Monday, August 06, 2007

Atheism Friday, follow up

My post last Friday pointing to PZ Myers's response to an interview of Alistair McGrath prompted its own substantial response from Rob Jubb in the comments. I wanted to write a short reply, but due to my usual problems with concision and brevity, it got rather long. So, I decided to make a regular post out of it, not least since formatting and linking are much easier.

Rob's comment required me to do some thinking, but I believe I understood what he was getting at. For ease of reference, here is his comment:

Although I don't know the precise details of McGrath's argument, if it is anything like what I guess it is - that not all phenomena are best explained using the set of tools associated with naturalistic scientific investigation, and hence, one shouldn't necessarily expect an adequate explanation of religious claims from such investigations - Myers just asserts the premise McGrath denies against him - when he says that everything is to be explained by naturalistic scientific investigation. That is not a filleting of McGrath's argument. I happen to think that McGrath's claim is true about some non-religious phenomena - a scientific explanation of the pleasures of reading a well-written passage in a novel does not seem the most useful or interesting way to describe that event - although I doubt it is true about religious premises. If Myers wants to argue against McGrath, he needs to engage with that.

Neither is the 'sometimes we posit currently unobservable entities/events as explanations of currently observable entities/events' a gotcha. At best for Myers, McGrath seems pointing out that belief in a god is compatible with a rejection of the premise I am attributing to him. This does not commit him to that claim. At worst for Myers, McGrath is pointing out a feature of explanation in general, rather than scientific explanation in particular; that it relies on unobserved entities - as we might infer my dislike of spinach from my refusal to eat spinach, despite the fact that I have not affirmed the claim that I dislike spinach, none of which is obviously a scientific explanation - to explain observed ones.

Ok. Well, McGrath's arguments can be taken from Myers's post in excerpts or in its full glory via the link he provides.

One of those arguments, precisely, is that scientific criteria cannot be brought to 'bear on' God. This is, I think, McGrath's main argument. Rob seems to accept this notion too, by suggesting an analogy: science cannot provide an interesting or useful 'explanation of' the pleasures of reading a novel.

It depends what is meant by 'explanation of', and it depends what McGrath means by 'bear on', both of which are rather vague terms.

Actually, that's not true in the latter case: McGrath must be referring to the existence of God. If he's just talking about what it feels like to believe, then I'm not sure why he's wasting so much breath on such a banal point.

Thus, this argument must have to do with telling us something about whether God exists or not. Moreover, it is also clear that McGrath does not simply believe in some kind of vague Deist-like God: he believes in the biblical, intervening, prayer-hearing God whose son died for our sins. (I'm not clear how literally he takes things like burning bushes and the Garden of Eden, so we can leave that to one side.)

Is it really true that science has no relevance ('cannot be brought to bear on', in a slightly modified grammatical form from the original) to this question?

Really? I would think that providing (testable, proven) explanations about the way the world (life, universe) works that do not require a god--and which contradict Biblical versions of creation, the existence of heaven, the occurence of miracles,etc.--would be very relevant indeed. (It's feasible--maybe--that one's 'religious' interpretation could be so watered down so as to not violate science: but then we're talking about something that McGrath (like most believers) does not believe.)

Once you're in the realm of things that exist in (or around) the world and have an affect on the natural world, you are in the realm of science.

Religious motivated scientists once looked for God in nature; however, natural science has made God superflouous in nature. So what people like McGrath try to do now is say (simply by saying) that God is beyond natural explanation. It's a cute rhetorical trick, but what proof is there behind it?


I suppose that's the point: one can just say, well, 'God is beyond all that' and the statement itself contains what is presumed to be a Get-out-of-the-natural-world-free card that is impervious to all reason, logic and evidence (since they have by definition been excluded).

This is essentially what McGrath does in the Root of All Evil interview. To be honest, I find it a pathetic argument. I am aware that someone who is content with simply asserting that God is beyond reason is not going to be swayed by a reasoned argument.

If that's at the root of this discussion, then I suppose that's the end of it.

I don't accept, though, the analogy of this kind of argument with Rob's on the pleasure of reading. If he means only that science cannot completely capture what it feels like to enjoy literature then he's right, obviously. The same could be said of any other mental state.

However, it can explain quite an enormous amount of things related to that mental state, not least the organs or brain structures we have to allow us to feel pleasure in the first place. The status of those feelings is much more real (and either is now or will likely someday be measurable to a rather precise extent) than a hypothetical 'God'.

A naturalistic explanation of love may not capture what it 'feels like' as a subjective experience: but it can indeed (contrary to Rob's argument) be a very 'useful' and 'interesting' way to describe that feeling.

Not that it's the sort of language in which you'd want to write a song about it....

And when we communicate with one another about that experience, we'll use a different language than talking about how our neurotransmitters are doing. But I don't see the relevance to the issue of a deity. Unless one wants to claim that that existence is irrelevant. But then, I think, we face a much different discussion.

It seems to me, though, that Rob's response mixes an argument about the ability to explain the existence or functioning of a thing or process and the ability to fully capture what it means to experience it.

Take the example given about reading: no, science cannot (completely) explain what it feels like to read a pleasurable passage in a book. But we can all agree that he and the book exist, and we can explain what happens in a person's brain as he reads the book.

So, while there is a little bit of added mystery there about subjective experience -- though not all that much, since anyone who has experienced that joy has had a similar experience -- the question of existence (of the book, Rob, or Rob's brain) has not been raised in the same way as debating the question of God does.

And there, while science cannot explain (some kind of) God away with 100% certainty (as Dawkins and Myers, as good scientists, admit), I think it has made (and is making) that possibility seem vanishingly small.

The same is true of Rob's spinach analogy: we may not have positive proof of his dislike of spinach, but there's no question that he, the spinach and a human ability to like or dislike particular foods all exist. And all that without leaving the realm of science.

I continue to think Myers does a great job of slicing into the McGrath's rather fatty argumentation (hence I still think 'to fillet' was indeed the right verb).

I the interview! Almost immediately after saying that experimental science cannot tell us anything important about God, he says:

Therefore I think Dawkins must realize that he’s under as great an obligation to show that there is no God as, for example, a Christian is to show that there’s a God.

How, once he has, with a wave of his hand, dismissed the scientific method as not relevant to the question does McGrath propose that science should 'show' anything? Which magical evidence would he willing to accept as proof?

McGrath, obviously, wants to have his cake and eat it: he denies the validity of science saying anything about God and then claims that religion and science are under equal obligations of proof (thereby sneakily elevating religion onto the same playing field as science).

I find this to be very confused thinking. And I think Myers's responses are quite appropriate.

I think that Myers is also right to skewer McGrath's shallow references to science being 'in transit'. (I don't know what it is with my culinary metaphors...maybe I'm just hungry.)

Obviously, science changes, but this is such a facile claim, especially for someone who has claimed to have studied the history of science. New findings certainly make for revisions, but if he thinks that one day we'll suddenly find that evolution or Newtonian physics (within particular domains) will be discarded, he is, I think, peddling a very mistaken notion of science.

Science, at least, has set up clear parameters for proving and disproving its conclusions: where is McGrath's version of Haldane's 'rabbits in the Precambrian' that would disprove what he thinks?

Is there any clearly identified criteria for believing what he believes that you can see?

I can't see any, and it seems to me that he simply believes some combination of things that he chooses to and that his church tells him to.

He is, of course, free to believe nonsense. But, as Myers says:

Maybe Mr McGrath should try spending more time actually defending that nonsense convincingly than simply whining about the atheists who are picking on his beliefs…but I don't think he can do that, either.

And neither, truth be told, do I.

Thanks Rob, very much, for the thought provoking question.


Geoff Coupe said...

Great post. It's that "having one's cake and eating it" attitude that really irritates me. If something outside of our known world impinges in any way on our world, then it is subject to scientific investigation. Period. Handwaving it away with "ah, but it's a mystery..." simply will not do.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks Geoff.

McGrath himself in the interview says:

'And in this post modern age I think Dawkins is making a very important point: that all beliefs are not equally good, that we must have evidential basis, we must have rational defense.'


...but he says this while denying the ability of science to say anything about religion.

Now, he's being either astoundingly clever or remarkably dim. I'd bet on the latter...

Rob Jubb said...

I thought I left a comment here already, explaining that you've (quite understandably, given an ambiguity in what I wrote) misunderstood the point of what I'm saying; not sure what happened to it. Anyway, you take me to be making a point about how we describe the quality of the experience of reading a novel or eating spinach. That is not what I am pointing out. What I am pointing out is that we can give causal explanations of those phenomena which are not naturalistic scientific explanations without that threatening those explanations character as causal explanations. Observing certain socio-cultural facts and stylistic features of the writing in question, for example, can give a causal explanation of my enjoyment of a certain writer. That explanation can, in conjunction with the fact that I have read things by that writer, can also explain the physical events associated with me going and getting more books by that writer. Not all adequate explanations of events in the physical world are naturalistic scientific explanations. There may be some issues around the relationship of these explanations to naturalistic scientific explanations, but that is a different question.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks for the follow-up Rob.

I don't know what happened to your other comment either. Sorry!

I think I have a clearer idea of what you mean now, and it is -- I think -- something very different than what McGrath was saying.

Actually, what you're saying is far more interesting.

I'm still not sure, though, whether I'd entirely agree, and -- just to keep this brief -- here's what I mean.

On one level, of course, we can talk about socio-cultural facts and things like 'taste' without reference to anything that is 'naturalistic' or 'scientific'. The statement 'I thought Ian McEwan's novel Saturday was an excellent novel' is valid without any reference to neuropsychology or biology or chemistry. And, based on that statement, you might make a causal link to the fact that I made sure to read On Chesil Beach as soon as it came out.

And we would be able to debate the merits of McEwan's writing while staying entirely outside the realm of 'science' or 'naturalism'. Many of the conclusions that resulted would potentially be worthwhile to both you and me, and meaningful (in some way) in our lives.

If this is what you mean, then I I would agree. There's no need to force natural science in where it's not necessary. The explanations that result would be fully valid.

So far, so good.

McGrath was on about other things, though, and he was denying the validity of science where it definitely does have a role

Additionally, I think that the naturalistic understandings -- while not necessary to the above issues -- have a place in talking about socio-cultural issues. I think that the sharp division between 'culture' and 'biology' for instance, is a problem, and this is the main point of the article I blogged about yesterday.

I mean, there are all kinds of non-naturalistic theories around which might have something to say about something like why I like a certain author. A Freudian might say that I like McEwan because he represents a lost father figure, or a Marxist would refer to McEwan's depiction of capitalist modes of production or a discourse analysis would argue...well, something about power and discourse.

Mightn't science also have something to say?

I can only recommend The Literary Animal as a source on such topics.

Thanks for the follow up. I hope we're both talking on at least roughly the same topic now.