A weird CfI workshop suggests that science is too laden with emotion and needs to adopt the more rigorous standards of “religious truth”. WTF?

I have to say that although I support the work of the Center for Inquiry in America, I haven’t been a huge fan of their organization. A while back they went through a repellant Social Justice Warrior phase (they seem to be recovering), and sometimes they do stuff that’s just plain weird. (By the way, this doesn’t hold for CfI Canada, which I support unreservedly.) Here is one example, brought to my attention by reader Gary. His comment:

I’m concerned about a strange sounding workshop from Center For Inquiry- Los Angeles.  It may be of interest to you, even for a note on your website.  If it is, I’d be very interested in your comments and comments from your readers.  The title is this:

Beyond Reductionism:
Confronting Both Religious Fundamentalism and Scientism to Be Better Freethinkers

And here’s the complete description of the two-day workshop, which costs $25. I’ve bolded a few bits.

All of us who value science and reason as indispensable remedies with which to challenge ignorance and largely emotional behavior around us take stable comfort in the power of scientific methodology to keep us safe from the biasing effects of human emotion. But in practice, can science itself fall prey to the same kinds of emotional pitfalls, fallacies, and even fanaticism we more often associate with religious literalists and fundamentalists? The word “scientism”—used to refer to any worldview that attempts to answer all human questions with science, often allegedly at the expense of other resources in the humanities—is considered an irritating but ultimately empty insult by many scientists.

However, given the capacity of every human being to be swayed by emotions and appearances in contrast to hard evidence, would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking? Is there not some value in working towards a common set of standards for meeting any of the foreseeable challenges and questions we may face as a species?

In this workshop, academic philosopher of science Dr. David Koepsell, author and professor specializing in the philosophy of religion J.I. Abbot, and phenomenologist and poet Dr. Charles Stein will lead panel discussions and small group sessions on the range of topics in the emerging “religion and science” field that can be food for thought in facing such present and future human hurdles. A keynote lecture by Dr. Stein on the evening of Friday, November 4, 7pm on the history and philosophy of science will set the parameters and tone for the exchanges to follow all day Saturday, November 5, from 9am to 4pm.

Now this sounds like a workshop funded by the John Templeton Foundation, though there’s no indication of Templeton dosh here. But in fact the description is invidious if not disingenuous: of course science can fall prey to emotional pitfalls. Many scientists are so wedded to their theories, which of course buttress their reputations, that they are loathe to give them up in the face of evidence. The debate between Brasier and Schopf on the supposed earliest microfossils are one example, as is Steve Gould’s unconscionable adherence to punctuated equilibrium as a mechanistic as well as a descriptive theory of evolution.

The thing is, though, that science has an inbuilt methodology to guard against such confirmation bias: the practice of testing assertions, of replication, of building consensus through reason and observation, and, above all, of doubt.

Religion has no such way to check the veracity of its claims. That’s why, of course, different religion have not only divergent claims, but conflicting ones. (How many gods are there? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the son of God/God, or just a prophet? Is evolution true? Is there an afterlife? A hell? Can women be priests? These are the questions that have repeatedly fractured religions into sects and cults over the last 20,000 years.) Religion is, as I argue in Faith Versus Fact, the very instantiation of confirmation bias. Yes, some religions can change their claims, like accepting evolution, but they do so only after science has shown these claims are wrong.

So it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims. Let me give you some news, Drs. Koepsell, Stein, and Abbot: religion has NO rigor in its truth claims, but an emotional commitment to deities and their will that lack any supporting evidence. It is science that has the hard standards, and religion that should adhere to the standards of science when adjudicating its claims.

Of course if religion did that, there wouldn’t be any religions—except for ones that don’t accept the supernatural. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hindusim—gone in a poof!

Now it’s possible that the “we” in the bit above means “rationalists and skeptics” rather than “all people, including believers.” If that’s the case, though, and the workshop is asking us to apply uniform standards of skepticism to all empirical claims, then my response is this: WE ALREADY DO! So what’s the point of this workshop?

This workshop is not just silly, but mendacious, insulting, and misguided. If I were a member of CfI, I’d complain bitterly about it.

Reader Gary added this comment:

I have always trusted CFI to stick to the rational, but this workshop makes me wonder.  The qualifications for the instructors include references such as “Western Mysticism and Esotericism” and “Indo-Tibetan thought”.  I find this very discouraging as I have been a paying member of CFI.
And I’ll put below the mission of CfI from its webpage. It certainly doesn’t comport with the workshop above!

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56 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Somite
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    This is an example of “philosophy” causing more harm than good. The rationalist socratic branches of philosophy, those that define knowledge as justified true belief, should be substituted for philosophies that at least acknowledge that empiricism and naturalism are true.

    It’s like lots of philosopher are stuck in pre-enlightenment ways of thinking and passing it on to students in philosophy 101 classes.

    • Zado
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      It’s like lots of philosopher are stuck in pre-enlightenment ways of thinking and passing it on to students in philosophy 101 classes.

      Actually, it’s not like that; that’s exactly the case. Only half of professional philosophers subscribe to naturalism as their meta-philosophy. The rest, I assume, still take Plato and his otherworldly ideas seriously in some way.

      • Somite
        Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        That’s a great link! Thank you. Although the numbers are overall positive the high percentages on rationalism are troubling.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      “The rationalist socratic branches of philosophy, those that define knowledge as justified true belief, should be substituted for philosophies that at least acknowledge that empiricism and naturalism are true.”

      Do you mean ‘should be substituted by philosophies…’ (i.e. ‘replaced by philosophies…’)

      cr

    • Posted October 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Empiricism (as understood and studied in philosophy) *is* false. Something like Bunge’s ratioempiricism or Haack’s stuff is correct: one needs to first *invent* hypotheses, before they can be controlled by the tribunal of experience via indicators.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted October 12, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        Since “empiricism” is a philosophical attempt to describe science, what does it imply when philosophers think their own model is false?

        Seems reading tea leaves would be closer to observing nature.

        • Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

          Actually, no, “empiricism” is the philosophy (primarily epistemology) associated with Hume, Berkeley, Locke, etc.

          “Logical empiricism” is an attempt to update that philosophy with (amongst other things) some of the resources of mathematics and some sciences, including mathematical logic.

  3. Ann German
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Could this be a gag? I had a problem last week with People for the American Way – every time I tried to log onto their site I got directed to some christian fundamentalist site instead.

  4. Posted October 11, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    So it’s incredibly insulting … to suggest … that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims.

    The quoted section can be taken more innocently as referring to the standards of scrutiny that *we* (scientists, atheists, sceptics) apply to religious claims, not that religious people apply to them.

    Of course the answer is that we already do, and more.

    • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Yes, I suppose it could be seen that way, and so I’ll fix the text a bit.

    • Gary
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      So they are implying that we (scientists, atheists, etc.) apply more rigorous standards of scrutiny to religion than we do to science and that we are too emotionally attached to science to judge it objectively. What is wrong is that we have derived the rigorous standards from science and the Enlightenment; the rigorous standards are built in to science. Are we too emotionally attached to the idea that broad truth claims should be tested rigorously before acceptance? No, because broad truth claims should be tested rigorously. I am offended also that CFI members are supposed to be naively agree with and pay for a workshop led by “instructors” that they may simply disagree with. This is more properly a discussion forum, not a workshop.

    • John Harshman
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I would contend that the way you read it here is the most natural and in fact the only sensible way to read it: a call to apply the same skeptical standards to science as to religion. Of course scientists are already supposed to do that, but perhaps it’s worth reminding us that we should.

      This seems to be a great deal of alarm about nothing.

      • Gary
        Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Maybe, but why the need to go “beyond reductionism” at all? Why would there be a necessity to find reductionism lacking? Is there really an “emerging field” of religion and science? I think PCC(E) settled that question with his book.

        At the very least, CFI needs to explain this workshop further.

        Gary

        • John Harshman
          Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          Good point. Nothing in the quoted material seems to have anything to do with “beyond reductionism”. I was responding purely to the quotes, and the title remains a mystery.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        +1 to that. I don’t know about Abbot in particular, but a lot of philosophers-of-religion are atheists. Just the kind of thinker to shed some light there, quite possibly.

    • Ken Elliott
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      “The quoted section can be taken more innocently as referring to the standards of scrutiny that *we* (scientists, atheists, sceptics) apply to religious claims, not that religious people apply to them.”

      The problem with that, to me, then are the speakers. If the lecture’s intent is to discuss how we should be as vigorous with science claims as we are with religious claims, how are poets and philosophers going to get us there? I suppose they’ve set a philosopher of science up in contrast to a philosopher of religion to gain insight on differences and similarities of truth claims, but why the phenomenologist?

      The good news is that the clear thinking individuals that frequent WEIT are rigorously scrutinizing the essence of this workshop, although I daresay there is emotion involved.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        You can rightly expect some disagreement among the lecturers, rather than simple me-tooism. The panel was designed to create and work from tension among varying viewpoints, leaving the attendees free to make up their own minds.

    • Posted October 11, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      This is how I read it, too.

      But, who says scientists and skeptics don’t apply the same level of rigor in evaluating scientific claims as they do in evaluating religious claims? Citation needed.

  5. Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I’m a member of CFI in Portland, OR. I would drop my membership if confronted with such a workshop being presented here. Having it presented anywhere by CFI almost makes me want to disavow membership.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      I’m not a member, but my suggestion would be to complain from within. Draw attention to the contradictions as an educational exercise and avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  6. Flemur
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Fairly recently the NYTimes ran an article on a psychiatrist who believed that his patient was possessed by a demon (or a Smurf), and I was amazed at the number of people who thought it was “open minded” to consider demonic possession.

    The symptoms of the supposed possession were exactly the same tricks used by “spiritualist” scammers 100+ years ago.

  7. jeffery
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    As soon as I saw the word, “Scientism”, I knew what I was looking at; it’s the “techno-version” of, “Islamaphobia”.

    • somer
      Posted October 12, 2016 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      +1

  8. Derek Freyberg
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “[w]ould it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking?”
    NO, NO, NO, absolutely not.
    Scientists in general already hold science (I won’t opine on reason, because I’m not sure what the term means in this context) to a far higher standard of scrutiny than religious people apply to religious truth claims. Are they seriously suggesting that science should lower its standards?

    • John Harshman
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      I think you may be misunderstanding who “we” are supposed to be in the quote.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        I think so too. The phrase could have been more artfully drawn, sorry about that. Glad to see it is getting notice, however, and I hope to see a good turnout of skeptics to keep the humanists on their toes.

        • John Harshman
          Posted October 11, 2016 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          Don’t mean to be rude, but I thought philosophers were supposed to be good at writing clearly. The title annoys too, as it seems to be more clickbait than anything.

          Could you clearly state the subject and purpose of the workshop, with perhaps a couple of examples?

          • Posted October 11, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

            I think click British acceptable for ad-copy.
            I’ll do a blog post this week at CFI-WEST clarifying things.

            • David Koepsell
              Posted October 11, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

              “click bait” …damned autocorrect

              • John Harshman
                Posted October 11, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

                I finally just turned mine off.

                I disagree that click bait is acceptable in a workshop announcement. It isn’t acceptable in advertising either, but it’s perforce tolerated.

        • Posted October 11, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

          Many skeptics are humanists.

          Do you mean people who’ve studied or worked in the humanities? If so, again, many who work in the humanities are skeptics. Perhaps not as many as you’ll find in STEM fields, but I have graduate degrees in music, and music is what I do for a living. I’m a pretty darn hard-nosed skeptic.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    attempts to answer all human questions with science, often allegedly at the expense of other resources in the humanities

    Hang on – do I parse that correctly as implying that the writer thinks that “science” is in the same set of things as “the humanities”?
    Something wrong there.

  10. Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    the qualifications of the speakers says it all. People who are desperate to have validity and to claim their “different ways of knowing” are something real.

  11. Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    From the description:

    “… would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking?”

    It doesn’t seem clear to me who is meant here by “we.” I read it as “we religion-denying atheists” or perhaps “we scientists”, and thought “Yes, it’s prudent for us to do that and it seems to me that it’s exactly what we’re already doing”, but Dr. Coyne writes this:

    “So it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims.”

    So maybe he’s right and I’m reading this wrong, but his interpretation is literally, just as he says, incredible. This all borders upon what the writer means by “we” in the description.

    • Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I had the exact same initial response- I thought I was missing something. But clearly the author is suggesting we, the skeptics, approach emotionally charged scientific ideas with the same scrutiny we skeptics apply to religious ideas. That is- with an extra emphasis on collected rationality.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        This is of course the most rational interpretation of the meaning of the description of the workshop, and it is exactly what we meant. Of course religion and science have conflicting manners of inquiry, and of course science is the one that works. However, there are many instances where scientists fail to exhibit adequate equipoise, and that leads to failures. As well, science alone is inadequate for understanding all of human experience, and the humanities have something to offer us in that regard.

  12. Posted October 11, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi all, and thanks for the signal boost on this and for raising your concerns. As a philosopher of science, I have often wondered how to deal with subjects like “justice” and “ethics” in the same or similar vein as we do natural phenomena. I can see no reason why we shouldn’t discuss and consider how things like literature and art may be meaningful means of understanding human phenomena in a non-reductionist manner. And if CFI cannot tolerate workshops that challenge their preconceived notions and invite people who don’t stand in lockstep with our views, then CFI will not suffer my employment long.

    best,
    David

    • Gary
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for addressing this issue. Obviously, it would make no sense to discuss “justice” and “ethics” in a reductionist manner, if by that you mean discussing them in terms of subatomic particles, but of course no one is suggesting we do that. And just because we can’t discuss “justice” and “ethics” in a reductionist manner, does not imply that we have to go “beyond reductionism”. Reductionism need not be a “preconceived notion” nor something we are overly emotionally attached to, it can be a provisional philosophical position. Provisionally accepting reductionism does not imply that all ideas should be discussed on the level of subatomic particles. The title of your workshop implies that reductionism is necessarily lacking, which, of course, is controversial and is not going to be proven in a weekend workshop. Also what is this field of “religion and science” that you claim is emerging? What role does religion play in going “beyond reductionism”?

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        The title and description are meant to grab and they did (not in a Trumpy-sense, of course). Recutionism of the sort we reference is behind some of the disdain and attack on humanisities, for instance, in the academy. Obviously we won’t prove anything in two days, nor should we attempt to. It is meant to be thought-provoking and relevant to both skeptics and humanists, and I hope it shall be.

    • Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      As a philosopher of science, I have often wondered how to deal with subjects like “justice” and “ethics” in the same or similar vein as we do natural phenomena.

      What on earth is not natural about justice and ethics? Such notions are aspects of human beings, who are natural and evolved products of a natural world.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        They are natural, but not really subjects of the natural sciences, per se. They are valid subjects of the humanities such that their nonreductionist inquiries into such phenomena are worthwhile, even as the natural sciences may inquire into their chemical and physical properties. I would argue that no one manner of inquiry can provide a complete dewscription of something like “love” which the humanities delve into quite nicely, at least for my tastes.

        My latest work is on the aesthetics of justice, and that is what I intend to lecture on.

        • Posted October 11, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          They are natural, but not really subjects of the natural sciences, per se. They are valid subjects of the humanities …

          Both the humanities and what are traditionally called the “natural sciences” are of course essential parts of our understanding of ourselves, but seeing these as distinct is often a poor way to go about it. It’s often more productive to see them as a part of a whole.

          Afterall, we have notions of ethics and justice for reasons to do with biology. Seeing the domains as distinct tends to lead to error, as in, for example, the majority of academic philosophers who still hold to moral realism.

          • Posted October 11, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            “Both the humanities and what are traditionally called the “natural sciences” are of course essential parts of our understanding of ourselves, but seeing these as distinct is often a poor way to go about it. It’s often more productive to see them as a part of a whole.”

            We agree completely, and this grasps well the intended gist of the workshop, actually.

  13. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “… would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking?”

    Let me rephrase that in a perfectly neutral way:

    “… would it not be prudent to hold religious truth claims and thinking to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to our practice of science and reason?”

  14. Posted October 11, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I ended my Free Inquiry subscription after learning that CFI and its affiliates had given New Yorker writer Michael Specter an award for his pro=science views.I wrote the CFI board pointing out his vicious attacks on Vandana Shiva due to her opposition to GMOs, and his general unconditional support for GMOs. Then I wrote an article, published in New English Review, rebutting CFI’s claim that the scientific community had declared GMOs completely safe; I quoted a document signed by hundreds of acclaimed credible scientists and doctors questioning the safety claims. I then told CFI that by ignoring critics of GMOs and the influence of corporations they were not being SKEPTICS at all but were swallowing only one side of the story. I said that honest skepticism would not exempt science and technology from scrutiny. Some CFI people have suggested that those who question GMOs are as ignorant as those who oppose vaccines. This is absurd. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the safety studies, and the document signed by hundreds of scientists is proof that there is NO consensus about the safety of GMOs whatsoever.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 11, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Sort of like the lack of consensus on the safety of wheelbarrows and bulldozers.

      You’ve made a good case for me to join CFI.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        I can’t make head or tail of your comment but have to assume that you think that genetic technology is great. That’s your privilege, if you can call it that. My point wasn’t to argue pro or con but to say that free inquiry isn’t free (or honest) if it puts some aspects of technology beyond criticism. That’s like saying religion is exempt from criticism. I suggest you check out my NER article on my web site (www.lornasalzman.com) where you can get the details on the UN report that questions the claims of safety issued by some scientists…many of which are industry funded of course. But you don’t sound like you are starting with a open mind anyway, so it probably won’t make any difference.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 11, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          Got it. People who don’t agree with you clearly don’t have an open mind.

  15. Siggy in Costa Rica
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I used to get their Free Inquiry journal for years and eventually got to the point that I lost interest in renewing the subscription due to the pervasive regressive left point of view filing it’s pages. It’s nice to hear that they may be correcting course. Maybe I’ll try and get a copy again and see for myself next time I’m in the States.

  16. Posted October 11, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    This workshop is not to my taste, but I do not read this as claiming any equivalence in “ways of knowing.” I would file it away under the rubric of “freedom of inquiry” in their mission statement. I guess I think this because CFI has some capital in my assessment of them. Of course, if the workshop came to the wrong conclusion about science and faith, I would reevaluate.

  17. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 11, 2016 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always taken ‘scientism’ to refer to dishonest attemps to imitate scientific terminology, in order to confer a phony legitimacy on claims.

    Such as, for example, TV ads with (wo)men in white lab coats extolling the virtues of “Gloop with tributylstereomycin” which “fights headaches at the molecular level” (with accompanying computer graphics of course)

    I think I’m probably wrong, my usage is not the same as the ‘scientism’ criticised in this post. (Is there a word for the behaviour I’ve just described. Other than ‘lies’ ?)

    cr

  18. Posted October 11, 2016 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Interesting mockery of creationism.

  19. Matthew North
    Posted October 12, 2016 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    Because I enjoy CFI’s podcast, Point Of Inquiry, I considered joining CFI years ago, but because of the various issues that Jerry mentioned I decided against it. This is yet another example. The speakers are experts in “Indo-Tibetan thought” and “Western Mysticism and Esotericism”. Oh man, that has the smell of Woo all over it. Never underestimate how our overly religious and credulous American society can seep into places you would think would be free of nonsense. Even a secular organization like CFI.

  20. Posted October 12, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Phenomenology (as ordinarily understood as descended directly from Husserl) is anti-scientific – it is subjectivist and hence superficial, and it does not replace metaphysics, just allows one to replace a science oriented metaphysics with BS (in Heidegger) or “visions of essences” (a la Husserl). There’s a tradition of “phenomenology” in sociology, leading to _verstehen_ and such, which claims to be via Husserl, but Bunge’s pun works here too – see his _Finding Philosophy in Social Science_, which I translate: “In order to comprehend humans, one must be comprehensive.”

    There is of course a *scientific* use of phenomenology, which the more sane ends of the philosophical tradition shade into – as in Dennett’s _Consciousness Explained_. That’s a way of generating data or doing a description rather than an explanation of something. The most one can say for this is that it is only the beginning of an investigation. I think *some* contemporary “phenomenologists” on the “other side” sometimes recognize this. For example, H. Dreyfus writes that he thinks an implementation of a neural network model of the right kind is a better model for human cognition, and is *not opposed* to such models – unlike his supposed heroes, Heidegger, etc.


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