John Derbyshire on Science and Conservatives

John Derbyshire is a conservative who does not believe that science is evil. He has some thoughts, which he shares at The Corner, on why so many conservatives dislike science:

Big reason 1: Science has no moral content. This is simply appalling to a lot of conservatives — that a body of knowledge with so much prestige and importance can be morally empty. Human beings want to know how to live, and a mass of knowledge that contains no guidance on this is just abhorrent to many, most of them self-identifying conservatives. “If it has no moral content, it’s not true knowledge,” is apparently a thing that lots of people believe.

Big reason 2: Scientists are irreligious. They mostly are. On the broadest definition of “scientist,” over 60 percent are unbelievers. Up at the highest levels of achievement, unbelief is wellnigh total, though there are differences between the various scientific disciplines. Details here.

Small reason 1: Science is incomplete. Our core of scientific knowledge about topics that have been thoroughly investigated for decades or centuries — combustion, electromagnetism, gravitation, evolution — is as solid and indisputable as human knowledge can be, but there’s a lot of stuff around the edges we’re not sure about, and plenty beyond that where we just don’t have much of a clue. For reasons I don’t understand, some people find this intolerable. “If you can’t explain everything, then you’re not explaining anything,” seems to be the attitude. As I said, this seems bizarre to me, but there is undoubtedly a great hunger, especially among religious conservatives, for total explanations of everything. Science doesn’t do that. …

And religion does? Only fanatics think that religion — their religion, usually — explains everything. There is a lack of imagination and a great insecurity in those who believe that faith provides certainty. Nothing in this earthly realm does that, but science certainly comes a lot closer than religion.

I consider my religious tradition (Judaism) to be one path among many, and although Jewish tradition, ritual, and culture give meaning to my life and a foundation for my ethical values and my sense of right and wrong, they do not explain everything. Religious belief can, and often does, provide a way of understanding the more profound realities of human life — like the existence of suffering, brutality, cruelty, injustice. But it does not — and cannot, in my view — “explain” why evil exists — at least not if one seeks an explanation that is unarguably true, and can be proved so.

I came across a column in The Hindu just now, while I was thinking out this essay, that expresses my feelings about faith, and my sense of what it is. Here is one sentence:

Mine is not a faith for those who seek certitudes, but there is no better belief-system for an era of doubt and uncertainty than a religion that cheerfully accommodates both.

I can’t say it better than that.

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5 Comments on “John Derbyshire on Science and Conservatives”

  1. Chief Says:

    All eras have “doubt and uncertainty.” In my opinion, life would be mighty boring and dull if uncertainty was removed.

    I thrive on the uncertainty of life because that allows me to use my brain to chart a course thru the rocks and shoals of life.

  2. antioxexpress Says:

    Objective thoughtful commentary. I like that.
    I’m religious but I agree with your tenets that science has no moral content (it has it’s own truth and “laws”); I suppose most scientists are areligious but I don’t really know; and science is incomplete which we prove almost daily as we discover ever more scientific secrets revealed to our inquiring minds. It’s a great journey.


  3. harebell Says:

    I have no problem with what people want to do in their own lives with respect to religion, politics and even sex, as long as everything is consensual and there are no detrimental effects to others.
    You are right about the extremists being the issue with respect to intolerance and certainty, but unfortunately their arguments are usually based on a solid foundation of dogmatic command. This means they can then use this to make other slightly less extreme adherents move to the extreme. This chain reaction continues until you have extremists and non believers.
    Take politics and calling someone unAmerican because of their viewpoint. People in the US don’t like that so they outdo each other in the race tro the extremes until liberal becomes another word for socialist and then that’s not too far from communist. (It’s the same for the other wing too.)
    In religion if you are not as “pious” or all-believing as me then you are a back-slider, apostate then heretic. Suddenly you are no longer in the in group and now you have two options fight for re-entry or oppose the new group. Each of these positions requires certainty and no compromise.
    Dogmatists hate science because it works and has a proven track record. So if it looks like it might be calling their long held beliefs into question it needs to be stopped. Hence terms like atheistic science and creation science or the conflation of the word theory in “theory of evolution”.
    More examples of his bald face lying for the religion of choice is the book Liberal Fascism and “intelligent design”.
    So we see people whose religion supposedly makes them “moral and good” happy to lie in order to preserve their world view.

  4. mauro7inf Says:

    The problem with “conservatives” is that they view science. There is no such thing as science, really, at least not the thing these idiots think science is. Science is not a set of cold, hard, emotionless facts. Science is just the stuff we know and the stuff we think. The box is blue? That’s science (so long as the box is actually blue). If you can demonstrate something is probably true, that’s science. Science is just a fancy word for the subject in school where you’re taught how stuff works in general, as opposed to how stuff worked that one time (history) or how to do things (math, language arts). There’s nothing to be for or against in science.

  5. stoneriley Says:

    Yeah, what Mr.Derbyshire said. And also: Modern science (as opposed to other periods when science flowered) has been very slow and very reluctant to investigate human spiritual experience. Since all humans have spiritual experience, and all desire some understanding of it, this is disappointing. Heaven knows we certainly have ample data, from anthropology, psychology, ethnography, history, and some other disciplines, and heaven knows that scientific thinkers in other periods (obviously in India and China, reputedly in Greece) made great strides in forming more or less convincing and quite usable understandings of human spiritual experience. After all, it’s not rocket science. But modern science has been very slow and very reluctant to investigate the subject, evidently for reasons of the movement’s history. The story could be told like this: To prevent their movement being strangled in its cradle, early modern scientists swore a deal that theologians would be allowed to retain control of investigations into human spiritual experience. And they reinforced the dangerous border line with powerful taboos. They swore that all investigations in that subject would be considered scientifically, perforce, as nonsense and insane. And it worked okay. By the Twentieth Century human spiritual experience was the only field of investigation still remaining (for respectable thinkers in Western culture) under the control of theologians. So this great yawning chasm in the findings of modern science is certainly understandable but it is disappointing nonetheless. Why must we go to the old Chinese or Indian (or maybe Greek) texts to find well formed and rational and non-theological (but done in foreign terminology!) descriptions of such intimate and universal and therefore manifestly interesting phenomena??? This is disappointing. Speaking personally, this has disappointed me all my adult life. I do counseling. What am I to tell a client who has powerful spiritual experiences and is powerfully confused? And that happens a lot, as any one who does this stuff can tell you. I sure would like to have some modern scientific guidance on the subject. Which of the conceivable ideas are likely true? Which are surely actual nonsense? Where lies insanity? And is it truly not possible to at least enrich the conversation of morality from science? (One cautiously supposes that clear findings in this area might help that project. Why not?) But there I was last year at 61 years old, and a book for which I had been looking my entire adult life was finally published. It is: “Extraordinary Knowing” by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Bantam Books, 2007. Ye gods!! At last a genuine bona fide modern scientific book that pulls together various disparate data we really have about human spiritual experience and actually dares the astonishing feat of offering a few well formed tentative conclusions!!! My jaw fell open. (It is written in the style of psychological literature, so don’t expect an astronautics book [a much harder subject] but the style fits okay at least to start.) So anyway, speaking personally, all this is one of the main reasons why I’m active in the Pagan movement. For example: Modern science generally considers Joseph Campbell to be a great ethnographer whereas in our little movement he’s generally considered to be one of the most important thinkers of our time. And if you have actually read this far, thanks. – Stone Riley

    Here’s Mayer’s book: (Notice there is an e-book option.)
    Here’s my front page:

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