May 08, 2011

Standing on Aether, Thinking Airy Thoughts

Or, Theology as Pseudophilosophy

There's been a rash of criticism lately of New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, popular atheists, internet atheists, outspoken atheists, non-invisible atheists--whatever term makes the writer comfortable that he's not being prejudicial while generalizing for paragraphs on end) that we're being anti-intellectual and displaying our lack of education by not grappling seriously with serious philosophy of religion. Everything used to be so much better and it's all terribly concerning according to Michael Ruse:

Perhaps it is just a turf war, but I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club. I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science. That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework. Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.

Jacques Berlinerblau:

In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.

And R. Joseph Hoffmann:

The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective.

Repeating a message in this way can be a very powerful thing. It can, in fact, make one deal with the message in a serious way. However, not all messages benefit from the serious treatment. This is one message that doesn't.

Jerry Coyne makes some excellent points about the difference between understanding history and getting stuck repeating it endlessly instead of moving forward. If the majority of us can't build on what our forebears knew, while leaving the details of exactly how they figured it out to those who like that sort of thing, we'll get nowhere.

We don't criticize farmers for not being socially conversant in biochemistry, although biochemistry underlies what they do. Nor, more importantly, can we legitimately exclude farmers from criticizing biological or biochemical theorizing--if their criticism is that the theories involved rely on faulty understanding of farming.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it operates from faulty premises. Some of those faulty premises come from misunderstandings of the scientific process (e.g., not understanding the importance of good controls), but some come from misunderstandings of the subject being studied. Experiments in telepathy depend, in both the design and analysis phases, on the idea that communication is verbal and unambiguous (as well as the idea that humans are honest). Experiments in astrology rely on the idea that humans are internally consistent and externally different. Experiments in alternative treatments for the common cold rely on the idea that the condition is not self-limiting.

Theorizing on the causality of autism spectrum disorders frequently assumes that historical increases in diagnoses reflect a real change in the neurology of a population. Those studying the relative intelligence of the black, white, and oriental races assume that those are valid biological categories and that their measurement instruments are valid proxies for genetic differences. Too many experiments in evolutionary psychology assume "human universals" can be determined by studying undergraduate psychology students or industrialized populations and that social structures aren't self-maintaining in the absence of underlying genetics.

To extrapolate, pseudoscience is often a process of deciding that something needs to be explained without first checking to see whether an explanation already exists. All the rigorous design, careful statistical analysis, and flawless logic in the world can't help you produce good results if your premises are faulty. Biochemists can do all the meticulous work they want on how a particular type of bacteria present in a field breaks down pig manure and liberates nitrogen, but if the field under study only ever sees cow manure, the results are going to be meaningless. At that point, it becomes pseudoscience just as much as if the work itself were shoddy.

Philosophy is different than science, of course. That doesn't mean, though, that pseudophilosophy isn't just as important a concept to understand as pseudoscience is. And as with pseudoscience, the problems of pseudophilosophy don't only happen when someone screws up the process by, say, falling prey to a fallacy. They can just as easily happen in the process of formulating questions.

There may be no stupid questions (except for the one you ask again because you didn't listen to the answer last time), but there are bad questions. "Why is a hummingbird?" is a bad question. It isn't a bad subject, but the question, as posed, won't get you the answers you want except by chance.

"What do hummingbirds all have in common?" "How are hummingbirds different from other birds?" "Why do we call them hummingbirds?" "What is the evolutionary history of hummingbirds?" "Where do hummingbirds live?" "Why do hummingbirds capture our imagination?" "What would happen if hummingbirds disappeared?" "What about my backyard is attracting hummingbirds?" "Why does that piece of expressionist art suggest a hummingbird when it's not remotely realistic?" All those and plenty more are questions that produce answers that increase our knowledge, about us, about our world, and about hummingbirds.

They also reflect our knowledge of the world. "Why is a hummingbird?" is a question that might have been seriously asked at one time. The answer would have been (in the form of a poem or essay) that the rapidly beating wings of a hummingbird demonstrate some lesson about work and life or that the creature is simply too beautiful to not exist. Answers then assumed that "why" was a question of existence or nonexistence.

As our knowledge of evolution and ecology has broadened, "why" has given way to questions of this organism or feature instead of that, this location or function instead of another. As our understanding of perception and cognition has developed, "why" has become a question of identification and classification.

The "why" that is a question of existence is met with "Why not?" Creatures exist in numbers and with a degree of diversity that we cannot count. We can only estimate. That one more exists is not a matter of surprise requiring explanation, although its individual characteristics might be. We question why one would ask the question.

The same goes for religious philosophy. We are being told we should respect the serious work done by philosophers on these fundamental questions. Instead, we look at what we know of the world around us and ask why anyone is asking. Can the questions that made sense when religious philosophy mediated between competing ideas still produce any answers with meaning today, when religious philosophy is being used to defend its own existence in a world that continually reveals its secrets to us?

Michael Ruse thinks we must grapple today with "Does a creator god exist?" because someone else once did. Instead, we look at our universe and ask what "creation" would even mean in this context. When we understand that we don't know whether our universe has always existed, whether time is a meaningful concept outside the bounds of our universe, whether our universe is the only one, it is perfectly valid to look askance at those who assume creation in order to ask about gods. When we know from our scientific pursuits that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize, it is important to demonstrate not just that the question can be asked, but that it can lead to a meaningful answer.

The same goes for the "special place of humans" and "eternal salvation." The idea that human exceptionalism is any more valid than hummingbird exceptionalism cannot be taken for granted. Claims to the contrary require privileging one's own frame of reference over all others. Until those who apply vast amounts of logic to the "problem" can make a convincing case that their question is more important than the question of the "special place of bacteria," they haven't demonstrated that their work is worth my respect. Neither has anyone who mistakes unsupported dualism for a philosophical question in desperate need of an answer.

Until these questions are phrased in ways that reflect what science has taught us about the world, all the philosophical work done on them may be perfectly logical and rigorous, but it still hasn't established that it isn't pseudophilosophy, grand edifices built atop faulty questions. Until it has, it hasn't demonstrated that it's worthy of our time, our attention, and our respect.

There is nothing remotely ignorant or anti-intellectual about the demand that we be shown that questions formed in more ignorant times remain meaningful given our increasing knowledge of the world. There is nothing at all unserious about our requests for evidence that these questions are demanding answers. And equating those demands to anti-intellectualism, lack of curiosity, and tempter tantrums...well, let's just say it doesn't display any will to engage with current atheist intellectual traditions.


Jason Thibeault said...

Ping! :D

Hope it brings you some views.

pat said...

I'm a little confused by this phrase: "Michael Ruse thinks we must grapple today with "Does a creator god exist?" because someone else once did." It doesn't seem to address the question raised in the Ruse quote.

In the quote, he seems to be arguing that until we refute arguments (like Kuhn's and Feyerabend's) that science's basic assumptions are no better supported than religion's, we are in no philosophical position to demand that all explanations of the world agree with the findings of science.

I have not read his entire article, though, so your later summary of his point may be a more accurate overview than what I can glean from this one quote.

Larry Hamelin said...

Your links are broken.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Larry. Fixed. Sad that I can't trust Blogger with a simple text file.

Silus said...

A very good post. Too often psuedo-science demands respect even if it is shown to be nonsense.

@ Pat: The only basic assumption I know of from science is that the scientific method is a useful means of gaining knowledge.