Feb 17 2011

New atheism, bad philosophy

If there’s one thing that distinguishes the so-called “New Atheists” from the old atheists, it’s that the New Atheists are notoriously bad at philosophy, something I’ve said before. Edward Feser writes on this topic,

Philosophers and theologians are constantly told that they need to “learn the science” before commenting on quantum mechanics, relativity, or Darwinism.  And rightly so.  Yet too many scientists refuse to “learn the philosophy” before pontificating on the subject.  The results are predictably sophomoric.  What an arrogant and clueless amateur like Hawking or Dawkins needs to hear before putting on his philosopher’s toga is this.  And if he doesn’t get the message, this.  Instead, the reaction from equally clueless editors, journalists, and “educated” general readers is: “Gee, he’s a scientist! He’s good at math and stuff.  He must know what he’s talking about!”  It really is no more intelligent than that.

The new atheists are, for the most part, scientists, or at least adherents to scientism, the thinking that science is the answer to everything. Sam Harris even claims that science is a proper foundation for morality.

Something else that I’ve pointed out before is that science, which is a great tool for studying the physical world, suffers from some philosophical problems, mostly stemming from the so-called Enlightenment. The Enlightenment turned man’s ability to reason into an object of worship, as well as doing some other things for which we are still suffering.

As an example of bad philosophy, the new atheists love to refer to David Hume’s thoughts on miracles, however they ignore his thinking on inductive reasoning and science. Hume argued, I think correctly, that conclusions of causality are inductively, not deductively, reasoned; and he went on to propose that such inductive reasoning is justified by its success (which begs the question, “how does one measure scientific success, unless we have already determined what the desired results are?”).

Hume also concluded, again I think rightly so, that such inductive conclusions are limited to past causes and effects; one cannot predict the future based on past evidence. Predictions about the future are based on faith that the past will repeat itself, not on any proof that A always results in B.

What this means is that just because A has caused B for the last 100 years doesn’t mean that A will cause B tomorrow. Science simply cannot tell us that for sure. If science is at all successful, past evidence of cause and effect should give us, at best, a probability for what could occur in the future. If a certain drug worked for these other folks, it should work for you. Maybe. However, science’s ability to replicate past results is now being challenged.

The Decline Effect

In December of 2010 Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting article for the New Yorker discussing the so-called Decline Effect, which has been noted over the past few years. Basically, what is happening is that conclusions proven by past studies, to the extent they are considered scientific facts, are suddenly showing themselves to be not true. Drugs that worked 10 years ago show no sign of working today. He writes,

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.

Lehrer posits that some possible causes of this decline effect is the subjectivity of the scientists (tending to prove things they want to believe), and bias in scientific reporting. Of course, this doesn’t explain why scientists today who want to confirm past findings are suddenly unable to do so, or why the law of gravity doesn’t give predictable results.

How Firm a Foundation…

Regardless of the cause of this decline effect, the reality is that science, at least at the present time, is not able to establish sufficient causation to predict future results, or to even correctly establish past causation. Medical and pharmaceutical beliefs are suspect, as are some of the “facts” of physics.

So, while I still believe that scientific studies have value, it seems that the ability of science to serve as a foundation for morality or religion—or atheism—is quite suspect. The decline effect just re-emphasizes some of the philosophical issues of those who hold science in too high a regard, and who have put their faith in man’s ability to reason and be objective (neither of which can be reasonably shown to be exist). The New Atheism—holding itself out as the pinnacle of reason and objectivity—suffers from bad philosophy, and a resulting misplaced faith in science’s ability to give us answers.


Sep 24 2010

A little philosophical diversion: Why the Outsider Test for Faith fails

Okay, every once in a while I just have to comment on the ridiculous nature of certain atheists’ attempts to appear superior to people who don’t think “faith” is a bad word. I really should just unsubscribe to the Debunking Christianity blog, but it’s like a train wreck — as bad as it is, you just have to watch.

Today John once again promotes his outsider test for faith, “to test their own adopted religious faith from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism they use to evaluate other religious faiths.”

It’s an interesting challenge, to be sure. I don’t disagree that this proposal has some merit; too many Christians don’t understand why Christianity is a uniquely valid belief, and we should. As Peter wrote, we should be ready to give an answer for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

The problem is to do so without accepting without question another belief system in the process, which can potentially “stack the deck” against Christianity. As I’m certain I’ve mentioned before (I don’t have the energy or time to search the archives), it seems that many people who leave Christianity do so because they unquestionably accept certain facets of modernism.  Trying to make Christianity fit into a completely modernist worldview is like fitting the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

All of us in the western world have been raised breathing and eating modernism since we were born; we cannot really conceive of a different way of thinking, and accept without question that our worldview or paradigm is simply “the way things are.”  In reality, modernism is a grid developed through which to view the world. Prior to Descartes, it didn’t exist.  The Bible doesn’t conform to modernist thought, because it was not written by modernists.

This creates issues for doctrines like inerrancy, where writings from an ancient oriental culture are held to modernist standards; it is exactly like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, we in the west are all now modernists, whether we like it or not (even so-called post-modernists). What is frustrating for those of us who realize that modernism is not necessarily the way things are is that we can’t even analyze modernism without resorting to modernist methods.

The Problem With Modernism

This creates a problem, as explained by series of philosophers from Hume to Godel (and beyond). Hume began by challenging the core principle of causality. While we can predict based on past events that flipping a switch will turn on the lights, we can never guarantee that this will happen the next time, or prove that it was the switch which caused the lights to come on.

Kant explored this further, discovering that there must be limitations to reason itself, as reason must be limited by the limited categories of the mind. Skipping ahead, Godel showed mathematically that a system can only be substantiated by something outside the system. In other words, we can show that reason is limited and flawed, but we can never prove that it is not. So far, no one has been able to refute the basic challenge issued by Hume.

Modernism is essentially the worldview that says everything can be analyzed objectively and rationally, but cannot prove that it ever works. In other words, you must accept modernism and rationalism by faith.

The Failure of Loftus’ Outsider Test For Faith

The OTF fails because it requires someone to subject a non-modern belief system to a modernist analysis, which cannot be proven to have any validity whatsoever. The only thing it can do is to mislead someone into thinking that modernism is, in fact, the way it is.  Because the square peg cannot fit nicely into this imaginary round hole (a better analogy, perhaps, is trying to stuff the entire universe into a hat), people are left having to choose: a flawed faith in modernism, or Christianity.  It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but as we know, lies are the devil’s only real weapons.

But of course, Stephen Hawking, who has assured us that we no longer have any need to believe in God, also asserts that philosophy is dead. Obviously, Hawking’s reason has met its limitations.


May 27 2010

Romans 1:22 proven once again.

I look at it this way. If science disappeared from human memory, we would soon be living in caves again. If theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice.

Thanks to Debunking Christianity, which seems to post one incredibly stupid thing after another, I was directed to this opinion piece in the Guardian UK by Terry Sanderson, who is the head of something called the National Secular Society.

As I’ve followed various atheists over the past 2-3 years, I’ve found that the writing is getting more and more ridiculous, and at times desperate.

Oh well, on to bigger and better things…


Mar 20 2010

There Are Stupid Questions

From Debunking Christianity:

Tell us. What would you believe? THAT is the question. My claim is that biblical criticism is an undercutting defeater for what Christians believe such that without the Bible they would become agnostics and then afterward possibly atheists. At that point they would see the arguments for the existence of God as little more than a shell game.

How would you respond?