Coyne introduces a couple of cartoons on his blog with the above slogan and when explaining how we justify the scientific method, Dawkins says in a public forum that science works, pausing before adding the triumphalist flourish: “bitches.” The meaning of this slogan is that scientific theories can be successfully applied and so the proof is in the pudding, whereas theism and pseudoscience are relatively useless. As Dawkins says, “planes fly, cars drive, computers compute.” So science is obviously justifiable on pragmatic grounds, thanks to its many technological applications. You can argue with a bunch of mathematical squiggles on a page, especially if you can’t make heads or tails of them, but you can’t argue with a car’s engine or with the efficacy of a nuclear missile. Science works and religion doesn’t. That’s one of the new atheistic sentiments that embolden evangelical atheists. In fact, the erstwhile dominance of Christianity used to inspire Christians to similar displays of passive aggression, since power disparities are responsible for much of our more primitive behaviour. Religious fundamentalists still bizarrely trust in their childish narratives, almost as though they’d been transported to the present from the distant past by a time machine. We much prefer to be on the winning side and so we often live in denial when our home team loses the advantage of being able to dominate our enemies. Modernity is marked, of course, by the end of theocracies in the West and by the transfer of power and rights to secular forces, especially to scientists, elected political representatives, and capitalists in relatively free competitions for profit and private property, as well as to women, children, and racial minorities.
The boast that science works plays as a veiled reminder that science and science-centered industries have the power now and that the philosophical issue of Truth is beside the point. “Get on the winning team,” that’s the new atheist’s invitation. In this respect, the new atheist is pragmatic. Of course, these atheists also believe that naturalism is true and that God doesn’t exist as a matter of fact, but pragmatism is the fall-back position. Exasperated by the theist’s foolishness, an atheist will often appeal to the manifest usefulness of science and of reason generally, by way of contrasting the works of the atheist’s team with those of the theist’s faith-based one. Science works in that it vastly improves the lives of all of those living in advanced industrial societies. Science makes technology possible and technology achieves the purposes we set out for it; machines successfully carry out their functions because they’re entwined with natural mechanisms, thus indicating the accuracy of scientific models. Meanwhile, theistic myths and pseudosciences like astrology and psychic prediction don’t work. You can make money from the latter, but only by conning people. Science is obviously no con.
The Pragmatist’s Can of Worms
Likewise, religion is effective in achieving various ends. Religious traditions provide for most people’s solidarity, by defining their intergroup relations. While there are also secular clubs, sports, Hollywood myths and so forth, secular forces on the whole atomize us, making us individualistic and producing the ennui, apathy, and cynicism for which postmodern societies are infamous. Theistic belief caters to our feeling that life and the universe are mysterious and sublime, and that belief has justified moral principles for thousands of years. Modern philosophers sought nontheistic justifications of morality, but their arguments tend to run into the naturalistic or genetic fallacies or else they reduce moral imperatives to pragmatic, instrumental ones which are technically neutral towards our goals, in which case a serial killer can be just as “moral” (i.e. efficient in achieving his goals) as a saint. Religious myths distract the masses from the heart-rending implications of scientific knowledge, thus allowing them to pursue their wish to be happy. For example, belief in an afterlife makes physical death bearable for most people, despite our horror of dying and the alien indifference with which natural forces snuff out our inner worlds as our brain dies. Moreover, religious rituals, such as the burying of the dead and the reverence for art and nature were crucial in the emergence of our species from the more limited animal life cycle; archeologists find evidence of theistic belief wherever they find the remains of ancient cultures.
Thus, “Science works!” should be understood to imply that science works in certain domains, which opens up the possibility that religion likewise works in different ones. Science works in the cognitive domain while religion works in the social one. Science tells us the empirical facts while religion has been instrumental in humanizing and domesticating our species. Science allows us to control nature, while religion enables some social classes to control others by demagoguery. Science likewise supports the power elites and enslaves the masses, by means of weapons and intelligence technologies, but these threaten to dehumanize us by forcing us to adapt to artificial environments populated mostly by machines. Religion sustains the conviction that people have dignity and that life is worth living despite what we know about our material nature. The point is that if we’re going to be pragmatic, truth becomes at best a secondary concern and so we must judge technoscience and theistic religion equally in terms of their efficacies. Science and religion both are processes that we set into motion to serve us. Far from science achieving any instrumental victory over religion, religion has been around since the beginning of humanity and is still strong in the US, South America, Africa, and the Muslim world. Moreover, secular utopias fell flat on their faces and modern societies hang together, despite the social damage done by technoscience, only by aping religious institutions, substituting idols like money, fame, guns, or excellence in sports for more traditional sacred devotions. A pragmatist must concede, then, that religion works as well as science. True, the insanity of fundamentalist religion threatens to destroy modern civilization, but only with the aid of the weapons of mass destruction that technoscientific advances have made possible.
The New Atheist’s Dilemma
In any case, a new atheist will reply that pragmatism can be combined with realism, that the usefulness of science is a sign of the truth of scientific theories. Perhaps, then, this is Reason’s great advantage over religious Faith: naturalism’s utility speaks to its cognitive value, whereas the social benefits of religion have no such cognitive significance. As Dawkins says, an idea’s pleasantness is no guarantee of its truth. So perhaps “Science wins because it works” should be taken to mean that science wins in the cognitive domain because it wins in the pragmatic one. Science gets at the truth, as evidenced by science’s many applications. If anything, religion’s particular utility indicates that theism is a delusion, since delusions would be most effective in distracting us from the harsh naturalistic findings.
And yet there’s at least one more wriggling worm in that can. This new atheist’s retort is correct, as far as it goes. But the connection between the potency of technology and the cognitive merit of scientific methods devastates not just the assumption that theism is likely true, but the social utility of science. By conflicting with theistic religion, science makes life harder, not easier. For example, by failing to replace theistic myths with viable alternatives, science makes for the hollowness of secular cultures. Indeed, the rise of fundamentalism is in reaction not just to modernity’s obvious conflict with religious scriptures, but to the threat posed to ancient traditions by a consumerism that strikes even many consumers as an unworthy contender for our allegiance. The very truth of naturalism prevents science from working in the social domain. Indeed, science becomes counterproductive, because it exposes modernists to the existential conundrum. As Nietzsche put it, the question is how we should live after the death of God. Reason frees us from theistic dogma, but it also deprives us of any conviction in some worthwhile purpose to motivate us to freely direct our talents toward one end rather than another. The more we apply reason to model some phenomenon, the more we break it down into impersonal mechanisms, and thus the more illusory becomes our naïve self-image, according to which life is full of meaning, purpose, and moral value. What is the utility of Enlightenment and Liberty if the objectifying rationality that enlightens and liberates us forces on us a vision of universal undeadness, entailing not just the absurdity of theistic faith but the superficiality of the very concepts of morality, happiness, and personhood?
The pragmatic slogan in question betrays the new atheist’s narrow-minded scientism. In the wider view, science doesn’t work at all. Arguably, the costs of science’s efficacy outweigh the benefits. Granted, if all you care about is the cognitive domain in which science has prevailed, you won’t be concerned with the social implications of naturalism. But scientism doesn’t end there, since the naturalist must then reduce the concept of caring to some neurological mechanism. Moreover, she must interpret all concepts and thus all alleged symbols in scientific theories as being perfectly meaningless, since there’s no room for such a personal quality as intentionality in this exclusive version of the naturalist’s ontology, which consists only of more and more complex arrangements of causal relations between particles. Scientistic naturalism is thus the proverbial serpent that eats its tail.
Alternatively, if the new atheist wishes to defend her contention that science has overall positive utility, she can curb her scientism by embracing a more inclusive, nonreductive version of naturalism, in which case autonomous domains of inquiry are made possible by evolution and complexification. For example, personhood may emerge from animalistic patterns of behaviour. Any such pluralistic kind of naturalism, however, means that the new atheist’s radical hostility towards religion in general is quite foolish. If people have additional concerns to those posited by biologists, including moral, aesthetic, and spiritual ones, the pluralistic naturalist may have to grudgingly grant to religion its usefulness, assuming the naturalist is going to peddle the pragmatism that informs the slogan about how science is so great because, after all, “it works, bitches.” Thus, whichever path the new atheist takes in its conflict with religion, pragmatism is a dead end. Pragmatic (goal-oriented) naturalism either undermines itself with scientism, assuming the naturalist is concerned only with empirical knowledge, or else it’s consistent with pluralism that may even favour religion at the expense of the secular cultures that arise from technoscientific progress.