Last night I had the privilege of attending a lecture by one of my heroes, and getting to meet her and chat with her afterwards. Her name is Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education.
The subject of the talk was the relationship between science and religion, a topic that is of great interest both to Dr. Scott and myself. Dr. Scott has been a passionate exponent of keeping religion out of the science classroom, and her efforts have been instrumental in the overturning of state mandates that high school biology teachers "teach the controversy" regarding evolution (amongst scientists, there is none) or include "alternate explanations" (most often intelligent design, which is a fundamentally non-scientific stance).
Dr. Scott's talk last night revolved around what she called "three ways of knowing" -- authority, personal experience/insight, and science. Each of them, she said, has its limitations, and is useful in different situations. Science's limitations in particular include the fact that it only addresses natural processes and natural explanations -- it is silent on issues of the supernatural, and even in the realm of the natural world stops short of giving meaning to what is out there. In particular, she took exception with statements such as the following by Richard Dawkins (from River Out of Eden): "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." Her objection was not that she didn't agree with it -- she is, she said, a philosophical materialist -- but that it is not a scientific statement.
I thought it was an interesting argument, but after letting it bubble about in my brain for twelve hours, I'm not sure I actually agree with it. Science does attach meaning to things; rightly or wrongly, scientists do more than what she claims, which is to draw inferences from data about relationships between variables. When a scientist in my favorite discipline, which is evolutionary biology, states that stripes in zebras serve the function of breaking up the animals' profile when the herd is in flight, making it harder for predators to single out one particular individual, (s)he has crossed the line into an unprovable assertion -- albeit a logical, and fairly benign, one. That stripes are selected for is obvious; zebras have stripes. What the ultimate purpose of stripes is, is another matter entirely. And science does often have a lot to say on such matters, although careful scientists are rightly cautious about granting such statements too much weight.
And as far as the difference between natural and supernatural, I wonder very much if that is not itself an artificial distinction. If things we consider supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, and so on) actually exist, it points to some pretty fundamental truths about the universe, and says a lot about how the world around us is put together. The existence of such entities should leave traces -- evidence -- and that evidence should be accessible to evaluation by scientists. Dr. Scott's claim that the supernatural (should it exist) is the sole provenance of non-scientific ways of study is, I think, drawing a false dichotomy. We cannot (as she said) detect god in a test tube; "we have no theometer." But evidence of a spiritual world's existence would, I think, be detectable in other ways than the notoriously unreliable appeals to authority and mystical insight. The lack of such evidence drives us to the most parsimonious explanation, namely, that such entities do not exist.
In any case, it was a brilliant lecture, and it was an honor to meet finally someone whose work I have admired for years. And personally, Dr. Scott is a gracious, funny, and highly articulate woman. After the lecture, when I went up to shake her hand and thank her for coming to Ithaca, I told her that I had a t-shirt captioned "Skeptical Squares," with wonderful caricatures of nine prominent skeptics. (If you want one, go here -- you can choose from amongst dozens of scientists and philosophers.) And one of my nine favorite skeptics was her.
"My goodness," she said, laughing. "I am overwhelmed by my own fame. I barely know what to say." If so, it was the first time that evening that she was at a loss for words.