Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Naturalists

I have sometimes been told that belief in naturalism -- i.e. that the natural world is all that exists and there is thus no supernatural -- has an inverse relationship with how close the individual is with the hard sciences. In particular, I've heard that physicists are rarely naturalists, chemists slightly more frequently, biologists more, and then when you get into the social sciences and philosophy, naturalism and even anti-religious sentiments often play a large role.

I classify physics as the harder science because it is presupposed by the other levels, although they aren't necessarily reducible to it. You can have physics without chemistry, but you can't have chemistry without physics. Similarly, you can have chemistry without biology, but you can't have biology without chemistry. Of course, biology is still a hard science. But when you get to that level, there is more room for speculation, and so more ways to avoid conclusions one is not predisposed to. But this may all be false, because when you go another level harder from physics, you get to particle physics which strikes me as very speculative.

At any rate, I have often been told that there are many physicists who draw religious conclusions from their studies. Freeman Dyson is one. Paul Davies is another. And the further you go from physics, the less prone a scientist is to see "something going on behind the scenes." If you know of any studies confirming or refuting this, please let me know. I'm interested.

I recently, and surprisingly, found the exact same sentiment expressed in a philosophy book published almost 90 years ago in 1922. The book is Matter and Spirit by James Bissett Pratt. On page 158 he writes the following: is interesting to note that the demand for the absolute universality of physical laws comes, as a rule, not from the physicists, not from the chemists, but from a small number of biologists, a larger number of psychologists, and most of all from the naturalistic school of the philosophers. The mechanistic philosophers are much more royalist than their king, and the demand for the universal sway of the mechanical seems to vary directly with the square of the distance from headquarters.

If this was correct 90 years ago, and is still correct today, it's an interesting point. Those who are face to face with nature think it testifies to something beyond itself, while those who deny this tend to be those furthest removed from it. But of course this observation may be incorrect. I'm just a philosopher myself, after all.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


unkle e said...

It's a nice theory, Jim, and I've heard it too. But recently I saw some stats - here - which indicated the opposite. Doctors and social scientists were more likely to believe in God than those in the "hard" sciences. Interestingly, this result surprised those conducting the survey too.

Maybe you should follow up the reference and perhaps rewrite the post? (Sorry!)

TheOFloinn said...

Midgley noted that the mechanistic worldview came to dominate biology just as quantum theory was banishing that view from physics.

Physics is "harder" than the others because it is more mathematized and precise. We have Maxwell's Equations and Newton's Equations; but where are the Darwin Equations? Parts of biology are "hard", but they are the parts called biochemistry and biophysics.

Someone once wrote - I have forgotten who - that the scientific revolution fit to a T the physics of motion; fit well the rest of physics; fit pretty good most all of chemistry; fit poorly biology; fit not at all the social 'sciences.'

It may be that some folks confuse the dictum of William of Conches and Albertus Magnus and the rest that natural phenomena have natural causes with the proposition that there are no first causes.

Grad Student said...

The skeptical side of me was aroused by the following phrases that lack any poll or study to back them up:

"I have sometimes been told"

"I've heard"

"I have often been told"

(I also second unkle-e's comment.)

Crude said...

But Jim wasn't talking about atheism or theism. He was talking about naturalism. And a person can forsake naturalism and still remain an atheist.

Or at least, they could. I think a more pertinent problem is "Just what is natural or supernatural?" Certainly what counts as "natural" has been drastically obscured over the years - and as a result, so has "supernatural".

Jim S. said...

Guys, I specifically said, "I've heard X is true, does anyone know of any studies confirming or refuting it?" Saying I lack any poll or study to back up the claim kind of misses the point that I was asking for polls and studies regarding the claim. The whole reason I wrote this post is because this is something I've heard many times, but I've never seen any evidence of beyond the anecdotal.

TheOFloinn said...

Natural is that which in accordance with the nature of a thing; that is, without artifice. Thus a stone's natural motion is to fall in accordance with the laws of gravity; whereas to be thrown upward in an arc is an unnatural motion.

Just sayin'

Grad Student said...

Oops, I missed that part:

"If you know of any studies confirming or refuting this, please let me know. I'm interested."


Stevo Darkly said...

Jim S:

Yes, the Carnegie Commission in 1969 surveyed 60,000 academic scientists and found that those in mathematics and the "harder" sciences were more likely to be religious than those in the "softer" or social sciences.

The results were summarized by Roger Finke and the (in)famous Rodney Stark in the book Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. You can see the relevant text at GoogleBooks:

(Pp. 52 - 55 )

However, I have also heard of at least one more-recent survey that found that (1) scientists in general are (now) significantly less religious than the population as a whole, perhaps more so than a few decades ago, and (2) the previously found direct relationship between a scientist's religiousity and the "hardness" of his science has now disappeared, or possibly even reversed. (Here I am thinking specifically of Elaine Howard Ecklund's 2005-2007 survey, "Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics." I have not read this in detail, but Ecklund says, "We find that field-specific and interdisciplinary differences are not as significant in predicting religiosity as other research suggests." You can see an abstract at [or you can buy access to article itself].)

Whether the apparent change in the relationship between religiosity and the "hardness" of one's science marks a real shift (perhaps due to new findings or new areas of emphasis in the fields in question) or is an artifact due to methodology problems in the earlier research, I don't know.

Also, while trying to find the above information, I also stumbled upon the following, which reviews some of the research into the religious beliefs of scientists that has been conducted over the past several decades:

I don't have time to read that last item right now, but it might be enlightening.

Hope this helps a little.

Matko said...

And philosophy is the hardest discipline of them all.

Parts of biology are "hard", but they are the parts called biochemistry and biophysics.

Don't forget game theory.

The Scylding said...

Hmmm. I'm a geologist, and in geology there seems to be a whole spectrum of people. But in my personal experience there is a corresponding level of tolerance - most geologists don't mind if you are a theist (as long as you are not a YEC!). Interestingly enough, though, rubbing shoulders with engineers, and having had interaction with hard sciences etc., I could alos say that geologists tend to read more widely, and have wider interests, than most of the other sciences (and engineering disciplines) I've come across. Why i'm not exactly sure. Maybe it is something to do with spending time in the filed and having to hang out at the local pub ;)

Roger Pearse said...

Your post agrees with my experiences at college. There were 9 of us reading chemistry at my Oxford college. Three were Christians.

As for "harness of science", we used to say that those who understood mathematics, read mathematics. Those who thought they understood mathematics, read physics. And those who knew damn well that they didn't understand it, read chemistry.

I'm not sure that we believed that biologists existed -- just some kind of alternative to reading politics, philosophy and economics? -- but if they did, they'd probably ask "what's mathematics". After all, what is scientific about vivisecting frogs?


Roger Pearse said...

One other bit of hearsay. I have heard that in the 60's, when fewer Christians read science, the atheists used to sneer that Christians didn't understand science. In my day most Christians were scientists, so the atheists were driven to say that of course only people reading arts could have a broad understanding of real life. We just used to smile meaningfully, and watch them blush.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought that mathematicians were fairly prone to be religious.

The Wikipedia article mentions it, but the source seems to be an article in Nature (being the cheap internet leech I am, I am not subscribed to Nature :P). (After all, only online materials are reliable sources, right? :P (Don't kill me.))

Anyway, this online published report by Pew Forum might be interesting.

It suggest to be more different amongst the natural science disciplines, not a linear progression as originally proposed by you. Which was a good hypothesis regardless and maybe more locally restricted polls could find such patterns, which would argue for local variations. That would be very interesting to study.

I do suffer the notion that my peers who are freshmen in social sciences do receive more anti-religious tripe in the lecture room (rather unprofessional if you ask me, unless it is an atheist/humanist university; it's a public university after all :/). This does not have to correspond with an actual higher incidence of atheism, so militance might be an interesting phenomenon, too. One that is notoriously difficult to poll, though, and not possibly not linear with the amount of measured (dis)belief.

Now a few disclaimers before I give some people the wrong idea:
- I fully agree not all anti-religious messages are tripe
- I fully agree anti-religious messages may be disseminated, but I hold the opinion that a public institution should either intend to be perfectly neutral (which is a pipe-dream in my eyes and which I therefore reject) or accommodate as many worldviews as possible, but a special institution (like an atheist/humanist one) would not have to do such
- I hold that neither disbelief or belief does not compromise or enhance the rational functioning of the scientific practioner.