Atheist Biologist/Philosopher Gets Close to Showing What is Wrong with New Atheism

Massimo Pigliucci has published a paper that describes the New Atheists and then outlines some errors in their ideology. Pigiucci correctly identifies a defining trait of the New Atheists:

the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. Indeed, a good number of New Atheists (the notable exception being, of course, Daniel Dennett) is on record explicitly belittling philosophy as a source of knowledge or insight. Dawkins says that the “God hypothesis” should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; Stenger explicitly—in the very subtitle of his book—states that “Science shows that God does not exist” (my emphasis); and Harris later on writes a whole book in which he pointedly ignores two and a half millennia of moral philosophy in an attempt to convince his readers that moral questions are best answered by science (more on this below). All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

He then correctly puts his finger on a fatal flaw in New Atheism:

What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with “facts,” loosely conceived. So broadened, the concept of science loses meaning and it becomes indistinguishable from just about any other human activity. One might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly belongs to philosophy. It would be a puerile and useless exercise, and yet it is not far from the attitude prevalent among the New Atheists.

I’ve been making this argument for years and have yet to encounter a single New Atheist capable to showing I am wrong.
But Pigliucci fails to appreciate other dimensions of New Atheism and it’s reliance on scientism.

For example, as I have explained in the past, the New Atheists are quite deceptive when it comes to their advocacy of scientism:

Note – to prop up his challenge, Coyne invokes some wishy-washy, watered down definition of science. In fact, that definition is so watered down that dating and shopping would qualify as science. What’s more, proponents of other forms of pseudoscience would also qualify as science. Even worse, politicians would be doing science when they try to con us into their newest scheme. But what happens when a fatal flaw in scientism is exposed? Suddenly, it’s time to beef up that definition………See? No more vague appeals to the use of reason and empirical evidence. Now we’re talking about physics, chemistry, and biology. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of carefully designed lab experiments and testing that in turn were subject to scrutiny. We’re talking about experiments and testing from a community of people with expertise in math, physics, chemistry, and biology. And all of that is a quite a bit more than a mere “combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe.”

Of course, it makes sense that Coyne would engage in this sleight of hand. Y’see, if he wants to make some pragmatic argument for the superiority of science, it isn’t going to work to invoke the results of dating, shopping, ghost-hunting, and politics. There is nothing special about that “science” at all. So he has to invoke real science – things like physics, chemistry, and biology. But imagine if Coyne decided to be intellectually honest when it came to scientism and agreed that every single truth claim he would make in public would be backed by hundreds of experiments and tests, as is the case for “finding out what causes disease and then finding cures, putting people on the Moon and building computers and lasers.” That would be one quiet blog!

So he has to revert back to the watered down definition of science and pretend science is just a combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe. Anyone can do that!

I addition, Pigliucci doesn’t really address why it is that the New Atheists so vigorously champion scientism. The reason should be obvious – the New Atheists leaders do NOT come to us as scholars and scientists. As I also explained, they come to us as activists.

It is quite common for advocates of scientism to dumb down science like this. This is because the advocates are advocating something. They have an agenda to sell and want very badly to make it look like their agenda falls under the authoritative and protective umbrella of science. That umbrella is needed to increase sales. But because their advocacy is not itself dependent on the scientific, experimental approach to reality, they need to dumb down the definition of science to the point where someone like David Hume becomes a scientist and experiments are superfluous. That way people like Pinker can sell their ideology while posturing as an Ambassador of Science.

The irony is that while Pinker postures as a Defender of Science, in reality, he is undermining science. By stripping the requirements of having an approach guided by well-designed experiments that generate new data, he turns science into nothing more than materialistic philosophy, as that is precisely what he is selling. Yet when it comes to all the scientific successes that Pinker trumpets in his article, they all owe their success not to some materialistic ideology, but to the experimental approach. If we were to use Pinker’s dumbed-down definition of science consistently across the board, it would not have a glorious track record of success.

Finally, I should mention that the New Atheist’s dumbed-down definition of science is no different from confirmation bias. To reduce science to nothing more than confirmation bias is to attack science. Pigliucci would do well to recognize such anti-science tendencies inherent in New Atheist ideology.

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One Response to Atheist Biologist/Philosopher Gets Close to Showing What is Wrong with New Atheism

  1. cl says:

    I’ve always liked Massimo. Atheists don’t always have to be irrational kooks.

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