Ran into Richard Dawkins on the Internet again today, so I thought I’d go over why I think he’s a dummy:
“Science” is a particular way of knowing, and especially of learning. Anyone who gets into the metaphysics will eventually arrive at the problem that there is no really good way of wrapping your mind around the world; the mind is inherently representational, meaning that it can, at best and at worst, deal in approximations of the universe, the construction of an ideal that inevitably involves the paring away of detail. Unfortunately, this seems the only way available to us to comprehend the world: a bottle of milk, your fingernails, the social relation between people and dogs, all of these things occupy space and time in ways so diabolically complex and infinite that to know them fully is impossible; what you can know is a mere shadow of the bottle of milk, a rude representation of the aspects of it that your mind is prepared to see. A bottle of milk held in my hand implies all of the fundamental mysteries of the universe: to know it fully would be to know everything. The way I know it is infinitely smaller.
Science is the pretense that this reduction is an access to the truth. And it is, of course, access to an aspect of it, and often quite a useful one. My mind comprehends the bottle of milk as physical form, nutritive liquid, situated in a particular cultural context. That chain of relations allows me to direct my subjective experience; I can open it, manipulate it, drink it, talk about it. And the application of rigor to that mental model, making its construction more explicit, rule-based, mathematical, precise, extends my power of manipulating that subjective experience.
But, it does NOT provide me with complete knowledge of anything. Let’s take the so-called “laws of physics”; first of all, they don’t actually exist. Not a single physical “law” is true even to the limit of our understanding; all of them break down at the edges. Sometimes, we might hope that we are able to replace these “laws” with ones that better represent reality (that is, better provide us with the means to predict and direct events), but inherent in that representation, as there is in all human knowledge, is a reduction.
Moreover, knowledge that is rooted in empirical observation – i.e., the “scientific method” – is a particularly narrow reduction of the possible scope of representation. Being rigorous and regimented, it is a conservative way of understanding the universe – that which cannot be demonstrated cannot be taken as true.
But we should be careful not to confuse the advantages of this conservative form with indispensability; there are many other ways of knowing that are often quicker and more useful, that are decidedly not scientific. The fleeting trace of worry on my lover’s face is something I might ingest and act on; the utility of this form of knowing is unquestionably high, and it’s probably the case that here is a piece of information that is more-or-less inaccessible to rigorous empirical examination; I can’t conduct double-blinded controlled studies on how worried my lover is, and about what. But, no matter: the fact that I can’t know something empirically does not mean that I can’t know it, and the fact that I can’t prove something empirically does not mean I cannot consider it to be true. Empiricism is only one way of understanding the universe.
Let me reiterate that scientific examination is an extremely rigorous and powerful way of understanding the world. It has recently become fashionable, however, to turn this rigor into a kind of rationalist absolutism. Science cannot replace all other forms of understanding, and we should be cognizant of its limits. Because it does, indeed, limit us to force all of our thinking to be scientific. A lot of thought is not scientific, by necessity, and works better because of it.
To dispense with the subject of God: there is an old Sanskrit aphorism which lampoons the ability of rational examination to say anything substantive on the question of divinity. The only statements you can make are in the negative – “neti, neti” – it’s not this, it’s not this. This might allow us to pare back some, or even most, of the claims of religion, but it’s not enough to leave us with anything other than a puzzled agnosticism. The fact that you cannot scientifically prove the existence of God is not a defeat for God, really, it’s just a limitation of science as a way of knowing.