I decided to respond here to a blog post on A-Unicornist in part because of the rather limited and confusing set-up of the comment section there, and because I thought it was turning into a worthy post all on its own. I’m only really going to deal with part of it, because Mike tends to conflate a lot of things together, but I think these are the two main points I will address:
“Jerry Coyne writes a lot about “accommodationism”, which is a popular new buzzword for the old “NOMA” argument put forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould. This is the idea that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” – that both are valid, but different, means of understanding the world. In both cases, I’m treating these terms very broadly: I’m taking science to mean “empirical observation and rational inquiry” (basically, methodological naturalism), and I’m taking “religion” to mean “spiritual experiences and theology”. I don’t want my use of the word “science” to be confused with a bunch of guys in lab coats shooting lasers and mixing vials of smokey green liquid, and I don’t want my use of the word “religion” to be confused with guys in goofy robes or people waving their arms while they sing cornball hymns. Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation; and spiritual experiences are by no means confined to religious dogmas.”
“Scientific inquiry is the only means we humans have of attaining reliable, valid knowledge about our experiences. We do not possess some sort of spiritual “sixth sense” that allows us to objective discern the truth or falsity of supernatural claims, and this is evident in the growing discordance, rather than consensus, that emerges as human spirituality “evolves”. Methodological naturalism gives us the greatest possible congruence between our experiences and our beliefs, since it is the only means by which we can objectively validate or falsify our assumptions. It might not give an answer to something like, “Why do we exist” that alludes to some grand purpose that transcends human interest; it can, however, demonstrate that even if such a grand purpose does exist, it eludes our capacity for reliable, valid knowledge – in other words, that it’s a pointless question.”
I have to admit I don’t wholly buy into Gould’s NOMA concept, but I think Mike (and other new atheists) has gone to the other extreme – the idea that any particular means of attaining reliable, valid knowledge is somehow mutually exclusive from the others and can be utilized as some sort of stand-alone methodology like science.
The reason this is problematic is because science itself is the product of certain philosophical ideas, which are in turn the product of certain metaphysical ideas. It has been proven reliable in certain respects by its historical success. It is practiced in part as the result of personal observation and through some confidence we have in institutional and collective knowledge transfer, review, and retention. To a certain degree one undermines any confidence that can be had in science itself to say it is the ‘best way knowing’ as much as it relies on other ways of knowing. It is not only provisional, but inherently transitory; there is no final point in science where one can say they have arrived at the truth. In this respect (among others) science is a matter of faith as well – the faith that the scientific consensus arrived at today is sufficiently reliable due to the knowledge gained up to this point.
Also, contrary to the claims above Christians (whom Mike lumps together with other religions) does not merely rely on ‘subjective experiences’. They never have – they have always claimed that their beliefs are rooted in historical realities, philosophical warrant, the pragmatic effects of Christianity on individuals and societies as well as the congruence between Christian beliefs and other realities, <i>in addition to their personal experiences</i> which they share in common with other Christians throughout history and in a wide variety of cultures and societies.
Mike also plays fast and loose with his definition of science which he loosely defines as “empirical observation and rational inquiry” – despite the fact that science as a methodology is much more narrow than that, requiring repeatable experimentation and review by peers with knowledge of those same disciplines. Nonetheless, with that definition, Mike claims that “”Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation” – but in fact, much historical investigation often lies well outside of mere empirical considerations, to the motives of leaders and societies, to the belief systems on which societies are based, to changing concepts of truth and beauty held by various cultures. Those aspects of course aren’t reducible to mere data, not to mention other humanities which plainly lay outside empirical thought, like the arts and literature. When can of course have rational discourse about such things, but they aren’t particularly amenable to rigorous scientific investigation – nor should they be, because that would diminish them.
Indeed, when we think about the many facets of human experience whether we speak of relationships, politics, the arts, or the best way we should as a society live our lives, we see that most of what is important isn’t reducible to “empirical and rational inquiry”. Indeed when pressed on the objective existence of human rights elsewhere, Mike demurred, presumably because he doesn’t like the idea of abandoning the concept even to for the sake of ‘science’.
And to consign what is perhaps the most important question we ask, namely “Why do we exist?” to irrationality is laughable. Even the modicum of knowledge of history would indicate that it is not only an important question, but perhaps the question that that motivated humans to pursue knowledge in the first place – even science itself. The answer to that question informs us why knowledge is important, how we should treat one another, what we should devote our time and energy and resources too. This may be this one statement that most undermines Mike’s case – if knowing why we are here is worthless knowledge, than what worth does any knowledge that does not directly impact our immediate survival have? Of course, we can’t answer this question with science, so I don’t expect an answer.
As I have made plain elsewhere on this blog, there is rational and reasonable warrant to believe that our universe and life are designed, that humans are more than merely physical beings, that we have a personhood and natures which include moral and spiritual aspects which can be objectively understood. Furthermore, our best lives are lived out when we live them according to the truths made plain in the teachings of Christ – this is historically observable truth. Ultimately, it is a claim is best understood by a consilience of knowledge, not be separating out one methodology and proclaiming it the ‘best’.
But we have been through all this before – scientism and naturalism ran their course in the early 20th century, only to prove impotent in the light of real human problems. It revives itself now in the relative ease of the Western world in the early 21st century (ironically itself the result of Christendom), and is primarily the abode of young men with no historical knowledge and little to lose by bandying about failed philosophies. It will fail again just as it failed before, but probably not before a lot of people suffer, mostly the young men who adhere to its tenants. It would be a sad mistake at this juncture of history to follow such well worn trails.