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The paradoxes of theological gullibility Ken Perrott Sep 26

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Dr Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher I will certainly read more of. His review of Alvin Plantinga‘s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, get’s right to the point – and clearly. Boudry responds to Plantinga’s argument that scientific theories need no more justification than logical possibility:

“But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.”

My feelings exactly. Philosophers like Plantinga should be kept well away from science. “Remarkably,” as Boudry comments, Plantinga’s “entirely gratuitous suggestion has received the support of no less a philosophers than Elliot Sober.” Perhaps scientists have really got to work harder to get through to some philosophers just what the scientific process really is.

Boudry’s review is online at Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?

I am impressed with Maaten Boudry’s clear thinking and clear writing. But, Jerry Coyne at Evolution is True reveals that Boudry can also write very unclearly and express ideas which are, to say the least, muddled (see A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher). But only as a joke.

Boudry wrote and submitted abstract on sophisticated theology to two theological conferences using an invented name (Robert A. Maundy) and institutional affiliation (College of the Holy Cross). Despite the abstract being a load of old rubbish it was quickly accepted at both conferences.

This brings to mind the Sokal Hoax in which Alan Sokal, a Physics professor at New York University  submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. His paper was ” liberally salted with nonsense, . .   sounded good and . . .  flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” It was a parody on post-modernism and despite being rubbish was published.

Boudry’s paper is:

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada

Jerry has reproduced the abstract in full – go to his blog to read it. It includes little gems like:

“By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility.”

And finishes with:

“Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.”

I think Jerry sums it up succinctly when he says:

“I defy you to understand what he’s saying, but of course it appeals to those who, steeped in Sophisticated Theology™, love a lot of big words that say nothing but somehow seem to criticize materialism while affirming the divine. It doesn’t hurt if you diss Dawkins a couple of times, either.

This shows once again the appeal of religious gibberish to the educated believer, and demonstrates that conference organizers either don’t read what they publish, or do read it and think that if it’s opaque then it must be profound.”

Yes, this little trick was probably relatively easy to perpetrate as less care would be taken with acceptance of conference papers than with publication of journal articles. Perhaps there is a challenge there – maybe some devious atheists should write some “Sophisticated Theology™” papers and submit them to the suitable journals.

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Reasonable truth? Ken Perrott Mar 25

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The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason -  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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