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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Ray - #34356

October 12th 2010

Only if he could demonstrate philosophically that a potency can actualize itself which of course Aristotle & Aquinas showed is metaphysically impossible.”

To my reading (just went back to the original Aristotle), the closest translation of potency in the context of the prime mover argument is potential energy. If this reading is correct, a simple harmonic oscillator is a fine counterexample. If this argument isn’t philosophical enough for you, I would merely point out that both Aristotle and Aquinas justify their conclusions by analogy to common experience, which is an empirical argument through and through.

Objection 2 is kind of irrelevant since it’s an essay critiquing scientism not science

No it isn’t. Feser’s definition of scientism is the idea that the METHODS OF SCIENCE are the only legitimate source of knowledge. To the extent that he underestimates the scope of the methods of science he is attacking a strawman. If he had further modified this to say “the methods of science are APPLICABLE whenever legitimate knowledge is possible” I would agree with scientism, but then Feser’s case is much weaker, since the claim of Science’s power is now contracted as well.


BenYachov - #34375

October 12th 2010

>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.

I reply: Yes & I find the claims of moderate realism better than those of the New Philosophy.

>I would merely point out that both Aristotle and Aquinas justify their conclusions by analogy to common experience, which is an empirical argument through and through.

I reply: Rather they are Moderate Realists.  Feser discusses this in his book THE LAST SUPERSTITION.

>No it isn’t. Feser’s definition of scientism is the idea that the METHODS OF SCIENCE are the only legitimate source of knowledge.

I reply: No his precise definition is “Scientism is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science.”  Then he goes on to discuss how it’s either self-refuting or trivially true.  He is discussing metaphysics & metaphysical assumptions not methodology.  Trying to read into him a polemic against scientific methodology is not convincing & it is a clear misreading of Feser.  Feser talks about methodology but he is not critiquing method but metaphysical assumptions.


BenYachov - #34379

October 12th 2010

>To my reading (just went back to the original Aristotle), the closest translation of potency in the context of the prime mover argument is potential energy.

I reply: Enough of the Prime Mover you obsessed with the Prime Mover!  How can a potency actualize itself?  Can it?  Go look that up.  Even the Prime Mover/Tao/YHWH can’t make a Universe where a potency can actualize itself anymore than it/He can make one where 2+2=5.


BenYachov - #34382

October 12th 2010

>To the extent that he underestimates the scope of the methods of science he is attacking a strawman.

I reply: If you would read closely Feser is not questioning the success of the methods to learn about natural phenomena.  He is questioning the metaphysical assumptions of scientism as defined in the essay.

> If he had further modified this to say “the methods of science are APPLICABLE whenever legitimate knowledge is possible”

I reply: What pray tell is “legitimate knowledge” could it be scientific knowledge-that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science?  Otherwise it’s not “legitimate” right?
Of course if we add good philosophical knowledge under the umbrella of “Science” then the statement is not self-refuting it is merely trivially true.  But then you can’t say “God is a Scientific Hypothesis” & is true or false on that basis.  You must admit him a philosophical one that is true or false based on philosophy.  That’s my point.  Which is why I logically & rationally reject both the Scientism of the New Atheists & the approach of the so called “Intelligent Design” crowd.


Ray - #34384

October 12th 2010

I reply: Enough of the Prime Mover you obsessed with the Prime Mover!  How can a potency actualize itself?

You’ll forgive me for asking for an example of what you mean: Aristotle lists bazillions of possible definitions for both terms but I can’t find a similar claim to “a potency cannot actualize itself” in any context other than the Prime Mover argument. And yes, both Aristotle and Aquinas are clearly talking about physical motion in this context. It only seems deep because they were doing so without the aid of calculus and therefore chose an inscrutable wording. I have already given an example: Why do you think a spring based harmonic oscillator, at the moment of its maximum extension when it has no instantaneous motion, is not a potency that will spontaneously actualize itself?

That said, I think there’s only so much you can read into Aristotle if you’re trying to get something out of it that would make sense to a modern physicist or logician. In this regard you rather remind me of the people who torture the meaning of the original text of Genesis I in order to claim it is a description of modern cosmology rather than just an old Babylonian myth reworked with Zoroastrian themes.


Ray - #34386

October 12th 2010

Of course if we add good philosophical knowledge under the umbrella of “Science” then the statement is not self-refuting it is merely trivially true.

Fine. Then scientism is trivially true. As I’ve already established, good philosophical assumptions are often necessary for good science (e.g. Inflation.)  Also, bad philosophical assumptions often prevent good science (e.g. Cartesian skepticism if you actually take it seriously.) I further submit that to the extent that the New Atheists (the primary targets of attack here as far as I can tell) hold to scientism, it is only the version that is trivially true. This shouldn’t be surprising given that of the “Four Horsemen” Dennett is a philosopher and Sam Harris (not that I agree with him on metaethics) has a philosophy degree.


BenYachov - #34389

October 12th 2010

@Ray

So what you are saying is based on your reading & bias interpretation of a few unspecified texts from Aristotle & Aquinas you conclude they can and must only be talking about physical science and literal physical motion and making a pure material empirical scientific claim and not a metaphysical one?

You got that from reading a few select verses?  So peer viewed professional philosophers like Oderberg, Tuomas Tahko, Pruss, Ross etc have missed your obvious superior knowledge from a few readings?  Would you buy that if I interpreted Evolutionary Biology that way & dismissed Dawkins, or Coyne?  I wouldn’t!


This level of research can’t be done in a sound bite.  If you are not interested then fine.  But please your better than that.

>I have already given an example:

Based on the assumption we are talking physics & not metaphysics.  Your catagory mistake remains my friend.  Even if God does not exist.  Thus your rebuttal IMHO.  No offense you clearly are a compliant scientific mind.  But as Feser once said you mind is held captive to the picture. 
You need to learn real philosophy.  If you choose not too well OK then.  I tried I don’t judge or think less of you.


BenYachov - #34393

October 12th 2010

# Ray #34386

FYI Thomists reject Cartesian skepticism & dualism.  That is also the point.  The New Philosophy is flawed.  You should also read Feser more closely about the implications of Scientism being trivially true.

Plus Oderberg’s New Essentialism is essential reading.

Cheers my friend.


BenYachov - #34395

October 12th 2010

Left a dangling modifier edit:  Thus your rebuttal IMHO doesn’t hold water too me.

Sorry my grammer & spelllling suck out loaud.


BTW posting here bites.  I have to post twenty times to get something to appear.

Thanks for nothing biologos!


Ray - #34405

October 12th 2010

You should also read Feser more closely about the implications of Scientism being trivially true.

The only implication I read is that we need to consider philosophical arguments as well as quantitative arguments and empirical falsification. I have no problem with this and I agree that were the cosmological argument valid, I would be hypocritical not to accept it. Judging by the following poll results, I would suspect most working philosophers do not believe the cosmological argument to be valid, though:

http://wordsandnumbers.wordpress.com/2009/12/14/poll-of-philosophers-god-free-will-etc/


Ray - #34407

October 12th 2010

Based on the assumption we are talking physics & not metaphysics.  Your catagory mistake remains my friend.

OK. Can you give an example of a potentiality being actualized that is not a physical process?


BenYachov - #34409

October 12th 2010

>OK. Can you give an example of a potentiality being actualized that is not a physical process?

I reply:  So what are you claiming now? Only physical processes undergo change? That would be true if only physical processes existed.  But that later concept is still a metaphysical claim. 

We are still having a metaphysical conversation.  If you don’t want to have one I understand.


Ray - #34412

October 12th 2010

OK. Can you give an example of a potentiality being actualized that is not a physical process?

I reply:  So what are you claiming now?

You made the claim “a potency cannot actualize itself” which I read as a physical claim. When I gave physical counterexamples you accused me of a category mistake. So, I wanted to know what the statement was talking about if not physical processes. You have failed to answer. I conclude that if this is the correct interpretation of Aristotle (his statements don’t apply to anything we can agree exists in the first place), then his arguments are even more vacuous than I had originally thought.


BenYachov - #34413

October 12th 2010

@Ray
>“a potency cannot actualize itself” which I read as a physical claim.

I reply: Rather you are making a scientific argument & trying to make a philosophical one & neither of us will budge.

>When I gave physical counterexamples you accused me of a category mistake.

I reply: I’m sorry but you didn’t explain how any of those counterexamples is a true example of a potency that actualizes itself.  You just claimed they where as if it was self evidence.  At best I’m sure, especially in quantum processes, one could point to examples of potencies that actualize without knowing what the actualizing cause was but you have not shown how the potencies imparted actuality to themselves. 

Listen until you learn Aristotelian metaphysics & I learn more contemporary physics we will continue to talk past one another.  But the problem is you seem to have already dogmatically decided Aristotle was only talking about empirical science post Cartesian.  I can’t help you still you learn to step outside the box.


BenYachov - #34414

October 12th 2010

edit: I can’t help you till you learn to step outside the box.

Sorry I suck.


Ray - #34420

October 12th 2010

But the problem is you seem to have already dogmatically decided Aristotle was only talking about empirical science post Cartesian.

Meh. The way I see it there are four possibilities:
1)Aristotle’s statements have no physical implications. If so, I am making a category error in attempting to refute them, but, since Aristotle’s statements are referring only to things we haven’t agreed exist yet, it doesn’t seem to me that they can prove anything.
2)Aristotle’s statements have both physical and nonphysical implications If so, the falsity of the physical implications alone is enough to refute the premise. Any statement meant to refute the notion that nothing exists beyond the physical would need to be in this category, since you would need to both prove that a physical explanation of an agreed fact was inadequate and that a nonphysical explanation was adequate. I’d also note that Aristotle’s physics is rather uncontroversially wrong.
3)Aristotle’s statements refer only to the physical. This leads to the same situation as 2.
4)Aristotle’s statements refer to nothing. If so, I should ignore them.

This is my view. If it’s dogmatic, so be it.


BenYachov - #34422

October 12th 2010

Rather you keep trying to have a scientific discussion while I’m trying to have a philosophical one.  It’s like debating a Protestant who insists I must prove all Catholic doctrine using the Bible alone.  I insist the standard of doctrine is Scripture, Tradition and Church while point out to the Prot the Bible doesn’t teach “Bible Alone”.  Yet no matter what I do the Protestant dogmatically insists I must prove all Catholic doctrine from the Bible alone.  You at once deny accepting either Scientism or Logical Positivism but insist implicitly that only the physical exists anything that is not physical is nothing.  Which is not a scientific claim but a metaphysical & Philosophical one.

The problem is you refuse to case the discussion as anything but a scientific one.  You refuse to argue philosophically.  So we can’t really continue the discussion.  Sorry.

But you have been a perfect gentlemen, you know a lot of science & for that I salute you.

We are done.

Peace friend.


Ray - #34432

October 12th 2010

You at once deny accepting either Scientism or Logical Positivism but insist implicitly that only the physical exists anything that is not physical is nothing.

I did not insist on any such thing. I merely stated that if you’re going to assert something beyond the physical, you’re going to have to justify it, because I didn’t come into this discussion thinking anything beyond the physical was necessary. Of course, you also never told me what the distinction between physical and nonphysical was in the first place.

It’s like debating a Protestant who insists I must prove all Catholic doctrine using the Bible alone.  I insist the standard of doctrine is Scripture, Tradition and Church while point out to the Prot the Bible doesn’t teach “Bible Alone”.  Yet no matter what I do the Protestant dogmatically insists I must prove all Catholic doctrine from the Bible alone.

Indeed it is, but you are the Protestant in this case. You insisted on philosophy alone while I gave philosophical arguments that the results of science are not to be ignored. You chose to ignore the science anyway.

We are done.

Pity. Well, It was fun while it lasted.


BenYachov - #34434

October 12th 2010

.>You insisted on philosophy alone while I gave philosophical arguments that the results of science are not to be ignored. You chose to ignore the science anyway.

I reply: Well, I dispute your claim “I ignored the results of science” & I dispute your claim the examples you gave constituted example of “potencies that actualized themselves”.  But there we have it.  I’ll be the first to admit we each might have had a few unstated assumptions that might have inhibited dialog.  I blame myself for not being more clear since it would be self-serving and childish to say it’s all your fault.
I can only account for myself.

Well (from my bias perspective anyway, just to be fair) I hope you find someone more articulate than I to explain Aristotelian Metaphysics to you(as I understand it).  I have failed.  Thems the breaks.

It was indeed fun I hope we can do it again sometime.

Cheers my friend!


Ray - #34511

October 13th 2010

@BenYachov
Ok. I know you said we were done, but I read up on the relevant philosophy and I see how I was misunderstanding the terminology as used here:
http://www.alanrhoda.net/blog/2006/02/is-god-pure-act.html
I won’t explain my own misundertanding, but will note that as used here, the claim that a potency can’t actualize itself is still unjustified.

This construction appears to be an invention of Aquinas, not Aristotle. The problem he is trying to solve is the seeming paradox that when a thing changes or moves, it is different in some way (shape, location, temperature etc.) but we still think of it as the same object. So when Aquinas says “the wood is potentially hot,” what he really means is that if this lump of wood had all it’s current properties except instead of being room temperature it was hot, we would still call it wood, and if we had named the piece of wood before, we would use the same name to refer to the hot wood later.

Cont.


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