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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Frank S - #37216

October 28th 2010

Gregory, I am definitely against “evolutionism” and “scientism” as you have defined it. I am certain every secular person I know would reject them as morally repugnant. However that probably will not change your attitude toward those who do not believe as you do.

Are you a creationist? That would explain your use of those words.

Gregory - #37218

October 28th 2010

No, I’m not a ‘creationist,’ though I do believe in creation and creativity.

The two main issues I raised were to fizzle the ‘been there, done that’ attitude of knowledge and belief and to acknowledge that yes, some, even many atheists do think they are ‘more highly evolved.’ This is similar to the attitude Talcott Parsons used to suggest U.S.A. is the ‘most evolved’ nation in the world, back in 60s/70s.

Scientism is a serious problem in many ‘western’ countries and unfortunately, due to the scarcity of classes in philosophy and sociology of science, not many people know how to effectively deal with it.

I’m glad to hear you are against both ‘evolutionism’ and ‘scientism’. I wonder why you find them ‘morally repugnant’, if not on sociological grounds. But please don’t feel compelled to answer that. I was merely jumping in on this thread…

...and now I’ll jump back out.


p.s. I am a ‘secular’ person too, in the sense that Charles Taylor describes in his monumental “A Secular Age.” This of course doesn’t mean I am not religious. It means the ‘conditions of belief’ have changed. One is not forced to be a Christian or a Buddhist in ‘secular’ countries, it is a person’s choice.

Josh Foreman - #37224

October 28th 2010

Hi Frank.  Thanks for engaging.  I hope you don’t mind if I do the quote/reply format.
“You are speaking as if I do not understand what it is like to be a Christian.”
I was not presuming anything.  As I noted, Christianity is an interior a-scientific mode.  As such it is impossible to define with any specificity.  We can compare notes, but the language game makes even this dubious.  I seriously doubt your experience with Christianity was much like mine, and mine is not like it was 5 years ago. 
“The best we can have are good reasons. Being rational is nothing more than being reasonable—having a sense of ratio, a sense of proportion.”
I agree with this.  I would even go one further and say that math and logic cannot be proven due to the inherent fallibility of the human mind.  Though, like you, I accept contingent claims with more consensus as more trustworthy.  Now with this established we have to examine what kinds of reasons are “good” for what kinds of beliefs.  A materialist will discount all the warm fuzzies as elctro-chemical signals, so there is really NO good reason for faith in any

Josh Foreman - #37225

October 28th 2010

metaphysic concept.  My reply is that any and every organizing principle a person brings to bear on their reality is equally no good.  In other words, all philosophy is metaphysics and as such meaningless to brute material.  Yet every materialist is arbitrarily assigns values and organizing principles to their actions and beliefs with no justification for doing so besides the consensus of other humans who are equally arbitrarily positing values and principles. 
“Go through your points 1-5 and imagine how a Muslim could express similar arguments which favor his point of view.”
Of course he could.  The question is, as you stated, are his reasons good?  This is something that you and I have only partial access to.  As I said, we can examine the parts of his faith that intersect with time/space/ matter.  And we can examine the inner-consistency of his belief.  What we cannot do, even if we are Muslim, is experience his belief and the minute, second-by-second interaction of his faith on his world.  It is in this interior space where “good reasons” are justified.  I agree with you that these reasons can be undone if they do not match the shared reality we all inhabit.

Josh Foreman - #37226

October 28th 2010

“However in this case it is not evidence which ultimately matters. Instead, it is the sense of purposefulness, transcendence, and all-around good feelings which play the central role, with these things being mistaken for evidence.”
Again, we have fundamentally different ontologies, so what constitutes evidence will be different.  Just remember that to affirm your materialistic ontology is begging the question.  And let’s not forget that I did mention the kinds of falsifiable evidence that science is so good at as both informative to theological claims and -as has often been the case- perfectly justified in disproving theological claims.  So don’t try to pull this “religion is ONLY about feelings.” Stuff.  This is not the argument I am advancing.

Josh Foreman - #37227

October 28th 2010

“In fact he’s not the least bit interested in pursuing the evidence we present. He does, however, meticulously read the apologetical literature of his religion, which he confidently cites.”
In my case I am fascinated by the evidence that historians and the so-called “higher” criticism has produced.  I have been clear that the evidence for redaction in the mms is strong, and I’m aware that it’s highly unlikely that any of the actual apostles wrote the canonized gospels.  And my theology has evolved accordingly. 

“Would it persuade you to ignore the obvious problems with the water-walking claims?”
Because my faith is not predicated on miracle stories this analogy misses the mark.  I honestly don’t care if Jesus walked on water.
“I sense another common misperception at work here: that non-belief entails hopelessness and/or purposelessness and/or meaninglessness and/or a lack of wonder and transcendence, and without religion those would engulf one’s life.”
I know far too many atheists to think this way.  Simply watching Sagan’s Cosmos should dispel any Christians of this myth.  His child-like sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of the galaxy are poetic and beautiful.

Josh Foreman - #37228

October 28th 2010

“the suggestion that I am “broken” may be a new low.”
Perhaps you read too quickly.  I offered three possible explanation for atheism.  The first two I rejected in favor of the third: “I suspect it’s more to do with personality and hopes.”
And if you think that “Nobody on Earth would think that “atheists are a more highly evolved form of humanity” you must have some very sophisticated friends, because I’ve run across this sentiment time and time again.  Do you hang out on any atheist forums?  It’s quite palpable. 
“The reason I bring this up is to help you become aware of your prejudices”
I sincerely appreciate this.  The whole statement was a red herring anyway… I was just ruminating.  But I assure you, I don’t have the prejudice you think I do.  I know from observation that atheists are moral respectable, purpose-driven individuals who help their communities, etc etc.  I do apologize for inadvertently insulting you through my sloppy writing.

Frank S - #37234

October 28th 2010

Josh, I don’t have a “materialistic ontology”. I am only advocating for some basic standards of reasonableness. In order to see the absurdity of your accusation, just imagine the hypothetical follower of the Holy Hungarian accusing us of having a materialist ontology. A better example would be a member of a cargo cult who, after listening to our evidence concerning the origin of his beliefs, accuses us of having a materialist ontology.

There are some raw facts which the cargo cult member refuses to accept. That doesn’t make him primitive or stupid or less evolved. He just has some beliefs which are unreasonable to hold in the face of strong evidence. As humans we cling to our beliefs, especially those which are somehow tied to our identity. This is a phenomenon present in all of us. Some beliefs just happen to be more obviously wrong than others.

Regarding the “broken” comment, I call them as I see them. I interpreted your third “personality and hopes” option in the context of your suggestions that atheists may be insensitive to “big questions” or “ultimate concerns”, another bias indicator. Imagine someone suggesting, even in jest, that Jews or Hindus might be “broken”. Crazy stuff, but I’ll let it go.

Frank S - #37237

October 28th 2010

Josh, if your faith does not depend upon miracles then I would call you a deist, which is a fully reasonable position. 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.

Josh Foreman - #37242

October 28th 2010

“I don’t have a “materialistic ontology”.

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

“A better example would be a member of a cargo cult who, after listening to our evidence concerning the origin of his beliefs, accuses us of having a materialist ontology.”

I can see why you think my accusation is absurd.  This is not an argument I’m making.  I am not saying that there is an indisputable fact that I will simply ignore in favor of my current belief.  In fact I’ve stated explicitly that historic and critical work has convinced me to change my opinion on certain theological matters. 

“your suggestions that atheists may be insensitive to “big questions” or “ultimate concerns””

I appreciate you letting this go, but I want to emphasize the fact that I made no such suggestion.  I said: “An atheist may not feel a pressing need for ultimate concerns such as origins of time/space/matter or a transcendent grounding for morality and personal purpose, but most people do.”

I try to avoid statements because they usually come back to bite you in a debate.

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.

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