(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)
Plantinga wants to defend his right to believe that the Christianity he
was raised in is true. Jerry Coyne is trying to refute his argument. So far, neither position is surprising, and Coyne is of course in the right here.
But what Coyne fails to recognize is that there is a sense in which Plantinga is onto something here. Clearly we can't assert that merely because your beliefs are in any sense dependent on your society and culture, they are therefore not credible.
Indeed, this is what's wrong with the Strong Programme;
it points out that science is dependent upon social institutions, and
thereby immediately concludes that science is no more justified than any
other socially-dependent belief.
Of course Plantinga is wrong that social dependence has nothing to
do with the credibility of a belief. It really should be of concern to
any rational believer (if such beings exist?) that their beliefs are
critically dependent upon particular circumstances of their birth. “I
was born in Kansas, and so I am Baptist; if I had been born in Saudi
Arabia, I would be Muslim” really is cause for concern as to the
accuracy of your beliefs.
what's the difference here? Why is the social dependence of science
less worrisome than the social dependence of religion? The key lies in
understanding what kind of dependence we're talking about. Science is socially dependent in that it relies upon technology, broadly
speaking. My knowledge that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters
per second does depend on a lot of things that came before me, things
most human cultures in history wouldn't have had. It's not just
computers, particle accelerators, and lasers (though it surely is); even
just books are things that were not widely available in most
human societies. The Scientific Method itself can be considered in this
sense a technology that had to be invented. You can't spectrally analyze
Betelgeuse with the equipment available to an Amazonian tribe.
Yet, importantly, you can spectrally
analyze Betelgeuse with very few prior assumptions about what
Betelgeuse is made of. You can think that all those MIT physicists are
talking utter nonsense—stars are made of cheese, and you're sure of
it—but when the spectrograph starts pumping out data, you'll find that
it comes out exactly as the MIT folks predicted. Once you have access to
the equipment, you can perform the experiment yourself; and indeed,
universities around the world regularly replicate each other's
experiments. (There is very little prestige in this, alas; for it really
is the foundation of science itself. The rallying cry of the
Enlightenment really should be this: “Don't take my word for it, try it
Religion, by contrast, is socially dependent not upon technology, but upon authority. The
reason people born in the southern part of Ireland are Catholic while
people born in the northern part are Anglican is because they are expected to be so—indeed,
until recently, this was enforced by violence. It's not because Dublin
has technology that Belfast doesn't have access to; it's because if
you're from Dublin, everyone around you will expect you to attend
Catholic church and say Catholic prayers. There isn't any
independently-repeated experiment you could perform that would
distinguish Catholic doctrine from Anglican doctrine (indeed, I think a
pretty good case can be made in terms of evolutionary game theory that
this indistinguishability is in a sense on purpose; it is an
adaptation of the two memes, much like a king snake mimics a coral
snake). There is no theological equivalent to a particle accelerator.
There's another way of looking at this: Science is socially dependent on things that make us smarter, while religion is socially dependent on things that make us believe.
institutions of science—and here it's not even a stretch to include the
Scientific Method itself—are such that they expand our ability to
examine the world; better mathematical and computational tools, more
precise measurement equipment. They extend our limited eyes and brains
to see and understand things we previously could not.
does not do this. They don't expand our understanding; they fix it in
place, or even contract it. Far from expanding our senses, they tell us
not to use the ones we already have! “Blessed are those who believe
without seeing.” Religious institutions don't try to give us the tools
to discover on us own; instead, they enforce their own beliefs upon us,
punishing us if we doubt or challenge them.
This is also why science is open to change and religion is not. Science wants to know the right answer, whatever it may be; religion wants us to believe this answer, whether
or not it is right. In fact, science changes far less than religion;
our estimates of the size of the Earth have become a million times more
precise, but have not changed in overall magnitude more than 5% since
Periclean Athens. Our calculations of gravity have added several decimal
places since Newton, but his were accurate to within 0.1% for any
purpose short of space travel. Religions fight change at every
turn—often with literal violence—and yet they change like the winds. Are
you familiar with Zarathustra, or Apollonius of Tyana? How much do you
know about Osiris? Have you ever asked yourself, “What would Amaterasu
do?” It's incredibly ironic, really; the people who are most willing to
accept change are the ones who least need to worry about it, and the
ones who would literally kill to stop change are the ones who go through
it all the time.
This in turn is a result of the different kinds
of social dependence. When science changes, it is because technology has
improved (or, in some cases, regressed). It moves forward, or at worst,
backward; but always along the same track. But when religion changes,
it is because authority has changed—a king deposed, an empire established, a war won. Because authority can change in all directions, so can religion.
So yes, science is socially dependent, and religion is socially dependent. But they are not the same kind of dependence, and that makes all the difference.