This is the last of the three posts on Eric MacDonald’s pair of of posts touting “other ways of knowing,” attacking scientism, and enumerating the faults of New Atheism. (The main fault is that we haven’t suggested ways to replace the “essential human needs” that will be unfulfilled should religion vanish.)
My heart is no longer in this venture, as I’ve already discussed scientism in another recent post, and because I’m working on my book and am hellishly busy. (Be warned: posting is going to decrease.) I’ll simply take a few excerpts from Eric’s posts, “How several misunderstandings led Megan Hodder to faith” and “On not replacing one system of doctines [sic] with another”, and comment briefly. Eric’s quotes are indented.
But, perhaps more important than this is the failure of many new atheists to propose alternatives to religion as a way of understanding our humanity. I, for one, am not satisfied with the claim that only science can give us true insights into the nature of humanity, human relationships, morality, politics, law, justice, etc. I believe the claim that there is no such thing as “free will” is as much a faith position as the claim that there is a god, and the careless assumption that since we are made up of molecules in motion we are as subject to the determinism of physics as rocks being eroded by wind and rain is enough, I think, to make the new atheist project completely unattractive to those, like me, who find greater scope for human creativity than this view provides. While I think that Raymond Tallis is sometimes a bit of a cowboy in the way that he addresses what he calls “neuromania”, nevertheless it seems to me that he is right to find the unacceptably impoverished notion of the human being hatched in neuroscience departments, and those disciplines held hostage by functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, both lacking in depth and credibility.
Here I play sadz violin. This comes perilously close to wish-thinking: Eric simply doesn’t like the materialistic answers given by science because they lack “depth and credibility” and are “unacceptably improverished” As for there being no “free will,” well, if he’s talking about dualistic free will, there’s certainly plenty of evidence against that, including the progressive demonstrations by neuroscientists that the mind is what the brain does, that our “decisions” are often made before we’re conscious of them, and the lack of any credible alternative to materialism. And tell me, Uncle Eric, if human creativity does not derive from the motions of molecules, where does it come from? The truth is the truth, however unpalatable. I find the notion of my mortality unacceptable and dispiriting, but I’m going to die anyway.
But the more comprehensive ideal, that shaped much education until very recently, of providing the materials out of which individuals in community could shape worthwhile and meaningful lives, has fallen on hard times. New atheists take little interest in this because, at root, the solution is thought to be quite simple. The answer is simply more science. For if science is the only route to the truth, then science should be an educational panacea that needs no further insight or support. The cultural products with the most continuous traditions of value and understanding about the nature of being human, and the moral values which underlie the project of being human, are still the religions, but without scientific foundations these are one and all (with some justice, I might add) held to be surplus to requirements. One of the problems with the overwhelming success of science is that disciplines which might have extended and refined these traditions are themselves often held captive by the tendency to overvalue the use of scientific controls.
As is customary with such attacks on scientism, there’s a failure to name those who argue that “the answer to everything is science.” Clearly, solving human problems requires making value judgments that are subjective. To what should we aspire? How do we weigh our own well-being versus that of poor people? Should we give away most of our personal savings? Should we eat meat?
Now once those judgments are made, the solutions can in principle be addressed by science: after all, if you have a goal, one can determine empirically how that goal is best achieved. And the claim that other disciplines (presumably the humanities) are “held captive by the tendency to overvalue the use of scientific controls”, well, it’s not we scientists who are holding them captive. Rather, it’s the increasing realization of those in social sciences and humanities that claims must be backed up with evidence.
Finally, I reject Eric’s contention that “the most continuous traditions of value and understanding about the nature of being human, and the moral values which underlie the project of being human, are still the religions.” No, it is secular humanism, which, although interrupted by the Dark Ages, began addressing morality and the well-lived life before Christianity was in existence.
If science—and by that I mean science broadly construed: a combination of observation, testing, and repeatability—is not the only route to determining the truth (and by “truth” I mean “what exists in the universe”), I want to know what is. When pressed, Eric argues about disciplines whose truth really is, at bottom, based on science (e.g., history and archaeology), or makes the insupportable claim that there are objective moral truths or “truths” in art and music.
It is something that I have remarked on myself, and it should concern us. Continued emphasis on scientific method as the only source of knowledge will not solve the problems of the kinds of cultural rootlessness that this describes. At least the religions – or some of them – have continuous traditions within which people can locate themselves and their efforts to live a full and responsible life. I believe, for many reasons, that these traditions are not adequate to the problems of today, and are based on beliefs which cannot be grounded in reality. Nevertheless, civil society depends on such traditions, though they need not be, and in my judgement should no longer be based in the religions, but little effort has been put into creating alternative ways of placing ourselves within culture and history, and so long as science is thought to be the only source of knowledge, the void left by the decline of religious sensibility will remain.
As I said, nobody claims that solving all human problems requires only scientific knowledge. There must, of course, be value judgments. But once those are made, stand back and let science do its work! Are people lonely? If loneliness is deemed bad, figure out though observation and experimentation what will best alleviate that loneliness. Global warming? If we deem that a bad thing, the answers, if any, must come through science. Is the oppression of women a bad thing? Well, there are ways to figure out how to best empower them (small grants for women to start up businesses in third-world countries have proven remarkably effective).
And secular morality is far better than religion at making the value judgments needed to spur us to action. After all, left to its own devices, religion sees condom use as a more serious problem than AIDS, and the Taliban thinks that society works better when women can’t go to school. Maybe Eric’s old Anglican faith is not as pernicious as these, but do remember one of the reasons he quit the church: they were opposed to voluntary euthanasia.
We already have a good alternative way of placing ourselves within culture and history: it’s called humanism.
I’ve lost heart, and am sad for Eric. Having been smart enough to realize that religion is bunk, and that there are no gods, Eric now finds his godless universe unbearably bleak and depressing. While this hasn’t been enough to drive him back to God, it’s caused him to spend his time criticizing the heartlessness of science and the arrogance of scientists, as well as the failings of New Atheism. What I don’t understand, though, is why he doesn’t seem to find succor in humanism. Why does there have to be something beyond the material world? There’s no evidence that there is, and so we should make the best of what we’ve got. Better to do that than fall into a despairing nihilism, desperately craving things that can’t be had.