Sunday, March 28, 2010

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science / Robert L. Park -- Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008

Atheists have been on the offensive recently. Note, for example, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion or Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In something of this vein, Robert L. Park has written Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. It's a fairly successful indictment of some simple superstitious follies, but it addresses easy targets.

Park takes on, for example, creationism, the efficacy of prayer, homeopathic medicine, and acupuncture; all in an effort to establish that the only basis for knowledge of the empirical world is science. The critical ideas are observation, causation, and testability. What comes of this is a fairly pedestrian scientific realism. What doesn't come of this is a more probing inquiry into ontology and the scientific method. This is, perhaps, forgivable in that a popular understanding of even the simplest version of science is sorely lacking, and many important public policy decisions are being made based on the rank superstitions that Park attacks.

Perhaps the most interesting passage in Superstition comes in the chapter "Schrodinger's Grave," in which Park attempts to discredit the arguments against materialism that have been developed as a result of Schrodinger's wave equation and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Park describes the argument for non-materialism this way: "..since events on an atomic scale are affected by the act of observation, and since everthing in the universe is made of atoms, we should not be surprised to find our thoughts influencing events on the macroscopic scale in which our lives are lived." Put this way, Park's opponents are, of course, easily defeated; however, subtler arguments against Park's materialism are quite common and unaddressed by Park.

Reading Superstition led me to pick up A.A. Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World, published in 1929. Most of this work is a popular presentation of the state of physics of the time; however, the last chapters argue that we must entertain seriously an idealist ontology. Eddington observes that with the success of quantum mechanics, the concept of causation is no long particularly useful when seeking the most fundamental explanation of phenomena. Instead, probabilities are employed. One might further note that as physics has moved well beyond observable, macroscopic phenomena, its bread and butter lies with inferred objects that are only made meaningful in mathematical descriptions and that non-empirical aspects of theories, for example, simplicity, are as important to establishing a theory as are often dubious observations. For Eddington, the consequence of such considerations is that idealism and even mysticism are now a viable positions for the most tough minded scientists.

Park never addresses these more philosophical arguments. He is content to tackle more popular notions.

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