Thursday, 30 December 2010

Is science our only hope?

I'm still at my parents for Christmas and I don't have all the resources with me that I'd like for continuing the series on God's normal 'policy of communication' so I'm putting that on hold for the time being. Right now I want to comment on a particular argument that John Loftus, a sort of atheist 'internet activist', is advocating on his blog and elsewhere. Let's have a looky ...

"Anthropological studies show us that religion and culture are almost synonymous. Sociological studies confirm it when we look at the geographical distribution of religion. Psychological studies show we are self-centered gullible people who believe what we were initially taught and that we believe what we prefer to be true. They show us we are ignorant of our own ignorance. The conclusion is that given these scientific disciplines we should all be skeptics. We should trust the sciences even if they are sometimes fallible because there is no other way out of such a morass. The ONLY reason this is controversial is because believers know it undermines the rationality of what they believe. They kick against the goads not to join us and be skeptics."

He adds this comment on the same theme on Victor Reppert's blog, "My point ... is that the only way to break free from our prejudices is to follow the sciences. They are our best and only hope.

Religion does nothing here since we believe what we prefer to believe.

And philosophy? Come on now. Again you cannot be that dense. Tell me which philosophical opinions have a consensus to them? Philosophy uses the biases we inherit and then constructs reasons why our biases can be justified." 

He's basically saying that we have good reasons to believe that most of what we believe in matters of philosophy and religion, we believe for arbitrary reasons, thus we should abandon all that we believe in these areas and base our thinking solely on science, the methodology of which greatly reduces the biasing effects of culture and individual psychology.

His lack of supporting sources for these studies aside, the argument is, frankly, horrendous. Firstly if successful it would support agnosticism, not atheism (to which Loftus adheres to), because science in itself cannot answer the question of God's existence. Science is the study of the natural world, and God is not part of the natural world. Poster 'Rational Gaze' on theologyweb explained the point helpfully and with a dash of humour when responding to another skeptic; "using science to declare that the supernatural does not exist and that only the natural exists, would be like using a ruler to declare that weight does not exist and that only height exists." A ruler is of course only meant to be used to measure height, not weight; a ruler cannot comment on weight, like science cannot comment on the supernatural. 

It doesn't get any better ...

Really though the problem with the argument is that it is self-defeating. Loftus says we should abandon philosophy! Well hang on, isn't that a philosophy itself? Yes, it is. Loftus tries to save himself from this gross error by saying that only philosophy "based on science" is allowed. This isn't going to help him. First of all, the practise of science presupposes that certain things are true, i.e. that the universe is intelligible, stable, that our minds are fit to study it, and that our senses can be trusted. These are philosophical claims, ones that aren't based on science, for they are the prerequisites of science. So he's in trouble if he doesn't allow those.

Secondly Loftus would have to admit, claims that we ought to only believe certain things are not claims that can be directly verified in a lab or anything like that. So Loftus presumably means that his philosophy of abandoning philosophy is based on science in that it is argued for with reference to scientific findings. The trouble is there are theistic arguments that do this as well, like the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine-Tuning Argument. So even if we stupidly accept Loftus' philosophy, that doesn't shut out belief in God at all.

Loftus used to be a defender of Christianity and he is not an uneducated man (he has couple higher degrees even). But given what I have seen following his blog for the last couple months, seeing records of his past exploits, and engaging him in debate personally on theologyweb (rather than address my counter-arguments he just ducked out and asserted that I was ignorant - see link below), I feel I can safely conclude that he is a man whose capacity to think critically has been crippled by his emotionally driven disdain for Christianity. Ironic given his concern for arbitrary bias. His arguments are now so sloppy that I wonder how he could have ever earned a philosophy degree. I know that there are sincere and clear-thinking skeptics out there, but Loftus is not one of them. What is sobering about his material is not its rational persuasion but the testimony it gives as to how far the mighty can fall.

Loftus' cowardly dismissal (read the first couple pages - his username is Doubting John, mine is nightbringer)


Rational gaze said...

Glad to see my comments on TWeb were useful.

Martin said...

Aye, it felt a little strange "citing" a forum message but it also seemed a tad unethical not to give you the credit!