Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A telling sentence from Massimo Pigliucci

A couple of weeks ago, Massimo Pigliucci wrote a paper in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy criticizing the "scientistic turn" in "New Atheism." At the beginning he points out two main characteristics of the "New Atheism movement," one extrinsic (public popularity) and another intrinsic (scientism).

(NB: Apparent scare quotes are actually uses of Pigliucci's terminology, for as I have expressed in the past, I think an "atheism movement" of any kind is probably an error, though it may be necessary at present to change the social tide. The real goal is demanding good reasons for beliefs from which atheism naturally follows.)

One might think that the extrinsic characteristic is based upon another overlooked intrinsic characteristic: an intense intentional effort to popularize "New Atheism," which is itself based upon yet another intrinsic characteristic: raising the visibility of the unacceptable harms of religion as a prime modus operandi, using only the fact that the religions aren't based on truths, rather cherished supertruths, to illustrate the utter failure implied by these harms.

These topics are not my intent to discuss, though, and neither is "scientism" itself, so I will leave them to talk briefly about what Pigliucci identifies as the intrinsic and defining characteristic of "New Atheism," its "scientistic" turn. He reveals very early in his paper that he feels that philosophy is critical to the "New Atheism movement."
The second reason is intrinsic [to New Atheism], and close to the core of my argument in this paper: the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. (p. 144)
Maybe philosophy is that important. I won't dispute that here. There is, however, an important point that, perhaps, Pigliucci isn't considering with enough seriousness. He mentions atheistic philosophers like David Hume and Bertrand Russell, among many others, mentioning specifically that,
There [does not] appear to be anything particularly new [about New Atheism] from a philosophical standpoint, as the standard arguments advanced by the New Atheists against religion are just about the same that have been put forth by well-known atheists or agnostic philosophers from David Hume to Bertrand Russell. 
I wonder if Pigliucci has wondered much about why this might be.

The answer is easy: clearly it didn't work.

Religion, as a strident atheist and outspoken atheistic intellectual like Pigliucci must realize, is still something of a major problem. He cites 9/11 as a possible cause for the surge in popularity of New Atheism (leaving sociologists to work out the reality), and he's probably right. Why? It tragically put in dramatic relief the problems with continuing to espouse ancient-religious mindsets in an era including airplanes (as a symbolic technological advance that represents also machine guns, plastic explosives, missiles, and nuclear warheads).

Philosophy had hundreds of years of primacy between Hume and 9/11/2001 and many tens between Russell and that now-infamous date. The goal was to settle the problem, to reach the public in a way where the terrible grip of religion was broken. Hume's arguments should have been sufficient. Russell was a hammer. Religion didn't even blink.

What Pigliucci is missing is a fact that is likely to be taken as both impolite and cold to point out, but it remains. I'll add double emphasis it to make it stand out: Most people do not care enough about philosophy to revise their beliefs. In all likelihood, they never will, no matter how many papers like his are published.

The reason for this is also simple--and it's not a statement that most people don't care about philosophy as much as they should. William Lane Craig identified it in 2008 in his book Reasonable Faith (p. 48): "Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding." I'm reminded of the opening scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in which Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is conversing with the Prime Minister of Britain, who wonders why the wizards cannot contain Voldemort with their magical powers. "The trouble is, Prime Minister, the other side can do magic too," Fudge explains.

To put that in plainer language, since theologians are often less concerned with being right than with defending their cherished beliefs, and this trait is shared perhaps even more strongly by lay believers, philosophy leaves for them a doorway that is open far, far too widely, allowing a dead debate to continue. And hence they continue to believe their beliefs. They still defend the Kalam Cosmological Argument and Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology, for instance! And some atheist philosophers intentionally help them do it! (Are they drunk with the intrigue of interesting and clever arguments?)

It is a metaphysical position (philosophy) that God exists, and as a metaphysical position, it is effectively unassailable to those who accept it (as I have insisted, axiomatically). On this metaphysic (philosophy) is attached a sense of telos (philosophy) through God, and to that believers cling. Many believers accept deontological moral values (philosophy) that come from God, hiding effectively unassailable behind the shield of nuanced moral philosophy, and to these believers also cling.

Philosophy may be an excellent tool to dismantle these arguments, perhaps even the best tool to do it, but they don't care because philosophy offers up enough of a defense to  keep the conversation going hundreds of years later. (And meanwhile, the harms pile up and totter toward unimaginable potential heights.) Philosophy, in fact, may be the only tool to settle these arguments, but it faces the problem that among believers, it doesn't settle the arguments; it perpetuates them.

What's the difference with science? Physical evidence. The rock of reality. The epistemological salience of evidence cuts through theological bullshit, to quote Christian apologist and philosopher (with research interests in epistemology) Tim McGrew, "like a buzzsaw through balsa." (NB: McGrew was talking about the techniques in Peter Boghossian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists, which urge to stay focused upon the epistemological claims at the center of religious belief, which he rightly notes that they cannot defend.)

The other side may be able to do "magic" (philosophy in this case--not to imply that they are the same, it's just a literary allusion to make a point) too, but the evidence is the evidence--and it doesn't care a whit about anyone's beliefs. This difference is important, particularly when one side doesn't value getting things right as highly as continuing to believe.

Science has changed the world, and the effect in the last century is overwhelming and undeniable. We all have grown up in this situation now, and despite the growing distrust for science, we all recognize the incredible potency of science to get right answers to hard questions that matter.

Philosophy can do this too, but the door is too open; the rock is too subtle, and thus beliefs do not change. This isn't a discussion about whether or not science can answer every question, or even about scientism, but rather about explaining a clear reason why "New Atheism" relies more heavily upon science than philosophy. To quote Richard Dawkins in a way that Pigliucci certainly won't approve of--it works, bitches.

Look at the situation realistically. It's almost impossible to get devout believers even to accept evidence that repeatedly bangs itself against their faces. They deny evolution, to their peril if taken seriously. They deny climate science, to all of our peril, because it's so easy to tie that political agenda to their beliefs. They are caught in a web of confirmation bias that allows them to distort evidence in their favor whenever they can. Even the rock of the world, even when it rains disaster upon them, cannot so easily change their minds. It's part of God's plan, don't ya know, (philosophy); He knows best (philosophy); it's the wages of sin (philosophy); and who are we to question Him (philosophy)?

Though he may disagree, I would hope that Pigliucci has noticed that the "New Atheism" effort has had an unparalleled--which is not to say anything like complete--level of success at reaching people and helping them out of their beliefs. Its nearest rival is probably the God-Is-Dead movement of the 1950s which was largely based upon a "scientistic" public attitude, along with economic prosperity, which is key to rendering religious beliefs less relevant. Of course, that movement mostly led to dormancy in beliefs, leaving open the door to revival, which appears to be less likely following the overt stridency (and rebellion against institutionalized authority) that better characterizes "New Atheism" than any other characteristic. This rebelliousness is obviously resisted, but while philosophy may be able to guide and referee science, it cannot overturn observation.

The reason is straightforward if one understands the role philosophy plays in theology. It is possible to philosophy away philosophy, and it is possible to philosophy away evidence, but the latter is harder and gets more difficult as evidence mounts. Real evidence is always salient, and so disconfirming evidence is far more glaring to beliefs than contravening philosophy. It appears suggestive that the "scientismists" may have kept their hands folded and mouths shut, respecting the traditional narrow boundaries of science, for far too long.

I'm not saying that philosophy isn't a good or important tool in the effort to free our societies of the toxic grip of religion, but I am saying that while most people do not care enough about philosophy to change their beliefs, many more do care that much about science. This should offer a clear explanation for Pigliucci and others for the "scientistic" turn of the "New Atheism movement," and perhaps give him an opportunity to consider again if it is "not at all positive."

PS: This may be a philosophical argument as it is, but it's also a falsifiable, discoverable psychological/sociological fact about the world.


  1. What fact were you referring to when you said this?

    >> "This may be a philosophical argument as it is, but it's also a falsifiable, discoverable psychological/sociological fact about the world."

  2. James with respect to what you said about Tim Mcgrew here, have you read this? http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2014/01/23/rumors-of-my-endorsement-have-been-greatly-exaggerated/

  3. I was talking to a Philosophy PhD student a few years ago. "Philosophy?" I asked. What are you going to do with that?" We talked about his focus, epistemology, and he told me about how he and his department were working on trying to to frame problems that could be investigated scientifically. It was all so re-assuring -- and so different -- than what I run into discussions with apologists. When you spend too much time touching on religion I think that philosophy can be painted in too trivial a light. Anyway, I'd hate to think that the philosophy borrowed by theologians is all there is to it.

    1. For the sake of writing something under 2000 words for once (did I even succeed this time?), I fear I didn't say enough to cover everything that needs to be said about philosophy when it even gets within the neighborhood of the irritating scientism orbit.

      Let me clarify my goal here: To explain as plainly as I can exactly why I think the focus of "New Atheism" is so heavily promotional of science. That's it. The answer: it works.

      I strongly suspect that philosophical arguments about theology are of comparatively very low efficacy in changing minds (though they fill in gaps for people who already doubt and come looking without theistic biases in place). I make few claims in this piece about other philosophy. Maybe I should put it in bold at the top as a qualifier...

      I know philosophy is important. I know philosophy undergirds science and that science cannot be done without philosophy (so doing science implies doing philosophy in a sense). I know philosophy has important and legitimate roles with regard to science and otherwise (I do not agree about where all of those roles are fuzzily delineated, but that's immaterial to this point). I do not need to be told this or have it implied that what I said here is beholden to it in any way I'm not aware of--it was part of the underlying assumption of what I wrote.

      My essential claim is that theology doesn't budge much to philosophy (except to usurp and pervert it to its purposes) because they believe they have their own philosophy (that assumes God) that rebuts it. They try this against evidence, but it leaves them looking far more foolish to do so, particularly the higher the public confidence in science.

    2. I want to add that I rather tend to see philosophy in exactly the role the person in your story indicates, along with the roles of adding interpretation and to seeking to do what we can with overly complex realms of knowledge.

      With regard to science, I often view philosophy's role largely like the referees in a sporting match, but I'm not sure that they're often fully aware of the fact that the existence and nature of the game itself referees them. Thus, sometimes we find some of them out in the parking lot making calls in an imaginary game.

      What often gets called legitimate (meaning non-spirituality/supernatural/theological-defending) accusations of scientism is immaterial to this post, but it's also easily seen to be predominantly over where we draw the line on science coming into moral philosophy.

      Folks like Pigliucci say that science can merely inform the matter but can never really determine values--thus must stay out of the "values" game. Folks like Harris say that it's unintelligible to interpret values in a way that can't be understood as facts (within the purview of science) about the world, even if these prove too complex to get great answers in that manner alone. I'm far, far more inclined to Harris's position than Pigliucci's in this case.

    3. What about Daniel Dennett's take on philosophy as it relates to science?

      "The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again. … There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions."

    4. Btw, I would like to say that you (JL) have been very, very clear about the important role of philosophy in science. You have just been saying, more or less, that philosophy without science is rather worthless stuff.

      I haven't really commented much on these because it would basically be nodding my head.

    5. I should apologize for being a bit snappy with you, Cal, in that previous comment. Since publishing this, I have been rather inundated with stuff like what Mr. Anthony put just above, which essentially implies that I do not understand the critical role played by philosophy in the scientific endeavor.

      I'm getting more and more convinced that--while it is possible I wasn't sufficiently clear about that in the original exposition--something else is motivating these comments.

    6. I'm just asking what you think of it James, that's all. So what do you think of it?

    7. What do I think of what? Philosophy?

  4. Here is more of the quote from Darwin's Dangerous idea, I think the first part is of great importance

    "Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."

    - Daniel Dennett