Lynch on Weinberg

Since I have the sad task of criticizing my fellow science bloggers today, we may as well have a look at this post, from John Lynch.

He is responding to this post from P. Z. Myers, which discussed this review of The God Delusion written by Steven Weinberg.

Lynch takes issue with the following statement from Weinberg, quoted approvingly by Myers:

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

Lynch writes:

PZ provides a link to a review of The God Delusion by theoretical cosmologist Steven Weinberg and approvingly provides two quotes. I want to alter part of one of them a little:

Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of [evolutionary biology] are only to be expressed by experts, not mere [lawyers] or other common folk?

Many of us involved with fighting creationism have argued for years that expertise is important in scientific matters. That’s why lawyers like Phil Johnson need to demonstrate their knowledge of evolution before they are taken seriously. Any one can express an opinion, but to be taken seriously on a scientific issue, one must have engaged in serious study of the matter at hand. This, of course, also holds for non-scientific areas of study.

Weinberg is attempting to argue that Dawkins is entitled to voicing his opinion about religious matters, and indeed he is, just as I’m entitled to express my opinion about any matter. Unless Dawkins has demonstrated his knowledge of the subject at hand, one could argue that his opinion on religion is as valid as Johnson’s on evolution or mine on bridge building.

Well, I’ll meet Lynch part way. There is a problem with Weinberg’s statement, but it is not the one Lynch identifies.

Weinberg’s statement implies that there are people out there who are experts on the philosophical and religious issues Dawkins discusses, but that Dawkins himself is not one of them. Presumably these experts are found among the philosophers and theologians.

But, as I have argued before, philosophers and theologians have no special expertise to offer on the question of whether God exists. Anyone of reasonable intelligence with some time on his hands is qualified to discuss the subject. This stands in stark contrast to, say, evolutionary biology. There, as in any science, there is a large body of technical material that must be assimilated before one can even understand what the questions are. Such mastery requires a great deal of time and can be difficult to attain on one’s own. That is why someone without scientific training must prove himself before his opinions are granted any weight.

The subjects on which philosophers and theologians can plausibly claim to be experts are not anything of importance to the questions Dawkins was discussing. If you want to know the history of the ontological argument or the various attempts to reformulate it over the years, then you might want to seek out a philosopher. But if your interest is in good, clear thinking on the subject of God’s existence, then Dawkins is as qualified as anyone.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    January 18, 2007

    The subjects on which philosophers and theologians can plausibly claim to be experts are not anything of importance to the questions Dawkins was discussing.

    This is a point I try to make, but have never been able to do so as succinctly as you have. Bravo!

    And I do find it a bit irritating that philosophers and especially theologians would compare their supposed expertise on god-matters to the specialized expertise of a scientist in their field. The comparison falls flat once one realizes that we don’t have data on god(s), while we do have data on evolutionary biology, the quantum behavior of subatomic particles, space-time as a single fabric, and computational problems with Polynomial time solutions. The reviews I’ve read that actually offer counterarguments (such as those found ), are really simple logical quandaries that hardly reach the level of scientific discourse.

  2. #2 Clark Goble
    January 18, 2007

    philosophers and theologians have no special expertise to offer on the question of whether God exists.

    But they may have expertise on the kinds of arguments used for or against. Folks can look at the reasonings on the matter and miss a lot of work (pro and con) that has been done.

    Put an other way, knowing lots about fluid dynamics and being able to really able to read tensor notation might not make you a great plumber. But it doesn’t follow that a plumber can waltz in an spout off about some particular argument regarding the flow of water.

  3. #3 Pseudonym
    January 19, 2007

    Perhaps “philosophers and theologians have no special expertise to offer on the question of whether God exists”, but I’m not certain that philosophers, in particular, have nothing to offer on the book in general.

    TGD, after all, doesn’t just deal with whether or not God exists. Philosophers might also have some input on the question about whether or not there’s such a thing as a “reasonable” religion, regardless of whether or not a deity exists.

    No, I don’t know what that input might be. But something that might help: Morals and ethics need some kind of justification. That justification, of course, need not come from a deity. But neither can they be judged in the same way that science judges theories about the natural world. There’s no controlled double-blind experiment, for example, that will test whether or not murder is wrong.

    Oversimplifying a bit, determing what “is” is, at least in principle, scientific in nature, but determining what “should be” is philosophical in nature.

    So it may be that a philosopher might have some suggestion as to why believing in a god that doesn’t exist is nonetheless “reasonable” in some sense, with all the appropriate provisos. Philosophers might have some valuable input when evaluating religions to determine which are more reasonable than others. So a modern liberal strain of Buddhism might arguably be a better influence in the world than, say, an Aztec human sacrifice-based religion.

    This, of course, is not an argument against Dawkins giving his opinion. I don’t for a moment buy the argument that the fact that Dawkins not being a philosopher is any reason for him to not try to weigh in. If anything, he’s more qualified than most scientists because, especially in the case of American fundamentalist Christianity, it’s his field of science that’s most under assault.

    But it’s a large step from “Dawkins has valid input” to “philosophers don’t”. Theologians, perhaps. Philosophers, no.

  4. #4 Larry Moran
    January 19, 2007

    I said pretty much the same thing (John Lynch Has an Opinion) but you said it better. Thanks.

  5. #5 Mark P
    January 19, 2007

    A reasonable religion? Sure, there is a good definition for a reasonable religion. It’s one that causes no harm and provides an objective benefit. One might argue that it is reasonable to have a belief system that causes no harm and no benefit, but why bother?

  6. #6 Pseudonym
    January 19, 2007

    “Why bother?” is, of course, a very good argument. Atheists, or at least the overwhelming majority, don’t believe in a deity because there’s simply no reason to.

    It’s interesting to postulate what possible benefits there might be. One possibility, for example, is that it provides a community of people who otherwise have nothing in common with an excuse to bond. Not that this couldn’t be done without the religion.

    There was a study done post-WW2 (sorry, I truly wish I had a reference for this; I heard about this from my grandfather who studied the report when he was in the army, and he’s dead now) about millitary personnel held in prisoner of war camps. They found that there were three roughly equal-sized groups of people. About one third committed suicide, about one third survived but suffered very severe mental illness, and about one third came through mostly unscathed. The one main difference between the second and third groups is that those in the third group were overwhelmingly religious, and those in the second group were overwhelmingly not. It did not, as you might expect, matter which religion.

    It would be interesting to work out what aspects of religion were important for putting you in the third group instead of the second, but this is one of those experiments that you can’t really ethically reproduce for obvious reasons.

    It reminds me of the recent studies about the effectiveness of prayer in aiding post-operative recovery. The executive summary, as I understand it, was that prayer does pretty much nothing, but being told that someone is praying for you does seem to result in slightly faster recovery. It’s important to know that there is a community of people out there who care about you, and a strong religious community may be what gives you that.

  7. #7 Mark P
    January 19, 2007

    I am not aware of studies of survial of POW camps during WW II, but I have some doubts that one-third of prisoners committed suicide, or thatf one-third had severe mental illness over the long term. I have seen figures indicating that a large percentage of Allied POWs did not survive internment, a number probably strongly influenced by the treatment received in Japanese POW camps. However, in the absence of a genuine citation, I have to reject the report your grandfather talked about.

  8. #8 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 19, 2007

    Do you suppose certain sciencebloggers have figure out that disagreeing with PZ on certain topics leads to a near-instantaneous surge of their page hit counters?

  9. #9 Clark Goble
    January 19, 2007

    Pseudonym, I remember a study on WWII prison camps but I vaguely recall that the biggest correlation wasn’t religiosity but whether in their younger days they had been through hard times. i.e. those for whom this was the first big trial did astoundingly poorly whereas those who’d had big tragic events they had to work through in the past adapted well.

  10. #10 Jason
    January 19, 2007


    It reminds me of the recent studies about the effectiveness of prayer in aiding post-operative recovery. The executive summary, as I understand it, was that prayer does pretty much nothing, but being told that someone is praying for you does seem to result in slightly faster recovery.

    Actually, the study reported in this New York Times piece last year, which I believe is the largest and most rigorous prayer study to date, found that “patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms.”

  11. #11 Pseudonym
    January 20, 2007

    Agreed, Mark and Clark. I understand that since I don’t even have a citation, let alone have read the report, I can’t rely on it as any kind of evidence. I do know that whatever this report actually said, it was considered a strong argument for supporting millitary chaplaincy more strongly.

    Jason: That NYT article was very interesting, but I’m not convinced that this is the same sort of thing that I’m talking about for the simple reason that all prayer in the study was offered by strangers.

    If I was ill and someone that I knew and cared about said they would pray for me, I know that I’d be pleased. (I would never, of course, use it as a substitute for competent evidence-based medical care!)

    I’d be equally pleased, of course, if they said that they’d be thinking about me and hoped to see me well again soon. It’s the fact that they care about me that I’d find important. I probably wouldn’t get that same feeling from a bunch of strangers.

  12. #12 Pierce R. Butler
    January 22, 2007

    Speaking of POW-studies-heard-of-too-long-ago-to-remember-specifics, I recall reading of a look at relative resistance to “brainwashing” in North Korean camps back in the day. Of the UN troops captured then, South Korean, Turkish, & American soldiers predominated, but the first two groups had a much lower rate of succumbing to the pressures experienced by all.

    The difference was found to be that the Koreans & Turks maintained their hierarchical structure more assiduously, with each man moving up a step as those of higher rank were removed. The Americans, lacking institutional reinforcement of their command structure, lost much of their group coherence and faced the ordeals imposed by their captors as atomized individuals.

    This conclusion seems at least plausible, though I’ve wondered whether it was reached because it would be the result most appreciated by the brass. It still makes more sense than deciding that the Americans were less religious.

  13. #13 Pseudonym
    January 22, 2007

    Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that if the study is as I recall it second-hand, that it’s religion-just-because-it’s-religion that makes the difference. Maybe it’s hope, maybe it’s knowing there’s a community “back home”, maybe it’s something else.

    Whatever it is, I’m sure that everyone can have it, but during WW2, it was at the time most prevalent in religious people or, perhaps more accurately, not as prevalent in non-religious people.

  14. #14 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 26, 2007

    Michael Shermer reviews The God Delusion for Science magazine (subscription required).

    Science 26 January 2007:
    Vol. 315. no. 5811, p. 463
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1138989

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