North Western Winds

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Evolved Truths are not Truths

with 11 comments

Here Theodore Darymaple takes on the new atheists and finds the arguments not only weak, but weaker than arguments for atheism need to be – except, perhaps, that of Daniel Dennett. Kicking over the view typified by Dennett was instrumental in overcoming a life of agnosticism for me, so I find this sort of argument particularly worth watching. Whenever an Al Gore-esque “the science is irrefutable” erupts in these debates, hypocrisy lurks. Scientific conclusions are always tentative, and if you think they are not, you are not using science, but have leapt into the world of metaphysics.

Here is Darymaple on the difficulties of Dennett’s argument:

Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one [evolution], are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

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Written by Curt

October 31, 2007 at 5:54 pm

11 Responses

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  1. “the science is irrefutable” – that doesn’t characterise these atheists at all. Dawkins, in particular, is passionate about the relative nature of scientific theory, the need to map it against reality. Surely it is the religious approach (rather than the scientific approach) which claims an irrefutable truth?

    Ken Perrott

    October 31, 2007 at 7:14 pm

  2. This Darymaple’s argument misses the forest for the tree. Dennett isn’t arguing that religion resides somewhere in our genes, that it’s some kind of evolutionary adaptation. He’s saying that general evolutionary rules, such as “Try to figure out how things work”, have implicit repercussions on a species of animal which utilizes language. All of a sudden, one individual can convey his idea about why that thunderstorm came along to another individual. You get a meme-like effect, where oral dogmas descend down the generations. People would rather know a false reason for something happening than have no reason at all. That’s how we’ve adapted.

    In other words, religion is not a necessary byproduct of our evolutionary past. We didn’t have to invent deistic religions to explain how the world works. That’s just how it turned out. We didn’t have to invent science to explain how the world works, either. That’s just how it turned out.

    Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false.

    Again, this is a false dichotomy. In the modern world, we know that if you have no good reason to claim something, then you shouldn’t claim it. Instead of examining all of the millions of invented beliefs a posteriori, let’s instead put the onus on the inventor of those beliefs. They must prove it to everyone else. So the first proposed direction is wrong. Not all beliefs are equally valid.

    The second one is also wrong, because it ignores one important detail. Almost all beliefs are not biologically contingent, except in the vaguest sense, but instead are socially contingent. As I said above, I don’t think Dennett is arguing that religion exists explicitly in our genes, but that it arises due to the social nature of our species.

    Jon

    November 1, 2007 at 4:09 pm

  3. Ken – I was generalizing when I did my Al Gore quote. Dawkins doesn’t write like that (I know, I’ve read him), but I suspect that Sam Harris does (even though I have not read him).

    Jon – I don’t think arguing that Darymaple’s claims rely on a misreading Dennet, (ie. his saying Dennet’s claims are determined biologically rather than socially) helps here. Even if it were so, and that’s not something I’m certain of, Darymaple’s point in the quote is one about methods of argument, and not about the specifics of how a line of thought is directed by evolutionary pressure.

    You said, “if you have no good reason to claim something, then you shouldn’t claim it” and I think this is the point Darymaple is after in his beef with Dennett. It isn’t that that evolution is false, it’s that there is no reason to think the theories that go by that name are less socially constrained than others. Universities, journals, think tanks and the like surely can’t claim to be above social and financial pressures.

    Here I must apologize because my post was missing a Wikkipedia link that might have helped. I’ve added it now.

    Curt

    November 2, 2007 at 5:44 pm

  4. Universities, journals, think tanks and the like surely can’t claim to be above social and financial pressures.

    Certainly not, but there’s a crucial difference here. Religious people claim their religious traditions transcend their humanity, that they’re supernatural. Science requires the admission that we sometimes trick ourselves, that our humanity biases our information. That’s why a bad experiment design can totally ruin that experiment’s results. That’s why careful observations are so important.

    It’s not entirely about content so much as method. The religious method is by and large assertive, subjective, and very much uncritical of itself in important ways. The scientific method, meanwhile, aspires to maximize the potential that we’re actually uncovering truths. So I contest the idea that science and religion are equally constrained. I mean, it’s absurdly obvious that they’re not equally constrained. Look how far science has progressed in the last three hundred years, and compare that to religion. Ideas we once thought were completely in the domain of theology are now in the domain of science. Science is just a better method for discovering truth. It may be socially constrained, but it’s at least less socially constrained than religion.

    Sure, whether religious or not, beliefs have the same socially-bound parameters. But some beliefs exploit certain parameters and not others. I really don’t understand this “one ring to rule them all” mentality concerning belief systems. It’s a bit more complicated than that, surely.

    Jon

    November 2, 2007 at 6:24 pm

  5. Religion is a vast territory, so it might be prudent to hesitate making generalizations. I can’t deny there’s a great deal of silliness that passes as religion, but I don’t see science and religion as *necessarily* opposed. My own Catholic teaches that they are both gifts, science dealing with the nuts and bolts, and religion with metaphysics and meaning. Are you familiar with ideas about Natural Law? I realize there are sects that do try to discredit science, but it isn’t a given.

    “Science requires the admission that we sometimes trick ourselves, that our humanity biases our information.” That applies to a lot more than science. Many Christian traditions teach that our difficulty in knowing things (and acting on information we do have) is because of the Fall.

    Curt

    November 2, 2007 at 7:17 pm

  6. “but I suspect that Sam Harris does (even though I have not read him).” This is the problem, of course. The willingness to attribute a fault to someone (without any real knowledge) just because they have different beliefs.
    My reading of a number of atheist authors is that they all have a strong respect for the scientific method. Your generalising has let you down.

    Ken Perrott

    November 2, 2007 at 7:47 pm

  7. Ken, what’s missing here is that I have read books by people I disagree with, but my time is not infinite. I have read reviews of Harris’ books, and interviews with him, all of which lead me to think that time spent on him is time wasted. That’s not to say all time on books I disagree with is time wasted.

    This seems like nit picking; how many books by people of different faiths have you read?

    Curt

    November 2, 2007 at 8:37 pm

  8. Be careful of reviews. In fact, Darymapole’s article is an example of the problem. I have read it and it really does misrepresent the authors he attacks. This is a big problem with the angry theist reviews of these authors.
    “how many books by people of different faiths have you read?” I don’t know, probably a large number over the years but probably not many lately, although I have watched quite a few video lectures by Christian spokespeople. But I think it is only ethical to read a book before making a statement of judgment, and hope I would act accordingly. Unfortunately commenters often don’t, preferring to interview their prejudices. I suspect many reviewers may also be in this category.

    Ken Perrott

    November 3, 2007 at 2:55 pm

  9. Further to Darymapole’s article, have a read of read Sam Harris’ response to it. Also, not Darymapole’s apology:
    “I understand why Mr. Harris feels strongly about the way in which I expressed myself, and perhaps I was a little intemperate, in which case I apologize.”

    Ken Perrott

    November 5, 2007 at 3:13 pm

  10. “Science requires the admission that we sometimes trick ourselves, that our humanity biases our information.”

    Jon, is also requires the admission that we are constrained by our 5 senses. Because there are things we cannot see, doesn’t mean those things do not exist.

    People could not see what caused disease before the microscope, but they were cognizant enough to know that proximity to an ill person might be enough to make them sick.

    As soon as I invent my God-O-Meter, I prove to you, materially that God exists. Until then more indirect methods will have to be used.

    Tony

    November 17, 2007 at 8:15 am

  11. Tony – you defeat your own argument. Investigation is not limited to the window given by our senses. If it were we would not know about germs (as you point out) or about most of the universe. The fact we do shows that we easily overcome these limitations.

    To me it is the height of arrogance to say that we cannot know about something (becuase of our instrumental limitations) and then go on to claim that one does know something about this supernatural world – even to knowing what this supernatural entity thinks about what I get up to in my bedroom!

    Ken Perrott

    November 17, 2007 at 1:57 pm


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