Monday, June 14, 2010

Mary Midgley, Abuses of Science

I read PZ Myers's blogpost on this post by Mary Midgley. I'm not going to address Myers' critique, but here's my take on the article. [Revised for brevity.]

What caught my attention, however, was actually Midgley's second paragraph. Let's quote the first two paragraphs to start.

Science really isn't connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish. For instance, Isaac Newton noted gladly that his theory of gravitation gave a scientific proof of God's existence. Today's anti-god warriors, by contrast, declare that Darwin's evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of that existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public.

In both cases the huge prestige of science is being used not for scientific purposes but to defend an existing general world-view. In both cases that defence is found necessary because this world-view, though prevalent and respected, has been coming under attack. And in both cases the supposedly scientific argument provided is weak. It only convinces people who already share that world-view.

This does appear to be a strawman. I don't know of any atheists (with perhaps some of my undergrads excepted) who will claim that evolution immediately disproves the existence of God. It counts as fairly strong evidence against the idea that life was created by a perfect God, however. So, evolution is not relevant only to creationism but to any of the ID forms of God-belief.

Be that as it may, I think Midgley is actually trying to establish something else here, however. She's suggesting that in some sense religion may not be verifiable/falsifiable in the way that science wishes its claims to be, and perhaps not at all. Or perhaps what she wants to argue is that one can have no evidence for or against religion without already accepting or rejecting a world-view. And, given that religion (or a particular religion) constitutes a world-view, it may be impossible to prove or disprove (or provide evidence for or against) religion or a particular religion. It's all a bit vague. At any rate, the arguments of Newton and the New Atheists, a recent movement to argue against the existence of God and undermine public support for religion, are not useful in doing this since they only appeal to partisans who already agree with the side's basic theist or atheist contention.

But before I go further, please note the utter confusion in the second paragraph. She compares Newton's deism with the New Atheism. She starts by mentioning Newton's claim to have proved the existence of God using science. Then, in the second paragraph, claims that this is a case in which "the huge prestige of science is being used to defend" a "prevalent and respected" world-view that "has been coming under attack". The logic here requires that she be saying that atheism is a prevalent and respected world-view that has been coming under attack. When Newton argues for deism, that's what he's doing.

So when the New Atheists use evolution, they must be using science to support their prevalent and respected position after it has come under attack. That's just plain inaccurate. If Midgley wants to claim that Newton's deism is prevalent and respected, she's probably about half right. Atheism simply is not prevalent or respected at least not by the American public. Perhaps this is true of the British, but I don't think so. If so, more power to them, I suppose.

I don't really have the patience to quote and dissect the basic argument. She argues that evolution only strictly contradicts creationism, and no one's really a creationist (except about 40% of the US population--oops). So arguments from evolution are basically irrelevant to Christianity or theism.

That's not quite right. My view of this is that one primary argument for atheism is a simplicity argument. Without a need to explain something in supernatural terms, we should do without supernatural posits. Evolution then undermines one of the primary items purportedly in need of supernatural explanation. Thus, if we can show that there is no need to appeal to God to explain the origin, nature, distribution and qualities of life, then we lose one reason constantly given in favor of God's existence. Then, without any further items needing supernatural explanation, we can reject the existence of God as being a completely unnecessary (not to say excessive) explanatory posit. Hence, we reject the existence of God.

Now we get to the other part of Midgley's argument, talking about creationism:
Like cargo cults, however, this Bible worship is also a spiritual phenomenon, a message felt in the heart. Despite its confusions, it involves a genuine response to the real wisdom which can also be found in the Bible. Serious attempts to answer it need, therefore, to acknowledge that wisdom. They must try to show ways of combining it with more modern thinking.

Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more "scientific hypothesis like any other". It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions. Though they are always loaded with lumber and often dangerous, we need them. So, when we try to relate and improve them we have to treat each of them as a whole. We would not be right, any more than Newton was, to start by taking our own standpoint as infallible.

The basic form of the argument I am using could be considered scientific although I prefer to consider it a more generally rational argument. Oversimplifying a bit, we should only believe in things when we have a good reason to; otherwise we reject belief in them. But on Midgley's account, we cannot reason in this way at all. Rather, belief in God is a world-view, and thus it is not open to this sort of support or rejection.

I'll skip the bit about combining the wisdom of the Bible with a more modern understanding. I think Myers is basically right about this. But I will talk about the last paragraph. She argues that belief in God is worthwhile in some way even if it cannot be supported or undermined by empirical evidence, at least not in isolation, and so we need to look at the belief as a whole and "improve" it in some way. Now, why should we improve belief in God rather than simply reject it? What is the improvement in that belief that would render it superior to atheist belief? I can see no merit in these proposals except, perhaps, pragmatically, to wean people off their stone-age religion to a less-harmful bronze-age religion. She may think that people are not intellectually or emotionally capable of rejecting religion, but I'm not sure I agree, and I don't see this as sufficient reason to cease criticizing any such religious view even if she's right.

Finally, what's with the "all-enclosing vision" stuff? I think she's saying that each world-view carries with it its own standards of evidence, so we cannot evaluate the world-view against the standards of any other world-view. And if the world-view's standard has no problems with self-contradiction, contradictions with empirical evidence, or absurdity, then, presumably, there is no way to refute that world-view by appealing to those sorts of problem. Thus, empirical evidence only convinces those who start with a world-view that accepts empirical evidence as a means of justification.

If she's serious about this, then she's adopting a thorough-going skepticism. That's not the kind of belief you generally find in a theist or deist or religious thinker. More importantly, I just don't think this view is justified. People even with opposing world-views can recognize the results of experiments, the value of empirical evidence, and the benefits of the modern scientific world-view. Few fundamentalists, for example, forgo medical treatment because science conflicts with their religious world-view.

We patch together our beliefs about the world--our world-views--based on our experiences, and those are not infinitely malleable given our presuppositions. We do have to recognize that belief systems consist of complex sets of beliefs in justificatory relationships. And people will attempt to hold on to some beliefs while modifying others. But that doesn't mean that world-views are infinitely malleable and equally deserving of respect. Some world-views work; some require ridiculous mental gymnastics to maintain in the face of overwhelming evidence and internal contradiction. When the total systems of the atheist and the theist are compared, I believe ultimately any rational person can see which system is better.

I'd like to think that Midgley is merely making this commonplace point about holism and encouraging atheists to be more comprehensive in their arguments, but, given the context in which she defends the viewpoints of even the creationists, I do not think that's her purpose. To the contrary, not all world-views are equal, and we can use empirical evidence to help distinguish them. Irrationality does not count as a defensible world-view.


  1. Found this via Wilkin's blog.

    Eh, I've read most of Midgley's books and articles, I don't think you or PZ getting her at all.

    The short version of what she's saying is that there is a lot more to life than simply scientifically assessing everything as if it was a hypothesis. The primary reason many people like their religion, despite its obvious problems from a scientific point of view, have to do with things like:

    * providing a sense of community

    * instilling values in children and in themselves

    (And whatever ranting and raving the New Atheists do about the evils in the Bible and the evils promoted by parts of modern religion, an actual fair, non-raving assessment simply has to acknowledge that a large part of religion throughout history, and especially in liberal democracies in the 20th century, has been about providing often-correct moral guidance to the parishoners. For every instance of child abuse or witch burning in history there are probably millions of instances of individuals finding good moral guidance in their religion. Of course there are a good number of cases of people finding poor moral guidance as well, but then you can say this about democracy, scientific leaders, atheist leaders, etc. as well. Religion works for many people much of the time.)

    * providing a hopeful view of their place in the grand scheme of things (the typical atheist alternative is pretty dour and depressing)

    * providing an organizational framework for social action, charity, and/or political action

    In these and many other ways, there isn't much that the atheists offer at the moment that can compare to what belonging to a church offers people. Some people feel fine without it, that's great, but I wonder if it will every become a common thing outside of certain professions like academia.

    And pretending like these factors don't exist and don't matter and that it's all just a simple matter of scientifically assessing religion based on the worst claims of its craziest proponents, or on the unsupported nature of some very fuzzy theological claims of moderates -- which is basically what the atheist campaigners do -- is a pretty silly thing to do. This is what Midgley is trying to point out.

  2. Nick:

    Me, I think the factors you're mentioning are actually simply a sign of how fundamentally weak theism actually is. First off there's the problem that none of those supposedly important factors are fundamentally religous; there's nothing stopping us forming secular organisations and it's pretty obvious to anyone who spends any time studying ethics that religion is a complete failure except in the shallowest and most ludicrous of possible interpretations of moral value. More important than this though, everything you site is just another example of the retreat of theism from having to defend itself intellectually to fields where people are famously irrational. What you're saying is that religion is arguing at the same level as racists and nationalists and, because I agree, I'm going to reject it as easily as I reject them.

  3. Some people feel fine without it, that's great, but I wonder if it will ever become a common thing outside of certain professions like academia.

    You mean apart from in the entire countries in Europe where it has? Religion is a crutch, a lousy one at that, and people get by just fine without it.

  4. I think your sentence "Some world-views work; some require ridiculous mental gymnastics to maintain in the face of overwhelming evidence and internal contradiction", in the next to last paragraph, is missing the words "to the contrary", which should follow "overwhelming evidence".

  5. Swede:

    There's a difference between being irreligious, or being unchurched, or being atheist. Plenty of Europeans who don't go to church are New Agers, neopagans, or otherwise engaged with metaphysical beliefs.