Ellis, George F. R. The Thinking Underlying the New Scientific World-views."
Ellis analyzes arguments by a number of contemporary scientists that either
support atheism or offer a
science-based religion. He claims that they are based on scientifically
unjustified assumptions and rely on rhetorical or emotional appeal. They ignore
the limited scope and method of science, contain an implicit metaphysical
agenda, rely on the authority of science while addressing issues outside its
scope, and occasionally misrepresent or ignore opposing views.
First, Ellis reminds us that
scientific theories are provisional, open, limited in scope, partially
supported by evidence, and inherently incomplete. Cosmology in particular takes
for granted the laws of physics, but it cannot explain why they exist, why the
universe exists, or whether there is an underlying purpose and meaning to the
universe. Nor can science provide a foundation for values, although values are
essential to the conduct of science. Issues such as the existence of God lie
forever outside the competence of science to adjudicate, although the weight of
data and experience can influence ones opinion. Ellis acknowledges that the
argument from special design has been undermined by evolutionary theory. His
concern, however, is with those who construct a scientific religion out of
either a physically based metaphysics or a scientifically motivated system of
values, and who deny the fact that the metaphysical interpretation of science
is ambiguous and that the epistemic and ethical scope of science is limited.
To make his case, Ellis
turns to detailed critiques of specific authors. He admires the elegance of
Carl Sagan when he writes about science, but is concerned that Sagan goes on to
deploy a naturalistic religion whose metaphysical basis reaches beyond what
science can warrant. Such fundamental issues as the existence of the universe
and the laws of physics are taken for granted, and Sagans conclusion about the
relative unimportance of human life in the universe is argued using emotion,
not logic. Similarly Richard Dawkins ignores these fundamental issues and takes
for granted the conditions that make evolution possible. E. O. Wilson attempts
to give an exhaustive account of moral behavior as mere genetic programming but
ignores the fact that morality presupposes voluntary, intentional action.
Daniel Dennett and Jacques Monod ignore the metaphysical issues regarding the
existence of the universe, and Monod proposes that science can be a source of
universal ethics without recognizing the inadequacies of such an ethics.
Finally Peter Atkins dismisses anything outside the scope of science, making
reductionism into a dogma and ignoring the metaphysical ambiguity of science.
The pay-off for these writers is the hope to achieve absolute certainty and to
receive the privileged status of scientific high priest. Ironically, their
exaggerations serve to foster anti-scientific views in the general public.
These authors also fail to alert their readers to the speculative status of the
scientific theories being considered, such as chaotic inflationary cosmology,
cultural memes, and the arrow of time problem. Ellis is also critical of the
specific strategies employed to undercut the opponents views, such as
explaining away religion in functional and evolutionary terms, or appealing to
emotion or rhetoric.
In contrast to this, some
scientists who deploy scientifically based world views are less dogmatic and
more tentative in their approach. Their conclusion is self-critical atheism rather
than dogmatic atheism - a position which Ellis finds much more reasonable. He
also admits that taking religious experience seriously is problematic, since
there is too much data, too much conflict among the data, and much of it
involves manifest evil wrought in the name of religion - and here he agrees with
the writers he has been criticizing. This leads Ellis to reflect on how the
selection of data and the construction and testing of theories in science
occur. Perhaps a lesson from the proponents of scientific religion is that
tests in religion need to be more seriously developed and widely acknowledged.
Can morality and ethics be judged by their fruits: are they life-giving or
death-dealing? Ellis believes we might use this process to evaluate the broad spectrum
of religions as well as particular sects.
Ellis closes by describing
three theories which take the data seriously. 1) The kenotic moral-theistic
position attributes an ethical under-pinning to the universe derived from and
expressing the self-emptying nature of God. It is reflected in such exemplars
as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. With this view one can cut across
the lines of religious traditions to retrieve selectively those data and
practices that are kenotic. One can also account for the apparent
counter-evidence to Gods existence, namely evil, as well as the metaphysical
ambiguity of nature, since kenosis requires free will, and free will requires
genuine metaphysical ambiguity and makes evil deeds a possibility. Moreover,
evolution is also entailed; special creation would make the argument from
design overwhelming and faith empty. Of course, these insights are not meant as
a theistic proof; the proposal provides a viable viewpoint which might or might
not be true, and this is, once again, coherent with Ellis fundamental claim
about metaphysical ambiguity.
The second theory is
self-critical atheism: conflicting religious data suggest that none can be
correct. This view differs from the dogmatic atheism of scientific religions,
being open to evidence and aware of both metaphysical ambiguity and the limits
of the scientific method. Finally, the evidence may lead to agnosticism. Ellis
cautions that neither atheism nor agnosticism provide a solid basis for ethics.
Ultimately the choice between these theories is personal, but truth is not
irrelevant, logic plays a role, and only indubitable certainty is unattainable.
This also means that by ignoring metaphysical and epistemological
complications, the arguments for scientific religion bear the marks of
pseudo-science rather than true science. Ellis hopes his paper clears the way
for scientific world views that are less dogmatic and more open to genuine
interaction with alternative views.
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