In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.
This realization made me quite uncomfortable. I’m a hard-shell rationalist; what I have in my life that corresponds to religion I carefully chose to not involve me in faith-holding or the other kinds of emotional attachments that religious people form as a matter of course. I regard religion, in the sense the term is normally used, as a dangerous form of collective insanity – and I want above all to be sane.
Because I felt uncomfortable, I decided that I needed to perform the exercise I have elsewhere described as killing the Buddha – in this case, killing the premise that I am not like a religious person by examining and embracing all the ways that my relationship to science makes me like one.
I’m performing the exercise now. I’m going to write to clarify my thinking, as I think. I’m not sure where this will take me; if I were, it wouldn’t be killing the Buddha.
I should probably start by dashing one set of false hopes. I have some readers who are conventionally religious, and at least a few of them probably hope that I’m about to confess that science isn’t special – that it’s at least co-equal to or on the same epistemic footing as religion, if not inferior to it. Sorry, but no. Science is different in one vital respect: ‘belief’ in it cashes out as predictions about observables. Religion is mostly vacuous because it mostly fails to do this, and where it does make predictions about observables they are generally indistinguishable from delusional insanity.
However…human beings seem to be hardwired to have psychological needs that are fulfilled by religion. Or perhaps it would be better to invert that and say that religion is an invention fulfilling needs that arise from essential features of our psychology. So even while I still regard the belief content of religion as crazy, I perhaps should not be surprised – or even necessarily upset – to find that my mind falls into the sort of emotional grooves that usually go with religious belief content.
In sorting out these feelings, I start from the datum that scientific fraud feels to me like sacrilege. Plausible reports of it make me feel deeply angry and disgusted, with a stronger sense of moral indignation than I get about almost any other sort of misbehavior. I feel like people who commit it have violated a sacred trust.
What is sacred here? What are they profaning?
The answer to that question seemed obvious to me immediately when I first formed the question. But in order to explain it comprehensibly to a reader, I need to establish what I actually mean by “science”. Science is not a set of answers, it’s a way of asking questions. It’s a process of continual self-correction in which we form theories about what is, check them by experiment, and use the result to improve our theories. Implicitly there is no end to this journey; anything we think of as ‘truth’ is merely a theory that has had predictive utility so far but could be be falsified at any moment by further evidence.
When I ask myself why I feel scientific fraud is like sacrilege, I rediscover on the level of emotion something I have written from an intellectual angle: Sanity is the process by which you continually adjust your beliefs so they are predictively sound. I could have written “scientific method” rather than “sanity” there, and that is sort of the point. Scientific method is sanity writ large and systematized; sanity is science in the small personal domain of one’s own skull.
Science is sanity is salvation – it’s how we redeem ourselves, individually and collectively, from the state of ignorance and sin into which we were born. “Sin” here has a special interpretation; it’s the whole pile of cognitive biases, instinctive mis-beliefs, and false cultural baggage we’re wired with that obstruct and weigh down our attempts to be rational. But my emotional reaction to this is, I realize, quite like that of a religious person’s reaction to whatever tribal superstitious definition of ‘sin’ he has internalized.
I feel that scientists have a special duty of sanity that is analogous to a priest’s special duty to be pious and virtuous. They are supposed to lead us out of epistemic sin, set the example, light the way forward. When one of them betrays that trust, it is worse than ordinary stupidity. It damages all of us; it feeds the besetting demons of ignorance and sloppy thinking, and casts discredit on scientists who have remained true to their sacred vocation.
Even now I feel queasy using these religious metaphors and these analogies, because they are so pregnant with horror and oppression and mass death – Muslims screaming “Allahu akbar!” as they detonate suicide bombs, Christians with “Kill them all, God will know his own.” But this Buddha must be faced and killed for the sake of my own sanity. If I do not acknowledge and deal with the ways in which I feel like a religious person, I increase my risk that those emotions will sneak up on my thinking and make it unsane.
So I will say it out loud: science is the functional equivalent of worship for the rational human. In contemplating the wonder and vastness of the universe as it is, I find the equivalent of religious awe before the face of God. In struggling to understand the universe, scientists perform work as dedicated, heartfelt and ecstatic as religious devotion. Humility and self-discipline are even more proper to the scientist than they are to the believer; as the true believer seeks to know God’s will without the obstruction of ego, the true scientist seeks understanding of what is without the obstruction of ego.
Religion makes us the offer that if we believe, it will lift us out of ourselves – perfect us, teach us what is mere transient illusion and what is real and eternal. Science makes almost the same offer; that if we accept the discipline of rationality, we can become better than we are and learn what is really true. These two offers rest on very different ground, and religion’s offer is essentially false while science’s is essentially true – but psychologically, we receive both offers in the same way. They both plug into the same basic human fear of death and the unknown, and the same longing for transcendence.
So maybe science is my religion, after all. The question is definitional. Is it ‘religion’ if it duplicates the emotional constellations of religious feeling without investment in the supernatural, or faith, or revelation, or dogma, or any of the usual content of religious belief?
This is a question I, personally, have asked before about neopaganism and the aspects of Buddhist thought that attract me. Intellectually, I think my answer about science is the same; “is this a religion” is a question about map, not territory. It’s about the terms I use to explain myself to others, not what I think or do. The corresponding question about territory would “does this belief system support or hinder my rationality?”, and in the case of scientific method the answer is “it helps” because sanity and science are hardly even separable.
But this time around the question nevertheless has more sting. Because I’m not very emotional about my neopaganism or quasi-Buddhism; if someone tried to commit sacrilege against those in my presence, I’d merely laugh at the fool’s cluelessness. My quasi-religious feelings about science have more weight than my non-religious feelings about what passes for my religion.
Also, like all Western rationalists, I live at the near end of a long struggle to reduce the viciousness of Christianity to a tolerable level – one that is not yet finished while the Pat Robertsons of the world openly advocate witch-burning. And we face a lethal struggle with Islamism, one in which I have been personally threatened with assassination twice. Under these circumstances, even though I know don’t think anything like these fanatics it is disquieting to me to discover that I can feel like them.
This is why I began this stream-of-consciousness essay feeling uncomfortable with my own passion about scientific fraud, and why it was necessary for me to kill a Buddha. Having left the premise that I am not like a religious person dead on the road, where do I go next?
I think I can only fear my religious emotions to the extent I don’t trust my own rationality. My fear of feeling like them springs from what a religious person would interpret as my sense of my own sinful weakness – in my terms, my fear that rationality is hard-won and easily eroded, that I could degenerate into believing and acting like them as well. That would be hell, to have become just another murderous fanatic or acquiescent sheep in the long bloody history of isms.
Also…if it’s true that we all have the same kinds of emotional attachments to the beliefs that matter most to us, it is also true that the content of belief really matters. I am neither a fanatic nor a sheep, because I have chosen a belief content that puts the highest value on thinking and questioning and evidence, and on the liberty of both conscience and action. I will hold to that, and I will trust in my strength, and I will not be afraid.