Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surface Level Thinking Bores Me to Tears: NOMA, Evolution and the Philosophy of Religion

Michael Ruse, who recently came to speak at the University of Chicago, seems to have exactly the kind of deeply reasonable ideas which are entirely correct and yet useless precisely because they never engage with the more difficult aspects of the topic. Because these kinds of ideas are so obvious in theory, all of their flaws arise in application. That’s probably uncharitable. Knowing the atheist community as I do, it actually is a controversial notion that in order to be better, more convincing, not to mention more ethical arguers and persuaders for our truth claims about the universe, it helps to understand the other side. And when I say understand the other side, I mean take religion seriously, possibly as seriously as it takes itself. In human history, ideas tend not to last this long unless they are very compelling, either because they are true or because they have something else, and dubbing that something else ‘comfort’ or ‘usefulness’ and then completely ignoring it when you make arguments (either because you don’t acknowledge the need for comfortable/useful/something else ideas and thus fail to build back up pillars, or because you don’t take it into account when you’re discussing the very question of how religion has lasted so long) is really not acceptable. So I was gratified to hear Ruse say something very much along these lines, though I harbor little of the hatred of New Atheists that seems to burn bright in his chest. (Though he did say this, interestingly enough).

Nonetheless, because I am entirely convinced of this proposition and I think any intellectually honest and curious person should be, too, it strikes me as an argument without an insight, a talk without a catalystic novelty at its base, and this is disappointing. Especially since it soon became clear that Ruse falls prey to a common trap: in order to emphasize the similarities or compatibilities of two worldviews or philosophies, only criticize the most egregious wrongs of either side and claim that the middle is really anyone’s game. Please, people, do not do this. Do not claim that you are both a Baarthian and a Kierkegaardian but also a Humean, and therefore believe that resurrection-believers are nuts. Do not claim that so far, religion (qua religion) has donated nothing of use to science, but perhaps in the future, it very well might. Do not appeal to the strawman of ‘scientism’ and then grasp the remaining scraps of straw in the form of wrongly-asked questions (why is there something rather than nothing?) or examples of where religion might be of some descriptive use. And, while this is a but off-topic, do not sweat arrogance and pomposity out of every pore by claiming to be a conservative Protestant atheist, and thus better than the religious by being an atheist and better than the atheists by claiming that if you were religious, you’d be better at it then them.

Ruse actually did have some really interesting things to say about metaphor and its use in science, but I’m going to leave that to another piece. I really want to focus on this question of the philosophical intersection between science and religion, how they conflict and why, and whether NOMA, which Ruse seems to generally favor, should be taken seriously.

No, I don’t, actually, because H. Allen Orr did it better. Read this: (hattip: Charles Huff). Now. Then come back.

Let me be absolutely clear: I love (almost) everything about this piece. This piece needs to be spread far and wide. I will begin to try to emulate this piece through my blogging. It is fantastic.

More specifically:
1. The exquisite self-awareness redolent in the acknowledgement of not only weak or shoddy but simply pathetically overused arguments is so refreshing I can't even stand it. I have arrived at a point in my intellectual life where I find novelty and creativity in thinking so very much more important than being right by sheer virtue of never saying anything that borders on unreasonable, which is mostly a result of cowardice. Orr's quip about the Natural Law of Scientists (by which he really means atheist internet arguers) Mentioning Crusades made me want to cheer.

2. The entire first paragraph is just...right. Exactly and fundamentally correct.

3. Of course I deeply appreciate Orr's call against an oversimplification of religion, but what's so funny is even to call it that would be an oversimplification. A charge of oversimplification only makes sense when it is brought against an argument which has made attempts to sincerely understand and categorize a topic or phenomenon, and has made some unfortunate and grievous mistakes by overlooking important analytic distinctions. But, that's not even the issue here. Gould undertook a radically absurd redefinition of religion. To call it an oversimplification would be a compliment.

4. The bit about Gould's nonsensical use of pseudo-Aristotelianism: LOVE. LOVE times a million. I mean, really. No only is that a bastardization of Aristotle, a philosopher who should really be taken more seriously insofar as he is revered but in my opinion not well-understood, but I also read David Deutsch's book The Beginning of Infinity this summer, and he along with many others in the rationalist community are pretty sick of the idea of truth as an average. When two predictions come about as a result of two entirely different explanations of how the world or something else works, picking and choosing bits is really not the way to go. In fact, you're just going to get shoddier data. How this relates to politics is a fascinating set of confusions I currently have bouncing around.

5. Orr's incisive analysis of Gould's conception of religion coming squarely out of a scientific tradition is not only right on, but is something I'm especially sympathetic to since I'm reading Abraham Joshua Heschel's God in Search of Man, which is decidedly not materialistic in its philosophical approach. Really beautiful book, by the way.

6. I didn't know that, as Orr says, "J.B. S. Haldane was an unabashed mystic" but it makes so much sense! Dawkins quotes his, "Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." all the time as an example of positive scientific awe and wonder, but it's always struck me as pretty mystical and anti-scientific. It depends on how you interpret it, of course. The context is that the prior sentence is "I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine." which may imply that the second sentence is simply a furthering of the thought that the future will be exciting and progress between now and then will be so wonderfully expansive that we simply cannot even conceive now of the questions that will be asked in the future, let alone the answers. But if the first sentence is a personal opinion which is drawn from the larger philosophy explicated in the second sentence which appears to posit fundamentally ineffable concepts, we have a problem.

7. The offhand description of different spheres as a probably "bastardized legacy of Kuhn's" is right on and also hilarious.

Small points of disagreement:

1. "The point is that it is dishonest to pretend that the Crusades count against theism but that Stalin doesn’t count against atheism." Possibly true, but possibly not. There's a different between incidental truths and relevant truths, and which is which depends largely on the neurobiology of religion and what your philosophy of religion is. So...not quite as clear cut as he's making it out to be. Maybe I should write to him!

2. I get seriously annoyed when people bring up 'scientism' as a thing, as I said above. It's not a thing. Yes, there are logical/mathematical truths. Some people have made what I find to be compelling arguments that those are in fact themselves empirical. You can make all kinds of logical systems if you want; logical is not a single thing. All the other examples are or could be scientific (if they were done more rigorously). Certainly not everything is scientific, but everything is subject to reason. If you don't believe that, that's fine, but seriously, people, it's not a weakness of the rational worldview. Ruse got this totally wrong.

That’s all for now; if you think I got something wrong, or right for that matter, please tell me!

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