Pharyngula

Bumblin’ Midgley babbles again

Is Mary Midgley supposed to be the epitome of philosophical confusion and bungling incomprehension? She’s like the Emily Litella of science criticism, always going off on harebrained tangents of her own invention, but unlike Litella, nothing ever compels her to offer a meek “Never mind”. Midgely has done it again with another tirade against the New Atheists.

Science really isn’t connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish. For instance, Isaac Newton noted gladly that his theory of gravitation gave a scientific proof of God’s existence. Today’s anti-god warriors, by contrast, declare that Darwin’s evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of that existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public.

But…but…none of the New Atheists claim to have a disproof of gods! We’re all rather explicit in saying that we can’t disprove every possible formulation of a deity, and we’re not even going to try.

We could just stop there, since especially for a philosopher, she seems exceedingly confused about just what the argument is about, but let’s push on and see what kind of point she’s trying to make.

In both cases the huge prestige of science is being used not for scientific purposes but to defend an existing general world-view. In both cases that defence is found necessary because this world-view, though prevalent and respected, has been coming under attack. And in both cases the supposedly scientific argument provided is weak. It only convinces people who already share that world-view.

Naturally, Newton’s arguments scarcely need refuting today. Though he was not a Christian, he reasoned that gravity cannot be physically caused because it acts at a distance and material causes were believed always to work by contact, leaving God – a “god of the gaps” – as the only possible cause. Nobody thinks like this now.

Say what? “God of the gaps” is the number one most common defense of theism I encounter — people are always saying that if we don’t know what happened at the Big Bang or at the instant the first cell appeared, that that is an action by their god. It’s the whole foundation of the Intelligent Design creationism movement that poking at inadequacies or incompleteness in evolution’s account of the world is the way to identify where their designer god was at work. I’m hoping she is just saying that no one believes that action at a distance is impossible, but her writing is awfully confusing.

Unfortunately, in order to make her case that the New Atheist argument is just like Newton’s argument for god, she has to mangle the idea dreadfully.

But is today’s evolutionary argument – which is often treated as fatal not just to Christianity but to religion generally – actually any stronger?

I am not questioning that there can be valid objection to theism. (Buddhists, of course, deploy many of them.) The point is simply that this particular argument is irrelevant to it. Appeals to evolution are only damaging to biblical literalism. Certainly the events described in Genesis 1 are not literally compatible with what science (from long before Darwin’s day) tells us about the antiquity of the Earth. But this is not news. The early Christian fathers pointed out that the creation story must be interpreted symbolically, not literally.

No, no, no. It is not an evolutionary argument, it is a science argument — you can be a physicist or a geologist or a chemist or a biologist and have the sense to reject religious belief. It is also not specifically a reaction against young earth creationism, except in a very general sense that creationism is an example of the arbitrary unreliability of religious ideas. That people can continue to believe in ridiculous nonsense that has been disproven, such as the idea that the earth is only 6000 years old, merely because it has the support of some religions, is an instance of the corrupting effect of faith.

It’s also not scientism. There is no expectation that a system for generating knowledge has to follow a narrowly defined scientific method (although no one has yet shown us a functioning alternative.)

Here’s the logic behind the scientific rejection of religion, which is nothing like the weird version Midgley has cobbled up. The success of science has shown us what an effective knowledge generator accomplishes: it produces consensus and an increasing body of support for its conclusions, and it has observable effects, specifically improvements in our understanding and ability to manipulate the world. We can share evidence that other people can evaluate and replicate, and an idea can spread because it works and is independently verifiable.

Look at religion. It is a failure. There is no convergence of ideas, no means to test ideas, and no reliable outcomes from those ideas. It’s noise and chaos and arbitrary eruptions of ridiculous rationalizations. Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism can’t all be true — and no, please don’t play that game of reducing each religion to a mush that merely recognizes divinity. Religions have very specific dogmas, and practitioners do not blithely shuffle between them. Those differences are indefensible if they actually have a universal source of reliable knowledge about metaphysics.

Again, this is not a demand that religions must conform to science’s methods, only that we should be able to assess whether it works. I can imagine a world where revelation, for instance, actually generates useful knowledge, where people independently acquired specific information piped right into their heads, straight from god. I’d expect, though, that there would be some agreement between all the recipients. It could even be strictly theological information, with no expectation of material support. If a host of people all around the world suddenly heard a gong in their heads, followed by the words (in their own language, of course) “The name of God is Potrzebie”, well, then…there’s something interesting going on. If these kinds of revelations continued and were consistent across cultures and traditions, I’d be willing to consider that there was something outside the human mind that was communicating with us. I’d admittedly be baffled by it all, but the fact that there’d be growing cross-cultural consensus on very specific claims would be hard to ignore.

As for outcomes, it also doesn’t have to be something material — religion wouldn’t have to be a tool for making better microwave ovens before I’d believe it, for instance. It could provide a universal moral code, or be an effective tool for improving mental health. If the enlightened people of Potrzebie were demonstrably calmer, more peaceful, and better at coping with stress because of the intermittent revelations, then I’d also have to admit that something was up. It’s actually too bad that there isn’t any such phenomenon taking place.

Basically, we’ve learned from the example of science that a way of knowing ought to do what it promises to do. They don’t have to promise to do exactly the same thing — architecture and botany, for instance, don’t have the same goals or methods, so we wouldn’t expect physics and theology to echo each other’s answers — but they ought to produce something reliable and true.

The fact that no religion can is damaging to them. Biblical literalism is crazy nonsense, but no more so than transubstantiation or doctrines of salvation or any accounts of what happens in heaven or hell. What drives our rejection of religion isn’t that a few bits and pieces of specific religious beliefs, like the literal interpretation of Genesis, have been falsified, but that no consistent knowledge comes out of religion at all…yet every religion claims to provide knowledge about the nature of the universe.

Midgley just offers us more gooey jello to play with, though.

Like cargo cults, however, this Bible worship [referring to biblical literalism] is also a spiritual phenomenon, a message felt in the heart. Despite its confusions, it involves a genuine response to the real wisdom which can also be found in the Bible. Serious attempts to answer it need, therefore, to acknowledge that wisdom. They must try to show ways of combining it with more modern thinking.

“Spiritual” is a meaningless word, the last feeble gasp of a foolish faith that has nothing to offer except reassuring sussurations. There may well be wisdom in the Bible because it is a literary work created by people trying to understand their world, but it has no special privilege as a source of that kind of wisdom — it’s there in Heller’s Catch-22, or Borges’ The Library of Babel, or Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, or Hitler’s Mein Kampf…and just because someone wrote it down does not obligate us to regard it as true. The New Atheists have no problem with treating the Bible as a book, evaluating it as a human work with flaws and glories…but these apologists always want something more, as if it is a grievous insult to religion if we fail to treat a plodding hodge-podge of fantasy with the proper reverence, that we must pretend that it is a special product infused with something holy. That’s not going to happen.

There have been many millions of books written, and we do not have to respect them all. No one trots out the Harry Potter books and tells us that we must combine those novels “with more modern thinking”. Why does this one holy book get singled out as a source of wisdom? Especially when, if you actually do read it, it’s a horror of vicious tribalism and questionable ethics and enduring ignorance. I have read it, seriously and with an effort to extract these jewels of wisdom it’s supposed to contain. I think modern thinking would be better off trying to untangle itself from this wicked dogma.

Midgley just has to close with more infuriating nonsense.

Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more “scientific hypothesis like any other”. It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions. Though they are always loaded with lumber and often dangerous, we need them. So, when we try to relate and improve them we have to treat each of them as a whole. We would not be right, any more than Newton was, to start by taking our own standpoint as infallible.

Just because the fervency of a belief smothers those who hold it into a vision of the world does not make it true, and definitely does not make it exempt from treating it as a hypothesis, and evaluating whether it is actually true or not. While we all have “world-views”, what Midgley is promoting is perilously close to insisting on privileging her Biblical BS as something we must respect…and her real gripe with the New Atheists is not that we claim infallibility, but that we joyously poke holes in her cherished delusion.

And no, no one needs to believe in a cosmic intelligence, let alone the weird squinty petulant psychotic of the Abrahamic religions. It really is possible to say no to myths.