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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merv - #36061

October 23rd 2010

It is a well-worn groove of thought among adherents and detractors alike that religions don’t have any universally recognized system of empirical validation. 

We don’t go to church to get the easy questions answered about projectile trajectories or the conservation of momentum because science can handle those as well as more difficult ones, to be sure, like the qm or string theory (which is also accompanied by increased disagreement among scientific authorities as Karl mentions.)  No, we go to church to ask the truly hard questions like “Does God (if He exists) cause catastrophes?” or “Does God love me?”  or “What is the extent of our moral obligation to our neighbor?”  Science can’t touch these as it doesn’t have the methods to do so (& nor should it be expected to any more than we should expect a cleaning maid to be thrust into responsibility for management level decisions.)  Religions worth their salt do have methods (as I’ve described) in place to address these very questions, no matter how much you might despise them or disagree with their answers.  The differences in conclusions are indicative of how truly difficult the questions are.  But the commonalities are also there to be seen by those who will.

Michael Fugate - #36062

October 23rd 2010

Why doesn’t someone need to validate religious claims? If someone claims to speak to gods or speak for gods, doesn’t one need to validate those claims? How is a prophet making a claim and that claim coming to pass not a validation? What methods does science lack that are needed to answer the questions you ask?

merv - #36066

October 23rd 2010

“Why doesn’t someone need to validate religious claims?”

They do.  That’s what I’ve been explaining above. 

“How is a prophet making a claim and that claim coming to pass not a validation?”

That is a form of validation.  See above.

“What methods does science lack that are needed to answer the questions you ask?”

Science addresses physical phenomena & its regularities.  It has great tools for discerning what is & causality.  But nothing to determine what anything means, or even whether or not it has meaning.  And certainly if a phenomenon is considered “supernatural” (the current favorite word applied to Divine action) then almost by definition science isn’t equipped to analyze such activity.  All science sees is either an event that simply remains ‘unexplained’, or an ordinary looking event that is only special to somebody because of timing.  Things like meaning or moral imperative aren’t testable types of things in any scientifically empirical sense.

Good night, all.  Won’t be able to get back till later tomorrow.


defensedefumer - #36138

October 24th 2010

I like this post. Just because scientists don’t agree on everything does not mean science is false, and the same argument applies to philosophy and religion.

But I do wonder if the nature of their disagreements are similar—for instance, some evolutionists disagree on the pattern of evolution, and some Christians disagree on when predestination and free will takes place.

I hope to see this series continue!

Frank S - #36145

October 24th 2010

Regarding the HuffPo article, it is clear that the pedophile/clergy analogy was only meant to rebut the argument that the existence of religious scientists necessarily implies that religion and science are compatible, an argument that never seems to go away no matter how many times it is refuted. Any analogy can be extended until it is no longer applicable—-otherwise it would not be an analogy but an equivalence—-and doing so constitutes a strawman in itself.

If you don’t argue “religious scientists equals religion/science compatibility” then you won’t hear the pedophile/clergy rebuttal. There’s no reason to mention it except to discredit that tired argument.

Barry - #36160

October 24th 2010

merv - “No, we go to church to ask the truly hard questions like “Does God (if He exists) cause catastrophes?” or “Does God love me?”  or “What is the extent of our moral obligation to our neighbor?”  Science can’t touch these as it doesn’t have the methods to do so”

It isn’t that these aren’t difficult questions merv, but they might be unanswerable…except within the confines of your own mind. However, we know the answer to “Does God cause catastrophes?” We have a definitive scientific answer to that question. That doesn’t mean we can disprove the claim, but every catstrophe studied in the scientific era does have a naturalistic explanation.

“Religions worth their salt do have methods (as I’ve described) in place to address these very questions, no matter how much you might despise them or disagree with their answers”

So what is the validated answer that all “religions worth their salt” agree on regarding “Does god love me?” Maybe you could start with their agreement on “god” and work from there?

Frank S - #36167

October 24th 2010

Dr. Giberson, I have read this piece and all its prequels. I don’t think you have addressed the issue. Here is why.

Consider the ways in which a scientist who practices homeopathy is being philosophically inconsistent. Why would a scientist/homeopath be an inconsistent mix? Because when we use the scientific method to test homeopathy, the claimed effects vanish. This finding has been verified and re-verified in independent experiments around the world. But our scientist/homeopath is not interested in this evidence. He goes about his science job by day while dabbling in homeopathy at night. There is nothing extremely bad about him; he’s just not applying the scientific method—his own trade—to his own beliefs about the efficacy of homeopathy. There may even be no real-world consequences to this inconsistency, but there certainly are scenarios where there might be. For instance he advises his wife to take a homeopathic remedy in place of seeking medical attention with the consequence being, at worse, the death of his wife. Or less dramatically, he influences others to take up homeopathy, causing a spider-web of unforeseen consequences.


Frank S - #36168

October 24th 2010


Now in this same example replace homeopathy with a few specific historical claims of conventional Christianity. There are mountains of evidence, including archaeological evidence and textual criticism, which squarely refute these claims. But, like the scientist/homeopath, the scientist/Christian does not seem interested in this evidence. He is content to go about his life leaving certain questions unexamined. Just like the homeopath can cite a plethora of books supporting his claims, so can the Christian for his claims. But because neither vigorously pursue the evidence which contradicts their established beliefs, neither are applying skepticism consistently. That is the issue here of philosophical consistency, as I see it.

Dr. Giberson, if you came across an article in the Journal of Applied Physics which purported to prove that a man living in Hungary has the ability to walk on water, wouldn’t you be skeptical? Though it’s in the JAP, a publication you trust, surely you would still have doubts. In fact I assume you would outright disbelieve it until an exceedingly large amount of evidence is proffered.


Frank S - #36169

October 24th 2010


Why, then, when we replace Journal of Applied Physics with a Greek codex written 2000 years ago in a pre-scientific society—when demon possession, witchcraft, miracle-wielding gods, dying/rising gods were all commonplace—does an account of walking on water suddenly seem credible to you? Add to this the fact that the codex in question is a copy of a copy of a copy—in fact an unknown number of copies.

If you consider walking on water as only a metaphor, then replace it with a non-metaphorical miracle above. If you believe all biblical miracles to be metaphor then you’re more of a deist than a Christian, at least in the conventionally understood meaning of the word.

merv - #36183

October 24th 2010

Barry wrote:  So what is the validated answer that all “religions worth their salt” agree on regarding “Does god love me?” Maybe you could start with their agreement on “god” and work from there?

The validated answer would be:  “yes”.  Note that just because we could find a few Christians (Fred Phelps of Topeka, Ks comes to mind) who give a different answer, doesn’t mean everything falls apart and becomes worthless.  If we needed complete agreement on everything then nothing is valid, including much of science.

Also note that this presumes God exists in the first place; something about which there is more prolific disagreement (outside the Christian faith).  On that one, even many Christians recognize there will be no universally compelling empirical test (obviously, or we wouldn’t be having the discussion).  So many Christians are willing to let that be just what it is ... a presumption.  They don’t see a need to seek scientific proof.

merv - #36188

October 24th 2010

Actually, let me recognize my own inaccurate hyperbole in the last post.  If we limit our survey to “recognized scientific authorities”  (note that this restrictive phrase alone is going to front load some ideology into the answer) ...  nevertheless, there would not be so much science to be discarded as what I made it sound like.  And that is a point many of you are making here and fairly so.

Frank, your challenge is a good one.  Christians are skeptics like anybody else steeped in western cultural traditions.  When we go to a magic show, we don’t assume we’re seeing any magic but tricks and illusions instead.  Likewise if we were randomly informed of a seemingly impossible event, we’re going to be just as incredulous or wanting to examine sources as the next guy.  But

merv - #36189

October 24th 2010

that is because no context is provided—no reason provided as to why any trust or belief is warranted.  If somebody found an old text that proclaimed a fellow named Bert walked on water and asked me to join in a new cult of Bertites based on this new sacred script, I would not be swayed because first of all, where are the lives transformed by Bert?  Where are the uneducated fisherman, many of whom became bold before the world and gave their lives over to spreading Bertism?  Where are the hospitals and orphanages built in Bert’s name?  In short, there is no context.  And the rejoinder that asks “well, what about the inquisition & crusades, etc. done in Jesus’ name” ...  those are ugly episodes of history that deserve full condemnation.  They also aren’t surprising because wherever truth is to be found, counterfeits are also going to be attracted.  (as somebody once said, if you put a light out, you’re also going to get moths.)  Just because

merv - #36190

October 24th 2010

counterfeit money exists doesn’t mean that now there is no such thing as money or that it is of no value.  In fact, it is precisely that it does have so much value that counterfeits exist.  ....again ... I’ve heard folks dismiss this as “no-true-Scottsman”, and they are right.  That is exactly what it is, and also what Jesus taught—a tree and its fruit.  Science and indeed life in general uses the same practical kind of approach as seen in the aphorism:  “proof is in the pudding.”  ...something science has to celebrate as well, and rightly so.


Robert - #36192

October 24th 2010

Frank- good challenges you raise. In thinking about what you said, moving to a courtroom analogy would help would it not??  A preponderance of evidence. The original manuscripts are gone, so we have to rely upon copies. Comparing manuscripts of the Bible with other ancient writings, it has been shown many more exist of the Bible, and within a time period to indicate they were not made up by much later generations. So, based on this evidence, if you are going to discount the Bible as historical then you must do the same with Plato, Homer and so on.

Also Frank- curious to hear your thoughts on how faith interacts with all this??? What role does faith play in science??

Frank S - #36219

October 24th 2010

merv, your point applies equally to Islam. Lots of lives have been transformed by Islam, especially motivated by the text of the Qu’ran which itself is deemed a miracle. Consider how fast Islam spread—lots of uneducated peoples became bold in sharing their newfound faith. Whole civilizations arose out of it, which of course includes hospitals and orphanages. They invented algebra (al-jabr) and the concept of zero while the Western world was fumbling with cumbersome Roman numerals.

In fact your argument applies to most any religion, large or small. Look at the Louis Farrakhan cult, which has great success in reforming criminals. Farrakhan believes he was transported to a “mothership” orbiting Earth, and other “interesting” things. Shall we count Farrakhan’s success at transforming lives as evidence that he is onto something?

Barry - #36224

October 24th 2010

merv - “The validated answer would be:  “yes”.”

This would be unconditional love, right?

Frank S - #36225

October 24th 2010

Robert, even if we grant that the Bible is the best book ever produced in the history of the Universe, that still does not address the Journal of Applied Physics example I gave.

Regarding your second question, I don’t see how faith could play a useful role in science. I’m open to suggestions, though.

Ray - #36233

October 24th 2010


based on this evidence, if you are going to discount the Bible as historical then you must do the same with Plato, Homer and so on.

None of these is considered to be primarily a historical work in the first place, although both Plato and Homer have some historical content. As a larger point though, I think this betrays a misconception on the part of Christians that skeptics question the Bible more than similar historical works. This is not true. All ancient texts purporting to describe history are judged both on provenance and inherent plausibility. If Herodotus or Tacitus describes a heavily outnumbered force triumphing in battle and military experts don’t think such a victory possible, we assume he’s exaggerating the numbers, no matter how many times Herodotus has made a verifiably correct claim. We should be even more suspicious of an ancient text describing a man returning from the dead, no matter how many copies there are.

merv - #36236

October 24th 2010

Barry, I think “unconditional love” is an excellent and accurate phrase to apply.

Frank, I’m in wholehearted agreement about the deep legacy of which Islam can boast (to which I am indebted as a trigonometry teacher).  I don’t know as much about Farrakhan.  I’m curious if he represents mainline Islam or would he be considered a more radical fringe?

I know Muslims have been unfairly maligned in western presses eager to press home the stereotype of them as radical terrorists.  To that end we focus on those who are, and ignore the many more who are not.  Unfortunately, Christianity & Islam could be considered kissing cousins in their propensity to turn to violence.  (I don’t know so much what Muhammad taught about this, but I know what Jesus taught—and I suspect that even in the case of Islam their actual teaching & daily practice is much less violent than western impressions make it out to be.)  We shouldn’t forget that Muslims do recognize Jesus, even if not to the same extent.  I know what Jesus taught on this and it rings true.  (yet another of those unscientific methods.)  To the extent that Islam can

merv - #36237

October 24th 2010

and does teach similar things, more power to them.  But along with Paul, we are admonished simply to know Christ, and him crucified.  Let religion follow as best it can.


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