The Power of “Science” in Forming Our Beliefs

In Carl R. Trueman’s seminal work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he details how various thinkers over the last four hundred years have shaped how we currently form our identities. In one chapter titled, “The Emergence of Plastic People” he examines how the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin have made profound impacts on sheering the world of any inherent, God-given meaning and thus left human beings to define who they are for themselves.

But it is one passing comment that he makes about Darwin that caught my eye. As he is referring to the profound impact of these three men on our collective set of values through which our society views the world and ourselves (what philosophy Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary”), Trueman notes:

[Of the three men] Darwin is likely the most influential. Setting aside the question whether evolution--or, to be more precise, one of the numerous forms of evolutionary theory that looks back to Darwin's work as an initial inspiration--is true, there is no doubt that vast numbers of people in the West simply assume that it is so.

There are numerous reasons for this. While the various theories themselves rest on interpretations of the geological record and on complex genetic science, the basic idea--that one species can evolve from another--is easy to grasp. Indeed, the most popular example---that human beings descended from an ape ancestor--seems to make eminent sense. Apes look like humans; why should there not be a connection? As the world seems very old, there would surely be time enough for an incredibly slow process to take place. And this view has been pressed home in the accessible science writings of men like Richard Dawkins and the in the play and movie Inherit the Wind. The latter especially helped fix in the popular mind the image of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the issue of evolution as a battle between religious obscurantism and scientific freedom. (p. 188)

Earlier, Trueman similar notes that it is the intuitive simplicity of Darwin’s theory, not necessarily its demonstrable veracity, that makes it so popular.

The science may have proved far more complicated than Darwin imagined, but the basic idea is easy to grasp. And it has come to shape the way many people who are quite incompetent to asses the science have come to imagine the world. (Ibid.)

He goes on, pressing home the point that whether or not Darwin’s theory is true based on scientific evidence has relatively little to do with it’s wide spread acceptance, and this is a paragraph well, well worth meditating on:

Whether evolution can be argued from the evidence is actually irrelevant to the reason most people believe it. Few of us are qualified to opine on the science. But evolution draws on the authority that science possesses in modern society. Like priest of old who were trusted by the community at large and therefore had significant social authority, so scientists today often carry similar weight. And when the idea being taught has an intuitive plausibility, it is persuasive. (p. 189)

Later, Trueman draws a similar conclusion with the work of Sigmund Freud, a thinker whose work has been largely discredited by the academy, but who still possesses an outsized influence on our culture. Reflecting on the major emphases of Freud’s work that still influence our culture today (the sexualization of the self, and the repression of that self via religion and civilization), Trueman recounts:

... [Freud proposes his theories] through the scientific idiom of psychoanalysis, an idiom that makes his theories, like those of Darwin, inherently plausible in a modern social imaginary in which science has intuitive authority...It does not matter that the strictly scientific status of Freud's theories is now methodologically and materially discredited. The central notion--that human beings are at core sexual and that that shapes our thinking and our behavior in profound, often unconscious, ways--is now a basic part of the modern social imaginary. (p.221, emphasis mine)

Again, it does not matter whether or not Freud’s theories are true, can be proven scientifically or are employed by psychologists today, what matters is that they correspond with our society’s intuitions and convey the appearance of scientific objectivity. The idea that we are “at core” sexual beings and the repression of our sexual desires is inherently wrong seems plausible.

—————————————–

Science is a wonderful gift, a part of God’s common grace to humanity. I don’t believe that the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists of the early 20th century was particularly helpful, nor took seriously the goodness of God’s creation. I am not in anyway attempting to disparage it or even necessarily speak decisively about the scientific viability of Darwin or Freud’s theories.

But that being said we should be somewhat skeptical of ideas that claim to be based on science when most people do not care or investigate the scientific evidence of such ideas. I’ve met very, very few people who have accepted a materialistic view of evolution because the science convinced them, or studied Freud’s theories of the unconscious, anarchic sexual drives being primary in determining who we are and thus assume that sexuality is a fundamental human identity.

That’s almost never how ideas are transmitted. But it is often how it is paraded. People talk about the “settled facts of science” or more crudely state “Science says…”

“Science” does not say anything. “Science” is a method of investigation–and a good one!–but the findings of the method must always then be interpreted, and those interpretations must therein be subjected to scrutiny. If we claim that we believe X or Y because they are supported by “science”–but we have not, nor intend to, actually study the science, what we really mean is: I believe X or Y because (1) the idea seems plausible and, (2) I trust what more qualified people have to say about it.

And if we are honest, option #1 weighs much more significantly in our mind than option #2. Who are we to determine which scientist, or biologist, or psychologist is qualified or not? Who is able to read deeply enough to become well versed in highly technical fields that usually require years of higher education to become somewhat competent in? Thus option #1, does it seem plausible?, is the de facto means by which we decide what to believe, and thus who we listen to (option #2). If genuinely attempt to only accept what can be scientifically and empirically verified and will not accept it until you are compelled by the objective evidence yourself, you are hemming yourself in on a remarkably small island of knowledge. And even then, you cannot escape the need to interpret the findings of science, which requires you to use interpretive grids and assumptions that themselves cannot be scientifically or empirically proven.

This then leads into much wider conversations of how we form plausibility structures, the influence of society, and epistemology in general. A conversation outside of the purview of this blog. But we can conclude with these questions:

If a worldview that claims to be led, governed and formed by objective scientific findings actually does not rest on those findings–in fact, is even contradicted by scientific findings–but only rests on the appearance of objectivity, then what is actually leading and governing its formation?

I suggest that it is a set of (often unexamined) set of intuitions: does this seem plausible?

But, and this is the question, if that formation is brought about through the answer to the question does that seem plausible? then what informs and shapes and determines how one answers that question? What makes one thing seem plausible and another implausible?

The answer to that question will reveal far more about what actually leads us and influences us than anything else.

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