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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 2

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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.

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BenYachov - #34152

October 10th 2010

edit: didn’t think it showed an Intelligence within nature.etc

BenYachov - #34154

October 10th 2010


Well at least we know where the other stands even if we don’t agree.  Progress!

I’ll read that article.  Thanks guy!:-)

BenYachov - #34163

October 10th 2010

@Ray This is going to take a few posts.

I really do appreciate you taking the time to post a link to that article by that Sean person. I really do, and you have been very nice and respectful to me & I really appreciate that as well.  That is why it gives me a headache to say that was the most philosophically ignorant and incompetent article I have ever read outside of Richard Dawkins.  Reading this Sean person’s mistakes on philosophical terms and the origin of philosophical ideas is painful reading.  It must be how someone who is an MS in biology feels when they read an anti-Evolutionary tract by CHICK COMICS or something like that.  It’s that bad.  If I stopped believing in God tomorrow, knowing what I learned about Aristotelian Philosophy from Feser & others I would still be of this option.  Of course rhetoric aside I hope to explain in my own words why.  I can’t correct every error in this article & I am going to ignore the many errors he makes about religion but the blatantly ignorant statements he made about Aristotelian Philosophy cannot stand!  This is not about the existence or non-existence of God but academic truth! I hope you will bear with me.

BenYachov - #34166

October 10th 2010


As a way of preamble, many people (including scientists) confuse modern definitions of words and concepts with classical ones.  Let us take for example the philosophical concept of an atom.  The concept of an Atom as understood classically by the philosopher Democritus is not the same as our modern concept of an Atomic Structure, which is composite of elections protons and neutrons.  An Atom as understood by Democritus was a particle that was so small that it contained absolutely no void within it.  Thus nothing smaller that it may exist.  Logically an Atom, as understood today, cannot meet that requirement since it is made up of smaller particles and thus by definition contains void.  Indeed in modern physics IMHO the only things that might resemble the classic definition of an Atom might be either a naked singularity or more likely a Hawking/Penrose Singularity.  But clearly an Atomic Structure is not an Atom as understood by Democritus!  Unlearned people might not be able to make that distinction and likely think when Democritus talked about Atoms he was talking about electrons protons etc

To continue,.......

BenYachov - #34167

October 10th 2010

….Well this Sean person in a like matter totally confuses Aristotle’s concept of motion which strictly means change, (specifically potencies being actualized) with spatial physical movement(Which thought it is a form of change and thus related to the Aristotelian concept of motion in that narrow manner never the less has nothing to do with physical motion per say).  This is a common mistake and it renders most Atheist rebuttals of the Cosmological Argument useless (Dawkins, Harris & virtually every new Atheist makes this mistake.  Sadly it has it’s origin in the brilliant Thomistic critic Sir Anthony Kennedy which was answered by Oderberg).

The article says “it’s important to realize that Aristotle’s metaphysics was predicated to an important extent on his physics.” 

My response, 100% untrue.  Aristotle’s metaphysics was predicated on the metaphysics of his forerunners Parmenides and Heraclitus.  In brief, Parmenides(you have heard of his famous disciple Zeno) taught that change was impossible and a mere illusion.  Only permanence stasis was real.  Heraclitus taught the opposite that only change was real and stasis was an illusion(i.e. you can’t step in the same river twice etc).  TO CONTINUE

BenYachov - #34168

October 10th 2010


Plato tried to reconcile them by embracing both extremes.  Aristotle showed how things where made up of form and matter and change was governed by potency and actuality as his solution to the metaphysics of Parmenides and Heraclitus.  But it has nothing to do with literal physical motion at all except as far as physical motion was a type of change.  Thus I must judge this Sean person doesn’t know what he is talking about and should stick to science and leave philosophy to the professional(sans Dawkins). Perhaps he would be better served reading a competent Atheist like Jack Smart and not waste his time defending Dawkins who is and remains a philosophical incompetent.  Philosopher Mary Migdley has his number IMHO.  At this point I would strongly recommend you read Feser’s book THE LAST SUPERSTITION if only to get an accurate understanding of classic philosophy(if it convinces you God exists that couldn’t hurt).  IMHO Philosophy is as important and science & there is little excuse in getting it wrong save sheer laziness.

Anyway I have dumped a lot on your lap & I apologize if it’s been too much.  Cheers to you sir!  It’s been a pleasure!:-)

BenYachov - #34169

October 10th 2010


Where are my manners?  I forgot to answer some of your specific questions in post #34131.  Sorry about that but I already wrote a lot to respond to that article.  I could answer them if you want me too.  Cheers again.

Rich - #34174

October 11th 2010


I don’t want to turn the discussion into a silly “My Dad is smarter than your Dad” battle between Torley and Feser.  Let me make a few points:

1.  From what I understand you are a fairly recent convert both to Christianity and to Thomism.  I believe that Torley has been a Catholic for a long time, and has been studying Thomism for a long time, so he may have a more instinctive sense of both Catholicism and Thomism than you have.  Torley also has a Ph.D. in philosophy, which means he is used to reading very difficult texts and interpreting them carefully.  For all of these reasons, I don’t think you should dismiss Torley’s arguments without carefully studying them.

2.  I, too, followed the exchange between Torley and Feser on Feser’s site.  I am not knocked out with Feser’s (in my view) condescending manner of debate, but the main point is that in that dialogue Torley was on Feser’s turf and was not setting the agenda for the conversation, and that Torley was at that point was arguing only from an outline.  He is now arguing from out of seven months of research and writing.  I think you see Torley at his best here.  It’s a bit unbalanced to read Feser’s book, and not the new material by Torley.

Rich - #34176

October 11th 2010


“Maybe Torley should go back & read Newman.”

This is combative.  You don’t know that he hasn’t read Newman.  I would be surprised if he hadn’t.  But at least you should ask him before accusing him of not reading it.

“No, Thomists should not believe Thomism stops with St Thomas Aquinas.  That’s not our way.”

I didn’t say that Thomism should stop with Aquinas, nor did Torley.  However, while Thomism can rightfully *expand upon* Aquinas, it shouldn’t be *contradicting* Aquinas—not on central points, anyway.  Torley purports to show that some modern Thomists actually contradict Aquinas on central points.  And that Darwinian theory does as well.  If he’s right, the marriage between Aquinas and Darwin that Feser, Beckwith and others are trying to arrange is an unlawful one.  I’m not asking you to accept that before reading his argument, but I think you should read his argument.

It’s not the sort of thing that can be skimmed.  It argues from texts, and both the texts and the inferences have to be studied very carefully.  Allow a few hours to digest all five parts.  You would do the same for one of Feser’s books.

BenYachov - #34177

October 11th 2010



I have been a Catholic all my life.  I’m 41 years old.  I have been a Catholic since about age 30days. 

I’ve been a serious Catholic since I was 21 & I have been studying Catholic Apologetics since that time.  I’m a recent convert too traditional Thomism nothing more.  I do know how to follow an argument after 20 years and in my judgment Feser won that argument with Torley at the time.  As for this article by Torley you keep plugging post a link for me to read please.  I read Ray’s article.  I can read yours.  Then I might pass it over to Dr. Feser and see if he is interested in responding. 

>Torley purports to show that some modern Thomists actually contradict Aquinas on central points.

I reply:Which as I pointed out is not all that remarkable for the reasons I’ve stated.  Now let’s see the links. Cheers.

Rich - #34178

October 11th 2010


“Chill” was inappropriate.  I was not speaking angrily.

The link is:


You didn’t quite get my meaning about text vs. tradition.  I’m well aware of the notion of “development of doctrine.”  But would Newman say that it could be a legitimate “development of Catholic doctrine” to affirm that Jesus was not divine?  No, he wouldn’t.  Because there are *limits* to the notion of development of doctrine.  The Catholic Church doesn’t accept just any old “development.”  To deny the Incarnation would be to deny a core doctrine of Catholic teaching.

Analogously, one can “develop” Thomism in such as way as to contradict Thomas on this or that point of natural science, or on minor theological opinions; but there are some things Thomas said that one cannot deny without rejecting the core of his thought.  Once one does that, one can no longer plausibly call oneself a “Thomist.”  Still a Catholic, perhaps (depending on the teaching denied) but no longer a Thomist.  Torley’s contention is that Tkacz has rejected teachings of Thomas that are more than incidental.  Judge for yourself.

BenYachov - #34180

October 11th 2010

So Torley (who by his own admission is not an Academic in the area of Thomism which renders his analysis suspect.  ) has written by my count a 183 page article to respond to a mere 5 page article by Professor Tkacz? 

Isn’t that a little bit of overkill? I sense it will not end well for Torley.

Torley writes in his comments on his own work “Where I part company with Aquinas is that I claim that final causation alone cannot adequately characterize intelligence, and therefore its existence in Nature is insufficient to demonstrate that God is intelligent.”

Aquinas is right. Torley is wrong.  No this will not end well.

BenYachov - #34181

October 11th 2010

Torley writes:
>My aim is to demonstrate conclusively that the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas are fundamentally incompatible with Darwinism.

I reply: Well Darwinism as far as it is a Machinistic Philosophy well DUH!!!  I learned that from Feser I don’t need Torley to tell me that sinks Paley and all forms of ID based on Paley’s metaphysics and post enlightenment philosophical presuppositions.  OTOH Darwinism as an empirical science vs Thomism a philosophical system.  That is a category mistake! 

No this will not end well for Torley.  Well we will wait and see.

BenYachov - #34182

October 11th 2010

Anyway in Feser’s post on Classic Theism that I’ve plugged here.  In the Com box Torley makes an appearance and discusses his paper.  They are giving him quite a grilling.


This should prove interesting.

Rich - #34183

October 11th 2010

Ben Yachov:

1.  Torley’s departure from Aquinas is only a small part of the argument.  95% of the argument is to show that *Tkacz* departs from Aquinas, and that *Darwinian theory* departs from Aquinas.

2.  You’re not an academic in the area of Thomism, either; so does that render your analysis suspect?  In any case, Feser is neither Medievalist nor theologian, just a Ph.D. in philosophy with an interest in Aquinas; Torley is no different.

3.  Your comment about the length of Torley’s paper is irrelevant.  If you know as much about theological tradition as you claim, you know that commentaries on works often exceed the original works in length many times over.  Galatians is 6 pages in my Bible; how long is Aquinas’s commentary on it?  Luther’s is massive.  In any case, Torley is trying to do much more than reply to Tkacz.  He is staking out a new, “strong” version of ID theory.  That requires exposition.

4,  I’ve actually studied some Thomism, notably the works of Gilson, who is somewhat more of an authority than Feser.  But I’m more interested in Thomas than in Thomism.  Thomas balances Aristotelian with Biblical thought.  I haven’t seen that balance in Beckwith or Feser.  I do see it in Torley.

Rich - #34184

October 11th 2010

Ben Yachov (34181):

You take for granted that it is easy to just take a pencil and draw a line through Aquinas’s thought, separating the “scientific” parts from the “metaphysical” parts.  That is what Feser and Beckwith assume, and what they *must* assume, since, like their Protestant TE brethren, they are trying to clear the way for an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, by denying it has any metaphysical assumptions or implications.  But in fact that sharp line between “science” and “metaphysics” is *precisely* part of the post-Enlightenment modernity that you, Feser and Beckwith are complaining about.  And Darwinian theory is built on a metaphysical assumption—that all origins can be explained naturalistically—an assumption Aquinas bluntly denies.  Torley provides the texts to prove it.  It will be interesting to see what modernizing Thomists like Feser do when confronted with the clearly non-modern views of their theological and philosophical Master.  Maybe they will solve the problem by accusing Aquinas himself of category confusion.

BenYachov - #34193

October 11th 2010

>Torley’s departure from Aquinas is only a small part of the argument.  95% of the argument is to show that *Tkacz* departs from Aquinas, and that *Darwinian theory* departs from Aquinas.

As a fellow named Brandon over at Faser’s blog pointed out “he spends so much time arguing that Thomism is not inconsistent with ID and then spends almost all of Part V giving arguments that, if followed through consistently, show that Thomism is inconsistent with ID. “

No, my first impression is this is not going to end well & from what I can see with his interactions with Feser readers he has no consistent definition of Evolution.  Stephan Barr definition of Evolution is completely compatible with Aquinas.  I also read Torley citing Aquinas belief the Universe was only a few thousand years old as if that was significant.  Aquinas believed in the Augustinian principle.  During his day you could only believe the World was Eternal or you could making a few unbiblical assumptions attempt to measure the age of the Earth via biblical genealogies.  But no science was there to suggest an older Earth.  The Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1909 said you could believe in an old Earth…....

BenYachov - #34194

October 11th 2010

which leads to another problem.Aquinas was Catholic so he placed the authority of the Church above his own power to interpret doctrine.If he lived today he would submit to the Church not some neo-Protestant idea of “Biblical” vs “Unbiblical”.

>Galatians is 6 pages in my Bible; how long is Aquinas’s commentary on it?  Luther’s is massive.

I reply: Yes but Luther’swas filled with heresies Aquinas would never have accepted.  Indeed Protestants have written hundreds of pages quoting the Bible to prove “Calvinism”, “Sola Fide” “Eternal Security” all manner of false doctrines and misinterpretations.  Catholics don’t believe the Bible is perspicuous it’s Divinely Inspired.  What of Aquinas who is not?  Why should I not be skeptical of a proof texting of Aquinas done in order to mate it with an alien Machinistic Philosophy that denies the 5th way?

>And Darwinian theory is built on a metaphysical assumption—that all origins can be explained naturalistically—an assumption Aquinas bluntly denies.

I reply: I don’t see how that is possible considering Aquinas believed in Spontaneous Generation. No I think it will end badly for Torley.  I could be wrong but so far it doesn’t look good.

I remain skeptical for now.

BenYachov - #34195

October 11th 2010

>It will be interesting to see what modernizing Thomists like Feser do when confronted with the clearly non-modern views of their theological and philosophical Master.

I reply: You really think Dr Feser & Dr Bechwith don’t know Aquinas wasn’t a modern person and held non-modern ideas?  That is not reasonable.  That is just silly.

BenYachov - #34196

October 11th 2010

>You take for granted that it is easy to just take a pencil and draw a line through Aquinas’s thought, separating the “scientific” parts from the “metaphysical” parts.  That is what Feser and Beckwith assume, and what they *must* assume, since, like their Protestant TE brethren, they are trying to clear the way for an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, by denying it has any metaphysical assumptions or implications.

I reply: This is just conspiracy theory. On the level of Dawkins crazy followers seeing a religious bugaboo behind every bush.  Feser is interested in promoting Thomistic and Aristotelian philosophy not evolution.  Have you never read the man?

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