presented by Lucia Hall at the
San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry Meeting
Sunday, May 23, 1999
Posted January 6, 2004
We want to thank all of you ahead of time for letting us give this talk. We have a feeling that, by the end of it, a number of you folks are going to be quite annoyed with us. At least, we sure hope so. Because we're going to be preaching against the choir, or at least one section of it: the section that suggests that skeptics ought not to challenge the claims of religion. We think that skeptics not only can do so, they should do so, and the sooner, the better.
Before we begin to support those claims, however, we would like each of you to ask yourselves if you believe skeptics ought to defend science against pseudoscience. If you do, stick around and listen. If you don't, then you might want to leave, because the entire lecture will annoy you, not just parts of it. So, without further ado, let us begin.
I wish to draw your attention to the following three statements: 1. The earth is flat. 2. UFO's are piloted by aliens. 3. Evolution doesn't happen. And I'm going to draw your further attention to them by stating that they are all true.
Don't agree with me? Well, in fact, they are all true to within a certain range of probability. Let's take the first statement as an example. Do you have to worry about taking account of the curvature of the earth when you're building a house? Do you worry about the floor bowing up in the center? No? How about when you're building a city? Still no? Within a range of a few hundred miles or so, the earth is indeed pretty darn close to flat. If you stop there, and don't look any further, and don't extend your measurements, the first statement is true. But if you go beyond that distance, you start to notice some funny curvature. And, if you go far enough, you go all the way around it and realize that it isn't flat, it's round, like a ball, or a sphere. And so the earth is round. But that's only true to a certain range of probability, too. In fact, if you look a little more closely and measure the roundness of the earth more carefully, you find that you've neglected to take into account the fact that the earth's spinning distorts its shape a little bit, bulging it out at the equator and squashing it a bit at the poles. The earth is not a perfect sphere, but an oblate spheroid.
And so it's an oblate spheroid -- to within a certain probability. If you measure yet more carefully, and cover yet more ground, you find that the earth is in fact a little bit pear-shaped. One hemisphere is a little fatter than the other. I don't know if it's the northern or the southern hemisphere that's bigger, and it doesn't really matter. The point is that the earth is more spherical than flat, more oblate than spherical, more pear-shaped than oblate. The more careful and complete your observations are, the less likely it seems to be the world is flat.
And the remaining two questions can be taken care of in the same way. We all know that UFO's are real -- at least there's a lot of stuff up there that we don't know what the heck it is. But what argument do we have against the believer that these UFO's are piloted by little green men? The same sort of argument that we have against the flat-earthers. The more careful and complete your observations, the fewer little green men you see. If you don't look too closely or carefully, every UFO could be piloted by little green men (or women, or whatever). It's not impossible, right? But if you look a little more carefully, most UFO's turn out to be of strictly terrestrial origins. There are a few that are genuinely extra-terrestrial, though, so there's still hope. But most of those turn out to be Venus or meteors, and those don't need little green pilots. The more careful and complete your observations are, the less likely it seems to be that UFO's are piloted.
Of course, the third statement is true. And here's the proof: here I am, standing in front of you, not evolving! (I will leave it to you folks to use my above examples to demolish that argument.)
It is important to mention that no probabilistic argument can be taken as ironclad, absolute proof. "Very, very unlikely" is not the same as "never." There is still a vanishingly small possibility that the earth really is flat, UFO's really do have little green pilots, and evolution is "just a theory." But it's less and less likely all the time.
It is even more important to mention that there is no reason to expect ahead of time that any of the above statements are necessarily impossible -- even though they have been shown, to an ever higher degree of certainty, to be false. Honest skepticism must begin its examination of all claims without prejudice, and approach each claim with neutrality as to its truth or falsity. That is the essence of the open mind.
Of course, that doesn't mean we need to keep our minds so open that our brains fall out. If the same claim has been repeatedly tested and been found wanting, there comes a time when it is merely perverse to continue to believe in it. And so the world is round, the aliens are absent (so far, anyway), and evolution happens. At some point, properly gathered evidence, even negative evidence, must be sufficiently compelling to allow us to discard some claims, at least as a working hypotheses.
How much evidence is enough? Well, you can actually quantify how likely a claim is, depending on the evidence for or against it. The technique is called Baysean reasoning. It is in fact a quantitative way of calculating what most people do informally when deciding whether or not something is likely, by adding up the evidence for or against a particular claim. The equation looks like this, and works this way: You have a claim you want test, and you want to quantify how the test results make the claim either more or less likely. You start by assuming a neutral probability for the claim, 50%, which goes here. You then start testing the claim, and that data for or against the claim goes there. While one positive example can bring the probability of the claim to one, as more and more evidence is gathered and continues to be negative, the probability of the claim being true asymptotically approaches zero. The point is that negative evidence is not meaningless, and does change the probability of the claim.
One interesting feature of Baysean calculations is that you can put information from a variety of sources in the equation, including opinions and "gut feelings." And the evidence you use can be weighted; that is, you might discount the data from researcher A, for example, if you feel he does sloppy work, and pay more credence to the claims of researcher B. On the other hand, someone else might really like researcher A, not care at all for B, and also like C -- all of which will change the assessment of the final probability. Two people, looking at the same data, depending on how they weight each contribution to the calculation, can come up with opposing conclusions.
Another feature, which will become more important later in the talk, is that, if you assume at the start that something has a probability of one, that is, if you assume it is certain, no amount of further information will change that probability. In other words, if god said it, you believe it, and that settles it, there is no amount of data that will change your mind. And you can quantify that, too.
You folks all know the four Laws of Thermodynamics, right? There's the "zeroth" law of thermal equilibrium, which states that, if you have a hot object next to a cold object, the cold object will get warmer and the hot one colder until they reach the same temperature. The first law of internal energy states that you can't run a machine with more than 100% efficiency. In other words, you can't get more energy out of a closed system than there was to begin with and, no matter what path you take. The second law of work has two ways of stating the same thing: that you can't build a machine that works with 100% efficiency. The first version states that you can't take energy from a cold object and put it into a warm object (as you could with a 100% efficient "reversible" engine); heat can't flow "uphill." The second version states that you can't build any machine that will run forever; eventually it has to run down. The third law of absolute zero states that you can't, in a finite number of steps, bring any object to absolute zero. If you could, you'd have a perfect heat sink, and any machine using it would be able to work with 100% efficiency.
A simpler version of these four laws was penned by someone far wiser and wittier than Norm and me. It goes like this:
zeroth law: Life is a game
first law: You can't win
second law: You can't break even
third law: You can't even get out of the game
(Of course, that leaves us with only one choice: play!)
The four laws of thermodynamics have obvious applications in dealing with crank "engineers" who claim to have built a perpetual motion machine that "really works this time!" But these four laws can in fact be applied to all pseudoscientific claims, once you realize, via information theory, that information requires energy, and that the same constraints that apply to energy apply to information as well. You can't get more information out of a closed system than you started with; all information is probabilistic and degrades with time; and you can't ever have any information that you know is absolutely true (in other words, metaphorically anyway, you can't build a perfect "heat sink" for your ignorance). (We don't know about the zeroth law -- if a smart person sits next to a dumb person, does the smart person get dumber and the dumb person smarter?)
Knowing the four laws of thermodynamics is vital for evaluating pseudoscientific claims. When you run pseudoscientific claims to ground and figure out what they are really saying, you will find they all violate one or more of these laws, either in terms of energy or in terms of information. That's why they're called pseudoscience instead of science. Remote viewing and clairvoyance, for example, attempt to get information without effort, and violate the first law. Astrology attempts to give you perfect knowledge of your life, character, and future mate based on the particular moment you were born, and violates at least the second law and probably the first and third as well. Alternative healing methods, therapeutic touch and psychic surgery, for example, claim to use "energy" that follows no known laws of thermodynamics at all, as it can't be measured and leaves no trace of its existence, and yet supposedly can be manipulated by human practitioners. And so on.
Now, let's add a fourth statement to these other three:
4. God listens to our prayers and causes miracles to happen.
Can this statement be treated in the same fashion as the others?
My husband and I believe that such a claim not only can be treated the same as the other three, it must be so treated. But, while it's fairly obvious how to measure the curvature of the earth, or verify the presence or absence of little green UFO pilots, or find out whether or not all of life in this planet is mutually related, this question seems, at first blush, quite a bit different from the others. Why that is the case we'll will get to in a moment. First we want to discuss science and something called the postulate of objectivity, and then give you a quick course in biochemistry.
Science and skepticism are two different things. Pure skepticism believes that everything is open to doubt; or, to put it a more positive way, it begins without prejudice, and doesn't assume anything to be either true or false at first hearing. Science also begins from that position. It has to; anything regarded as true or false from the outset can't be tested.
However, science, unlike pure skepticism, has found it useful to make one additional assumption, an hypothesis about the nature of the universe. It is what the late French biochemist Jacques Monod called the postulate of objectivity -- a tremendously unfortunate name, as it makes it sound as though the scientists are supposed to be objective about the universe, or that it's possible in some way for human beings to achieve completely objective truth. Neither is the case. In fact, what Monod meant was that the universe itself is assumed to be objective. To put it another way, the universe is assumed to be telling the truth about itself -- that it's not trying to pull a fast one, or deceive us, or work one way for certain people and a different way for others. What you see is what you get; it's being straight with us.
There are a number of implications that fall out from this working hypothesis, not the least of which is the realization that, if the universe is being honest with us, then the only way we can find anything out about it is to be honest with it. All scientists have to make a commitment to what Norm and I call the ethic of truth-telling. If you don't tell the truth, your science is no good.
But there is another implication of this assumption, and it relates to the nitty-gritty of doing experiments, and we're going to explore this implication by describing an experiment I frequently did when I worked in lipid biochemistry. I worked mostly with phospholipids (more properly called phosphoglycerides). These are large molecules which make up cell membranes. They have a head end containing a phosphate group and a tail end containing usually two long lipid chains. The two tails can be any of a number of different kinds of lipids, and the head end can have a whole number of different things attached as well, so there were quite a number of different phospholipids to be found in cell membranes. To sort them all out, I used two-dimensional thin-layer chromatography using silica gel on glass plates (I used to make my own TLC plates in those days). You put a sample in one corner of the plate, run it up with solvents, turn the plate 90 degrees, run it up with a different set of solvents, develop the resulting "fingerprint" in iodine, which stains the lipids, then laboriously mark and scrape off each lipid spot into a bunch of separate test tubes to find out how much phosphorus was in each one. Then you add a bunch of chemicals, cook them a real long time (you put marbles on the top so they wouldn't dry out), and let them cool off. If you had done everything right, you got a blue color that was proportional to the amount of phosphorus in each little spot -- the more blue, the more phosphorus -- and you read that off with a spectrophotometer.
Each and every time I tested these lipid spots for phosphorus, I also set up a whole row of test tubes with a known amount of phosphorus in them, and then subjected them to the same conditions as the samples. I had to; there was no other way of knowing how much phosphorus was in those sample tubes otherwise, because too many things affected the assay -- temperature, length of cooking time, proportion of chemicals, and so on. I ran what is called a controlled experiment, making an effort to be sure that, if I had made any mistakes, or if the conditions for this experiment were not the same as the last one I did, at least my standards and unknowns were treated, to the best of my ability, identically, and I could legitimately compare them. In order to get an honest answer from the universe, I had to be honest about how much I didn't know; and, to keep from fooling myself in to thinking I knew more than I actually did, I did my best to account for every factor that could conceivably influence my results by running the standards the same way.
Now, what would happen if the reason why a particular test tube turned blue wasn't because of the amount of phosphorus in the tube, but because there was a little demon that popped out of somewhere and made it blue on a whim? Or because someone aimed a spell at it? Or because the powers of the universe decided that there had to be a certain amount of blue in the tube? Would I be able to trust my results? Whether I could trust them or not would depend on whether or not I could set up an experiment that could control for such factors. If the demon left some sort of physical signature, say, a smell of sulfur; or if the spell reliably turned the silica gel in the affected tube green; or if the tube touched by the powers of the universe now had a golden glow over it; then I would be able to either discount the tube or, if the effect were reliable, alter my results an appropriate amount. Or, if the effect of the demon or spells or powers were completely random, it would affect the standards as much as the actual samples, and the way to handle that would be to run the experiment many more times so the random effects would average out.
However, if there were no way of telling when such a thing happened, if there were no physical traces other than simply additional blue in a test tube where it had no business being, then it would impossible to run a controlled experiment. My phosphorus assay would no longer be affected only by natural factors I could account for in a properly controlled experiment, but by uncontrollable supernatural ones. And, if uncontrollable, unaccountable, and supernatural powers are allowed to interfere in a non-random way without any measurable trace of their actions, the postulate of objectivity does not hold. The universe is not playing fair with us, and science can't work. All attempts at controlled experimentation become either impossible or pointless.
This means real trouble. And there is only one practical solution. In order to do science at all, you have to declare that such uncontrollable, unaccountable powers either do not exist or, if they do exist, they do not interfere. This is naturalism in its broadest sense, and it is a wild, crazy, gutsy, and radical idea. While it does not absolutely rule out the existence of the supernatural, it puts a severe limit on the possible kinds of powers that can be allowed in a universe in which science has been found to work.
And, more than that, it's testable. Every scientific experiment tests, not just the particular physical question you're trying to answer, but all the steps that have come before -- in the above case, for example, whether the phospholipid assay works, or the protein assay, or the solvents for the TLC plate, or whether or not the spectrophotometer was being cranky that day -- everything. Every part of science hangs together and depends on every other part.
And there is one assumption that every scientist must make each and every time he or she does an experiment, one hypothesis that must always be tested: the postulate of objectivity and, with it, naturalism. Each and every time anyone goes into a laboratory, they are, in essence, sticking their necks out and daring any supernatural powers in the universe to shorten them by a head. So far, our heads are still attached to our necks, and science works without supernatural intervention.
Now let's look again at statement four. What if the supernatural power behind the universe is a god who works miracles and listens to prayers? What if, in the above experiment, god had decided for his own inscrutable purposes that one of those tubes must miraculously turn blue even though it contained no phosphorus? Or if, in his infinite wisdom, he listened to the prayers of one lab tech who realized half-way through the cooking process that he forgot to put his standards in as a control and not to another tech who made the same mistake? Or if he decided to bless the believing scientist with good results and curse the unbelieving one with bad results?
Obviously, science in this circumstance would be just as impossible and pointless as in the above examples. And I think you all can see where this is leading. If we treat number four on this list here the same way we treated the other three, that is, if we treat the notion of a god who interferes in human affairs as an hypothesis, it should be obvious that the continued success of the postulate of objectivity and its necessary corollary of naturalism should be considered overwhelming evidence against the existence of any god who causes miracles or listens to prayer. It is, of course, negative evidence, and subject to refutation from a sufficiently compelling positive example. But so is the evidence against ESP, bigfoot, and UFO's with little green pilots. Every time we have carefully looked into the way the universe works and assumed it is telling the truth about itself, the truth appears to be that naturalism holds, and that the supernatural, if it exists, has no discernible effect on our understanding of it. The postulate of objectivity has passed every test against it. In fact, it is the single most-tested hypothesis in all of human history. The probability that any god or any other supernatural force either exists or interferes with the world is vanishingly small, and getting smaller.
So, have scientists disproved the existence of god? Not at all. A god who does nothing, or acts completely randomly, or even acts according to a carefully coordinated program of deceit, is a god you can't refute. It's awfully hard to see what use such gods would be, and they are supremely vulnerable to Ockham's razor, but they could still exist. And, indeed, there are a few people who have championed each one of these ideas at one time or another. The deists assumed that god simply started the universe and thereafter did nothing, leaving it to run on its own. British physicist Arthur Peacocke currently claims that god is randomness. And the omphalos argument, which declared that Adam had a navel, the trees in Eden had rings, and the rivers flowed along banks they never carved over sedimentary rocks that were never deposited over time, was popular once too. But most people find such gods either too limited, disappointing, or ghastly to be believable. Most people want to believe that "God is in his heaven, and all's right with the world." They want to believe in a god who acts with a direct purpose, who listens to prayers, who works miracles, who sends angels to earth on golden wings. They want to believe in the god who not only invented nature and everything in it, but who can interfere with it at will, described by Frederick March in the movie Inherit the Wind: "Natural law was born in the mind of the heavenly father. He can change it, cancel it, use it as he pleases. It constantly amazes me that you apostles of science, for all your supposed wisdom, fail to grasp that simple fact."
The simple fact that any sort of controlled experiment simply could not possibly work under such circumstances doesn't bother Frederick March's character in the movie, and doesn't bother too many other folks either. Science works when god wants it to, and doesn't work when he doesn't want it to, and all the commentary on Baysean reasoning and all the negative evidence from all the scientific experiments ever done in the world make no difference whatsoever, because for most people god is not and never has been treated as an hypothesis. The existence of god is a given, a certain truth with a probability of one. And, as for science, well, if it's important for the experiment to come out right, a benevolent god will see that it does so. Besides, god doesn't mess with little things like test tubes and phosphorus assays, only with big things like virgin births, raising the dead, turning wives into pillars of salt, and keeping you alive in the belly of a "great fish." And faith is not just indifferent to evidence; if the physical evidence disagrees with a statement of faith, faith must thereby become all the stronger.
Worse yet, there are plenty of ways of having good, probabilistic science on the one hand and keeping your god too, a number of which are currently being promulgated by scientists who ought to know better. We've already mentioned Arthur Peacocke and his "god is randomness" idea. You can add to this the example of Stephen Jay Gould and his recent book Rocks of Ages. All we have to do, Gould insists, is separate the realm of science and the realm of religion into two "magisteria," separate but equal realms of power, principalities and proper behavior. The proper realm of religion is ethics, while the proper realm of science is everything else, including Gould's beloved snails. But where does this leave the ethic of truth-telling, the commitment to honesty all scientists must make in order to do science at all? Is that commitment part of science, or part of religion? Besides, just about everything else religion has claimed to be true has been shown to be highly unlikely, if not out-and-out wrong -- why are we to be forced to accept its pronouncements on ethics?
Well, all right, let's admit that science works even for ethics. How about, with Eugenie Scott, we decide to abandon the postulate of objectivity in favor of what she calls "methodological naturalism" and assume that, although randomness and the four laws of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics and everything else science has discovered work fine in the laboratory, they have nothing to say about the way the world really is? How about we assume that science works for everything but the one, ultimate question of whether or not the universe has a purpose? After all, that sounds like something that's outside the realm of science, doesn't it? We don't know that the universe is really random, do we? Shouldn't we allow religion special pleading in this one case?
Only if we want to assume that the laws that work inside the laboratory are different than the ones that work outside of it, and that what science discovers about the world can have no bearing on the nature of that world. Only if we are willing to allow religion and belief in god the right not to be treated as an hypothesis. Only if we want to allow the universe to be a "little bit pregnant" with the supernatural.
Oh, no. Now we've done it. We're bashing religion. We're actually saying, not just that statement one through three are highly likely to be wrong, but that statement four is highly likely to be wrong as well. And, if you've been paying attention, we've even said that statement four is even less likely to be true than the other three.
What we've done does seem pretty foolish. After all, how dare we treat god as an hypothesis? How dare we challenge the claims of religion? How dare we take this idea of the ultimate and ask it to pass the same tests of evidence as everything else? All the objections to accepting the postulate of objectivity eventually boil down to the shocked question "How dare you?"
We dare because we don't have any other choice, not and remain honest with ourselves. As skeptics, as scientists, we can't assume from the start that god has a probability of one (or a probability of zero, for that matter). As skeptics, as scientists, we have to recognize the fact that all supernaturally-based religions and gods are profoundly pseudoscientific, and violate every one of the four laws of thermodynamics. The desire for the universe to be guided by providence instead of randomness; to be blessed by miracles instead of coincidence; to be privy to knowledge gathered without effort through revelation instead of being limited to uncertainty; to escape, once and for all, into heaven, instead of being forever circumscribed by the limitations of the natural world; can not be fulfilled in a universe where the four laws of thermodynamics hold.
If pointing out that the postulate of objectivity is highly likely to be true and the god-hypothesis is highly likely to be either false or irrelevant is bashing religion, then so be it. (In our opinion, simply telling the truth about religion is bashing it enough.) But if it makes any of you folks feel better, we're pretty sure that what we have to say here will not disturb anyone's religious beliefs in any way. Neither faith in god nor religious belief depend on evidence, whether negative or otherwise. If people are capable of insisting that James Randi actually has to be using psychic powers to bend silverware, even though he claims to be using simple trickery, then they are certainly capable of believing in a god who listens to prayers and works miracles in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Statement four is never treated the same way as the other three, not by believers and, unfortunately, not by most skeptics, either. It is always taken as a special case, a necessary exception, to all the rules that govern the rest of reality. And as long as god is never taken as a testable hypothesis, as long as there are people who, like Stephen Jay Gould and Eugenie Scott, declare that religion deserves the right to special pleading, nothing Norm and I have to say here will have any effect whatsoever. God is quite safe from our puny attacks.
So why do we bother? Because there is another, deeper, more personal and even emotional reason why we dare. It seems to us that the two things that are necessary to make life meaningful for human beings are love and purpose. Someone else once said the two most meaningful things are love and work, but we don't think he meant work in the sense of being a wage slave; purposeless work is sheer torture. We think he meant work in the sense of having something worthwhile to do; that is, to work for a purpose that you value.
But as long as human beings continue to be told that love and purpose are not to be found in the natural world, and must be found in the supernatural, then both pseudoscience and religion will persist. Think about it. The guy who has been abducted by aliens 100 times has what he considers a very meaningful life. True, he has confused some rather unpleasant attention on the part of the supposed aliens with love, and going on talk shows with a worthwhile purpose, but there you have it. He considers the skeptical alternative worthless because he finds no meaning in it, because it leaves him feeling unnoticed and purposeless.
And it is the same with religion. Religion tells us that life without god is meaningless: that god is love, and our only purpose is to worship him. The real world, we are told, is worthless in and of itself.
And as long as only god's love is valued, human love will mean nothing. As long as the only purpose human beings are allowed to have is to worship god, then human purposes will have no meaning. Living in this world in the here and now; loving those people and creatures who are in it for themselves; and trying to understand the world honestly, on its own terms, will have no value. Religion and the supernatural are a classic bait-and-switch scheme. You go to them, trying to find the answer to life, and you are told that life is not the answer. And we feel this is a tragedy.
We do not intend to devalue the meaning religion gives to people's lives. The need for love and purpose seem to be vital for both human survival and human dignity, and to denigrate that need is cruel and dishonest. But we do feel constrained to point out that this need is so strong that people are quite capable of believing in the impossible to fill that need. Human beings are just monkeys, after all, staring out into a world of sometimes terrifying darkness. And love and purpose are sometimes difficult to come by.
If all of the above is true, it would seem that the evidence of science leads inevitably to atheism. Atheism, as we all know, is perceived by this society as the worst possible kind of evil. If that is the case, why is science tolerated?
It is tolerated for three reasons. First, because people are profoundly ignorant of even the findings of science, let alone the deeper assumptions that allow science to work. Second, because faith is not dependent on evidence. And third, because what people see of science is not the living, breathing process of testing the postulate of objectivity, of the ethic of truth-telling, of the scientific method, but only the findings themselves, the dead remains, body parts that are bought and sold on the open market. Humanity delights in what Jacob Bronowski called "selling the corpse of science." Most people don't care how the latest technological innovations got here; they just want the goodies, and never mind where they came from. How else are you to explain the surreal comments of mothers who demand fertility treatments, based on the most extraordinarily advanced scientific technology the world has to offer, and then call the resulting litter of often desperately ill babies "a gift from god?" Using science this way has "all the virtues of theft over honest toil" (one of Paul Churchland's favorite phrases, though we don't know if he would support its use in this context). It isn't that scientists are being robbed blind, although they are; the real tragedy is that humanity is being robbed of the opportunity to understand why scientists have had to become atheists.
There have been attempts by a number of scientists, heroic ones in
fact, to change this deplorable situation. Bill Nye, James Randi,
Richard Dawkins, and most especially Carl Sagan have worked tirelessly to
bring science to the attention of the public, to encourage critical
thinking, to replace the "wonder" of religion with the "wonder" of
science. But the terrible thing, the tragic and heartbreaking
reality, is that most people don't want to know the truth that science has
revealed as being highly probable. They want the comforting lies;
they want the delightful fantasies; they want the mysteries; they
want the pseudoscience. All people ever see of science is the special effects -- and all people ever want to see of science is the special effects. The truth is simply too inconvenient.
So why is science tolerated? Because it is confused with magic. It's amazing to Norm and me how much of science has been put in the service of satisfying people's fantasies and fairy-tale desires. We have seven league boots and flying carpets -- although we call them planes, trains, and automobiles. We have magic swords and arrows that instantly kill anything they touch -- only we call them AK-47's, nuclear weapons, and ICBM's. We have crystal balls -- only we call them telephones and televisions. We have mystic oracles that contain all the knowledge and wisdom of the ages -- only we call them computers and the internet. We have palaces filled with opulence and magical devices -- only we call them cottages on the La Jolla bluffs.
But science is not magic, and never will be. The technological goodies of science, the only part of science with which most people have any contact, is almost entirely peripheral to the enterprise of science. The purpose of science is to tell the truth about the way the world is, not fulfill people's fairy-tale desires. There is a lovely example in the movie Volcano that illustrates this situation perfectly. The lava is pouring down the streets of LA, and of course all the shops are being looted -- hooray, free goodies! The lady scientist goes to a sporting goods store and helps herself to a basketball. A basketball? When she could be picking up a VCR or a home stereo system just down the street? Yes, a basketball -- because she uses that basketball to find out the slope of the street to tell which way the lava is going to flow next.
As long as human beings want fairy tales to come true, science will fail to measure up. And that will cause discontent. The latest rumblings of that discontent can be heard in the disaffections of both the political left and right, in both postmodernism and the resurgence of fundamentalist religions. But in truth that discontent has never left us. And it's only going to get worse. At the moment, people are sufficiently distracted by all the entertainments available to them, from presidential scandals, school children murdering each other, the implosion of Yugoslavia, and the latest scores from the football game, distracted enough that the limitations of science and the real-world consequences of technology can be ignored or forgotten. But at some point it's going to become clear that people can't have everything they want. At some point the consequences of people's fairy-tale desires are going to catch up with them. At some point scientists are going to run out of magic spells and wonders, because creating those spells and wonders is not and never has been the purpose of science.
So what's going to happen when the spells run out? When people realize that giving them ever and ever more toys to play with, ever and ever more stuff, ever and ever more power, is not the purpose of science? When you tell people that their seven-league boots and flying carpets, their magic swords, their crystal balls, their mystic oracles, their kingships and palaces, have real-world limitations and real-world consequences for their use? In the real world, fairy tales come with a price tag. What happens when the bill comes due?
First, there will be massive denial that there's even a bill to be paid. The opinion piece we have handed out by Joseph Perkins is a perfect example. Magic is not supposed to be explainable, or cause pollution, or use up or destroy irreplaceable resources, or be limited by physics, the laws of thermodynamics, or information theory. So of course there shouldn't be any problem.
Then, when scientists tell people the truth, as they must, and people realize there is a bill after all, after they get over the sticker shock all those folks who have misunderstood the purpose of science all along will feel betrayed and angry. They'll get annoyed, and after they get annoyed, they'll sue. Scientists are supposed to be wizards and fairy godmothers, after all, not make mistakes or have limitations. If science doesn't work the way people want it to, then it is the fault of science, and, by golly, they'll sue! And this is already happening. Corporations are already being sued simply for being fallible. In fact, they're being sued even though the scientific evidence in the case is in direct opposition to the claim of the suit. There is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that breast implants have any deleterious health effects at all -- and yet Dow Corning, faced with the prospect of endless litigation on an issue with no scientific merit, was forced to settle the suit for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The people suing Dow Corning were annoyed at the fact that the science didn't agree with what they believed -- and, rather than acquiesce to the science, rather than admit to the limitations of reality, they punished the company.
After they find out suing science doesn't work, they'll go looking for better magic, and plunge even deeper into pseudoscience and religion. People are already tremendously dissatisfied with the limitations of medicine, and now half the shelves in your local drugstore are devoted to homeopathic and herbal remedies (and it's even worse in Europe). We suspect that it will only get worse the more and more science is found to be limited to reality, not people's fantasies and fairy tale notions of the way the world ought to be.
Of course, if people ever get really annoyed, all the scientists in the world are going to be lined up against the wall and shot -- because, after all, it's their fault they couldn't deliver the goods.
It seems at this point that, faced with this sobering situation, the best thing scientists can do is to shut up and keep quiet about their atheism. And almost all of them do. It seems a far better, humbler, and not to mention safer course to follow the lead of Stephen Jay Gould and Eugenie Scott, to cloak the wolf of science in the lambskin of religion, to make it appear harmless, to take the politic and safe way out, to not rock the boat, to carefully and delicately question only the edges of the supernatural, the simple pseudoscientific claims of spoon-bending and dowsing, and leave the far deeper pseudoscience of religion alone.
And Norm and I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. We would be fools to underestimate our adversary. To challenge religion is impossible in most parts of the world, fatal in many others, and seriously dangerous just about everywhere else. The only reason Norm and I are getting away with it now is because we're among friends, and because neither one of us has any real social standing in the world outside this little room. We're not famous, and no one really pays any attention to us. I'm just a housewife, and Norm's just an oceanographer. What do we know about the mysteries of religion?
But if we follow this safe road, we are being nothing but dupes of an ancient, grasping, greedy and deadly power that wants, supremely, to be declared right, at whatever cost. That power is ignoring us for the moment. But we had better not fool ourselves as to its central intent, which is to squash all dissent and freethought in favor of wishful thinking. The Catholic Church fights for rights of the poor and oppressed to become good believing Catholics, not questioning atheists or fearless scientists. Protestant religions are fighting against new age and other pseudoscientific beliefs because they see those views as competition, not because they value critical thinking or atheist thought. The only reason why communism was atheistic was because, as a new religion, as the revealed word according to Karl Marx, it was forced to distinguish itself in some way from all the others, not because it valued science -- quite obviously the reverse, as the Lamarkian debacle shows. And it has all been done with the best of intentions and the most noble of motives -- which, sadly, is where most serious evil is to be found.
We are living in a golden age. And one of the worst symptoms of all golden ages seems to be that those living in them believe they will go on forever. But it isn't possible. Eventually the fairy tale has to end. To give everyone in the world the equivalent of even our family's modest little home in Clairemont, much less the castles and palaces they believe they really want, would pave half the planet over and turn the rest to agriculture. And at some point we are going to run out of energy and resources. Worse, we are making at most diffident efforts at dealing with the problem, precisely because, thanks to technology, we aren't running out of resources quite fast enough for people to notice. There used to be someone studying fusion research at UCSD. There isn't anymore. We have enough oil to last the next hundred years, after all, and enough coal to last a millennium. Every one of us in this room will be dead by then. Why should we bother with all the expense and effort of finding an alternative fuel source? Never mind that, by the time all that oil is burned, the signs of global warming will no longer be subtle indications that people like Joseph Perkins can ignore, but a severe and deadly reality. People don't want the fairy-tale to end. Far from showing any signs of facing up to the limitations of what the postulate of objectivity, the ethic of truth-telling, and naturalism tell us about the world, people are showing signs of running even deeper into comfortable fantasies.
So why tell the truth about science? Why annoy people by telling them that their belief in a god that violates all the laws of thermodynamics is highly likely to be untrue? Haven't we got enough problems already? If we don't tell the truth now, when will we tell it? If we don't tell what we have learned here, now, in the only place, the only time, in the history of the world it has been possible to tell it, when and where should we do it? Do you want to tell truth in the middle of a golden age, when science is still the most respected profession on the planet, when people might actually have the time and inclination to consider it, and even, just possibly, get used to the idea? Or do you want to try to explain it when you've been lined up against the wall and they're putting the blindfold on you?
The human race will ultimately survive only if the limitations to all human knowledge are understood and accepted. And we feel it is easier to tell the truth, the whole truth, before mankind's belief in magic, god, and the supernatural, coupled with the power of technology, leads to horrible disaster. The phrase "godless science" must cease being an epithet and instead become a simple, even redundant, statement of fact. And we, as skeptics, as scientists, as atheists, must stop feeling ashamed about expressing and supporting the most tested hypothesis in all of human experience.
We would like to end this talk with a quote from Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, in the chapter "Knowledge or Certainty."
It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
As long as belief in god is allowed to be treated not as hypothesis, but as a certainty exempt from criticism, as long as religion is the one area of human thought allowed to be exempt from the laws of physics, as long as ethical systems are allowed to ignore the highly probable limitations of the postulate of objectivity, this is how human beings will continue to behave. We have the responsibility, the duty, and the right to challenge arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. Go now, and tell the truth!