Science and “the transcendent world”

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford takes on the idea that only faith can tell us what’s true about the transcendent world.

. . There is no good reason for scientists or advocates of science to suggest that a so-called “transcendent world” exists, that there are spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and the rest, or that religion in general, or any particular religion, can give us reliable information about anything of the kind. Stories of such things may well be charming, they may have cultural and aesthetic value, they may be worth preserving and studying. I don’t say that such stories are entirely without value. On the contrary, I love myth, legend, and folklore as much as anyone. Ask my friends about it if you don’t believe me. But that’s not the same as suggesting that any of these stories are actually true.

Exactly.  I have been reading posts on other websites attacking New Atheists (they’re “new” because their books make money!) for not dealing with the subtle theological issues involved in the science/faith debates. This is the famous “courtier’s reply” described by P.Z. Myers.  But all of these critiques neglect one important point: is there any evidence for the reality of the divine?   It’s the hallmark of a desperate argument to worry about philosophical nuances when the big elephant in the room– the evidence for God — goes unmentioned.  Philosopher Anthony Grayling said it well when, in a letter to the London Review of Books, he defended Richard Dawkins against critic Terry Eagleton:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

Anthony Grayling


  1. Posted June 17, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I love that final sly clause, so typical of Grayling’s feline wit. ‘Indirectly explain’ – ha.

  2. Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Wanting to refute the charge that atheists haven’t bothered to read theology, I read John F. Haught’s Is Nature Enough? and God and the New Atheism, both of which make the case for theism against naturalism using cutting-edge theological arguments. It turned out to be worthwhile since the premises of Haught’s theology are open for inspection. What we find is a violation of some pretty basic epistemic norms that casts doubt on theological justifications, at least of Haught’s variety. He wants to establish the validity of alternative sorts of evidence for God that go beyond what he calls the “vulgar” evidence of science, but the conclusion I reach (not a new one) is that he’s projecting his desire for God onto the world. Other encounters with theologians that focus on the basic differences between naturalists and non-naturalists are linked here. Bottom line: as far as I can tell from my explorations thus far, theologians don’t have a viable alternative to science when it comes to representing reality.

  3. Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Sure it explains why he thought Derrida should be awarded an honorary doctorate, since Heidegger more or less smuggled neo-Platonic philosophy-theology into his philosophy, and Derrida took it from there. That’s not the first time that philosophy took its cues from religion, then supported theology uses theology’s own excuses (it was not Derrida’s intention, however).

    What we should probably say is that theology gave us apparent answers when we could not come up with empirically sound ones. Thus it seemed important to answer theological claims when one might disagree with it for a long time. And indeed it was, because theology and theologically-influenced philosophies had insights into interpretation of evidence.

    Those insights were eventually taken over by more independent philosophies and science. What was left behind had nothing to say about the empirical world, although one might say that religion still has poetry that “speaks tio the soul.”

    If any science, legal theory, literary analysis, or mathematics, were to invoke theology, that would be considered illegitimate. No credible person “relies upon god” for a judgment about anything. Yet merely pointing out that god effectively does not exist in any fashion means that we are supposed to consult theology.

    The only reason to request answers about god from theology is that it is the only academic subject that claims to be able to answer that in the positive. The fact that nearly all academic pursuits (save some questionable philosophies) avoid theology (not vice-versa) on every other question should at least suggest that the god question should not rely on it either.

    Glen Davidson

  4. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    The big elephant in the room – this is the heart of the matter. This post is terrific.

    Those who pile nonsense upon irrational premises shows a flawed thought process.

    Maybe someone should write a book about how these people are deluding themselves – it could be called “The god Delusion” or something like that. 🙂

  5. Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous post. The fact that astrology is demonstrably wrong excuses anyone from addressing whatever theoretical framework they think they have.

  6. Robocop
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Ah, Peezy’s “Courtier’s Reply” in defense of Dawkins. To put it mildly, I am not impressed.

    1. Peezy encourages intellectual ignorance. Essentially, Peezy’s claim boils down to the bare assertion that it’s stupid to believe in God because His non-existence is so, well, obvious. He makes this claim notwithstanding centuries of gifted thinkers who came to different conclusions and who made careful arguments in support of their ideas. Is it ever a good idea to remain willfully ignorant (and to rejoice in that ignorance) in the face of tightly argued opposition? I think not.

    Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding a noteworthy point. “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He even goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention. Thus, if one’s conclusion is based solely upon what is seemingly obvious and intuitive, evolution is patently ridiculous. In that context, we’re perfectly reasonable if we conclude that there are clear signs of functional design in nature — for example, that eyes were built for seeing — and that evolution is thus ridiculous on its face.

    Based upon the intellectual laziness postulated by Peezy’s “Courtier’s Reply,” seeing that “obvious” design is an appropriate end to the discussion and, accordingly, there is no obligation even to consider (much less analyze and refute) Darwin and his intellectual progeny. But doing so, as with Peezy (and JEC) concerning the God question, would be nonsensical and silly. What seems obvious ain’t necessarily so, unless you’re Peezy, JEC, Ham or Hovind.

    2. Peezy enables and endorses intellectual arrogance. Popper famously encouraged a sort of charity principle when examining and interpreting works with which one disagrees. The idea is to put the other side in as favorable a light as possible to begin the discussion. That way, one is looking at the best the other side has to offer before opposing it, requiring the best available counters. Popper even advocated the strengthening of an opposing position before criticizing it for the sake of ultimate understanding. Peezy sees no need for such charity. His arrogance is unbecoming, obviously. But more importantly, Peezy neglects an obvious and crucial point of critical thought (also emphasized by Popper) — we may well be wrong. If Peezy (and JEC) are so sure of themselves, they should be more than willing to meet the best arguments of theism charitably and directly. Arrogant dismissal simply doesn’t cut it.

    3. Peezy epitomizes intellectual laziness. An atheist may reasonably conclude that there is not sufficient evidence of and that there are no good arguments for God. That atheist may even conclude that God’s non-existence is obvious, say so strongly and base that position entirely upon theism’s purported failure to carry its burden of proof. But writing a book (e.g., TGD) about the subject demands more. Good scholarship means meeting the other side(s) carefully and fully. The intellectual laziness of demolishing strawmen and then declaring victory simply isn’t good enough.

  7. Posted June 19, 2009 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Robocop: “Essentially, Peezy’s claim boils down to the bare assertion that it’s stupid to believe in God because His non-existence is so, well, obvious. He makes this claim notwithstanding centuries of gifted thinkers who came to different conclusions and who made careful arguments in support of their ideas.”

    P.Z. says nothing of this kind. His ‘Courtier’s reply’ argument is not an argument against the existence of God: it’s simply a statement that in order to make such an argument we don’t need to consider the theology of people who began from the assumption that God exists.

    The “careful arguments in support of their ideas” that God exists are exactly what the God Delusion tries to refute (and it does a lot more than say “it’s obvious”). P.Z. is not saying that we should ignore those arguments, but that when considering them we can legitimately ignore any “careful argument in support” of the idea that, for example, IF God exists then he must prefer mayonnaise to ketchup.

    Willful ignorance about the arguments for God’s existence is hardly a good thing, I agree. But if someone suggests that before I can argue for atheism I must fully understand the ‘mayonnaise hypothesis’, I’m quite happy to remain ignorant of their thesis because it is irrelevant to the central question.

  8. Posted June 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    For a somehow different perspective on the same subject, and if you’re into really dark novels with adept psychological twists and full of the unexpected, you should definitely try my novel “A Diary of Wasted Years,” just published by Eloquent Books. Comes to grab you by the throat and certainly worth it. Give it a try.

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  1. […] Here is a comment about “science and the transcendent” at Jerry Coyne’s blog: Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford takes on the idea that only faith […]

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