The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 2)
By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology
As an attitude, skepticism is a natural part of the scientific method. It calls for solid proof and verification. As an agenda, however, the story of skepticism is quite different. The way that strident atheism has clothed itself in science seems convincing to people who are skeptical about God in the first place. But there’s no scientific basis for atheism, since God isn’t subject to experimentation. As the dust has settled, the agenda of militant skepticism has come to light – it’s basically another symptom of the blogosphere’s culture of personal attack, unfounded allegation, and a reckless disregard for the truth.
None of this is news. The fate of militant skepticism, whatever it may be, will drift apart from the serious business of doing science. After all, no scientific discovery was ever made by negative thinking. There has to be an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to break new ground, while the militant skeptics represent the exact opposite: they are dedicated to the suppression of curiosity and protecting rigid boundaries of “real” science.
But by a strange and unexpected chain of events, real science finds itself at a turning point where skepticism itself is proving to be a dubious attitude. The standby of the scientific method – gathering objective data to prove objective facts – has been undermined. The reason for this cannot be stated in a single sentence, because too many shadowy findings, suppositions, and theoretical conundrums are woven together. The leading issues can be stated briefly as follows:
- Objectivity has been undermined by the measurement problem in quantum physics, which must account for how the observer actually changes or influences the thing he observes.
- Also from quantum physics, the Uncertainty Principle undercut the notion of solid, tangible atoms and molecules existing in fixed locations. No one is sure about the implications for the human brain, since it is composed of atoms and molecules whose status is tied into the mystery of consciousness.
- The emergence of time and space, either through the Big Bang or at this very moment, remains mysterious. The pre-created state of the universe is a deep mystery.
- The whole issue of consciousness, long ignored because of science’s aversion to subjectivity, has become a major concern, principally for two reasons. The assumption that the brain is the producer of the mind has never been proved; therefore, it presents the possibility of being wrong. Second, if consciousness is more like a field effect than a unique human trait, the universe itself could be conscious, or at least possess the qualities of proto-consciousness, just as DNA possesses the possibility for Homo sapiens even at the stage when life forms were only single-celled organisms.
These four mysteries or problems, whatever you label them, undercut skepticism – and more or less demolish militant skepticism – because they make science question its belief in such things as materialism, reductionism, and objectivity. That’s too many “isms” for a non-scientist to really care about, and there’s no doubt that the everyday work of science proceeds as usual without regard for issues that many would dismiss as metaphysics. But such an attitude is the same as accepting a dead end. For without asking the deepest questions about what is real and how do we know the truth, the current state of physics and biology will be mired in speculation and doubt.
Let’s drop the bugaboo about metaphysics and look with open eyes at two critical aspects of philosophy that can come to the aid of science at this moment. One is ontology, which asks what is reality? or how can we discover the difference between reality and illusion? The other is epistemology, which asks what is knowledge? and how do we come to know about the world? Neither looks like a burning issue in everyday life, but they are, because each has a positive and negative pole.
The positive pole is located at the horizon of particle physics and cosmology, where figuring out what is real has become urgent business, now that the solid, tangible world of the five senses has been thoroughly undermined. It has become an object of fascinated study to look beyond our perception of space and time, and since the human brain operates in space and time, this new horizon requires sophisticated thinking about thinking itself.
The negative pole is found with militant skeptics, who are wedded to an outmoded belief that the five senses are basically reliable, that only physical things are real, and that “pure” objectivity is possible, with the corollary that subjectivity will always be the enemy of real science. This last belief totally ignores the indisputable fact that every experience, including the experience of doing science, is subjective. Militant skepticism blocks the way to an expanded science that is trying to grapple with the issue of how the observer is woven into the object he observes.
In the next post we’ll consider how irrelevant and misguided the skeptical agenda is proving to be by offering specific examples from the work of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose intention to keep science pure and objective has led them into blind alleys and rigid thinking – the very things science should avoid at all cost.
(To be cont.)
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers. Coming soon What Are You Hungry For? (Harmony, November 12, 2013)
Jordan Flesher, BA, is a student pursuing a Masters of Arts in Psychology.