The Wisdom of Haldane?

New Atheists are often proud of the fact that their familiarity with theology is so superficial. For example, philosopher Anthony Grayling rationalizes flippant dismissal of theology as follows:

For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

Of course, such arrogance comes at a price and that price can be the flaunting of one’s ignorance. For example, Lawrence Krauss kicked off his WSJ defense of New Atheism with a quote that both Coyne and Myers embraced with glee:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world. – JBS Haldane

Yet the Haldane quote demonstrates profound theological ignorance.

Haldane’s point is valid only for theists who embrace a trickster god who is constantly trying to cause problems for us mortals (do such theists really exist?). The Christian conception of God is that of a Law-Giver, a God who creates an orderly universe where actions have predictable consequences. So deeply ingrained is this understanding of God that some Christians in the past have rejected quantum physics because they think it contradicts the lawful order of creation.

Haldane, and those like him, take a rather childish view on miracles, thinking that if someone accepts a miracle, they are obligated to be on the constant lookout for miracles in everyday life. Yet in reality, miracles only make theological sense against the backdrop of an orderly, law-like reality. This is because miracles are not whimsical displays of divine power, but signs that signify a deeper reality. For example, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus were one-time events because they were associated with the singularity of the Incarnation. Since God does not incarnate on a regular basis, there is no reason to expect these miracles to repeat. What’s more, if God was constantly interfering with the laws of Nature such that Haldane could never do an experiment, the miracles of the virgin birth and resurrection would hardly stand out amid all the constant miraculous noise.

Because of their theological ignorance, scientists like Haldane, Krauss, Coyne, and Myers actually believe that evidence against a trickster god is evidence against the Christian God. They seem to believe that if God exists, there would be no laws of Nature and science could not exist.

There is also another serious problem with Haldane’s argument that has nothing do with theology. In this case, we have to wonder why Haldane is cherry-picking, as there are many attributes of the scientific approach that are important.

For example, what scientist would disagree with the following change to the first sentence of his quote?

My practice as a scientist is to be objective.

Anyone? Anyone?

Okay, so let’s follow through on Haldane’s logic:

My practice as a scientist is to be objective. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also objective in the affairs of the world.

What this means is that if we were to read the various blogs, magazine, and newspaper writings of various scientists, and found them to be biased in regard to “the affairs of the world,” Haldane’s logic would have us declare these scientists are intellectually dishonest. Are the New Atheists truly willing to expand all aspects of the scientific approach into all of their lives? Or has religion been singled out for special reason?


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15 Responses to The Wisdom of Haldane?

  1. Kevin says:

    His logic is akin to saying that since assuming the formula for cyanide, the diagnostic criteria of autism, and the detection of black holes have nothing to do with cooking a cheeseburger, then one is justified in ignoring chemistry, psychology, and astrophysics in all walks of life. These guys have serious philosophical deficiencies.

  2. TFBW says:

    Haldane said:

    … when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course …

    Also, he seems to have implicitly assumed that, in the absence of supernatural intervention, nature itself will remain constant. I’m not sure what possible grounds exist for this belief: it seems to be entirely unsupported. His position is thus not only based partly on sketchy theology — the idea that if the supernatural existed then it would interfere with his experiments — but also rather more directly on sketchy metaphysics — the idea that the behaviour of the universe remains arbitrarily constant in the absence of any supervising influence. The idea that science might only be possible because of the action of an orderly Will doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind.

    Confirmation bias strikes again.

  3. Dhay says:

    “Michael Shermer debunked by Astrologer on his own show!”

    I’m not sure what “rational investigation” Anthony Grayling used prior to dismissing astrology in all of its forms, but on the empirical evidence presented on his show by Michael Shermer, Graying should be paying attention to the Sarjatak (Vedic) system of astrology.

  4. jlafan2001 says:

    What about theistic evolution? Some christians out there think that god “guided” the mutations and the evolutionary process to bring about man. Wouldn’t that count as god interfering with experiments and nature on a regular basis? I don’t understand why these same christians don’t accept theistic chemistry, theistic geology, theistic botany, theistic physics or theistic astronomy? This would cause one to think that this god does interfere with all nature making Haldane’s quote legitimate. If this god doesn’t interfere then what evidence is there that this god did anything as opposed to nature doing it?

  5. SteveK says:

    Haldane might admit that his practice as a scientist is much more in line with Christianity than he lets on here.

    I’m guessing Haldane would say it is immoral for any human to cook the books and falsify data while practicing science – that this standard of honest practice must be upheld. Not because it’s a personal/cultural preference he and his fellow scientists have mysteriously acquired via evolution – but rather, despite what evolution does to humanity, a dishonest practice can never be morally good.

  6. Nick says:

    I don’t think Haldane is claiming God is necessarily a trickster who would screw with the laws of physics. I think his point is just that scientific methodology is inherently atheistic in a way, which I agree with and I’ll explain why. If you conduct an experiment on something you’re assuming that it will follow completely natural laws and that you can understand those laws with the experiment. If you start off with the assumption that God exists you could attribute any number of things in the experiment to God and ultimately you learned nothing. You could even argue the experiment wasn’t necessary and God just does everything so it’s impossible to know what’s natural and what isn’t. I’m not saying a scientist has to be an atheist, I just mean that the methodology of science doesn’t presume the existence of God, it just presumes the existence of natural laws, so science is “atheistic” in that sense. I could be too charitable in interpreting Haldane this way but I have a few reasons for doing that. One is that there’s a somewhat apocryphal Laplace (famous mathematician) quote where he says “I have no need of that hypothesis [the hypothesis being God]”. I’ve heard this quoted by New Atheists as quip to belittle religion but it’s unlikely Laplace meant that God didn’t exist. The situation in which he didn’t need that “hypothesis” was in writing a book about mathematics and Napoleon Bonaparte asked him why he didn’t include God. Laplace’s point was probably just that he wrote a math book, not a theology book, it’s not really necessary to mention God. Haldane’s quote is similar so I would hope he meant the same thing (although the last sentence of his quote would still be a ludicrous point, just saying “I don’t need God in this realm” isn’t proof that you don’t need God in any realm). I’m also being charitable in my interpretation of his quote because as far as I know, the early evolutionary biologists (particularly the founders of the “Modern Synthesis”, and Haldane was one) were generally more partial to religion than the modern New Atheists. According to H. Allen Orr (an evolutionary biologist who has criticized the New Atheists) Dobzhansky and Ronald Fisher were both devout Christians, and Haldane was a “mystic” of some sort. I also know that Ernst Mayr, despite being an atheist, generally respected religion. I read “What Evolution Is” (a book published in 2001, towards the end of Mayr’s life) a few months ago and I remember towards the end he was speculating about the origin of religion. At some point he goes on a bit of a tangent and basically says that Christianity overall has a good moral system and has had a positive influence on society, I doubt any of the well-known New Atheists would even grant that much.

    I know this is pretty long and some of it might be off-topic. I just wanted to say all this because I highly respect the evolutionary biologists of the early 20th century and I hate to see them being lumped in with the New Atheists, whether by the New Atheists themselves or critics of the New Atheists. All the scientists I mentioned above contributed far more to science than any of the New Atheists and generally had more informed opinions on non-scientific matters yet they have never received the mainstream fame the New Atheists now hold.

    Lastly, this is the first time I’ve commented on this blog so I just wanna say good job on it. This seems to be one of the most sane and rational Internet outlets I’ve ever seen.

  7. TFBW says:

    jlafan2001, please consider the following brief quotation from the original post.

    Haldane’s point is valid only for theists who embrace a trickster god who is constantly trying to cause problems for us mortals …

    In light of this particular statement, do you think that you’ve actually raised anything like a relevant objection? I don’t think so: your remarks seem to rely on the idea that theism is somehow inherently troublesome, whereas it’s only troublesome if God’s character makes it so. Unless you can expressly refute this claim, your comments have simply missed the whole point of the article.

  8. FZM says:

    For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

    I just found this strange.

    It seems like you would need to know something about astrology and the different astrological systems to test and evaluate, during rational investigation, their various claims that the character and fate of individuals are in some way determined or influenced by the arrangement of the planets, stars, galaxies etc.

    Otherwise it seems like saying that some unspecified form of ‘rational investigation’ can provide a complete/exhaustive picture of reality such that we can say that anything that is not already included in it can (must?) be ignored. And this is without needing to know anything at all about what it is that is being ignored or dismissed.

  9. The original Mr. X says:

    I’ve so far managed to live my life OK on the assumption that the government isn’t going to kill me tomorrow. Obviously, this provides no justification for believing that governments never have people bumped off.

    For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

    On the other hand, if your claim is that “Astrology is false because the idea that planets brainwash us into doing things is obviously absurd”, it would be quite reasonable for a believer in astrology to reply “We don’t believe that planets brainwash us, so your ‘refutation’ misses the mark completely.”

  10. TFBW says:

    Here’s another perspective on the Haldane quotation. Imagine that a very successful and uncompromisingly Christian scientist, such as Newton, had said the following.

    My practice as a scientist is theistic; Christian, specifically. That is to say, when I set up an experiment, I assume that the universe reflects the character of God as revealed in the Bible, and as such will be law-like and unchanging from day to day; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also theistic in the affairs of the world.

    Note the ease with which the argument is reversed. An argument which can so readily be made to support its contradiction is a poor support for either case.

    Why is it so easily reversed? Note that both quotations ultimately rely on uniformity rather than the existence (or not) of God. It’s the consistency and uniformity of natural law which makes it amenable to study, so that what you discovered yesterday is still relevant today. The theological issues are one step removed from this: Haldane opines that the existence of the supernatural would undermine uniformity, whereas my variation cites Biblical theology in support of uniformity. The theological aspect provides a metaphysical basis for the uniformity, but it is the uniformity itself which facilitates scientific inquiry.

    As such, Haldane’s argument offers the illusion that the existence of science supports atheism, but the argument rests on an implicit theology, and it’s really the theology which is doing all the work. Dismissing Haldane’s argument really is as simple as disagreeing with his theology.

  11. Michael says:

    I think his point is just that scientific methodology is inherently atheistic in a way, which I agree with and I’ll explain why. If you conduct an experiment on something you’re assuming that it will follow completely natural laws and that you can understand those laws with the experiment. If you start off with the assumption that God exists you could attribute any number of things in the experiment to God and ultimately you learned nothing. You could even argue the experiment wasn’t necessary and God just does everything so it’s impossible to know what’s natural and what isn’t. I’m not saying a scientist has to be an atheist, I just mean that the methodology of science doesn’t presume the existence of God, it just presumes the existence of natural laws, so science is “atheistic” in that sense.

    I get your point. I’d simply call that methodological naturalism. And since philosphical naturalism and/or atheism doesn’t add anything not already provided by MN, we can see that science has no need for philosophical naturalism/atheism. That explains why Coyne’s incompatability argument/book was a flop. It’s an argument that appeals only to extremists and crackpots.

  12. Dhay says:

    Here’s a couple of examples (in one of my previous responses) of those exemplars of the scientific method and rational investigation, Richard Dawkins and “Scibabe”, each attacking and attempting to debunk a subject they considered woo — in Dawkins’ case it was astrology.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/more-coyne-hilarity/#comment-9591

    Each made an utterly unscientific and irrational cock-up of their respective attempts because, like Anthony Grayling, they didn’t consider they needed to actually know anything about what they were attacking. To anyone who wasn’t as utterly ignorant of the attacked subjects as these two, they appeared utterly ignorant — indeed, pig-ignorant, for they hand-waved away straw-man caricatures of their attacked subjects, and without any research into the actual theory and practices of each.

  13. Mr. Green says:

    JLAfan2001: Wouldn’t that count as god interfering with experiments and nature on a regular basis?

    No, of course not.

    I don’t understand why these same [C]hristians don’t accept theistic chemistry, theistic geology, theistic botany, theistic physics or theistic astronomy?

    They do.

    If this god doesn’t interfere then what evidence is there that this god did anything as opposed to nature doing it?

    Well, for starters, that’s a false dichotomy.

  14. Dhay says:

    Contra Richard Dawkins, SciBabe and Anthony Grayling, I note that the title of the 07 November 2015 Sandwalk blog post is, You should know the basics of a theory before you attack it. How ironical.

  15. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne is an exemplar of the dangers of the attitude that you don’t need to know anything about what you are criticising before launching an attack upon it. Here, Coyne once more demonstrates utter ignorance of homeopathy.

    In his November 14, 2015 blog post entitled “FDA reportedly will take on homeopathy”, Jerry Coyne starts off with “We all know that homeopathy is a complete scam.”

    That says more about Coyne than homeopathy, whatever the latter’s merits and demerits: using KATY Independent Schools Board criteria, that’s a good example of a Commonplace Assertion; even Coyne should have instantly realised that it’s prevented from being a true Factual Claim because it contradicts the empirical evidence of the number of people who — as Coyne laments, so he’s aware of them — who continue to have trust in the treatments and to buy the products; but Coyne has a blind spot and a knee-jerk reaction when he sees words like homeopathy, a word which switches off his critical faculties like a light switch.

    “Its conceptual basis alone renders it at once laughable and scary” claims Coyne; Coyne nowhere states what he thinks the conceptual basis of homeopathy actually is, but I think we can judge the quality of his knowledge of the theory from the quality of his knowledge of the practice.

    Coyne makes the following claims:

    About damn time! The harm is not just that they sometimes contain stuff that can actually harm people (like high levels of ethanol, or, in teething tablets, toxic levels of belladonna) …

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/fda-reportedly-will-take-on-homeopathy/

    Belladonna is typically given to children at a dose of 200C as a remedy for fevers. Like all homeopathic remedies it starts off as the appropriate substance (here, Belladonna) dissolved as a herbal strength tincture in alcohol, then one drop of that is added to 100 drops (that’s the C part of 200C) of water and vigorously mixed; then one drop of the result is added to 100 drops of water and again vigorously mixed; this is repeated 200 times (that’s the 200 part of 200C), then a drop is added to a small bottle-full of tiny sugar pills. The child is given a single tablet, repeated as necessary until the fever subsides.

    Coyne’s claimed “high levels of ethanol and toxic levels of belladonna” is absurd.

    This extreme dilution is typical of homeopathic remedies: if Coyne had indeed known and understood the “conceptual basis” of homeopathy, he would have also understood that claiming “high levels of ethanol and toxic levels of belladonna” is absurd. That Coyne didn’t realise the absurdity of what he claimed about homeopathic remedies is clear evidence that he didn’t understand homeopathy’s conceptual basis. I doubt he’s ever so much as looked at it. And he certainly doesn’t understand homeopathy’s practice.

    *

    I note that Coyne treats his readers with contempt, as not knowing what ethanol is; ethanol is but ordinary drinking alcohol, available to buy in large amounts and strong concentrations in cans and bottles in your local supermarket or boozer; Coyne evidently thinks his readers so scientifically illiterate and so easily swayed by impressive-sounding scientific terms that they will suck in their breath in shock horror and condemn the nasty, evil homeopathy.

    Actually, I suspect from context that what Coyne is actually railing against, in practice, and unbeknown to himself, is some — some only — herbal medicines. But why should ignorance of a subject and confusion about it ever stop someone like Coyne (or Anthony Grayling, or others I have named) from opening their mouths and inserting their feet.

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