All Hail King Science, or, Another Response to Ricky Gervais

Last week, Dave responded to comedian Ricky Gervais’ explanation of/argument for why he’s doesn’t believe in God. Today, I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own. My reason for doing so isn’t that I think Gervais is especially skillful or persuasive in his argument or even widely known for his atheism specifically. Atheism has both more capable and more prominent defenders.

Rather, it’s because Gervais gave voice to certain conceptions or perspectives regarding science that are both (1) widely held and (2) problematic. Here’s the relevant passage from Gervais’ piece:

Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence—evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray.

Several things should be said by way of response. First, science doesn’t “seek” anything. Nor can it “discriminate” or “find things out” or possess humility. It doesn’t make conclusions or “embrace a body of knowledge.” That’s because science is not a personal entity like human beings are. You can’t have a conversation with science. Science doesn’t have goals. It doesn’t have character traits, either good or bad. Rather, science, is a method for observing and better understanding the physical world.

In making the previous point, my intention isn’t simply to score a semantic point. Instead it’s to draw attention to the obvious but seemingly forgotten fact that people actually do science. And as anyone who has any experience with people knows, they do unfairly discriminate. They aren’t always humble. They sometimes base conclusions and beliefs on something other than evidence. They get offended by facts that challenge their existing beliefs and, unfortunately, hold on to certain practices or traditions even after they’ve been shown to be less than ideal.

I say all this to point out that the perception of science as some kind of unswerving pursuit of the truth, unfettered by any bias and nobly following “just the facts, ma’am” is, well, more than a bit naïve. Witness historian of science David Lindberg’s claim: “The question throughout most of the history of Western science has not been whether science will function as handmaiden, but which mistress it will serve” (quoted in Hunter Baker, The End of Secularism, 158). And yet the idea that science as some kind of abstract, objective arbiter of all truth stubbornly persists.

To be clear, I mean none of this as a negative screed against science. Science is a gift from God, a wonderfully useful tool that has led to countless important discoveries and many improvements to our quality of life. But like all such tools, it is liable to user error. And user error, it must be said, has been known to affect results.

Speaking of science as a gift of God, Gervais also seems to suggest that science should be thought of as an adversary to faith. In The Victory of Reason, historian Rodney Stark tells a decidedly different story. In the book’s introduction, Stark notes:

During the past century, Western intellectuals have been more than willing to trace European imperialism to Christian origins, but they have been entirely unwilling to recognize that Christianity made any contribution (other than intolerance) to the Western capacity to dominate. Rather the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science. Nonsense. The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians. Unfortunately, even many of those historians willing to grant Christianity a role in shaping Western progress have tended to limit themselves to tracing beneficial religious effects of the Protestant Reformation. It is as if the previous fifteen hundred years of Christianity either were of little matter or were harmful (xi).

Stark goes on to make a cogent defense of these assertions. For one, he argues that Christianity alone possessed the worldview to move past mere empiricism and give rise to what we can properly term as science. In the Christian conception, “because God is a rational being and the universe is his personal creation, it necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension. This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them to the rise of science” (12, italics his). On the other hand, the “critical religious concepts and motivations were lacking in those societies that seem otherwise to have had the potential to develop science but did not: China, Greece, and Islam” (16). As a result,

Real science arose only once: in Europe. China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome each had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy. Why? Again, the answer has to do with images of God (14).

Consequently, Stark points out, “it is necessary to confront an incredible lie that long disfigured our knowledge of history.” He continues:

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery—from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescued, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world (35).

As it turns out, then, the “medieval practices” that Gervais casually derides involved a lot more than “popping leeches down your trousers and praying.” If all this sounds completely new or incredible to you, I’d invite you to read Stark’s book yourself.

It’s my sincere hope that Ricky Gervais will one day sit down with one of the many scientists who understands the discoveries of his or her discipline to support the idea that God, in fact, does exist. From there, perhaps he would be encouraged to engage with a few of the numerous philosophers, historians, and scholars in other disciplines that have come to precisely the same conclusion. In doing that, he might just find the need to base his conclusions on evidence that has been “updated and upgraded.”

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