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.