Thursday, January 24, 2008


Philosophical Laws

The following is from an opinion piece in the Yale Daily News by Gabriel Michael, a graduate student in the Divinity School. Entitled "Popular anti-religion creates false dichotomy," it is at least worth consideration.

No one will debate the numerous horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of various religions, the intolerance preached from various pulpits around the world or the irrationality so often confused with faith. ...

The problem with the sort of atheism found in the popular press is that, despite its scientific trappings, its proponents are essentially playing philosophers. Not content with exposing Kent Hovind-style charlatans, popular atheism fallaciously argues that because science presupposes naturalism (the idea that everything can be explained through recourse to natural causes, as opposed to supernatural causes), it is therefore only rational to hold to physicalism (the idea that physical things are the only things that exist), which of course excludes any concept of the supernatural.

But physicalism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Other similar propositions, such as "scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge," are also scientifically unprovable. ...

The late Stephen Jay Gould's famous description of science and religion as two "non-overlapping magisteria" is apt. The National Academy of Sciences espoused a similar view in a booklet entitled "Science, Evolution and Creationism" published earlier this month: "Science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. ..."

[On the other hand,] those offering critiques of popular atheism often fail to differentiate between the science and the philosophy of their opponents. Throwing out the baby with the bath water, they concoct pseudoscientific explanations such as creationism and intelligent design. ...

It's wishful thinking to dismiss these people as poorly educated, backward folk. Some of my high school and undergraduate classmates now hold degrees from various well-respected universities and are also fervent proponents of intelligent design. ... [A]ppeals to Augustine, Francis Collins, various popes and other Christians who see no conflict between science and religion fall on deaf ears. These people have rejected science because they see in it an inevitable implication of atheism. Their stubbornness is exacerbated by the like of Dawkins and Hitchens.

Evangelists for atheism who link their philosophical positions to science end up doing that same science a great disservice by fueling the fire of fundamentalism here and around the world. Calling them evangelists is warranted, because if their true goal were the propagation of the acceptance of science, they simply wouldn't focus so much on non-scientific implications. ... In this argument, both sides lose: Reactionary religion marginalizes itself in the face of the modern scientific world, and evangelical atheism helps to produce more of the very enemies it most despises.
It is well to remember that the Law of Unintended Consequences is an iron one.

Sorry to disagree, but this guy's position sounds eerily like the theist plea for "militant" atheists to tone down their rhetoric, play nicely and leave theists alone. The reason that atheists are countering religious philosophical/theological arguments with scientifically grounded ones (and philosophical ones too - Onfray and Dennett come to mind off-hand) is that theists keep inserting their theology/philosophy into our science, politics, education, and just about everywhere else they can poke their grimy little fingers. I would be glad to leave the theists alone if they would leave me alone, but they won't.

They keep trying to insert their religion into science textbooks.

They keep trying to curtail women's rights to control their own bodies.

They impede scientific research because of their inflexible opinions about life's starting point.

They insist that our currency (of all absurd things!) must reflect their religious creeds.

A presidential candidate wants to amend my secular Constitution so that it conforms more closely with his holy scriptures.

I can't even celebrate Christmas without being told how to do it and what I must say about it!

The list goes on and on and on and on...

Every action has unintended consequences. So what do we do, stop acting at all? Of course not. We'll just have to deal with consequences as they arise. Guess what? That's how life is lived all the time.

I can predict what will happen if we don't act at all: American discourse and policy will be dominated increasingly by right-wing nutjobs who have no respect for views other than their own. You think the past 8 years under Bush have been brutal? Just wait and see what happens in the right-wing train isn't derailed in the next election. It won't be pretty.
Sorry to disagree ...

It's not only okay, it's encouraged. ;-)

You're certainly correct that some religionists try to muddy the difference between theology/philosophy and science. The solution, however (in my not-so-humble opinion) is not to join in with the religionist mud-stirring by trying to blur the line on the other side between science and atheism.

Mr. Michael was not, as far as I can see, suggesting that atheists (or the rest of us godless types) should roll over and play dead. The things you list can and should be fought. Mr. Michael was saying, and I agree, that it is a mistake to try to use science as a weapon in those battles, as it is not the proper instrument and will only be blunted by such inappropriate use. Instead, science should be protected from being confused with philosophy, no matter what side is promoting the confusion.

Every action has unintended consequences.

Quite true, and that certainly is not a reason for inaction. But all too often the reason the consequences are unintended are because we don't stop to consider what the consequences of our actions might be.
I agree that science and atheism should not be identified with each other. There are plenty of fine scientists who hold various faith beliefs. Those beliefs do not impede their science.

I believe that many scientific findings seriously undermine certain religious propositions. Furthermore, I think scientific facts fit more comfortably with, and are more supportive of, an atheistic world view than a theistic one. The fact that many theists disagree with me and find ways to reconcile science and faith does not bother me at all. What all of us need to do is recognize the distinctions between science, philosophy, theology, and so on. We also a) ought to recognize what tools we are employing when we articulate our positions and b) recognize when we are speaking primarily from scientific or theistic or other standpoints.
I believe that many scientific findings seriously undermine certain religious propositions.

I agree but other people may not.

We also a) ought to recognize what tools we are employing when we articulate our positions and b) recognize when we are speaking primarily from scientific or theistic or other standpoints.

I think that is exactly correct.
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