Saturday, March 24, 2012

Atheism is not scientism

Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University, in his recent New York Times article titled "Science is Unbelieving", identifies "scientism" as a major flaw in modern atheism. He defines scientism as "this conviction that science can resolve all questions known" including "questions about morality, purpose, and consciousness" and places this label, which he acknowledges is intended to be pejorative, on Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

He then elaborates that scientism "rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are." However, none of these three assertions, neither individually nor in combination, imply that science can resolve all questions known. Everyone with any common sense, including modern atheists, recognizes that science is a human endeavor, that humans are limited to operating within the confines and limits of their location and time and abilities, and that humans never have, and never will, have access to all evidence about everything, everywhere, over all time, past and future. Accordingly, science does not, and will not, resolve all questions known. Indeed, all questions do not have answers because many questions have no relevance to what is true or false or are incoherent. The issue of what questions should be asked is itself an issue that can only be reliably resolved by following the available evidence.

And when we follow the evidence, as all rational people are obliged to do, the assertions that physics is “the whole truth about reality”, that we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”, and that neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable", are not scientism, as Philip Kitcher asserts, they are simply the conclusions that arguably are most consistent with the available evidence. Those are short quotes that Philip Kitcher excerpted from a book by one particular atheist ("The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions" by Alex Rosenberg). He is using his critical review of that book as his launching pad for his more general attack against modern atheism. I have not read that book, but taking short phrases like that out of context is not conducive to fair criticism of the author's argument. I can imagine such short phrases appearing in paragraphs whose context gives them a more nuanced interpretation than Philip Kitcher appears to be trying to attribute to this author. Philip Kitcher clearly dislikes these sorts of conclusions, but his mislabeling these conclusions as scientism fails to demonstrated that they are "premature".

It is true that "very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles.". But again, science is a human activity, and humans are limited in many ways. So none of these limitations in science as a human activity counter the conclusion that physics underlies the whole truth about reality. Quantum indeterminacy, the necessary incompleteness in the description of a physical system, is one of the characteristics of the universe as understood by modern physics. So even if some predictions are impossible "in principle", it still doesn't follow that it is mistaken to conclude that physics underlies the whole truth about reality. What Philip Kitcher derides as "imperial physics" makes complete access to the future forever inaccessible to us. Furthermore, nothing in basic physics requires that the properties of complex systems be identical to the collection of the properties of that system's constituent parts. It is well established in physics that entirely new properties sometimes appear in complex systems. Nothing about this emergent properties phenomena supports the conclusion that god exists. Philip Kitcher may not like that physics rules over us and the universe, but that doesn't make the evidence that it does any less convincing.

Philip Kitcher then disparages the generalizing from evidence to conclusions "unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned". Indeed, atheism is a generalization, not a conclusion of science. Generalizing from the evidence is something we all do. It is a basis for sound philosophy, so it seems kind of odd to hear a philosopher criticize such activity in such general terms. We need to make decisions on the basis of the available evidence, and since the available evidence often falls short of being complete in the context of answering the questions relevant to making our decisions, we generalize on the evidence. Shame on atheists for being like everyone else in this regard!?

Philip Kitcher then points out that "others hold the equally staunch position that some questions are so profound that they must forever lie beyond the scope of natural science. Faith in God, or a conviction that free will exists, or that life has meaning are not subject to revision in the light of empirical evidence." The first two questions are existence questions and the only reliable basis for answering such questions is by matching the answer against the available evidence, not on faith or conviction. The evidence disfavors both, and the people who argue that empirical evidence can have no relevance when trying to answer those questions are no less mistaken for being adamant. The last question is an attitude question. But even human attitudes, to be properly sustained, need to be anchored in facts and therefore should be built on a foundation of evidence, not on counter-evidenced possibilities such as God and free will. And what in the world does the measure of profundity have to do with a question being beyond the scope of natural science? Profundity is irrelevant here. Questions are either inside or outside the scope of natural science primarily in relation to the availability of evidence.

Not surprisingly, Philip Kitcher tries to divorce his attack against "scientism" from disrespect for natural science. He notes that "The natural sciences command admiration through the striking successes ....". But "... the natural sciences have no monopoly on inferential rigor. Linguists and religious scholars make connections among languages and among sacred texts, employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history. Attending to achievements like these offers many alternatives to scientism." With that last sentence, Philip Kitcher appears to be implying that modern atheism (a.k.a "scientism") is inconsistent with "employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history" in contexts beyond the natural sciences. This is nonsense. Modern atheists very much support and favor "employing the same methods of inference" on the empirical evidence beyond the confines of the natural sciences. Inferring from the evidence is what we are doing when we observe that the available evidences favor the conclusion that gods are human created fictions.

Philip Kitcher then asserts "Instead of forcing the present-day natural sciences to supply All the Answers, you might value other forms of investigation — at least until physics, biology and neuroscience have advanced." But that is what atheists are doing. Atheists look to psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to history, to evidence grounded philosophy, etc., and the evidences available from all sources that relates to this particular question is consistent in its direction wherever we look. That is why we are atheists. This has nothing to do with natural sciences supplying "All the Answers", it is about the best fit with the overall evidence answer to a particular question. There are human tendencies that explain the common bias against accepting the evidences that our universe is all space-time and matter-energy, such as the tendency to internalize the beliefs of the people around us during childhood. Maybe in the future we will have evidence that our universe consists of something more than space-time and matter-energy, or maybe not, but it is a mistake to insist that there is also a god without the evidence.

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