August 29, 2004

Skeptics and True Believers

from - smijer

raymo.JPG This Sunday's Sermon will be a review of the book, Skeptics and True Believers, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion, by Chet Raymo.

I purchased my copy used. Had I looked inside first, I might have left it on the shelf. The previous owner marked up the entire book in pen: mainly marginal notes and underlining. But, I had paged through a new copy before and I already knew that I wanted to buy the book, so I took it home, marks and all. Interestingly, the inside cover bore the note "Scientist's C.S. Lewis". In some ways, I suppose, the characterization is fair. This book certainly does a wonderful job of presenting science as a glorious way of knowing. So, if the measure is dedication to the subject, Raymo compares very favorably in his appreciation of scientific reality with Lewis' devotion to the Christian religion. However, the comparison must end there. Lewis seems eager to bolster his cherished faith by finding any means, be it question begging or proposition of false dilemmas, to tie it to objective reality. Raymo, on the other hand, asks us to let our knowledge and beliefs start with objective reality as it is revealed through the methods of science and to build our most deeply cherished beliefs up from it.

Raymo is critical of pseudoscience, superstition, and reactionary fundamentalism as elements of religion, but he doesn't go too hard on the institutions and doctrines of religion generally. He certainly never rebukes the moral witness of contemporary religion, with its peurile fantasies of a fiery hell and redemption through blood sacrifice. And, while he stresses religion's role in providing a cohesive social structure (quoting the words "there can be no community without a community story"), he doesn't mention religion's program for subversion of the individual human will. He speaks approvingly of worship and adulation, and he is properly critical of credulity and gullibility, but he remains silent on the irrational fears that are bred in the minds of True Believers to be sure they never venture too close to a healthy skepticism of such human institutions as the church. He could have and should have spared a chapter in the book to offer his audience relief of such fears. Doing so might have furthered his agenda of evangelizing the scientific way of knowing as much as his presentation of its attractive power.

Raymo also takes issue with scientists whom he terms "strong" reductionists: namely Weinberg and Hawkins. He rightly criticizes the hubris of Hawking who would name the most fundamental description of physical law "the mind of God", but I think he mistakes Weinberg's reductionistic program. It is not merely faith that causes the scientist to seek the more fundamental reality reductionistically. It is a time-tested truth that the search for the basic building blocks requires examination of physical processes at finer and finer scales. That isn't to say that ultimate reality is best understood at its most fundamental level: it is only to say that we wish to see and know of that level.

Raymo does a better than average job of giving an overview of scientific skepticism and how it works, though he unfortunately doesn't really get into the nuts and bolts of critical thinking. But, the purpose of his book is to build a scientific foundation for the realization of the sublime. I can only say that I admire his ability to give substance to religious devotion without falling victim to the pitfalls of religious and pseudoscientific quackery. Such an effort is a tightrope that Raymo walks with true grace.

The true power of Skeptics... is that it whets the appetite for both knowledge and mystery. Upon turning the last page, you will be eager to get back into the world and explore it as directly as your physical circumstances will allow. This is a highly recommended book.

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Update: I updated the Book Sense link, in case anyone was trying to use the service and wondering why they landed on the wrong book! ::

Posted by smijer at August 29, 2004 06:14 PM
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