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Question for the day: What if the science-religion conflict is hurting the economy?

My question was prompted by  this editorial  in science arguing that the politicization of science has led the public to oppose it. The title is “Science must be seen to bridge the political divide.”

I think I can address the question by drawing together insights from two works I’ve recently read, Alvin Plantinga’s new book   Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism   and Tyler Cowen’s  The Great Stagnation . I will offer a speculative answer by drawing a provocative connection between the two books.

I. The Gist of It

Here’s the speculation: we’re stuck in a Great Stagnation in part because the social status of scientists is too low. Fewer smart people become scientists, who in turn engage in less research and innovation, which in turn leads to fewer economic advances. Why the decline in social status? Perhaps because many scientists and public intellectuals have conjoined science with an anti-religious ideology,  naturalism , that has soiled science in the minds of the largely religious American public (in part via the political activism of naturalists). One way to raise the social status of scientists is to break this connection. Thus, one way to exit the Great Stagnation is to sharply distinguish between the social practice of science and the ideology often held by its practitioners.

Let me explain in more detail.

II. Plantinga

Plantinga’s bold thesis is this:

There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism (ix).

For Plantinga, naturalism is the view that there is no God or anything like God but what most naturalists affirm is that all that exists and all that can be known is ultimately describable by science and, probably, by physics.

Plantinga’s thesis contradicts a view widely held by religious and non-religious people alike. Science and religion are supposed to be substitutes, not compliments, a common view among intellectuals for centuries but now almost unquestioned among a great many contemporary academics and public intellectuals. Plantinga demonstrates that it is actually rather hard to even explain science and  theistic  religion are supposed to contradict one another. For naturalists interested in adding to the epistemic credentials of their beliefs, it’s worth your time to grapple with the challenges in the book.

III. Cowen

Now let’s shift gears from Plantinga to Tyler Cowen. Cowen’s thesis is this:

In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed the low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labor, or powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think. That’s it. That is what has gone wrong (1).

Cowen’s thesis is also bold. Everyone who thinks there is a quick fix for the American economy is wrong. We face deep structural problems that including our hitting a technological plateau.

How do we get out of the Great Stagnation? Cowen is admittedly modest in his recommendations but claims that the best way to exit the Great Stagnation is to:  Raise the social status of scientists .

This may lead us to wonder why the social status of scientists is low. My impression is that the social status of scientists was at a local high after World War II. Scientists were seen as contributing to the war effort and helping the United States beat back its enemies. Plus, the Space Program hit the American populace in its romantic heart. But I have the sense that the social status of scientists has fallen significantly over the past several decades among most members of the American public.

IV. Plantinga on the Social Status of Scientists

But why is this? Alvin Plantinga makes a provocative suggestion:

The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

This antipathy spills over to suspicion of science itself, with a consequent erosion of support for science. As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also  damages science  (emphasis KV’s). That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. Perhaps this is not a reason for those who believe these myths to stop promoting them; if that’s what they think, that’s what they should say. What it does mean, however, is that there is very good reason for exposing them for the myths they are: the damage they do to science (54).

Say you reject Plantinga’s main thesis. You could still acknowledge that naturalists have increasingly politicized science even though naturalism is not entailed by science. Many Americans are deeply hostile to naturalism because it is seen as undermining morality and meaning in the world. Consequently, when great scientists take open stands against theism, it is hard to see how the social status of science itself  couldn’t  take a hit in the eyes of the (largely pretty religious) public. So if science requires naturalism, or at least it is seen that way, then  no wonder  so many Americans have become more suspicious of the scientific community over time.

V. Break the Connection between Naturalism and Science, Exit the Great Stagnation?

Putting it together: what if the ideological tie between science and naturalism is a major contributing factor to declining public support for science? If it is and Tyler Cowen’s recommendation to raise the social status of scientists would indeed help us make economic progress, then it is imperative for intellectuals to be very careful about publicly tying science to their preferred metaphysical and epistemological views. Now as Plantinga says, if you believe there is such a tie, you should speak out for it. But if Tyler is correct, you have an additional reason to worry: your naturalistic ideology may be dragging down science and with it economic growth!

VI. Caveats and Caution

I know my suggestion is speculative. But I don’t think the connection I’ve drawn is obviously implausible and I’d love your reflections. Before I end, however, some notes:

(1) I recognize that I haven’t come down on religious believers for resisting science regardless of whether it provides reason to doubt their views. But others have more than taken care of that for me, no?

(2a) You might respond that the way to raise the social status of scientists is to help secularize American society, to destroy religious belief. (2b) Or perhaps you think we should try to eliminate those particular religious beliefs that are incompatible with science (which might only be a small fraction of them).

I’m skeptical that 2a is realistic. There is a reason religion has evolved such that the vast, vast majority of human beings have religious beliefs. Especially after reading Robert Bellah’s magisterial  Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age I find it hard to see how religion is going to go away, as it flows naturally from the combination of a number of ordinary, ancient cognitive and emotional capacities.

As for secularization, whether it is occurring (in the US) is disputed. For what it’s worth, I think  religious  authority  is on decline , not religious  belief . I know there are increasing numbers of people who do not identify themselves as religious, but they still have a great many beliefs that go beyond physics and secular ethics (fate, reincarnation, bare theism, pantheism). But even if the world is secularizing, we are very likely looking at a highly religious American populace for a generation or more at least. So what I say here still applies.

2b is more interesting and plausible, though it is hard to see how elite effort to exterminate such specific beliefs won’t backfire.

(3) I’ve been an active reader of philosophy, religion and economics blogs for years, so I know that any claim remotely hostile to naturalism upsets typical blog commenters. As a result, I’m asking you in advance to remember that I’m simply throwing out a hypothesis and that I am interested in your calm, thoughtful assessments. I’m prepared to change my view. I’m especially interested challenges from people familiar with  The Great Stagnation and/or debates about naturalism.

Cross-posted at Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Articles by Kevin Vallier


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