Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Do People Resist Science?

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg ask in an article at Edge, why some people, perhaps a lot of people, resist science.

I think the question is miscast. Very few people resist science. People are, by and large amenable to empirical demonstration. Even counterintuitive theories like Einstein's relativity theory are not rejected by the average person even if he doesn't understand it.

What people tend to resist is a metaphysical agenda masquerading as science and the two examples of resistance that Bloom and Weisberg site are perfect confirmations of that.

The authors are concerned because so many Americans refuse to accept the notion that there is no immaterial soul and they resist the idea that natural processes are sufficient to explain all of life and the cosmos.

Neither of these is a scientific idea, however. They are the metaphysical conclusions of some scientists who are a priori committed to a materialist worldview. If materialism were obviously true then of course it would be puzzling that so many people reject it, but materialism is not science. It's not something that can be proven by empirical investigation like whether the earth is round or revolves around the sun.

The truth or falsity of materialism is a philosophical question so Bloom and Weisberg would have done better to ask why so many people resist the philosophical entailments of materialism.

The answer to that question is much easier to see. They resist it because they see its sterility. They see that it leads to a view of life that renders all meaning, morality, human dignity, and hope just so much illusory baggage. They resist it because, quite frankly, a lot of people think that anything so at odds with their common sense intuitions about life is just false, and if the only evidence scientists can offer in its support is their testimony that it's true they're not going to persuade any but those who want to be persuaded.

And most people simply don't want to be persuaded that their lives are hopeless and meaningless.


Soda Is Very Bad For You

This will make your day. It turns out that a common additive in Coke, Diet Pepsi, and other soft drinks is believed to cause damage to the DNA of our cells and precipitate a host of degenerative neurological diseases as well as cancer. The additive is sodium benzoate. I leave you to read the article while I go check my Diet Rite Cola to see if it contains the stuff.

UPDATE: Diet Rite contains Potassium benzoate. Since potassium behaves chemically very much like sodium it looks like my favorite soft drink may be my undoing.

Maybe the only healthy diet is to starve yourself.


Quantum Theory

I may have mentioned this before but the March issue of First Things has a particularly clear exposition by Stephen Barr on quantum theory. Along the way Barr shows how quantum theory leads some physicists to conclude that there are a near infinite number of alternative worlds, why it is incompatible with physical determinism, and why it is antithetical to materialism.

It's a good article for the layman who knows little about quantum mechanics but would like a simple, basic understanding of its philosophical implications.

The irony of modern physics is that beginning in the early 19th century science in general, and physics in particular, were used as dispositive justifications for a deterministic, materialistic, naturalistic worldview. Science, we were told, had proven that there's nothing to reality but matter and energy, nature is all there is.

Then came the discovery of the world of quantum phenomena and the crucial importance of observers in the twenties and thirties and suddenly the role of mind took on new significance. Physical determinism collapsed along with the idea that matter is the sole component of reality.

The main prop of metaphysical naturalism was now revealing that naive materialism was an inadequate explanation of reality. It was telling us, in effect, that "there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our philosophy."

Now, in the early years of the 21st century, more and more non-scientists are beginning to grasp the obsolescence of the earlier views. Today, the universe often looks less like a Newtonian machine and more like a grand idea, an idea, perhaps, in the mind of God.