Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Steven Weinberg recovers from Russell's Syndrome

Steven Weinberg has written a surprisingly good article in the New York Review of Books. It is in marked contrast to his much less successful review of the God Delusion in the Times Literary Supplement last year. For example, the new Weinberg admits he has no idea what effect al-Ghazali had on Islamic science while in his review of Dawkins’s book, he blamed him for completely destroying the Arabic scientific tradition. In his earlier piece, Weinberg wrote, “after al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries”, which is factually inaccurate as many, not least George Saliba, have pointed out. Likewise, Weinberg has abandoned the conflict hypothesis for the relationship between science and religion in favour of mere ‘tension’. Ironically, that is the same word I use in my own book, God’s Philosophers, although I refer to the tension as creative. One of the reasons why I use the word ‘creative’ is that the medieval condemnation of Aristotle’s naturalistic philosophy had a positive effect on the rise of science. Weinberg even acknowledges this point in his article. He also has a realistic attitude to science’s inability to answer many important questions. That isn’t to say that Weinberg has changed his mind about God. And he continues to make mistakes about several aspects of history (not least how Darwin lost his faith). But the improvement in both tone and argumentation is clear to see.

I want to take one point from Weinberg’s article. That in itself is a sign of progress because in his previous incarnation, his thinking wasn’t even worth engaging with. The point I want to raise is the question of authority, both moral and scientific. Weinberg thinks he can do without authority and explains that scientific authority is not absolute. This is true but, for most of us, it may as well be. In order to effectively criticise science one has to have a relevant PhD and access to peer-reviewed journals. In practice, even if we could understand the issues and do the maths (which most of us cannot), we cannot challenge scientific authority. Scientific authority is thus vested in a group of men (and a few women) that few of us have the slightest chance of ever joining. It is all very well for a Nobel Prize winner like Weinberg to laud this system, but then he is on the inside.

The thing is, I laud the system too. I want science in the hands of experts who have been properly trained and are backed up by a long tradition of similarly learned individuals. I’d like a similar level of expertise to be brought to bear on moral questions as well. Weinberg would appear to deny us this because only religion has provided such a framework. He realises that the removal of this authority on how to live one’s life creates a huge problem. The substitutes, such as Nazism and Communism, have, he acknowledges, been worse than the religion that they aimed to replace. Weinberg eloquently notes that, as atheists, “at best we live life on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.” The tragedy of being an open-minded atheist is the realisation that they need religion just they reject it.

Weinberg’s article also raises an interesting medical point. I had previously assumed that Russell’s Syndrome (whereby intelligent atheists turn stupid when they talk about religion) was incurable, but on the evidence of the NYRB article, Weinberg is well on the way to making a recovery. We should wish him well.

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