Monday, March 24, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (16): a response to the Chimp

I'm going to pick out some elements from the Chimp's recent comment. My remarks in italics.

Yes, very sophisticated. Proclemations made with no support. Science is the absolute antithesis of faith. In adopting the scientific method, nothing is believed to be true without evidence.

This isn't true. For implicit in the method, even as you describe it, is the construct of 'evidence', which contains assumptions about what is allowed to count as evidence. This notion is embedded in a whole patchwork quilt of assumptions from empiricism. Once these assumptions are brought out into the open the scientific endeavour starts to look much less pristine.

Faith is the exact opposite. The suggestion that science is in some way a faith position is ingnorant and misleading. It seems to me that anything half-hearted that states nothing concrete is 'sophisticated'.

No, I think what is sophisticated is being able to step aside from the culturally acceptable rhetoric about science, and recognising science as a cultural construct itself. That's why Ian and I can have productive conversations.

We 'humourless' Atheists are 'humourless' because we refuse to leave any wiggle room for religious fantasy.

Rather, I would say the humourlessness comes from not recognising a) the non-fantastical elements of religion, and b) the fantastical elements of science.

As for the end of faith, I have yet to witness a scientist strapping explosives to himself and blowing up civilans in honor of a theory or torturing someone to death because they would not subscribe to their view of gravity.

This is silly.I'm quite sure that if we were able to work out some sort of utilitarian calculation on which set of beliefs had had the most malign consequences - religious exploration and teachings, or scientific exploration and teachings - then science would end up with by far the most bloody hands. In other words, I'll trade you one Torquemada for your chemical warfare.

Science represents civilization, cooperation and the free expression of ideas.

You missed out motherhood and apple pie :) Those values existed before the rise of science and are maintained apart from the maintenance of science. What I would want to ask you is: can you give a scientifically acceptable explanation of those values?

Not all ideas are defacto accepted as equal. Some ideas are bad ones, they are discarded in favour of good ones.

How is this different from a religion?

There is no 'holy' text that cannot be contradicted.

Perhaps not a text, but certainly a network of culturally embedded assumptions. As Kuhn points out, what makes scientific practices change isn't some semi-mystical notion of 'reason conquering ignorance' but simply a generational change when those established scientists who don't 'get' a new theory die out and are replaced. Reason has very little to do with it (aesthetics is much more important).

Religion runs into this problem constantly. This leads to 'sophisticated' theology. That being bullshit dressed as being sensible. When the ancient books, full of hate and intolerence conflict with modern ethics, excuse making, obfuscation and meaning twisting begin in earnest. If the bible were a scientific document, it would have been discarded long ago.

Thank God it isn't - because I completely agree that as a scientific text it's worse than useless. But that is the mistake that fundamentalists make, and in saying it you show that you share a fundamentalist attitude. Besides which, where do you think 'modern ethics' came from, if not from Christian roots? Or do you think it sprang out new born from John Locke's head, like Athena from Zeus?

Harris' point is that if many people believe the end is coming, and a worryingly large number seem to think so, imagine what they would do with a nuclear arsenal. Many fundamentalists of all stripes actually look forward to the cataclismic ending of the world, day of judgement and all that.

I agree with him on that, and have been teaching and preaching to that effect for a while now.

His point simply is that the world can no longer afford 'faith'. Our technological development coupled with much freer access to information will empower believers to literally destroy the world over their fantasies. 'Sphisticated' theism is complicit in that it suggests these types of beliefs are reasonable and justified.

On the contrary, the only hope of humanity is good theology outcompeting the bad. All that humourless atheism achieves is the disarming of the last best hope we've got. If you don't understand what religion is, how it functions and why it appeals - if both good theology and bad theology is equally nonsensical - then the only future is a violent one, and my point above about the scientists having the bloodiest hands will be vindicated a billion-fold.

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