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.

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11 Responses to New atheism, bad philosophy

  1. Pingback: The Counterpoint to the New Atheists | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

  2. Pingback: The New Apologists and Bad Philosophy | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

  3. me says:

    You see, you’re resorting to the definitions of scientism, for lack of a better term (they’re not even enlightenment or modernist definitions, but they stem from that line of thinking). Dawkins, et al., are believers in the ability of science – as they understand it – to provide philosophical answers. They’ve pitted science (logic) against faith (illogic), based on their own definitions. They are, as someone phrased it, categorical imperialists.

    Since the validity of the scientific method cannot logically be proven from within their own constraints, they have to believe it by a form of faith. Science, then, becomes an authority simply because they choose to believe it. The decline effect I mentioned seems to challenge even further the limits of science, at least in the practical sense.

    Welcome back, by the way!

  4. I am back. I have a new post up, too.

  5. Mike Haubrich says:

    I kind of figured it might be a siren call to me. I am still here, and debating blogging. The hosting has been renewed for two years because of one of the sites I subhost, and the domain name for three years.

    But I am not sure what authority you think that freethinkers are tied to? If we provide the data for how we came to our conclusions, data that is refutable, how is that like faith? Faith is believing in things that are by their nature untestable.

    I think that the big thing that you are missing is that the New Atheists have a broad range of audiences, and are not limiting nor always competing with the “big thinkers” of academic philosophy; and so while Dawkins writes for a general audience that is interested in science and writes what he does because of the experience he has with “people of faith” who insist that their evidence for the existence of God is verifiable through dubious and unassailable means. Surely you wouldn’t mistake McGrath for an intellectually heavyweight.

    So do many of the New Atheists. However there are more than just “The Four.” Russell Blackford is one, John S. Wilkins another, and of course Eric MacDonald who I just linked to. And Loftus, of course, is among the many atheists who started as religious but did dare to look at his faith from the point of view of an outsider but realized that we can see the Emperor’s naughty bits.

  6. me says:

    btw Mike, you know I largely wrote this post just to see if you were still out there… 😉

    You need to start blogging again.

  7. me says:

    “…freedom of thought (within the rational limitations imposed by the epistemic values already discussed)”

    As I was saying, bad philosophy. They’ve built themselves a neat little box and define things to suit their beliefs, but refuse to acknowledge the logical problems with their box. John Loftus has devised an “outsider test for faith” in which he challenges Christians to think like he does; however, he refuses (I’ve challenged him a few times) to us the same approach to challenge his own paradigm.

    So, they are not “free-thinkers” in a true sense of the word. They only accept freedom of thought that fits within their construct (therefore it’s not really “free”), which they hold by faith (as it is impossible for them to prove their system is a valid approach).

    Of course, faith involves reliance upon some authority; that’s a given. Dawkins, et al., also rely on an authority, which has been shown to be logically inconsistent. Their arguments are largely meaningless to anyone not bound by their rules and definitions.

  8. Mike Haubrich says:

    And I think you will get a bit of insight from Eric MacDonald in this post.

    However, a deeper answer points towards core moral values, not just instrumental/pragmatic values. Ultimately, faith almost always consists in relying on or accepting some authority: the authority of a holy book; the authority of the writers of such books who claim to speak for a still higher, divine authority (evidence for which is nonexistent); or, most commonly, the authority of those who claim the right to interpret the meaning of holy books and the wills of gods (but again, offer no evidence to back that claim to authority). Rejecting faith not only manifests epistemic values that treasure authentic truth-seeking over comforting or self-serving delusions, it manifests moral values that treasure human freedom and self-determination over bowing to illegitimate authority*. New Atheists value both intellectual and practical liberty, both freedom of thought (within the rational limitations imposed by the epistemic values already discussed) and freedom of action (within the rational limitations which allow similar freedom for all). And when I say “New Atheists value” such and such, I am suggesting both that the extant New Atheists I’ve read and engaged with consistently demonstrate in word and deed that they embrace such moral values, but also that these moral values are logically connected to the epistemological values which drive the movement: A New Atheist who rejected such values (if there were such a creature) would be inconsistent in doing so.

    Eric knows a bit about the danger of using athoritative power of a Church’s rulings to damage people. He is a former Anglican priest.

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  10. Mike Haubrich says:

    I don’t think that science is used a justification for atheism, but it bolsters atheism by examining religious claims of supernatural interaction with the natural world to find that such claims (such as creationism and intelligent design,) are seriously lacking in rational justification.

    Moreover, the claim that the New Atheists are not as good as the Old Atheists is kind of tired after 5 years; such claims have little substance.

    But it is repeated often enough to be a truism that has “relevance” of some sort.

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