New Atheists as Altar Boys.
Religious belief is not wrong so much as infantile, according to Auguste Comte, the founder of the positivist school of philosophy. His nearly two-centuries old idea has become a leitmotif in the chorus of today’s “new atheists” — to the detriment, not of religious belief, but of the scientific enterprise. As Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
Comte, who also founded the discipline of sociology, was among the first to study human knowledge as the product of historical — that is to say, social and cultural — forces.
In its initial stage, Comte thought the human mind is drawn to occult explanations of sensory observations: personified forces and supernatural causes. Whence traditional theological belief. As human knowledge progresses it enters a distinct, “metaphysical” stage, at which point the mind recasts its search for causes in rational, if still supernatural, terms.
These two stages are eventually superseded by a third and final stage. Here knowledge becomes properly mundane for the first time, rooted in the positive data of the senses and the demonstrations derived from them. This is the birth of modern, positive, science — the apotheosis of human reason.
The new atheists also see religion as an expression of cognitive immaturity. Richard Dawkins, eschewing Comte’s learned (if unconvincing) history for dubious armchair psychology, writes in The God Delusion: “[t]here is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point,” which he contrasts with the “truly adult view.”
The Comtean idea that traditional philosophy has been outmoded by the march of science has also grown popular of late. Though once productive, such reasoning goes, metaphysical inquiry has become sterile at best, a distraction at worst. A distraction from what? The incontrovertible evidence of our senses, on which scientific knowledge is allegedly built. “All we know about is what we observe with our senses and instruments […] we haven’t the faintest idea what is ‘really’ out there,” writes Victor Stenger in a Comtean turn of phrase.
But there is another way in which the new atheists and their ideological allies evince a vulgarized Comteanism. Comte not only sought to displace theological and metaphysical modes of knowing, he wanted to replace them with the new positive science — what he came to call the religion of humanity.
Religion must have doctrine; accordingly, Comte held that the findings of “positive philosophy,” the invariable laws of nature, could replace religious dogma. This would require evangelization. Hence Comte held that scientific findings ought to be systematized and expounded by a “special class of men,” who were neither practitioners of the special sciences, nor scientifically illiterate. These “positive philosophers” would be the guardians of a new dogma.
Comte was not naïve about the epistemic status of scientific knowledge, however. Despite his emphasis on the indubitability of scientific findings, he conceded that they could only ever be human approximations. Natural laws, he wrote, “the true object of [scientific] investigation, could not remain rigorously compatible with too detailed an investigation.”
The problem? If scientific laws are only approximate, the laity might lose faith in them. Thus, Comte believed, boundaries must be set for scientific research. The “special class of men” would discourage those lines or methods of inquiry which could undercut the certainty of scientific knowledge. Comte went so far as to condemn the emerging calculus of probabilities, which he believed might encourage the idea that scientific knowledge is only “probable.”
The positive philosophers were thus the gatekeepers of a hidden truth, recapitulating the medieval notion that the truth revealed by the light of natural reason must remain hidden from the masses, whose faith was grounded on scripture.
The new atheists may not condemn the use of probabilities or set boundaries to scientific inquiry, but they do promulgate — perhaps inadvertently — the noble lie that scientific knowledge is unshakably grounded in incontrovertible observations. Only thus can science steal the thunder of religion. In this sense, they are not Comte’s heirs so much as his dupes.
The potential dangers of so construing science are legion. But what the history of Comtean positivism reveals is that it is science, not religion, which has the most to lose.
Comte’s dreams for a new religion of humanity not only failed to come to fruition, his particular noble lie had the opposite of its desired effect. When science failed to deliver on the promises of positivism by the late 19th century, people began to lose faith in the scientific enterprise. One historian writes:
This so-called debate over the “bankruptcy of science” permeated French culture and had religious thinkers pitted against ideologues of scientism, skeptics against rationalists, threatening the cultural hegemony that science had enjoyed for much of the century.
Today we are witnessing our own “bankruptcy of science” debates. The very pillars of the scientific enterprise — the reproducibility of experimental findings and, most recently and prominently, the peer review process itself — have come under fire, eroding the credibility of science. And as in Comte’s day, this debate is no academic matter; it has broader cultural, social, and political implications.
Scientists and their zealots rightly fault skeptics and religious believers who exploit “gaps” in scientific theories, failures of universal consensus or lack of indisputable evidence. In so doing, such skeptics implicitly hold science to an impossibly high standard of epistemic certainty. But what the defenders of science too often fail to realize is that they, not the skeptics, are responsible for peddling this high standard in the first place.
The reasons are evident. The idea of indubitable science is reassuring not only because of the — uniquely high — epistemic status it confers upon the discipline, but also because it establishes clear, unassailable boundaries between science and “non-science.” Not only religious, but also “pseudo-scientific” notions can be firmly ruled out: they are “infantile,” lacking in evidence, irrational, and so forth. At worst, ideological and political schemes may be justified on the basis of supposedly incontrovertible scientific Facts.
It is much harder to argue to the lay public — or to a grant-conferring committee — that one’s findings should be accepted because they hold with a high degree of probability just until the next and better interpretation of the data comes along, than to argue that one has attained to an incontrovertible Fact via observational means alone.
The problem is that science does not attain to incontrovertible facts via observational means alone; rather, it provides theories, conceptual frameworks for explaining and interpreting empirical data, via experiment inference, and — indeed — imagination and philosophical speculation. Whether or not the lay public is capable of articulating just what science
does do; it is obvious to many that the outsized claims often made on behalf of science will not hold water.
The danger with so inflating the status of science is that ordinary, neutral, or even positive features of science — its experimental attitude, its openness to disconfirmation, its reliance on extra-empirical assumptions, the interpenetration of observation and theory, and even the difficulty of reproducing crucial experiments — become gaps or assumptions to be exploited, reasons to abjure faith in science as such.
Though Comte’s influence remained, the generation of thinkers following the “bankruptcy of science” debates exhibited greater sophistication in their understanding of science, producing some of the 20th century’s most brilliant scientists, philosophers and historians of science. Perhaps the detritus of the current debates over science and religion will provide similarly fertile ground in which a more sophisticated and humanistic view of science will take root. To begin, we might take a cue from Comte and examine our own history.
M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.