The reverse fundamentalist vs the peaceful atheist
Two days ago, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and other mostly British outlets amplified an amusing yet potentially serious battle between two famous scientists, Richard Dawkins and Peter Higgs:
Battle of the professors: Richard Dawkins branded a fundamentalist by expert behind the 'God particle' (The Daily Mail)As you surely know, Dawkins is a proud militant atheist. In fact, he is a self-described Darwin's rottweiler. Last week, he concluded that it was worse to educate a child in a Catholic family than to let it be sexually raped by priests. ;-)
Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious 'fundamentalism' (The Guardian)
Google News (other sources)
Peter Higgs has decided that the discovery of "his" boson has made him powerful enough so that his criticism may matter and in an interview with El Mundo (Spain, video), he criticized Dawkins as a "fundamentalist" for his "embarrassing" attacks on religion – or, if you wish, attacks on one of the individuals after whom the Higgs boson is also sometimes named, namely Mr God. ;-)
Incidentally, I think that many people's hateful reactions to the innocent term "God particle" reflects their anti-religious fundamentalism, too.
What do I think about those matters? It's mostly true that when it comes to similar major questions, I haven't really changed my opinions significantly since I was a teenager. Many TRF readers have noticed the robust consistency of the views and principles presented on this blog between October 2004 when it was created and December 2012 when this blog entry is being written.
However, while I haven't changed my mind about the truth, I may have changed my mind about the question "who deserves to be wrestled with and how much".
As an undergrad, I was kind of an active scientific skeptic – I mean an activist against paranormal phenomena. Needless to say, I still totally agree with the people who are doing this job (the Sisyphus movement in Czechia, for example) but throughout the years, I decided that this fight is sort of futile because the reasons behind the people's belief in similar stupidities are either biological or comparably "hard-wired and unfixable". Using plain English, the widespread belief in the paranormal phenomena ultimately reflects people's stupidity.
This is not a perfect explanation of what's going on: some smart people may be obsessed by something which means that they ultimately have different reasons than stupidity – some ethical urge to prove something to themselves or to be more spiritual or otherwise "better" – but you may view this deviation from the zeroth approximation "stupidity hypothesis" to be just pure noise because there are also many stupid people who believe the right things even though they wouldn't have a chance to rediscover them themselves – they were just brainwashed to believe true things by smarter folks.
To a large extent, I think that these two groups are guaranteed to be equally large in a free enough society. That pretty much means that it makes no sense to try to "dramatically" change the degree of people's belief in science and similar things. One may improve the world by small incremental ants' everyday work – using the words of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia – but the "big percentages" reflecting nations' understanding of things ultimately boil down to biology or other causes we can't change too much, at least not too quickly.
While I would have good relationships to Christians at my university, I was also a sort of "unmasked opponent" of some religious attitudes. This of course became an important issue when we fell in love with a girl who undoubtedly belonged between the top 3 most fanatical believers in the fundamentalist Christianity that you could have found in the Czech Republic. ;-)
As recently as in 2000, I couldn't resist to attend talks by people like Eugenie Scott – the 2000 talk I attended took place in Santa Cruz, California, if I remember well – and I was a huge fan of such organizations and even of herself. (One of the reasons why my excitement was decreasing in the following years was that I gradually realized that what she was saying was kind of trivial – millions of people surely understood such things – which is why I realized she wasn't "special" or "at the top of science" in any sense whatsoever, despite her being a good speaker etc.) If you appreciate that I hadn't changed my opinions about politics much either, it should be easy for you to determine that I just couldn't possibly have any significant trouble with the organized political Left in the U.S. up to around 2000. In fact, you could say that I hadn't had any such trouble until 2004 – no problems for the first 7 years I spent in the U.S.
America seemed like a country of the free to me – much like my homeland since 1989. My ex-adviser Tom Banks would sometimes show me a petition to sign – like a petition attacking John Ashcroft for absolutely no good reason. As soon as I explained to him that I had no sympathy for such ideologically driven harassment of the people by the leftists, and clarified some background linked to my country's history that made this attitude of mine unchangeable, he understood it and he always respected my politics. This was pretty much true for everyone whom I had noticed and who has mattered.
Eva Silverstein who would be a postdoc at Rutgers in the late 1990s would loudly show her being offended when I told Tolik Morozov, for example, that the average female brain had fewer neural cells than the average male brain – but I just never felt oppressed by similar politically correct crackpots hiding their heads in the sand in the name of an insane ideology (I mean Eva Silverstein in this case). All these troubles started in 2004 – probably because members of Harvard faculty are the first ones who are "seriously monitored" whether they obey the politically correct speech codes and thought codes. Only in 2004, I started to notice that the atmosphere in the U.S. Academia is pretty much as totalitarian as the atmosphere in the Stalinist Soviet bloc if not more so; unlike most of the folks at the schools in the socialist bloc, the U.S. leftists actually seemed to believe all this incredible stinky left-wing garbage!
But let me return to their relationship to religion.
I think that some left-wingers' anti-religious activism is often dishonest, severely overstepping the actual insights that may be backed by science, and the targets of their criticism are cherry-picked with a political goal in mind. Even though I agree with a vast majority of e.g. Sean Carroll's "right answers to the religious questions", I think that his (and other people's) focus on the religious targets isn't a sign of his passion for the truth but a symptom of a political bias.
Christians are arguably wrong about many things but so are many non-Christians – not only Muslims and believers in other religious orthodoxies but also atheists and members of various political groups. I do think that evolution is one of the most important pillars of the scientific explanation of Nature. On the other hand, it's not the only one and I am absolutely convinced that tons of (if not most of) left-wing atheists often and regularly display their misunderstanding of things that are perhaps "less fundamental" in the structure of pure science but they are far less abstract and more important for actual decisions we have do in our actual lives.
Whether Jesus Christ could have been born of a virgin is an amusing academic question and science surely chooses one of the answers to be sensible and the opposite answer to be silly. It is bizarre if a scientist chooses the latter answer – but as long as such idiosyncrasies are "kept in check" (e.g. by being described as eternally rare exceptions to the laws of physics), so that they don't prevent one from understanding lots of important things, a scientist-believer may still be a good or great scientist in pretty much all of science. On the other hand, if a scientist decides to believe that groups of people – defined by their sex, race, ethnicity, and other characteristsics – have the same statistical distribution of various quantities such as IQ, it is a comparably universalistic stupidity that is moreover far less abstract than Virgin Mary's virginity. It affects people's interpretations of real events that take place today – and not 2000 years ago – and leads them to right or wrong political and other decisions.
I find it utterly hypocritical if someone spends his activist life by constantly attacking Christians because of their disagreement with some solid insights of science but he or she doesn't spend a second by criticizing the feminist or other politically correct crackpots whose contradictions with science are at least equally striking. And I don't have to talk about the politically correct crackpots. I may talk about people like Muslims. Their opposition to some rudimentary insights of science is arguably far more dramatic than the Christians' opposition. Nevertheless, they are almost never criticized by the typical organized left-wing activists in the Western Academia. (Let me mention that Steven Weinberg's integrity in particular should be applauded because he's an atheist who surely doesn't try to idealize the Muslims – and others.) As far as I can say, this proves the lack of honesty of most of these left-wing activists. They're not driven by the passion for the truth; they are driven by political goals that are ultimately shaped by their predetermined ideas – ideas that are completely independent of the insights in science – how the society should work. They only use science as an occasional convenient hostage and tool if I have to avoid the term "whore".
We could discuss specific examples of demagogy that believers sometimes offer; and specific examples of demagogy and spin that "anti-fundamentalists" such as Richard Dawkins offer. I think that every person who impartially observes these debates must have encountered many such examples on both sides so it doesn't make much sense to randomly pick examples.
Instead, my point is that I agree with Peter Higgs that people like Richard Dawkins are fundamentalists in a similar sense as the believers themselves – despite the fact that they are arguably right much more often than the believers (a comparison that may change as time goes by, however). The general character of answers to the "big questions" is always predetermined – and this comment applies to both of these opposing groups. Every statement that is positively correlated with the vague concept of God has to be supported by the obedient believers; and it has to be spitted upon by the politically correct anti-believers.
Whether or not the second attitude seems to be more successful in the incorporation of the scientific insights of the last 20 or 100 or 500 years, both of these approaches are equally fundamentalist – and both of them are intrinsically unscientific. Science isn't defined by its goal to show that every idea positively correlated with the vague concept of God is wrong much like science should never have been defined by its consistency with God. Science is simply independent of these prejudices – both of them and many others. Science impartially evaluates the empirical data and the right conclusions aren't and can't be determined a priori.
We could argue that many patently wrong opinions about physics – including the anti-quantum zeal – are linked to the "anti-fundamentalism" of the leftists. People like Mephisto can't ever understand quantum mechanics because they don't want to. They don't want to because the right understanding of quantum mechanics isn't convenient for an overall package of talking points they eternally want to use in order to show their alleged superiority over the believers and others. They have just decided that the world must fundamentally be a reflection of an "objective reality" in the classical sense and if they allowed themselves to learn something else, their whole belief of system – the "value of their lives" – would be shattered. The only problem is that many of these beliefs and talking points are just demonstrably wrong. They're victims of various delusions in the same sense as many believers.
I don't want to overgeneralize this observation – and Mephisto's situation and the situation of dozens of others I know – because as far as I can say, many right-wingers and Christianity-oriented folks fail to understand quantum mechanics properly, too. ;-) But what I want to generalize is the statement that science only allows us to support certain claims but not others; no conclusions are quite clear from the beginning; and there's no reason why all the future scientific insights should still belong to a preconceived intellectual straitjacket, whether this straitjacket looks like a religious one or an anti-religious one.
There are people among the believers and there are people among the anti-believers who just fail to understand this simple point (about the inadmissibility of dogmas in science) which is why they're fundamentally analogous to each other and why Peter Higgs' criticism of Richard Dawkins is justified whether or not the percentage of correct statements presented by Richard Dawkins is above 50%.
And that's the memo.