Science in the Dock

Discussion with Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss & Sean M. Carroll

Science & Technology News, March 1, 2006

Science & Theology News asked three leading scientists – Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M. Carroll — to comment on topics in science-and-religion as well as in popular culture. What follows are their answers.


CHOMSKY: People that are called intellectuals, their record is primarily service to power. It starts off in our earliest historical records, in the Bible for example. If you look at what the prophets were doing, they were what we would call dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical critique, they were warning that the [Hebrew] kings were going to destroy the country. They were calling for support for suffering people, widows and orphans and so on. So they were what we call dissident intellectuals.

Jesus himself, and most of the message of the Gospels, is a message of service to the poor, a critique of the rich and the powerful, and a pacifist doctrine. And it remained that way, that’s what Christianity was up until Constantine. Constantine shifted it so the cross, which was the symbol of persecution of somebody working for the poor, was put on the shield of the Roman Empire. It became the symbol for violence and oppression, and that’s pretty much what the church has been until the present. In fact, it’s quite striking in recent years, elements of the church — in particular the Latin American bishops, but not only them — tried to go back to the Gospels.

The people who we call intellectuals are no different from anyone else, except that they have particular privilege. They’re mostly well-off, they have training, they have resources. As privilege increases, responsibility increases. And if somebody’s working 50 hours a day to put food on the table and never got through high school and so on, their opportunities are less than the people who are called intellectuals. That doesn’t mean that they’re any less intellectual. In fact, some of the best educated people I have known never got past fourth grade. But they have fewer opportunities, and opportunity confers responsibility.

KRAUSS: I too have found that some of the brightest and most accomplished individuals I have known are those without significant academic training. Indeed, for individuals who have a particular intellectual talent, academia may be the safest and least demanding route to choose for a career. One is surrounded by like-minded people, and the most intense academic debate often revolves around issues that have little significance outside of the confines of academe.

Nevertheless, the freedom conferred by an academic position can embolden certain individuals to take the responsibility of an “intellectual” seriously, which is one of the many reasons I support the institution of tenure. I have met many academics who are committed to addressing societies needs, and are willing to speak out against those in power.

I was particularly encouraged for example, to be a part of a recent initiative of the Union of Concerned Scientists that involved a letter signed by 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates, 19 National Medal of Science Winners, that explicitly and clearly laid out the devastating campaign of the Bush administration against free scientific inquiry and the open access to information.

CARROLL: The primary role of intellectuals should be to promote the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. It’s natural to expect that the truth can be in conflict with the interests of entrenched power. The Bible, however, is hard to read as a history of intellectuals; it’s a complicated set of books, and the prophets were serving the kings as often as warning against their excesses.


CHOMSKY: Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. The reason why physics can achieve such depth is that it restricts itself to extremely simple things, abstracted from the complexity of the world. As soon as an atom gets too complicated, maybe helium, they hand it over to chemists. When problems become too complicated for chemists, they hand it over to biologists. Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on. But it’s a complicated matter: Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.

KRAUSS: It is absolutely true that science relies on extreme simplifications in order to be effective. The more “basic” the science, the easier it is to isolate the key questions and investigate them. I have often said that I chose to be a physicist because biology was way too complicated.

As a result, as one moves from physics, to chemistry, to biology, to social science, the ability to isolate questions, and provide definitive answers becomes progressively more difficult. But I think I would say that science is based on being able to address difficult questions and find simple answers.

Moreover, I disagree that whenever one is at the edge of understanding, things appear far from simple. They are only simple after one understands them. It may be true understanding that human affairs may be yet far more complicated than, say, quantum gravity, but that doesn’t change the fact that the edge of understanding in science is always confusing until a good theory has been developed.

CARROLL: When Galileo first realized that he could understand motion by considering idealized situations without friction or air resistance, he set modern science in motion. The real world is a complicated, messy place, and there are many interesting questions about which contemporary science has little to say. However, anyone who has watched a television or gone to a hospital should know that science has nevertheless managed to have a substantial impact on our lives.


CHOMSKY: What each of us has is direct experience. So does every other animal, they have some kind of experience. A bee sees the world differently than we do because it is a different organism. And other organisms just try to work their way around the world of their experience. Humans, as far as we know, are unique in the animal world in that they’re reflective creatures. That is, they try to make some sense out of their experience.

There are all kinds of ways of doing this: some are called myth, some are called magic, some are called religion. Science is a particular one — it’s a particular form of trying to gain some understanding of our experiences, organize them. It relies on evidence, coherent argument, principles that have some explanatory depth, if possible. And that mode of inquiry, which has been, particularly in the last couple hundred years, extremely successful, has its scope and its limits. What the limits are we don’t really know.

In fact, if you look at the history of science seriously, in the seventeenth century there was a major challenge to the existing scientific approach. I mean, it was assumed by Galileo and Descartes and classical scientists that the world would be intelligible to us, that all we had to do was think about it and it would be intelligible.

Newton disproved them. He showed that the world is not intelligible to us. Newton demonstrated that there are no machines, that there’s nothing mechanical in the sense in which it was assumed that the world was mechanical. He didn’t believe it — in fact he felt his work was an absurdity — but he proved it, and he spent the rest of his life trying to disprove it. And other scientists did later on. I mean, it’s often said that Newton got rid of the ghost in the machine, but it’s quite the opposite. Newton exorcised the machine. He left the ghost.

And by the time that sank in, which was quite some time, it just changed the conception of science. Instead of trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, we recognized that it’s not intelligible to us. But we just say, ‘Well, you know, unfortunately that’s the way it works. I can’t understand it but that’s the way it works.’ And then the aim of science is reduced from trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, which it is not, to trying to show that there are theories of the world which are intelligible to us. That’s what science is: It’s the study of intelligible theories which give an explanation of some aspect of reality.

Scientists typically don’t study the phenomenal world. That’s why they do experiments. Our phenomenal world is way too complex. If you took videotapes of what’s happening outside your window, the physicists and chemists and biologists couldn’t do anything with it. So what you try to do is try to find extremely simple cases — that’s called experiments — in which you try to get rid of a lot of things that you guess are probably not relevant to finding the main principles. And then you see how far you can go from there — the fact is, not very far.

When people talk about what science tells you about human affairs, it’s mostly a joke. Incidentally, I don’t think religion tells you very much either. So it’s not that science is displacing religion, there’s nothing to displace.

KRAUSS: It is absolutely true that science is just one way that humans have of making sense of the world. It happens to be an incredibly successful way, in that it allows predictions to be made that allow unprecedented control over our environment. But I disagree that Newton showed that the world was not intelligible.

It is true that Newton uttered the famous qualifier, “I do not frame hypotheses”, but his universal law of gravity actually suggested to many that the world was in fact mechanistic, that the same laws that governed falling apples governed the motion of the planets around the sun. It has been claimed, for example, that the development of Newton’s Laws was in part responsible for the ending of the burning of witches, in that it demonstrated that natural effects could have understandable natural causes.

It is absolutely true that Newton’s theories, and all scientific theories since, are approximations that give an explanation of only some aspects of nature. But I think most physical scientists at least would argue that by doing so they capture the key operational aspects of the real world of phenomena.

CARROLL: Newton showed that we could construct formal scientific models that are both perfectly intelligible and in good agreement with what we know about the world — I’m not sure what else it would mean to say that the world is intelligible to us. Of course, it is true that science remains silent on questions of meaning and morality and aesthetics, as it aims simply to describe the world as it is. The understanding that meaning and morality and aesthetics are constructed by human beings, rather than being located in the external world, is one of the most profound lessons of the Enlightenment, one we are still struggling to come to terms with.


CHOMSKY: When we talk about religion, we mean a particular form of religion, the form that ended up dominating Western society. But if you take a look at other societies in the world, their religious beliefs are very different.

People have a right to believe whatever they like, including irrational beliefs. In fact, we all have irrational beliefs, in a certain sense. We have to. If I walk out the door, I have an irrational belief that the floor is there. Can I prove it? You know if I’m paying attention to it I see that it’s there, but I can’t prove it. In fact, if you’re a scientist, you don’t prove anything. The sciences don’t have proofs, what they have is surmises. There’s a lot of nonsense these days about evolution being just a theory. Everything’s just a theory, including classical physics! If you want proofs you go to arithmetic; in arithmetic you can prove things. But you stipulate the axioms. But in the sciences you’re trying to discover things, and the notion of proof doesn’t exist.

KRAUSS: Science certainly cannot prove anything to be true, in the sense that mathematics might appear to do. However, what science does extremely well, indeed it is the heart of science, is to prove things to be false. Namely, any proposed explanation that disagrees with the result of experiment is false. Period. It is by eliminating the false theories that we make progress. Falsification is the key.

CARROLL: Science indeed doesn’t operate in terms of “proofs,” but rather in terms of theories that have been tested beyond reasonable suspicion. The crucial part of the process is approaching the world with an open mind; no matter how elegant or compelling an idea may seem, it can’t be accepted if it doesn’t agree with the data.


CHOMSKY: You could be an intellectually respectable atheist in the 17th century, or in the fifth century. In fact, I don’t even know what an atheist is. When people ask me if I’m an atheist, I have to ask them what they mean. What is it that I’m supposed to not believe in? Until you can answer that question I can’t tell you whether I’m an atheist, and the question doesn’t arise.

I don’t see anything logical in being agnostic about the Greek gods. There’s no agnosticism about ectoplasm [in the non-biological sense]. I don’t see how one can be an agnostic when one doesn’t know what it is that one is supposed to believe in, or reject. There are plenty of things that are unknown, but are assumed reasonably to exist, even in the most basic sciences. Maybe 90 percent of the mass-energy in the universe is called “dark,” because nobody knows what it is.

Science is an exploration of very hard questions. Not to underrate the theory of evolution, that’s a terrific intellectual advance, but it tells you nothing about whether there’s whatever people believe in when they talk about God. It doesn’t even talk about that topic. It talks about how organisms evolve.

KRAUSS: Many fundamentalists see scientists are rabid atheists, but in fact, as Steve Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, says, most of them haven’t thought enough about God to responsibly address the issue of belief. God simply doesn’t come up in scientific considerations, so questions of belief or non-belief essentially never arise.

Evolution, as a scientific theory, says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. It doesn’t yet address the origin of life either, but instead deals with the mechanics of how the present diversity of species on earth evolved.

At some point I expect we will understand how the first life forms originated via natural physical mechanisms, but even when we do this, it will not confirm or refute the existence of God. This is the key mistake that fundamentalists who insist that evolution must be wrong make. They assume that because science doesn’t explicitly incorporate God, it must somehow be immoral. But in fact science simply doesn’t deal with issues of purpose or design to the universe. It deals with how the universe works.

And I believe that the ethos of science — full disclosure, honesty, anti-authoritarianism — would, if more generally applied, help produce a more ethical world. Now, this does not mean that there is no tension between religion and science. As Steve Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, again put it, “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, but it does make it possible to not believe in God.”

Without science, everything is miraculous. Science alone allows for the rational possibility that there is no divine intelligence. But it does not require it, and that is the important point. Arguing that evolution must be incorrect because it appears to conflict with one’s a priori ideas about design in nature is not just bad science, it is bad theology.

CARROLL: Atheism is not merely the view that God does not exist, but the positive statement that the world operates according to immutable laws of nature. As with any other belief system, it has open questions; we don’t know what all of those laws are, and in some cases we don’t even know what they might look like. When Darwin explained how complex organisms could naturally evolve from simpler forms, he provided a compelling answer to one of the most profound open questions of the materialist worldview.


CHOMSKY: Steve Gould [was] a friend. But I don’t quite agree with him [that science-and-religion are “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”]. Science and religion are just incommensurable. I mean, religion tells you, ‘Here’s what you ought to believe.’ Judaism’s a little different, because it’s not really a religion of belief, it’s a religion of practice. If I’d asked my grandfather, who was an ultra-orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. ‘Do you believe in God?’ he would have looked at me with a blank stare, wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. And what you do is you carry out the practices. Of course, you say ‘I believe in this and that,’ but that’s not the core of the religion. The core of the religion is just the practices you carry out. And yes, there is a system of belief behind it somewhere, but it’s not intended to be a picture of the world. It’s just a framework in which you carry out practices that are supposed to be appropriate.

KRAUSS: Science and religion are incommensurate, and religion is largely about practice rather than explanation. But religion is different than theology, and as the Catholic Church has learned over the years, any sensible theology must be in accord with the results of science.

CARROLL: Non-overlapping magisteria might be the worst idea Stephen Jay Gould ever had. It’s certainly a surprising claim at first glance: religion has many different aspects to it, but one of them is indisputably a set of statements about how the universe works at a deep level, typically featuring the existence of a powerful supernatural Creator. “How the universe works” is something squarely in the domain of science. There is, therefore, quite a bit of overlap: science is quite capable of making judgments about whether our world follows a rigid set of laws or is occasionally influenced by supernatural forces. Gould’s idea only makes sense because what he really means by “religion” is “moral philosophy.” While that’s an important aspect of religion, it’s not the only one; I would argue that the warrant for religion’s ethical claims are based on its view of the universe, without which we wouldn’t recognize it as religion.