Are we atheists scientific dogmatists?

Robert Winston, renowned British scientist, BBC doco presenter, and occasional Christian apologist, was defending the efficacy of science on BBC interview show, Hardtalk. In a throw-away line he suggested that atheists take the unreasonable position of automatically accepting the factuality of scientific claims without question (attacking Richard Dawkins et al. ?). By implication non-atheists are able to take a more nuanced view of science's strengths and limitations.

So how do you view the claims of science?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Science uncovers facts and therefore truth whereas religion, philosophy, and ... deal in human wishful thinking and speculation
  2. Despite all its limitations science is our best shot at understanding the world about us. However there may be more to understanding the human condition.
  3. Science is only one source of human knowledge and has no particular preeminence over the others.

Alex's Heresies - Embracing a Physical Reality

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Comment by Jedi Wanderer on June 2, 2011 at 9:03am
Being dogmatic means that we do not doubt something which is potentially doubtful. We may of course doubt that science is unreliable, but then how would we test this doubt against any alternatives? We may cast our beliefs in different lights, trying to take a worldview based on faith rather than on reason, and of course theists do this as a matter of course. Not only do we see that this is foolhardy, but we become more justified in this belief the more we look at the world from a position of reason. Of course, theists believe they are at least no worse in what they are doing, since they simply become more convinced of their beliefs the more they look at the world from their own epistemological framework. The question quickly changes from who is being dogmatic to who is right and who is wrong. From this perspective, dogma just means belief, and being dogmatic just means adhering to a belief. On this loosest definition of dogmatism, I suppose we are all dogmatic. But how could we be otherwise, unless we take no beliefs whatsoever? On this understanding, dogmatism is only bad if you are wrong, but it is good if you are right.
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on June 2, 2011 at 8:51am
We atheists are not scientific dogmatists (at least, we do not have to be, nor should we be). I wouldn't say any of the three choices above. People come to justified beliefs by using their experiences of the world and reasoning successfully about those expereinces. This is called "weighing the evidence". There simply is no positive evidence for faith in any form. But the question isn't whether or not a god or gods can be inferred from the evidence (they can't). The question is whether it is always reasonable to take a scientific approach to reality, and even theists on this understanding could be scientific dogmatists. All the evidence points to us always being able to take a scientific understanding of reality, so without any reason to believe otherwise, we are not being dogmatic, we are simply being reasonable. This would make me choose #1 were it not for philosophy being lumped in with religion. Why was this the only choice available? #2 may have been offered to suggest that philosophy might be a reasonable alternative to science, but this is a false dichotomy. There is nothing which prevents philosophy from being scientific, especially considering that science is itself a philosophy, a worldview or way of looking at and interpreting the world. We need not exclude philosophy from a scientific worldview any more than we need to exclude science from a philosophy/worldview. If we are unable to arrive at a purely scientific conclusion, we may still be able to reason about the matter and come to a conclusion which science could agree with had we the information necessary to do so. A large portion of our experiences are not translatable directly into scientific language. There may be a scientific reason for why we experience sadness when hearing a "sad" piece of music, or why we experience loyalty to a childhood friend, and so on, but relaying the quality of these experiences is not the same as breaking them down into their contsituent parts. If this is all that was meant by #2, then this is the answer I would give, so long as it is understood to mean that any extra-scientific understandings of the world are at least potentially compatible with, and are not incompatible with, a scientific understanding of the world.
Comment by Jim DePaulo on March 3, 2010 at 4:32pm
The religious are always trying in their ignorance to make equivalents
The art of false equivalence is well developed among the deluded theist as well as the right wing of the Republican party.
Comment by ryan cameron on March 2, 2010 at 4:49pm
Science rejects ignorance, nonsense, and delusion, and that is considered "dogmatic" by religious folks.

Science will not suddenly decide to grant validity to a fantastic idea that has no basis in observable reality, and that includes god, pink invisible unicorns, and a flying spaghetti monster. To do so would not be scientific.

Dogmatic, on the other hand, seems more akin to holding fast to a belief or tradition in spite of evidence said beliefs or traditions are delusional or nonsense. Science is not that either. Science immediately rejects anything that is proven false, a hoax, fails peer review etc. and embraces new learning.
Comment by Glenn Sogge on March 2, 2010 at 4:49pm
I go with #2 -- with the caveat that science is always attempting to, and sometimes succeeding at, moving the goalposts. For example, I don't think psychology is yet a science at the level of physics or biology, but it is becoming more scientific. I have no doubt that at some point it will be fully umbrella-ed under science. But there will be struggles, setbacks, and false hopes raised along the way.

On a different note: I think trying to understand / articulate what "the human condition" is will do much to alleviate the supposed problems with that condition.
Comment by Joshua Chase on March 2, 2010 at 4:27pm
We should absolutely to take a look at the scientific method and view it with a critical eye, and we would be foolish if we didn't. We should have people double and triple checking to ensure that methodologies are logical, consistently applied, and savagely reviewed.

At its base, the scientific method is a multifaceted framework for determining truth of claims about our surroundings. The only test required for any facet of the framework is whether its predictions consistently align with observable reality. Like any tool, if it not used properly, it produces bogus results. But the misuse of method is not analogous to a failure of the method itself. The problem is that the general public is not well enough equipped to separate well-produced science from pseudoscience, and it seems those who would push a faith-based "scientific" methodology are often times just as ill-equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff. But on those occasions where science does falter, when its predictions don't align with the observable universe it does something that faith-based science does not - it throws out that which does not work. All too often that rejection of method is pounced upon as a failure of the scientific method but let us not forget that in those failures one more path has been excluded from consideration; the scientific method, properly applied, is self-distilling. Unlike its detractors, its purity is discovered, not assumed.


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