Hypothetically speaking

It’s a common atheist article of faith  – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.

The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.

What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?

How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?

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“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings

This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe.  Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

…Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.

Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:

1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.

2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.

3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.

4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.

Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:

His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.

From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).

Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.

This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!

Wow, those are some big claims.

What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.

Well, as Dawkins famously said:

“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?

Simple: it sounds more sciencey.

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“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term

There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.

The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.

More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.

Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.

Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.

So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.

At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).

However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God”  in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.

The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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9 thoughts on “Hypothetically speaking

  1. As usual, an excellent post. I very much enjoy discussions on “memes” because they are so clearly just blustering wordplay. My one comment is just to add to the latter part of your post–another response to people like Dawkins is that most Christians don’t believe God is complex at all! Aquinas, for example, held that God is omnia simplex–an absolutely simple being. I hold that God is omnia simplex in the sense of the simplest possible being (note the distinction between absolute simplicity and simplest possible). Of course this means that using parsimony to attack the concept of God as the proposed explanation of the beginning of the universe simply won’t work–for if God is the simplest possible being, then parsimony would actually favor the usage of God in explanation.

  2. The word “quantum’ has just been driving me nuts for years. In a short period of time, someone can give a messed up description of quantum mechanics and confuse the audience and then shift it to mean we can attract wealth and happiness to ourselves or that we can control the outside world or something can be wherever we wish it to be or that scientists can’t know anything for sure because of these sub-atomic mysteries. Sigh. Thanks for the post on this important subject. The ability to distinguish an expert’s expertise in a specific field from editorials outside of it is an important skill. Without it, you either buy everything you hear, or you shut down a valuable source of information just because you don’t agree with one part of the source’s personal worldview or ideology (which is off topic, anyway.)

    • There was a running gag at one point that went something like:

      “Every time a non-physicist misquotes quantum mechanics, a fairy loses its wings.”

      And don’t even get me started on “The butterfly effect”. It’s generally taken to mean that you can control great events from small points of influence, but actually means that minor events can have dramatic – but completely unpredictable – consequences, which in turn means that such control is impossible.

      Sigh.

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  5. How can you decide between two conflicting revelations? Or is dualism false?

    What would you do if someone came to you believing truth, that is in conflict with your current beliefs, had been revealed to them?

    I would be skeptical.

  6. Hi dark, thanks for stopping by. I guess that’s the sort of thing which is hard to answer hypothetically.

    My points with this post were really about misappropriation of scientific terminology for unscientific ideas, with the intent of making them sound more “rational”.

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