Fred Reed, who is not a scientist and knows basically nothing about it, asks whether scientists can think. He is probably suggesting that they are pretty dumb, while he is not.
Reed thinks that asking whether a religious person can be a good scientist is a “luminously foolish question”: this can only be considered a possibility if you are bitterly hostile to religion.
Reed not only does not understand science: he does not understand religion either. Religion implies the belief in absurdities and impossibilities while presenting them as reasonable and necessary; it promotes dogma and dislikes criticism; it is a costly honest signal of belonging, fidelity and compromise with a group. A true religious believer has mental biases and faults which could make him a bad scientist: this is not necessarily so if the science is not about issues related to the belief, but it is at least a possibility worth studying and not a foolish question.
Reed wonders whether the mental capacities of scientists “are … not not grossly limited in comparison with those of other people?” because they have blinkers and “They think inside a box containing only a part of reality”.
How does he know that science deals with only part of reality? Actually scientists are usually interested in everything: at least in everything that exists or can exist, while religion is the domain of imagined entities that neither exist nor can exist; but of course the believer insists that the supernatural not only exists (or “is”), but that it is more essential or necessary than the mere natural reality.
According to Reed, scientists “have nothing to say, and can have nothing to say, about meaning, purpose, origins, destiny, consciousness, beauty, right and wrong, Good and Evil, death, love or loathing”. He shows a complete lack of knowledge regarding these issues: all of them are studied by some science (like cosmology, cognitive science or evolutionary psychology).
These are matters of some importance to normal people whose thinking is not crippled by strict adherence to the Laws of Motion. A scientist, as a scientist, must dismiss them as empty abstractions, simply ignore them, or provide unsatisfactory answers and quickly change the subject. A physicist may speak solemnly of the Big Bang, but it has no more explanatory power than Genesis. A child of six years will ask, “But where did God come from?” Or the Big Bang.
The Laws of Motion are descriptive laws, not prescriptive restrictions that might cripple anything. Reed is proud of his ignorance, probably because he writes for others with similar intellectual limitations and biases. He declares scientific answers unsatisfactory probably because he dislikes them: he actually pretends that Genesis has the same explanatory power as modern cosmology; and he thinks six year old children have deep knowledge of the Universe.
A man whose thinking has not been shackled by the restrictions of science can say, “This sunset is beautiful.” A scientist cannot not, not if he is thinking as a scientist. Beauty has no physical definition, the only kind allowable in the sciences.
Scientists can not only observe beauty: they can study what it is and why it exists at all (evolutionary esthetics). Beauty has a physical definition, but it is achieved in a complex way with multiple levels (physics, biology, psychology).
Trouble begins when one tries to stretch a system beyond its premises. Here we come to scientism, as distinct from science. A great many people, some of them scientists, want science to explain everything whatever. This of course is the function of a religion.
Scientists are curious and ambitious and try to explain everything: as cognitive agents with limited powers maybe they will fail. But religion is the pseudoexplanation of everything, or the true explanation of nothing.
Science can be poorly done or even abused, but “scientism” is often the word that non scientists use when they dislike or misunderstand science. It is like a wink to other similar individuals with scarce or no knowledge or science: “We belong to the same group and dislike the same stuff, right?”
According to Reed scientism is the religion of science: he proposes as an example “the theory of evolution, any questioning of which results not in answers, but in fury”. He is really saying that answers have not been provided to the criticisms against evolution: maybe he is not really well read and demands that scientists personally deal with him and his every whim. Fury is normal when dealing with idiots who refuse to learn and solemnly pretend that they are the wise ones who know the ultimate truths.
Scientism requires a willful ignoring of undeniable aspects of reality, such as death. To a scientist, (again, thinking as a scientist), death means only the cessation of certain chemical processes. He says after the funeral, “John is gone,” but never, “Where has John gone?”
Biologists study life and death, which actually is the cessation of the processes of aupoiesis. The dead do not go anywhere because they cease to exist, and nonexistent entities have neither position nor velocity.
Note that the premises of the sciences, if accepted other than provisionally for a particular investigation, lead to paradoxes, as for example the Aquarium Effect. Scientists view the universe as if it were an isolated system in a vast aquarium. They can look at it, poke at it with sticks and instruments, but they are apart from it. If they regard themselves as being within the system, problems arise.
The “Aquarium Effect” seems to be a term invented by Reed. Probably not very successful.
For example, the brain is an electrochemical mechanism, all parts of which follow the laws of physics and chemistry. Successive states of a physical mechanism are completely determined by preceding states, just as they are in a computer. Physical systems cannot choose their behavior: a rock when dropped cannot decide to fall sideways. Our thoughts are therefore predestined. Are they then still thoughts?
Yes, they are thoughts, and they work according to highly complex deterministic mechanisms (and indeterministic quantum effects): and choice still exists.
Which leads to the obvious conclusion that one cannot simultaneously be part of a physical system and fully understand it.
It is really not that obvious, and maybe the understanding is not full but very complete.
Reed states that a scientist cannot wonder about determinism, causility and how to know about them: he completely ignores that scientists actually deal with these issues.
Scientism appears at its most desperate in matters of evolution, where things clearly explicable in physical terms (astronomy, electronics, combustion) bump up against things not nearly so explicable (life, consciousness, motivations).
Reed is most desperate when he criticizes evolution theory, not knowing that life, consciousness and motivation can be explained beginning with physical terms: he just has no idea about how to do it, so probably he believes it is impossible.
He ends his really stupid article with a very poor analysis of homosexuality and how evolution theory, according to him, fails to explain it.