Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gob Smacked

The video below was embedded by William Dembski on Uncommon Descent (See here). It shows a snippet taken from a debate that includes theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig and atheist scientist Peter Atkins.

Principally the snippet is Craig’s response to Atkins’ scientism, a scientism which Atkins expresses well in the following terms:

…It [science] alone is adequate…. the fact that science is omnipotent… Do you [Craig] deny that science can’t account for everything?...”

In answer William Lane Craig gives the following list of “rational beliefs that cannot be proven by science”.
1. Logical and mathematical truth.
2. Metaphysical truths, like the existence of other minds the reality of the external world, and the belief that the past wasn’t created five minutes ago with an appearance of age,
3. Ethical beliefs are not accessible to science. For example it can’t show by science that the Nazis were unethical.
4. Aesthetic judgments can’t be scientifically proven
5. Science can’t be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with assumptions that cannot be proven – e.g. the one way speed of light.

If I get time I might look at some of these items. (In fact I once looked at item 5 here). In the meantime if you are wondering what it means “to be gob-smacked” just have a look at Atkins’ face.

Atkins looks to be one of those people who has a totalizing take on reality; at least in sense that he regards science as epistemologically complete …adequate…omnipotent… everything. He is therefore unlikely to favour the idea that as far as we humans are concerned reality is epistemologically, as well as ontologically, open ended; for him science is the last word in knowing. One can’t help but wonder if Atkins wanting to draw a line round the whole of reality in the sense of thinking it to be comprehensively amenable to particular epistemic methods and assumptions, is as much a comfort blanket to Atkins as he claims a belief in God is for theists. Totalizing agendas of this kind often go together with totalitarianism (cf Marxism) because totalizers are usually so confident in their views that they are unlikely to accept that there are objects out there that their views and methods don’t cover. In particular, they may dislike the idea that some questions present ambiguities that admit more than one interpretation.

There is a very general contention between theory and experience that occurs as we attempt to theorise about reality, but this contention is far from what can be called formal science: We try to fit the dots of experience with an overall world view (see my sidebar), but let’s face it experience differs from person to person. Moreover, one experience set may admit more than one sense-making-world-view and therefore even two people with similar experience may disagree on the big questions. Evaluating which world view is best fit is often difficult. As each of us faces the challenge of unlocking the riddles of our cosmos we certainly don’t use formal science - rather we use the texts of our society, hopefully an open society, to synthesize our best shot at ontology. Our solutions to those riddles are often quick and dirty, but “quick and dirty” doesn't necessarily equate to wrong. But whatever, we must hold those views with humility. Atkins, of course, doesn’t do epistemic humility; he’s quite sure he has found the answer, to epistemology at least.

Let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t just about theism. One doesn’t have to be a theist to see that Atkins totalising sentiments are flawed. This is less about theism than it is about pundits who wish to plug all the openings and close off reality so that they can declare epistemology and ontology they don’t like as off-limits and irrational. At stake is an intellectual democracy. As is so often the case with totalisers they are not at all keen on epistemic outsiders as those outsiders are an implicit challenge to their totalizing views: As the sectarian saying goes “If you are not with us you are against us and if you are against us you are against the truth” . Because they believe their views to be so obviously true they are suspicious of the motives of those who don’t agree with them. Those “outside the truth” are suspected of having compromised consciences and thus are liable to be morally impugned in some way: For example Larry Moran, who believes his view of science to be the exclusive way of knowing, is not convinced of William Lane Craig’s integrity; he accuses Craig of typical "anti-science trickery" and "cheap shots". He tells us that “It's not that these five things are devastating arguments against the power of science, it's that each one would take at least an hour to explain”. And are we supposed to believe that an hour’s explanation would be the definitive last word simply because it comes from the lips of someone who espouses scientism? I suspect Craig could give us two hours explanation and probably a lot more. When is Larry going to learn that reality is open ended?

STOP PRESS. 15/03/11
Here are some of the comments that have appeared on Larry Moran’s blog in response to the video:

DK: Of course there are things that science can't adequately deal with. So what? Who cares? Was anyone stupid enough to suggest that science is everything? It's just a tool and immensely useful one. Is that not enough?

My Comment. That’s a very reasonable statement DK. However, some of us do care. Do you have a problem with that?

Arabiflora: I also would not stake the latter claim [of omnipotence] and merely agree with DK that the utilitarian value of science is enough to justify its status as the most effective "way of knowing".

My Comment: That’s reasonable as well

PZ Myers: Arabiflora got the gist of it. It isn't just justifying, because we can do that adequately; Craig shifts the goalposts and demands that a lot of metaphysics and speculative philosophy must beproven, and science doesn't deal in proofs. So sure, I can't prove I'm not a brain in a vat that was created 5 minutes ago with memories of the past 50+ years. So? That is not a useful hypothesis.

My Comment: Come on PZ, I’m sure you know that Craig is smart enough to have used “proven” in a relative sense, just as you mean “evolution is a fact” in a relative sense.

Mike D: I'm a bit mystified by Peter Atkins' statement that science is "omnipotent"…

My Comment: So I am.

Ian H: Debating is as much a performance art as anything else and, like it or not, Craig comes across as a better speaker than Peter Atkins - certainly more glib and facile and a better tactician. It is also tactically inept to gift your opponent easy targets by making wildly extravagant claims about science being "omnipotent" and able to "explain everything".

My Comment: Another very reasonable response.

Anonymous: The five points:
1) Logical and mathematical truths
2) Metaphysical truths
3) Ethical beliefs (moral absolutes)
4) Aesthetic judgments
5) Science itself
I would deny the existence of 3) and 4) beyond what can be scientifically demonstrated to exists and thus be explained. 5) can be split up into 1) and 2) and these two things can probably not be justified by science.

My Comment: I might agree with much of that.

Summing Up: Not a bad set of comments at all. I am gratified to see that Atkins “totalizing” sentiments are not echoed here. One hopes that Atkins himself in retrospect might regret his over statement. Philosophically, then, I'm satisfied with most of the above comments. But what I really think is at the bottom of this has less to do with the sweet reasonableness of philosophy than it does the fact that Craig made Atkins look so stupid. For a community that prides itself on its reasonableness this hurts. So not surprisingly we also see the following comments:

Ian H: People underestimate Craig. He is very good at what he does and it takes more then being a crusty old curmudgeon or gnu atheist to beat him.

Mike D: Craig is such a charlatan

Anonymous: Craig is a one trick pony and a cheap confidence trickster. You fight him by keeping him off balance and ripping off his mask to expose his fraudulent self.

DK: This is why debating religious nuts is a waste of time. They should simply be ignored.

As you can see suspicion is rife and relationships have broken down completely. In spite of what the above are saying Craig isn't a sewer rat and I’m sure he has many worthwhile things to say but the above community won’t be listening to him. In this context debate is a gladiatorial activity and spectator sport where tactics count; all's fair in love and war and killing your opponent is what it's all about. No one is taking prisoners and the two sides are intent on gutting one another.

Peter Atkins looks gutted.


Celal Birader said...

Atkins and a lot of these other New Atheist scientist types have not had a classical education. They know nothing about the history of ideas, nothing about philosophy (or any of its branches like ontology or epistemology) and so they make huge fools of themselves on a regular basis when discussing things outside their 'scientistic' world view which is where most of us live out our actual lives.

Yes, a brilliant clip which will stand for centuries (if Jesus does not return) as a monument to the idiocy of 20th and early 21st century man and be more and more appreciated as humanity moves on away from the false religion of Evolution.

Timothy V Reeves said...

I had mixed feelings about clip. I squirm when I see someone looking so uncomfortable and yet he asked for it - little epistemic humility there!

...things outside their 'scientistic' world view which is where most of us live out our actual lives.

..as I say in my sidebar, I have never done a "scientific" experiment in my life!

Bonnie said...

The use of an expression like "gob smacked" tells all about where this post comes from and why. There is no interest here in the pursuit of truth, only in making someone you disagree with look stupid. The problem with arguing with religious zealots is that they are focussed on what other people think, rather than using the gifts of reason and intellect to discern truth. As for Atkins expression? It is a typical response of educated, intelligent people when faced with the unfathomable closeminded ignorance of the fundamentalist religious community fed by a self righteousness that justifies personal attacks, calumny and name calling that has no place in any debate ostensibly committed to examinining if not arriving at truth. All this is put more simply by another poster who refers to the futility of arguing with religious nuts. Pearls before swine is another cliche that applies here.

Celal Birader said...

Ray Comfort wrote a book called "You can lead an atheist to evidence but you can't make him think" .

I don't know about the contents of the book but the title captures the matter very well.

Atkins' expression is more typical of someone who has been caught not having thought carefully enough about the things whereof he pontificates.

Timothy V Reeves said...

I think, Celal, you are probably right about Atkins not thinking through his scientism. Without a doubt Atkins has Faux pas'd and set himself up for it.

Hello Bonnie, nice to see you here. I don’t know whether you realised it but the quotes in my post are from a blog discussion that actually appeared on an atheist blog. Unfortunately I neglected to give the link to that blog discussion which can in fact be found herehere On the whole the atheist correspondents on the linked blog also seem rather puzzled by Atkins’ lack of epistemic humility. As you may have noticed I complimented them on their reasonableness. But as I also said in my post suspicion is rife and relationships have broken down completely therefore sending out positive signals like this is likely to be an exercise in ultimate futility. However, I can but try.

Clearly theists like Craig are not just bright, but very bright. Therefore given that some anti-theists are quite convinced that their position is unequivocally supported by reason that leaves them with few options of explaining away Craig’s theism other than to put it down to either madness or badness.

My own opinion is that when we approach the deeper issues of origins and “meanings” the signal of evidence is attenuated, complex, patchy, and difficult to interpret, and may be of ambiguous meaning. Opinions on ultimate origins and meanings, therefore, will differ as people‘s mindsets, experiences and make ups differ. But, it is wrong, as a default, to explain the differences as due to the malign motives on one side.

BTW I’m not a fundamentalist. Re: Religion: As I put it on my facebook account “Tentative, speculative, but committed. Prepared to take the risk”