Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

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October 22, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

This is the fourth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The third straw man I want to examine is the claim about philosophical consistency, which is used repeatedly to argue that science and religion are incompatible. Accommodationists like myself and my colleagues at BioLogos claim that a scientist can be religious. Francis Collins can go to church without having a logic-induced seizure or needing to put his fingers in his ears and singing “La La La La” while the sermon is being preached. But, according to Coyne, he can do this only by being philosophically inconsistent, and that is automatically bad.

A rather dreadful analogy circulates on this point, comparing a religious scientist to a priest who is a pedophile. New Atheists argue that just as we know that the existence of pedophiliac priests does not establish a philosophical compatibility between Catholicism and pedophilia, so too the existence of religious scientists does not establish that religion and science are philosophically compatible. I did my best to demolish that malignant analogy in a recent piece on The Huffington Post.

What I want to look at here is the question of philosophical consistency and exactly how high a pedestal it should be placed on. Is it the case that people or ideas that are philosophically inconsistent have no credibility?

There are two things to note here: 1) science is itself plagued by some deep internal philosophical inconsistencies so the black pot of science should exercise caution in noting the color of other people’s kettles; and 2) philosophical consistency is an ambiguous virtue at best.

For centuries, philosophers have tried to establish a philosophical foundation for science. Science, from its inception, was impressively adept at acquiring knowledge and, in contrast to warring religious factions, seemed fully capable of achieving agreement among its practitioners. Interest in how science worked ran high, both for its own sake, and to illuminate the dark corridors of other fields. A companion discipline called the “philosophy of science” sprang up with the goal to figure out the rules of science—the scientific method—and perhaps create a prescription that could be used by anyone seeking knowledge.

All of the earliest scientists—Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Descartes—addressed questions of scientific method, explaining to their generation how nature should be investigated. One of the more articulate discussions was that of Francis Bacon, who argued that science was an inductive enterprise. Scientists should free their minds of preconceptions and bow humbly before the facts of the world, which will assemble themselves on the blank slates of their minds into generalizations, uncontaminated by the prejudices of the scientist.

Bacon’s scientific method had a certain appealing purity, but everybody knew that science just didn’t work that way. Scientists simply could not pursue facts in isolation from some idea guiding the selection of those facts. (Imagine going into a town where everyone was sick from a mysterious illness and gathering information with no preconceptions about what sorts of things that cause illnesses. You would record birthdays, favorite songs, shopping patterns, vacation schedules and recent eating habits with no idea which of those disconnected facts were more likely to be relevant.) Subsequent efforts to improve on Bacon failed to produce a satisfactory philosophy of science. Perhaps the most interesting of these failures was that of Karl Popper, who argued almost the exact opposite of Bacon.

Popper advanced the idea that scientists should creatively conjure whatever imaginative explanation suited their fancy and then try to falsify it. Any conjecture that could, in principle, be falsified met Popper’s criterion for being a scientific claim. Popper was quite influential and, in a 1982 court ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas, Judge Overton ruled that creation science was not scientific because it could not be falsified. (He also had other critiques.)

Philosophers of science were critical of Overton’s decision and produced arguments why Popper’s falsification was inadequate. In fact, Popper should have known better for there were ample historical examples making this clear. Newton’s theory of gravity was, in fact, “falsified” by observations that ran counter to it—Saturn’s orbit didn’t follow the law of gravity. But he and his fellow “Newtonians” stubbornly refused to surrender and soon the falsifying observations were shown to have been misinterpreted—unknown planet Uranus was occasionally disrupting Neptune’s orbit. The chief objection to falsification is that there exists no simple way to isolate a particular idea from its larger context to in order to try and falsify it all by itself. Most scientific ideas are embedded in a network of supporting ideas and, if the idea “fails,” it is hard to specify exactly where the failure occurred.

Most philosophers of science have now abandoned arguments trying to specify the rules of science. Thus there is no specified philosophical framework for science to be juxtaposed against another set of ideas. (Anticipating wild cheering from constructivists, I hasten to point out that this does not imply that “anything goes.” What it does imply is that the “boundary” that separates science from non-science is not well defined. Ideas far from that boundary can be labeled science or non-science without ambiguity.)

Things get even worse when we look more closely at particular scientific ideas in light of each other. There is a widely known contradiction in physics between General Relativity—the science of the very large—and Quantum Mechanics—the science of the very small. In certain circumstances, like black holes, they contradict each other by predicting incompatible things. To believe in the truth of things that contradict each other is the very definition of philosophical inconsistency.

Coyne is certainly free to disparage religious believers for being philosophically inconsistent but he needs to know that every physicist in the scientific community, in embracing both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, is also forced to be philosophically inconsistent. The physics of the 20th century turned out to be riddled with these sorts of problems. Neils Bohr noted this famously when he said: “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”1

I don’t want to over emphasize this point and end up creating my own straw man argument. Coyne is right that there are important and profound tensions between the scientific and religious ways of understanding the world—tensions that do not simply go away by noting that science has been unable to articulate its own rules so that they can be applied in all investigations without ambiguity. It would be an egregious straw man argument to leap from this argument to the conclusion that scientific and religious truth claims are comparably problematic. Religious claims are much more challenging.

However, I think it is fair to say that there is no simple a priori argument that scientific and religious ways of thinking are incompatible. If you look at the reasons why some cosmologists endorse the existence of multiple universes, they bear a faint resemblance to the reasons why some believers endorse the existence of God.

1. Editor's note: Bohr was saying, in a paradoxical way, that contradictory things can both be true.

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Josh Foreman - #37243

October 28th 2010

Here I simply stated what I have generally observed among my atheist friends and those I have had discussions with online.  When these issues are broached I am generally met with statements like, “those questions are nonsense because nothing outside of matter exists.”  To me, this indicates that they don’t have a pressing need to investigate these ultimate concerns.  I’m very happy if you do.  And I’m not pretending that religion is the only outlet for such investigations.
“Imagine someone suggesting, even in jest, that Jews or Hindus might be “broken”.”
I hope you can see that my statements are in no way analogous to this.  I gave two extreme opinions from two ends of the philosophical spectrum.  Many atheists believe they are better than the religious.  Many religious believe atheists are broken.  I believe neither. 

“There are some raw facts which the cargo cult member refuses to accept. That doesn’t make him primitive or stupid or less evolved.”
No, but it does make him less reasonable, as you said.  But your inference that I share this unreasonableness has yet to be established.

Josh Foreman - #37244

October 28th 2010

“Some beliefs just happen to be more obviously wrong than others.”

Indeed.  And once the universe has a prima facie obvious interpretation it will be very easy to toss out all those pesky metaphysical conjectures.  In the mean time, I’ve submitted to you that your interpretation is no more “reasonable” than mine. 

“Josh, if your faith does not depend upon miracles then I would call you a deist,”

My faith does not depend on miracles, but I do not rule them out as deists do.  I see God as active in every quantum fluctuation in the universe, inextricably bound to His creation, not distant from it. 

“This is a typical problem with the label of Christian. It almost universally means belief in miracles (at least the Resurrection), but there is a minority of self-described Christians for whom all miracles are metaphor. Or mystery, or something.”

Yes, as I mentioned above, Wittgentein’s Language Game shows why this difficulty occurs.  The definitions for every religious concept are multifaceted and hotly contested.

Josh Foreman - #37245

October 28th 2010

So to get back to the debate, your contention seems to be that your interpretation of reality is more reasonable than a religious interpretation.  And while I cannot speak for “religion” or even “Christianity”, I can speak as an individual who interprets reality in a way that aligns with many religious precepts.  And my contention is that your interpretation is equally arbitrary, and therefore no more reasonable than mine.  However, you did throw in a curve ball by denying a materialist ontology, so I can’t get any further until you clear up that issue.

Robert - #37251

October 28th 2010

Frank- I guess i let some things be taken as a given in our discourse. I went to Bible College and Seminary. I am very familiar with how the Bible was put together, with higher criticism and lower criticism and all that goes with it. I believe that evidence exists to demonstrate the manuscripts and fragments which were discovered across the centuries make a fairly good case for authorship being within the time frames purported to be what they claim by the biblical writers. As to your question about Jesus talking to satan and who would have seen it??  I have a different view of satan than him being a supernatural fallen angel so…... plus I believe Jesus orally spoke of all that happened to Him and the gospel authors wrote what they heard as well as saw personally.

Frank S - #37256

October 28th 2010

So you believe that there are ontologically real things apart from the material universe?

I’m not going to begin a debate about metaphysics, especially since your question is totally unrelated to the discussion you jumped into. The discussion was about how to apply standards of evidence consistently. There’s nothing more here than the cargo cult analogy. It’s about tightly held beliefs interfering with our basic notions of what is reasonable. In these cases, avoidance strategies like willful ignorance are employed to avoid cognitive dissonance. The simple examples are cargo cults and creationism.

After mounting a defense of something (of what I cannot tell), you then disclose that you don’t care about miracle claims, which makes whatever that defense was irrelevant. Having a stake in Jesus walking on water was a prerequisite for that discussion. That you don’t have a stake is what makes you reasonable, as I said when I called you an effective deist.

I’m surprised that you are nitpicking my rephrasing of “may not feel a pressing need” as “may be insensitive to”. I see those as basically equivalent. Oh well.

Frank S - #37259

October 28th 2010

Robert, what bible college and seminary? Even conservative ones no longer teach that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. The only hold-outs are the staunch fundamentalist schools which compel professors to sign a statement saying that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That, of course, is the quintessential case of assuming what you are trying to prove.

Robert - #37275

October 29th 2010

Frank- they were Christian Church/Restoration Movement schools and no did not hold to extreme fundamentalist views. I understand how the tide has changed in recent years as to eyewitness accounts being said to be unlikely. Unless i am mistaken i believe ther eare still holdouts for Matthew and John being exceptions.

Since our discussion has been focused upon reasonable evidences,why do you believe that the Bible HAS been held to be reasonable and authoritative then by so many Frank??  I saw you used Schleiermachers contention that religion and faith end up being all about feelings in certain cases. I think that point needs to be further explored actually. Seems to me that regardless who the person is or what they are stating and expounding, feelings   end up trumping most everything else in the long run. Just an observation, i allow for myself to be fooled lol   I do hope some others also will respond.

Frank S - #37329

October 29th 2010

Robert, the reason the Bible HAS been held to be reasonable and authoritative by so many Christians is for the same reason the Qu’ran HAS been held to be reasonable and authoritative by so many Muslims and the Book of Mormon HAS been held to be reasonable and authoritative by so many Mormons.

Barry - #37513

October 30th 2010

Robert - #36931

“The possibilities you mention all were explored in a book called * The Passover Plot*  I forget the author right now.  The Biblical account of the crucifixion answers your challenge Barry, as a roman soldier pierced Jesus side to affirm His death, once He was laid in the tomb, a huge stone was placed enclosing it which no one would be able to move and roman soldiers guarded it as well”

And you see no plausible explanation other than the most implausible of all - a miracle?

Robert - #37602

October 30th 2010

Barry- a miracle is only the most implausible if you are a naturalist who a priori excludes miracles from happening. C S Lewis does a good job discussing all of this in his book Miracles I think.  I would ask you Barry, what are plausible reasons for our existence, for love,for what meaning life has??  Is it plausible that we somehow are born into this world only to die, sometimes dying without ever leaving the womb??

Frank- christians have history to back up their reasons for believing which have been verified by archeology and historians such as josephus who was not a christian. Mormons and Islam have more shaky ground for their claims, especially LDS as no such language has ever been found that is claimed to be on the golden tablets given by the angel moroni.

Frank S - #37734

October 31st 2010

Robert, Muslims and Mormons say with certitude that archeology and the historical record unequivocally verify their respective holy books. They readily cite their own apologetical tracts supporting these claims.

What would you say to those Muslims and Mormons which may help them understand that their arguments are entirely unconvincing to non-Muslims and non-Mormons? Indeed, suppose you gave them some reasons why their claims fail, but in response they (1) disregarded those reasons and (2) re-asserted the claims they previously made.

What would you say to help those Muslims and Mormons step out of their provincial biases?

Robert - #37797

October 31st 2010

Frank- excellent questions you ask.  I actually have engaged Muslims and Mormons in this very way a few times over the years. I tell them to compare and contrast their books with the Bible as well as seek to be as true to real historical and archaeological findings as can be. As i said, the language purported by them to be what was on the angel moronis golden plates has never been found to exist. No record of nephites and lamanites as well, along with the claims of Jesus being in the americas in the 19th century. With the Muslims i have shared about the differences between the koran and the Bible and how Allah differs from Yahweh and that we have artifacts and inscriptions which verify the historical accounts within the Bible such as the Caesars, Quirinius, Pontious Pilate,and cities and towns the Bible mentions.

The point you made earlier about how the Bible was put together, copies and copies and copies have been collected and compared to each other, textual variants and such   all have been noted and accepted and the consistency of the message throughout the entire Bible remains.

Barry - #37812

October 31st 2010

Robert - #37602

“I would ask you Barry, what are plausible reasons for our existence, for love,for what meaning life has??  Is it plausible that we somehow are born into this world only to die, sometimes dying without ever leaving the womb??”

Evidence informs what is plausible. When we have no explanation it doesn’t give us an excuse just to make stuff up…that’s not plausible at all. We don’t know precisely how prokaryotes evolved. However we have an extremely good explanation of how complex life forms evolved. So, is it plausible to think that prokaryotes evolved, because we know that everything else did, or do we conjecture an act of extreme magic for which we have zero evidence and that would require a suspension of every natural law we have so far uncovered? And if we do conjecture an act of magic, how do we go about explaining and testing it?

And why has the magic stopped?

Robert - #37823

October 31st 2010

Barry- your philosophical beliefs show what you consider plausible. God cannot be limited to the scope of naturalism and scientific method. Who says the *magic* has stopped???  Just because it does not happen as it did in Jesus day???  I would pose to you Barry a question about love. Do you seek to apply these same principles and probabilities to love??? Do you believe love exists?? How come???  Do you not accept mystery and dare i say faith are necessary to comprehend certain realities???

Frank S - #37825

October 31st 2010

Robert, you’ve missed my point but in a greatly illustrative way. I said that our hypothetical Muslim and hypothetical Mormon have already ignored your arguments. They simply repeated their talking points about the veracity of their own respective holy books. Now you have done the same thing in response—you went through your talking points about why your holy book is the best. Needless to say, they don’t accept your arguments a second time, just as you didn’t accept their arguments.

You can all talk past each other for an indefinitely long period of time. What could you suggest to them and/or to yourself which might be a strategy for resolving the impasse?

Robert - #37835

October 31st 2010

Frank- actually i don’t agree i talked past them   with my own talking points. I answered their choosing to ignore my arguments previously, hypothetically speaking, by giving them evidences they don’t have in comparison to the Bible.  I don’t know really what more to say Frank in regards to your wanting to find a way out of the impasse. Hopefully some others will engage. Seems like we have differing viewpoints from the get-go which do not merge. I share with Josh & Merv, you share with Barry. I am sure upcoming posts made on here will elicit more discussion.

Frank S - #37862

November 1st 2010

Robert, the “talking past” is not a matter of agreement or disagreement, it is what happens when people don’t seriously consider what others say. They have already decided that they are right. They don’t take your arguments seriously. Likewise you know that you are right. As long as each person has an absolute, secure belief that he is right, talking past each other is the inevitable consequence.

Since I was unable to elicit an answer, I’ll finally give it. The way out of the impasse is for each person to seriously consider the possibility that he may be wrong, and to seriously consider the arguments which contradict his own beliefs.

The easiest thing in the world is to read books which buttress your pre-existing beliefs. The hardest thing is to read books which refute them. If any Mormon or Muslim or Christian did the latter in earnest, I cannot imagine him retaining anything but a super-liberalized version of his faith. I have first-hand knowledge of this.

You should have noticed and pounced on my glaring mistake above when I mentioned Marcion. You are missing out on some extremely interesting critical scholarship.

Robert - #38027

November 1st 2010

Frank- I see your point. Actually i have sought to read alot of books and material that go against my beliefs, for the very reason you said.  I have read the book of mormon,pearl of great price and parts of doctrine & covenants. If i were addressing a mormon or muslim i would speak differently than i am to you, taking into consideration that they have dug in their heels and rejected my beliefs outright.  I agree totally with the admitting I might be wrong. I have no problem with that, which is why i agreed with your point about not fooling ourselves.

I will have to go back and look at current critical scholarship since you raised the subject Frank. If we were talking in person I am sure a lot of the things that get left our would not be so. Again, really do like dialoguing with you and Barry, Josh, Merv whoever else joins in.

Barry - #38520

November 4th 2010


” God cannot be limited to the scope of naturalism and scientific method”

This is a meaningless claim. Substitute “god” for any entity and you will see why.

Trevor K. - #39539

November 12th 2010

Time to read something else, maybe more thought provoking and edifying:

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