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.

Feb 28 2010

Hunter on the Conflict Between Science and Religion

From Cornelius Hunter at Darwin’s God, discussing The Real Conflict Between Science and Religion:

But as Henry Kissinger described academia, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small. From the outside the conflict between atheist evolutionists and theist evolutionists is rather meaningless. For the atheists, in spite of all their bluster, are no different than the theists in their religious beliefs. They call themselves atheists, but their convictions about god are as strong as anyone’s. (see examples here and here).

So yes many evolutionists are atheists, but as usual the theology rules. Evolutionists are either theists who hold strong religious convictions or atheists who hold strong religious convictions. Either way the science suffers. I guess you could say there is a conflict between religion and science after all.

Interesting perspective.  But does the science have to suffer?  I’m not necessarily convinced.

He also states (earlier in the post),

… a recent poll showed that a majority of scientists (51%) say they believe in God or a higher power. And that is up from the 42% who responded similarly almost a century ago in 1914.

The problem is not so much that religion conflicts with science as it co-opts science.

Again, interesting perspective – and I’ll let it go at that.

Jun 30 2009

The politics of global warming “science”

The Preface to the recently discovered internal EPA report (which was suppressed for political reasons), begins:

We have become increasingly concerned that EPA and many other agencies and countries have paid too little attention to the science of global warming. EPA and others have tended to accept the findings reached by outside groups, particularly the IPCC and CCSP, as being correct without a careful and critical examination of their conclusions and documentation.

The report provides a list of important developments that include

  • Global temperatures have declined for 11 years while CO2 emissions and atmospheric levels have continued to increase
  • There appears no correlation between global temperature and hurricanes
  • Greenland is not melting
  • The recession has resulted in greatly decreased greenhouse gas levels
  • A crucial assumption made by the IPCC is not supported by empirical evidence, and actually the feedback is negative
  • IPCC used faulty solar data dismissing the impact of solar variability on global warming

Even more astounding are the internal EPA e-mails quashing the report, one of which states (directed to the author of the study):

The time for such discussion of fundamental issues has passed for this round. The administrator and the administration has decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision.

This is shocking behavior, but then again, it isn’t. Many of have known for some time that the true science is being ignored by those wanting to push through manic legislation such as Obama’s Cap and Tax bill (which, by the way, contains many, many surprises that will cripple our economy even more).

Why aren’t more people upset by this?

Jun 8 2009

Science as Religion

Scientific fundamentalists claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. But representing science in this way is to disregard the human needs science serves. Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress. If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up. The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.

Again, science alone has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkiers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians to Lovelock.) In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it p reserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview. From the standpoint of anyone who values freedom of thought, this may be unfortunate, but it is undoubtedly the chief source of science’s appeal. For us, science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising — and in some measure delivering — the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches become sanctuaries for doubt.

John Gray, from Straw Dogs

h/t to Rod Dreher