Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Time to come out of the closet

It's true. It is time to come clean. I cannot keep living a lie.

I am a devoted acolyte of Scientism. A Scientismite (is there a better word?) More of a True Scientismite™ than most of the people my fellow Christians like to label, pejoratively, as Scientismites, if they use that word.

That is, if we define Scientism as this: The way we really know most everything that we really know, is through science.1

I am not going to define "know". I am going to use the working definition: I know (yikes!) it when I see it.

I know, for example, that General Relativity works because of the experimental tests of predictions of General Relativity.

Well, on second thought, maybe I'll define it this way: science gives me the most confidence in the things I think I know.

If we define Scientism as "That's all there is," then I am not a Scientismite. But that definition never works, even on paper.

Now, some of my best friends are philosophers, with proper oxymoronic blog names, BUT...

Seriously--I am not a big fan of philosophy. However, apart from science, the only things I know come from that discipline. For example, assuming it is proper to treat logic and the logical fallacies as products of philosophy, I know them to be true (valid?). Although it is a love-hate relationship. Who doesn't like to engage in the occasional false dilemma? I certainly indulge now and then. I would even go this far: It is philosophy, not science, that has revealed the law of the universe, the Law of Noncontradiction. I say that because a Christian I believe that this the only law that God himself is beholden to. God cannot be A and not-A, where A is some godly attribute, in the same time and in the same place, etc., etc., etc. Or maybe it is even broader than that: God himself is subject to the laws of logic.

In any case we don't say the same of science. We say that God can suspend/violate/ignore the laws of science. He is capable of physical miracles--but not whatever the equivalent would be in logic. He does not walk on rhetorical water.

But beyond the trivial--"owner" of the law(s) that even God must respect, what has philosophy done for me lately? Not much that I can enumerate. Philosophers write impenetrable papers with vague conclusions. Sometimes they invoke Baysian analysis.3 Sometimes they invoke Heisenberg. If they invoke both in the same argument I am sure they can prove that Goldie Hawn does not exist and she is God.

Other things I don't know, I believe. Viz.: That God exists, that the bible is his word, that my wife loves me, that science is worth pursuing. These things I believe.

And that science and religion are compatible. I believe that science and religion are compatible. I can't prove it, like I can prove that if you launch a rocket with this design, at this time, from this location, and with this series of burns then you find yourself zipping about with these orbital parameters. So I don't know that science and religion are compatible, I believe it. I can't know it because, as a devotee of Scientism, I only know things via science.

Not so with many of the people we charge with Scientism. They are actually Scientism apostates. Scientism Mormons, Scientism Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientism Whores of Babylon and Scientism Westboro Baptists. They argue that they know science and religion are incompatible. But they don't know this through science. There is no experiment they offer as a falsification test.4 No, they know this by philosophy. Which is to say: they don't know it at all, they believe it.

For example, on atheist-philosopher-writer Russell Blackford's blog, I pointed out that Coyne--so devoted to science--makes an utterly unscientific argument for incompatibility. To which a Coyne supporter replies:

[Coyne] wasn't making a "scientific" case for the incompatibility 'twixt S & R. He was making a philosophical and circumstantial case, describing the irreconcilable differences in the two pursuits' assumptions about reality and methods of testing truth, while denying there is some special realm of knowledge in which religion has expertise - a burden, BTW, it lies with religion to bear in the affirmative, which it has reliably and abjectly failed to do. Religion merely asserts that such special super-truths exist, and that theology is uniquely equipped to discover them. It's not up to Coyne to "scientifically" disprove their unsupported and largely unintelligible claims. He needs only show that whenever they have made intelligible, testable claims, science has routinely blown those out of the water. His message is "Will we get a clue, at long last, that there is nothing there, when the arguments and demonstration of religious truths are so bereft of meaning and validation?"

Well al-righty then! He even used scare quotes on the word scientific. The burden of proof is not on Coyne, who rants continually on incompatibility, and on how those who see, not even compatibility but mere orthogonality, as demons advocating the end of the free world. And not just the Ken Millers of the academy. Even celebrity skeptic Michael Shermer. But he (Coyne) has no burden of proof.

These folks need to look-up and read (and understand) Bertrand Russell's Teapot.

1 For the purposes of this discussion, I am lumping math in with science. Living in both worlds, math and science, I don't know if I have insulted both, neither, or just one--and if just one, I don't know which.

2 Forget that worthless Law of Identity. That it gets a name is sillier than Atwood's Machine getting a name.

3 Baysian analysis is especially powerful. A corollary of Bayes' Theorem should be: with ill-defined assumptions made to sound meaningful you can use Bayes' Theorem to prove anything. And then prove that it is wrong. A good example are Ikeda and Jefferys who use assumptions about the inscrutability and power of certain deities and Baysian analysis to "prove" that the more fine tuned the universe is, the less likely supernatural intervention is the cause. And of course others used Baysian analysis to prove them wrong.

4 For any newcomers, I have offered two: 1) Motivated by skeptic James Randi's challenge, a blind study where someone could read a collection of peer-reviewed scientific articles and separate them, accurately (with statistical significance) into two piles: those written by believers and everyone else. And 2) Devise a scientific experiment (or data analysis), just one, that would be impossible for a believer to do.

5 Who [Russell Blackford] by the way, has given no evidence of being a liar, in spite of being called one by PZ Myers. These folk like to eat their young. See this. But I warn you, if you start down that path you will trundle across the mother-of-all internecine wars in the atheist/skeptic community, an Armageddon known as "Elevatorgate". A war being fought over, in some sense, whether Richard Dawkins is a sexist pig. I kid you not.


  1. The analogy that I have found instructive is that religious belief is more like a political view than it is like scientific knowledge. (I think this analogy came from Tim Keller, but maybe I made it up myself.) What I always find amusing is that people (e.g., Carl Sagan) who assert that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge, and criticize religious believers for believing things they cannot "know," ought, in consistency, to be total political quietists. But the opposite is generally the case.

  2. Bruce, over there, said:
    The fact that scientists of higher achievement so overwhelmingly reject the hypotheses of religion is not a rigorous proof, but a powerful implication of the consequence of subjecting religious claims to the scrutiny of evidence-and-reason-based minds.

    And that's the problem, humans are not given envidence-and-reason-based minds, although "scientists of higher achievement" have necessarily molded themselves so as to able to function in that realm. Not that that would prevent them from being selective about acceptable evidence/methods in non-laboratory situations. I wouldn't call non-rational thought necessarily political, although (much) political thought probably is necessarily pre-rational.

    I think what the whole elevator-gate episode showed is that once you think of anti-accomodationism as a legitimate strategy, you've got both feet on the slippery slope. Here they go some more? Oh my. I can't do this any more.

  3. I think you are probably a bit wrong here. I can think of several instances where God seems to ignore our human (and thus flawed) logic. For instance, how is God supposed to be fully human and fully God at the same time? How is God supposed to exist outside of time? What do these things even mean? God created a logical universe, with logical rules, and he created the laws of logic as well. Nothing exists without God, not even logic. Just because we cannot fathom how something is possible doesn't mean He cannot do it.

  4. David, I think where you (me too) differ from real scientism: the think evidence is a necessity, we think it is a constraint (i.e., can't be contradicted but we are allowed to reflect beyond it.)

  5. Neil- this is common ground, in my opinion, although many fellow atheist would deny it. Science cannot tell us what we want for ourselves and for our future: in trying to build society we must indeed reflect beyond evidence, and examine our hearts. To some extent, what we want cannot be grounded in first principles or in science, and is thus irrational.

    Thus, I would say that while religion is irrational, so is any sort of humanism. But we are irrational, and we simply need to admit this and move on the best we can. Luckily, this works well enough to enable good lives for many of us. Unluckily, this doesn't work well enough to prevent war and the continuing destruction of our Earth. That's life.