The title is taken from from a wonderfully derisive analysis of Thorstein Veblen’s pompous pishposh by H. L. Mencken. (I had to read The Theory of the Leisure Class as a teenager, and still haven’t gotten the bad taste out of my mouth.) Mencken’s line is still one of the funniest bits of a book review I’ve ever seen, and applies as well to another professor, one Dr. Massimo Pigliucci. Once again Pigliucci has taken up the cudgels against me on his website Rationally Speaking, and I swear that I can’t find anything new in his complaints. In fact, after poring over his boobish persiflage several times, I conclude that his real issues are these:
1. He doesn’t like me
2. He thinks I don’t know anything about philosophy and therefore I—and most other scientists—should shut up about it.
Pigliucci’s beef is a quotation of mine (which, by the way, I stand by completely): “Anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist.” He characterizes this as “philosophically very naive and pretentious,” asserting that I have no fricking idea what “philosophically consistent” means. He then makes a lot of other assertions, all of which boil down to saying that scientists should keep their noses out of philosophy because it’s simply too hard for us.
I have just arisen from the sickbed. I am lightheaded, spots dance before my eyes, and I’d rather do anything than answer the sweating professor. But duty calls. I’ll address Pigliucci’s claims, but may in this instance be unduly petulant.
“Conceptions of gods. . . are simply not falsifiable.” Sweet Jebus, I have dealt with this before, and Pigliucci knows it. Once again: yes, one cannot falsify the idea that there is a transcendent being. But one can falsify the idea that there is a transcendent being who, it is claimed, does specific things. If you think that God answers prayers, heals the sick, created life de novo, and so on, then aspects of your God—which, after all, are parts of your conception of a God—are testable and falsifiable. I freely admit that a watery deism, embracing a God who doesn’t do anything tangible, is not a hypothesis that can be falsified by science. I really don’t know why Pigliucci, who so loudly proclaims his philosophical sophistication, can’t grasp this simple distinction.
It seems to elude others, too. A while back I argued this point with Eugenie Scott, who told me that “Science can’t test the supernatural.” I told her that it could test claims about the supernatural: if native Americans believed that dancing to propitiate the gods brings rain, then you could in principle test this. Just set up an experiment in which believers either dance or refrain from dancing at particular times of drought, and correlate that with the arrival of rain. For some reason Scott didn’t see this as a test of the supernatural. I will say it once again: you cannot test the mere existence of gods, but you can test claims that your gods do something, that is, interact with the world.
I’d be delighted to hear why this simple point escapes so many.
“It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as a science.” On this point atheists like Pigliucci agree with “sophisticated” theologians. But who ever said that Christianity or Mormonism or Islam were sciences? They’re not—they’re religions. But they make empirical claims that are testable (see above), and so can enter the bailiwick of science.
“Indeed, even science itself is far from being an activity rooted in reason alone.” This took me aback. What Pigliucci means here is that new theories don’t always arise from rational contemplation: they may have sources in intuition, the unconscious or even—as in the case of Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring—in a daydream. So what? Ideas can come from anywhere, but only a subset of ideas are scientific ones, and only a subset of those pass empirical muster and become accepted science. I have no idea why Pigliucci brings up this point except, as he says because it “would make Coyne and colleagues even more unhappy, because it goes in the direction of further reducing the relevance of reason to the scientific enterprise.” This seems to be part of Pigliucci’s campaign to inflate philosophy at the expense of science.
It is naive and pretentious to claim that a religious scientist is not “philosophically consistent.” I’m still not clear why Pigliucci finds this claim naive. What I mean by “philosophical consistency” is that one’s philosophies are consistent. In the case of a scientist, one’s scientific philosophy is that you don’t accept the existence of things for which there is no evidence. In the case of a religious person, your philosophy requires you to believe in things for which there is either no evidence or counterevidence. It’s just that simple.
Further inconsistency comes from the fact that science and faith find out things in different ways: scientific knowledge is attained through observation, experimentation, and agreement among practitioners. “Religious knowledge” (and I put it in quotes because it’s an oxymoron) comes from dogma, authority, and personal revelation. This leads to the final inconsistency: the stuff that religion “finds out” contradicts what science finds out. As Russell Blackford has pointed out, in principle there’s no reason why God (or religious faith) couldn’t have led us to the truth about the universe. The Bible, after all, could have been full of stuff that was true, even telling us about evolution or the age of the universe. But it doesn’t. Large swathes of the American public still think that the Earth is a few thousand years old and that life did not evolve. More sophisticated swathes think that, well, maybe life evolved but humans were designed, complete with a soul. The inefficacy of faith in understanding the world is, of course, the reason why all those faiths come up with mutually contradictory “truths.”
I’m not saying anything new here, and God knows I’m tired of saying it again and again. Perhaps the sweating professor will let me rest at last and start in on his co-blogger Julia Galef, who also sees the philosophical contradiction involved in being a religious scientist.
Oh, and as for “pretentious”, I’d respectfully ask Pigliucci to look in the mirror, since his whole post is marinated in arrogance and contempt for those who, without the proper Ph.D. in hand, dare say anything that he construes as “philosophy”:
But when it comes to writing for the general public, I suggest that scientists stick to what they know best, unless they are willing to engage the literature of the field(s) that they wish to comment upon. When Coyne makes statements of the type “anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist”, he literally does not know what he is talking about because he does not have a grasp of what it means to be “philosophically consistent” in this context. He has of course no obligation to study philosophy, but then he should refrain from writing about it as a matter of intellectual honesty toward his readers.