When I went to school, studying chemistry and physics, we had to do a lot of “derivations.” These are arguments made in the language of mathematics. Every now and then you would get stuck, often through laziness, but sometimes because while you knew where you were going, you could not quite figure out how to get from where you were to where you needed to be. In other words, the next result was known to you, “obvious” even, but you just could not put the math together to get there. And thus you were tempted to introduce the magical phrase, “it is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.” Which meant really, “I know what answer I am supposed to get, I just don’t know how to get it.”
The “intuitively obvious” phrase was allowable in the sense that it could be used to shortcut a bunch of iterative low level math that anybody could do in their head and you needed to save time and paper, but it was out-of-bounds when used to cover up major leaps in the argument. When used improperly it drew ire and low grades from profs everywhere. So I was astonished to see it implicitly used in an essay by an apparently distinguished professor of physics from Arizona State in the The New Yorker earlier this month.
He is trying to prove why all scientists HAVE to be “militant atheists.” Let’s look at his arguments.
He establishes his bone fides as a physicist and then jumps directly into a legal/political argument wherein he has no expertise. And his first “intuitively obvious” is in that discussion. He claims that law controls actions not beliefs and therefore forcing someone to obey the law over religious objections cannot possibly be a violation of freedom of religion. He then tries to tie this into the fact that physics looks at the laws of nature without intervention of the supernatural – that is to say without appeal to God. There is nothing intuitively obvious about this connection. The laws of nature are by definition immutable, without supernatural intervention. The laws of man are an entirely different thing – they are completely mutable at the will of man. Hence we have historically tried to root them to what we understand to be God’s desire so that they did not appear as merely whimsical. He can assert, “Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law,” but he has not done anything to prove it.
The very next sentence, beginning the next paragraph, contains a real whopper of a leap:
Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.
He just got through telling us that science limits itself to the immutable physical laws of nature, but it is “inevitable” that we will therefore draw conclusions about things supernatural and metaphysical based on its practice? Talk about a hand waving assertion! There is no inevitability to it. It as if he said, “Because it is a requirement to dribble while one man advances the ball up the court in basketball, running backs will naturally dribble the football.”
The piece gets pretty strange after that. He next moves on to an almost “frankensteinian” argument in support of the Planned Parenthood sale of fetal tissue. Which means that a) he did not quite get the point of Mary Shelley’s book, and b) having now thoroughly unhinged himself from any sort of logical restraint by his prior discussion, he is just going to start spitting out liberal claptrap willy-nilly.
He then tries to pull all this back together in a package by reasserting the “parallels” between man-made law and immutable natural law and by asserting that science is not just about nature but about EVERYTHING. In the end he is left with a point in search of an argument. Where I went to school, he would not have gotten a very good grade.