Mark Perakh and the Ironies of Philosophy and Science

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Mark Perakh is practically beside himself over an article by secular philosopher of science Michael Ruse. Some context on that might be helpful. He writes,

Before discussing his idea, let me evince my (admittedly controversial) view of philosophy of science. I dare to claim that the sole value of philosophy of science is its entertaining ability. I doubt that all the multiple opuses debating various aspects of the philosophy of science have ever produced even a minute amount of anything that could be helpful for a scientist, be he/she physicist, biologist, geologist, you name it. It can, though, be harmful, as the case of Ruse seems to illustrate.

One value philosophical value Perakh seems to have little regard for is evaluating arguments. The result is (shall we say) entertaining:

I think the main gist of Ruses’s post is expressed by the following quotation:

If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

Well, I wish, as fits my age, to be polite, so I leave all exclamations regarding the senselessness of the above quotation to others. Without such expressions of outrage, I must say, quite politely, that the above quotation could probably be found in wrting of such giants of science and philosophy as Casey Luskin, Salvador Cordova and the like. But to see it in a post by a professsor of a respected university is really funny. The point is that Ruse’s assertion (”science… implies that God does not exist”) is not true.

Science does not assert or imply that “God does not exist.” Science simply is not interested in such a notion. One may assert that science does not support the notion that God exists. Right. Equally, science does not support the opposite notion. The question of whether, beyond the “natural” universe which can be studied by scientific means exists something “supernatural” is neither asked nor answered by science. Therefore, Ruse’s post in question, besides having a certain entertaining value, is, IMHO, meaningless and useless.

Obviously, while science is a necessary and important part of any curriculum, creationism in any of its forms must be beyond curriculum, except when it is critically studied as a cultural phenomenon along with other forms of obscurantism and crank science.

[From Talk Reason: arguments against creationism, intelligent design, and religious apologetics]

Amused? In some strange way I find I am too, by the irony of it. But it’s sad. Here’s what I dispute in Perakh’s philosophy of science and religion:

1. He equivocates on science. Ruse suggests that science which implies God does not exist should not be taught. There is a specificity there to science: it’s used to refer to those specific findings or interpretations that imply God does not exist. Perakh speaks carelessly instead of science writ large, the whole scientific enterprise and its findings, as it were. If science writ large is not interested in the question of God, that does not mean there could be no specific scientific findings (or interpretations) that imply God does or does not exist.

2. It’s unclear what this science writ large is, anyway. I know where to look for scientists and scientific findings, but I don’t know where science is. I don’t know how Perakh can make such a sweeping claim concerning what such a vague entity might or might not be interested in.

3. Scientists do have an interest in God’s existence. Scientific findings do bear on God’s existence. Perakh himself has a web page on this. He does not assert the non-existence of God, but he does seem to imply it. Other scientists assert baldly that there is no God, and claim scientific support for their statements. Perakh says quite correctly that they ought not do that as scientists, but if they’re not listening, his beef should be with them, not with Ruse.

4. Science is routinely given authority granted no other field of study. If schools teach that science has no interest in the question of God, that is tantamount to their teaching that questions concerning God cannot be answered. Let us re-word Ruse’s comment slightly to show the relevance of that:

If “God exists and can be known” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God cannot be known” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God is knowable and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God is unknowable be taught?

5. Scientists (and on this, there is virtually such a thing as science writ large) teach that God did not create. Contra Perakh, it most certainly is interested in establishing that God was not needed for creation. Therefore in a similar way we could alter Ruse’s statement:

If “God created” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God did not create” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God created and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God did not create be taught?

6. Perakh’s whole conception of God and religion is that it is beyond the “natural” universe, and this is what he is teaching even in this article. But Christianity and Judaism teach that God interacts with the created order. So a third time we could adjust Ruse’s words:

If “God interacts with the natural universe” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not interact with the natural universe” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God interacts with the natural world and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not interact with the natural universe be taught?

7. If there is anything that science writ large ought properly to be interested in, it is truth. If it is at least possibly true that God exists, interacts with the natural world, and can be known, then why would science declare a priori it’s not even interested in the question? If it declares it has no interest in the question, it could only be because it has decided in advance that God does not exist or does not interact with the natural world in a knowable way; for which see numbers 4 and 6.

Seven obvious objections pop out from just four Mark Perakh paragraphs. I’m no giant of philosophy or science, so I’m sure Mark Perakh would dismiss me along with Luskin and Cordova. Why he would do that even to them is unclear, since he dismisses all philosophy of science to start with.

But what about the arguments?

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8 Responses to “ Mark Perakh and the Ironies of Philosophy and Science ”

  1. If only I’d known–the article was not just at Talk Reason, but also at that great driver of blog traffic, Panda’s Thumb.

    I appreciate John Wilkins’s supportive words at his blog, linked in comment 2. Even though we are decidedly in disagreement on matters religious and atheistic, he agrees that Perakh stepped off the deep end with this one.

  2. \why then is “God does not interact with the natural universe” not a religious claim?\

    This is a wrong question.

    Science simply says \there is no scientific evidence that something supernatural interacts with the natural universe\. Or even \there can never be any scientific evidence that something outside of nature could interact with the natural universe\.

    So now the question becomes – if such a thing is claimed to be \scientifically unknowable\, is that a \religious claim\? If science says \you can’t use science to attempt to prove that your god exists\, is that a religious claim? How silly.

    \Scientists do have an interest in God’s existence.\

    Nah. Only because of the silly creationists’ attempts to introduce their nonsense into the public schools.

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughts here. I have some in return.

    First, what do you mean by something being “a wrong question”? Do you mean it’s based on false premises? If so, then which ones? You address that in part when you say,

    Science simply says \there is no scientific evidence that something supernatural interacts with the natural universe\. Or even \there can never be any scientific evidence that something outside of nature could interact with the natural universe\.

    But I see problems with that. Your second claim is completely unscientific, for one thing. Its truth depends on the truth of certain theological assumptions, which I could sum up as, Either there is no God, or if there is a God, this God is a limited kind of God that cannot interact with the natural universe in ways that can be known by humans. I challenge you to show me the article in Nature, Science or any other journal where this has been demonstrated scientifically. See also the atheistic philosopher Bradley Monton, page 4, for a further argument in this direction.

    Second, you make the same mistakes Perakh made with “science says.” Where is this “science” that says this? I can think of scientists who say it, and I can also think of scientists who disagree. (See my point 2 in the original post.)

    So your paragraph beginning, “So now the question becomes…” is out of court to start with. The “so now” is unsupportable, for reasons just outlined. I hope you can see more clearly now why claiming that God is scientifically unknowable is indeed, in part, a religious claim.

    I find arguments of the form, “How silly,” usually to be silly. Usually, that is; for the self-referential situation here is clearly an exception.

    Your final assertion is just, to put it as kindly as I can, factually incorrect, and obviously so. No claim was made that all scientists have an interest in God’s existence. Some do. Mark Perakh himself is a counter-example to your claim. So are Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin, William Provine, George Gaylord Simpson, Francisco Ayala, Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll, and Ken Miller. So are Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich, to name a couple theists you would (I hope) not turn around and reflexively label as non-scientists just for being theists.

  4. Tom,

    This is a bit OT (as I don’t have anything new to add to the discussion) but I was a bit surprised that you didn’t include Ken Miller and Francisco Ayala under the category of “theists.” I hope it’s not because they are Catholic.

    As a matter of fact, I can see, from what I know of Ayala, why you might not include him, but from what I know Miller is a garden-variety Catholic. If he’s not a theist, neither am I (a garden-variety Lutheran).

    Thanks.

  5. Dan, you’re right, I could have included Miller. From what I’ve read about Ayala, he was once Catholic and might still be, but in fact he will not commit to any current belief in God, so I don’t know. I can’t help wondering if he’s trying to play two sides of the fence. (And yes, I’ve read Darwin’s Gift.)