dinsdag 14 augustus 2007

David Heddle on Biblical literalism

David Heddle is having a field day. He starts off by making the point that (some) atheists have a tendency to regard any diversion from Biblical literalism from the part of Christians as hypocrisy, and as a concession to science:

In the seedy e-ghetto that I traverse, the person making this argument always has a goal: they want to show that science and the bible are incompatible. So, in their laziness, they demand that you except a vulnerable position or be declared a hypocrite. Anything else requires too much homework.

Sadly, YECs often play the useful idiot in this game. They will delight in trumpeting the fact that anyone with any credentials of note claims that their interpretation of Genesis is the only legitimate one, even if the person making the argument only wants, ultimately, to demonstrate what fools they are.

And then a Dave Mullenix wanders into the comment boxes apparently determined to prove Heddle's point:

We atheists prefer to deal with the actual Bible, not ad hoc, intellectually shabby stories that never even would have occurred to anybody if the Bible wasn't so clearly at odds with reality.


But who has done the jettisoning? Not the atheists. It's the more sensible of the Christians who re-wrote the Bible because it clearly dates the creation of the universe to about 4000 BC.

And after David Heddle gladly points out that non-literal interpretations of Genesis (thus not equating a "day" with 24 hours) were current among the early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Augustine, Mullenix continues:

Yep, Christians have been re-writing the Bible since Augustine's day. Probably sooner. If you find something in the Bible you can't stomach, either scientifically, historically, doctrinally or morally, just use your human judgement to re-write Scripture and explain what the words really mean. Who needs God or His Word?

Talk about building on sand.

The point is that, first of all, as David Heddle points out, Biblical literalism was current enough for Augustine to polemicize against, chiding Christians who would assert literal interpretations of Genesis in discussions with Pagans educated in natural philosophy, and thereby making fools of themselves. But even back then, it never was orthodox. Biblical interpretation in medieval times was very free, with allegories and metaphors pointed out anywhere. Biblical literalism is a quite recent phenomenon, and basically the flip side of Enlightenment modernism and its tendency to regard only empirically verifiable truths about things located in space and time as worth talking about. Biblical literalists and YEC Christians share the mentality while disagreeing about the nature of the truths, instead seeking in a constrained fashion to fit scientific, empirical truths about the world in a Biblical framework. And they're making fools of themselves (much like the philosophically ignorant Christians Augustine railed against). But historically, Biblical literalism has no claim to primacy.

Worse, it's highly dubious to assert a literal interpretation as some kind of neutral case, with non-literal interpretations needing special justification. Genesis is just not that kind of text. It's not intended to give some kind of neutral, objective view on how the world came about - the whole idea would be alien to the people who wrote it. Instead, it provides us with an analysis - in mythical language - of the human condition; of our nature as creatures with knowledge of good and evil situated in a violent natural world - yet spiritually disconnected from it. As such, it's very powerful.

Reading a text metaphorically is not "intellectually shabby". Philologists, linguists and scholars in literature have done it in an academically responsible manner for centuries. On a more basic level, anyone who enjoys reading poetry does it. An atheist or a YEC Christian who claims to deal with "the actual Bible" is not dealing with some kind of uninterpreted, neutral set of naturalistic, empirical claims somehow "really" there. He would also be dealing with an interpretation. And a pretty poor one, at that.

As Heddle points out, there's a highly disingenuous intellectual move going on. Biblical literalism is asserted to be the real thing, allowing the atheist to shoot fish in a barrel and have a cheap laugh at the benighted fundamentalists, while non-literalists interpretations of the Bible (which, to recap, have been mainstream throughout the history of Christianity) are done away with as hypocritical and as inherent concessions to "science" (of course science as a set of philosophically neutral empirical claims is confused here with science as an unconsciously philosophical worldview). Why, if a Christian departs from a literal reading of the Bible because of its incompatibility with empirical truths, surely, if he were to face facts coldly and rationally (as atheists are wont to do) he would surely abandon religion as a whole!

As intellectual method goes, it's not very pretty. It shies away from taking the opponent's positions at face value and trying to undermine them on their own ground in favour of focusing on the weakest representatives of the opposing position. There's a lot of intellectual laziness and rationalizing of intellectual laziness going on here (see also my previous remarks on the "Courtier's reply" move somewhere below). I'm all too sure that similar stuff goes on among Christian detractors of atheism. However, I hold atheists who often make a lot of science and what science means to a slightly higher standard.

zondag 5 augustus 2007


I'm peeved at this word "denialism" that I see springing up here and there and other places. It must be new. I certainly didn't see it very much two or so years ago.

I guess I'm a denialist on some issues. I suppose I'm a global warming denialist (I think the earth is warming; I think humans have got something to do with it, though I do not know how much; I think we're better off stimulating technological development in the third world than enacting futile CO2 restriction schemes - as the former will help us if, God forbid, the warming trend will reverse at some point in the future. I guess that makes me a "denialist"). I guess I'm a second-hand smoke denialist as well (though not a first-hand one). Perhaps I'm both an evolution and a creationism denialist (I believe biological species have evolved from simpler forms by natural processes, but that's about where I stop).

Hmmmm... Thinking further, I'm an eliminative materialism denialist, a Biblical literalism denialist, a very fervent and rabid memetics denialist...

But there's of course the one particular kind of denial which (justifiably) places the denialist out of the realms of civilized discourse - which is Holocaust denial. And I have an unpleasant feeling that the whole industry of labelling various divertions from scientific and Leftist* orthodoxy - on global warming, on the HIV-Aids connection, etc. - as "denialism" is a rather transparant ploy to link the latter with the former. Am I being uncharitable here? I don't think so - as Frank Furedi points out, the almost unthinkably hyperbolic and obscene equivalence between Holocaust denial and "global warming denialism" has in fact been explicitly made.

The issue is of course that, where there had been genocides, mass murders, and concentration camps before, there was something uniquely evil in the technological sophistication and sheer single-mindedness with which the Nazis went about it. Spending extraordinary amounts of time and energy to kill those last Jews that would otherwise have been forgotten, even when the Soviet tanks were knocking on their doors. So justifiably the Holocaust becomes a symbol for human evil.

It also becomes a standard against which other human evils are measured against. So the issue of whether Hitler or Stalin was more evil becomes an issue for historians to polemicize about. More sinisterly, military interventions proclaimed to be undertaken in order to avoid new Holocaust become virtually beyond criticism. It allowed those who doubted the propagandistic claims of NATO during the bombing of Yugoslavia to be compared to "Holocaust deniers".

It would be one thing if Holocaust denialism were a largely irrelevant argument about a particular historical event - but the place the Holocaust takes in our cultural memory guarantees it to be more than that. Holocaust denial is a tool in the hands of those seeking to whitewash and legitimize the Nazi regime - whether these are Neo-Nazis such as David Irving or Islamists such as Ahmadinejad.

Note that I agree with Deborah Lipstadt that Holocaust denial should be defeated in the arena of ideas, rather than censored. I'm principally opposed to the curtailing of free speech - even that of Neo-Nazis and Islamic anti-semites. Besides, I don't trust those who would censor Holocaust deniers to stop at them.

But it is for reasons such as these that I doubt the human decency of those who use the word "denialism" for people whose ideas divert from scientific orthodoxy. Whether it be tobacco, global warming, evolution or the HIV-Aids link. The opponents of such various "denialisms" are either extraordinarily, and incredibly, naive about the connotations of the term, or they consciously abuse the force of those connotations. Which is the rhetorical equivalent of taking a shit on the kitchen table. I take a dim view on such things.

It is bordering on the immoral to, for people ostensibly caring about "science", place divergent opinions outside of the realm of scientific discourse in that way. No matter whether those opinions are wrong. The attitude behind the polemics against "denialism" are antithetical to the reflective and cautious attitude that the scientific enterprise inspires one to take against reigning orthodoxies.

Instead, the underlying attitude becomes symptomatic for a situation in which a given scientific view becomes a symbol for a given outlook on politics, society, etc. The "correct" view on global warming becomes symbolic for those who self-identify as progressive, caring about the planet, against Bush, etc. The counterposing view becomes symbolic for rednecks driving around in gas-guzzling SUVs with their cherished guns to shoot Bambi.

And that's a very dangerous situation. In past posts, I argued that positions that seem "outlandish" may be outlandish only on the basis of (unspoken and unexamined) philosophical views. The way in which cheap and despicable rhetoric on the part of anti-denialist political activists is aimed at making a given position beyond the pale in public discourse in similar fashion leads to a given position becoming an unquestioned and unexamined orthodoxy.

It's for reasons such as these that I am also leery of "skeptics" who proudly dub themselves as such. Because, all too often, you will find people there to whom science is a set of philosophically highly porous positions, rather than a method. This said, professional skeptics do perform an invaluable service in examining the claims of frauds and snake-oil merchants. It's just that I do not really have confidence in their ability to sort the odd outlandish, extraordinary, yet valid claim from the frauds and snake-oil merchants.

I wonder to what extent the particular political divisions in America impress upon which positions are, worldwide, accepted as orthodoxy and heresy. Of course, some of the shrillest rhetoric comes from Britain instead. Yet I think it is the generally Leftist* outlook in American academia and the curious position of Bush as a figurehead of all that is evil (from Christian fundamentalism and creationism to global warming to whatever) that it an important catalyst to the anti-denialism industry. It always struck me that, for all the alleged behind-the-scene roles of Bush and republicans and oil money behind "global warming denialism", quite a few global warming "skeptics" and, more widely, people taking a nuanced position on the dangers of global warming, are Canadians, Brits, Germans, Dutch and Australians.

*Endnote: I have always self-identified as on the political Left, or, more precisely, as a Socialist with a libertarian outlook on freedom of speech and sexuality. I'm strongly anti-censorship, in favour of universal health care and cheap public education, wide-ranging social security, and while we're at it, I wouldn't quite mind a little workers' ownership of the means of production. This said, I'm very much "Old Left", with more than a bit of sympathy towards the Christian socialist movements of the 20th century. And I find it increasingly difficult to identify with what goes as progressive or "liberal" particularly in the U.S. sense of the word.

zaterdag 4 augustus 2007

PZ Meyers vs. Alister McGrath

PZ Meyers shows a somewhat tenuous grasp on philosophy of science while dealing with an interview with Alister McGrath. The nice thing about PZ Meyers and his Pharyngula blog is that he tends to be wrong in a remarkably clear and consistent way. No difference here.

McGrath remarks, quite correctly, that:

I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects. That’s an extremely important point to make in beginning to critique him.

PZ Meyers proves his point by stating that:

He's actually right on one thing: we are approaching the question of god as a scientific problem, and the question of water on Mars is a pretty good analogy. We can't see it here, we aren't there, we have to build a case on inference from evidence and we have to design tests to evaluate the possibilities. That's been an eminently successful strategy for humanity. So why can't we bring them to bear on the god question? I've highlighted his answer: he says we just can't. He doesn't say why we can't, it's just a dogmatic assertion. Keep this in mind, though, because he's going to contradict himself in a moment.

Also, I'd like to know what he means by this category of "scientific objects". Everything is a scientific object, from distant stars to grains of dirt, from the first picoseconds of the Big Bang to pillow talk between lovers. If we can ask a question about it, it can be science. McGrath may think this is a useful strategy for a critique, but all it amounts to is setting up his premises as unquestionable. We simply do not have to accept that.

Later on in the interview, McGrath states that:

As someone who has studied the history and philosophy of science extensively, I think I’ve noticed a number of things that Dawkins seems to have overlooked. One of them is this: One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it’s there, it can explain everything that can be observed.

Of course, if you’re a Christian you’ll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can’t prove there’s a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there’s a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right.

At which point PZ Meyers charges him with a contradiction:

Whoa. What happened to "of course there's no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? What about "God may not be in the same category as scientific objects"? One moment he's claiming you can't study god like you would the possibility of water on Mars, and next he's claiming the validity of using observation and theory to justify the existence of the remote and directly unseen. How … inconsistent.

Except that he's not. McGrath was talking here about an inference to the best explanation, or about what Peirce called an abductive inference - which by itself is only half the scientific method. The explanation would potentially fall within the domain of science if the explanandum could be observed and studied in an empirical fashion. But in the case of God, the kind of explanandum you'd be dealing with are not scientifically observable things but things which are the preconditions for us making any (scientific) observation at all - the existence of laws of nature (if indeed they are laws of nature - which in itself is not a scientific question); the problem of universals; the existence of mind, etc. There is no scientific proof for the existence of mind in addition to matter. It's highly reasonable to assume there is such a thing (as we have direct experience of mind, and only very indirect of matter, for one) but no empirical proof. Given a world-picture in which both mind and matter are co-existing, one could (reasonably- but without scientific proof) argue mind to be primary, and extrapolate from this to the existence of God. But this is not science.

For McGrath to argue that God is amenable to scientific study, he would have to argue not only the existence of God as the result of an abductive inference, but to argue empirical observables under the operation of regularities of nature - which are thereby falsifiable, and predictable. In other words, even a miracle would not do as a scientific observation, as miracles are pretty much by definition one-off breaches of the laws of nature. In natural science, of courses, empirical observables are automatically assumed to be subject to natural laws as the whole method (of prediction and experimental verification) depends upon it. So supposed empirical facts which, to the believer, call for the activity of God as an explanation, are by definition either outside the realm of science or, to an atheist, no proof of anything except the normal workings of the universe. However, it would not be a justification of atheism without a defense of some kind of empiricism as an underlying metaphysics.

Now, charitably, PZ Meyers could have used science in the sense of "natural science, the humanities, philosophy, and rational discourse in general" which does indeed just about envelop anything we can ask a question about. But he would be very wrong to do so - and I don't think he is.

What has happened here is that PZ Meyers bases his own reasoning upon a philosophical outlook - some kind of very naive, scientistic empiricism - without allowing for the possibility McGrath does not share that outlook. Which is a pattern I've seen a lot of atheists fall into. They start arguing that they are under no obligation to believe in God just as they are under no obligation to argue in the existence of a teapot circling Saturn. At which point one may counter that God is not a spatially and temporally bound object like the teapot, that God is not "in" the universe but rather the other way around, and that God is not subject to the laws of nature but rather the basis of them. And that, therefore, arguments on the existence of God need to take place in philosophical rather than scientific discourse. Usually the atheist will counter that there is as little need for him to acquaint himself with philosophy of religion as there is for goblinology or Saturnian teapotology - and we're back to square one. The atheist might even invoke the Courtier's reply which is another way of stating that the atheist is under no obligation to acquaint himself with what he's arguing against. When an atheist does this, it is of course a sign of the atheist's superior Reason. If a creationist fighting to remove evolution from the classroom were to make the same move, it would obviously be a symptom of the creationist's redneck anti-science idiocy.

Anyway. All this nicely illustrates the dangers of unconscious empiricism (an empiricism that does not know it is one).

And many principles which are quite appropriate for science and empirical inquiry are abused by cajoling them into philosophical service when used as arguments for atheism. Such as Occam's razor - which is just about unusable, as the relative parsimony of atheistic and theistic explanations is hardly statable. The explananda are often not even quite the same. Another is Sagan's claim that "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence". Which tends to make my blood boil, as I've hardly ever seen appropriate use of it. In the normal process of science, scientists are usually quite justified to not abandon the theories they work with unless there is a lot of proof that they are indeed wrong. Suppose a well-argued and superficially plausible claim were to be made that the Americas were colonized out of Polynesia rather than the Bering land bridge. A "wait and see" approach would be very appropriate. This makes the scientific process somewhat conservative, which is probably a good thing.

The principle is, however, wholly inappropriate if used to evaluate "extraordinary" claims which do, in fact, contradict no established scientific theories. Which is the way it is commonly used by professional skeptics. The claim for the existence of ESP needs evidence, but no "extraordinary" evidence. Claims for the existence of God need argument (rather than evidence) but certainly no extraordinary evidence.

Because the problem in the latter cases is that we have no scientific grounds to state that a given claim is extraordinary. Based on the scientific consensus concerning the origins of Native Americans, and the chronology of the colonization of Polynesia, a proposed Polynesian origin would be very extraordinary. However, whether one finds ESP or God extraordinary depends on one's philosophical presuppositions. ESP may well fit easily in the philosophical framework of a dualist or a panpsychist, but would be somewhat more troublesome for a philosophical materialist. Similarly God.

Using heuristic or pragmatic principles such as Occam's razor or Sagan's "extraordinary claims" as principles to evaluate philosophies, world-outlooks, or things quite beyond current science, usually shows some kind of underlying naive empiricism. The problem with philosophical outlooks that are hidden from view is that they cannot be evaluated, and they cannot be criticized. In this sense, the explicit, reflective theist is usually in better intellectual health than the "pro-science" atheist.