The Questionable Authority

Another round of unholy wars seems to have broken out over the last few days. This particular round (again) focuses on the relationship between atheists and theistic evolutionists. The involved parties have broken into two groups, and I think both are being at least somewhat silly. On one side, we have PZ Myers, Larry Moran, and others. This group believes (among other things) that theistic evolutionists attack and weaken science, although not quite as badly as the out-and-out creationists. On the other, we find Ed Brayton, Pat Hayes, and a few others. This group thinks that theistic evolution is just fine, and that taking a strongly atheistic position risks alienating people, and makes the fight against the anti-evolutionists harder to win. (And, yes, I do realize that there is more to each position than the little bit I just wrote. I’m focusing only on the things that I disagree with.)

The debate is hot at the moment, and seems to be getting hotter. Reading posts from both sides, I’ve become more and more irritated, because both groups seem to be taking some unreasonable positions. Both groups also seem to be talking past each other to a certain extent. In the spirit of offering a mutually agreeable target to the two groups, I’m going to explain exactly why each is being unreasonable.


Let’s start with Team PZ. Both PZ and Larry argue that theistic evolution is an anti-scientific position because theistic evolution allows for the possibility that someone has guided evolution to a specific goal (typically us, although I suppose that a few Diskworldians may take the position of the God of Evolution, and claim that the cockroach is the pinnacle of evolution.) That is a simple position, and it is easy to understand. The problem is that they are attempting to apply this simple position to a wide range of beliefs, many of which are separated by very subtle, but very important differences.

The key difference, and the one that neither PZ nor Larry appears to be taking account of, is this: what physical evidence does the believer expect to find for the belief. More importantly, does the believer believe that there is any theoretically possible physical finding that would contradict that belief? If you want to differentiate between unscientific and anti-scientific beliefs, that is a critically important question.

If there is nothing in the physical world that the believer thinks could ever conceivably contradict the belief, then the belief cannot be contradicted by science. It can’t be supported by science, either. It’s simply not a question that is amenable to scientific examination. The Catholic doctrine of the transubstantiation is a prime example of this. According to the doctrine, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, but retain the form of bread and wine. There is no expectation that a molecule-by-molecule inspection before and after would detect any difference whatsoever. An atheist might find that belief to be silly, or even stupid, but there is absolutely no scientific tool that could be used to show that the belief is wrong. The question of whether or not anything physical happens to the bread can be answered, but the question of whether anything at all happens cannot be – unless “anything at all” is predefined to refer to only the natural world. There are quite a few other Christian beliefs that fall into this category. Original sin, grace, the Immaculate Conception – none of these beliefs makes a statement that is remotely testable against the natural world.

If, on the other hand, there is the possibility that evidence could ever exist that would contradict the belief, then things change. As long as the belief is not contradicted, everyone is uneasily content. If the belief is contradicted, however, then things change. At that point, the believer has only two choices. He or she can accept the judgement of science and reject the religious belief, or reject the judgement of science and continue to hold the religious belief. People who do that take a position that is anti-scientific. The position held by Catholics (and other Christians) that Adam and Eve were two real people, the first two humans, and that there were no other Homo sapiens before them falls into this category. The population genetic evidence alone is enough to demonstrate that there was no population bottleneck that severe in modern humans.

If someone has a religious position that includes unscientific beliefs without also incorporating anti-scientific beliefs, then I don’t think it is reasonable to claim that they are attacking or weakening science. They simply believe that there is more to things than the physical world. There are theistic evolutionists who hold beliefs that are anti-scientific, but I expect that there are quite a number who do not. Declaring, as PZ and Larry seem to be, that they are anti-scientific merely because they believe in things that cannot be subjected to scientific investigation is simply unreasonable.

There is also a position that Ed and Pat seem to be advocating which is may be right, but is still unreasonable. I’m speaking here of the argument that people who are vocally and rigidly anti-theistic harm the broader fight against creationism in the classroom. That argument is difficult to objectively evaluate, but it is possible, if not probable, that they are correct. Even if they are, expecting people to take that into account is entirely unreasonable.

Evangelical atheism is not an oxymoron, and it is not unreasonable. If someone sincerely believes that religion is harmful, then they have a moral obligation to speak up. To do anything less would be to allow something that they think hurts people continue, without attempting to do something to change it. Expecting, or even hoping for, silence in such a case means expecting or hoping that someone will compromise their ethical principles for reasons of political expediency. Not only is that an unreasonable expectation, it is a morally wrong expectation. Personally, I’d rather fight alongside someone with the strength of their convictions than someone willing to compromise their convictions in the interests of political expediency – even if I disagree with those convictions.

Two groups seem to be staking out sides here, and I think both of them have staked out positions that include some pretty unreasonable things. I’m confident that this leaves me in a prime position to take fire from at least two different directions, but beyond that I’ve got no idea where this leaves me.

Postscript: John Wilkins and John Lynch have both also written good posts on the topic. John Lynch has declared himself to be in Ed’s camp, but did not take a position on the pragmatic value of being quiet about objections to religion, so I didn’t include him on that list. Wilkins didn’t claim membership in either camp. Reading their posts, I get the feeling that both are relatively close to my own views. If so, that’s good. We can take turns hiding behind each other while dodging the two directions of incoming fire.

Comments

  1. #1 PZ Myers
    November 24, 2006

    Here’s what’s really annoying: everyone is chattering about these two camps or teams, and saying who’s on what team, and telling everyone what so-and-so believes, and placing them in one camp or another. In particular, Lynch and Hayes and Brayton are avidly putting people in black and white hats on this matter. What no one seems to be recognizing is that my post was a denunciation of this stupid dichotomy, and an explanation that none of the motives these guys are assigning to me are valid.

    I really don’t need more people telling me what I believe, and getting it wrong. I despise this whole good team/bad team game, and if you want to complain about anything, please go bitch-slap Brayton for encouraging it.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    November 24, 2006

    Here’s what’s really annoying: everyone is chattering about these two camps or teams, and saying who’s on what team, and telling everyone what so-and-so believes, and placing them in one camp or another. In particular, Lynch and Hayes and Brayton are avidly putting people in black and white hats on this matter.

    Actually, what I would say is particularly annoying about the whole situation is that people like Lynch preach to us about the virtues of mushy-minded agnosticism while it seems pretty clear whose side their on. Simply put, they advocate appeasement because those ignorant folk have a legitimate grievance with us godless folk doing such evil things as inquiring their reasons for belief and rejecting said beliefs when they produce none, or at least being vocal about it.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    November 24, 2006

    Sorry, “their” should be “they’re” in the first sentence. I think it’s time to go to bed.

  4. #4 G. Shelley
    November 24, 2006

    Whilst I do agree that theistic evolution, especially if people are not advocating it be taught in science classes is a trivial issue compared to the threat by genuine Creationism and ID, it does seem that much of this argument has double standards. There is an idea that the religious are allowed to talk all they wish about how God has influenced the process by subtle and undetectable means, but the non believers are not supposed to give their opinion on the matter. They should just grind their teeth and smile, in case they frighten off people who might support them.

  5. #5 Mike Dunford
    November 24, 2006

    Paul:

    I suppose I could dodge around the words “camp” and “team” for a while, but that would be a waste of time and energy. You specifically stated that you agreed that your opinion on the question of whether or not theistic evolutionists are eroding science was “a difference” between your view and Ed’s. Clearly, your view on the benefits of atheists speaking out vocally is also at least slightly different than Ed’s. I am not thrilled that these differences of opinion exist, but wishing has not been empirically demonstrated as an efficient method for inducing change. Seeing how there are at least a couple of people with views on these issues that are similar to yours, and that there are a few people with views that are similar to Ed’s, could you suggest a better word or phrase to use instead of “camp” or “team?” I’m open to ideas.

    Tyler:
    If you read Lynch’s posts carefully, I think you will find that he was not advocating appeasement. He was arguing that not all religious belief is anti-scientific. There is a difference, and it is one that you should really keep in mind, particularly when references to Chamberlain are being thrown around. When I say that I don’t think that all theistic evolution beliefs are anti-science, I am not saying that to throw theistic evolutionists a bone and keep them from going after me. I’m saying it because I believe it.

    G. Shelley:
    I agree, and that idea was one of the things I was referring to when I said that it is unreasonable to ask atheists to keep quiet about their beliefs.

  6. #6 John Wilkins
    November 24, 2006

    I don’t want appeasement on scientific matters. On that I am firmly with Paul and Larry. I just think that my arguments, when I present them, against religion have nothing whatsoever to do with arguments about science (unless some religious person is claiming things that are scientifically false, and even then, my aim is not to dissuade the benighted their religion is false, but that their grasp of science is).

    Moreover, I do most firmly not think that having antitheists speak about science in the classroom is wrong. So long as in the science classroom, they speak about science, and in the philosophy or religious studies classroom they speak about theism. There is some crossover – one might need to talk about how scriptures are not legitimate sources for scientific data or conclusions. That’s about it.

    What I do declare is that I am not an atheist, I’m an agnostic. I find it annoying when some atheists want to claim me for their own, as annoying as I might find it if a theist tried the same trick. Not Paul or Larry – well, not Paul…

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    November 24, 2006

    And three seconds after I post, I get one of these atheists on my blog

  8. #8 Scott Belyea
    November 24, 2006

    “In a circle ….. form!”

    “Inward …. face!!”

    “Ready … aim … fire!!!”

  9. #9 Caledonian
    November 24, 2006

    If a person believes that a thing exists, but does not believe that there are any consequences of that thing’s existence on the world, then they’re not right. They’re not even wrong. They’re incoherent.

    Science depends on rationality and logic. Arguments which contradict rationality and logic are therefore not only unscientific but anti-scientific. If a believer makes claims that science cannot verify even in theory and also claims that his assertions are meaningful and compatible with science, he’s not only incorrect but he’s trying to confuse others about the nature of science.

  10. #10 John Lynch
    November 24, 2006

    If you read Lynch’s posts carefully, I think you will find that he was not advocating appeasement. He was arguing that not all religious belief is anti-scientific. There is a difference, and it is one that you should really keep in mind, particularly when references to Chamberlain are being thrown around.

    Mike, thanks. It’s amazing how people can imagine what someone is saying.

  11. #11 DeanOR
    November 24, 2006

    I think your frequent use of the word “unreasonable” in the post is due to the fact that you are picking up on the cognitive traits of fundamentalism in both religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists. I’m not going to try to explain the problems with that cognitive style in this brief comment, but consider: reductionism, literalism, black and white thinking, absolutism, straw man arguments, etc.
    Some non-fundamentalist assumptions: Truth is not to be found in science alone or in literal interpretations of religious texts. There are aspects of our existence that are neither rational nor irrational, they are non-rational. Doubt and not-knowing are healthy in both spirituality and science.
    I think the nexus of science and religion, rather than conflict between them, is the most exciting thing going.

  12. #12 bob koepp
    November 24, 2006

    “atheist” vs “agnostic”
    “anti-scientific” vs “unscientific”
    “believing that there is no god” vs “not believing there is a god”

    lots of subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions can be drawn.
    a good intellectual fight that shouldn’t get personal or political

  13. #13 Paul A
    November 24, 2006

    I bet the ID/creationism lobby is loving all this in-fighting – divide and conquer, etc…

  14. #14 PZ Myers
    November 24, 2006

    And three seconds after I post, I get one of these atheists on my blog…

    Yeah, we’re like lice. Get used to the itching.

  15. #15 DragonScholar
    November 24, 2006

    Paul A,

    Pretty much my take. Who needs a wedge document when people build their own wedges? I started to get concerned that things would go downhill when I saw Neville Chamberlain and WWII comparisons being invoked (in my impression, when anything involving World War II is injected into heated debate, it signals a downturn.)

    On the other hand, at least this is all happening above-board, in public, and in the high-speed realm of the internet. It’s honest, and it goes fast, so perhaps we’ll see more unified efforts arrive – or at least disunified efforts focused on important issues. I try to remind myself of this when I get cynical (like today).

  16. #16 Larry Moran
    November 24, 2006

    Mike,
    I’ve always enjoyed our discussions about the interaction of science and religion. You appear to like it too since you’ve just posted four paragraphs on the topic.

    There are legitmate areas of dispute here, as you well know. I happen to think that many religious beliefs intrude far too much into the proper domain of science. I think the compromises required to justify miracles, for example, are not part of good science.

    You have a different opinion about some of these issues. That’s probably a reflection of your theological position and I can respect that. However, you have just demonstated something very important. By engaging in the debate you have tacitly agreed that it’s an issue worth debating. We agree on that point.

    There are some people who disagree. They think we should not debate the validity of the Theistic Evolution worldview because it might hurt the “cause.” They think that people like me should keep their mouths shut and let people like you (or Miller, or Collins) speak for all scientists. They don’t object when religious scientists speak out about their religion but they do object when skeptics are too vocal.

    I think this is wrong.

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    November 24, 2006

    If theistic evolution, or any other opinion, is so sacrosanct that it is automagically insulated against all criticism — is it really a belief worth respecting?

  18. #18 Gary Hurd
    November 24, 2006

    (I don’t know who all reads what, so I’ll post here as well).

    I tend to some other interests for a few days and all Hell breaks lose. Ed Brayton, as usual, is throwing accusations around trying to seem important. One of his more absurd statements is;

    But some, like Larry Moran, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Gary Hurd and others, are involved in an entirely different battle. For them, it’s not enough to protect science education from the attacks of some religious people; religion itself, in any form, is to be attacked and destroyed by any means necessary.

    First, I am flattered to be mentioned together with Moran, Myers and Dawkins, but it is totally inappropriate. I have at best a tiny fraction of the scientific accomplishments of these men, or their public influence. Brayton has never contributed to science or education and has comparatively little influence, so this is clearly a “division by zero” problem.

    Nor have I ever considered it necessary to eliminate religion, regardless of means. I don’t think that science can do this in any event. The only certain path to atheism I know of is to study theology.

    Let me propose a simple analogy; the pro-science education effort is like a dog. There is the wagging tail at one end, and the bark and even teeth at the other. PZ, Dawkins and others are at the front. Pat, Nick and others are the friendly, inclusive wagging tail and Ed Brayton is the little part just below the wag. I’m the little flea whispering that if you don’t want to divide forces, then ignore divisive people like Ed who demand that you have to be on “his” side and don’t step in the mess he leaves on the floor.

  19. #19 Caledonian
    November 25, 2006

    Doubt and not-knowing are healthy in both spirituality and science.

    No, doubt and not-knowing are absolutely necessary in science. In ‘spirituality’, they’re shunned, because once those things are acknowledged there’s nothing but ritual left.

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    November 25, 2006

    There is also a position that Ed and Pat seem to be advocating which is may be right, but is still unreasonable. I’m speaking here of the argument that people who are vocally and rigidly anti-theistic harm the broader fight against creationism in the classroom.

    So far as I’ve seen, Ed Brayton isn’t again evangelical atheists, and it’s not as if Brayton hasn’t attacked religious beliefs himself. He has, however, objected to sweeping statements that theistic evolutionists are undermining science simply because they are theists, and he has objected to atheists who are “living up to the (usually) false stereotypes that the other side tries to foist upon us.”

  21. #21 Caledonian
    November 26, 2006

    No, no, no. Theistic evolutionists who claim that their theism is compatible with the scientific worldview are the problem.

  22. #22 Daryl McCullough
    December 4, 2006

    It seems to me that science is not about beliefs, but is about a process. If you want to believe something that was not established by that process, I don’t see anything wrong with that—you just aren’t allowed to call it a scientific belief.

    I don’t think that scientists should be in the business of policing people’s beliefs, but they should definitely be in the business of policing the process of science.

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