“uninhibited by ideological pressure..”

In conversation with Mick yesterday I happened to mention the eagerness with which some had run with the Daily Mail’s take on the released text of Pope Benedict XVI’s New Year message on peace and the environment and, in particular, Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre’s response to the distortion of that text. So I have nothing but praise for Shane at Present Tense for posting his own corrective. Mind you, Benedict could have simply quoted Sir Francis Bacon on the Idols of the Cave in his ‘New Instrument for Rational Thinking’.. If he hadn’t just publicly criticised Bacon, that is..

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  • Nestor Makhno

    Really, I think religious leaders should keep their noses well and truly out of all scientific debates.

    The reason? God-botherers often complain that scientific critics of religion are making ‘category errors’ by trying to apply scientific principles to matters of faith. The two just don’t mix.

    Ok – so be it.

    However, if religious leaders persist it commenting on matters of rational science then they run the risk of having such an approach turned on themselves.

    My advice would be – don’t.

  • The Dubliner

    “My advice would be – don’t.”

    And their advice to you might be that their faith doesn’t disqualify them from exercising their intellectual faculties except in the insular realm of your own little fascist fantasy world. 😉

  • Pete Baker


    Benedict is perfectly entitled to put forward his reasonable argument and is also entitled not to have that argument distorted by those inhibited by their ideology [the Daily Mail in this case].

    However it is exactly the same reasonable argument made by Sir Francis Bacon in 1620..

  • Nestor Makhno

    Dubliner: I’m not saying religious leaders should be banned from talking about matters of science. All I was doing was pointing out that they are on a slippery slope if they do so.

    You can’t cherry-pick from modern science.

    If you accept the basic tenets on which it is constructed (ie, peer-reviewed falsifiable hypotheses) then you leave yourself open to being the subject of such processes (as Dawkins et al have been criticised for attempting to do).

    So, in a way, faith does indeed disqualify them from such an exercise – but it’s a self imposed disqualification.

  • The Dubliner

    Well, as I said on the Bacon thread “he is limited by his own premises.” There is a nice dramatic irony in the Pope’s statement (as captured in this thread’s title) but you need to point out to scientists how much of their own enterprise is accepted on faith to gain a similar irony from their indignant denail that such is possible (without even mentioning Godel’s first incompleteness theorem).

    Anyway, many scientists are men of religious faith, so the two are not incompatible. I like Einstein’s (who would be excluded by Nestor Makhno from the science business by his beleif in a supernatural power behind the universe) a pox on both their houses (theists and atheists):

    [i]”I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. [b]Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source.[/b] They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional “opium of the people”—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims.”[/i]

  • Nestor Makhno

    Suggesting that Einstein’s had a belief in the supernatural is straining credulity somewhat, Dub.

    I suggest that in your chosen passage he is actually referring to the capacity for joy at the beauty of nature (rather in the way you can have have joy in a piece of wonderful music without having to deconstruct the mechanism that created it).

    Look no further than his sarcastic refutation of quantum physics as ‘spooky action at a distance’ to see how dismissive he was of the seemingly supernatural. (Ironically, quantum physics has gone on to be one of the more robust scientific theories that stands up to even the most precise scientific experiments.)

  • Pete Baker

    Rather than dragging the discussion down the dead-end, and off-topic, of theists V atheists, it would serve everyone better to focus on the detail in the actual post.

  • I saw Ben Goldacre’s piece on Saturday, and thought it was excellent. Thanks, also, for the link to “Present tense”.

    No way, no way, am I going to get sucked into expiating on Bacon again. Nor am I greatly aware of too many Papal utterances on matters scientific which have greatly improved the generality of humankind. Indeed, I tend to excise the Papacy from any rational position on such business, on its long established track-record.

    The conflict between religion and science is another example of why religion cannot easily be both moral force and political practitioner. In other words, we must ultimately blame Constantine the Great. Equally, one might see a direct and logical progression from the suppression of the schools of Alexandria to the anti-science of the present day.

    That said, we cannot ignore how the official line altered totally during the Wojtyla papacy. John Paul II originally argued that there was:
    no structural conflict between science and religion. Moreover, religion’s pursuit of the
    essential unity of nature, along with philosophy and theology, may help overcome the “fragmentation of knowledge”, leading to the “secularisation of the world”…

    In his last years of papacy, John Paul II radically changed his strategy in science communication. Distrust of and even open opposition to human biotechnology became central to his pastoral view of assisted fertilisation, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research, together with the long debated issues of birth control and the use of condoms for HIV prevention. Thus, the supreme head of the Catholic Church chose powerfully and directly to intervene in the relationships between science, technology, and society in a rather unprecedented way: he personally undertook both the burden of communication and of political action, which had previously fallen to scientists.
    (All that from a signed editorial by Pietro Greco in the Journal of Science Communication).

    The author and motivator of this policy change was, of course, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He identified human genetics as one of the “destructive pathologies of reason” (see In Search of Freedom; Again Reason Fallen Ill and Religion Abused).

    At that point, the entire machinery of the Roman Catholic church, from the Vatican to the parish level, was co-ordinated to lobbying on biotechnology matters. And it has been remarkably successful, in the UN, the USA, Italy, Spain and Poland.

    Which, surely, provides Colonel Travis’s famous line in the sand, where science must stand-and-fight or run.

    That provokes me to two further thoughts.

    One is that the parlous state of the world would be substantially improved if we returned to the secularism of the early United States. Depite the Bushies’ and the conservative Republicans’ fascination with a mythic “in God we trust” golden age, it is now established that the Founding Fathers were almost entirely rationalists and freemasons (see http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/summer97/secular.html).

    Second, and derivative from that, the world’s only superpower has been a political, social and scientific menace to human improvement during the present theocratic Presidency. Attitudes to contraception, genetic research and climate change (all deriving from a curious blend of pig-ignorance, blind fundamentalism and free-marketeering/self-interest) have been catastrophic. On which topic, may I also point to Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate in Economics and critic of globalisation) writing an essay (just barely relevant here) for the current issue of Vanity Fair (of all places).

  • Pete Baker


    “Indeed, I tend to excise the Papacy from any rational position on such business, on its long established track-record.”

    Well, I thought it worth noting that he had actually taken a rational position.

    Albeit it one he’s ‘borrowed’ from Bacon.. just after criticising him..

  • Nestor Makhno

    Coincidentally, there is a very interesting interview in Salon.com today with Catholic theologian John Haught on the inadequacy of the ‘New Atheist’ approach.

    He re-tools Teilard de Chardin’s teleological explanations of cosmic progress in an attempt to integrate evolution an science into religious thinking. Worth checking out.

  • Pete Baker on Dec 18, 2007 @ 12:42 AM

    It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. (Bacon: Of Atheism)

    As I have said before, I’m agnostic, even about my own agnosticism. Nor can I pretend to have any kind of Baconian breadth of vision. End of story …

    Except Bacon and our age are divided by one enormous chasm: our ignorance.

    It was still possible for Bacon (and the following century or so) to aspire to all knowledge. It was possible for Bacon and later gentlemen to sit in their libraries and contemplate the entirety of their world’s knowledge. Indeed, it was Bacon’s aim to systematise that knowledge.

    At some point in the Twentieth Century it became no longer possible to be better than the master of a small specialism in a subject area. As our science expands incrementally, those specialist areas become more and more specific and restricted. Even the largest Department in the greatest Universities can no longer claim to be expert across the whole of their study. The most advanced study may be happening at only two or three centres around the world: take particle physics as an example.

    Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

    The Vatican (like Bacon previously) claims to be able to speak about all and for all. The difference is that Bacon was writing from a position of strength (“Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est”), while the Vatican can speak from only a general appreciation. A further difference is that Bacon assumed that “Science” would be pure and uncorrupted by society: we cannot (since 6th August 1945) accept such a division between science and society (“the chain of them confederate”). So, in a secular world, the restraints upon science must be secular and societal: the alternative is an “Islamic bomb” (and I’m old enough to recall the Stalinist myth of the “socialist bomb”, which would “kill only capitalists”).

    Anyway, this is too profound to be debated in a few paragraphs crammed into a comments box, so I let it go, let it go …

  • Pete Baker


    “A further difference is that Bacon assumed that “Science” would be pure and uncorrupted by society: we cannot (since 6th August 1945) accept such a division between science and society (“the chain of them confederate”).”

    Well, as I pointed out previously here

    Bacon anticipated that criticism

    However, Francis Bacon himself had a view on such thinking, from Novum Organum

    “Finally, if anyone objects that the sciences and the arts have been perverted to evil and luxury and such like, the objection should convince no one. The same may be said of all earthly goods, intelligence, courage, strength, beauty, wealth, the light itself and all the rest.”

    And Bacon also added an argument which, if Benedict did not seek to criticise that which followed – The Enlightenment – could have seen him call for a return to Bacon’s original ideas.

    “Just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God’s gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use.”

  • Look, I swore off getting involved in The Trial of Francis Bacon, Part Two; I’m not up to it.

    In addition, Bacon can only answer for himself by agent and selective quotation. We are dealing here with a man who was trying to apply reason (and, specifically, his legal training) to a world where the prevailing spirit was mysticism. The result was an unresolved tension between the explained and the (for the time being) inexplicably numinous.

    His four “idols” (which are liable to be misunderstood: lest anyone misinterpret, he was referring to “eidolon”, meaning only “appearance”, nothing to do with the Second Commandment) are, of course, the key here. They are not just the “idola specus”, the image of the cave. There are also the “idol of the tribe”, “of the forum” and “of the theatre”.

    We should be debating the whole perspective: not the one segment.

    You keep referring (as did the Papal commentary) to the “idol of the cave”. Fair enough: for the sake of brevity, let us stick with that for the moment. That makes clear Bacon was explicitly aware of the self-imposed blindness of humanity:
    – The inventor sees all in the light of his invention. Can I, by corollary, see beyond my own perceived self-importance?
    – Do I, as an individual, err in perceiving the wood or the trees? Do I see patterns or differences in my surroundings? Either approach is an error: “by catching the one at gradations, the other at shadows”.
    – Am I conservative, eschewing change, or radical, espousing it?
    – Do I see the particle or the structure? Am I “atomist” or “gestalt”?

    That, in contemporary terms, is to me as valid a critique of theology (which is, at its best, only “all that heaven allows”) as of any science.

    Bacon, though, is more generous, broader, than that. Remove the 17th-century veneer of religiosity, and we have a truly humane and over-arching statement of human potential:
    I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from the lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it..

  • Pete Baker


    I wasn’t aware that Bacon was on trial, as such, here.

    If he is I’m speaking on behalf of the defence.

    I think you may be mis-interpreting my quoting of the Idols of the Cave reference – there’s no doubt it can be applied equally to anyone inhibited by ideological pressure.

    My point, such as it is, was that Bacon provided a ‘New Tool for Rational Thinking’.

    He clearly understood that such a tool could be mis-used. And he also clearly argued that the tool itself should not be criticised for any use it may be put to.

    Benedict had previously used theological grounds, “wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science” rather than “from faith in Jesus Christ”, to criticise “Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired”.

    That, to my eye, is someone inhibited by ideology.

    What struck me in reading the detail of this new Papal text is the brandishing of Bacon’s argument – including the elements you have quoted – without reference to Bacon.