Friday, June 26, 2009

Lawrence Krauss and Stalin

Lawrence Krauss has written an article on the accommodation controversy for the Wall Street Journal which is almost sweet in its naïveté. He takes J.B.S. Haldane (1892 – 1964) as his example of a man of reason whose science led him to accept atheism in everyday life. Krauss notes,
J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science. Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

But there is a problem. Krauss appears to be ignorant of where reason led Haldane. Because Haldane didn’t just become an atheist, he became a lifelong supporter of one of the greatest monsters of history – Josef Stalin. Right at the moment that Haldane was founding population genetics, his hero was depopulating the Ukraine. And when Stalin put the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov on trial for challenging the notorious Trofim Lysenko, Haldane refused to utter a word of condemnation.

I very much doubt that Lawrence Krauss approves of this behaviour. But I have to ask why he thinks holding up Haldane as a paragon of rationality is going to advance his argument that scientists ought to behave like atheists. Haldane was a very great scientist. He was also an apologist for mass-murder and an ardent follower of one of the most inhumane doctrines ever to come from the mind of man. If that is where reason gets you, I don’t think we need worry about scientists being a bit irrational in their spare time.

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Chris Schoen said...

I think we should also remember that until the 19th century, almost all scientists were theists, and none of them expressed much anxiety that a "god, angel, or devil" would interfere with their work. (What a weird, narcissistic attitude that would have been). To the contrary, devout scientists and philosophers like Newton, Galileo, Leibniz, and Bacon considered science as a means to understand God's law.

Granted, the picture changed after von Helmholz and Darwin, when theologians asserted the right of God to meddle with human observation partially out of a fear he'd be written out of the story altogether. (But to be fair, partially as a check against the hubris of human omnicompetance through science.)

But I don't see any reason why a theistic scientist would take as the null hypothesis that supernatural agents would try to impede their work. (Also, I think Krauss is quoting Haldane out of context here. He was certainly no Kantian rationalist.)

TheOFloinn said...

Besides, the logic is faulty. He does not need the God hypothesis to do science; therefore, he does not need the God hypothesis, period? An auto mechanic does not need Darwinism to rebuild a transmission. Does that make it untrue, or even useless, in some other endeavor?

The problem is scientism. Only if he thinks the study of the mechanisms of nature is all that there is in life, does Haldane's plaint make sense.

Perhaps, he supposed that by calculating the physics of vibrating reeds he has understood Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A.

Grad Student said...

Connecting atheism to the insanity of Stalin et al is a drastic leap! Can't we all just get over the guilt by association game?