Mixing Memory

I’ve been out of town since Saturday, with no internet access. Thank goodness for tiny islands on the gulf coast of Florida. Unfortunately, I’m still sick, and I’m exhausted, so I’m going to have to hold off on posts that actually require work. Just to give you some previews, I’m working on some posts related to the negation stuff I talked about a while back, a post on conspiracy theories, some stuff on implicit and benevolent sexism, and, if I ever get around to actually putting the argument together, a fairly technical one in which I claim that metaphors don’t exist (well, not quite, just that metaphors are not a natural kind, and that treating them as such, at least implicitly, is the cause of much confusion). In lieu of this interesting stuff (interesting to me, at least), I’m just going to write a book review and some thoughts on atheism. Yawn, I know.

The book review is of Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Now, I’ve read a lot of science books, some of them good, some of them bad. And some of those in the bad category have been very poorly written (I’m thinking of you, Steven Weinberg), but Angier’s is by far the worst.

Recently, as blogs have become more legitimate and mainstream, a few of my favorite blog authors, whose writing I’ve enjoyed on their blogs, have made the jump to magazine articles and even books, where their writing suddenly looked forced and stale. All of the things that made them good blog writers became annoying very quickly in extended articles and multiple chapters. I wonder if the same thing has happened with The Canon. While I haven’t read any of Angier’s newspaper articles, I’ve been assured by people who have that she’s a good writer. But in The Canon, she puts a joke, pun, silly metaphor, or witty pop culture reference into pretty much every other sentence, and the alliteration is constant and forced. I mean constant… and forced. I know she’s trying to make science interesting and fun, and in newspaper articles, constant punning may work, but after about 100 pages of it, I almost threw the book away. No, really, I almost threw it into the trash can next to my desk. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. And even if I could have stomached it, the style was detracting from the content of the book that I was having trouble following along.

To see what I’m talking about, take a look at her chapter titles and, ugh, subtitles:

  1. Thinking Scientifically: An Out-of-Body Experience
  2. Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves
  3. Calibration: Playing with Scales
  4. Physics: And Nothing’s Plenty for Me
  5. Chemistry: Fire, Ice, Spies, and Life
  6. Evolutionary Biology: The Theory of Every Body
  7. Molecular Biology: Cells and Whistles
  8. Geology: Imagining World Pieces
  9. Astronomy: Heavenly Creatures

“Imagining World Pieces?” Are you kidding me?

Imagine things like that in virtually every paragraph. I wish I was being hyperbolic. It’s a shame, too, because the premise of the book is really interesting. Disturbed by not only the level of scientific illiteracy in our country, but also by the fact that science is seen as boring and difficult, Angier interviewed a couple hundred scientists, who generally think science is anything but boring, even if it’s difficult. She asked them to describe the ideas in their fields that they felt it was most important for people to understand, and proceeds to explain them in a way, she hopes, that will make them seem fun and exciting. But her apparently deep-seeded need to be overly clever and funny ruins it, almost completely. I say almost because she does report the ideas scientists gave her, and if you skim the book just to compile a list of these, you can get something out of it. After that, if you really want to know a bit about those ideas, you can google them.

There’s something else that bugs me about the book. As she notes in the first couple chapters, science has a public image problem. It is often presented to the public, by scientists and their spokespeople (like science journalists) as the final word on just about everything. Do this, because science says so. That can’t be true, because science says so. X and Y are definitely different, because science says so. Science is often presented as giving the final answers on things, and scientists, all to often, talk as though they have the final answers. But of course, that’s not the way science works. And this is made painfully apparent when science suddenly discovers that you shouldn’t do that, or that this can’t be true, or that X and Y aren’t in fact different. People are left with contradictory impressions: science is the ultimate source of truth about the world, and science is not just inherently fallible, but based on the notion that it never has the ultimate truth about the world.

Ironically, both of these positions are based on the same myth about how science works, a myth that Angier spends her first two chapters perpetuating. That is, the myth of a science that is purely objective, or as objective as any human institution can be, and that is wholly committed to what one of my favorite authors once termed “stubborn facts.”

This misguided view is born in part of a myth that seems to be equally common among scientists and non-scientists, the myth of an almost purely objective, boldly skeptical science; a science so committed to data that no idea is sacred. My favorite expression of this view of science comes from one of my favorite scientists, William James, who, as he was pretty much inventing experimental psychology and writing the incredible Principles of Psychology, wrote to his brother, “I have to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts”*. Because science is forged “in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts,” it is treated at the same time as both our best and most accurate window on the world and as our most tenuous window: a window that might, at any moment, reveal itself to be facing in the wrong direction, at which point we have to turn the whole damn house around.

The problem is, science isn’t either of these things. At least, not entirely. It is the best window we have onto certain aspects of the world — those aspects that easily admit cause-effect anylses, and at its most basic levels, system-level analyses. And it’s also skeptical, but only on the whole and over extended periods of time, and even then only sorta kinda. It’s disinclined to turn the whole damn house around, even when caught “in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts.” It will if it absolutely has to, but it’d rather not, and it will kick those teeth as many times as it can in the process. The more Angier presents scientists, often in their own words, as rabidly agnostic and asking for the facts, just the facts, the more I think of the way science actually works in the real world.

For example, it never ceases to amaze me that individual scientists with pet theories always manage to publish data that fits with those theories. This is particularly impressive when several researchers with competing theories do so at the same time (often in the same journal issue). They can’t all be right, and you’d think that, if the virtually deified science that Angier describes worked in her idealized fashion, at some point one of these theorists would find evidence consistent with one of the competing theories. But it almost never happens. Why? Well, in part, because people do a bunch of experiments and only publish the ones that produce data consistent with their hypotheses. That’s just the way science works, folks, and there’s no way to idealize it. It’s also because when you have a theory in your hand, you recognize certain problems and certain phenomena, and you look at those, because they’re related to your theory. If you had another theory, you’d notice other problems and phenomena, and you’d get different results. Again, that’s the dirty reality of science.

None of this is to say that science doesn’t work. It does work, and it works extremely well. Our domination of nature has reached levels that the early scientists of the 17th century could not have imagined in their wildest of wild dreams. We run this place, and when nature shows us that it still have some power, in the form of an acute natural disaster or a more drawn out one (e.g., global warming), say, it does little more than confirm the progress we’ve made: look at all the things that nature can no longer do to us — from diseases we’ve eradicated to hurricane and earthquake-proof buildings — provided we live in a fairly wealthy industrialized nation (and the right neighborhoods in that nation) in which we can reap the full benefits of what science has given us. Is that the best you’ve got, nature? Well, I raise you transcontinental flight, vaccines, nuclear energy, the internet, plastic surgery, and stronger levies.

With all its practical success, it’s not surprising that science has given rise to a new breed of pragmatist: the metaphysical pragmatist. If you read ScienceBlogs, or the books and authors that tend to get a lot of publicity on ScienceBlogs, chances are you’ve encountered one of these metaphysical pragmatists. These people look out upon the wealthy, industrialized world around them (strangely, there aren’t many of these people in sub-Saharan Africa, or if there are, they aren’t talking), and see the great bounty that science has given us, and thereby reach the conclusion that science is the window on the world, whichever direction that window is facing. They’re philosophical materialists of the strongest sort, and they became philosophical materialists because methodological materialism, the driving force of science, is so successful. With that level of success, there’s no reason to stop at methodological, they reason.

Which brings me to the post at Prosthesis. which you should go check out now. As Macht points out there, the folks I’m calling metaphysical pragmatists reason from the success of science not only that it is the only valid window on the world, but that it is the most natural one for us to look out (just to tie this back in, this is a view that Angier herself adopts). That is, humans are by nature rational creatures, and not just rational creatures (that’s where Macht stops), but scientific ones. We are homo scientificus. Science, at least in a primitive form, is our default state. Anything incompatible with it is mere cultural baggage heaped upon us by millennia of indoctrination, perhaps in the service of (at least in later cultures) cultural domination.

The metaphysical pragmatists reasoning is racked with hidden assumptions and a great deal of faith, as philosophers of science in the 20th century, at least outside of the positivist tradition, spent a great deal of time and ink trying to tell us. But on the face of it, the reasoning is quite simple and compelling: science works, and it works better (at what it does, but this qualification is always elided) than any other institution we’ve ever come up with. Therefore, it must be the right and natural one. This view can, and as Macht points out, is treated as a neutral one: it implies nothing more than that reason, by which we mean scientific reason, is our natural state. Specifically, it is not cultural baggage, but the position one arrives at by looking at the facts (or at least one fact: science’s success). But, again as Macth points out, the simple argument is not in fact a neutral one. It is in fact a positive argument for a particular view of human nature, and one that not only competes with those culturally indoctrinated ones, but with other views of human nature that science itself gives us. In fact, in science itself, there’s no evidence whatsoever for the metaphysical pragmatist’s view of human nature. We’re born with all sorts of assumptions, ontological, epistemological, and perhaps even ethical, that lead pretty directly to a variety of world-views that are the very ones that are treated as incompatible with science by the metaphysical pragmatists.

The metaphysical pragmatist, who is in fact the new atheist, is then the holder of a doubly contradictory position: its position is a positive one that is the product of culture — its science-dominated, wealthy culture — which is exactly the sort of position it holds itself up against, and it is in fact a position that is incompatible with science, at least with what science tells us. Why does this matter? It wouldn’t, if the new atheists weren’t so damn loud, but they are, and in their dogmatic (and I believe that based on the second contradiction above, I can call them dogmatic — belief in the face of recalcitrant data, right?) insistence that science leads to their world-view, they’ve managed to associate science in the minds of many with that world view. If people were afraid that science, at least in some forms (e.g., evolution), threatens their moral and cultural world-views, then the new atheists have done all they can to confirm their fears, all the while calling them stupid, irrational, and manipulated in the process.

1Quoted in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, p. 2.

Comments

  1. #1 Macht
    July 19, 2007

    Linking to me isn’t going to help your reputation around here. But I’m sure you knew that.

  2. #2 Chris
    July 19, 2007

    It wasn’t doing so well anyway, my reputation around here. Honestly, though, I suppose it’s not surprising, since you have a bit of cognitive distance from atheism, but it’s disappointing to me that you and Brandon, two non-atheists, consistently provide the best commentary on new atheism.

  3. #3 From so simple a beginning
    July 19, 2007

    Chris,
    Can you provide references to support the claim that Dawkins et.al., claim Atheism to be natural ? I have seen arguments arguing that it is right thing to do – but, have not seen them arguing that it is a natural state. But, so much is written nowadays that I might have missed it.

    My impression was that they don’t need to, because arguing that “atheism is natural” is useless for their side. To say that people should be atheists because atheism is natural would be to commit naturalistic fallacy.

  4. #4 Chris
    July 19, 2007

    From, I don’t know of any examples of them using the argument explicitly, but a great example of an implicit version is Dawkins’ “child abuse” claim. That argument essentially says that it’s wrong to teach children religion because they haven’t yet developed the reasoning ability to evaluate them. When they do — and it is assumed that they will — they will be more likely to eschew it. Now, on one level, this is true: if you don’t socialize people in a particular culture, it becomes difficult for them to adopt that culture. But in another sense, it’s false, because it assumes that the children are, religiously at least, tabula rasa ready to rationally and objectively evaluate the evidence.

    Other examples come from the constant claim that people only believe in religion because they are being manipulated or fooled. If they weren’t being manipulated and fooled, they wouldn’t believe. This implies that the natural state is rational disbelief, and only through cultural trickery do we get belief. PZ Myers uses this one a lot.

  5. #5 Macht
    July 19, 2007

    I don’t know about Chris, but the way I was using the term was kind of like the classical liberal phrase “state of nature.” It’s a kind of hypothetical condition of humanity. How many times have you heard somebody say “We’re all born atheists.” If you unpack that statement, it basically means “Before our rational selves get corrupted by out-dated traditions, irrational religions, and silly superstitions, we’re all atheists.” I see the “new atheists” as essentially wanting to get back to that uncorrupted “natural state.”

  6. #6 Chris
    July 19, 2007

    “State of nature” works for me, especially since it highlights the not infrequent belief that the new atheists are the descendants of the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Tabula rasa highlights the same association.

  7. #7 Kevembuangga
    July 19, 2007

    Macht : (interpreting ‘state of nature’ argument) “Before our rational selves get corrupted by out-dated traditions, irrational religions, and silly superstitions, we’re all atheists.”

    I have been “corrupted” up to about the age of 11 due to religious mother and grandmothers but without any counter-indoctrination I came to realise that theism is incredibly daft.
    I am not sure the question is whether atheism is natural or not.
    At least there is two distinct populations, the entrenched theists and the entrenched atheists, for whom the word “evidence” does not seem to bear the same meaning.

  8. #8 Clark Goble
    July 21, 2007

    Back after not blogging for quite some time…

    It’s interesting since the way you lay out this metaphysical pragmatism it sounds rather appealing to me. Depending upon how broadly one takes it. (And I say this as a theist rather than an atheist) After all even if there is a naive approach to metaphysics due to science it seems that there are many defensible views from this. Take an extreme example – the nature of spacetime. Many take GR to entail a substantial spacetime (block universe where the future “exists”) while many take QM to entail the opposite. One has a range of options. Next take the issue of mind. The view popularly attributed to what I see you calling the metaphysical pragmatist is the so-called reductionist approach. i.e. that mind is reducible to the brain as understood in contemporary physics. Yet it’s also the case that one can, from within science, adopt other views. Take say the view that quantum randomness brings about mind. (Say Roger Penrose)

    None of this is deny your point. Just suggest that we have to be careful of painting all this as if there was a single monolithic view. I don’t think it is.

  9. #9 Clark Goble
    July 21, 2007

    Just to clarify, I guess what I’m saying is that one can embrace this pragmatism and adopt a wide range of views. But more importantly I think that the so-called New Atheists do have a wide range of views.

  10. #10 Chris
    July 21, 2007

    Clark, first off, I think atheists have a wide range of views, but at least with regard to religion and atheism, and the reasons for rejecting the former and adopting the latter, new atheists are pretty homogeneous in their basic views. That is, they think science is incompatible with religion, that science has shown religion to be false, and that science has been shown to be the true path to knowledge, meaning ultimately that religion is necessarily false, whatever its incarnation. Sam Harris is tough to pin down, in this regard, because of his Buddhism, but even he tries to justify it within that basic framework. New atheists may adhere to different scientific theories, different political views, even different ethical views, but what makes them atheists, and new atheists in particular, is their common set of beliefs about religion, science (in general), and atheism.

    That said, I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a good reason for actually adopting metaphysical pragmatism. Particularly since one of the main impetuses for accepting philosophical pragmatism has traditionally been to avoid metaphysics: why worry about the way things really are, out there, independent of our minds, when all that matters is whether things work? That’s oversimplifying a bit, of course, but it wasn’t uncommon for the pragmatists to criticize people with views similar to their own who got all metaphysical (e.g., James’ praise of Bergson, qualified by an outright dismissal of his more metaphysical ideas). And the reason for criticizing metaphysics arrived at through pragmatic reasoning is a pretty good one, I think: what reason, a priori or a posteriori, do we have for concluding from the fact that a theory or idea works that it must be true in a metaphysical sense?

    And there are reasons for not making that jump without other, non-pragmatic reasoning. For example, just because a theory or idea works doesn’t mean that another, perhaps as of yet undiscovered one won’t work as well. Taking science, and its tendency towards reductionism and, when possible, parsimony and even elegance as an example, who’s to say that a more complex, less elegant, and less reductive explanation that works just as well (except in the sense that the calculations are uglier and more difficult) and leads to alternative interpretations of the data, isn’t true? Or are they both true? Different interpretations of quantum mechanics raise the same problem. If we’re metaphysical pragmatists, we either have to accept that there are (at least possibly) multiple true versions of the same reality, or that pragmatic considerations alone can’t tell us anything about reality (in which case we’re no longer metaphysical pragmatists). Some people might find the multiple true versions of the same reality idea palpable, even preferable (perhaps they’re fans of Nelson Goodman), but I doubt many new atheists would, because it goes against the basic scientific view of things.

  11. #11 Clark Goble
    July 21, 2007

    Just for the record I think Peirce’s approach to metaphysics ends up being a bit different – despite the similarities between Peirce and James.

  12. #12 Clark Goble
    July 22, 2007

    Just to clairfy, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see this as really being pragmatic. (I don’t mind the term, given Dewey and instrumentalism – just being a tad careful)

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    July 22, 2007

    Chris: “From, I don’t know of any examples of them using the argument explicitly, but a great example of an implicit version is Dawkins’ “child abuse” claim. That argument essentially says that it’s wrong to teach children religion because they haven’t yet developed the reasoning ability to evaluate them. When they do — and it is assumed that they will — they will be more likely to eschew it. Now, on one level, this is true: if you don’t socialize people in a particular culture, it becomes difficult for them to adopt that culture. But in another sense, it’s false, because it assumes that the children are, religiously at least, tabula rasa ready to rationally and objectively evaluate the evidence.”

    I think this is reading too much into Dawkins. I doubt that he is thinking that hard about a kid being a tabula rasa, and it certainly isn’t necessary for his line of argument. Nor does it seem that the fault of the so-called New Atheists is a belief that, as Macht put it, “[t]here is an ideal, rational person deep inside every one of us.” Indeed, much of the practice of science would be unnecessary if we were such rational creatures by nature. For example, part of the point of peer review is to help weed out flaws in other’s work (although in the short run this works better in theory than practice).

    The problem with the New Atheists isn’t some fancy philosophical issue. What it comes down to is that they do not practice what they preach. They claim to stand for reason but paint with an unreasonably broad brush and do a half-assed job of supporting their case.

  14. #14 Richard
    July 23, 2007

    Other examples come from the constant claim that people only believe in religion because they are being manipulated or fooled. If they weren’t being manipulated and fooled, they wouldn’t believe. This implies that the natural state is rational disbelief, and only through cultural trickery do we get belief.

    Huh? Isn’t it trivial that whenever someone has a false belief, they’ve made some mistake or other? As with Macht’s post, I don’t see that you’ve pointed to anything other than the obvious fact that new atheists hold religious claims to be false and epistemically unjustified/irrational. That’s hardly a contradiction.

    its position is a positive one that is the product of culture — its science-dominated, wealthy culture — which is exactly the sort of position it holds itself up against

    Oh, come on! *rolls eyes* It would indeed be obviously contradictory for a human to oppose every “product of culture”, since that would include themselves and practically everything about them. In fact, this is so obvious that it would take a gross lack of charity to attribute such a transparently stupid view to anyone with half a brain (let alone the likes of Dawkins and Dennett).

    Besides the straw-manning, the thing I find really off-putting about these posts is the reek of relativism — the background assumption that there just aren’t any rational grounds for judging what metaphysical claims are (more or less likely to be) true. It’s all just a matter of whatever “culture” and “worldview” you’re raised in, and those are all presumed to be on an epistemic par.

    (This appears to be the basis of your “contradiction” argument: New atheists oppose irrational beliefs that are believed for merely cultural reasons. Atheism itself is a product of culture. Epistemic nihilism then allows you to insert the “merely”. And ta-daa! New atheists oppose atheism!)

    If you’re not going to address the epistemic question (what do we have most reason to believe true?) then, for all your denunciations, you simply aren’t really engaging with the new atheists at all. But I guess we’ve been over this before…

  15. #15 Kevembuangga
    July 23, 2007

    Richard : As with Macht’s post, I don’t see that you’ve pointed to anything other than the obvious fact that new atheists hold religious claims to be false and epistemically unjustified/irrational.

    My own position isn’t that I “hold religious claims to be false”, but meaningless!
    That’s why they cannot be rooted out by any argumentation.
    What can you say to “refute” the FSM?
    It’s invisible, hides its own tracks and is beyond understanding.

    LOL…

  16. #16 Clark
    July 23, 2007

    I’ve never understood this whole, “it’s meaningless” approach. At a minimum it tends at best to be a claim about religious beliefs. However as presented, nearly all religions offer testable (in theory) propositions. Surely even for a positivist that’s enough, isn’t it? Now when they start engaging the philosophers rather than the theologians things can get a bit messier. But in practice most religions, especially the big three classes of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism claim divine intervention which surely is enough to make it meaningful.

  17. #17 Kevembuangga
    July 24, 2007

    Clark : However as presented, nearly all religions offer testable (in theory) propositions.

    You said it more succintly than I could.

    Islam, Christianity, and Judaism claim divine intervention which surely is enough to make it meaningful.

    Yeah! Me too.
    I am a worshipper of the Funnel, when you pour water in a Funnel the spirit of the Funnel make the water abide by its holy powers, gather to the center an run down in an orderly fashion.
    However beware of ever offending the holy spirit of the Funnel by handling it upside down, it will take a sour retribution on your insolence by wetting mercilessly your feet.

  18. #18 Macht
    July 24, 2007

    Richard,

    You don’t understand the argument at all. I’ve said nothing about beliefs being merely cultural and it isn’t assumed in my argument. The first hint that I’m not endorsing relativism is that I’m arguing against the new atheists. I’m saying they are wrong. I know throwing out the word “postmodernism” or “relativism” or similar words is a great way to get some readers on your side, but that’s just rhetoric on your part. I’ll say it one more time very clearly: I’m arguing that the new atheists are wrong. Nothing relativistic about that. You might think that my argument is bad, but let’s cut out the “relativism” nonsense. Okay?

  19. #19 Chris
    July 24, 2007

    Macht, I think he means me when he refers to relativism. And it’s not difficult, though it is incorrect, to see my own position as relativism. The fact that I think the new atheists are wrong should be a clue that I’m not a relativist, too, but since I’ve argued that beliefs are never born of rational reasoning alone, or that it’s not possible to know for sure that they are, it’s easy to cry relativism.

    Richard, it’s not a straw man position. It’s true, context free, my reading of Dawkins’ “child abuse” nonsense would be uncharitable at least, but in context it’s not. I used it because I couldn’t think, off the top of my head, of any explicit examples. But if you search his speeches and writing, or the writings/speeches of any other new atheists, you won’t have a hard time finding places in which they’ve said that atheism is the default position. In fact, I suspect it’s a position you hold. The basic argument starts from the premise that reason begins without the assumption of existence, and only posits existence once positive evidence has been found for existence. If this is true, then atheism can be the only default theological position of any rational creature (and the assumption is that humans are rational, and specifically scientifically rational creatures). It’s then argued that religion, and all its ontological baggage, are strictly cultural products since they defy the default ontological position (here it’s assumed that there is no evidence for the existence of a God or gods), and therefore cannot be a product of reason without cultural influence.

    The argument in this post (and, if I read it right, Macht’s), is then that new atheism is itself such a cultural position in that it arrived at its view of reason through cultural processes (i.e., through something extraneous to its posited pristine reason). My claim in this post is that this cultural influence was primarily the success of science, which led to a particular (mistaken, even in regards to science) view of reason and human nature. Of course, the new atheists aren’t arguing that anyone or anything is completely independent of culture once enculturated, but prior to that, they are claiming explicitly or implicitly, we are atheists because abstract reason dictates atheism, and we’re inherently rational beings. It’s this that leads them to the belief that if you can shed the cultural baggage associated with religion, you can get back to that pre-cultural state of atheism.

    Again, that’s not to say that anyone’s atheism is culture free, but that atheism in the abstract, which is just a lack of belief in any God (not, necessarily, a positive disbelief, just a lack), is treated as acultural, and strictly rational. Put another way, you don’t need any evidence not to believe in God. Or still differently, you don’t need to prove a negative — a negative is a default assumption.

    It might be better to think about this like scientists through history. Take quarks as an example. To the new atheist, the atheist is in a position sort of like that of an 18th century physicist firmly entrenched in Newtownian mechanics. This physicists belief status, with regard to quarks, is one of lack of belief. Not disbelief, because quarks haven’t been posited, and not belief, because there’s no need, given the current (18th century) state of knowledge in physics, to even posit them, much less believe them. Skip ahead to the middle of the 20th century. Now our physical knowledge has some gaps that need to be filled, and some physicists posit quarks to fill this gap. Now there are physicists who explicitly believe or disbelieve in the existence of quarks. Those who don’t argue that there is no evidence (or not enough evidence) to believe, those who do argue that they’re required to make sense of our knowledge of physics at the particle level, and that this is enough evidence. Finally, more evidence accrues, and most physicists decide that belief in quarks is necessary.

    If, at some point in the future, a better explanation comes along that doesn’t involve quarks, it’s likely that some physicists, at first, will still believe, while some won’t. The latter will argue that there’s no evidence for quarks, and that the only reason the former still believe in them is because of the scientific culture in which they’ve been educated (raised). The disbelievers will argue that once the believers shed that cultural baggage, they will accept that there’s no evidence for the existence of quarks and stop believing in them.

    It’s not a perfect analogy of course, but I think it conveys the basic point. The 18th century physicist is sort of like a human without cultural baggage: he or she is in a state of unbelief, a sort of atheism about quarks, because there’s no evidence of their existence, and no cultural history involving them. The 21st century, post-death of the quark believing physicist is like the theist, believing in the face of a complete lack of evidence, because he or she was educated/socialized in a culture that included the existence of quarks. The disbelieving 21st century physicist is the new atheist.

  20. #20 Chris
    July 24, 2007

    And just to be clear, the new atheist, adopting the 21st century disbelieving physicist’s anti-quark position with respect to God, is wrong. Theism, it appears, is the default position, as some of the developmental work I’ve discussed on this blog indicates quite clearly. It’s as though physicists were born with a belief in quarks as a default position, regardless of the cultural or evidentiary history of quarks.

    Kevembuangga, when Clark references divine intervention, I don’t think he’s making claims about the religions’ truth, but about their meaningfulness. I’m not sure your mocking quite addresses that.

  21. #21 Kevembuangga
    July 24, 2007

    Chris : Of course, the new atheists aren’t arguing that anyone or anything is completely independent of culture once enculturated, but prior to that, they are claiming explicitly or implicitly, we are atheists because abstract reason dictates atheism, and we’re inherently rational beings. It’s this that leads them to the belief that if you can shed the cultural baggage associated with religion, you can get back to that pre-cultural state of atheism.

    If this is the “correct” definition of a new atheist I am neither a new atheist nor a Neville Chamberlain atheist.
    I certainly do not think we are rational beings, au contraire I have already been arguing on this blog that we are fundamentally and probably necessarily irrational and, furthermore, that attempts to be fully rational will lead to psychiatric trouble.
    I think that we have indeed a penchant for theism (a la Scott Atran) but that this does not mean that we should indulge in this more seriously than in the pleasure of telling fairy tales.
    So much for the “meaningfulness” of theism, no more no less than a good novel, Shakespeare & als…
    You only chop off people’s heads about literature when you are religious, Salman Rushdie anyone?

    I’m not sure your mocking quite addresses that.

    My mocking mainly address Clark’s pretense at “testability” but also address the so-called meaning.
    Between the “Spirit of the Funnel” (may his shadow grow ever longer) and well revered “classic” Gods there is only a difference on the ridicule scale, not a difference in nature.
    This “nature” being that you ascribe an anthropomorphic intention to some phenomenon that you find beyond your comprehension.

  22. #22 Kevembuangga
    July 24, 2007

    Correction : divine intervention and “testability”

  23. #23 Macht
    July 24, 2007

    Chris, he was talking about relativism over on my blog too. He also said “these posts” which I took to mean your post and my post.

  24. #24 scritic
    July 24, 2007

    So Chris, mind telling us why Steven Weinberg is a bad writer?

    Just bought a nice used copy of “Dreams of a Final Theory” which I’ve wanted to read a while. Haven’t started it yet though. And I have read certain essays from “Facing Up”. Now I don’t agree with Weinberg on many things, especially his take on philosophy and a little of his stance towards critical theory (he’s way too dismissive) but I find his writing fairly engaging.

    So how about a review of a Weinberg book next?

  25. #25 Richard
    July 24, 2007

    Yes, Macht is right, I thought both posts were assuming some form of cultural relativism. I’m just not seeing any other argument here, besides the relativistic interpretation offered in my previous comment. And Chris, you just seem to be confirming this argument, viz.

    1. The new atheist holds that “religion, and all its ontological baggage, are strictly [i.e. merely] cultural products.”

    2. You then argue: “new atheism is itself such a cultural position in that it arrived at its view of reason through cultural processes (i.e., through something extraneous to its posited pristine reason).”

    But of course the alleged contradiction only follows if the grounds of atheism are likewise “strictly” cultural, and lacking in independent rational support. It’s perfectly consistent for a new atheist to hold that the products of enlightenment culture are objectively superior – in terms of their epistemic justification – than the beliefs of people who think that dancing causes the rain to fall.

    As for all your talk of “natural” or “default” beliefs, I fail to see the relevance. We think — with a nod to Occam’s Razor — that atheism is the normative default, i.e. that which *ought* to be held in the absence of positive reasons. The fact that people have a natural tendency to posit supernatural explanations is of no more normative import than their natural tendency to rape and pillage. (Unless you really mean to accuse Dawkins et al of committing the naturalistic fallacy?)

  26. #26 Explicit Atheist
    July 24, 2007

    Richard is correct when he says “If you’re not going to address the epistemic question (what do we have most reason to believe true?) then, for all your denunciations, you simply aren’t really engaging with the new atheists at all.”

    What is the difference between saying “God did it” and saying “I have no idea why/how that came to be”? If they are equivelant statements then how is atheism “wrong”? If someone says “the devil made them do it” is that a valid explanation? If yes, how does that function as a valid explanation? If not, then how is that different from saying “God did it”? It seems to me that god lacks explanatory content/utility/validity, there is no explanatory value added, and lacking that I don’t see how god merits being taking seriously.

  27. #27 Chris
    July 24, 2007

    Richard, the post was an argument that the new atheist position is just a cultural biproduct, that is, a product based entirely on the culture of science (or a twisted misrepresentation of that), and that there is no rational basis for it Part of the point of indicating that in cultures where science hasn’t been so great to the people, these arguments are nonexistent, was to hint that it’s entirely cultural. . It also, quite clearly I think, is a sort of reverse of the naturalisic fallacy. They argue: it works, therefore it’s true, therefore it’s natural (the pragmatic argument is explicit in some of Dawkins’ and Harris’ work — look how well science has done, so it must be true).

    The natural part is important because it relates to their epistemological theory. That theory — broadly, verificationism — requires independent, objective evidence for belief, and in order for such evidence to work, you have to start from a position of complete atheism (not agnosticism, but atheism, because the idea, among new atheists, is that a lack of evidence for existence is evidence against existence). If you start from any other position, then you will, of necessity, interpret the evidence accordingly. If you start, for example, from the default position that supernatural beings are likely, then you will almost certainly find evidence for their existence, either through reasoning or observation (or both).

  28. #28 Richard
    July 25, 2007

    So my original interpretation of your argument was, in fact, spot on. You say “there is no rational basis” for metaphysical beliefs. That’s epistemic nihilism. And, of course, no New Atheist is going to accept that premise. So it’s pretty misleading to pretend that they’re “contradicting themselves”, when really they’re just contradicting you.

    Part of the point of indicating that in cultures where science hasn’t been so great to the people, these arguments are nonexistent, was to hint that it’s entirely cultural.

    This assumes cultural relativism: i.e., that those non-scientific cultures are epistemically on a par with ours. But why think that? It’s entirely open to the New Atheist to say that the cultures you’re pointing to are rationally inferior ones. (Evidence: they lack all these rational arguments of ours!)

    As a general point, you’re not going to make any progress here by doing anthropology. It’s a philosophical issue, and the only way to address it is by doing philosophy, i.e. actually assessing the arguments for and against God’s existence, and showing that the atheist’s arguments are no good.

    You haven’t even begun to do this.

  29. #29 Explicit Atheist
    July 25, 2007

    We start with non-belief because the universe of imaginable fact claims is infinite, most conceivable fact claims are nonsense, so it is inefficient to the point of being entirely impractical and counterproductive to start by believing all fact claims are true. Astrology is false until we have a adequate reason to believe otherwise, etc.

    “the culture of science” IS the rigorous utilization of “rational basis”, so it does no good here to say “there is no rational basis for” “the culture of science”. Methodological naturalism, which is really what you are talking about when you speak of “the culture of science”, “works” and, yes, methodological naturalism’s record of success is itself a rational basis for adopting philosophical naturalism and discarding failed methodological supernaturalism such as astrology, etc.

  30. #30 CA
    July 25, 2007

    This orignal post is a nice presentation of the fact that human perception, interpretation, understanding, and communication of scientific data is influnced significantly by cognitive principles (whether or not there are metaphors ;-)). So we need a science of the cognition of science.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.