t f p g+ YouTube icon

Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 2

Bookmark and Share

October 2, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 2

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

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

Editor's Note: The corrected version of Part II was posted on October 2.

The first straw man I want to examine is Coyne’s strong assertion that scientific ideas are empirical and testable and religious ideas are not. I would be the first to admit that this is largely true. Ideas from the hard sciences—physics, chemistry, biochemistry—are solidly empirical in ways that ideas from religion can never be. But then ideas from the hard sciences are empirical in ways that ideas from sociology and economics can never be. The degree to which a body of knowledge is empirically grounded ranges broadly as one passes from physics, thru chemistry and biology, into the social sciences.

Coyne compares the well-understood function of penicillin to belief in the incarnation of Jesus and notes that the former is well-established as true but the latter is just a matter of faith with nothing more than a “book” to suggest that it might be true. (And, of course, he notes that the “book” of the Christians is just one holy book among several, all making different claims with no clear way to adjudicate among them.) In making this comparison, Coyne is pulling a simple and strongly empirical example from one end of the spectrum and making a major point about how it differs from an idea at the other end of the spectrum.

Here is why I think this argument fits into the logical pattern of the “straw man.” The various truth claims being made by science can be arrayed along a spectrum that starts with ideas that can appropriately be labeled “established as true.” One of the great achievements of science is to establish truths with such magnificent clarity that we forget how great the achievement was in the first place. Few people are impressed any more with the way that science established the roundness of the earth, its motion around the sun, the elliptical shape of its orbit, or its great age. But these were all incredible achievements. Ditto for the periodic table of the elements, the function of DNA, and the behavior of penicillin. The scientific community is united behind these claims which can all be considered “established as true.”

But the spectrum of science is not exhausted by such straightforward claims about the world. Nor were these ideas always so well-established and unambiguous. The initial proposals that the earth moved about the sun were rejected by scientists in the 17th century—called natural philosophers in those days—in large part because there was no empirical evidence that the earth was moving. It is a myth—a straw man myth—that the objections were based entirely on the Bible. The arguments for the motion of the earth were not strongly empirical and it would be two centuries until empirical evidence was forthcoming. But the motion of the earth became widely accepted despite the absence of empirical evidence, not because of it. The reasons had to do with the “elegance” of heliocentricity and the “mathematical simplicity” of sun-centered models of the solar system.

In much the same way today we have an animated discussion about multiple universes. Many leading scientists believe in multiple universes. But no empirical evidence of any sort exists for these universes. None. The reasons to believe in multiple universes have to do with abstract mathematical arguments. Cosmologists have “equations of the universe” they solve that have more than one solution. Some of the equations appear to have an infinity of solutions. And one of the solutions is a mathematical description that looks like something that resembles our universe. But what is the status of all these other solutions? Can we say that other universes exist just because they are “allowed” by the mathematics?

Mathematics relates to the world in very complicated ways. The typical equation of mathematical physics will have more than one solution and physics students are taught to compare all the solutions to the real world and “throw away” those that don’t match. A trivial example of this would be an equation for the length of the side of a square with an area of 4. The length of the side will be the square root of “4,” which has the value “2.” But “-2” is also a square root of 4. (-2 times -2 equals 4). So what do we do with this other solution that makes no sense? We throw it away because it doesn’t correspond to any real squares.

We know from experience that the there are more “mathematically allowed” realities than there are actual realities. Mathematics allows us to have squares with sides of negative length. But such squares don’t exist in the actual world, as near as we can tell.

There is an amazing story though, about such square roots. The great mathematician Paul Dirac was once working with a square root dealing with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The square root had the famous solution E = mc2. But there was a second solution that Dirac’s peers had been simply throwing away, as they had been trained to do. Dirac had a heightened confidence in the ability of math to describe the real world and he decided that the “wrong” solution should not be thrown away, and he set about trying to figure out what it could mean. After some frustration, he decided that it might be “anti-matter,” for which there was no evidence. But, as we know, anti-matter turned out to be very real.

The status of mathematically suggested alternate realities is quite mysterious.

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. What we know from experience is that the solutions to our equations often tell us things about the real world that we did not know. But they often tell us nothing, and we simply throw them away as meaningless collateral.

This is the situation with the multi-verse today. We have equations with solutions that may or may not describe a reality for which at present there is not a shred of evidence. This uncertainty may resolve itself or it may not. Leading scientists may continue to dispute whether our universe is unique, or one of many, or one of an infinity.

The straw man argument comes into play when we take the simplest settled truths of the hard sciences and contrast them with the ambiguous and unsettled “truths” of other fields, or the less settled claims of the hard sciences, or the claims of fields for which “settled truths” would not be expected. Science itself has many ambiguous and unsettled “truths.” This is not to say that religious truths are thus now on the same playing field with scientific truths. Science purchases its great success by choosing easy problems and thus will always provide a clearer model for thinking than, say theology, or literary criticism, or sociology, or aesthetics. And religious claims, being predominantly moral and metaphysical, are fundamentally different to begin with.

Exclaiming about how much clearer our understanding of penicillin is than our understanding of the Incarnation is nothing more than a statement that truth claims lie along a spectrum. Claiming that this is an argument that invalidates religion goes way too far.

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.

< 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.

Page 13 of 13   « 10 11 12 13
Ray - #34514

October 13th 2010

Now it’s important to note that the potentiality is really a property not so much of the thing itself but of our description of the thing, and a hypothetical one at that (when we think about wood,  we usually don’t explicitly think about which changes would preserve it’s identity unless asked to do so.)  I mention this because there is a danger, if we take our discourse too literally, of thinking of the potentiality to be hot or to be in a different location as some kind of a substance or object. The absurdity becomes clear if we assume an object can be translated by an inch or less and still be the same object, then that object has an infinite number of potentialities (the potentiality to be an inch away, a half inch away, a quarter inch away etc.)

Also important to note is that Aquinas’s language does not generalize terribly well. You can’t always tell whether a potentiality is present—how old, exactly, would a puppy need to be before it was no longer a puppy, but a dog. i.e do puppies have the potentiality to be 9 months old, 12, 15? reasonable people may differ.


Ray - #34517

October 13th 2010

At this point I can’t resist giving a physics example. Fundamental particles like electrons and photons are interchangeable in a very real sense (look up Bose and Fermi statistics for detail, although I should warn you it’s a very difficult concept.) Now sometimes you can track the paths of individual electrons (as in a bubble chamber,) but if you bounce a photon off an electron in a bar of copper, say, and do the same thing 5 seconds later it makes absolutely zero sense to ask whether you measured the presence of one electron twice or two different electrons once each.

So anyway, the fact that Aquinas’s wording is problematic if taken literally and does not generalize well should be a warning when similar reasoning is applied far beyond the realm of common experience (the universe as a whole) to prove the literal existence of a god.

But, if you don’t want to heed the warning, I can give a perfectly good counterexample. Stars of a certain mass have the potential to explode in a brilliant explosion called a supernova. Without any outside intervention, they will actualize that potential about 10 to 100 million years after their birth.

BenYachov - #37672

October 31st 2010

Hey guy!:-)

Rather that is the opinion of various scholars who knee-jerk hold too the documentary hypothesis.  I hold with Prof Kitchen that the Pentateuch is largely the product of one author thought we might have some allowance for post-Mosaic editing.

>On a completely unrelated point, a while back, I made some effort to get Aristotelian and Thomistic terminology straight on the other thread (strawmen part II). I’m not sure I want to fully reopen that can of worms, but please check out what I wrote there at your own convenience.

I reply: Yes I saw that & thought you made quite a few mistakes but I thought I’d let it go considering you at least had the good sense to consult a philosopher’s blog and not another New Atheist scientific wannabe philosopher like that poor sap Sean.  Also you did admit to misundertanding Aristotle but you said “This construction appears to be an invention of Aquinas, not Aristotle.” 

Well that is factually incorrect.

If you read any annotated version of Aquinas’ treates on Potency & Actuality you will loose count as to how many times he cites Metaphysics by The Philosopher.

BenYachov - #37673

October 31st 2010

Also you wrote “[Stars]..Without any outside intervention, they will actualize that potential about 10 to 100 million years after their birth.” that was the Fallacy of Composition.  A Star may explode because it happens to be super massive and when it fuses a sufficient amount of hydrogen the balance of gravity & fusion go out of wack and gravity loses then BOOM!!!  In order for the potential of a star to supernova to actualize itself you would have to give an example of a star that just explodes without it fusing a sufficient amount hydrogen or being effected by the natural conclusion to any natural physical process whatsoever. You are treating the star as a whole and not the sum of various processes(which is where the actuality of potencies is taking place).  If I throw a football in zero G it has the potential to stop that might be actualized if it hits a wall, another object or encounters gravity.  But it can’t just stop and you can’t say it “stopped itself” if you just happened to put a mini-retro-rocket on the nose & set to go off in 3 minutes. 

For a potency to actualize itself it would have to give itself something it doesn’t possess & that is not possible anymore than 2+2=5.

Page 13 of 13   « 10 11 12 13