Eric MacDonald on the debate Q&A

UPDATE:  Over at Metamagician, Brother Blackford gives a brief take on the Q&A video in his post, “The Coyne/Haught question time.


I swear, I wish Eric MacDonald would take up debating theologians on the stage rather than on his website.  As a former Anglican priest, now an atheist, he knows all the tricks and evasions of theology. But perhaps he’s just too nice a guy to go after those fluffballs in public.

At any rate, over at Choice in Dying, Eric has just published an analysis of the Q&A session John Haught and I had after our debate. Eric’s piece is called “Q&A: Haught on God, Bitter, Impolite, and Wrong“, and he illustrates his points with snippets from the videotape. (By the way, the debate and Q&A are now on YouTube; click on the links to get them.) Eric has a very good comment on his own post, too—it’s #8.

Eric’s analysis is his usual thorough and thoughtful job. Two of the most interesting points involve Haught’s ambivalance between whether or not God intervened in the real world (though Haught appears to have flirted with deism, the dispatching of Jesus to Earth is an explicitly theistic act), and the incoherence of the “scientism” charge, which I’ll address one of these days. In the meantime, I’m going to make a cup of tea.


  1. James Cameron
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Are you going to be all scientisimy about it or is Ceiling Cat going to poof it into existence?

  2. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Here’s the image that say it all:

    Maybe we should caption it.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      “And the Secular rebellion has been foiled. The remaining Secular intellectuals will be hunted down and defeated! The attempt on my intellectual life has left me scarred… and deformed, but I assure you, my resolve has never been stronger! In order to ensure the security and continuing stability, the Theological department will be reorganized into the First Fundamentalist Empire! For a safe, and secure society.”

      Too long!?

  3. Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Whenever Haught wants to know about the landscape of an uninhabited archipelago he employs sophisticated conjecturism. After all, he clearly has no need to “get out more” for purposes of pragmatic, reality-based explorationism.

  4. Llwddythlw
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    One teaspoon per person and one for the pot. Add boiling water to the pot, let stand for 3-5 minutes, and then somehow science and religion are compatible. All I can say is that it must be damn good tea.

    • Doc Bill
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Haught lets his pot stand for only a minute which is why his tea is weak.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Youse left out warming da pot wit a dose of hot water beforehand

      Then there’s milk-in-the-cups-before versus milk-in-the-cups-after & is biscuit-dunking permissible?

      Your scientism has closed you off from an appreciation of other teaological ways of knowing. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

      Prove me worng!

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I forgot that. Warm it with boiling water, in fact. Nice photo of Terry-Thomas on your avatar, by the way.

        • Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Thank you. Lovely character ~ I especially enjoy how offensive HE IS to a modern PC sensibility. It’s good to let down the tyres on the thought police now & then. I might try Benny Hill next.

          Are you a Trollope lover?

          • Llwddythlw
            Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I am a fan of AT.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Do you have more than one reason to make that tea? How many levels of emergence will it pass through? 😉

  6. grrbear
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    lol, NEBob! I don’t think there’s much to refute on the charge of “scientism”, it’s just the old accusation that atheism and science are no different than religion. Should be easy to dispatch.

  7. H.H.
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Every time I hear Haught wax on about tea, I imagine him sitting at a little table with his dolls sipping imaginary tea while holding an imaginary conversation with his imaginary friend.

  8. Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    The problem with Haughty’s claims is that nothing can be falsified. Clever tactic.

    • H.H.
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Clever? I consider it fatal. Any factual statement can be made unfalsifiable if enough excuses are thrown against the wall. (See Carl Sagan’s essay “The Dragon in my Garage” for a demonstration on how trivially easy it is to accomplish.) There’s nothing clever about it. Unfalsifiability is a hallmark of most bad ideas and accomplishes nothing except to to make the proposition immediately dismissible.

      • Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        This is also a bullying tactic, since it dehumanizes the opponent.

        No, if you want power over people for your ideas, you never want to be backed into a corner — be falsified.

        Now the main strategy humans use and the magical thinkers is to make everything personal and ad hominem. This plays to a weakness in our thinking, and other animals, for immediate personalization.

        In fact, predictive knowledge is anti-subjective and personal.

        The flaw they play to i call the ethnic food fallacy — i say Chinese food is transformative and Ethiopian food is evil! That can never be falsified.

        But if you dismiss an ethnic food (theological) preferences you are tagged as inhuman/unfeeling/etc. = dehumanized. Damned either way.

        The only counter measure is to “call” or make explicit the trick. Now the person using the trick will never acceed, but ignore them and speak to the non-true believers.

  9. Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I wish someone had asked Haught explicitly what methodology he uses when he sits down to practice theology. Not just some vague question about “How do you know?”, but really flat-out ask him, “What specific questions do you ask yourself and steps do you take when writing about a topic, such as Jesus’ resurrection?”

    The parallel is obviously the scientific method, and if theologians want to claim that theology is another way to truth, they should be able to specify exactly how they arrive at their “truths,” as opposed to just making it up.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      A very good point. We need to try and pin them down on the specifics.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Well I did, but on my blog, not in person, and long afterward. Still – I did what I could.

      • Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Yes, your post basically sums up (or rather, expands!) what I said here. It’s certainly a question that has been raised before me, but mainly I want someone to confront these theologians directly, preferably in front of an audience or some other public venue (such as videotape) so everyone can here these answers.

        Because honestly, even though I already have an opinion (i.e. that theology has NO methodology), I still ask the question with sincerity and genuine interest. Perhaps there IS an answer that theologians can give that makes us all go “Oh my god, of course!”, but the fact that they have yet to give it is…suspicious. 🙂

        • Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          Erm… so everyone can HEAR these answers! 🙂

  10. Claimthehighground
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Prof. Haught seems to have entered an Earl Grey area with his “different levels of truth” explanation. I’m old enough to remember the old Tea Council ads with the tag line, “take tea and see.” John needs to sit back, take a sip and maybe even he will see that he needs more than a wish and a prayer to rationalize his views.

  11. Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I just watched the hour long video (will see the Q and A after lunch).

    I liked your presentation but you got one very minor thing wrong: you said that the Catholic Church thinks that it got its authority to do X, Y and Z “from scripture”.

    In fact, the Catholic Church does NOT claim “only scripture” but also “church tradition” and revelation (e. g., they believe that Mary went to heaven directly, among other things).

    I also loved your point about the Nicene Creed: I grew away from the church when I started asking myself “do I really believe what I say that I believe…” and the answer was NO.

  12. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Reflecting on the Q&A:

    – I think the take home message is that it doesn’t help convince “sophisticated theologians” to read their own stuff. (Which they claim is what it takes to debate religion.) They will only take direct quotes and an apt analysis as an example, or a pretext for claiming, that somehow critics are taking their ideas of religion from “unsophisticated religion”.

    The other side of this Coyne is that reading up on theology is an excellent way of putting the Ceiling Cat among the “sophisticated” pigeons!

    – When Haught introduce ‘different levels of truth’ “explanatory levels” to wedge his gods-of-the-gap theology in, he isn’t actually using it to show how to stop from ‘smudging everything into one mess’.

    He doesn’t seem to be aware of that. Or aware of that the pressing of different layers will increase any mess in the structure first place. By claiming that some observations goes back to “(ultimate) purpose”, the streamlined physics of processes will be separated by specific kludges.

    – Haught doesn’t define scientism, but he definitely rejects my simple definition which is based solely in observation: scientism := the observation that science is the only generalizable method that has worked to resolve empirical questions. (Of course supplemented by learning about specific areas.) As MacDonald and other maintain, the success of science on empirical observations doesn’t take away from individual experiences including emotions.

    And of course if it is an observation it is neither assumed nor shielded from being revisable. If theology wants to compete with science on empiricism, it is welcome to do so!

  13. Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Paradoxically, what us pro science folks forget, and never use to our advantage, is the FACT that “All communications is chemical.” of course.

    Get your opponent to concede this and you have already won — even if a god invented the chemicals.

  14. Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been considering Haught’s frankly bizzare accusations of ad hominems and caricaturing, groupies and whatever else… and I want to propose the following possiblity (this analysis is a little late in the game but what the hell, someone might find it interesting):

    What happened to John Haught is that, for perhaps the first time in his life, he actually glimpsed the truth. And the truth is that his whole career has been built atop fantasy. Built with fantasy-material using fantasy-thinking.

    Prof. Coyne said that theology is about just making stuff up. Haught heard, “John, that’s all you’ve been doing your whole life — making stuff up. And if all this was harmless — purely academic, if you will — this wouldn’t matter. But it isn’t. Because as my last slide shows, it causes immense harm and so much unneeded suffering. And because of your position as a Catholic theologian, you are complicit in that evil.”

    Haught reacted with anger to protect himself from the truth. After all, is it not he who is the personally transformed one, not some atheist scientist. Is it not he who has been grasped by Truth, the Absolute, by the Ultimate. No, Haught, the truth is that you really are, at best, no better, intellectually or morally, than the rest of us.

    Haught reacted defensively not just with anger but in the only other way he has ever known how: more fantasy. Therefore, he creates imaginary blame: the fault lies entirely with Prof. Coyne and his nonexistent ad hominems, his nonexistent caricaturing, his nonexistent groupies and so on and so forth.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      The first person the con cons is him/herself. Yes. But the evidence is that it is virtually impossible for delusional beliefs to be reevaluated.

      This is then the domain of psychiatry where delusional beliefs play a protective role against very deep psychic injuries. So acting/blaming/attacking out, marshaling whatever popular rhetorical/marketing tactics are at hand, is the only option. Why these types of folks are so good at wooing the crowd and media, policy makers (who have to do the same).

      The repertoire is predictable — blaming, shaming, personal attacks, emotional venting, appeals to authority, evoking warm fuzzies/fears/platitudes/celebrities, etc..

      • Posted November 6, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the reply. I like your last line: “The repertoire is predictable — blaming, shaming, personal attacks, emotional venting, appeals to authority, evoking warm fuzzies/fears/platitudes/celebrities, etc..”

        Something I realized while reading your comment was that John Haught reacted as he did precisely because Prof. Coyne was so effective at exposing the con. Which means that in future debates, if the scientists do a good job, we should expect more of the same kind of response from the theologians. It’s not pleasant but it’s what happens when intellectual honesty and intellectual bullshitting collide.

        • Posted November 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

          Yes, there are a finite number of manipulative tactics.

          They are all a version of yelling “Fire” in a meeting. Whatever will deflect reason and thought and entangle the audience and opponent in emotions the most widely and quickly is the tactic they use.

          If is a variation of bullying and very effective and oft used — because it works!

          For example, you and I are in a meeting. We disagree on a matter of fact. I say “He’s (personally) attacking me!”

          1. What will other listeners do, instinctively? Drop the logic of any discussion and go into defensive mode — against you.
          2. There is no way to disprove this claim.
          3. If you try to disprove the claim, you dig the hole deeper and give more attention to the charge.

          Regardless, I win because you are the problem now. Tea Baggers do this all the time and other extremists. It dominates the media dna online discussions and groups overall.

          Opponents count of both the audience and the attacked responding in kind.

          It is said the person Hitler hated more than anyone was a lawyer in his putsch trial who did not fall for his inflammatory insults and personal attacks, he was also Jewish, but kept returning to matters of fact. He was killed early when Hitler came to power.

          Yes, you always have to expect your opponent to “play dirty” — especially the ideologically driven. That’s all they have — rhetorical tricks.

          • Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:42 am | Permalink

            I was writing a response and then I thought… am I being too mean to theologians? Having conned themselves first, do they deserve our sympathy? I genuinely don’t know the answer to that. (Because it seems to me that their delusions are quite harmless to them but incredibly harmful to the ordinary faithful.)

  15. Matt G
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Eric is a very insightful writer. I visit his, Jerry’s, Dawkins’ and PZ’s sites/blogs on a daily basis. And Panda’s Thumb. And ScienceBlogs. I also visit Apple/Macintosh rumor sites, but not for intellectual stimulation.

  16. Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    One honest question: it appears to me that science falsifies the main tenant of the theist religions: evolution shows that humans were NOT the intended outcome of a process but rather one of many possible results of a stochastic process.

    Couple that the humans occupy a tiny part of an enormous universe…

    Oh well.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      It seems like the core proposition of magical/religious beliefs is mind over matter.

      Magic/religion/ideology only exist in the emotional yearnings/wishes of the individual.

  17. Cornelis Haagsma
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank for the link to Mac Donald, is makes a lot clear. Especially at the end of his considerations,

    “But what this shows is not that believing is compatible with science, but that it is completely irrelevant to it. Of course, people can believe in gods, either loving or malignant, but such a belief can be compatible with science only if it has no implication for the findings of science. This, of course, is not really compatibility, but irrelevance. And just as religion can have nothing to say about science, science can make no contribution to religion, for one is a way of knowing, while the other is a way of imagining possibilities, just as Haught says.”

    This conclusion is wat we call in Holland, “Een waarheid als een koe”. A truism.

    Costa Rica,

  18. Steve Smith
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    the incoherence of the “scientism”

    I have “faith” that when I hit Post Comment the electrons that encode this message will hit your server. Look at me! I’m doing “scientism”!!

  19. Posted November 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Tea: To me, the question is not, why is the kettle boiling? The true question is, why tea?

    Professor Elemental has the Answer

  20. Tim Harris
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    One of the questions to which Jerry Coyne responded was as to whether or not we had free will (his answer was ‘no’). Well, the following book (‘Who’s in Charge’ by Michael Gazzaniga)is coming out – it sounds interesting and its author has been praised highly by Stephen Pinker:

    ‘The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions

    ‘A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a “determined” world.

    ‘Not so, argues the renowned neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga in this thoughtful, provocative book based on his Gifford Lectures——one of the foremost lecture series in the world dealing with religion, science, and philosophy. Who’s in Charge? proposes that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, “constrains” the brain just as cars are constrained by the traffic they create. Writing with what Steven Pinker has called “his trademark wit and lack of pretension,” Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it——it was my brain.” Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.

    ‘An extraordinary book that ranges across neuroscience, psychology, ethics, and the law with a light touch but profound implications, Who’s in Charge? is a lasting contribution from one of the leading thinkers of our time.’

    Raymond Tallis, in his ‘Aping Mankind’ makes similar arguments; his is a book that is well-worth reading, too.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 7, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that. Those snippets really do seem to suggest an interesting treatment of what many of us find hardest to wrap our minds around concerning the lack of free will.

  21. Stacy
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    The Q&A’s not there anymore: “This video has been removed by the user”

  22. Les TreBony
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    The video has been removed from youtube. Is it anywhere else?

    • FastLane
      Posted November 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      it’s still on VIMEO, and at the original site where the other video was hosted.

      • Skip
        Posted December 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        It’s gone from Vimeo as well.

        Has it been archived anywhere else?

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] one blogger (and famous science professor) took part in a public debate with a Catholic theologian; the topic was “are science and […]

%d bloggers like this: