Re:  - What it Takes to be a Rationalist


By Aparthib Zaman

E-mail: [email protected] 

I have discussed the meaning and implications of rationalism in a companion essay Rationalism - Its meaning and Implications . Here I wish to dwell on some further implications in view of the essay "What it Takes to be a Rationalist" by Ali Sina, an outspoken proponent of freethinking and rationalism. I agree to most of what Ai Sina has said. But some of his views and conclusions deserve some serious critique as they are based on incorrect assumptions and characterizations. It is not my intent to engage in an one to one debate with Ali Sina, who has anyway expressed his intention of not responding to any criticism of his essay. I hope that even if he doesn't respond to his critics, he at least does not take a closed minded view and refuse to read what his critics has to say, by assuming that his views are infallible. Anyway, what I intend to do here is to examine carefully some of his comments and views that are shared by many liberal thinkers with little or no background in the hard sciences. My response is targeted to the readers of Ali Sina's essay and attempts to clarify some misgivings that may have been generated in their minds about science rationalism and paranormal by his essay. For a detailed discussion of issues relating to science vs. paranormal and science vs. dogma please also refer the two articles I posted in mukto-mona earlier:

The updated version of the second article above can also be accessed in my Rationalism FAQ

Besides the above two, readers may also wish to consult two more elated articles:

Science is an anathema to Dogma. Scientific method is based on skepticism and rationalism. So science cannot be called a dogma or a religion by definition, neither can anyone make science their dogma or religion.

To say that most scientists are dogmatic, as concluded by Ali Sina, is the same as saying that science is a dogma, because it cannot be a coincidence for most scientists to be dogmatist, if science was not a dogma. Scientists are huge community, and like any large sample it follows the statistical distribution of various mindsets. There will be some scientists who may hold a dogma like view on certain issues. But it is baseless to say or imply that most scientists HAVE BEEN, ARE, AND WILL BE dogmatists (Ali Sina's statement implies that). Asserting such a sweeping statement is itself a dogma like position. Scientific method is an inevitable outcome of rationalism. Science is the rational method of explaining and studying natural phenomena (i.e any observations susceptible to the senses directly, or indirectly through sense enhancers, i.e scientific instruments). Since science itself has no element of dogma in it, it is safe to say that most scientists cannot be dogmatists on a consistent basis. It is unfortunate that Ali Sina labeled the majority of scientists as "pseudo-rationalists" for their skepticism about the claims of paranormal. The truth is that A FEW scientists may have a dogmatic view on certain issues, which is a far cry from science being a dogma or scientists being dogmatic. If the view of a scientist "Dr. Smith" on an issue appears to be dogma like then it is not proper to say that scientists are dogmatic or that SCIENTIST Dr. Smith is a dogmatist. The only thing one can say is that the PERSON Dr. Smith is a dogmatist. Science has nothing to do with the personal views of anyone, scientist or not. It is a fallacy similar to that committed by religious apologists when they assert that atheists also commit atrocities by citing Hitler or Stalin as atheists. Where in fact the atrocities of both had little to do with atheism, but much to do their dogma about communism or racial supremacy. It is not only preposterous to make this leap from the dogmatic views of a few scientists or science advocates to the sweeping generalization of science or scientists, but also misleads many liberals with no background in the hard sciences and propagates that myth among them, because such characterization has a prima facie appeal to nonscientific laymen, liberal or dogmatic.

If science cannot be a dogma, then upholding science cannot be a dogma. Is it possible to uphold it to a fault? NO. Just like you cannot be too honest or you cannot be too rationalistic, you cannot be too scientific. Either you believe (not from blind faith but by logic and evidence) in science or you do not. There is an eerie resemblance between the expression "secular fundamentalism" and "dogmatic science". Neither expressions are technically correct or meaningful semantic constructs. They are used to convey a certain emotional view. When strict enforcement of secularism clashes with political correctness then it is (mis)labeled as secular fundamentalism. When rigid scientific attitude contradicts or seem to contradict (Since it is almost always due to misinterpreting the the rigid scientific views) of one's metaphysical beliefs and aspirations, then such rigid scientific attitude is (mis) labeled as "scientism" or scientific dogmatism. When Science appears to be too successful and too hard to master, then many academicians in the humanities and social sciences out of what Peter Medawar calls science envy, to portray science as just another dogma, not any better in seeking the truth than any other method. Although as I argued that one cannot logically be dogmatic scientist (or scientific dogmatist), what one can do is MISINTERPRET science/rationality. And it is the misinterpretation that has been unfortunately labeled as scientific dogmatism. For example if some one affirms that science WILL explain everything, that is not a statement from science. It is a personal conviction. It may be true, or may not be. We have no way to ever know if that is true or false. It may be dogma like statement but is strictly not a dogma to state that since science has been able to explain many phenomena that were previously unexplainable, science possibly can explain all phenomena. But it will be a misinterpretation to state that "Science will explain everything" itself is a scientific statement. It is quite common to see many critics make a straw man out scientists alleging they (scientists) say or claim this or that and then refute those views by scientists, although scientists actually do not make such statements or phrase it the way it is cited and refuted by their critics. Much of Ali Sina's essay one can agree with, but which is also based on such straw man fallacy about scientists, and hence even if correct, is misdirected.

Now let me go into some subtleties. One of Dr. Sina's main contention was that many scientists (or pseudo rationalists in his words) dismiss or deny the paranormal. We must be very careful with semantics here. First of all, occurrence of paranormal and its explanation are two distinct affair. Explanation comes after acknowledgement of its occurrence. The example of Aurora Borealis in the past, which Dr. Sina cited was an event whose occurrence were not disputed, but its explanation were. Science provided only the explanation. But the occurrence of Aurora Borealis were not just claims of persons. They were OBSERVABLE by objective criteria. But the paranormal claims are not comparable. The occurrence of paranormal events are still confined to individual or collective anecdote. They have not been objectively observed like the Aurora Borealis. But even then science (or scientists, not persons) do not affirm that the claimed paranormal events CANNOT happen. It only says that the claim does not meet the criteria to establish its existence beyond reasonable doubt. To put in simple words, the position of science regarding alleged paranormal events is that "It MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED, but it cannot be said that IT HAS HAPPENED just because some person or persons have claimed to have seen/witnessed it". The number of witness is irrelevant to science. Science or scientists refuse to accept something as truth (like alleged occurrence of paranormal) just by personal testimony of individuals or group of individuals. That is the hallmark of skepticism, a necessary ingredient of scientific method. Dr. Sina misinterpreted this refusal to accept the CLAIMS OF OCCURRENCE of paranormal as DENIAL OF THE OCCURRENCE of paranormal itself. When the occurrence of a so called paranormal phenomena satisfies the criteria of acceptability, there can be no question on the occurrence, but of explanation. For example, the case of Hindu Lord Ganesh oozing milk was a real occurrence. Here the occurrence was scientifically measurable. It was not just personal testimony. But the occurrence was explained by science. Even if there was no immediate scientific explanation available there is no justification for rushing into a non-scientific explanation invoking vague and undefined objects or entities. It is not the scientists/rationalists/science that explain them away with absurd and implausible theories, as Ali Sina has opined, in connection with crop circles, but rather the dogmatic proponents of the paranormals who do. Science never offers absurd or implausible explanations, rather offers plausible ones, guided by Occam's razor. There are those who simply narrate their personal experience of alleged paranormal events. reporting is not absurd. Anyone may truly feel the experience of paranormal. At least we know that human brains have amazing abilities to cause unusual experiences to be felt in unique situations. Not that all such events are necessarily generated by the brain. But to insist that just because someone has truly felt a paranormal event, hence such event must have actually taken place independent one's brain induced experience or perception, or to affirm that its occurrence is beyond the explaining power of science (assuming it did occur), then that IS a dogmatic assertion. Ali Sina adopted quite the opposite view when he ridiculed a scientist who had personally experienced a so called paranormal phenomena but was skeptical of its explanation. He did not DENY the experience, he refused to assign an emotional interpretation that dogmatists of the paranormal would wish to attribute to such experiences. The Iranian scientist was a true skeptic, instead Ali Sina called him a dogmatist, because he refused to make a certain personal interpretation of his experience that many paranormal dogmatists would like to adopt. There is nothing irrational about not making a biased interpretation of one's experience. Again, I must emphasize that to deny certain interpretation of an experience does not mean DENYING the occurrence, as the oozing of milk by Ganesh illustrates.

A vast assortment of alleged paranormal phenomena is pure personal testimony, not observed scientifically. That does not mean they did not occur. But it also cannot be said that they DID occur or that they cannot be explained by science if they did occur.

Science can only point the difference between MIGHT HAVE HAPPEND/HAS HAPPENED. Nothing more. It cannot say it CAN NEVER HAPPEN either as that would be a dogma like assertion. Of course we are so far limited to events that are unexplainable by science but not violating laws of science (Paranormal). But if the event being claimed to have occurred also violates established scientific law (Supernatural) then there is reason to be even more skeptical about its occurrence. Then the position of science would be: It most PROBABLY didn't happen. Anyway for the paranormal, the criterion to promote the "MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED" to "HAS HAPPENED" is set by rationalism as embedded in the scientific method. There is nothing dogmatic about it. Secondly, once a paranormal event is universally agreed to have occurred (Parenthetically, such scientifically acknowledged occurrence of paranormal events does not exist yet), only then the question of explaining it arises. It is not unreasonable to start with the hypothesis that the occurrence may be explained by science. There is nothing dogmatic about it, because it is a hypothesis. Moreover thus hypothesis does not make any other assumption about science. It represents a future hope and is thus not falsified even if scientific explanation is not found in finite time. The track record of science does give that hypothesis some legitimacy and credibility. The affirmation of an alternative possibility that Science can never explain it is truly a dogma, because it is a categorical statement, and is also based on additional assumption about science itself, that science can never develop enough in future to be able to explain it, making an indirect assumption that there is a "divine" reason for its occurrence.

Dr. Sina made the monumental blunder by concluding that "scientists can be as much dogmatic as religionists" (exact quote), by citing the example of Nazis adopting Lamarckism as their dogma. The blunder was on two counts. First, Nazis were not scientists as a community. There may have been some scientist members. So their view cannot be labeled as scientists' view. Secondly, Lamarckism was discredited by science itself (before Hitler's day). So adopting Lamackism as a dogma cannot be labeled as adopting science as dogma. Lamarckism is not science. Science is a method, not just one single theory or law. If someone today insists in the belief that ether exists, then that does not make the scientists instantly dogmatists. We cannot label the scientists as dogmatists every time someone (scientist or nonscientist) insists on believing in a discredited theory.

Science is a term to mean a rational method of understanding and explaining phenomena, in contrast with dogmatic method. "Rational" critics like Ali Sina view science as something similar to religion and thus like religion, there can be dogmatic adherents of science as well, according to him. It is a clear fallacy. Anyone can choose to be dogmatic about an issue, he can be a religionist, a scientist or a even true rationalist like Ali Sina. But Science or scientists as a community will never be another dogma or religion or followers of such. Only religion will be religion and dogma will be dogma. Science is not a religion or a dogma, so it can never be or turned into one. No one can adopt or make science a religion. You cannot use a pen to hammer a nail. Neither can you use a hammer to write. They are not made for such uses. Science is not made for use as a dogma. Science is the anathema of all "isms". The plain fact that he missed or chose to miss is that science is an offshoot of true rationalism. Science IS true skepticism. The coining of a new word science to signify "rational inquiry of phenomena" does not mean it is a new ism or tenet, besides religion, and rationalism and skepticism. It is different from religion alright, but not from rationalism, freethinking and skepticism. So one cannot use science as dogma or religion, because that would mean making rationalism and skepticism as one's religion or dogma, a patently absurd position.

Ali Sina ended with the anticipation/expectation that his views would be dismissed by those he called pseudoscientists. Well, the truth is that it is the pseudoscientists who view science and religion as dogma. His views would resonate well with a substantial number of liberals and postmodernist, most of who are not sufficiently science literate anyway. So he doesn't have to feel lonely for his views. He is with a large company. It is the scientists and strict rationalists who are in the minority and have to face the challenges and critiques from both religious apologists and postmodernist liberals.

Finally, just to remind the readers and Ali Sina if he ever reads this, that this essay does not criticize HIM, but some of his views on science vs. rationalism. His points are well taken that it is not rational to emphatically deny the OCCURRENCE of a paranormal event that has been claimed to occur. I can assure him that the view of scientist cannot be such categorical denial. What scientists mean (may be they do not convey that in clear terms) that the claims of the paranormal occurrence itself is no proof of its occurrence or grounds for accepting their occurrences. Anyone saying that paranormal events cannot ever occur is of course not representing the scientific view or the scientists. I hope I have clarified the view of science and scientists correctly.

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