Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

Bookmark and Share

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.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 4 of 6   « 1 2 3 4 5 6 »
merv - #36503

October 26th 2010

I echo Robert’s appreciation of your patient challenges too, Frank.

Regarding “context”.  If this man had gone about Hungary doing works for people & teaching unusual (but heart-piercing) things and testimonies were beginning to accumulate about him changing people’s lives—even healing them;  and THEN he pulled a stunt like that, then I’d definitely notice.  Of course, I don’t think JAP would be reporting about it if he was making religious claims; you analogy casts that as a scientifically-focused periodical, right?

Another consideration is that, in this day & age, if somebody started doing a lot of weird but amazing things, there is already a context set for us for that possibility.  One might begin to wonder about anti-Christs.  So our fictitious man’s stance towards our already enthroned Lord would definitely be under the microscope (pardon the expression!)

—Merv


merv - #36506

October 26th 2010

Barry wrote [far] above in 36160:  “Does God cause catastrophes?” We have a definitive scientific answer to that question. That doesn’t mean we can disprove the claim, but every catastrophe studied in the scientific era does have a naturalistic explanation.”

So do the plagues of Egypt (many of them).  That doesn’t make them any less “from God”.

The definitive part of the scientific answer can only be with regard to the natural causes.  As you may be conceding above (I think) it can’t disprove God’s involvement.  Science simply has no tools to latch onto that aspect of our world.  Clouds, wind, & gravity are all perfectly legitimate (even scientifically complete!) explanations for rain, and we Christians have no problems praising God for needed rain (along with the ancient Psalmist who also understood these things).  It isn’t like we insist that gravity & condensation phenomena all be temporarily suspended so that we can be sure it is God supernaturally forming droplets and supernaturally moving them toward the earth.  We properly divest ourselves of this dichotomous approach for most phenomena.  Rare miracles given as signs would be the special exceptions to this.


Barry - #36514

October 26th 2010

merv - #36423

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

Clearly the “process of validation” seems to have passed by most religions in terms of unconditional love. Please explain with reference to the Catholic church’s denunciation of gay’s in terms that regard them as worse thasn child abusers. Help me understand that, with the exception of the church of England and the spliner episcolpalians, pretty much every protestant demonination outlaws gay members.

Or maybe it would just be best if you defined “unconditional”? Or maybe it’s what we call “tough love”...you know…we love you really, but we reserve the right to hate your behavior?


Frank S - #36515

October 26th 2010

merv and Robert, thank you and I appreciate this dialogue as well.

It is clear that this is a substantive issue, that we’re not just discussing the number of angels which could dance on the head of a pin. It is exactly the issue of philosophical consistency which Coyne has mentioned. You have both called it a good challenge. Can we therefore at least agree that it is not a straw man, as Giberson contends?

Robert, regarding your last question I direct to you Richard Feynman,

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Feynman is not being particularly original. His remark is the distillation of skeptical thinking which began in ancient Greece and has propelled science as far as it has gone today. The absolute truth is that we are fallible, that we can be honestly mistaken about what we believe. Some apply this principle to every aspect of their lives while others do not.

I pulled that Feynman quote from Coyne’s TNR article “Seeing and Believing” which discusses this topic of philosophical consistency.


Barry - #36516

October 26th 2010

merv - “So do the plagues of Egypt (many of them).  That doesn’t make them any less “from God”.”

merv, you can claim god did anything and everything and the statements would be incapable of disproof. But you can substitute “god” for any entity (like, yeti, Thor, Isis) and the same would be true. So if you are describing things in the natural world for which you are claiming a supernatural cause, I think we need more than “god did it” as a starting point. We need at least some basis for thinking that this might be plausible.

This just gets you to the point of consideration. Next, you have to be able to explain the nature of the interaction - HOW it was caused. What was the mechanism? Given the fantastic nature of the claim we would expect there to be evidence. Of cource, you could claim that god covered up all the evidence, but again, that really gets you nowhere.

So science absolutely can research every natural phenomena. The problem you have merv is that every explanation that suggested a supernatural cause has always found a naturalistic one. No exceptions. Whilst this still doesn’t disprove god it still suggests increasing improbability.


Robert - #36788

October 27th 2010

Frank- glad you enjoy the conversation as well. I think what makes the *die for a lie* apologetic truer for the Apostles of Jesus is because they SAW Him after He resurrected. The islamic believers and others do believe also, but the Apostles knew if they were going along with a lie and I daresay that when they were about to die an extremely tortuous death that they would come clean. How do you decide what to believe Frank?? Preponderance of evidence and plausibility are why i stick with the courtroom example.


Barry - #36916

October 27th 2010

Robert - sorry to butt in on your exchange, but you miss Frank’s point.

“I think what makes the *die for a lie* apologetic truer for the Apostles of Jesus is because they SAW Him after He resurrected”

What possible explanations could we provide for individuals to believe they “SAW” a man alive after he was “dead”? In circumstances by the way where this was commonplace, for didn’t every grave open and everyone’s body ascend?

Explanation 1 - Jesus was dead, he came back to life…a miracle.
Explanation 2 - Jesus was subjected to an attempted execution that took him closer to death and that techniques at the time were unable to detect life although he was alive…and he then effected a recovery?
Explanation 3 - crucifixion was commonplace - either the person being crucified or the person apparently ressurrected were not the same person…there were ressurrected bodies all over the place apparently!!

I put it to you this way because of this comment you made - “Preponderance of evidence and plausibility are why i stick with the courtroom example.” So what does “evidence” and “plausibility” suggest given Frank’s “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”?
.


Robert - #36931

October 27th 2010

Barry- hey there, glad to have you jump in by all means. I really don’t miss Franks point, I just do not agree with it. 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. Of course, if you reject the Bible then you reject the account of the resurrection but that just displays a prejudice based upon philosophical presupposition that a miracle like the resurrection could take place to begin with.

Evidence and plausibility suggest seeking others to avow as well so you don’t fool yourself.


Frank S - #36981

October 27th 2010

Robert, I already debunked the “die for a lie” idea when I added that the JAP authors stake their life on the article. Since merv rejected the article’s findings even with this addition (presumably you would too), “die for a lie” is therefore of little value.

Here it is one more time:

The Journal of Applied Physics publishes an article which purports to prove that a man living in Hungary can walk on water. The man did it under controlled conditions, under the watchful eye of scientists and other observers. It is a robust scientific article complete with data, graphs, analysis, and conclusions. It’s the best possible proof on paper that we can imagine. The article states that the authors attest to its veracity under penalty of death. Do you believe the article?

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, and 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.


Frank S - #36982

October 27th 2010

Robert, everything you’ve asked me can be summarized by the JAP thought experiment because it answers the root question: how do we reasonably weigh evidence?

merv said that he needed context. For instance suppose the article says that the man from Hungary claimed to be the Son of God. Suppose the article was passed around Hungary for decades while copies of copies of copies of it were made by hand. As the story circulates, some people add their own testimony, some modify the testimonies they find, and some borrow from current testimonies to create their own. Would any of this make you more likely to believe the article’s claims?


Josh Foreman - #37046

October 27th 2010

simply an anomaly.  Of course if he is a charismatic teacher like Jesus was than it is certainly conceivable that over time a new interpretive tradition could grow around him and compete in the realm of religious ideas. 
But as a Christian, my interpretation of Jesus is not set of lone propositions that can be scientifically analyzed.  They can and should be skeptically analyzed, and rationally examined for internal consistency, but in the end the entire endeavor is interpretive, and thus philosophical.  I have gleaned what I could from my life and attempted to compile my experiences into an ultimate theory of everything.  (Not to be confused with a scientific theory of everything.)  My rational (but sadly fallible) mind finds a compelling argument for a God of a certain type.  My hopes shape this process in no small way, to be sure.  But again, I do operate according to Feynman and Plato’s first principle.  I assume that I am easily fooled, especially by myself.  This does keep me from making declarative statements of fact about my faith.  But that’s ok with me.  If my


Josh Foreman - #37047

October 27th 2010

ultimate theory of everything is wrong I’d like to be corrected sooner rather than later. 
Well I started out wanting to make sure the idea that philosophical theories may be informed by the work of science, but they cannot be confirmed or denied by it.  Science is helpful in rooting out those pesky gods-of-the-gap, but it cannot interpret reality into a meaning.


Robert - #37055

October 27th 2010

Frank- I hope some others jump in here because I think we are talking past each other a bit.  The context as merv referred extends all the way back to ancient days and the prophecies about Jesus Messiah, as well as God Who the Bible declares as the One True God. Jesus had a long history that accompanied Him as well as all He did once He publicly begain performing healings,miracles and such. The eyewitnesses to Jesus included His enemies as well as those who became believers and followers. Your use of the JAP article is very limited as it focuses on one event. I again say that your apriori philosophical prejudice prevents you from accepting the Bible as true.

I also take issue with your statement of *no scientific explanation whatsoever*  God being God is the Creator of nature and so would have the power over it as He saw fit.Science has limits upon itself because it cannot prove or disprove supernatural claims. This goes back to my point about faith and what do you put your faith in??? Do you want to put your faith in your own mental reasoning capability and thus possibly fool yourself???  Do you allow for the possibility the Bible is true and real in what it declares about Jesus??


Josh Foreman - #37057

October 27th 2010

Hm.. for some reason my first post did not come through.  Is it ok if I post the whole set of 3 again since it’s pretty nonsensical now?

1.
Good debate, guys.  One thing that was mentioned earlier but seems to have been lost from the discussion is the point that metaphysical questions and answers are by definition a-scientific.  Specific truth claims about measurable and observed phenomena can be approached scientifically, but it must not be forgotten that science has its limits.  Until the window-into-the-past machine is invented there is simply no way to scientifically confirm or refute the claims of a resurrection.  In the case of a metaphysical interpretation of this historic claim, it is truly about the contextual metaphysical system within which the proposed event is given meaning.  And this context is inexorably existential, rationalistic or both.  And these categories of human interpretation are a-scientific.  The claim of Jesus’ miracles are situated within a philosophical tradition that takes the constituent parts of our perceived reality and imbues a pattern of meaning.  This is why the Hungarian Water Walker is rationally less compelling than the Christ myth.


Josh Foreman - #37058

October 27th 2010

2.
The Hungarian does not fit into a tapestry of interpretation.  He is simply an anomaly.  Of course if he is a charismatic teacher like Jesus was than it is certainly conceivable that over time a new interpretive tradition could grow around him and compete in the realm of religious ideas. 
But as a Christian, my interpretation of Jesus is not set of lone propositions that can be scientifically analyzed.  They can and should be skeptically analyzed, and rationally examined for internal consistency, but in the end the entire endeavor is interpretive, and thus philosophical.  I have gleaned what I could from my life and attempted to compile my experiences into an ultimate theory of everything.  (Not to be confused with a scientific theory of everything.)  My rational (but sadly fallible) mind finds a compelling argument for a God of a certain type.


Josh Foreman - #37059

October 27th 2010

3.
My hopes shape this process in no small way, to be sure.  But again, I do operate according to Feynman and Plato’s first principle.  I assume that I am easily fooled, especially by myself.  This does keep me from making declarative statements of fact about my faith.  But that’s ok with me.  If my ultimate theory of everything is wrong I’d like to be corrected sooner rather than later. 
Well I started out wanting to make sure the idea that philosophical theories may be informed by the work of science, but they cannot be confirmed or denied by it.  Science is helpful in rooting out those pesky gods-of-the-gap, but it cannot interpret reality into a meaning.


Frank S - #37064

October 28th 2010

Robert, I did not say “no scientific explanation whatsoever” (that’s an odd twisting of my words). I said these old codices contain no scientific evidence, which is nearly a tautology since science did not exist at the time (in the way we understand it). My point in using that phrase was to emphasize the stark contrast between the evidence offered in the JAP article and the evidence offered in these ancient Greek codices.

The purpose of the JAP thought experiment is to highlight our own biases by viewing the matter in a neutral context. It’s a classic problem that people will assume what they are trying to prove, often without realizing it. Your arguments have to be appealing to someone who doesn’t already assume what you have assumed. This is about basic standards of reasoning and evidence.

If you wish move past this impasse, you need to articulate specifically why these ancient Greek codices of uncertain origin are convincing to you while the JAP article is not. Furthermore, explain what could be added to the JAP article which would convince you of its veracity.

Remember, you can’t begin by assuming that Jesus appeared and did some miracles. That’s what you’re trying to show.


Frank S - #37075

October 28th 2010

Robert, regarding your other questions, I reiterate what I said previously:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

My value system begins with that principle: that I am fallible. That is an absolute truth, and I know it with absolute certainty.

So sure, anything is possible. It’s possible “the Bible is true and real in what it declares about Jesus”. The question, however, is what is probable—what the evidence indicates.

I would not accept the JAP article at face value, though I would not entirely discount it either. It would be in a holding pattern of “need more data”. It follows that I could not accept other claims backed by evidence much worse than the JAP article: namely, an arbitrary selection of some thousands upon thousands of mutually differing ancient Greek codices with unknown authorship, written by a superstitious society in which miracle stories were woven into the culture and gods competed for attention by working miracles.

That is where I see the evidence pointing. I could be wrong, and I could change my mind. Let’s hear what the counterarguments are.


Josh Foreman - #37078

October 28th 2010

I feel a bit like I’m butting in here, but I will cite this as justification: “I hope some others jump in here because I think we are talking past each other a bit.”

To directly address your analogy: “you need to articulate specifically why these ancient Greek codices of uncertain origin are convincing to you while the JAP article is not”
First it needs to be established that when one attempts to interpret reality the best they can do is find evidence to form their hypothesis.  Even in science, no law is considered unquestionable, so let’s make sure the same standard is applied to metaphysical pursuits.  We don’t need proof, we need evidence that forms a cohesive and internally consistent theory that matches our observations of life.  And as with any theory of everything, it’s fairly easy to knock down any of the individual evidences, so I’ll save you the trouble and do it myself.


Josh Foreman - #37079

October 28th 2010

With that said, these are the reasons I find these ancient Greek codices of uncertain origin more convincing than the JAP thought experiment:

1.  The texts are part of a larger body of texts which provide historical context and prophetic predictions.  Again, this is not proof.  Obviously the New Testament texts have some redaction evident in them, and it’s possible that all the connections to the Old Testament roots are fabricated. 

2.  The texts present a message about metaphysical issues that when applied to my life provides existential evidence of their validity.  Not proof.  Just some more evidence.  Obviously many religious systems serve similar utilitarian ends.  But some Hungarian walking on water has no application of this sort.

3.  All the Evidence that Demands a Verdict stuff.  Personally I find most of this apologetic material to be severely lacking and circular.  But it does contain a few kernels of applicable evidence, mostly the arguments about document authenticity and age.  Of course none of this shows that the contents could not have been edited or completely fabricated.  Just a little more evidence.


Page 4 of 6   « 1 2 3 4 5 6 »