Scientific Dogma?

Posted on December 22, 2009

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I find myself in the middle of many informal debates regarding science and religion.  The frequency in which I find myself in such debates has risen drastically due to the fact that I am in a freethinkers club and often set up a club table on campus.  It’s an interesting fact that our club is the only one that constantly deals with outright hostility, name calling, and people literally crying for our souls.  I, however, find it all enormously entertaining; that is, seeing how flustered and offended people get when they’re asked to apply critical thinking to their religious beliefs.  I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s declaration that there exists an inverse relationship between ones level of emotional passion and ones rational conviction for an idea.  Clever man, but that’s not the point.  What I want to talk about is a particular claim that I hear, ad nauseam, from the religiously inclined, namely, that science has its own dogma, comparable to that of all religions, and that my faith in science is equivalent to their religious faith.  In other words, they are not talking up their religion to look more respectable, instead what they’re trying to do is drag science down to their level of neotenous intellectualism in an attempt to mud-wrestle with it.  The following discussion will better clarify why the above argument is completely erroneous.

Houses of Straw

The above argument, that science has its own dogma and its adherents have just as much faith as any religious zealot, is a classic straw-man argument.  These arguments usually consist of distorting and over-simplifying an opponent’s argument or point of view to the point of absurdity, then subsequently arguing away that absurd, easily dismissible, self-made caricaturization instead of dealing with the real argument at hand.  One is said to have made a “straw-man” out of the opponent’s real flesh-and-blood argument.  These arguments can only be made by someone severely lacking an understanding of the scientific method.

Before we get into how science operates, we need to define a few terms that the religious are attempting to pin on science—dogma and faith—and see whether or not they rightfully apply.  What is dogma?  Dogma is any doctrine or established belief laid down by an authority.  An example of dogma would be that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin.  What is faith?  Faith is a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  For example, if someone were to believe in the dogma decreed by Christianity that Jesus was born of a virgin, one could only do so on faith, because there is no evidence that it ever took place, plus it violates everything we currently know about human reproduction.  I will be referring to ‘science’ as an entity, but this is only done so for ease.  Keep in mind that science isn’t a subject in itself, or an entity that “does” something.  Science is a method, or a system, of testing objective reality for reproducible regularity.

Laws Of Nature

So, does science have any beliefs that are set in stone by an authority figure?  Doesn’t the idea of a scientific law imply a higher authority?  Who made these laws of science, and why should anyone believe in these laws of nature?  These are all very interesting questions that have equally interesting and important answers.  I hear this argument put forth by many religious people in an attempt to portray people like Darwin and Newton as preachers, proselytizing their own flock, and indoctrinating the masses with their own ideas of how nature works.  The idea that scientific laws are somehow set in stone by any one scientist, and are thereafter unquestioned dogma, which one must take as truth, is woefully flawed.

There are simply no authority figures in science.  Sure, science has its heavy hitters, and influential thinkers, but they are never unquestioned.  It is absurd to think that evolutionary biologists today defend every word written in Darwin’s influential work, On The Origin of Species.  Any biologist will tell you that Darwin was indeed wrong on more things than he was right.  He was wrong on evolutionary rates of change, on how inheritance worked (he thought inheritance was much like mixing paints), on the importance of morphological constraint, and many, many other things.  However, he was right on his central thesis stated at the end of his introduction to The Origin:  that “Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”  His subsequent mechanism for the way evolution works, by natural selection, remains almost entirely intact, but that is not to say that Darwin wouldn’t have a hard time recognizing his theory today.  Much has been added to the theory of evolution since Darwin’s first treatise on the subject, but it retains the Darwinian framework in the most “bare bones” sense.  The fact that science can change its mind, and frequently, is its biggest strength, thus severing any ties to the idea of dogmatic science, or requiring blind faith.

People often chastise science as being unable to make up its mind.  Indeed, I often hear people ask, “Why should I believe anything in science when they are just going to change their minds?”  These people are making the fatal mistake in assuming that science makes teleological claims to ultimate truth.  Science makes no such claims.  Science merely takes in as many facts as possible, and draws conclusion based on those facts, however limited they may be in some cases.  Science makes no claims to truth, but strives for what is most true by trial and error.  Surely it is no stretch of the imagination to see that in order to achieve an understanding of anything, one must be open to the influence of new evidence.  The particular case of Apatosaurus comes to mind.  Basically, Apatosaurus was the name given to a small, long-necked dinosaur discovered about a century ago.  Later, a larger specimen was found that looked related to, but different from, Apatosaurus due to small disagreements in the structure of their back bones.  This larger specimen was named Brontosaurus.  To make a long story short, the latter was found to be merely the adult version of the former, and the name was changed to that of the specimen first discovered, Apatosaurus.  A skull of the animal hadn’t been found intact with the body, and a skull was used that was thought to belong to Apatosaurus to complete the skeleton.  It was later discovered that the skeleton did not belong to Apatosaurus, but belonged to a newly discovered dinosaur, Camarasaurus.  The proper skull for Apatosaurus was eventually found when full specimens were discovered, and we now had three dinosaurs, all with their proper skulls intact.

So, why bring up this boring tidbit about a harmless enough mistake, where sympathizing with the scientists is easy considering they were only acting upon the limited information they had at the time?  There are two reasons, actually.  The first is that it shows the way science works; that is, knowledge is usually attained by a meandering path of trial and error.  Previous facts are expanded upon and open to refutation by new evidence.  The second reason is that many people often bring up this story as somehow being a weakness of science!  They maintain that, because the previously flawed specimen—Brontosaurus—made it into science textbooks at the time, science, as a whole, is discredited, because if they were wrong about Brontosaurus, how can one believe that anything written in a modern science textbook is true?  This is clearly an absurd way to look at this story.  If this story demonstrates anything at all, it demonstrates the strength of science.  It demonstrates that scientists are always gathering evidence, and are willing to change their minds if presented with new, conflicting evidence.  If science were at all dogmatic it would have written off the later discovery of the correct skull as blasphemy!  Science, as is demonstrated in the story of Apatosaurus, has built-in self-correcting mechanisms.  It is the scrutiny of peer-review that tests the claims of any one scientist.  In fact, many scientists ascend to prominence, not by developing their own theories, but by discrediting the theories of other scientists!  Again, science makes no claims to ultimate truth.  Science only maintains that its conclusions are what can be considered the most accurate, based on the evidence at hand.  So, if science is so open to new evidence, where does the idea of a scientific law come from?

The public conception of a scientific law is often very muddled.  This is interesting, because the concept of a scientific law is extremely simple.  A scientific law, unlike laws made by people to maintain a civil and just society, is just an observation of an experimentally tested reality.  Scientists don’t make up laws, the universe just spits them out.  Laws are often mathematical in form, and only represent an observation, without any explanation, or mechanism, for the observed phenomena.  Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is an example of a scientific law.  The law of gravity simply states that “every massive particle in the universe attracts every other massive particle with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”  This is the written out form of the simple mathematical equation:  F=GM1M2/r^2.  This relationship between massive objects is not some dogmatic proclamation made by scientists.  If anything is said to proclaim this concept, it is the universe itself.  The relationship is just an observation of reality.  If nature changes, and objects start repelling each other instead of attracting each other, the law will be changed to fit the new observation.  The universe is impervious to our whimsy, and does not care what we think of it.  We are merely the observers, and the universe just keeps on chugging.  The laws of nature don’t require one to believe in them in order for them to be true.  You can deny gravity all you want, and yet your bottom will remain firmly in your chair due to its reality as a natural phenomenon.

Faith In Science?

Does science require faith?  I hope that you’ll agree that, after reading thus far, the answer is a resounding no.  Faith is the belief in things for which there is no evidence.  Science may have many hypotheses in the air at any one time, where further evidence is needed in order to draw conclusions, but only staunch skepticism is encouraged in these situations, not blind adherence to one or the other.   Now, an individual scientist may maintain a bit of unwarranted preference for his pet hypothesis, but his ideas must survive the onslaught of peer-review before they are given any sort of legitimacy in the greater scientific community.  When I ride in an airplane, it’s not a faith in science that calms me, it is science’s long track record of success, and the regularity displayed by nature that puts me at ease.  One does not have faith in the scientific method.  No, one merely acknowledges the method for its superb track record in getting things right.

It is not the point of this essay to criticize faith, whether or not it’s religiously motivated, but solely to show that if there’s anything which science isn’t, it’s dogmatic or faith-based.  Many conclusions reached through the scientific method are in direct conflict with a literal reading of almost every religious text, but this should not be a reason to reject the scientific method.  Science doesn’t care what it discovers about the universe, only that its conclusions are supported by the evidence.  If scientists were just a bunch of dogmatic, fundamental atheists, if such a title even makes sense, the Big Bang theory would have never survived.  The Big Bang suggests that the universe had a beginning, which gained the attention of those who have a preconceived belief in a Creator.  If science were anti-religion, or dogmatic in its own right, as many people claim, scientists would have rejected this idea, and kept their initial framework of an entirely Newtonian, eternal, steady-state universe.  The evidence overwhelmingly points to the contrary, and the Big Bang is now one of the most well-supported theories in all of science.  Those who take further meaning from the Big Bang are welcome to it, but it’s their preconceptions of how the universe should be, rather than what is supported by the evidence, that fuels any subsequent elaboration to the bare-faced observation that the universe, indeed, had a beginning.  How did it begin?  Nobody knows.   Statements claiming “privileged knowledge” of the answer to this question are done so only dogmatically by theologians, never by scientists.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. First ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. 7.

Russell, Bertrand. Sceptical Essays. London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1988. 12.

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Posted in: Religion, Science