About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Is Richard Dawkins really that naive?
“If they’ve [the creationists] been told that there’s an incompatibility between religion and evolution, well, let’s convince them of evolution, and we’re there! Because after all, we’ve got the evidence. ... I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry [Coyne] is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt. ...You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!”
Oh, really? There is so much wrong with these few sentences that a whole book could be written about them, but since I am no Stephen Gould (who was famous for being able to magically turn a short essay into a book length manuscript, provided the right economic incentives), a blog post will have to do. First, though, some background. Dawkins is commenting on a recent essay by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who in turn was criticizing Eugenie Scott and her National Center for Science Education. While both Dawkins and Coyne profess admiration and respect for Scott and her organization (and so do I, for the record), they are upset by what they see as an “accommodationist” stance on the question of science and religion.
Scott — who is an atheist — has repeatedly said that one cannot claim that science requires atheism because atheism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. She leverages the standard distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism: if you are a scientist you have to be a methodological naturalist (i.e., assume for operative purposes that nature and natural laws are all that there is); but this doesn’t commit you to the stronger position of philosophical naturalism (i.e., to the claim that there really isn’t anything outside of nature and its laws). Years ago, when I first met Genie Scott, I had a Dawkins-like problem with this. I saw the distinction as sophistic hair splitting, and told her so (she was my guest for one of the annual Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee). Then I started taking philosophy courses, understood what she was saying, and found it irrefutable. I sent her an email apologizing for my earlier obtusity.
That said, both Genie and I do recognize that science is one of the strongest arguments for philosophical naturalism, and I suspect that in her case, as in mine, a pretty big reason for why we are atheists is because of our understanding of science. Still, the philosophical/methodological distinction is both philosophically valid and pragmatically useful, since it doesn’t serve the purposes of either science or education to fuel an antagonism between a small minority of atheistic scientists and 90% of the world's population (those taxpayers, on whose good will the existence of science and the stipends of most of said scientists depend).
Jerry Coyne, however (with whom I often disagree, especially on scientific matters), does have a point that Scott and the NCSE should address: if the National Center for Science Education claims neutrality with respect to the relationship between science and religion, then why — as Coyne observes — do they list on their web site (under “recommended books”) a plethora of obviously biased books on the subject? Why does the NCSE feel ok to endorse the vacuous writings (as it pertains to the alleged compatibility between science and religion) by pro-religion scientists like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway Morris, to name a few? Either these books should be ignored, or the NCSE should also recommend the (equally questionable) works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and so on. Either science can neither prove or disprove gods, or it can, the philosophical/methodological distinction cuts both ways. Genie, what’s up?
Now back to Dawkins. As we have seen, he claims that we would be better off being on the offensive against religionists, because we’ve got the evidence. Oh yes, and because Christopher Hitchens is a better rhetorician than Ann Coulter (though he doesn’t look half as good, unfortunately). The latter is certainly true, but to pick on Coulter is to stack the deck much too obviously on one’s side. The real problem is that, pace Dawkins, evidence has nothing to do with it, because this isn’t a scientific debate. Look, even the most outrageous version of young earth creationism cannot be scientifically falsified. Wanna try? Consider the following: if there is any obvious evidence of the fact that evolution has occurred, it ought to be the impressive and worldwide consistent fossil record. Moreover, using the geological column as a way to date events during the history of the earth predates Darwin (i.e., it was invented by creationists), and we keep discovering new intermediate fossils further documenting evolution every year.
But a staunch creationist will argue (I know this from personal experience) that god simply orchestrated the whole appearance of fossils and intermediate forms to test our faith. As stunning and nonsensical as this “theory” may be, it makes the creationist completely and utterly impervious to evidence: the more evidence you bring up, the more he feels validated in his faith, because faith is belief regardless or despite the evidence. Now Dawkins will say that these people are irrational ignoramuses, and they certainly are. But that misses the point entirely: the lowly creationist has just given the mighty evolutionist a humbling (if unconscious) lesson in philosophy by showing that evidence simply does not enter the debate. If evidence is out, then we are left with sheer rhetorical force. But there too, atheists are easily outmatched: Coulter notwithstanding, there are armies of professionally trained preachers out there who will trump Hitchens — in the eyes of their constituencies at least — even when the latter is perfectly sober. And the important keyword here is “constituency,” since these are the very same people that turn around and elect a creationist board of education, causing endless headaches to Scott and collaborators, headaches that are not in the least helped by Dawkins-style posturing.
And really, look at Dawkins’ prescription here. According to him we should be even more “contemptuous” than the religious fanatics are; we should “really hurt” with our “sharp barbs”; we “can’t lose” because truth is clearly on our side. One almost gets the feeling that if Dawkins had the resources of the Inquisition at his disposal he might just use them in the name of scientific Truth (a philosophical oxymoron, by the way). Thanks for the public relations disaster, Dick!
What are we to do, then? First, learning some good philosophy wouldn’t hurt the likes of Dawkins a bit. That way they would finally appreciate that Genie’s position is not just a matter of pragmatism, and it has nothing to do with intellectual cowardice. Second, and more importantly, we really need to turn to psychology and sociology, the sciences that tell us how and when people change their minds. If we want a cultural change, we need to understand how cultures change. And by the way, let us remember that scientists are most certainly not immune to the same problem of walking around with a mind a bit less open than one would hope. Dawkins may like to think that science is about free inquiry that inevitably leads to people accepting new discoveries and renouncing old ideas based on the weight of evidence and rationality. If so, he hasn’t practiced science in a while (indeed, he hasn’t). As physicist Max Plank aptly said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Analogously with creationism: changing minds is a painstaking, largely unrewarding, capillary job, which the National Center for Science Education does superbly. Dawkins & co. should simply get out of the way and let them do their work.
[Note: I became aware of this latest much ado about nothing debate through a fairly well balanced post by Paul Fidalgo at the DC Secularism Examiner, where you will find additional quotations from the various parties involved.]