Responding to New Atheist Talking Points

Since it has been almost three weeks since the last review of Coyne’s new book appeared in a mainstream media outlet, I’ll have to settle for some excerpts posted by one of Coyne’s fans on Amazon.com.
Coyne wrote:

My thesis is that religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality… but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, what that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself INCAPABLE of finding truth. I maintain, then… that religion and science are engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.”

In other words, my critique from back in Nov 2014 was spot on.

“my purpose is not to show that religion has, on balance, been a malign influence on society. While I do believe this… it would be foolish to deny that religion has motivated many acts of goodness and charity. It has also been a solace for the inevitable sorrows of human life, and an impetus for helping others. In the end, it’s impossible to perform the `good versus bad’ calculus of religion by integrating over history.”

For the book audience, Coyne tries to put on the friendly face and pays lip service to the good that religion does. But for his blog audience, he writes things like “Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion.” I guess Coyne is all too willing to label religion as evil even when he acknowledges such judgment is not based on any `good versus bad’ calculus. So what is it based on?

“The scientific bent of the New Atheism… is reflected in the view that religious claims are empirical hypotheses… (p.21)

Here Coyne embraces the term New Atheism. It’s time for the New Atheist foot soldiers out there to stop whining about no one using this term except for religious people who dare to criticize atheists.

“philosophical naturalism is, like atheism, a PROVISIONAL view. It’s not the kind of worldview that says, `I KNOW there is no god,’ but the kind that says, `Until I see some evidence, I won’t accept the existence of gods.’ … And even scientists who embrace that philosophy tend to keep quiet about it, for… we’re surrounded by believers, some of whom fund our research and others who help us fight creationism and pseudoscience. It’s not clear whether professing atheism would endanger those alliances, but in America, where an atheist is a skunk in a woodpile, it seems better to play it safe.” (Pg. 95-96)

Here Coyne attacks his fellow scientists by painting them as cowards who value money more than truth. There is a better explanation that does not involve a nasty smear against a significant segment of the scientific community: it’s not that scientists who embrace that philosophy tend to keep quiet about it; it’s just that they don’t think it is important enough to stand on the rooftops and shout that everyone needs to agree with them. New Atheism is, after all, a fringe movement populated by many kooks.

“My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality,

Different does not equal incompatible.

have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge,

Different does not equal incompatible.

and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.”

….in some places and with some versions of some religions.

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3 Responses to Responding to New Atheist Talking Points

  1. TFBW says:

    … philosophical naturalism is, like atheism, a PROVISIONAL view.

    Provisional? There’s nothing in atheism or philosophical naturalism which is inherently provisional. You can be a dogmatic atheist or a dogmatic philosophical naturalist. Maybe Coyne’s disposition towards naturalism is contingent on his not having encountered a nine hundred foot Jesus (and thus contingent only in a lame sense), but he’s spouting garbage when he claims that these things are intrinsically provisional.

    Another book of philosophical garbage from a loud-mouth New Atheist. How utterly unshocking.

  2. Allallt says:

    @TFBW I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that ontological naturalism is a presupposition or dogmatic position, where as methodological naturalism is the provisional version.
    I am a methodological naturalist based, inductively, on the success of natural methods of understanding. If it’s inductive it must be provisional, mustn’t it?

  3. TFBW says:

    Methodological naturalism is a theory/philosophy of science — or so it says on the wrapper. In practice it seems to serve primarily as a way to sneak philosophical naturalism in the back door. It’s also a very poor philosophy of science if analysed on its own merits — but that’s another story. Regardless, Coyne was talking about philosophical naturalism, not methodological naturalism. So long as that’s understood, however, I am prepared to digress slightly and address your question.

    I am a methodological naturalist based, inductively, on the success of natural methods of understanding. If it’s inductive it must be provisional, mustn’t it?

    Well, let’s consider that. For such a small statement, there’s an awful lot of assumptions packed into it — I’m almost spoiled for choice as to where to start. For starters, does your approach beg the question? If science argues inductively from examples, then are you assuming the validity of the method by using the method to validate the method? It sure seems like it.

    Such suspiciously self-recommending validation is a problem, but it’s actually not the most glaring issue in this case. There is a more fundamental question of whether your induction is even well grounded. What are we supposed to understand by, “success of natural methods of understanding?” Do we actually see that, somewhat consistently? There’s also the question of whether this is properly modeled as induction (a trend being used to infer a law) or abduction (the successful outcome being used as evidence for the hypothesis that the method of reaching that outcome was a reliable one). I guess we’ll have to consider it from both angles.

    Is the trend, “methodological naturalism tends to produce successful theories?” Clearly not. All sorts of naturalistic theories have fallen by the wayside. Science lessons tend to gloss over outmoded theories of the past: you’ll hear about the success of plate tectonic theory, but not so much about the geosynclinal theory which was dominant for the first half of the twentieth century, during which time continental drift was derided as blatant pseudoscience. Both of these theories are naturalistic, but they’re incompatible. Methodological naturalism produces both successful and unsuccessful theories, and the “success” can be as much a social construct as a practical one in any case (but we have enough problems to consider without delving too deeply into what you mean by “successful”).

    How about the converse: “successful theories tend to be produced by methodological naturalism?” Well that’s pretty much bollocks too, isn’t it? The whole concept of methodological naturalism is relatively recent. The founders of modern science were predominantly theists who by no means thought of their work as methodological naturalism. Rather, as Kepler put it, it was a matter of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” To argue that strong theists who made successful and major contributions to modern science were successful only because they acted as though there were no God behind it is monstrously tendentious. They acted as though there were one single, rational, intelligent, consistent God behind it all. You might as well call it methodological monotheism for all the difference it makes. (There’s another problem we won’t have time to consider: what is this thing you call “methodological naturalism” in any case, and how is it distinct from methodological monotheism?)

    If the induction/abduction is neither of the above, then what is it?

    Lastly, let’s question your question, “if it’s inductive it must be provisional, mustn’t it?” What if it’s a certainty masquerading as an induction? Suppose you were silly enough to tackle the hypothesis, “all prime numbers greater than two are odd,” using an inductive, empirical approach. Sure enough, you’d never find any counter-examples. Suppose you also knew that you could never find any counter examples, because all even numbers are divisible by two, and therefore no even number but two can be prime. You can therefore assert the hypothesis with certainty, even as you pretend that it’s something you hold provisionally on the grounds that it can always be falsified by a counter-example.

    Thus, by counter-example, “induction” does not imply “provisional”. It’s only provisional if the necessary counter-examples are well-defined, not subject to evasive special pleading when found, and not logically impossible (like an even prime greater than two). An induction is only provisional in a lame sense if the counter-examples are arbitrary, over-specified, and lack good theoretical grounds to be considered counter-examples, like Coyne’s nine hundred foot Jesus.

    I can get a lot of mileage out of a small question, can’t I? I have a co-worker who often asks “short” or “simple” questions. I frequently offer the reminder that the question having such properties is no guarantee that the answer will be likewise.

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