An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 11

Remember earlier when I said that one of my annoyances with this book is that the topics tend to repeat themselves? Well, this time they do so for two chapters in a row. I mean come on. This is a sixteen-chapter book, and it's looking more and more like it could have been, I dunno, ten. The next two chapters deal with the idea that science and religion are inherently in conflict.

Now, in my experience, there are two ways theists deal with this. First is to suggest that science and religion answer different questions – the old non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) argument. The other is to point out that lots of important scientists have been, and are, religious – heck, without religious people there might not even be science! The first is actually a semi-interesting topic; the second isn't really an argument at all. Isaac Newton was a scientist and an alchemist. Does that give alchemy more credibility?

Shockingly, these two chapters stick to the formula. That's a bit of a relief for me, because this book is getting old and I can breeze through these two chapters pretty fast. For today, here's Chapter 11.


Chapter 11: Are Science and Christianity at Odds?


This chapter is by Sean McDowell. He begins with a tongue-in-cheek description of science being "at war" with religion, then says this:
If you believe this rendition of history, there’s a good chance you’ve been reading a public school textbook or the New Atheists.
Yeah, because public school textbooks totally say that. I mean wow, really? That's about the fastest I've seen one of these guys totally blow their credibility.  But let's continue. McDowell, who may or may not have been home schooled, is going to take the whole "lots of scientists were Christians!" route:
Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473– 1543), Robert Boyle (1627– 1691), Isaac Newton (1642– 1727), Blaise Pascal (1623– 1662), Johannes Kepler (1571– 1630), Louis Pasteur (1822– 1895), Francis Bacon (1561– 1626), and Max Planck (1858– 1947). Many of these pioneers intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God. Bacon believed the natural world was full of mysteries God meant for us to explore. Kepler wrote, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” 5 Newton believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. His favorite argument for design related to the solar system: “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”
Well, sorry, but that doesn't actually address any relevant issues, because of something called compartmentalization. You can be a very smart geneticist (like Francis Collins), and still not know jack shit about cosmology or the evolution or moral behavior. Or you could be a brilliant astronomer and still not know jack shit about evolution. You could be both a rocket scientist and a young-earth creationist. But the main point is this: just because this or that scientist happened to be a believer doesn't mean their beliefs were rational. You can be rational about some things and not others. It doesn't mean they had scientific reasons for holding their religious beliefs, or even that they thought particularly deeply about the theological implications of their scientific accomplishments.

Christopher Hitchens discounts the religious convictions of these scientific pioneers, claiming that belief in God was the only option for a scientist of the time. 7 But this puts Hitchens in a curious dilemma. If religious believers get no credit for their positive contributions to society (e.g., shaping modern science) because “everyone was religious,” then why should their mistakes, like atrocities committed in the name of God, discredit them?
It's true that if you spoke out against the church back in those days, you'd probably be imprisoned, tortured, even executed. When critical dissent is actively suppressed like that, it's gonna be hard to find examples of openly atheistic scientists. But McDowell's argument here is a complete red herring: nobody has said that religious believers shouldn't get credit for their scientific accomplishments. Nor  has anybody claimed that religion is false because people do bad things in its name. The truth or falsity of religion and the utility of religion (whether it does harm or good) are distinct arguments.

McDowell then turns to Galileo. He says that Galileo didn't just tick off the church, but he ticked off a bunch of academics too. Which is true, but the academics aren't the ones who put him under house arrest. But McDowell says that Galileo said some not very nice things about the Pope, and that his house arrest wasn't really that bad because he could still do research unrelated to heliocentrism.

It's worth noting that McDowell is getting his 'facts' from first-class crackpot Dinesh D'Souza. The reality is that the Inquisition found Galileo "gravely suspect of heresy" and the very concept of heliocentrism was deemed heretical. Copernicus' Di Revolutionibus was taken out of circulation, and another book called Lettera ... sopra l'opinione ... del Copernico, which attempted to reconcile heliocentrism with scripture, was banned.

And that's really the embarrassment. You can argue that house arrest wasn't so bad (it beats a long afternoon in the bronze bull), but what you can't dispute is that the church actively censured scientific discovery because it didn't sit with their doctrine. Modern Christians just say that those people were doing Christianity wrong, but that raises the question of how, exactly, that is determined. After all, Intelligent Design advocates think that the Theistic Evolution crowd is doing it wrong, and vice-versa. William Lane Craig makes a habit of cherry-picking cosmology to support his theology. How do you know, independently of science, whether you've got the right theology? Because from where I'm sitting, it looks like science does all the work and just drags theologians along, sometimes kicking and screaming, until they re-interpret their doctrine and then act like that's how it was supposed to be interpreted all along.


Same old, same old

McDowell spends the rest of the chapter talking about the argument from reason and the "rational" order of the universe. I've already addressed the first one several times while reviewing this book (it's come up often) and in the discussions following, so I'm not going to retread it yet again. But he does squeeze in this facepalmer:
I was speaking to an atheist student group at a prominent university in northern California. In response to my presentation of this argument, one of the students argued that scientific studies actually demonstrate that the mind cannot be fully trusted. 24 He claimed science proves that we should distrust our cognitive faculties. While I commended him for a creative challenge, I pointed out that his comment suffered from a fatal flaw: the scientific studies that are meant to disprove the reliability of human reasoning depend on the reliability of human reasoning to come to that conclusion. In other words, the only way these scientists could come to the conclusion that we should doubt the human mind was by using their own minds!
Nobody has ever argued that our minds are completely, or even generally unreliable; rather, what's argued (and frankly, what has been rigorously established) is that our minds are prone to a litany of cognitive errors. If we just had "faith" in the reliability of our cognition, then how could we possibly identify these errors at all? These errors are identified precisely because, through independent verification and predictions subject to falsifiability, we are able to systematically weed out inconsistencies and errors in our thinking. Nobody's arguing that we do this independently of our minds (he seriously thought he was being clever?). But there's a difference between a basic assumption that our cognition is sometimes or generally reliable (which is foundational in any epistemological framework) and the notion that we just blindly trust our cognition entirely.

The second argument here hasn't poked its ugly head out as much, but it's just a tautology. It's the claim that because the universe has ordered laws, there has to be an ordered mind to make them ordered in the first place. He quotes Paul Davies:
Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Atheists claim that the laws [of nature] exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.
I've never heard an atheist claim the universe is "ultimately absurd", but it's true that we claim the laws of the universe exist reasonlessly. And why shouldn't they? Davies' last sentence is a bald assertion. This is what physicist Sean Carroll had to say in a recent post of his:
The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.
You don't get to simply claim the universe requires an explanation for the way it is, then place a burden upon non-believers to fill in your newly crafted God-gap. The universe can simply be. After all, we could simply push the logic back a step and assert that God also needs an explanation for his mere existence and/or properties.

I also have to balk a little at the use of the words "rational" and "logical" to describe the universe itself. Those are simply the cognitive representations and processes we use to understand the universe. It's not particularly useful to describe the universe itself in those terms.

He finishes:
Science depends on the assumption that the world is orderly and that our minds can access this reality. Even the most secular scientists presume that nature operates in a law like fashion.
At least he correctly called it an assumption, and not just a "belief". My blogger-in-arms Tristan did a great piece recently on the difference.  But the assumption that our minds can access this ordered reality* just happens to be a very, very, very, very robustly justified assumption based upon unfathomable mountains of evidence spanning the whole of human history. Not all assumptions are created equal.


*Ordered can be taken to mean, simply, patterns that repeat themselves




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