Saturday, December 08, 2007

Twaddle about religion and science

The Guardian's Review of books on a Saturday is always worth reading, and the lead articles can be magnificent. This week, for example, it prints Doris Lessing's Nobel prize acceptance speech. Still, the reviews do occasionally get me spluttering into my coffee.

For a shaming display of sheer intellectual incompetence, how about one Colin Tudge, reviewing today a book on the conflict or otherwise between science and religion. Here's what he says about science:

Scientists study only those aspects of the universe that it is withintheir gift to study: what is observable; what is measurable and amenable to statistical analysis; and, indeed, what they can afford to study within the means and time available. Science thus emerges as a giant tautology, a "closed system".

That is simply fatuous. Firstly, science isn't and can't be a tautology -- science makes contentful checkable predictions, and no mere tautology (even in a stretched sense of "tautology") can do that. Second, the fact the scientists are limited by their endowments (both cognitive and financial) in no way implies that science is a "closed system" on any sensible understanding of that phrase -- at least in our early stage in the game, novel conjectures and new experimental techniques to test them are always possible.

But it gets worse:
Religion, by contrast, accepts the limitations of our senses and brains and posits at least the possibility that there is more going on than meets the eye - a meta-dimension that might be called transcendental.

First, the "by contrast" is utterly inept. Anyone of a naturalistic disposition accepts the limitations of our senses and brains; science indeed already tells us that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye; and it is a pretty good bet, on scientific grounds, that there is a more going than we will ever be able to get our brains around. So what? Accepting such limitations has nothing whatever to do with "meta-dimensions" (ye gods, what on earth could that even mean?); and it would be just a horribly bad pun to slide from the thought that there might be aspects of the natural world that transcend our ability to get our heads around them to the thought that a properly modest view of our own cognitive limitations means countenancing murky religious claims about the "transcendental". Yet, we are told,

[A]theism - when you boil it down - is little more than dogma: simple denial, a refusal to take seriously the proposition that there could be more to the universe than meets the eye.

So, according to Tudge, no atheist takes a sensibly modest view about our cognitive limitations. What a daft thing to say. It is plainly entirely consistent -- I don't here say correct, but at least consistent -- to hold that (a) our cognitive capacities are limited, but (b) among the things we do have very good reason to believe are that Zeus, Thor, Baal and the like are fictions, and that the Gods of contemporary believers are in the same boat. And that entirely consistent position is, for a start, the one held by the atheist philosophers I know (in fact, by most of the philosophers I know, full stop).

There's more that is as bad in Tudge's piece, as you can read for yourself. If this kind of utterly shabby thinking is the best that can be done on behalf of religion, then it does indeed deserve everything that Dawkins and co. throw at it.

Added later, in response to comments elsewhere If I wrote with a little heat, I was just echoing Colin Tudge, who says of Dennett and Dawkins:

On matters of theology their arguments are a disgrace: assertive without substance; demanding evidence while offering none; staggeringly unscholarly.

I think it is appropriate to point out, in similar words, that -- whatever the merits or demerits of Dennett and Dawkins -- Tudge's arguments are a disgrace, assertive without substance, and staggeringly unscholarly.


Brian said...

I read that as well and had a similar hissy fit (to which my partner can attest) over precisely the same points.

BlueNight said...

I, as a Christian, am generally appalled at the bizzare attempts at logic by those who've never used it before, unfortunately mostly on my side. What it generally comes down to is attempts to spread "Christian" memes.

I hate memes.

I'm not a believer in "God in general, as opposed to no God" but a specific God. I also don't believe in "religion in general as opposed to Atheism" or "faith in general, as opposed to unbelief" but in a specific worldview encompassing the physical and metaphysical reality in which we exist, along with the social and epistemological realities we carry in our heads.

According to Triessentialism (a comprehensive yet simple ontological system), words communicate two things: truth and meaning. Truth I use here to mean logical truth, such as in definitions and facts. Meaning, or significance, is the emotional content of a word, such as imperatives and identities. The Church has tended toward the latter during the past fifty years, because we have allowed humanists and atheists and new-agers to define God and faith as emotional phenomena.