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Ellis, George F. R. “The Thinking Underlying the New ‘Scientific’ World-views."

George Ellis analyzes arguments by a number of contemporary scientists that either

support atheism or offer a science-based religion. He claims that they are based on scientifically unjustified assumptions and rely on rhetorical or emotional appeal. They ignore the limited scope and method of science, contain an implicit metaphysical agenda, rely on the authority of science while addressing issues outside its scope, and occasionally misrepresent or ignore opposing views.

First, Ellis reminds us that scientific theories are provisional, open, limited in scope, partially supported by evidence, and inherently incomplete. Cosmology in particular takes for granted the laws of physics, but it cannot explain why they exist, why the universe exists, or whether there is an underlying purpose and meaning to the universe. Nor can science provide a foundation for values, although values are essential to the conduct of science. Issues such as the existence of God lie forever outside the competence of science to adjudicate, although the weight of data and experience can influence one’s opinion. Ellis acknowledges that the argument from special design has been undermined by evolutionary theory. His concern, however, is with those who construct a “scientific religion” out of either a physically based metaphysics or a scientifically motivated system of values, and who deny the fact that the metaphysical interpretation of science is ambiguous and that the epistemic and ethical scope of science is limited.

To make his case, Ellis turns to detailed critiques of specific authors. He admires the elegance of Carl Sagan when he writes about science, but is concerned that Sagan goes on to deploy a “naturalistic religion” whose metaphysical basis reaches beyond what science can warrant. Such fundamental issues as the existence of the universe and the laws of physics are taken for granted, and Sagan’s conclusion about the relative unimportance of human life in the universe is argued using emotion, not logic. Similarly Richard Dawkins ignores these fundamental issues and takes for granted the conditions that make evolution possible. E. O. Wilson attempts to give an exhaustive account of moral behavior as mere genetic programming but ignores the fact that morality presupposes voluntary, intentional action. Daniel Dennett and Jacques Monod ignore the metaphysical issues regarding the existence of the universe, and Monod proposes that science can be a source of universal ethics without recognizing the inadequacies of such an ethics. Finally Peter Atkins dismisses anything outside the scope of science, making reductionism into a dogma and ignoring the metaphysical ambiguity of science. The pay-off for these writers is the hope to achieve absolute certainty and to receive the privileged status of scientific “high priest.” Ironically, their exaggerations serve to foster anti-scientific views in the general public. These authors also fail to alert their readers to the speculative status of the scientific theories being considered, such as chaotic inflationary cosmology, cultural “memes,” and the arrow of time problem. Ellis is also critical of the specific strategies employed to undercut the opponent’s views, such as explaining away religion in functional and evolutionary terms, or appealing to emotion or rhetoric.

In contrast to this, some scientists who deploy scientifically based world views are less dogmatic and more tentative in their approach. Their conclusion is self-critical atheism rather than dogmatic atheism - a position which Ellis finds much more reasonable. He also admits that taking religious experience seriously is problematic, since there is too much data, too much conflict among the data, and much of it involves manifest evil wrought in the name of religion - and here he agrees with the writers he has been criticizing. This leads Ellis to reflect on how the selection of data and the construction and testing of theories in science occur. Perhaps a lesson from the proponents of scientific religion is that tests in religion need to be more seriously developed and widely acknowledged. Can morality and ethics be judged by their fruits: are they life-giving or death-dealing? Ellis believes we might use this process to evaluate the broad spectrum of religions as well as particular sects.

Ellis closes by describing three theories which take the data seriously. 1) The kenotic moral-theistic position attributes an ethical under-pinning to the universe derived from and expressing the self-emptying nature of God. It is reflected in such exemplars as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. With this view one can cut across the lines of religious traditions to retrieve selectively those data and practices that are kenotic. One can also account for the apparent counter-evidence to God’s existence, namely evil, as well as the metaphysical ambiguity of nature, since kenosis requires free will, and free will requires genuine metaphysical ambiguity and makes evil deeds a possibility. Moreover, evolution is also entailed; special creation would make the argument from design overwhelming and faith empty. Of course, these insights are not meant as a theistic proof; the proposal provides a viable viewpoint which might or might not be true, and this is, once again, coherent with Ellis’ fundamental claim about metaphysical ambiguity.

The second theory is self-critical atheism: conflicting religious data suggest that none can be correct. This view differs from the dogmatic atheism of scientific religions, being open to evidence and aware of both metaphysical ambiguity and the limits of the scientific method. Finally, the evidence may lead to agnosticism. Ellis cautions that neither atheism nor agnosticism provide a solid basis for ethics. Ultimately the choice between these theories is personal, but truth is not irrelevant, logic plays a role, and only indubitable certainty is unattainable. This also means that by ignoring metaphysical and epistemological complications, the arguments for scientific religion bear the marks of pseudo-science rather than true science. Ellis hopes his paper clears the way for scientific world views that are less dogmatic and more open to genuine interaction with alternative views.

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