, ‘and a different set of survivors would grace our planet today.’[15]

In the twentieth century it became clear that not just quantum processes but almost all natural phenomena are probabilistic, including the turbulent flow of liquids, the breaking of waves on the seashore, and the weather: they show a spontaneity and indeterminism that eludes exact prediction.  Weather forecasters still get it wrong in spite of having powerful computers and a continuous stream of data from satellites.  This is not because they are bad scientists but because weather is intrinsically unpredictable in detail.  It is chaotic, not in the everyday sense that there is no order at all, but in the sense that it is not precisely predictable.  To some extent, the weather can be modelled mathematically in terms of chaotic dynamics, sometimes called ‘chaos theory’, but these models do not make exact predictions.[16]  Certainty is as unachievable in the everyday world as it is in quantum physics.  Even the orbits of the planets around the sun, long considered the centrepiece of mechanistic science, turn out to be chaotic over long time scales.[17]

The belief in determinism, strongly held by many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scientists, turned out to be a delusion.  The freeing of scientists from this dogma led to a new appreciation of the indeterminism of nature in general, and of evolution in particular.  The sciences have not come to an end by abandoning the belief in determinism.  Likewise, they will survive the loss of the dogmas that still bind them; they will be regenerated by new possibilities.

Further fantasies of omniscience

By the end of the nineteenth century, the fantasy of scientific omniscience went far beyond a belief in determinism.  In 1888, the Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb wrote, ‘We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.’  In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, declared, ‘The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote . . .  Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.’[18]  And in 1900 William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, the physicist and inventor of intercontinental telegraphy, expressed this supreme confidence in an often-quoted (although perhaps apocryphal) claim: ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.  All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’

These convictions were shattered in the twentieth century through quantum physics, relativity theory, nuclear fission and fusion (as in atom and hydrogen bombs), the discovery of galaxies beyond our own, and the Big Bang theory – the idea that the universe began very small and very hot some 14 billion years ago and has been growing, cooling and evolving ever since.

Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century, the fantasy of omniscience was back again, this time fuelled by the triumphs of twentieth-century physics and by the discoveries of neurobiology and molecular biology.  In 1997, John Horgan, a senior science writer at Scientific American, published a book called The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age.  After interviewing many leading scientists, he advanced a provocative thesis:

If one believes in science, one must accept the possibility – even the probability – that the great era of scientific discovery is over.  By science I mean not applied science, but science at its purest and greatest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it.  Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.[19]

Horgan is surely right that once something has been discovered – like the structure of DNA – it cannot go on being discovered.  But he took it for granted that the tenets of conventional science are true.  He assumed that the most fundamental answers are already known.  They are not, and every one of them can be replaced by more interesting and fruitful questions, as I show in this book.

Science and Christianity

The founders of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century, including Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, were all practising Christians.  Kepler, Galileo and Descartes were Roman Catholics; Bacon, Boyle and Newton Protestants.  Boyle, a wealthy aristocrat, was exceptionally devout, and spent large amounts of his own money to promote missionary activity in India.  Newton devoted much time and energy to biblical scholarship, with a particular interest in the dating of prophecies.  He calculated that the Day of Judgment would occur between the years 2060 and 2344, and set out the details in his book Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John.[20]

Seventeenth-century science created a vision of the universe as a machine intelligently designed and started off by God.  Everything was governed by eternal mathematical laws, which were ideas in the mind of God.  This mechanistic philosophy was revolutionary precisely because it rejected the animistic view of nature taken for granted in medieval Europe, as discussed in Chapter 1.  Until the seventeenth century, university scholars and Christian theologians taught that the universe was alive, pervaded by the Spirit of God, the divine breath of life.  All plants, animals and people had souls.  The stars, the planets and the earth were living beings, guided by angelic intelligences.

Mechanistic science rejected these doctrines and expelled all souls from nature.  The material world became literally inanimate, a soulless machine.  Matter was purposeless and unconscious; the planets and stars were dead.  In the entire physical universe, the only non-mechanical entities were human minds, which were immaterial, and part of a spiritual realm that included angels and God.  No one could explain how minds related to the machinery of human bodies, but René Descartes speculated that they interacted in the pineal gland, the small pine-cone-shaped organ nestled between the right and left hemispheres near the centre of the brain.[21]

After some initial conflicts, most notably the trial of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, science and Christianity were increasingly confined to separate realms by mutual consent.  The practice of science was fairly free from religious interference, and religion fairly free from conflict with science, at least until the rise of militant atheism at the end of the eighteenth century.  Science’s domain was the material universe, including human bodies, animals, plants, stars and planets.  Religion’s realm was spiritual: God, angels, spirits and human souls.  This more or less peaceful coexistence served the interests of both science and religion.  Even in the late twentieth century Stephen Jay Gould still defended this arrangement as a ‘sound position of general consensus’.  He called it the doctrine of Non-overlapping Magisteria.  The magisterium of science covers ‘the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory).  The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.’[22]

However, from around the time of the French Revolution (1789–99), militant materialists rejected this principle of dual magisteria, dismissing it as intellectually dishonest, or seeing it as a refuge for the feeble-minded.  They recognised only one reality: the material world.  The spiritual realm did not exist.  Gods, angels and spirits were figments of the human imagination, and human minds were nothing but aspects or by-products of brain activity.  There were no supernatural agencies that interfered with the mechanical course of nature.  There was only one magisterium: the magisterium of science.

Atheist beliefs

The materialist philosophy achieved its dominance within institutional science in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was closely linked to the rise of atheism in Europe.  Twenty-first-century atheists, like their predecessors, take the doctrines of materialism to be established scientific facts, not just assumptions.

When it was combined with the idea that the entire universe was like a machine running out of steam, according to the second law of thermodynamics, materialism led to the cheerless worldview expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.  Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.[23]

How many scientists believe in these ‘truths’?  Some accept them without question.  But many scientists have philosophies or religious faiths that make this ‘scientific worldview’ seem limited, at best a half-truth.  In addition, within science itself, evolutionary cosmology, quantum physics and consciousness studies make the standard dogmas of science look old-fashioned.

It is obvious that science and technology have transformed the world.  Science is brilliantly successful when applied to making machines, increasing agricultural yields and developing cures for diseases.  Its prestige is immense.  Since its beginnings in seventeenth-century Europe, mechanistic science has spread worldwide through European empires and European ideologies, like Marxism, socialism and free-market capitalism.  It has touched the lives of billions of people through economic and technological development.  The evangelists of science and technology have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the missionaries of Christianity.  Never before has any system of ideas dominated all humanity.  Yet despite these overwhelming successes, science still carries the ideological baggage inherited from its European past.

Science and technology are welcomed almost everywhere because of the obvious material benefits they bring, and the materialist philosophy is part of the package deal.  However, religious beliefs and the pursuit of a scientific career can interact in surprising ways.  As an Indian scientist wrote in the scientific journal Nature in 2009:

[In India] science is neither the ultimate form of knowledge nor a victim of scepticism . . .  My observations as a research scientist of more than 30 years’ standing suggest that most scientists in India conspicuously evoke the mysterious powers of gods and goddesses to help them achieve success in professional matters such as publishing papers or gaining recognition.[24]

All over the world, scientists know that the doctrines of materialism are the rules of the game during working hours.  Few professional scientists challenge them openly, at least before they retire or get a Nobel Prize.  And in deference to the prestige of science, most educated people are prepared to go along with the orthodox creed in public, whatever their private opinions.

However, some scientists and intellectuals are deeply committed atheists, and the materialist philosophy is central to their belief system.  A minority become missionaries, filled with evangelical zeal.  They see themselves as old-style crusaders fighting for science and reason against the forces of superstition, religion and credulity.  Several books putting forward this stark opposition were bestsellers in the 2000s, including Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006), which by 2010 had sold two million copies in English, and was translated into thirty-four other languages.[25]  Until he retired in 2008, Dawkins was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.

But few atheists believe in materialism alone.  Most are also secular humanists, for whom a faith in God has been replaced by a faith in humanity.  Humans approach a godlike omniscience through science.  God does not affect the course of human history.  Instead, humans have taken charge themselves, bringing about progress through reason, science, technology, education and social reform.

Mechanistic science in itself gives no reason to suppose that there is any point in life, or purpose in humanity, or that progress is inevitable.  Instead it asserts that the universe is ultimately purposeless, and so is human life.  A consistent atheism stripped of the humanist faith paints a bleak picture with little ground for hope, as Bertrand Russell made so clear.  But secular humanism arose within a Judaeo-Christian culture and inherited from Christianity a belief in the unique importance of human life, together with a faith in future salvation.  Secular humanism is in many ways a Christian heresy, in which man has replaced God.[26]

Secular humanism makes atheism palatable because it surrounds it with a reassuring faith in progress rather than provable facts.  Instead of redemption by God, humans themselves will bring about human salvation through science, reason and social reform.[27]

Whether or not they share this faith in human progress, all materialists assume that science will eventually prove that their beliefs are true.  But this too is a matter of faith.

Dogmas, beliefs and free enquiry

It is not anti-scientific to question established beliefs, but central to science itself.  At the creative heart of science is a spirit of open-minded enquiry.  Ideally, science is a process, not a position or a belief system.  Innovative science happens when scientists feel free to ask new questions and build new theories.

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the historian of science Thomas Kuhn argued that in periods of ‘normal’ science, most scientists share a model of reality and a way of asking questions that he called a paradigm.  The ruling paradigm defines what kinds of questions scientists can ask and how they can be answered.  Normal science takes place within this framework and scientists usually explain away anything that does not fit.  Anomalous facts accumulate until a crisis point is reached.  Revolutionary changes happen when researchers adopt more inclusive frameworks of thought and practice, and are able to incorporate facts that were previously dismissed as anomalies.  In due course the new paradigm becomes the basis of a new phase of normal science.[28]

Kuhn helped focus attention on the social aspect of science and reminded us that science is a collective activity.  Scientists are subject to all the usual constraints of human social life, including peer-group pressure and the need to conform to the norms of the group.  Kuhn’s arguments were largely based on the history of science, but sociologists of science have taken his insights further by studying science as it is actually practised, looking at the ways that scientists build up networks of support, use resources and results to increase their power and influence, and compete for funding, prestige and recognition.

Bruno Latour’s Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987) is one of the most influential studies in this tradition.  Latour observed that scientists routinely make a distinction between knowledge and beliefs.  Scientists within their professional group know about the phenomena covered by their field of science, while those outside the network have only distorted beliefs.  When scientists think about people outside their groups, they often wonder how they can still be so irrational:

[T]he picture of non-scientists drawn by scientists becomes bleak: a few minds discover what reality is, while the vast majority of people have irrational ideas or at least are prisoners of many social, cultural and psychological factors that make them stick obstinately to obsolete prejudices.  The only redeeming aspect of this picture is that if it were only possible to eliminate all these factors that hold people prisoners of their prejudices, they would all, immediately and at no cost, become as sound-minded as the scientists, grasping the phenomena without further ado.  In every one of us there is a scientist who is asleep, and who will not wake up until social and cultural conditions are pushed aside.[29]

For believers in the ‘scientific worldview’, all that is needed is to increase the public understanding of science through education and the media.

Since the nineteenth century, a belief in materialism has indeed been propagated with remarkable success: millions of people have been converted to this ‘scientific’ view, even though they know very little about science itself.  They are, as it were, devotees of the Church of Science, or of scientism, of which scientists are the priests.  This is how a prominent atheist layman, Ricky Gervais, expressed these attitudes in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, the same year that he was on the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world.  Gervais is an entertainer, not a scientist or an original thinker, but he borrows the authority of science to support his atheism:

Science seeks the truth.  And it does not discriminate.  For better or worse it finds things out.  Science is humble.  It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know.  It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence – evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded.  It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.  It embraces the body of knowledge.  It doesn’t hold onto medieval practices because they are tradition.[30]

Gervais’s idealised view of science is hopelessly naïve in the context of the history and sociology of science.  It portrays scientists as open-minded seekers of truth, not ordinary people competing for funds and prestige, constrained by peer-group pressures and hemmed in by prejudices and taboos.  Yet naïve as it is, I take this ideal of free enquiry seriously.  This book is an experiment in which I apply these ideals to science itself.  By turning assumptions into questions I want to find out what science really knows and doesn’t know.  I look at the ten core doctrines of materialism in the light of hard evidence and recent discoveries.  I assume that true scientists will not be offended when new facts come along, and that they will not hold onto the materialist worldview just because it’s traditional.

I am doing this because the spirit of enquiry has continually liberated scientific thinking from unnecessary limitations, whether imposed from within or without.  I am convinced that the sciences, for all their successes, are being stifled by outmoded beliefs.

After this prologue, Ch. 1 to 12,
will not post them in full-text.