Questionable Motives

June 15, 2013

What is scientism and why does this matter?

Filed under: faith-based beliefs,Knowledge,New Atheists,scientism — tildeb @ 7:54 pm

debateOne of the more recent internet memes criticizing New Atheists for ‘doing it wrong’ comes in the form of being charged with ‘scientism’. Critics of New Atheists use a couple of versions of this meme to try to discredit those of us who dare to suggest that claims of knowledge about the world should be informed by compelling evidence from the world. But because this suggestion is too easy to defend as it is really practiced in the world by those who use scientific knowledge (and that’s all of us), critics of those intolerant fundamental and philosophically naive New Atheists who supposedly practice this so-called ‘scientism’ take it down one of the two branches of the Straw Man River: the first branch portrays scientism to be another kind of faith (the strong sense), while the second branch confuses the methodology of science with its product (the weak sense), meaning that it confuses what is meant by claims of ‘knowledge’ (about the world produced by it) with ‘understanding’ (knowing something about the world produced by our subjective interpretation of it)… the assumption being that if one respects knowledge produced by ‘science’, then one respects only scientific knowledge of the world but rejects  any subjective understanding of it. Clearly, this accusation is false in terms of respecting understanding (scientists themselves widely appreciate all the arts and humanities for the enjoyment, insight, humour, and wisdom they can produce), but true in terms of respecting what hard-won scientific knowledge means (claims about reality backed up by compelling evidence from it).

So what is this philosophical ‘scientism’ we New Atheists are supposed to follow?

Well, as some of the less sophisticated critics delight to point out, scientism in the strong sense is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Presto: scientism is either false or meaningless.

Well, duh.

In addition, the strong sense of the term is presented by these not-so-clever critics as if it is a starting philosophical position of faith that is equivalent to any other religious belief. This is the way many sophisticated theologians like to use the term, inserting what they consider suitable obfuscating synonyms for it (like ‘explanatory monism’ in Haught’s case) and then trying to pretend that this is the faith-based philosophical starting position of New Atheists who respect the method of science to produce not subjective understanding interpreted by the individual but objective knowledge that is the same for everyone everywhere all the time.

But is this what people who respect the method of inquiry we call science mean when they uphold respect for the knowledge it produces about the world versus either faith-based claims contrary, or subjective understandings relative, to it ?

Of course not.

The broad view (the weak sense of scientism) held by reasonable people is that the methods of the natural sciences and its single epistemology allow the world to arbitrate what’s claimed to be true about it – and can be known in the same way by anyone, anywhere, any time.No need for axioms here. This is ‘knowledge’ in the scientific sense: the same information available to anyone anywhere at any time. This knowledge is independent of any interpretive beliefs we may hold as to its meaning, its purpose, to its moral use, its impact on values, its effect on ethical standards, its aesthetics, its effect on our tastes and preferences, and so on. It just is. This knowledge itself says nothing about any of these human concerns specifically but can help to inform them for comparative and evaluative effects on specified metrics (meaning the comparative scales used for determining what constitutes right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower,etc.). That doesn’t mean that these concerns don’t matter to New Atheists; they do, and they – like everyone else – will argue for their preferences using the best available reasons. It means that this kind of knowledge in the scientific sense is not of a kind similar to interpretive beliefs buts stands or falls completely on its own merit evaluated by the reality of the world.

The scientific method used to obtain knowledge information for claims about the world stands contrary to and in conflict with the methods used to support faith-based beliefs and there is no bridge between them, no middle ground, no mutually compatible arena in which to discuss why subjective and interpretive understanding (including revelation and ‘divine’ authority) should be taken to be equivalent knowledge in the scientific sense. It’s not because reality is not the same arbitrating factor for any competing and contrary claims made about the world; it is. The problem is that the arbitration by reality is respected only by one side here, namely, those who are charged with ‘scientism’. Reality’s role to arbitrate claims made about it is an impediment to the method relied upon to inform and justify faith-based belief. The response by believers when asked to demonstrate evidence from reality is to wave it aside and claim the need for accepting a substitution of philosophical sophistication first… and this is usually done by the use of confusing and nebulous and charged philosophical words used to render reality’s influence inert in the claim. The method of using interpretive and subjective belief to describe reality is not knowledge in the scientific sense because it doesn’t recognize reality’s role to arbitrate it… and we can evaluate whether or not the methods are honestly equivalent by examining their explanatory accuracy and see for ourselves if indeed the different methods produce equivalent knowledge… that is to say yet again, knowledge that is the same for everyone everywhere all the time. And this is where the rubber meets the road when we’re talking about the same reality all of us share. Hand waving and confusing terminology doesn’t make neither the methods nor products equivalent: in addition , the subjective and interpretive understandings do not produce equivalent products, namely, applications, therapies, and technologies that work independently of those holding various understandings. Therefore, neither beliefs nor understandings are another kind of knowledge produced by a different but equivalent kind of method because they do not produce another kind of product of equivalent practical use! Such interpretive beliefs can be seen now for what they really are: simply a different way of framing reality rather than accurately describing it.

Framing reality in particular ways may seem explain some portion of it, but this kind of explanation produces only personal understandings, viewpoints, perspectives, opinions, and the like that may – or may not! – accurately describe reality. And we don’t know if a particular framing of reality is accurate for everyone everywhere all the time until we turn back to the only method that utilizes reality to arbitrate it in just this way… and so we’re right back to using science as the only way of knowing about reality even if we think we have a different way, a different kind of method, of trying to understand it.

New Atheists take a firm stand against those who try their best to present incompatible faith-based claims about the world from the conflicting knowledge we have about it. This is the central reason for New Atheists to explain why religion deserves no preference or privilege in the public domain. Many go one step farther and advocate for a public domain empty of any religious influence. But as a group, New Atheists face off repeatedly against those who assume their contrary understandings of reality are a different but equivalent method of producing a different kind of knowledge (what is not true for everyone, anywhere, any time but subject to the vagaries of personal interpretation, personal framing of reality) worthy of equivalent respect in the name of tolerance and accommodation. But neither faith-based beliefs nor mere understandings comport with knowledge, and become so only when these kinds of claims are separated from these subjective methods and adjudicated by reality to see if, in fact, the understandings and beliefs are the same for everyone everywhere all the time. And the only method we use that works to great effect for this adjudication, this arbitration, is the method of science. That’s why there is an attempt to negate the power of New Atheists – those who respect knowledge – by misrepresenting what it is, and using a pejorative term to describe it: scientism.

This matters because it creates a blurring to our being able to differentiate ignorance from knowledge.

In addition, critics of New Atheists who charge us with scientism for promoting the vital role this method of science must play in gaining knowledge about the reality it attempts to describe utterly fail to deal appropriately with the methodological incompatibility they themselves now actively facilitate between these conflicting epistemological approaches in their rush to vilify New Atheists. In other words, it’s the ‘I’m and atheist, but…’ crowd, the ‘I’m an honest agnostic, but…’ group, who are the ones enabling and furthering epistemological confusion over whether or not faith claims of any kind or understandings subjectively interpreted are equivalent in truth value to knowledge about the world and how it operates. And this confusion comes about by inserting ‘understanding’ to be the synonym of ‘knowledge’. This duplicity carries with it a cost of injecting relativism from personal understanding into knowledge claims that are true for everyone everywhere all the time where it simply doesn’t belong, where it plays only a disruptive role to respect what’s true for some people, some of the time, in selected places to be ‘knowledge of a different kind’. This is bunk. These critics who should know better, so to speak, must recognize the brutal fact that they are doing exactly what is required advocated by the most extreme religious fundamentalist to undermine the only method we have to determine whether or not personal understanding is, in fact, true for everyone everywhere all the time. By calling subjective understanding a different kind of knowledge these critics are dismantling the means by which we can differentiate claims about reality from reality’s arbitration of them. When it comes to respecting what’s demonstrably true by reality about reality, you cannot undermine it and then assume a sense of humble and tolerant superiority for doing so… not if you if you care about what’s actually true independent of our beliefs about it. For anyone willing to substitute personal understanding to be an equivalent method of describing reality as science is not promoting knowledge; he or she is promoting ignorance to be its facsimile.

The ‘explanatory monism’, this so-called ‘scientism’ of New Atheists, is not a similar epistemology of the kind that informs ANY of the faith-based beliefs (religious or any other kind of pseudo-scientific claim that rejects arbitration by reality) – nor is it based on imposing a similar kind of faith-based beliefs on reality as some of the more dishonest critics would have us believe. To these critics, I remind them that this kind of scientism New Atheists respect is the weak kind all of us use in our daily lives – one that is founded on a method of inquiry that extracts evidence from the world to inform truth claims made about it. This is why the epistemological differences between science and faith are insurmountable because they are in direct epistemological competition, and why substituting relative understanding for knowledge is no improvement but an ‘illegal’ substitution (an apple substituted for an orange). It matters when the charge of ‘scientism’ is used as a bully tactic to derail necessary criticism of claims of knowledge that are no such thing. In practice its use as a pejorative is not just an impediment but a distraction from recognizing what’s knowable.

September 26, 2011

Why is it okay to say “I don’t know?”

Filed under: Argument,faith-based beliefs,Knowledge,reality — tildeb @ 8:43 pm

Faith-based beliefs are extraordinarily common but their popularity is not a vote in its favour. From religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories, faith-based beliefs feed their roots. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our gullibility, our ignorance, and hesitate long enough to stop ourselves from taking that final step into believing assumption and assertions to be equivalent to trustworthy knowledge. When we come across something interesting and/or intriguing and have no answer to explain the effects we find, we have an opportunity to be intellectually honest and admit that we don’t know. As Steve Novella points out, in a post about a coroner taking that dishonest step into gullibility and reporting that an unknown fire was actually spontaneous human combustion, all of us are vulnerable of doing the same unless we make the effort to exercise critical thinking:

It’s therefore a good opportunity to teach critical thinking skills. People’s brains are clogged with myths and false information, spread by rumor and the media, and accepted due to a lack of having the proper critical thinking filters in place. It’s disappointing, however, when people who should know better, or whose job it is to know better, fall for such myths.

But he has a warning, too, that:

Knowing a lot of information about a complex subject area does not necessarily also grant critical thinking skills – knowledge of logic, heuristics, and mechanisms of self-deception. This is why scientists fall prey to magicians or con-artists, and sometimes even deceive themselves and take their careers down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience.

He suggests that all of us keep firmly in mind that:

For any frequent phenomenon there will be a certain number (a residue) of cases that defy explanation, just by chance alone, because there are quirky, unique, or highly unlikely circumstances. Very unlikely things happen all the time, given enough opportunity. It is therefore not only the argument from ignorance, but utter folly to conclude that such cases have a paranormal or fantastical explanation, rather than they are just unusual but still mundane cases.

And that is something we need to take to heart: that when we use these unknown effects to support our trust in some faith-based belief of supernatural cause, we have left behind our critical thinking and stepped fully into out own willingness to be gullible. Once we decide to accept some supernatural agent of causation to explain some natural effect, we have cancelled the natural universe to be our arbiter and substituted out belief in its place. This is the common recipe – the identical thread of bad thinking, a broken epistemology – for protecting the faith-based beliefs too many of us cherish that fuel religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories as well as defend those beliefs from legitimate and honest inquiry based on evidence found in reality, in the natural universe. In all cases of faith-based beliefs presented as true in reality, the believer has taken one step too many away from critical thinking and honest inquiry that should result in an “I don’t know” and makes an illegal substitution (to borrow a sports term) of some untrustworthy belief to masquerade as a ‘different kind’ of knowledge… indistinguishable in all ways from delusion and ignorance. It really is okay for each of us to admit that sometime “I don’t know” is the best answer we have. And that’s the starting position all of us have shared. That’s the statement that begins honest inquiry and that’s the only answer to the unknown that starves the root of ignorance that nourishes faith-based beliefs. Unlike faith-based beliefs that clouds our vision into what is true in reality with our own imagined beliefs, “I don’t know” prepares the intellect for learning trustworthy knowledge about the universe we inhabit.

July 19, 2011

What is true and how can we know?

In conversation with many people of faith and accommodationists, I often face a postmodern notion I find deeply disturbing: a claim that what’s true is in the eye of the beholder – whether a believer or non believer. The notion of respecting reality to be any kind of arbiter for claims about reality seems to be a trivial point for many believers when discussing metaphysical notions while the liberal use of the term ‘truth’ in its supposed multiple guises falls off the tongue with ease when they unfailing apply these same notions to matters OF reality.

That’s cheating.

Such an assumption about the nature of what’s true – to afford the believer a way to effortlessly cross this line of demarcation between the metaphysical and the physical – allows subjective faith claims about god to be presented as equally valid ‘truths’ that somehow compete successfully with the scientific sense of the word ‘truths’ about physical reality. This is a bait and switch tactic, of course, in that a scientific truth is different in meaning than a faith-based assumption. The relativist would have us accept that each of us can subjectively assign the word ‘truth’ to whatever claim we want to believe and that this has no significant and detrimental affect on what we can know is true for all. The common misapplication is that something can be true for some but not for others in matter within this universe, such as jesus really, really, really was the son of god and performed miracles… as if each of us has a separate and distinct claim that is equally valid merely because we assign belief or lack of belief to it. But conclusions held to be true in the scientific sense of the word do not work this way.
As Jerry Coyne writes over at WEIT:
Different theologies have different “answers,” and even within a single faith different people diverge in their notion of religious “truth.”  In contrast, scientists—regardless of religious creed, ethnicity, or nationality—converge on single, agreed-upon answers (of course there is still scientific disagreement about many cutting-edge issues). Water has two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules whether you’re a chemist in Africa, Eurasia, or America.  DNA in the nucleus is a double helical molecule consisting of sugars and nucleotide bases. Evolution is a fact for scientists in every land, for they can all examine the massive evidence supporting it.  There are many faiths; but there is only one science. The fact that different people from different backgrounds converge on the same scientific answers also implies that there really are objective truths about the universe.
And truths about reality that can be known, I will add.
Also, we need to recognize that a lack of evidence for certain faith-based truth claims about reality has an important bearing on the equivalency of faith-based beliefs and scientific conclusions that are at odds. And nowhere is this more evident than in the dishonest presentation of evolution by agenda-driven supporters of certain theologies as just another kind of belief similar to a faith-based one. This is an intentional misrepresentation – what many of us legitimately call ‘Lying for Jesus’ – of what is true in reality and an organized attempt to discredit the scientific method in this matter only to serve those who wish to pretend that reality in this matter only has no bearing on what we can know about its truth. These self appointed lovers of science in all other matters do not find this theologically driven hypocrisy to be disturbing to their equilibrium of intellectual integrity. Theology in this sense can be seen to exercise its power of selective anesthesia.
This use of the term ‘truth’ based on a shared materialistic and physical reality (existing separate from our subjective wishes but in which we are immersed) decries the believer’s failed postmodern notion that all truths are subjective.  In contrast to a scientific ‘truth’ that recognizes the submission of what is true to the constraints of reality – that we recognize and test through evidence found in reality and not what we simply believe or wish to be true -  if there were objective truth about God (and his nature and intentions and desires and expectations revealed to believers through revelation), scriptural authority, explanatory dogma we should find believers to be of the same faith. That within christianity we find well over 30,000 different sects should be seen as very strong evidence recognizable even by the postmodernists and other faith-based believers that subjective truth claims are not true in any reality-based and meaningful way comparable to a scientific truth claim. The word ‘truth’ is being abused by relativists-with-an-agenda where its central meaning – being in accord with a particular fact or reality – is simply ignored in order to co-opt its scientific sense for the believer’s own and dishonest purposes.

April 16, 2011

Why is mainstream moderate religious belief poisonous (updated)?

From a previous thread come these comments:

From misunderstoodranter:

“I am not an atheist because ‘other’ people are atheists – I am an atheist because I decided I was.”

From Zero1Ghost comes this reply:

“this implies that believers are theists because they are engaged in group think. i think this notion is partially true. they are afraid not to believe in God yet they live their lives like there isn’t one and the “church” has no impact on their lives aside from where they get married, baptize their children, and where their funeral is held.”

This is a very typical characterization of the mainstream religious believer from those theists who do not see what pernicious and ongoing effect the tireless promotion of religious ideology has on their society… motivated solely by religious ideology. These same theists tend to individualize religious belief as if it were a simple choice made only on the personal level so take any criticism about religion per se as inconsequential and often misguided. From this attribution, these theists then generally fail to account for how their own preferences for empowering their personal religious beliefs in any public way support the insertion of religious ideology into the lives and business of everyone else. This is a purposeful disconnect done with the intention of deflecting criticism from the issue of religious motivation to an issue of individual actions that may or may not be considered misguided. In this way, these theists never have to deal with the growing problem religious ideology brings to the whole population as they stand idly by while this happens… but are sure to call atheists and others who complain too loudly names. Forget that these same theists offer their tacit support of the inserted religious ideology into the public domain while deflecting criticism to be too ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ and ‘fundamentalist’ to be accurate. No siree: complainers of religious insertion into the public domain are just as extreme as those other religious folk. And you don’t want to be one of those people! You’re too reasonable to be such an extremist. And yet the religiously motivated intrusion continues unabated seeking preferential treatment by means of law.

In the United States, for example, I wonder if most religious believers appreciate just how common, conniving, and downright underhanded are those who attempt to cross the state/church wall of separation to insert theology where it doesn’t belong: specifically in science class. I have trouble finding anyone who supports this insertion directly, who supports those who work against the First Amendment; instead I am overwhelmed by those who pretend such insertions are only attempted by religious extremists and fundamentalists and so we can safely trust governments to withstand their misguided assaults. They are wrong.

So let’s consider the facts: in 2011 we have seven states considering nine bills to do just this.

The National Center for Science Education offers us what they call the Antievolution Legislative Scorecard here. It lists each bill and quotes the bill’s aims. This is creationism in action. This is religious ideology actively being recruited to achieve a specific outcome. Its motivation is to undermine the teaching of evolution as if there were some other legitimate science theories kicking about in biology when there are none. This is pure religious belief common to most religious believers who assume the role of creator somewhere in humanity’s history masquerading as some kind of alternative science. And every year creationism rears its ugly little head and people work tirelessly to alter science textbooks, alter school curriculum, alter education legislation with one aim in mind: replace real science with religious belief in the public domain… or at least make room for religious beliefs about creationism in the curriculum. So can we blame only religious extremists? Well, it is not being carried out by religious extremists. It is not being carried out by fundamentalists. It is being done by politicians who stand to gain public favour by undermining the teaching of science in the name of religious belief.

There’s the rub.

It is the wider public made up of religious moderates and liberals, apologists and accommodationists, who are to blame for this travesty… including the NCSE itself that states “[t]he Bible is a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with God, and enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation [...]! Without the support of so many religious accommodationist of all stripes- tacit or actual – no politician would dare undermine the First and expect to curry public favour. For that to happen, the mainstream must accept the promotion of religious ideology in the public domain as legitimate.  And that’s why every religious believer must be challenged who dares to suggest that their religious beliefs beyond the merely personal are either innocuous or good. They’re not. They are just as likely to be poisonous.

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

March 6, 2011

What’s the problem with science/religious compatability?

I have been described as a bitter individual who thinks that there is only one way to view this world. You scream, verify, prove, facts, figures. Wow. You (sic) view is coloured by extremists who think their religions are right and you try just as hard to scream that your way is the only logical way. Well, I suspect it would not be wise to ask this person for a character reference any time soon.

Of course, I don’t see my views this way. I try to explain that it’s important that we – not just I – respect what’s true, what’s knowable, and hold great esteem for the method of inquiry that allows us to find these answers, that provides us with a foundation upon which to build not only practical technologies that work but a way of inquiring into every nook and cranny of the universe… including ourselves… on an equal footing independent of our perspectives and world views. I’m sorry if I screamed that too loudly, but let me reiterate: I respect what’s true and I don’t think that is an extremist position at all.

What never fails to amaze me is how people who hold their faith-based preferences to be equivalent with what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct see themselves and their attitude somehow removed from the ongoing problems resulting from this widespread generous allowance to respect faith-based beliefs, and assume that anyone who disagrees (and provides good evidence for that disagreement) is some kind of fundamentalist or extremist. I take issue with that absurd caricature and I do point out the effects such allowances have in the public domain of the real world and at the expense of real people. That – apparently – makes me not only strident but militantly so. How is it that respecting what is true and holding others to that same standard is so often considered unreasonable if it interferes with the preference for equivalency of faith-based beliefs to what is actually true? Well, I think the answer goes back to the assumption that faith-based beliefs are magically superior to human knowledge as long as it places god at the top of some knowledge hierarchy. In a nutshell, this is the heart of the probelm of asserting compatibility between science and religion.

An excellent example is how someone with knowledge is held in contempt for enunciating that knowledge and whose life is actually threatened by those who assume a faith-based belief is not just equivalent but superior to what the method of science reveals. God’s truth – whatever the hell that means – is superior in this belief system to what the human mind can understand is true based on honest inquiry, verification, and its practical validity. Surely this cannot be the case here at home in technologically advanced society that relies on this science for its functioning infrastructure, can it?

It can. And does.

What does this respect for faith-based beliefs look like in a secular western democracy? The examples are many – legion, in fact – but I shall select merely one.

From The Independent with bold added:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled “Islam and the theory of evolution”.

But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque’s committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. “I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused,” the statement read.

And what offence did Dr Hasan commit? What exactly was this mistake?

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country’s largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds.

Really? This was the offense, the mistake, reiterating this knowledge. But the good news is that this statement of knowledge is not unusual with Islamic scholars who apparently are qualified to judge science, we are assured. Phew. What a relief that this scientific knowledge meets with religious approval. Compatibilists everywhere must be breathing easier, right? Not so fast…

Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia – where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth – have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran’s statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

These are folk qualified to judge, eh? And compatiblists are seemingly okay with this.

Ah yes, we can’t have knowledge – the ‘good’ kind, that is – without getting the order right: god-approved knowledge first, meaning whatever knowledge doesn’t compete with faith-based beliefs about that god, and all scientific knowledge second. And therein lies the explanation why science and religion are incompatible methods of inquiry:

What’s true, accurate, and correct is a secondary consideration in this compatiblist mind set. And that’s what makes faith-based beliefs that science and religion are compatible a bald-faced lie: we either respect what’s true and knowable first, or we respect what we believe must be true for our faith-based beliefs and preferences to remain unchallenged and supreme. Faith in the latter is a virtue but a failure in the former. These two positions are simply not compatible because of this and those who would like to pretend that they are are not only deluded but continue to grant intellectual respectability to those whose faith-based beliefs contrast honest knowledge. These are the people who need to be taken to task for this capitulation of intellectual integrity to respect that which deserves none: faith-based beliefs.

June 9, 2010

Why is belief the enemy of knowledge?

Filed under: belief,Bias,Certainty,Knowledge,Science — tildeb @ 10:39 am

A terrific article over at Science-based Medicine by David Gorski about why our beliefs arm us against against acquiring knowledge counter to those beliefs. It is worth the read. But for the condensed version, I have selected a few excerpts and used bold to highlight what I think are some of the important points he raises.

If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.

We see this phenomenon of craving certainty writ large and in bold letters in huge swaths of so-called “alternative” medicine. Indeed, a lot of quackery, if not most of it, involves substituting the certainty of belief for the provisional nature of science in science-based medicine, as well as the uncertainty in our ability to predict treatment outcomes, particularly in serious diseases with variable biology, like several types of cancer.

The simplicity of these concepts at their core makes them stubbornly resistant to evidence. Indeed, when scientific evidence meets a strong belief, the evidence usually loses. In some cases, it does more than just lose; the scientific evidence only hardens the position of believers. We see this very commonly in the anti-vaccine movement, where the more evidence is presented against a vaccine-autism link, seemingly the more deeply anti-vaccine activists dig their heels in to resist, cherry picking and twisting evidence, launching ad hominem attacks on their foes, and moving the goalposts faster than science can kick the evidence ball through the uprights. The same is true for any number of pseudoscientific beliefs. We see it all the time in quackery, where even failure of the tumor to shrink in response can lead patients to conclude that the tumor, although still there, still can’t hurt them. 9/11 Truthers, creationists, Holocaust deniers, moon hoaxers — they all engage in the same sort of desperate resistance to science.

(M)ost recommendations of science-based medicine are not “truth” per se; they are simply the best recommendations physicians can currently make based on current scientific evidence. Be that as it may, the problem with the “truth wins” viewpoint is that the “truth” often runs into a buzz saw known as a phenomenon that philosophers call naive realism. This phenomenon, boiled down to its essence is the belief that whatever one believes, one believes it simply because it’s true. In the service of naive realism, we all construct mental models that help us make sense of the world. When the “truth wins” assumption meets naive realism, guess what usually wins? It ain’t the truth.

Skepticism and science are hard in that they tend to go against some of the most deeply ingrained human traits there are, in particular the need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity. Also in play is our tendency to cling to our beliefs, no matter what, as though having to change our beliefs somehow devalues or dishonors us. Skepticism, critical thinking, and science can help us overcome these tendencies, but it’s difficult. Perhaps that’s the most important contribution of the scientific method. It creates a structure that allows us to change our beliefs about the world based on evidence and experimentation without the absolute necessity of taking being proven wrong personally.

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