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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

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October 22, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Frank S - #36244

October 24th 2010

merv, Farrakhan has little relation to Islam except by name. I mentioned him not because of the Islam connection but because he’s an example of a complete nut (he believes he was contacted by aliens, he believes Satanic Jews ushered Obama into power, etc) who transforms people’s lives for the better, and in particular he is quite successful in reforming criminals.

In response to my first post you provided an outpouring of reasons for believing in Christianity having to do with lives being transformed, converts becoming bold, the spread of the religion, and the erection of hospitals and orphanages. I explained that all these reasons apply equally to Islam, so by implication they aren’t good reasons for Christianity in particular. Even crazies like Farrakhan can positively transform lives, though I could have mentioned any cult in this regard.

Robert - #36253

October 24th 2010

Frank and Ray- what about my point of judging validity based upon preponderance of evidence??  The JAP analogy you use Frank could be disqualified by lack of evidence for such a story happening, and any lack of reliable witnesses to such as what the journal would contend. The Bible on the other hand, has evidences of eyewitnesses for its miraculour stories it   lays a case for and there is the evidence of the martyrdom of all the apostles, who would know if none of these things had happened and therefore would not willingly die for a lie.

As far as faith & science going together. Science seeks to operate in the provable sphere. But science itself has to be based upon faith in order to even exist. I believe the philosophical position would be that we all must live by faith, it is just a matter of where that faith is placed. Do you want to place faith in a naturalistic, nonexistent God reality or a supernatural, existent God reality???

Frank S - #36272

October 25th 2010

Robert, you’ve seriously misunderstood the JAP example. I said the JAP article purported to prove that a man living in Hungary can walk on water. Not only are there eyewitnesses, but the man did it under controlled conditions, under the watchful eye of scientists and other observers. It’s a full-fledged JAP article with data, graphs, analysis, and conclusions. It’s the best possible proof on paper that we can imagine.

And I submit that Dr. Giberson, along with almost all scientists, would still be skeptical. Short of observing it themselves in their own experiments, they would require exceedingly more data gathered by a wide variety of independent scientists to even consider the possibility. I’ll repeat again with a slight clarification:

Why, then, when we replace the 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 with no scientific evidence 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.

Ray - #36278

October 25th 2010


The Bible on the other hand, has evidences of eyewitnesses for its miraculous stories it   lays a case for and there is the evidence of the martyrdom of all the apostles, who would know if none of these things had happened and therefore would not willingly die for a lie.

1) Scholarly consensus is that none of the new testament was actually written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

2) People die for weird stuff all the time (Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, and the Branch Davidians come quickly to mind.) Besides, there’s no reason to believe the martyrs believed exactly what it says in the gospels. The ones who could have confirmed the Gospels first hand mostly died before the Gospels were written in the first place (65-100ad) and there’s no reason to believe even the ones who died a little later actually read and agreed to the Gospels line for line. I’m more inclined to think they believed in the resurrection based on visions similar to Paul’s, rather than the full on empty tomb, Thomas feel my wound, earthquakes, and the dead roaming the streets as described in the Gospels.

Robert - #36279

October 25th 2010

Frank- forgive my misunderstanding and thanks for the clarification. In thinking about it more i guess taking into account the entire Bible and character and claims of Jesus must be taken into account as well.  Scientific evidence has limitations. Jesus claimed to be God in flesh, so therefore He would have control over nature and such.  You didn’t address my courtroom analogy or the apostles willingly facing martyrdom,which relates to believability of the walking on water incident.

Also would like your thoughts on what I said about faith??


Ray - #36286

October 25th 2010

Jesus claimed to be God in flesh, so therefore He would have control over nature and such.

Jesus claiming to be God in the flesh doesn’t seem terribly implausible (though I find little evidence he wasn’t misquoted or misinterpreted.) Jesus believing he was God in the flesh doesn’t even seem that far fetched. But neither of these implies that Jesus actually was God in the flesh, which is implausible whether he and his disciples believed it or not.

Thousands of people, from Alexander the Great to David Koresh, claimed godhood. Surely even you will agree that the vast majority of them have been wrong.

Ray - #36287

October 25th 2010

Science seeks to operate in the provable sphere. But science itself has to be based upon faith in order to even exist.

I strongly disagree with the first part. In the strict metaphysical sense, nothing is provable, even mathematics (since you can never be absolutely sure you haven’t made a mistake somewhere.) Science can operate at any level of certainty (ranging from the atomic clock to string theory.) The mark of science lies in not claiming a higher level of certainty than is justified.

I mostly agree with the second part. In order to get off the ground in science we need to make some basic assumptions which really boil down to “induction works, except where it doesn’t” but, each additional assumption you make from there increases the chances that you’re wrong. For example, you’re only half as likely to be right after making the assumption “God likes Jerusalem more than Tyre” and you’re 100 billion times less likely to be right after you assume that “Jesus is the most divine person who ever lived.” Certainly the assumption those two are founded upon: “God Exists” is even more unlikely a priori, but since I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “God”, I won’t give an exact estimate.

Ray - #36294

October 25th 2010

Continuation of my answer to Robert:
I suppose I should further elaborate upon why “God Exists” is extremely unlikely a priori. After all, if the other two assumptions I listed above were capable of predicting more than 38 bits (log base 2 of two times100 billion) of otherwise inexplicable information about our world, they would be entirely justified, and this doesn’t seem like a huge stretch.  So here goes:

Presumably, you think God is omnipotent, or at least the most powerful entity in existence, so you have only one shot at getting his other properties right. Most theists tend to assume that God is structured something like the human mind, whether they admit it or not. The human mind is exceedingly complicated and correspondingly unlikely absent a process like evolution to explain how it got here. Alternatively, you could take the Bible to be a full description of God, but then God is no more likely than what he’s supposed to explain. This is made worse by the fact that, since the Bible is supposed to be fully explained by God’s nature alone, we no longer can explain the similarities of the Bible to earlier near eastern literature or its language to other Afroasiatic languages in terms of culture.

Ray - #36295

October 25th 2010

Shorter version of the above:

Once you actually unpack the characteristics of God that seem simple to you, due to their familiarity within your cultural context, they become much more complex than anything they explain. As such, taking God on faith assumes more than is justified through explanatory power.

That said, you have to have very good intuition with large numbers to avoid screwing up and thinking God actually is likely (see Swinburne for a cautionary example.) A good sanity check is as follows, Yahweh explains precisely as much about the Old Testament as Juno et al explain about the Aeneid.
Surely the Aeneid does not justify the Roman Pantheon.

Barry - #36341

October 25th 2010


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

Except if a person is gay? What process of “validation” have the various religions gone through to sort out whether they love gays?

Frank S - #36342

October 25th 2010

Robert, I addressed your courtroom analogy in #36225 by granting it. You seem anxious to steer toward a particular apologetic defense (looks like one popularized by Josh McDowell), but you haven’t realized that (for the sake of argument) I’m already giving that to you. Even assuming the Bible is the “best” of all other ancient writings ever written, that still does not explain the JAP example.

Later in #36253 you added the well-known “die for a lie” argument from apologetics. Probably without exception, every Muslim alive today would die before disavowing Islam. This is not good evidence that Islam is true. The same applies to most anyone in most any religion. Throughout history Jews refused to convert to Christianity even under penalty of torture and death. This is not good evidence that Judaism is true. The “die for a lie” idea does not help your case.

Moreover, consider the following. Suppose at the end of the JAP article it says, “The authors attest to these results under penalty of death.” I submit that this would still be insufficient for Dr. Giberson and other scientists to accept the article’s findings.

merv - #36423

October 25th 2010

“unconditional love” is an excellent and accurate phrase to apply.

Barry responds:  “Except if a person is gay? What process of “validation” have the various religions gone through to sort out whether they love gays?”

No exceptions.  Unconditional love is exactly that.  For all people.

I’m not aware of any mainstream congregations that claim otherwise.  Only fringe groups like Phelps come to mind as exceptions.  Now as to whether various activities are acceptable or not, and what should a congregation celebrate/accept/tolerate/ignore/discourage/or outright reject:  that is a more difficult issue where disagreement persists between groups.  That validation process mostly involves people from various sides making appeals to Scripture & scriptural precedent.  Some also appeal to the Spirit moving the church in new directions, but the Bible is essential in that appeal as well. 

God’s love is not in question.


merv - #36425

October 25th 2010

A parallel issue to the one Barry & I are discussing would be how lawyers today treat the U.S. constitution.  Some like to view it as a “living document” meaning that we should look loosely at the intent of the founders and adapt our interpretations to meet current issues that weren’t in play when the constitution was written.  Some conservative folks see this as nothing but a grab for license to get around clear & timeless constitutional mandates—they like to see it as a static document that should be accepted just as it is.  In either case, though, given the quantity of resources invested in law study today, it is no simple matter to apply it all (no matter which approach one likes.)

My point here is that despite one member of a group trying to pretend it is simple for everyone by citing chapter & verse, concluding “God said it, so it’s true. Period.” —despite this, different points of view will often come to light that show other layers with their own appeal to other parts of Scripture.  An issue refuses to stay contained in one person’s defining box.


merv - #36429

October 25th 2010

Frank writes:  “Suppose at the end of the JAP article it says, “The authors attest to these results under penalty of death.” I submit that this would still be insufficient for Dr. Giberson and other scientists to accept the article’s findings.”

There is a big difference between declaring you are willing to die for something, and actually doing it.  You are right that a physicist simply signing as such would be nothing more than an unusual amusement.  Martyrs often do this up front (don’t need to state it or brag about it up front, they just do it.)  Furthermore, we could distinguish between those who are depressed, suicidal, or vengeance seekers (parents killed by militias when they were kids?)—who often have nothing to lose in life anyway and are seduced into being suicide bombers and the like.  Then there are those who would like to live, but their convictions are more important and they willingly lay down that life to remain true to those convictions.  While I agree that even this is not proof (what is, really?)  it is really good *evidence* of their own strength of conviction—and yes, this remains as good evidence no matter what religious/ or institutional name they have or are given.


Frank S - #36439

October 25th 2010

merv, OK we’ll assume that adding the line to the JAP article contributes to its credibility. Do you think the article would then be sufficient to convince the preponderance of scientists around the world of its claims? (See #36272.)

merv - #36443

October 25th 2010

No—- and actually I wasn’t suggesting that it would.  I was suggesting that it may be fairly commonplace for someone to make comment (like swearing) that “as you live” something is true.  Swearing even on your own life that you believe something may be a good attention getter, but actually dying instead of recanting a belief?! —-that takes it to a whole new level.  Declaring that one is willing to be a martyr and actually being a martyr are two different things.  Deeds trump words.  Every time.


Frank S - #36447

October 25th 2010

merv, that you said “No” demonstrates an inconsistency in the standards you use for evaluating evidence. It’s exactly what Coyne means by philosophical consistency,

Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Mull over #36272 again and see if you agree. You are welcome to be inconsistent; Giberson and anyone else are welcome to be inconsistent. I don’t mind. Perhaps you could even embrace your inconsistency, even rejoice in it. The only reason I am speaking up is that Giberson wrote an article in which he claims to be consistent.

merv - #36458

October 25th 2010

I probably have many inconsistencies, but I don’t think you’ve found one yet.  I re-read 36272 and still don’t agree with your point.  They are completely different situations.  One you made up and (even in your analogy) fail to give any context.  The other (Jesus) has a rich history of context as to why we might expect great things from him.  A random man nobody knows suddenly doing something (what is it, a magic show?  a scientific demonstration? —if so demonstrating what scientific principle?  A man claiming he has power over water?  A man claiming he is God?  There is no context provided to give us a reason to think we should witness amazing things.  If Jesus was the Son of God, however, or even just claimed to be—-now we have some context and watch accordingly.


Frank S - #36473

October 25th 2010

merv, if the man from Hungary said that he was the Son of God, would you be inclined to believe the JAP article? What context would be sufficient for you to accept the findings of the article?

Robert - #36480

October 25th 2010

Frank- Sorry for being consistently inconsistent!!!  :D I guess i did miss you ceding my points as far as the courtroom analogy. The thing i would add as far as the *die for a lie*  apologetic goes…..Peter,James and the other Apostles actually saw Jesus be crucified, and then reappear in His resurrected form. Believers in Islam, Jonestown,the Halleys Meteor peeps or who ever else you want to add in, have not had that experience. Thus lies the difference. You can of course declare it was all made up and never happend. Archeaological evidence and historical evidence would beg to differ with you there though.

I like your style Frank and you definitely have a very rapid-fire mind and present very good challenges. I would confess like merv that i many weaknesses and am all too human. I wonder what it would be like if we could aspire to being like Spock???  Just a lil rabbit trail.

Curious to know Frank- do you believe in absolute truth of some kind??? Remember, saying there are no absolutes is an absolute statement!!!!  Thank you for the friendly dialogue Frank

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