What do you do if you are an activist who does not do science, but want your activism to be perceived as science so you can exploit the cultural authority of science to carry out your activist agenda? Well, you do what activist Sam Harris does – you attack “the narrow definition of science” by dumbing down the definition of science so it becomes nothing more than “adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence.”
Let’s consider how Harris attacks science. He begins by offering up a valid definition for science:
When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”
Actually, to be science, such claims and methods mandate an experimental and/or mathematical description.
Harris wants to change this definition:
the observation of which is the sine qua non of the scientific attitude—is between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones.
This is an attack on science. How so? Pay attention to Harris’s sleight of hand.
Harris is trying to discretely strip away the objective essense of science. It is the experimental and/or mathematical descriptions that root science in objectivity. They root science in measurements. Yet Harris wants to replace these requirements with the squishy criterion of “demanding good reasons for what one believes.” But how do we objectively determine whether a reason is “good” or not? Almost everyone out there thinks they have “good reasons” for what they believe. This is because the subjective judgment call of the “goodness” of a reason depends on things like perception, one’s personal tolerance for ambiguity, one’s cultural conditioning, one’s priorities and values, one’s worldview, etc.
Those of us who value science have an intellectual obligation to oppose Harris’s attempt to misrepresent science as something that can dispense with experimental and/or mathematical descriptions as long as someone has “good reasons” to take their place.
After sneakily dumbing-down the defintion of science, Harris begins to apply it:
The scientific attitude can handle whatever happens to be the case.
False. Science can only handle cases that can be measured. Consider one, simple, mundane example – Richard Dawkins claims it is the case that he was sexually molested as a child. Can science handle this? Can it tell us whether or not this is the case? If you insist that it can, then do it. Use science to determine whether or not it is the case that Dawkins was molested. After all, “the scientific attitude can handle whatever happens to be the case.”
Harris then tries to apply one of his choke holds:
Indeed, if the evidence for the inerrancy of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus Christ were good, one could embrace the doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity scientifically. The problem, of course, is that the evidence is either terrible or nonexistent—hence the partition we have erected (in practice, never in principle) between science and religion.
This is nonsense. To see this, simply ask Harris (or someone like him) the following question: Well then, what type of data would count as scientific evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ? If the problem is that the evidence is either terrible or nonexistent, Harris should be able to imagine the contrary – situations where the evidence was not terrible or nonexistent. As we know, Harris would struggle mightily with the question. If he used the intellectually honest definition of science – claims and their methods of verification that require experiment and/or mathematical description – Harris would be incapable of designing an experiment to determine if Jesus rose from the dead. Thus, he would have to retreat into his dumbed-down definition of science, insisting there “are no good reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead.” But once he did that, it would become clear he was merely expressing his own personal opinion. Do we really want science to become the same as popular opinion?
Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.”
The only confusion that exists is the confusion of the man who abandoned science to head Project Reason and preach science is nothing more than coming up with “good reasons” for your beliefs.
Harris then ends with this attack on science:
The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
There is something distinct about science – it ties itself closely to experimental and mathematical demonstration. This is what makes it different and this is what has given science its track record of success. It is also the very thing that imposes limitations on science – claims that cannot be experimentally or mathematically probed are beyond the reach of science. Harris wants to strip away this limitation because he has a socio-political and metaphysical agenda. He desperately wants to frame his “good reasons” as science. But in stripping away the limitations of science, Harris strips away the very thing that has given science its power and thus constitutes an assault on science.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.
More subjective mush. Who gets to decide whether the “highest standards of logic and evidence” are in play? Clearly, whether or not those “highest standards” are being employed will be a matter of opinion. For example, would anyone really be surprised if Harris claimed a Richard Dawkins argument adhered to the “the highest standards of logic and evidence” while insisting that an Alvin Plantinga argument did not? We all know exactly how such “adherence” claims play out.
Harris, who spends most of his day practicing his martial arts, meditating, reading, and writing, wants all this to be perceived as science. That way, he can posture as a “scientist” when advocating for his activist agenda while cashing in on the atheist movement. Going into the lab, developing a testable hypothesis, doing the actual experiments, analyzing the data, well, that’s all superfluous fluff when compared to Sam sitting in his armchair using the “highest standards of logic and evidence” to pound out another chapter for one of his money-making books.