Bad is Bad

There is an excellent article on the Huffington Post (it’s not often you will hear me say that) called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion which compares the bad thought processes that go into bad religion and bad science. As biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes:

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Here Sheldrake describes one of the most common thought processes I encounter in New Atheists. As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena. Sheldrake cites a term by science philosopher Karl Popper to describe this kind of thinking – he calls it promissory materialism:

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

The effect of this dogma is to cause a replacement of experimental science which yields observable and testable results with highly theoretical science which sucks up time, money and minds with no tangible results. Atheists are attracted to this kind of science because they are desperate to justify their beliefs in the materialism which underpins their metaphysical beliefs. I can’t count the number of times I have seen highly theoretical theories presented as ‘evidence’ by atheists that life can spring from non-life or universes can originate from nothing, or morals can evolve from animal brains. They do this because to not do so would open up the possibility that fully explaining the nature of the universe requires something more than the mindless phenomena we observe inside the universe.

And as more scientists adopt a hardened metaphysical materialism, they are increasingly wedded to these scientific dogmas. It is a rapid downward spiral.

As a Christian, I agree with Shledrake that there can be a bad sort of religious thinking that is unwilling to be revised in light of new evidence – but I also recognize that this same sort of fundamentalism exists in atheism as well, and that it is in fact New Atheism’s raison d’être.

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10 Responses to Bad is Bad

  1. subayaitori says:

    It seems to me that the person who practices bad science usually tends to be a bad scientist.

    Such people can be discredited, because, after all, science does have a way to check and correct for bad science.

    Meanwhile, bad religionists usually get promoted to the same status as the pope. And many of them have been made into saints.

    Something worth thinking about.

  2. “Bad religionists usually get promoted to the same status as the pope”

    There’s no real gatekeeper of orthodoxy, at least if you’re not a Catholic.

    As a form of masochism, I listen to this venomous shrew of a woman on religious radio named Janet Mefferd who, when she’s not screaming about the gays, is attacking other Christians for their lack of adherence to Scripture. That’s the problem though. Those in the “Word Faith” movement think they’re following Scripture. So do the Pentecostals. So do the Dominionists and Reconstructionists.

    As Lincoln acknowledged, both sides of our bloody civil war read the same Bible and believed they were in the right.

    Robert Price, a former fundamentalist, notes: “This meant I was constantly changing my mind, as cases of variously greater or lesser cogency might be made now for predestination, now against it, now for the pre-tribulation Rapture, now against it. It never dawned on me at the time that a doctrine of biblical authority which could not clearly settle even such issues as these was not much of an authority at all. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare for battle?””

    http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/epi_biblic.htm

    One need not deny the infallibility of the Bible to acknowledge that man is limited in his ability to understand it. It certainly cannot be used as if it were a recipe book or instruction manual. At least with a recipe book, one can reasonably determine one’s successful translation of it if the cake turns out tasting like cardboard.

  3. I recognize bad science by the following signs: when anyone says, “The debate is over.” When anyone says, “No scientist believes….” And when anyone says, “My opponents are enemies of science.”
    As a Catholic former Evangelical, I protest the frequent use of the term “fundamentalism” to mean “anything one doesn’t like or understand.” Fundamentalists, in my experience, tend to be very kind, intelligent, self-aware people who hold up admirably to the constant harassment they face for their beliefs. Now and then they get impatient, but under the same circumstances, anyone would. Fundamentalism is not a trait transferable to all religions, and there is no justification for calling, say, jihadists “Islamic fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism is simply a slowly-formed compromise among several Protestant denominations to agree on the most essential, core parts of Second Great Awakening theology and to defend the right to speak publicly of their beliefs. Far from being an inability to compromise, it is a compromise. Far from being simplistic, it took 12 volumes to outline it, in a set of books called “The Fundamentals.” Far from being antirational, it came just in time as a rescue of reason from the mind-pureeing nonsense of Modernism.

  4. jackhudson says:

    Great thoughts, therainyview.

  5. jackhudson says:

    One need not deny the infallibility of the Bible to acknowledge that man is limited in his ability to understand it. It certainly cannot be used as if it were a recipe book or instruction manual. At least with a recipe book, one can reasonably determine one’s successful translation of it if the cake turns out tasting like cardboard.

    James, I agree with your point that the Bible is not to be read as a recipe book. It shouldn’t be read as a science book or any kind of text book for that matter. And it should be noted the authors of the Bible acknowledged the limitations of a book conveying full knowledge of its subject –the Apostle Paul acknowledges as much when he says:

    For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.1 Corinthians 13:9 – 12

    But this doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in Scripture, or it isn’t sufficient in the way it is written to surmise that truth. And the overall truth Scripture seems to convey consistently and clearly (at least as far as Christians are concerned) is that all men are sinners and Christ came to save sinners.

    There is in fact no body of human knowledge that isn’t constantly growing and changing. Christian knowledge starts with the Bible, it doesn’t end there. Science starts with a simple set of rules, it doesn’t end there. Historical knowledge starts with the records we currently have, it doesn’t end there. I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.

    The difference between revelation and other sorts of knowledge is that if true, it is the most important sort of truth. And the truth of scripture has the power to transform us because it introduces to the only person who can transform us. And this experience isn’t merely about doctrines or words on a page.

  6. jackhudson says:

    It seems to me that the person who practices bad science usually tends to be a bad scientist.

    What’s a ‘bad scientist’? For example, if scientist continues to pursue evidence that life originated from non-living matter, and never finds any definitive evidence of such a thing, is he a bad scientist, or just a futile one?

    Such people can be discredited, because, after all, science does have a way to check and correct for bad science.

    It does when experiments are done, repeated, and the results are observed and recorded in such a way that they can be verified. But the science being considered here isn’t of that sort.

    Meanwhile, bad religionists usually get promoted to the same status as the pope. And many of them have been made into saints.

    Like who? What constitutes a ‘bad religionist’? Certainly we can say that Christianity has gone through continual reform and renewal, so that it isn’t intractably dogmatic in terms of those who go down a certain path.

  7. Mike D says:

    As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena.

    It’s been explained to you on countless occasions that this is a complete straw man.

    When examining any proposition, there are not merely two possibilities:
    p is true
    p is false

    There’s a third possibility:
    p is indeterminate

    To quote Sam Harris (from his debate on the afterlife): “science is not, in principle, committed to the idea that there is no afterlife, or that the mind is identical to the brain, or that materialism is true.”

    To paraphrase a book review:

    Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease.

    I won’t in principle object to the possibility that we have spirits, that consciousness runs on the brain like software, or that there’s a god or gods that created the universe. Fine. But how will you test those propositions? What reliable, independently verifiable predictions about the nature of reality can validate those assumptions?

    I mean really, that’s all science is – you start with an assumption, and you test it. Religion is failing because while scientific epistemology continually illuminates the world around us, religion is stuck on ancient dogmas and claims of “revealed knowledge” that can’t be verified. When religious folk figure out a way to objectively and independently discern true religious claims from false ones, we skeptics might have a reason to care. Until then, materialism has proved itself resoundingly effective. Sure, it could be wrong and may yet be shown to be. But neither you nor any religious person has given anyone a reason to think so.

  8. Mike D says:

    ^Formatting fail

  9. jackhudson says:

    It’s been explained to you on countless occasions that this is a complete straw man.
    When examining any proposition, there are not merely two possibilities:
    – p is true
    – p is false
    There’s a third possibility:
    – p is indeterminate

    I am not sure why you think this responds to what I said – I certainly believe there are things about which we can never be fully certain. This is part of why faith is essential – it is the choice we make in light of such uncertainty. I was merely pointing out that the leap of faith an atheist takes is to believe that incidental natural forces can ultimately explain our existence, and a theist believes this isn’t the case.

    I would offer though that based on what we do know that my beliefs as a Christian are more consistent than are those of the materialist; and inconsistency and self-contradiction are an indicator that one’s beliefs are false.

    Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease.

    I appreciate the fact that every time they want to advocate for science atheists cite medicine and space travel, but it’s a bait and switch. Nothing in the practical application of the engineering of space travel or germ theory lends support to the metaphysical notions of materialism or naturalism. The confidence with which science can explain proximate causes that can be readily observed and explored through experimentation does not automatically translate to confidence that it can explain ultimate causes of historically unique phenomena. It’s logically fallacious.

    And as I alluded to above, Epistemic humility is at the heart of the faith of a Christian – coming to Christ begins with acknowledging human limitations as well as one’s own limitations – as I have written about at length elsewhere.

    I won’t in principle object to the possibility that we have spirits, that consciousness runs on the brain like software, or that there’s a god or gods that created the universe. Fine. But how will you test those propositions? What reliable, independently verifiable predictions about the nature of reality can validate those assumptions?

    How are you going to test the proposition that the natural laws that allow the universe to support life have always existed? How are you going to prove that life arose as a product of incidental forces acting on non-living matter? How are you going to validate the notion that human consciousness arose as the product of natural events? You aren’t so why do you accept naturalism as true? Faith.

    Nonetheless, the difference between my faith and your faith though is that my faith is internally consistent with my personal experience, with human history, and with my scientific knowledge whereas the faith of a materialist or naturalist is not.

    I mean really, that’s all science is – you start with an assumption, and you test it.

    Science does start with certain assumptions – that the universe is comprehensible by human minds, that human minds are capable of discerning certain truths about nature, that there are natural causes for things that happen in the world around us, that evidence from the natural world can be used to learn about those causes and that there is consistency in the causes that operate in the natural world. None of those assumptions is actually testable nor are they contradicted by Christianity; in fact Christianity affirms all of them. What science tests aren’t assumptions, but propositions or hypotheses.

    Religion is failing because while scientific epistemology continually illuminates the world around us, religion is stuck on ancient dogmas and claims of “revealed knowledge” that can’t be verified. When religious folk figure out a way to objectively and independently discern true religious claims from false ones, we skeptics might have a reason to care. Until then, materialism has proved itself resoundingly effective. Sure, it could be wrong and may yet be shown to be. But neither you nor any religious person has given anyone a reason to think so.

    I know atheists (who are usually modernists) are stuck on the fact that the texts of Scripture weren’t written five seconds ago and, so, ya know, totally can’t be true because anything not thought up this second can’t be true but the truths of Scripture have endured quite readily while those of the pagan religions have fallen by the wayside millennia ago in the face of Christianity. And the reason Christianity continues to grow throughout the world is because large numbers of people find the ultimate explanations Christianity offers to be more worthy of their faith than the ultimate explanations of atheistic propositions.

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