Don’t always accept the prevailing wisdom, its usually wrong

… especially in regards to freethinkers!

 

As published in The Rationalist Journal June 2018

 

One of the key reasons we identify as rationalists, sceptics, or free thinkers, is because we value reason and evidence-based inquiry. We oppose government policy based on superstition, prejudice, or pseudoscience. We oppose charlatans exploiting the gullible. We advocate against magical thinking, fake news and the increasing acceptance of science-denialism. We emphasize the antidote to magical thinking – virtues of reason, science and evidence-based policies. We want to interrogate truth claims, and challenge the prevailing wisdom – after all, most of us know that it’s usually wrong.

And so, it’s disappointing to read articles by local rationalists and sceptics denigrating some of the exemplars of the freethought movement because they supposedly (amongst other things) exaggerate the importance of science and evidence. According to James Fodor “Not So Simple”, and Tim Harding, “A Step Too Far”, the following luminaries – Richard Dawkins, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Peter Boghossian – can all be lumped together, and termed pejoratively as “crude positivists”; guilty of propagating such horrors as “strict evidentialism”, “scientism”, and “pragmatism”.

Both Fodor and Harding are local free thinkers who are thoughtful and insightful in the commentary, but, in this case, I think they have succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy which labels public atheists, and science advocates, as a little too strident, blinkered, and prone to exaggerate the importance of science.

Of course, it’s still fashionable to make glib criticisms of freethinkers – in particular, the movement identified as New Atheism. Efforts to discredit the New Atheists began soon after publication of their books, the End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Because of their uncompromising and devastating attack on organised religion, New Atheists became controversial figures themselves, attracting a multitude of ad hominem attacks from the religious apologists they were actively debating. One conspicuous example was Alister McGrath’s, The Richard Dawkins Delusion – Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, containing ad hominem in its title. New Atheists were accused in pejorative terms of being religious fundamentalists, attacking a narrow interpretation of religion, dogmatism, reductionism, gross materialism, Islamophobia, and scientism. In these emotion-charged debates, mud has been thrown and evidently some of the mud has stuck.

While it’s understandable that some free thinkers would want to dissociate themselves from the bad press, we needn’t go so far as to drink the Kool Aid of religious apology. Invoking words like scientism to demonise the promoters of science is the stock-in-trade of religious apology. But there’s no doubt these criticisms have caught on, perhaps becoming accepted generally. I intend to show these criticisms are based on a narrow caricature of New Atheist views, which necessarily simplify and abbreviate their arguments.

James Fodor labels the above mentioned freethinkers with the “crude positivism” moniker, without feeling any obligation to provide any specific examples or quotes. Evidently, the prevailing view is good enough and no further justification is required. Rather, Fodor makes his case by describing the ways crude positivists allegedly frame their arguments, as follows:

 

  • Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  • Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social science, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge or a distinctly inferior sort.
  • Pragmatism: science owes its’ special status to its’ unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status

 

Evidentialism

Arguing against promoting “strict evidentialism”, Fodor admits that, as an abstract principle, beliefs should be informed by evidence. But he has concerns about how crude positivists apply this maxim in practise.

For example, a crude positivist might refuse to accept the claims of evangelical Christians that they have experienced God in their own lives. Fodor says that “nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something they regard to be ‘evidence’” But he alleges that crude positivists fail to make good arguments as to why this evidence is insufficient, simply demanding that theists provide evidence – especially scientific evidence. Fodor, is of course right to say that we need to explain what constitutes good evidence. However, the New Atheists have been relentless in outlining what sort of evidence would be sufficient for over a decade.

Notice how specifically this extended quote from Peter Boghossian’s, The Limits of Knowledge, answers Fodors’ objection in advance:

 

The problem is that everyone thinks they form their beliefs on the basis of evidence. That’s one of the issues, for example, with fake news. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or just surfing Google, people read and share stories either that they want to believe or that comport with what they already believe—then they point to those stories as evidence for their beliefs. Beliefs are used as evidence for beliefs, with fake news just providing fodder.

Teaching people to formulate beliefs on the basis of evidence may, ironically, trap them in false views of reality. Doing so increases their confidence in the truth of a belief because they think they’re believing as good critical thinkers would, but they’re actually digging themselves into a cognitive sinkhole. The more intelligent one is, the deeper the hole. As Michael Shermer famously stated, “Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas.” That is, smarter people are better at making inferences and using data to support their belief, independent of the truth of that belief.

What, then, can we skeptics do? Here’s my recommendation: Instead of telling people to form beliefs on the basis of evidence, encourage them to seek out something, anything, that could potentially undermine their confidence in a particular belief. (Not something that will, but something that could. Phrased this way it’s less threatening.) This makes thinking critical.

Philosophers call this process “defeasibility”. Defeasibility basically refers to whether or not a belief is revisable.

 

Another example: in a debate with William Lane-Craig, Lawrence Krauss outlined the sort of evidence he thinks is necessary:

 

Evidence is falsifiable; evidence is something I can test.

 

Krauss goes further, mopping out some misconceptions regarding probability and how it relates to evidence:

 

First of all, a probability greater than 50% is not evidence of anything. It’s evidence that there’s a possibility that a construct might be right. There’s also a possibility that it might be wrong. For example, in my own field of dark matter detection, one of the things I work in, there was a recent discovery of several events. And the experiment [unintelligible] that may be due to these dark matter particles, two events, where we predict none. You find out the probability of that being due to pure accident, is one part in ten: a 10% probability of that being a mere accident, 90% probability of it being, perhaps due to dark matter. The experiment, however, did not claim evidence for dark matter because we don’t claim 90% evidence is good enough, especially for an extraordinary claim.

 

In, A Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris provides detailed arguments relating to a myriad of Christian beliefs and why their evidence is insufficient. He does not simply refute them by obstinately claiming they are not “scientific” claims.

There are many more examples, but the point is made. Clearly, the ideas of the above named freethinkers are more complex and nuanced than generally supposed. Indeed, they are not so simple!

It’s also worth noting how our society operates on a universal, well understood idea of evidence. Experiential supernatural claims are not universally accepted as knowledge. Sam Harris has pointed out that when a person claims, for instance, to be the incarnation of Elvis Presley they instantly pay a price – in ill-concealed laughter and derision – for admitting to such a belief.

The separate-domains argument, to which Fodor refers (and happily does not endorse), makes a mockery of the concept of evidence. Evidence, is defined as the information which provides warrant for justified belief. An assertion is not evidence by itself – it must be supported by the information which constitutes evidence. If sufficient information exists, then it must be relatable and go towards sufficient warrant for belief. This is true by definition, since evidence contains information, and information must be capable of informing. Alas, those claiming such other forms of evidence are unable to produce the requisite information which would allow them to justifiably use the word “evidence”. Further, if these claims were imbued with another legitimate form of evidence, then we should find greater general acceptance that these are knowledge claims. The (strict or otherwise) evidentialist would have no problem – as it is evidence they seek!

Imagine if our law courts adopted the “other-realms” view of evidence. Barristers could leap to their feet demanding the court consider “other forms” of evidence which magically prove their case. “Objection, your Honour! My client has had a personal experience which proves that a ghost did it!” There are sound reasons why our legal system fails to support such ludicrous claims, and no-one suggests our courts are guilty of crude positivism.

Our current malaise is not caused by the insistence on evidence, it’s the increasing determination of political actors to ignore the evidence. While neither Fodor or Harding, to their credit, endorse such nonsense, rationalists and sceptics should remain unequivocally in favour of science and evidence, rather than pouring more fuel on the magical-thinking bonfire.

Scientism

Joining the chorus of new age prophets, philosophers, and religious apologists – James Fodor and Tim Harding accuse the defenders of science with “scientism”. This term is carelessly lobbed at freethinkers whenever they suggest an incompatibility between science and faith. The preeminent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has earned this epithet on numerous occasions. But, even in his case, it is dubious as to whether he thinks that the “only legitimate form of … knowledge is … science”.

In a debate with philosopher Stephen Law, for example, Dawkins said, “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”.

Not exactly scientism, in my opinion, however, this brings to mind Sam Harris, who actually does think that science can advise us on moral issues!

Charges of scientism arose following his claims in The Moral Landscape that science will one day be able to solve ethical problems. His claims rely on a presupposition that the well-being of sentient creatures is a natural, and incontrovertible, value and measuring stick for morality. I don’t think we can achieve agreement on objective moral values in this way, nor I am convinced that the presupposition of “wellbeing” must be universally accepted. I’m sure Fodor and Harding would agree that the presupposition of wellness is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Nonetheless, The Moral Landscape remains an influential and useful contribution to public debate, offering a way of framing morality in a distinctly nonreligious, utilitarian manner.

But the allegation of scientism relies on the common view is that science can have nothing to say about morality or ethics. Nothing? Is this incontrovertibly true, or another example of a conventional-wisdom dogma? Consider recent developments in cognitive psychology noting that primate species including humans have evolved with similar moral inclinations based on filial relationships. Consider also the possibility that future neuroscientific and medical discoveries may establish that humans do indeed possess inherent and universal moral inclinations and ethical instincts. Wouldn’t it be of interest to know what these are? Gaping holes exist in our understanding of consciousness, and how it relates to human decision making. It is difficult to predict how a better understanding of our brain and our own human nature may influence future discussions on morality. Perhaps, the assumption that science should be silent on morality is not as ironclad as some appear to think.

The accusation of scientism is, to some extent, a result of different interpretations of science. For instance, Richard Dawkins has an elastic understanding of science: in his view science includes all philosophic reasoning, history and all empirical knowledge. Sam Harris similarly sees science as commensurate with knowledge:

 

In the broadest sense, ‘science’ (from the Latin scire, ‘to know’) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world.                

Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 64

 

So, when they say the word “science” in the broad sense, they often mean “knowledge”. Yet, many are liable to take them as excluding other genuine forms of knowledge such as history, philosophy and social science.

But evidently, even seasoned rationalists and sceptics are unaware of this problem, and therefore argue that we must be extremely wary of promoting a narrow view of science. And then, distressingly, they seek to support this view, by highlighting the limits of science.

To that end, Tim Harding quotes an oft-mentioned argument proposing Galileo’s explanation of gravity was founded upon reason alone, rather than the scientific method.

Considering the question of whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, Galileo imagined two objects, one heavier than the other, connected by string, which are dropped from a tower. Assuming heavier objects fall faster Galileo imagined the string would soon become taut. But, the linked objects would together be heavier than the two objects individually, thus, creating a perceived contradiction, which allowed Galileo to hypothesise that in a vacuum the two objects would fall at the same rate.

In an article in Sceptic Magazine, Gary Bakker answers this argument in devastating fashion by pointing out that Galileo’s discoveries would not be considered knowledge unless they were verified by subsequent testing.

Interestingly, the example of a scientist like Galileo seems strange recalling his treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Standing accused of trespassing onto the sacred ground of theology, Galileo’s discoveries directly challenged Scripture. What was he accused of, if not Scientism?

The historical trespass of science into the rival domains of theology and philosophy provides a useful perspective on present-day accusations of “scientism”. The concrete is not yet dry on the demarcations between science and the humanities. Who can say precisely where they are, and where future discoveries will take them?

Philosopher Stephen Law sums up the use of scientism well:

 

“ In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’“

 

Pragmatism

Fodor and Harding then argue against pragmatism – the belief in the utility of science to produce practical results – because is insufficient to recommend it as a complete picture of reality.

Fodor and Harding appear to suffering under the misapprehension that popular science advocates think they have reality completely figured out. Fodor argues that because scientific theories have historically sometimes worked relatively well in practice, only to have been found to be incorrect as an accurate model of reality, that (his view of) science cannot “alone always provide us with accurate descriptions of reality”. I’m not sure which crude positivist is supposed to hold this view.

He mentions Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos. But even against those who might insist that science does have all the answers, this is a comically fallacious counter argument. Reprising the logic of Gary Bakker, what fields of endeavour updated these incorrect models of reality? It certainly wasn’t philosophy. Was it French poetry? Or, was it Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas after an afternoon of levitating around St Peter’s Cathedral?

Despite allegations to the contrary, scientists are well known for exercising caution in claiming new discoveries. Virtually no-one argues that science represents an absolute or complete description of reality. What’s more, this triviality doesn’t discredit science at all. If science “alone” falls short, it is not as if we witness to other fields of inquiry riding in to the rescue. And yet, Harding proffers “philosophies of mind and metaphysics” as ways of filling in the missing pieces. Does anyone really imagine metaphysics is going to solve the fundamental questions of existence? How will we test the answers? Dare I say…science?

The popular trope that scientists have become over confident and intellectual bullies, results in the desire to take them down a peg or two. Pejorative terms arise out of this idea. It’s true that occasionally scientists do make questionable claims about the superiority of science over other disciplines, but these deserve sensible and measured debate, rather than name-calling. Leading free thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian have made questionable claims over social media. My argument is not that eminent figures in freethought should be immune from criticism. But rather, when we do criticise freethinkers we should use carefully constructed arguments combining reason and evidence.

After all, there is a conga line of well-funded advocates who oppose the Enlightenment values of science, reason and evidence. They promote worldviews which are antithetical to scepticism, rationalism, or humanism. They might propose, for instance, that evidence and science are secondary considerations subject only to a divine will. Or, that the world is only intelligible because of supernatural forces. Or, that we need to focus our efforts on returning society to a prior golden age. And that western democracies will collapse without continued subsidising of supernatural and religious beliefs. Such advocates, do not need or deserve our support.

Stigmatising the promotion of science by labelling it “scientism”; and, erroneously denouncing leading rationalist by making up pejorative labels; are actions antithetical to the ideals of the free thought community. Labelling people such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris in pejorative terms has the unfortunate side-effect of discrediting everything they’ve said or written, and diminishing the freethought community as a whole. We are damaging our own brand. The spectacular contribution of science, and the scientific method, is something we should be championing. What we need to focus on is developing the most persuasive arguments to champion the use of evidence and reason in forming beliefs, and in governing societies. That’s our mission. Let’s not lose sight of it.

1 reply
  1. Peter Jones
    Peter Jones says:

    A leedle typo Hugh,
    . . . maxim in practise.

    I use “advise someone, but also accept advice” to distinguish.

    Not very scientific, I admit!

    Reply

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