Ep 256 – What is Science?



One of the more interesting things to come out of the last few months in my own personal Mixed Mental Arts experience has been hearing more from all of you how these ideas resonate with all of you. In particular, I appreciated a conversation with Matty (@Matt_Maurer on Twitter) about how he appreciated that history could be seen as one long progression. Humanity has always been trying to solve very much the same problems. It is just that over time we have been able to see further because we have had more and more shoulders to stand on. Why are we so much smarter than the people of the past? Well, coming of age in the culture of science, I was led to draw a sharp line between the scientific project and religions. Science was real. It was tangible. It was based on evidence. It was TRUTH. And anyone who disagreed, questioned or thought anything else was an idiot and a fool. However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in reading the science that simple narrative has become increasingly problematic for me. The people of the past weren’t so biologically different. Their brains recognized patterns. Did they not recognize patterns in human behavior that have stood the test of time? Yes. They did. And it wasn’t until I was confronted by having to spend time among Christian Fundamentalists that I had to really think hard about what, if anything, made science special.

Someone else who has had to think hard about these questions is today’s guest sensei in the dojo Mohamed Ghilan. Mohamed was born in Saudi Arabia like yours truly. Unlike yours truly, he has a PhD in Neuroscience, is getting an MD and is a Muslim. As a scientist and a Muslim, he knows full well that the evolution of better and better beliefs and mental tools was going on well before science showed up on the scene. Today, someone like Mohamed is often portrayed in the media as a bit of a unicorn. He’s a Muslim AND a scientist. Whaaaaaat?!? Is that even possible?!? But in the first four or so centuries of Islam the majority of “scientists” were Muslim. Richard Dawkins captured the two parts of this story in his now infamous tweet “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Dawkins’ own tweet creates problems in his narrative that religion is the problem. If Muslims did great things in the Middle Ages, then why is the problem Islam? If Newton was religious AND a scientist AND an alchemist, then why is the problem Christianity or even magical thinking? And what is science anyway?

As I’ve discussed in previous podcasts, some Christians objected to Newton’s Theory of Gravity because the idea that the planets moved all by themselves conflicted with their belief that God actively moved the planets. Then, they moved on. Gravity was something they could confirm with their own eyes and to keep Christianity relevant and practical they had to evolve their understanding of God. Did they stop believing in God? Nope. They just adopted a more mature of God.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11

Were the people who didn’t understand Newton’s Universal Theory of Gravitation idiots? Nope. In large part, they just didn’t have the glassmaking technology to make the kind of telescopes necessary to observe the planets. And The Scientific Method itself evolved over time but some consider the founder of The Scientific Method to have been a Muslim named Ibn al-Haytham due to his emphasis on experimental data and reproducibility of results. Why then are we repeatedly told the story that science and religion are somehow incompatible? By some analyses, a Muslim FOUNDED Science. If we want to popularize science, then isn’t it in science’s interest to tear down this popular story that science and religion are at odds.

Of course, some of the beliefs of science and religion don’t overlap, notably on the age of the Earth and the origins of life. But, it turns out that science has found its way back to many of the beliefs that religious people figured out long ago. In my article Was Jesus Christ a Better Neuroscientist than Sam Harris?, I explored my own journey towards the painful realization that in the realm of human affairs science had 2000 years later merely reinvented the wheel. In response, I got a comment from someone named Arslan Atajanov asked “Since when science became a belief system?” Ten years ago, I would have asked the same question as Arslan. Now, I know better.

Science has always been a belief system. It is a response to how our minds work.

Humans form beliefs. We have always formed beliefs. And apparently by the time of Ibn Haytham there was already awareness that testing one’s beliefs against the evidence was a good thing to do. In practice, people do this all the time. Look at Game of Thrones. People had theories about Jon Snow being dead or not. Then, they watched the next season. Oh! He wasn’t dead. They changed their beliefs and moved on.

But now imagine that what you believed about Jon Snow being dead or alive became tribal. Now, the French believed that Jon Snow was alive. The Americans believed Jon Snow was dead. Real Americans believed Jon Snow was dead. Then Season 6 Episode 1 airs. New evidence surfaces. Yep. It looks like Jon Snow is alive. The French gloat. They insult the Americans’ intelligence. How could they have been SO STUPID to have thought that Jon Snow was ever alive? Now, the Americans get defensive and come up with a series of rationalizations to defend their beliefs. It becomes a point of pride and identity. And so, the conflict builds for 150 years after the show originally aired. Pretty soon neither side is looking at the evidence. It has simple become an article of faith for both sides. How do you end this conflict?

Well, you point out that before Season 6 aired no one could have known whether Jon Snow was dead or alive and that we all happily kept track with the story for the first five seasons. You could also point out that in this sectarian feud both sides have been losers. We’re all better off moving on. Of course, some people have built their whole brand around this idea of incompatibility. That’s their shtick. They’re not likely to back down anytime soon.

I understand that some people are annoyed with hearing about Sam Harris but the Mixed Mental Arts audience is perhaps unusually diverse. We have Christians in the dojo who are trying to figure out how to reconcile their faith with science like Jason Scott Sanders and Kim Ares. And we have numerous Muslims who rather than listening to Bryan and me talk about Islam wanted actual Muslims on the show. You couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than Mohamed Ghilan. In this conversation with Mohamed, we clarified what science is. It’s a formalization of what humans already do. If you ask me, science has become overformalized. That’s why I’m so excited about Mixed Mental Arts.

Science has become so bogged down in internal tribal disputes. (A problem Sam Harris has also complained about when he talks about the balkanization of science.) The question is what do you do about that? Well, scientists aren’t likely to overcome their tribalism internally. Famous scientists often end up standing in the way of the progress of science as a whole. And if you’re someone like Sam who is still imprisoned by his intuitions of authority, then you are stuck there. You complain to Joe Rogan about the fact that people like me have a Twitter account and then complain that scientists don’t work together to form better beliefs. Complain. Complain. Complain. What’s the solution, Sam?

The solution is harnessing the wisdom of the crowds to sift through the evidence and evolve better beliefs. You abandon all intuitions of human authority and make the evidence the authority with the knowledge that you need to take into account all the evidence. And this is where the beliefs of The New Atheists about the Islamic world FAIL as scientific hypotheses. They fit a very selective cherrypicking of the data. They make sense to someone with limited experience of the Middle East. They don’t make sense to someone like Mohamed (or even me with my much more limited experience).

Well, in this interview, Mohamed focused on corruption and that’s a HUGE factor. However, there are others. Muslims don’t read. When they do, they don’t read widely. The central belief system is not well organized and there is no coherent messaging so people can believe lots of things and CLAIM they’re being Muslims. And, on top of all that, there’s a focus on past historical greatness that doesn’t fit present realities.

All those things describe not just Islam. They describe America. Fixing all that takes a lot of work. It’s a game of inches. Do you know what doesn’t help? Constantly being told that your culture is the problem. It just creates defensiveness.

There are problems with Islamic and American culture. And no…I’m not saying they’re equivalent. But, in no situation, does indiscriminately criticizing people’s culture help establish a bridge. You have to find things of value and then build strength where strength exists and then use that trust to together and reciprocally examine problematic areas. How do I know? Because I just did the opposite of that with The New Atheists. This was the response I got.

In the end, The New Atheists have alienated religious people from science and I have alienated the New Atheists from me. But thanks to Sam saying Candyman we can now strip The New Atheists of their credibility to being responsive to evidence. I presented them with the evidence to read and they showed little to no interest in it. They merely defended their beliefs in a blindly emotional (and perfectly understandable) way. We’re all down in the muck of being human together and all the belief systems’ various claims will have to be tested on the evidence. Fortunately, from The Diffusion of Innovations, we know people choose beliefs that are relatable and usable. We make this science accessible and the best ideas currently available. WILL win.

As Scott Radtke pointed out in an email to me “you have chosen the most difficult task of diffusion; the diffusion of ideas. Invisible ideas pushing against mountains of entrenched, equally invisible ideas.” We have chosen that task. And as your faithful companion Toto pulls back the curtain on the Wizards, I can guarantee you that they will tell you to pay no attention. I can only pull the curtain back. You must examine the evidence. But with guides like Spiros, Mohamed, Tony Molina, Jon Aguilar and countless great books and thinkers, you are sure to find the way. In the end, we offer you options. It’s up to you to decide what is useful, what is not and what you should add that is uniquely your own. That is how you evolve your own Mixed Mental Arts.

To that end, you’re not going to find a better resource on how to reconcile Islam and science than Mohamed Ghilan. Mohamed blogs at Andalus Online, tweets from @MohamedGhilan and can be found on Facebook here. It was an absolute pleasure to have him in the Mixed Mental Arts dojo and I look forward to helping unwind this utterly unnecessary spat between science and religion with people like him.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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