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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 2

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October 2, 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 2

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.


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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Rich - #34197

October 11th 2010

Ben Yachov:

Your replies continue to disappoint me.  Instead of rolling up your sleeves and carefully reading a lengthy work of research on Aquinas written by a man with a high level of philosophical education, you look up bickering about him on Feser’s site, including comments by someone named “Brandon” who in all probability has only superficially skimmed Torley’s work.

You go off on a tangent regarding Luther vs. Aquinas, who were merely examples re my point about the length of commentaries vs. primary texts.

Regarding Beckwith and Feser, I’m sure they know that Aquinas wasn’t a modern person.  The problem is that they think they can easily excise all the non-modern “science” and keep all the eternally valid “metaphysics”; it isn’t that easy to do when you have an Aristotelian base, since the division science/metaphysics as we understand it today was not found in Aristotle. 

Your correct comment about spontaneous generation is noted and set in context in Torley’s articles.  Aquinas thought *some* things could arise by spontaneous generation.  Not *all*.

The final authority for what Aquinas thought is not Barr; it is not Beckwith; it is not Feser.  The final authority for what Aquinas thought is Aquinas.


BenYachov - #34198

October 11th 2010

>The final authority for what Aquinas thought is Aquinas.

I reply: Aquinas has to be interpreted with careful scholarship not proof texted and the idea of a perspicuity of Aquinas is alien to both Catholic thought and Aquinas.  I remain skeptical.

>Your replies continue to disappoint me.  Instead of rolling up your sleeves and carefully reading a lengthy work of research on Aquinas written by a man with a high level of philosophical education,

I reply: I’m giving you my first impressions and I still have to read 183 pages of a guy I thought failed the last time. I said I would read it so stop trying to force an early conclusion on me.  I will make up my own mind.

>The problem is that they think they can easily excise all the non-modern “science” and keep all the eternally valid “metaphysics”; it isn’t that easy to do when you have an Aristotelian base, since the division science/metaphysics as we understand it today was not found in Aristotle.

I reply: What pray tell is wrong with throwing out Aquinas’ faulty 13th century science & keeping his awesome metaphysics?  This objection makes no sense.


BenYachov - #34199

October 11th 2010

>Regarding Beckwith and Feser, I’m sure they know that Aquinas wasn’t a modern person. 

I reply: You words were, to use phrases you prefer “inappropriate” “objectionable” “argumentative”.etc

Practice what you preach and stop trying to turn this into (your words “My Dad is bigger than your dad”).

>Brandon” who in all probability has only superficially skimmed Torley’s work.

I reply: Yet you objected when I said Torley should read Newman “How do you know he didn’t?”

Look I get it.  Your a fan of Torley.  That’s not a crime!  I reject ID but even Feser recommend Meyer’s cell book & that ID book by that Atheist guy( I bought that one).  But I am a fan of Feser & I believe in the 5th way & I absolutely reject Paley’s view of Design as wrong beyond wrong.  I followed Torley debate with Feser & I believe Feser won that one.  So based on my past experience I must be skeptical.  If Torley wrote such a great essay you have to trust I will see it for myself.  There is no other way.

Got that?  I will read him fairly but it will take time & so far some of what I read I am not impressed with & already learned from Feser.  But maybe Torley will suprise me.  So chill before you turn me off him completely.


Rich - #34204

October 11th 2010

Ben Yachov:

I’m not trying to force you to any early conclusion regarding Torley.  All I asked you to do was read him before you make a judgment.  It sounded as if you were reading brand-new anti-Torley stuff on the Feser site which would prejudice you against Torley before reading Torley—that was my concern.

I agree that Aquinas should not be “proof texted”.  Indeed, that is what a couple of other people here do with Aquinas, and I’ve called them on it many times.  You can decide for yourself whether Torley is guilty of it.

My point about physics and metaphysics is probably best taken up only after you have read Torley, because I’d rather get your reaction to the passages of Aquinas he discusses, than wade into very deep waters about Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle.  If we can’t agree on how Aquinas interprets the Bible, there’s little hope of agreement on the larger metaphysical issues.

Question of clarification: Please expound the meaning of this sentence, in which you use “perspicuity” in a special technical sense, rather than its normal English sense:

“the idea of a perspicuity of Aquinas is alien to both Catholic thought and Aquinas.”

Best wishes.


BenYachov - #34262

October 11th 2010

“perspicuity” means clarity.  Since the Protestants reject the authority & necessity of the Church to interpret the bible they came up with the idea the Bible must be clear and thus doesn’t require a Church or Tradition to understand it’s meaning.  I’m using it ironically in reference to Aquinas.  Aquinas isn’t inspired like the Bible & if I deny as a matter of doctrinal principle the clarity of the Bible why should I grant that concept to Aquinas?  It was a logical reaction to “The final authority for what Aquinas thought is Aquinas.” since I believe that statement kind of begs the question.

Dude I’ve done amateur Catholic Apologetics for 20 years.  I have encountered people who tried to claim either Augustine or Aquinas taught “Sola Fide” or “Sola Scriptura” and “quoted” them to that effect.  Naturally I a very skeptical of the claims that Thomists don’t believe Thomas.

Cheers.


Rich - #34269

October 11th 2010

BenYachov:

If some people quote-mine Augustine or Aquinas to prove they taught Sola Fide or Sola Scriptura, well, such quote-mining is deplorable, though easily exposed.  If you think that Torley has just gone through Aquinas mechanically and quote-mined, you will think differently after reading him.  His quotations are marshalled from within an understanding of Aquinas, not as a substitute for such understanding.

If “perspicuity” means “clarity”, then your sentence effectively reads:

“the idea of a clarity of Aquinas is alien to both Catholic thought and Aquinas.”

This is awkwardly worded, and the only English sense I can make of it is:  “The idea that Aquinas is clear is alien to both Catholic thought and Aquinas.”  I find this a very strange thing to say.  Catholics find it unimaginable that Aquinas was clear?  Aquinas found it unimaginable that his thought was clear?  Neither sounds right to me.

I’m sure that all Thomists “believe” Thomas.  But reading one’s own views into the words of one’s Master is not uncommon—Marxists on Marx, Platonists on Plato, etc.

I don’t find “Dude” a polite form of address, but then, maybe what sounds flippant to me is innocent to your generation.


BenYachov - #34287

October 11th 2010

>I don’t find “Dude” a polite form of address, but then, maybe what sounds flippant to me is innocent to your generation.

I reply: Assuming you are older “Dude” is to my generation what “man” likely was too yours.  BTW I wasn’t informed we are in a formal setting.  I thought this was just a message board.

>This is awkwardly worded, and the only English sense I can make of it is:

I reply: My grammar “sucks”(not too flippant?).  I’ve never denied that & I admit too it freely.  But I’m to old and set in my ways to change.  Especially when I post after staying up all night watching scifi movies on Netflix while taking the occasional break to post on a forum. 

>His quotations are marshalled from within an understanding of Aquinas, not as a substitute for such understanding.

I reply: So is he just giving us his pro ID interpretation of Aquinas?  Plus by what objective criteria am I to judge he understands Aquinas?  When debating Feser he didn’t seem to understand Aquinas’ metaphysics are clearly at odds with Paley’s Metaphysics(which is rooted in the Metaphysics of the so called New Philosophy of Descartes, Kant, Locke, Hume etc) IMHO.

There can be no mating of Paley & Aquinas, ever.


BenYachov - #34288

October 11th 2010

After reading the “first smoking gun” what does he want us to believe?  That Aquinas taught God can act directly on nature without operating threw secondary natural processes?  Well obviously he could. That God Can Work Apart From The Order Implanted In Things is not denied by any Thomist (including Tkacz)indeed that is the foundation of miracles over again against the false Humes Machinistic belief they are “violations of the Laws of nature” or some such crap.  But God can act threw secondary causes & threw the order he as implanted in Things.  That is taught in Aquinas.  The point of Post Enlightenment metaphysics is God has not implanted an order in things except as an artificer.  Since in PE Metaphysics there are only efficient & maybe material causes in nature & no formal or final one accept imposed by the intervention of an artificer outside of nature.

That is just wrong.  Like I said this won’t end well for Torley.


Ray - #34303

October 11th 2010

@BenYachov

But it has nothing to do with literal physical motion at all except as far as physical motion was a type of change.

Then Sean’s argument is still valid. He never said uniform linear motion was the only type of change considered by Aristotle, only that it was an example of something Aristotle considered to be a change, which did not require a cause. I would also point out that the ancient Greeks, apart from Euclid and Archimedes, did not write with mathematical precision, so there is legitimate debate over what exactly they really meant, anyway.

There’s a bigger problem here, though. Sean makes it very clear that he is only giving a loose paraphrase of Aristotle’s argument. This is not because Sean does not understand Aristotle, it is because he considers a detailed historical discussion of Aristotle’s views unimportant to his point: metaphysics is no longer the agreed standard for whether a physical theory makes sense, mathematical consistency is. Physicists worried greatly that mathematicians could not formalize renormalization, I doubt a single one lost any sleep over what Aristotle would think of their theories.

continued…


Ray - #34304

October 11th 2010

As far as the question of God goes. If Aristotle’s or any of Aquinas’s arguments were valid, then they could be translated into the language of modern physics (or at least modern mathematics) and would still make sense. As it stands the act/potency distinction (which I read as being closest to the distinction between potential and kinetic energy) vanishes with Einstein’s theory of relativity as does the change/stasis distinction, the distinction between cause and effect (which I read as requiring a fundamental asymmetry between past and future) vanishes with CPT symmetry. Now maybe someone will reformulate the arguments so they don’t refer to distinctions that make no sense in modern physics, but as far as I know, no one has even tried.

But even taking these arguments to be valid, it is agreed that if anything was proved, it was something simple. And yet, Feser claims that this simple thing can be described as three persons (one of whom is a person in a VERY literal sense) and that it cares about human well being. You think human well being is simple? Tell that to someone who’s tried to formalize Utilitarian Ethics.


BenYachov - #34307

October 12th 2010

>Then Sean’s argument is still valid. He never said uniform linear motion was the only type of change considered by Aristotle, only that it was an example of something Aristotle considered to be a change, which did not require a cause.

I reply: Only if he could demonstrate philosophically that a potency can actualize itself which of course Aristotle & Aquinas showed is metaphysically impossible.  Sean’s case solely rests on literal spacial movement not on change per say & as such is invalid.  If I throw a ball in zero gravity I actualize a potency by making it move.  Another potency needs to be actualized to either make it stop or change course.  No potency can actualize itself.  The ball can’t suddenly stop by itself without something acting on it.  Aristotle erroneously believed the natural state of an object was stasis so if it moves something needs to keep moving it.  This erroneous natural science view is refuted by inertia.  But you are making his category mistake here.  You are conflating a metaphysical philosophical argument with an empirical scientific one.  Might I suggest you re-read Feser’s essay on scientism.

http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174

http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184


BenYachov - #34309

October 12th 2010

@Ray
>I would also point out that the ancient Greeks, apart from Euclid and Archimedes, did not write with mathematical precision, so there is legitimate debate over what exactly they really meant, anyway.

I reply: If you say so but how their scientific problems reflects badly on their metaphysics is still not clear to me.  After all as an Atheist & Skeptic I would surmise you latently rely on the metaphysics and philosophy of Hume for you rejection of Aristotelian causality(& no doubt Sean does since it’s not a scientific argument).  Well Hume lived in the 18th century.  Wasn’t that a scientifically primitive era compared to today?  Would not the scientific errors of the 18th century have not tainted Hume philosophy?  Should you then not reject it on that basis?  Surprise!  My answer is no.  A philosophical argument is still not a scientific one.  You have to learn philosophy and as you yourself admitted my friend there is no such thing as a philosophy free science.  The meaning has uniformly been understood to mean change till the “enlightenment” era which shifted the definition.


BenYachov - #34310

October 12th 2010

>As far as the question of God goes. If Aristotle’s or any of Aquinas’s arguments were valid, then they could be translated into the language of modern physics (or at least modern mathematics) and would still make sense.

I reply: You do realize the above is a philosophical claim not really a scientific one?  Again see the Scientism essays by Feser.

>As it stands the act/potency distinction (which I read as being closest to the distinction between potential and kinetic energy) vanishes with Einstein’s theory of relativity as does the change/stasis distinction, the distinction between cause and effect (which I read as requiring a fundamental asymmetry between past and future) vanishes with CPT symmetry.

I reply: No, in metaphysics cause & effect, a potency being actualized can happen simultaneously.  Again you are conflating metaphysics with physics.  It’s like arguing with someone who insists the Andromeda galaxy doesn’t exist because if it did it could be viewed under a microscope.  Think philosophically.


BenYachov - #34311

October 12th 2010

@Ray now for some brief very brief theology.

>And yet, Feser claims that this simple thing can be described as three persons

I reply: The Nature and Essence of God is simple the three hypostases(which you call persons but are clearly conflating with human persons) posses the One Divine Nature they are not the Nature itself but that which operates the nature.  They are not attributes of the nature but focal points of atribution.  To understand this you will have to read Aquinas on the Trinity.  To understand Aquinas you will have to learn the philosophy of Aristotle.  Physics is great.  I love physics but philosophy should come first.  You need to learn philosophy.


BenYachov - #34312

October 12th 2010

@Ray

If I remember from your questions before I should briefly say God in the Classic sense has no emotions.  God’s Love for us is not an emotional sentiment or passion.  It is an act of the Divine Will.  Love in this sense is strictly the Willing of the Ultimate Good for someone or something.  Hatred in this sense is willing the maximal evil.  So we have to stop anthropomorphizing God and making Him in our image.  As for the Incarnate Second Person.  Well the Person of Jesus is the Hypostasis of the Word which possesses the Divine Nature and is united to a fully human nature which is clearly composite and not simple.  But Jesus is not a human person he is a Divine one with a human nature.  This is very important.  Finally I get the impression from your last post whose details I didn’t answer you might accept an impersonal Tao or Absolute that you think is defendable?
Just because God is not a human person doesn’t mean God is therefore impersonal.
see Feser second post on Classic Theism

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-man-and-classical-theism.html

It’s a pleasure to talk to you again.


Ray - #34313

October 12th 2010

@BenYachov

The Nature and Essence of God is simple the three hypostases(which you call persons but are clearly conflating with human persons) posses the One Divine Nature they are not the Nature itself but that which operates the nature.

And how do you know any of this? Also, Jesus is not a human person? “Fully divine and fully human” iirc.

“You need to learn philosophy.”

This is insulting. Quine, Russell, Hume, and Dennett are not philosophers? And yes, I’ve also read a good deal from the ancient Greeks. I do so mostly out of historical interest, though. They didn’t have a distinction between science and philosophy back then, and given the fact that they got almost all of the science wrong, why on Earth would you think the philosophy was right? Now with Hume, you have at least the fact that the majority of philosophically minded scientists still like him and agree with him. I don’t think the same can be said for Aristotle.


Ray - #34314

October 12th 2010

@BenYachov

Let me briefly state my objections to Feser’s essay on Scientism:

1) It oversimplifies the philosophy scientists actually hold. Basically it’s attacking Logical Positivism, which was a badly stated version of Empiricism that was popular for about 20 years in the early 20th century. Even, venerable concepts like the magnetic vector potential violate it. None of the New Atheists believes the literal version of Positivism as far as I know.

2) It oversimplifies what scientists actually do. Not all science is empirical or quantitative. How many equations were there in “The Origin of Species?” Also, lots of science is motivated by philosophical considerations. To name one, Inflation (which has since been confirmed in detail) was invented because physicists believed the homogeneity of the microwave background demanded an explanation and couldn’t be taken as a brute fact.

3) It claims that “scientism” denies the value of human intuition. It does nothing of the sort. It only denies human intuition when it explicitly contradicts known science: optical illusions would be an uncontroversial example. But you won’t find a New Atheist who’d trust an algorithm over a human to parse natural language.


Ray - #34315

October 12th 2010

@BenYachov

My tentative acceptance of something like Tao is based on Godel’s theorem, which states that any axiomatic system is either ambiguous or contradictory. Now, any finite description of a theory of physics can be thought of as an axiomatic system. But, in order to apply that theory, you have to assume that one of the infinite number of possible interpretations is correct. This problem cannot be fixed by adding to the description in an attempt to clear up the ambiguities, it can only be fixed by having a physical system to interpret the axioms, like the human brain. Of course a silicon computer works just as well, and in neither case can the interpreter know with 100% certainty that it has chosen the correct interpretation. An interesting corollary of this is that even mathematical truths are only assumed to be true based on empirical evidence (at a minimum, you can’t prove that your axioms are non-contradictory, but in a more pragmatic sense, you can never be sure you didn’t just screw up somewhere.) So yes, I consider the ability of physical systems to implicitly make an infinite number of assumptions at once a bit like Tao. Good luck getting love out of that, though.


BenYachov - #34317

October 12th 2010

>This is insulting. Quine, Russell, Hume, and Dennett are not philosophers?

I reply: But have you ever questioned them or do you just accept what they say on faith?  What about their critics?  Such as those who hold a classic view?  You need to learn the metaphysics of Aristotle.  I meant no insult.

IMHO Objection 1 is nothing more than a dismissal forgive me but it has no substance..  Objection 2 is kind of irrelevant since it’s an essay critiquing scientism not science or scientists.  Objection 3 Feser is talking about intuition as far as it refers to knowing Moderate Realism vs the Conceptionalism & or Nominalist philosophies of those who hold to scientism. 

>Now with Hume, you have at least the fact that the majority of philosophically minded scientists still like him and agree with him. I don’t think the same can be said for Aristotle.

I reply: Why accept Hume on faith?  You need to read Anscombe critique of him if only to know the strongest arguments.  That’s all I’m saying and it can’t been done in a day.  think about it.  Your view on the Tao are interesting but I’m to watch more NetTV then go to bed,

Cheers my friend.


Rich - #34326

October 12th 2010

Ben Yachov:

Ray:  “This is insulting. Quine, Russell, Hume, and Dennett are not philosophers?”

BenY:  “I reply: But have you ever questioned them or do you just accept what they say on faith?  What about their critics?”

Substitute “Tkacz, Feser, Beckwith and Barr” in the first speech, and leave the second speech the same, and you will understand why I smiled when I read the above.


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