Decision Point: Wait for the Funerals or Challenge Our Materialist Worldview Now?

"Science advances one funeral at a time."

Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory

What we call "modern science" is in fact a set of theories advanced by the day's leading scientists, authors, teachers, and textbook writers. These individuals "control the airwaves" by defining the body of scientific knowledge that they hand down to students, television commentators, readers, and the public at large. Boosted by their association with Science, the most authoritative intellectual discipline, these thought leaders direct the course of our worldview and determine the theories and ideas we are supposed to believe in.

These ideas and theories include the Big Bang (the world was created in a gigantic explosion of matter, space, and time), cosmic inflation (the matter present at the Big Bang grew in size by 50 orders of magnitude in the space of a millisecond), dark matter (most of the matter holding the universe together is actually invisible), dark energy (some mysterious invisible cosmic repulsive force is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate), the multiverse (our universe is actually one of trillions of other universes that sprang from the void), and the big one, Darwinian evolution (life arose from a swamp and evolves according to the mindless, directionless process known as natural selection.) So these theories filter down to us at a young age and we learn to accept them without so much as a raised eyebrow. Who are we to question these authoritative figures and who can ever hope to alter these inviolable ideas?

Well, it's a bit crude, but if the chief proponent of any leading theory dies, the "head is cut off" and there may be room for a new theory. That is what I think Max Planck meant when he said that "science advances one funeral at a time."

But it does not have to be this way. Another way to change a theory, according to the methods of science, is to come up with a better theory, rather than wait for the chief proponent of the old theory to die. Making a theory "better" would be that it explains more, is more logically consistent, and operates with fewer assumptions than a competing theory. It also helps if the new theory is testable.

The late Harvard professor and evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, wrote that what separates science from religion is science's "openness to challenge." Science's distinguishing characteristic, Mayr wrote, is its "willingness to abandon current accepted belief when a new, better one is proposed." (E. Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World). But science today is far removed from practicing any such openness. Instead, the bookstore shelves are filled with volumes denigrating any belief or thought that departs from the current scientific worldview. Is every sentence written by a member of the intelligent design movement hogwash? Do the new age or new spirituality movements have absolutely no useful contribution to make in the development of an improved worldview? Are all religions outright false and all their followers, delusional? Is today's scientific worldview the only possible way to view the world rationally?

In the field of logic, the "appeal to authority" is considered a fallacy to the extent the argument is accepted as true simply because someone -- even an authority figure -- said it. Put differently, people become authorities because what they say is shown to be more plausible than a competing theory; their beliefs are not true simply because they said it. Although the opinion of a prestigious scientific figure is entitled to a degree of deference, it is contrary to the spirit of science to give undue weight even to the opinions of experts. As one writer puts it, "It is in the spirit of science to reject views of the old masters when new evidence sheds doubt on established views. A prominent example in [the past] century is the rejection by the majority of physicists of Albert Einstein's interpretation of certain aspects of quantum physics. Einstein never accepted the now prevalent interpretation of the intrinsic indeterminacy of certain characteristics of elementary particles between measurements." (H. Byerly, A Primer of Logic).

In the legal courtroom, competing experts commonly do battle to determine which one offers the more plausible account of how an event occurred, such as how the murder victim died, why the gas well exploded, or the mine collapsed. In this instance, the credentials of the expert are important, but not dispositive; in general, the expert offering the more the coherent, persuasive theory usually prevails. The case is not won on the length of the expert's resume, but on the logic of their argument. That is science.

Science is supposed to be the open-source search for truth, not a fortress of untouchable theories to be protected at all costs.

So where does this leave us? It means that to change our worldview on a faster timetable than the one Planck envisioned, we need to dispense with any inhibitions preventing us from questioning the thought leaders of science. Where did all that matter come from in the Big Bang? What evidence is there that the very early universe inflated trillions of times in the blink of an eye? Must we really accept these notions of dark matter and dark energy or is there a better way to explain the positioning of galactic bodies? If quantum theory actually tells us that there is no "real world" independent of consciousness (as many scientists conclude, see The Quantum Enigma), then why does science base its theories upon such an illusory independent world? Doesn't science's inability to reconcile gravity with quantum theory tell us something is wrong with the standard scientific model? Do we have to imagine trillions of other universes to account for the strange fit between the conditions of the cosmos and life? Did God hand Origin of the Species down from the heavens or is there a small chance Richard Dawkins is in some way wrong?

Perhaps all of these theories will withstand questioning. Perhaps some will fall by the wayside and be replaced by something better. But we will not be carrying out science if we simply accept them as Truth without even raising our hands and asking a question or two. And, of course, an alternative exists for those who are extremely patient: we can wait for the funeral processions, and then try again.


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