Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Nobel laureate Herbert Hauptman on supernaturalism

The Feb-Mar 2006 issue of Free Inquiry features an interview with Nobel laureate Herbert Hauptman. Excerpts:

At an August 2005 City College of New York conference featuring a panel of Nobel Laureates, one scientist created a stir by arguing that belief in God is incompatible with being a good scientist and is "damaging to the well-being of the human race." Herbert Hauptman shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals and is also a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. A gentle, unassuming man in his eighties, Hauptman sat down with DJ Grothe, Editorial Associate of Free Inquiry, at the acclaimed Hauptman-Woodward Institute in Buffalo, New York.


FI: Over 90 percent of the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences are atheists or agnostics. Do you think there is a relationship between being a good scientist and being a religious skeptic?

Hauptman: What are religions based on? They are not based on evidence but on faith. On the other hand, a good scientist insists that, before one assents to a claim, there must be good evidence for that claim. If you live by this principle of science, I believe you will end up believing as I and most of the other members of the National Academy of Sciences believe: that there is no God.

To believe that X is factually true when there is not a shred of evidence that X exists is irrational. To believe in a fantastical claim Y when after thousands of years there still is no evidence for Y and to believe so thoroughly that one lives one's life on the premiss that Y is indubitably true borders on psychopathological.

In the United States there are people who believe that aliens have been abducting humans. Yet there is no good, much less incontrovertible, evidence at all that such events have occurred. All "evidence" are merely anecdotal. Note that belief in the facticity of visitors from outer space, that aliens are in our midst, is less fantastical than belief in supernatural realms and beings. Extraterrestrials are plausible, and their nature is purely naturalistic and entails no supernatural allusions whatsoever. The supernaturalists are really, really, really way out on a limb.

Why, for instance, would you believe me if I told you I have an unseen financier who will, after I die, hand over billions of dollars every week for the rest of my next life, if I can neither present you the financier, the money, or provide you any rational explanation for how I--the dead me--would be able to become alive again, receive (and use) the truckloads of cash, and a hundred other questions that such a crazy claim elicits?

The bottom line is always evidence. However fanciful and incredible a claim may be, if there is a stream of evidence to support it then there is reason to believe in it. But when a hundred centuries have gone by and it still has nothing to show for it, then the claim should be dismissed. In such cases holding one's breath is hazardous to one's mental health.

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