Re: Schools and NOMA (was Re: [asa] Atheist finds God thru Behe's books....)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat Oct 24 2009 - 06:17:54 EDT


I hope you are right. I hope that the new insights of science will push out the older ones. But I don't think that it's all that clear which path the intelligentsia of the modern world are going to take. And the intelligentsia -- by which I mean the self-appointed leaders in journalism, law, education, social thought, public perception of science, etc., some of whom are professors but many of whom are not -- are the crucial group, because their ideas ultimately "filter down" to the general educated population through the New York Times and The Atlantic and Harper's and NOVA television and through the teaching in universities and seminaries and law schools and high schools and so on.

Certainly I agree that many of the subtler discoveries of modern science, to a thoughtful and reasonable person, tell against the crude materialism and mechanism of 19th-century physics and 20th-century biology and psychology. But not all of the intelligentsia have got the message yet. Many of the rank and file specialists are behind the times, and still think in terms of the older ideas. And even many of the leaders in thought still do: Weinberg, Provine, E. O. Wilson, Singer, Dawkins, Dennett, etc., not to mention loudmouthed (and my opinion second-string) scientists who don't qualify as leaders in thought but merely as cheerleaders (P. Z. Myers, etc.). If you look up the debate with Egnor that I mentioned, you will find that rank materialism is still very much alive in neuroscience and psychology, and if you track down the reviews for Mario Beauregard's *The Spiritual Brain*, which argues against the modern reductionism of mind to brain, I bet you will find more of that rank materialism.

I've already mentioned, many times before, an uncomfortable fact which many here don't really like thinking about, i.e., that something like 90% of those who specialize in evolutionary biology self-identify as agnostics or atheists -- a higher percentage than in other sciences. The question arises, did the evolutionary biology cause the atheism? Or is it more that atheists tend to select evolutionary biology? The latter explanation is possible, but not entirely satisfactory. For one, what is stopping religious believers from doing Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology in numbers as large as the atheists' numbers? Supposedly over 80% of Americans believe in God, and supposedly over 50% self-identify as Christian. In principle, then, the religious believers could vastly outnumber the atheist/agnostic evolutionary biologists in every university in the land. Why don't they? And second, even if it is the case that the atheism is the cause of the career choice, not the other way around, what is it about evolutionary biology that is of perennial fascination for atheists? Why are they *always* attracted to it, and *never* attracted to design arguments? If ID is the "God-friendly" theory, doesn't it seem as if many interpret evolution as the "atheist-friendly" theory? And even if we grant (as I do) that many forms of evolution are compatible with belief in God, at least one form -- the neo-Darwinian -- appears to be fly-paper for atheists. Why is that?

More generally, it seems that atheist materialism/mechanism these days, while found in scientists from all disciplines, and in philosophers of all sorts, and in social scientists of all sorts, has a sort of "power base" in biology and psychology/psychiatry. In both of these fields there is still a strong tendency toward reductionism and what we have called here "nothing but-tery". So I think that the materialism battle, while still going on in all the sciences, has shifted its main front to the human and life sciences. And I think that reductionist, materialist thinking still has powerful clout there. And from there it percolates down to the masses. Witness that Ken Miller's textbook spoke of "unguided" causes until he was challenged on it, and the public statement of one of the big groups -- maybe NABT or AAS, I can't remember -- also spoke of "unguided" or "unplanned" evolution until it was challenged and changed. Probably in both cases, and certainly in the latter case, the change was an act of political prudence, not really reflecting any alteration of attitude in the authors of the statements. More generally, the reading, middle-class public has for many years been given the impression by many of the loudest and most articulate public spokespersons for "science" -- psychologists, sociologists, education theorists, biologists, cosmologists, many of them attractive and engaging popular science writers when not professoring (think Bertrand Russell, Asimov, Jastrow, Sagan, Wilson, Dawkins) -- that science is brilliant at "explaining away" things, i.e., reducing the high to the low, freedom to chance and necessity, choices to drives and selfish genes. And that public impression is still pretty broadly held, since it was formed between about the 1930s and 1980s, and the newer scientific thought you are talking about takes time to percolate down. Maybe 25 years from now, the thoughts you are speaking about -- non-reductionist ones -- will be commonplace among the reading middle class (if anyone still reads books by then), but for now, I would guess the educated middle class, other than those who are strongly religious and very suspicious of modern thinking generally, still tends consciously or unconsciously towards a reductionist view of mind, life, nature, etc. So I think that the jury is out on which way it is going to go.

ID is important in this context, because it holds the feet of the mechanist-materialists to the fire, and it attacks them at what they believe to be their strongest point, the centre-piece of their doctrine: Darwinian evolution. If the public comes to believe, due to ID attacks, that Darwinian mechanisms are bogus, or even just highly questionable regarding their potency, then, since even reductionist psychology depends partly on Darwinian perspectives for its persuasive force, modern mechanism/materialism will be severely wounded. Hence ID evokes not just laughter, or even just contempt, but rage, from the neo-Darwinians. Just read the sneering at Behe's books on the internet, on Wikipedia, in the mainstream media, and from scientists like P. Z. Myers, Dawkins, Coyne, etc. Even non-biologists, like Jason Rosenhouse and Jeffrey Shallit [mathematicians] and Sean Carroll [the physicist one, I mean, not the biologist one], Mark Chu-Carroll [a computer programmer] get into the act, not to mention a horde of reductionist philosophers like Dennett. And their anger is *not* primarily over "church and state" worries; they are *not* really very much afraid that if ID is believed, there will be a fundamentalist theocracy in the United States and school prayer will be brought back in, etc. They are raging simply because the cornerstone of their materialist-reductionist world-view, the thing that made it finally possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist", is being challenged, and that the public is paying some attention to the challenge.

Now I know full well that many people here believe that even if neo-Darwinism is true in its entirety, faith and morals are not threatened, because they hold to a "two truths" notion which allows them to believe in scientific and metaphysical conclusions that point in opposite directions. I've already explained at length, and bored and irritated people here too many times by doing so, why I don't accept that mode of reconciling neo-Darwinism with traditional faith and morality. I don't want to restate my arguments here. I suspect that I have already persuaded everyone that I am going to persuade, and that the others will not be budged. But the point is that, whatever the 60 or so people who contribute to this list may think, large numbers of people out there in the public -- and I don't mean benighted fundamentalists who think they've found a piece of Noah's Ark, but middle-class, educated people -- teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, plant managers, computer programmers, junior executives, etc. -- do accept the account of the issues in which the two relevant positions are anti-design (Dawkins & Co. on one hand), and design (Behe & Co. on the other hand). Some here may lament that way of framing the issues, but it is a fact that many in the educated public do frame the issues in that way. And at that level of the culture war, the secular level, which is my concern (I leave to others here to sort out what's going on in fundamentalist and evangelical churches), I think ID is doing a great deal of good, by causing hundreds of thousands of educated readers to wonder why so many modern scientists are so sure about their reductionist, materialist program.

Anyhow, to come back to your main argument -- I hope you are right. I hope that more subtle notions of nature permeate the culture, and filter down from the non-dogmatic thinkers of our day to the middle class and beyond. But in the meantime, I see no harm if one group of people, the ID people, takes on as its task the the exposure of the weaknesses of the old way of thinking about nature. A mind that has been prepared by Behe and Dembski to doubt the certainties of materialist/reductionist "science" will be all the more ready to apprehend the new visions of nature that you rightly direct us to.



  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Schwarzwald
  Sent: Friday, October 23, 2009 2:12 AM
  Subject: Re: Schools and NOMA (was Re: [asa] Atheist finds God thru Behe's books....)

  Heya Cameron,

  Zeroing in on one thing you've written here. Some comments below.

    My own example was not a historical one but one drawn from science, or at least from the alleged results of science. A certain group of scientists (including some psychiatrists, psychologists, evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, neurosurgeons, etc., aided and abetted by some philosophers) believes that science is very close to being able to disprove the existence of things like "free will" and "the soul", and to prove that even the deepest parts of ourselves -- courage, love, altruism, patriotism, religious belief, curiosity, the capacity for shame, etc. -- are entirely explicable in deterministic terms, and that entities such as "free will" and "soul" are metaphysical baggage from the past that have no intellectual value for understanding what we really are. Now, as you know, I do not accept that these people have proved their case or come anywhere near proving it, but many observers think that they have, and it is likely that the number of people who think that they have is going to increase. Employing "methodological naturalism", which everyone here seems to insist is the right method for studying nature, these reductionists have built up their case, and I think it's not inconceivable that as time goes on they could greatly strengthen that case. And I believe that once that case reaches a certain level of strength -- if it ever does so -- it will pose a real threat to traditional Christian teaching or religious teaching of any kind. In other words, I believe that the NOMA partition would break down at that point. I believe that in that case, with respect to one and the same object, i.e., human beings, science and religion would be saying two incompatible things, and one would be forced to choose which to believe.

  Disproving free will and the soul is going to be a tall order, considering there's been tremendous debate about these things and their particulars since the beginning of Christianity itself - and when that category expands to philosophy in general, the question gets even more complicated. (Compatiblist views on free will, for example.) There are some extremely varied views of the soul as well, from cartesian dualist to hylomorphic dualism (where what's specifically immaterial are intellectual operations, like grasping universals and more abstract thought), etc. I'm sure you're aware of them - as well as the recent despair on the part of some otherwise committed "materialists", some of whom suspect that mental properties may be fundamental to the universe (panpsychism, modern envisioning of neutral monism, etc) or cannot be understood by us (Colin McGinn and other New Mysterians) unless "we" become something very different from human (!!!).

  In other words: I agree with you that the people you speak of have "far from proven their case". Where I differ from you is the conclusion that "the number of people who think they have is going to increase". If anything, I suspect the opposite - first, I think that psychologists, evolutionary psychologists, and psychiatrists typically have views that the general public takes with a grain of salt to say the least. Indeed, the whole field of psychology has a certain hazy reputation, it seems, even among other scientists - and aside from a general commitment to not using language and terminology that is spiritually loaded (other than, at times, to deride a caricature of it), they typically have some harsh disagreements with each other. Indeed, in recent years they've quietly expanded the categories of "naturalism" and even "physicalism" (the latter of which still hasn't recovered from the first quantum mechanical discoveries) to include explicitly dualistic views. Witness Galen Strawson referring to panpsychism - making consciousness a fundamental property of the universe - as "real materialism". Witness David Chalmers out and out rejecting materialism, and calling himself - without any noticeable objection from peers, I note - a "naturalistic dualist". Jaegwon Kim, similar - he thinks qualia and consciousness are irreducible to the physical, yet I'm sure he'd still identify as a naturalist. Along those same lines, other philosophers (Edward Feser comes to mind here) have noted that in recent years "materialist" philosophers have sought to explain nature in terms of algorithms, information, etc - and in the process have unknowingly reintroduced a broadly Aristotilean worldview of formal and final causes, complete with implicit teleology.

  So oddly enough, I'm in the position here of thinking that science has, in many ways, just gotten progressively worse for naturalists - and that quite a lot of the "We're right on the verge of disproving the soul and free will!" claims are not merely bluster, but defensive bluff. Similar to how it's often claimed that science has been one long march of vindicating materialist claim after materialist claim for the past few centuries, but suspiciously absent are the discoveries at the beginning of the 20th century which blew apart classical materialism, and the resulting modern definition of 'materialism/physicalism' being so broad as to many times be practically meaningless. (Note, for example, the seeming popularity of non-reductive materialism among philosophers, and even many scientists. Then realize that non-reductive materialism is hard to view as anything but oxymoronic. For an even simpler example, just watch some materialists try to define what matter is!)

  As a matter of fact, Cameron, I'm curious: Isn't your real problem here not so much that "science is triumphantly claiming area after area for itself" as much as the fact that naturalists and atheists tend to yell about the successes of science as part of their unofficial PR machine? In other words, it's not that science has "disproved the soul", or is "on the verge of disproving the soul", or even "is anywhere near disproving the soul", but that some of the more obnoxious (and typically philosophically uninformed) scientists and (many times, even worse informed of both science and philosophy) skeptics just plain love to yell "science has disproved the soul!", and that some naive people may believe that because, hey, they're scientists! ? And if so, doesn't that have far less to do with ideas like NOMA specifically, and more to do with the problems of public naivete and pop science / science journalism?

  I mean, to use a comparable example: Is science really on the verge of creating artificial intelligence that will lead to fully sentient robot-machines that will start the coming Singularity and lead us into an age of immortality and space colonization? There are some scientists and philosophers who think, or at least claim that. But should we really be talking about possible threats posed to Christianity by the coming Singularity? Or should we be talking more about the problem of science journalism and hype?

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Received on Sat Oct 24 06:18:55 2009

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