Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The rising spectres of scientism and devout agnosticism

There are a couple of new kids on the block so far as the debate about God's existence goes, and they're going to prove very annoying. In fact, they already have in the dozen or two times I've already seen them, at least for me. These are the idea of scientism, a supposed dogmatic belief that science can answer all questions and sometimes even that it has firm philosophical foundations, and its kissing-cousin devout agnosticism, the belief, more or less, that since we know we can't know everything, we essentially should act as if we don't know anything. I have a love-hate relationship with these ideas, and I'd like to explain why.


Scientism is not entirely a new idea. It's been around at least since Popper and maybe before, and it gets a lot of use and support from religious believers like Catholic theologian John F. Haught, who is becoming famous for his use of the term. Folks like these are using it in a new way: blowing it utterly out of proportion, somewhat disingenuously, to achieve a goal they cannot otherwise.

It's a weird thing, even if the idea philosophically might be somewhat prudent, at least until we know more. The reason it's strange is that the people who harp the loudest and most often about it appear to be positing that science, taken dogmatically or overreachingly, is bad because dogma and overreaching are bad things. Of course, that's exactly the foundation of (religious) faith, and so it's weird that they saw the limb out from under themselves like that. Of course, doing it that way is a beautiful, classic example of a red herring.

Let's look at it on its face: Scientism says that science, including the scientific method of inquiry, doesn't have and cannot provide all of the answers and thus should not be treated as if it could. What, though, does that have to do with religion or faith in God? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! That makes it a classic red herring.

The idea is only connected to religious faith for people who believe there is some sort of dilemma between science and faith. Sure, they're incompatible ideas and are kind of on the opposite ends of the spectrum epistemologically, but they're not exhaustive. Since trying to damage the reputation of science--by stressing the limitations it has over the simple fact that it works, which is rather a case of poisoning the well--cannot bolster religion but can only possibly make people more hesitant to accept scientific claims and thought, it's a classic red herring to even bring it up--a rather embarrassing one at that!

Alternatively, sometimes it is posed that scientism is a problem particularly because it attempts to make claims about religious faith itself, something that is by definition assumed not to be subject to scientific inquiry. If it's not subject to scientific inquiry, though, we have to ask what that means in a practical sense. Anything that affects nature, including the human nervous system, is subject to scientific inquiry. Thus, we can conclude that if articles of religious faith are to be exempt from that, then they are purely philosophical, or more bluntly, imaginary.

If that's where theologians want their God, bully for them, I suppose, but it provides them no license to talk about any of the things God supposedly does in the world, like answer prayers, care, judge, influence events, perform miracles, send calamities as punishments, or make and act upon plans for any of us. If they want to take their God back to the Neoplatonist philosophy that segregated it from superstition-as-usual and leave it there, great. God is a metaphor for an idea of perfect goodness. The only problem with that approach is that other people take the word "God" differently, and thus they should really just add the "o" and call it "good," dispensing with the silly honorific capitalization while they're at it.

Another big problem with scientism is that in the way it is presented, it essentially just falls for a complexity argument. While there are legitimately questions that science or the scientific method cannot practically answer and some (meaningful) ones that it may not have much to say on--maybe, I can't actually think of any after a lot of trying--it's an utter sham to make the kinds of claims that people who call "scientism" make. Maybe that makes me a scientismist, or as we usually refer to them, scientist, which is a term doing just fine for humanity without the pejorative connotation religion and Republicans presently want to staple to it for their own selfish ends.

If we're honest, we can see that science can't answer every question. History has questions that cannot be answered by science ever, like the exact wording of unrecorded verbal exchanges from the past, but historical investigation is strengthened, not ignored or diminished by science. Sam Harris makes the example in The Moral Landscape of a question science could answer in principle but cannot in practice, a count of the number of birds in flight over the earth's surface at this moment. Science can't answer every question, and it is a bit silly to believe it can. The thing is, no one with any literacy in the field expects that it can, and so scientism is put forth as an argument against a position no one holds--another red herring.

On another front, science is accused of being able to say anything about other matters traditionally attached to God. Sam Harris, again in The Moral Landscape, makes it staggeringly clear that science can offer a lot in the realm of morality, for one. Others, like beauty and emotions (like love) will almost certainly be very well understood within a century or two, if we keep on. When they are understood, God will fall away from the picture as we see them for that they are: neural and biological phenomena. If we look honestly at what fMRI can already do in its infancy and jump forward 100 or 1000 years, most of the artsy-fartsy "mysteries" will have pretty neat explanations available to them, i.e. buying the scientism schtick is falling for a complexity argument.

Devout Agnostics

In the same camp of imprecision are "devout agnostics" that claim, essentially, "since we cannot know everything, we can't really say we know anything." That's wrong, though. We know a lot of stuff, like how to cure the appendicitis of people saying this kind of stuff, saving his life and allowing him to continue saying it.

Devout agnosticism is frankly the hipster take on religious claims, the black-is-the-new-white way of thinking about what we know and how we know what we know. It's hip and trendy with the young folks to not believe in dogmatic religious nonsense now, and yet being one of those loud-mouthed atheist types is as uncool as being a completely unironic, and therefore insufferable, know-it-all.

Trendy, annoying, and mostly vacuous in content, devout agnosticism is a phase humanity is trudging through as it works through its adolescence.

Why I love them, annoying as they are

These two poisonous ideas are going to be center stage for the next decade or two on this front. It's going to be maddeningly frustrating for those of us who understand things, but it's a major sign of hope. They're a canary in the coal mine telling us that the stinking vapors belched out by religious oppression are noxious and recognized as such.

First, "devout agnosticism" has a rising popularity that is going to push people further away from religion. It's a two-edged sword that essentially rejects dogmatism across the board, and, fundamentally, its adherents are agnostic, not religious. That we already see the religious rallying around this position, like they do when attacking Richard Dawkins, for example, is a sign of the times. Theism is usually desperate to include people (like Deists, like Benjamin Franklin) in their ranks, and now they're even allying with agnostics! It's literally a Hail Mary pass to a God of the Gaps that isn't there, and it cannot result in a touchdown.

Second, scientism: Ha! Great! How hard do you have to be on the run to be attacking the philosophical underpinnings of something that is so obviously successful? The hypocrisy of attacking the ability of science to answer questions while using the fruits of it, like computers, to disseminate that message is apparent even to some imbeciles. This is not going to be the kind of argument that brings people to faith. At most, it will bring people toward "devout agnosticism," which is still not religion. Maybe a few here and there will be pursuaded to the myths based on the tiny space of doubt this line of rhetorical bollocks opens up, but, honestly, who cares?

This stuff, as maddening as it will be, is a clear sign of the times. Religion is washed up.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Religion Replenishes Self-Control"? I'm not so sure...

Having been written about fairly widely, in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, I'd like to comment on a recent publication by the journal Psychological Science indicates "Religion Replenishes Self-Control," based upon a study done by Canadian psychologists Kevin Rounding, Albert Lee, Jill A. Jacobson, and Li-Jun Ji. Specifically, the article's abstract reads:
Researchers have proposed that the emergence of religion was a cultural adaptation necessary for promoting self-control. Self-control, in turn, may serve as a psychological pillar supporting a myriad of adaptive psychological and behavioral tendencies. If this proposal is true, then subtle reminders of religious concepts should result in higher levels of self-control. In a series of four experiments, we consistently found that when religious themes were made implicitly salient, people exercised greater self-control, which, in turn, augmented their ability to make decisions in a number of behavioral domains that are theoretically relevant to both major religions and humans’ evolutionary success. Furthermore, when self-control resources were minimized, making it difficult for people to exercise restraint on future unrelated self-control tasks, we found that implicit reminders of religious concepts refueled people’s ability to exercise self-control. Moreover, compared with morality- or death-related concepts, religion had a unique influence on self-control.
I find this intriguing, of course, and I expect we're seeing yet another application of Ockham's so-called broom, sweeping confounding factors under the rug.

Jonah Lehrer, writing for the Wall Street Journal, does a decent job summarizing the study in simpler language. He writes,
According to research led by Kevin Rounding at Queen's University in Ontario and recently published in Psychological Science, Rabbi Wolpe is right: People are better able to resist their desires when thinking about God. In a series of clever experiments, the Canadian scientists demonstrated that triggering subconscious thoughts of faith increased self-control.
Okay. So?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are atheists and other infidels really stingy, and if so, why?

It's a common trope that I run into on the Internet, particularly in forums, that atheists are less likely to give to charity, or to give as much to charity, as religious people. That these allegations are frequently made by people who cannot even seem to be accurate about what an atheist really is, while poignant, is technically an ad hominem, so we should wonder about the matter, especially those of us who do not believe in gods.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Welcome, and publishing progress for the start of May 2012

First, let me welcome you to the blog for God Doesn't; We Do. You, of course, are the reason that I've written the book, and you are the reason I will be writing and maintaining this blog.

My intention with this first post is not to blast anyone with information, but rather just to make clear the position that I am in with regard to publishing. Currently, the book is going through its last round of copy editing, to ensure high quality and clarity, and I refuse to publish it a minute before it is ready. I also endeavor to get it published as soon as is reasonably possible, early this summer. This is an achievable goal.

The book is slated to be self-published, and this is entirely by choice. The reasons will be detailed below the fold.

Currently, the copy-editors are running a very careful comb through Chapter 6 (of 11) and making steady progress. It's an exciting process and an exciting time, but it is a process that requires detail, thought, and care, so it is not one of instant gratification. I appreciate everyone's interest and continued patience and expect they will find it well worth the wait.