Further Thoughts on John Haught

Since the comment thread for my post “On Amateur Atheism” has sparked a lively debate, I looked around on the internet earlier today for some further explanation of John Haught’s views. I found them in this Salon interview, and I’d like to offer some further comments on the theology outlined therein.

One of Haught’s major points regarding modern atheists that they rely too much on scientific inquiry to learn about the world:

Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth.

The problem with this paragraph is that Haught, like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth, inevitably never explains what alternative he has in mind. If you have knowledge that you did not come by scientifically, how did you come by it? What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I’m confident that it’s because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

Like many theologians, Haught wants to have it both ways with regard to science. Despite his lengthy complaints in the article about “scientism” – he says that atheists like Steven Weinberg illicitly assume that “that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like [God]” – he does not hesitate to draw the opposite lesson when he thinks it’s warranted.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it’s something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that’s a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite.

The hypocritical message of this statement is that Haught is permitted to make claims about the implications of “the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology”, but atheists are not. When a theist says that science suggests the universe is continually growing toward greater complexity and this suggests a divine purpose, he’s fine with that. But when atheists say that the rampant evil and diaster in nature suggests that the universe was not made with us in mind, suddenly Haught is indignant about this “abuse” of scientific reasoning to discuss areas it has no right to talk about. The double standard he’s using is very obvious when you look for it.

So what is the proper place of Haught’s god, if it can’t be discovered through science? Apparently, according to Haught, the proper answer is to assume that God is found only in the realm of “higher” reasons – that is, what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than material causes. Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen. A corollary of this is that God does not intervene in history. As Haught puts it:

Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

…What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But now Haught has a large problem: Christianity absolutely does require an interventionist god. Even if one dismisses the Old Testament narratives as allegory, even if one believes that God does not provide miraculous answers to prayer, Christianity is still built on a fundamental, keystone claim – the resurrection of Jesus – which implies that, on at least one occasion, God intervened in the world to change the course of events in a way that natural law would not permit.

Haught strains mightily to get around this problem. Here is his solution, which I’ll quote in full so I’m not accused of misrepresenting him:

But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it.

…We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

In the end, it’s not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means. It’s a simple question of fact: Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did he not? Did his body resume functioning? Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Did his disciples see him in the flesh, handle him, and watch him eat and drink? These are all yes-or-no questions!

This is where Haught’s contorted theology is stretched to the breaking point. Even if we grant his argument that science cannot speak to teleological claims, science most certainly can examine empirical claims, and the resurrection of Jesus absolutely is an empirical claim. Clearly, what he’s trying to do is to somehow remove this empirical claim from the realm of science and place it safely within the realm of faith, where it can’t be examined or disproved. The only way he can do that is by asserting that the very occurrence of the event is somehow just a matter of faith.

It’s not at all clear what he means by this. If we’d had a video camera in the upper room, would it have recorded the disciples interacting with an invisible, inaudible person? Or would it have found the room itself empty, as though the disciples resided in some parallel universe where their existence was only accessible to those who believe? More importantly, if we’d trained the video camera on the dead body of Jesus, would that body have winked out of existence at some point (as it entered the “realm of faith”), or would we have seen the body remain dead, as if a totally different set of events happened for those who chose not to believe versus for those who did?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught’s god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught’s god, then that means that Haught’s god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught’s god and Haught’s theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • OMGF

    Haught:

    But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

    Makes perfect sense to me. Why would a god that supposedly wants us to believe in him actually allow events like this to be proven? That would only lead us to more belief in him, which is clearly what he wants, so it makes perfect sense for him to do the opposite. Er, wait….

  • http://yetanotheratheistblog.blogspot.com/ YAAB

    What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I’m confident that it’s because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

    Agreed. If you don’t have a reliable mechanism of determining if a voice in your head telling you to kill your kids is (a) god, who apparently likes to mess with people using “double dog dares” like this from time to time, (b) satan, or (c) the misfirings of your own troubled mind, then it’s probably a good idea to go with option “c” and seek professional help.

    Haught: We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    This is a wonderfully versatile dodge for avoiding the need to prove any manner of absurd belief.

    We trivialize the whole meaning of the link between number of pirates and global warming when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    We trivialize the whole meaning of Thor’s ability to control storms when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    We trivialize the whole meaning of my ability to read the mind of god when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

  • Brit-nontheist

    Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught’s god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught’s god, then that means that Haught’s god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught’s god and Haught’s theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

    It is relatively clear that even to theologians interventionist accounts of gods are highly problematic. This reasoning ought to lead to the conclusion that no god which can be claimed to exist can exist : if there has been no intervention, no effect of which it is the cause, then we could not know anything about such a cause, even its existence. To claim a god’s existence is to render that particular god’s existence always-already impossible.

  • OMGF

    Haught:

    We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    What meaning is there in an event that didn’t happen?

  • http://www.skepchick.com writerdd

    So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

    Um, sorry, but did John Haught just imply that Jesus is a vampire?

  • Ceri

    We trivialize the whole meaning of Thor’s ability to control storms when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    We trivialize the whole meaning of Finnegan’s Wake when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    Seriously though. That’s an entirely Facile argument. It’s almost insulting to try and make it.

    What meaning is there in an event that didn’t happen?

    The question for me, really comes down to the comparison of “meaning”, and the physical world, and their relation. Does a Book have any meaning if no-person exists to read the words? Does a work of art have meaning if no-one is there to view it? Either way, both of these items still have meaning, precisely because there is a subject there to view it. However, modern science makes the assumption that phenomena are observable without a conscious subject. Haught is clearly placing his theology within the realm of meaning.

    according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen

    Haught’s god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever

    However, Haught’s god has plenty of influence over the meaning of the physical world, and it’s phenomena, which, frankly, is an entirely different ballgame.

  • Eric

    Well Ceri,

    The use of Thor’s hammer or any other of the pantheon of Gods and their abilities is certainly not facile in this argument. You are reducing those beliefs to mere “fad” or “buff” style interest while elevating the Yahweh myth to an unapproachable level. Not only is this not facile, it is extremely Christian-centric and yet one more example of the arrogance Christians and their beliefs put out to the world.

  • windy

    We trivialize the whole meaning of Finnegan’s Wake when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    But would a camera at Finnegan’s wake have recorded anything?

  • SteveC

    Heh. Glad to see Ebon get around to whacking on this piece. I (like the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy) registered my disgust with Haught’s Salon piece on the internet some time ago on my blog, with considerably less politeness, and considerably more profanity. Much fun was had. Haught is a terrible philosopher.

  • Dennis

    Theologians know that faith requires no proof. They also know that science has a requirement for proof. They always state that science has no place in religion based on this difference, faith overrides science.

    Science needs to attack this head on. Scientists like ahtiests are a diverse lot, variously undirected, working on their own. We have no organization. I think religion like all things requires ” truth in advrtizing”. It requires some proof – like all followers of christ walked out of the calamity of 9-11; Judea was the domanant empire 2,500 years ago – not. All prayers of any one religion are answerd.

    Oops,

    I forgot something, Most ahhiests are not scientists, the above is incoherent, we came by this decision based on a lot of reconsideration, personal reflection, and rejection of our upbringing.

    They understand us more than we do.

  • SteveC

    Science doesn’t require proof, in fact, proof is generally beyond the reach of science. Science merely requires evidence. The question is never, “is this true?”, but, “How certain is it that this is true?”

  • MS (Quixote)

    In the end, it’s not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means.

    Because it is nearly meaningless. Thanks for this critique, EM.

    Haught’s god and Haught’s theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

    When it comes to the question of whether the resurrection could be scientifically verified, orthodox Christians couldn’t agree more with you. The entire NT stakes its claim on a verifible resurrection.

    Thanks for following the evidence where it leads, despite whom it helps. This critique helps the church, which has been fighting this kind of nonsense for awhile now, yet you publish it anyway…much appreciated.

    PS–Does this post make me a “concern troll”? I don’t understand the phrase well. If so, it was not my intention and I apologize in advance :)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Thanks for those words, Quixote. I was sure I couldn’t be the only one who found Haught’s view absurd.

    And no, you’re not a concern troll. :) The term originated on political blogs. Generally speaking, a concern troll is someone who tries to hobble their rhetorical opponents by masquerading as an ally and offering “advice” that, if followed, would undermine the recipient’s strategy or weaken their morale. Rest assured, this isn’t something you do accidentally. The quintessential example was in the 2006 presidential election, when a staffer for New Hampshire Republican representative Charlie Bass posted on local Democratic blogs that he was “concerned” that Democrats were wasting time and energy trying to defeat the unbeatable Rep. Bass, and advised them that they’d be better off focusing their efforts elsewhere. (Bass lost the election.)

    Haught’s “advice” to atheists that we should stop claiming that atheism is compatible with morality or purpose in life, and instead act more like the dreary, nihilistic philosophers whom he finds “professional” and “serious”, I think is a prime example of concern trolling.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I have a couple comments to make.

    Dawkins et. all have more professionalism in their little fingers than any theist theologian. But he also forgot to dismiss guys like Dan Barker and other formally educated theologians like himself. I wonder why.

    There is no other profession on earth where being completely, utterly wrong is celebrated as being an expert in their field. What this is really all about is an inferiority complex. He wishes to be seen as an expert at something and it hurts his own academic status when even amateurs can prove that his field of study is full of crap. Compared to him, every 11-14 year old Catholic who realizes that there are no gods and becomes atheist is a verifiable genius. Wow, it must suck to be him!

    As for his “reading materials,” how about using an anthology such as The Portable Atheist? He could pick and choose any of the 50 authors, including writers such as Lucretius, Carl Sagan, Joseph Conrad etc. If there aren’t enough “serious” atheists in it for his lectures then he’s committing nothing short of an insult to intelligence itself.

    As for his specious claim that serious atheism leads to nihilism, it doesn’t even matter. But it doesn’t take a serious academic to come up with such a trite accusation. That’s what every non-imaginative theist I’ve ever met reasons. It hardly takes a 15 year old Christian in Sunday School. Right after they learn that murder is only wrong because Jesus says so. It’s already in every atheist FAQ because it’s so common. This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is nothing more than a fraud who shouldn’t be in the position of teaching theology.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Aren’t all teachers of theology frauds, by definition (assuming one’s an atheist)?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Carl Sagan wrote “Science as a Candle in the Dark.” Hugh’s writing about religion and evolution is akin to “Religion as a Shadow in a Brightly Lit Room.”

    Oh… and what about Bertrand Russell? You know… there’s not a lot of world famous mathematicians who won a Nobel Prize for literature, let alone for their writings about humanitarianism and freedom of thought. Just so happens Russell is also atheist. Maybe when John Haught wins his own Nobel Prize for his humanitarian teachings, then he can talk about how atheism is all about nilism.

    And I really couldn’t care less if he’s “on our side” of the evolution debate. He’s not on anything more than the forefront of trying to keep ancient superstitious clap-trap relevant when they’re increasingly not. Evolution is not compatible with religion and I am glad that it’s not.

    Here is how Richard Feynman would have said about the compatibility of evolution and religion:

    “God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to
    explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally
    discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking
    away from God; you don’t need him anymore. But you need him for the
    other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe
    because we haven’t figured that out yet; you need him for
    understanding those things which you don’t believe the laws will
    explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain
    length of time — life and death — stuff like that. God is always
    associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I
    don’t think that the laws can be considered to be like God because
    they have been figured out.”

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Oops… I wasn’t done editing the above rant into the form of a comment, I hit the Submit button too soon :-/

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    It’s hard to top Russell as a rigorous thinker! He was also someone to admire. (I think Camus is also quite admirable too!)

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Sorry for bogarting the thread. I’m just listening to something I thought I’d share.

    MN Atheist’s radio broadcast from last week had a philosopher (who received his PhD at the Univ. of MN) discussing the foundations of morality, and how God is not necessary. I wonder if he is serious enough for Haught and his lackeys?

    http://mnatheists.org/atheist_talk/Atheists_Talk-0007-2_24_2008.mp3

  • Alex Weaver

    Generally speaking, a concern troll is someone who tries to hobble their rhetorical opponents by masquerading as an ally and offering “advice” that, if followed, would undermine the recipient’s strategy or weaken their morale. Rest assured, this isn’t something you do accidentally.

    At the risk of being pedantic, there are some people who behave in this fashion who are apparently sincere (the classic, perhaps, is adults who assure children that “if you ignore bullies, they’ll leave you alone”), but I certainly agree that Quixote’s comment doesn’t fall into that category.

  • lpetrich

    In response to bbk, the idea of evolution is compatible with some forms of religion, although with the familiar Abrahamic sorts, one has to interpret away parts of the Bible.

    That may be why liberal theologians all too often surround themselves with evasions and misdirection and bafflegab; it’s almost like they don’t want to let on how much their beliefs depart from those of their rank-and-file of parishioners.

    And the inability to photograph JC’s resurrection produces a serious further problem. Our eyes are essentially biological video cameras; we see by photographing. So that would mean the accounts of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in the Gospels are unhistorical.

    I’m reminded of Metacrock‘s recent blog entry “Prologomina to any future discussion of Jesus” (his spelling), in which he quotes the theologian Moltmann about how JC’s resurrection was “history making”, how the really important thing is what effect belief in that alleged event has had. That sidesteps the historicity question, though Metacrock does think that JC’s resurrection was historical. Metacrock does not address the question of whether one could have photographed that event, however.

    And if you wish to read his blog, beware: he is a chronic misspeller and he’s been one for years, as I’ve known from experience at IIDB. He has dyslexia, yet he’s whined that he does not have the time to proofread what he writes.

  • Alex, FCD

    Aren’t all teachers of theology frauds, by definition (assuming one’s an atheist)?

    No, they could be honestly mistaken. My teachers aren’t frauds when they say something that a newly-published paper (which they haven’t read) shows is garbage.

  • DL

    Ebonmuse, you said “like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth”

    To me, it seems you are implying that you agree with the fact that “science is the only way of knowing truth”. With all due respect, to you who generally does brilliant work, if this truly is what you think, I’m afraid my opinion of you just dropped. Please assure me you do NOT believe this.

    Of course theologians have nothing to say about knowledge, they only make things up, but the statement “science is the only way of knowing truth” is in itself illogical. Don’t you see that? HOW do you know science is the only epistemically sound way of gaining knowledge? This in itself is a philosophical claim, and hence that very claim is clearly nonsense. If science is our only way to knowledge, then are we not justified in all the knowledge we have discovered in Mathematics? What about ethics, metaphysics, philosophy in general? I mean, have you actually studied epistemology before making this bold claim? (If this is in fact what you are claiming. Please tell me I just misinterpreted what you meant)

    It’s a problem I have with Dawkins et al. as well. I agree with pretty much everything they say, except when it comes to epistemology. Dawkins will say something like “Sure, Science doesn’t have answers to all the big questions, like what is goodness, but religion certainly doesn’t have the answers either.” Now this is obviously a true statement, but he just always neglects to express that questions such as “what is goodness” or “What is moral” etc. come under the realm of philosophy.

    Thanks, and sorry if this is not what you meant in the first place. Please clarify. I am concerned.

  • Matt R.

    Ebonmuse,

    It is good to see you still writing. I am back from my hiatus.

    You wrote:

    Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen.

    Perhaps when one tries to distinguish between “how” and “why” something happens in the natural world, one is begging the question a bit with regard to the existence of God. Here is what I mean. In the natural world, asking “how” something happens tends to carry the connotation of wondering what the processes were which brought about a certain event. Sometimes we can use “why” in this sense too, but often “why” implies an inquiry into the motives of a mind, such as “why did the cat chase the mouse”, “why did the monkey fling poo at the zookeeper”, “why did the preacher beg the question”, and so forth.

    So for a person to ask “why” things happen in the sense of inquiring about the motives of a mind, then that person is perilously close to begging the question as they may be assuming incorrectly that there is a mind to question at all.

    Good post altogether.

    Cheers,

    Matt R.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    DL: Science is not the only possible way of knowing truth, but it is the most reliable way known to us. If the results of a different method (such as, for example, anecdotal observation) clash with the results obtained through scientific study, the scientifically acquired results should always be preferred.

  • Ric

    Adam, wonderful post! You make the point exactly. What other way of knowing is there, if not through verification of objective evidence?

  • heliobates

    We trivialize the whole meaning of Finnegan’s Wake when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    Finnegan’s Wake doesn’t make empirical claims. The main purpose of that novel, or any work of art for that matter, is to invoke an imaginary experience in the reader. Both the reader and the author know and intend this.

    Seriously though. That’s an entirely Facile argument. It’s almost insulting to try and make it.

    What’s facile is conflating a work of fiction with a historical claim, under the rubric of “meaning”, and pretending as if both attempt to approach the same “truth” in the same way.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    DL, “other” methods of obtaining truth are only useful when scientific means are not available. When science is available, no other means are necessary. Even questions that have been entirely the domain of philosophy and ethics are increasingly scrutinized by behavioral sciences. Mathematics is not discounted when science is used to find truth, as virtually every single science in existence applies mathematics in some useful way. But regardless, non-scientific thinkers aren’t typically well-versed in math or logic, anyway.

    Study after scientific study shows that abstinence education does not work. What does that say about the anyone who wishes to claim the Naturalistic Fallacy as their reason to teach abstinence? Does it matter that science doesn’t satisfactorily answer the “why” question posed not by science, but by his own moralistic clap-trap? It’s called Occam’s Razor.

    Religionists aren’t the only ones who do this, though. This question goes at least as far back as philosophy itself. Socrates mocked Mechanism for not answering the “why” of natural phenomenon. And today we know him for the fool that he was, with his stupid forms used to explain “why” change happens. Today, many, many philosophers interested in the “why” of human consciousness have an incredibly hard time dealing with the findings of neuroscience about the nature of our brain as a machine. When neuroscience maps the synaptic connections between brain cells, naysayers claim that it’s not enough, that maybe quantum physics are involved or who knows what, maybe our consciousness exists in some other dimension – anything else except accept that science can understand what has traditionally been the domain of philosophy. Every time science measures something, opponents point to something science hasn’t measured yet. We can simply continue this trend line to reach it’s logical conclusion.

  • Matt R.

    Hello All,

    Science is not the only possible way of knowing truth

    It seems that this “science” term gets thrown about quite a good deal when speaking of truth. Sometimes it seems that all forms of rational inquiry fall under the realm of “science”. Is this true? I don’t see why there should be a problem with it. Research certainly comes in many types: experimental, descriptive, qualitative, procedural. Simply surveying a group of people with questionnaires is a type of research and seems as though it would be scientific. Even the act of observing the world around us and drawing conclusions, as long as one is using logic, could be described as scientific, could it not?

    Sometimes I am tempted to say that scientific investigation is the only reliable way to obtain truth. Everything else is just guessing. Do you think that I am letting my hubris run away with me?

    Cheers,

    Matt R.

  • Matt R.

    BBK,

    We can simply continue this trend line to reach it’s logical conclusion.

    I wonder what people will think when it turns out that we are no more than, as the apologist would say, “complex chemical reactions”.

    On another note, you used the phrase “…except accept…” in your post. I wonder if there is a literary term which describes the situation in which two words which sound the same but are different are used together. Do you know of one?

    cheers,

    Matt

  • heliobates

    I wonder what people will think when it turns out that we are no more than, as the apologist would say, “complex chemical reactions”.

    As makers of meaning, we’re not just bundles of deterministic nervous systems. We’re bundles of deterministic nervous systems who retain information, who are relentlessly self-referential, and who constantly interact with our environment and other bundles of deterministic nervous systems, altering and being altered by these processes at every stage.

    There’s no “no more than” about it!

  • heliobates

    Every time science measures something, opponents point to something science hasn’t measured yet.

    Which is another form of “moving the goalposts.”

    Modern scientific methods are the only useful ways to address empirical questions and they have been some 2500 years in the making. Any religion that relies on the concept of an interventionalist god will eventually make an empirical claim. That claim will not withstand scrutiny, so the believer must fall back on appeals to emotion, arguments from adverse consequences, or usually “argument from I don’t like it so it must not be true”—shenanigans in which Haught engages with malice aforethought.

  • Matt R.

    Heliobates,

    Yes, you are right. It blows my mind to think of how the constituent parts of the nervous system combine to create consciousness. Have you ever read “Prey” by Michal Creighton? It leads to an interesting way of looking at consciousness and its development.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    DL wrote

    HOW do you know science is the only epistemically sound way of gaining knowledge? This in itself is a philosophical claim, and hence that very claim is clearly nonsense.

    Others have addressed this, but the best response I know can be expressed in two words: Track Record.

  • heliobates

    You’re a hoopy frood, Matt!

    No I haven’t read “Prey”. Maybe some day, when I read for pleasure again. Right now, if it ain’t “Consolidated Financial Statements”, it don’t get read.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Matt,

    On another note, you used the phrase “…except accept…” in your post. I wonder if there is a literary term which describes the situation in which two words which sound the same but are different are used together. Do you know of one?

    I call it… homophonic brain farts.

  • MisterDomino

    My teachers aren’t frauds when they say something that a newly-published paper (which they haven’t read) shows is garbage.

    I actually laughed out loud at that one, Alex.

    “But how do you know that it’s garbage?”

    “Because the author’s an assistant professor!”

    *chuckle*

  • Alex Weaver

    I actually laughed out loud at that one, Alex.

    “But how do you know that it’s garbage?”

    “Because the author’s an assistant professor!”

    *chuckle*

    Err, if the paper introduces documented evidence that contradicts a teacher’s statements to the class, it doesn’t really matter who wrote it.

  • Arkhitekt

    I’m with DL on this.

    If you’re talking about Science with a big S, as the all the forms of rational inquiry, I’d agree that it’s our only means of obtaining truth.

    But if you’re talking about empirical science, I would have to disagree. Empirical science is the sure way of discovering empirical truths, but not all truth is empirical. Questions about the principles assumed by science are not themselves subjects of scientific enquiry. bbk says that

    Mathematics is not discounted when science is used to find truth, as virtually every single science in existence applies mathematics in some useful way.

    It is because empirical science applies mathematics that it is not a viable means of discovering mathematical truths.
    Considering the nature of scientific laws in general, questions about the nature of causality and so forth, requires thinking at a meta- level with respect to empirical science.

    Ethics is another area where empirical science can provide useful information but not generate principles – as per Hume’s Law, an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is”, and the job of empirical science is to tell us what is the case, not what we ought to make of it.

    Also, I have to object to the suggestion that philosophers have a problem with neuroscience. Physicalism (effectively accepting the mind as machine) is widespread in philosophy nowadays, and one of the main reasons is the support given to this view by empirical neuroscience. But nor is neuroscience encroaching on any genuine part of the philosophy of mind. It is still up to philosophers to consider the findings of neuroscience and figure out what these mean with regard to the debates about the nature of mental states and their relation to brain states, the meanings of our mental state terms, how our subjective experience of mental states relates to their objective presence in our brains and so on and so forth.

    Science can provide data, but sometimes we need to do a bit of thinking and conceptual analysis in order to clear up why we were looking for data in the first place, what it is, and what we should do with it.

  • Brit-nontheist

    bbk

    science can understand what has traditionally been the domain of philosophy. Every time science measures something, opponents point to something science hasn’t measured yet. We can simply continue this trend line to reach it’s logical conclusion.

    Science and philosophy are not always looking for the answers to the same questions – for example, science may tell us how our morals came to exist as they do now, but they can’t tell us what morals we should consciously chose for our society: one cannot derive ought from is.

    It is highly reductive to suggest that science is the sole measure of intellectual investigation.

  • Alex Weaver

    It is highly reductive to suggest that science is the sole measure of intellectual investigation.

    I take it this is supposed to be a bad thing?

  • Brit-nontheist

    Firstly, when I posted earlier Arkhitekt’s post hadn’t appeared, so I apologise for what seems like me merely repeating his ought/is distinction. It honestly was a case of simply thinking alike.

    Me:

    It is highly reductive to suggest that science is the sole measure of intellectual investigation.

    Weaver:

    I take it this is supposed to be a bad thing?

    Yes – it is unhelpful to take one aspect of intellectual endevour as its whole for this does violence to the complexities of our search for meaning. There seems to be a feeling on this thread that an attribution worth to anything but science is somehow attacking science and thus must be shunned… far from it – I’m an atheist with my own healthy interest in the sciences, but I do also see that science can’t answer everything (not because science is deficient, but because science doesn’t try to answer some questions).

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Brit-nontheist:

    science may tell us how our morals came to exist as they do now, but they can’t tell us what morals we should consciously chose for our society: one cannot derive ought from is.

    I’ve already wrote my post up above in such a way that it addresses the question of the Naturalistic Fallacy, so I’m very well aware of this objection. Please consider my examples of Socrates and of abstinence education, where the difference between “ought and is” gets used to propose things that just “aren’t” reality. But I’ll try to explain my thinking more explicitly.

    Science tells us a lot more than where morals came from. It tells us when moral judgments won’t work and when they will work. When science tells us what works and what doesn’t, the “ought” question becomes one of simple maximization.

    I personally hold the opinion that the distinction between ought and is is a specious one at best. It’s used as an apologetic more often than not for philosophies that pronounce that we ought to do something when science says that it doesn’t work well that way. I see it so often used to defend black and white philosophies that reject reality.

    So from Socrates we learn that the acorn becomes the oak tree because the acorn contains the “form” of the oak tree, and the form exists to serve the purpose of an immaterial “ought” which the acorn seeks out. That’s what Socrates started, and I blame him for this line of thinking. The big questions of the day were trying to explain why a Chestnut doesn’t just decide it wants to turn into an oak tree and an acorn into an ox. The Mechanistic approach is that you stick the damn thing into the ground and water it because that’s how it works. It doesn’t need an “ought” to become an oak tree.

    But for Socrates, these rather crude examples are what became the basis for human ethics as well. He espoused a minimalist, impoverished lifestyle in order to reject anything that was not part of the “ought” of the human form in order to become as pure a representation of the form as possible. He didn’t want to accidentally become an oak tree in the next life, you know? It didn’t matter that science said that he is human because that’s what he is, he has to be more of what a human is.

    What I was saying up above is that science continuously errodes the “oughts” that we believe are the necessary judgments to lead good lives. If we don’t believe that the acorn becomes an oak tree because that’s what it ought to do, then why should we believe that humans are any different? We now understand the biology of the oak tree and the nutrient cycle and we don’t need to say that it is by moral virtue that it knows what kind of tree to become. For humans as well – we know what makes humans happy because of psychology, nutrition, economics, and all types of sciences.

    We run into this situation:

    1) A moral system lays down a non-scientific framework for how we should lead our lives. It tells us how to pick between x and y based on what we “ought” to do in this framework.

    2) Psychology comes along and says that x makes us happy, y makes us unhappy.

    3) Non-scientific moral system is left with this question: choose x or y? The entire framework of what we “ought” in the absence of 2) becomes unnecessary.

    Look at how religions dictate how we should have sex, or how some foods are Kosher or some animals are sacred or others are filthy. What happens when the science of nutrition comes along, or the science of reproduction? We no longer need the non-scientific oughts of religion.

    This is what I meant about following the trend lines.

  • Brit-nontheist

    dear bbk,

    Science tells us a lot more than where morals came from. It tells us when moral judgments won’t work and when they will work. When science tells us what works and what doesn’t, the “ought” question becomes one of simple maximization.

    Certainly a moral rule which is impossible to comply with is not a supportable one, but inside such a horizon science doesn’t collapse ‘ought’ in this way.

    I personally hold the opinion that the distinction between ought and is is a specious one at best. It’s used as an apologetic more often than not for philosophies that pronounce that we ought to do something when science says that it doesn’t work well that way.

    The idea that we simply do what ‘works well’ rather than what is rights is itself philosophical, and not without its problems. The ought/is distinction is an important one – it is at least part of the answer against theistic claims, claims like according to atheism nature is brutal so we ought to be too (or at least cannot admonish brutality).

    So from Socrates we learn that the acorn becomes the oak tree because the acorn contains the “form” of the oak tree, and the form exists to serve the purpose of an immaterial “ought” which the acorn seeks out. That’s what Socrates started, and I blame him for this line of thinking.

    I’m talking about ethics, not philosophical explanations for scientific phenomena. The former is a proper site for philosophy, the latter quite correctly has given way to modern science.

    we know what makes humans happy because of psychology, nutrition, economics, and all types of sciences.

    I’ll take issue with you on this one – happiness is not something which may be reduced to a metric. A happy Marxist for example would be unhappy in the same economic conditions in which a Thatcherite would be happy. Of course there is a level of human need which is scientificly demonstrable – but to derive from this that happiness is somehow reducable to solely scientific criteria is simplistic.

    1) A moral system lays down a non-scientific framework for how we should lead our lives. It tells us how to pick between x and y based on what we “ought” to do in this framework.
    2) Psychology comes along and says that x makes us happy, y makes us unhappy.
    3) Non-scientific moral system is left with this question: choose x or y? The entire framework of what we “ought” in the absence of 2) becomes unnecessary.

    Your third point does not follow from the other two – the idea that ethics requires scientific conclusions on happiness (and psychology is not without issues when it comes to universalisation) is one that is applicable only to a highly problematic ethical framework – utilitarianism.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Your third point does not follow from the other two – the idea that ethics requires scientific conclusions on happiness (and psychology is not without issues when it comes to universalisation) is one that is applicable only to a highly problematic ethical framework – utilitarianism.

    My implication was that the choice which remains is a simple maximization problem (I mentioned that above but I wasn’t clear down here). The question of ought for ethics, philosophy or whatever else becomes just that. So you can have an ethics system which says we should try to be happy or an ethics system that says we should be unhappy, but the rest is determined by empirical results obtained through science. It turns out that the empirical “is” is the greater part of “ought” no matter what your system of ethics are. I hope this clears up how 3 follows from 1 and 2.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I’ll take issue with you on this one – happiness is not something which may be reduced to a metric. A happy Marxist for example would be unhappy in the same economic conditions in which a Thatcherite would be happy.

    If science says that they both work equally in making us happy, then the Marxist would be mistaken because he believes that one is better than the other. If he brought his personal bias in line with scientific findings then he would not have any issues.

    But let’s get this straight: his unhappiness as a Marxist only comes from his opinion that Marxism is better, not because it really is better. So this has nothing to do with scientific findings that tell us that one is better than the other or equal. His unhappiness is caused by him holding unscientific beliefs.

  • Chet

    And the inability to photograph JC’s resurrection produces a serious further problem.

    I actually thought what Haught was trying to say here is a little more interesting than perhaps a lot of you are giving credit for.

    The crucifixion (cruci-fiction?), after all, was not photographed by the simple expedient of photography not yet having been invented. I think what Haught is saying is that that’s not just a matter of historic anti-coincidence; that was God’s plan all along, and should some profane, idolatrous chemist/lens grinder have thrown a monkey wrench into the works and invented the camera a few centuries too early, God would simply have found some other way to render the crucifixion completely unsubstantiated.

    I’m not sure that Haught is proposing that the Thumb of God would have come down and covered the lens, I think he’s just saying that the lack of verifiable record about the most important event in Christian history was on purpose, and that it wouldn’t have unfolded any other way.

    Eh, maybe not that interesting. I’m not yet convinced that it’s as stupid as a lot of you are making it out to be. At least, not any more stupid than most of what the religious say about God, anyway. Regardless, I’m with some of the others above – the central event in Christianity strikes me as just a little too important not to assert it’s historical reality, if you’re going to promote the religion upon which it’s based as real, too.

  • heliobates

    …God would simply have found some other way to render the crucifixion completely unsubstantiated.

    The triumph of empiricism and methodological naturalism is a conundrum that apologists cannot answer directly. Pretending that there are other ways of knowing that an empirical claim is “true” is a blatant refusal to meet the atheists/materialists on open ground; much better to build a castle of “meaning”, then make approving noises and compliment the emperor on his wardrobe.

    It’s a kind of cargo cult rationality. Haught, Craig and other famous apologists—heck throw Plantinga in there for good measure—build wooden structures that mimic the appearance of rationality and logic and then act as if the worship of them somehow imbues them with the essence of rationality and logic.

    2,000 years later, they’re still waiting for the cargo flights to arrive.

  • Chet

    That’s well-put, H.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Hey don’t make fun of the cargo cults! They’ve only been waiting for their savior for 70 years. Christians have been waiting for 2,000.

    I love cargo cults! When I’m at work (software engineering) and my manager is talking to me about development process, I fantasize about living on one of these little islands. And I’m a former Marine, so I’ve got the tattoos and the uniforms… hey maybe I could be their savior!

  • Arkhitekt

    As regards bbk’s arguments about a moral system…

    You seem to assume that morality is about making people happy and that moral systems are attempts at codifying what we should do to maximise happiness.

    Whether this is true or not, this is a seriously contentious claim! Even if psychology could tell us just what mental states a person would approve of or desire and just how these states could be achieved – it is all still perfectly open for debate which of these states, if any, constitute happiness, whether we should pursue happiness, and if so, whose happiness should be pursued and what means are appropriate for obtaining it and so on and so forth.

    Psychology, and the same goes for any science, gives us no action guidance until it is supplemented by philosophical views and as Brit-nontheist suggests, you are adopting the philosophical position of utilitarianism for this purpose.

  • Brit-nontheist

    bbk:

    It turns out that the empirical “is” is the greater part of “ought” no matter what your system of ethics are. I hope this clears up how 3 follows from 1 and 2.

    Again, only if you assume ethics as always-already utilitarian, which is not a supportable assunmption, but simply your choice of a system of ethics.

    bbk:

    If science says that they both work equally in making us happy, then the Marxist would be mistaken because he believes that one is better than the other.

    That’s your political opinion, not fact and it is as well simply a utilitarian metric again (measure by happiness). You’re good at making assertion look like conclusion, but it’s still just your political/ethical preferences that forms the basis for your argument, not science. The first “If” in your sentence is a huge one in any case, and even if it were true, the Marxist would still not be mistaken – he isn’t basing his preference on happiness but social justice.

    bbk:

    If he brought his personal bias in line with scientific findings then he would not have any issues.

    This is your personal bias against Marxism surfacing – I wondered whether my example earlier would be too controversial for a largely American blog.

    bbk:

    But let’s get this straight: his unhappiness as a Marxist only comes from his opinion that Marxism is better, not because it really is better. So this has nothing to do with scientific findings that tell us that one is better than the other or equal. His unhappiness is caused by him holding unscientific beliefs.

    I’ve outlined above why politics isn’t reducible to science in this way. I’m actually surprised by how dogmatic you’re being – I doubt many scientists would sanction the colonisation of politics by science which your argument has as its logical conlcusion.

    Arkhitekt re bbk:

    Even if psychology could tell us just what mental states a person would approve of or desire and just how these states could be achieved – it is all still perfectly open for debate which of these states, if any, constitute happiness, whether we should pursue happiness, and if so, whose happiness should be pursued and what means are appropriate for obtaining it and so on and so forth.

    Indeed – and more damning for utilitarianism as a supposed a priori choice (though not a fatal criticism in and of itself) is that above a measurement of happiness itself, utilitarianism would need to measure happiness against happiness – assuming each type is reducible to each other in order to treat them as comparible units.

  • Chet

    You seem to assume that morality is about making people happy and that moral systems are attempts at codifying what we should do to maximise happiness.

    I’m not sure it’s an assumption. In practice it’s hard to argue that people aren’t motivated largely by a desire to be happy, or to be the least unhappy. Moral systems that make at least some people happy tend to obtain a wide following. Moral systems that result in suffering for all fall by the wayside. It’s not an assumption to propose that the purpose of a moral system is to make people happy; people want to be happy, by definition.

    Again, only if you assume ethics as always-already utilitarian

    “Utilitarianism” is simply philosophy’s attempt to appropriate the reasoning that defeats the purpose of the whole field, in the same way that philosophers attempt to appropriate all other successful knowledge systems, like math and science.

    That’s your political opinion, not fact

    No, the way he sets it up it’s true by definition. If science shows that two political systems are the same, then its insupportable to assert that one is much better than the other.

    This is your personal bias against Marxism surfacing

    LOL! I doubt anybody here is particularly biased against Marxism, except in for far as it’s failed every time it’s been employed on any serious scale. But I think we can probably see how this is going to work – any attempt to disagree with you constitutes a revelation of “bias.”

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I don’t think the dilemmas are quite so stark as they’re being made out to be. What I’m noticing is that even though your objections are valid on a lot of levels, you’re still using the perceived lack of current empirical evidence to draw general conclusions about how it will always be.

    So you’re dismissing what we’re learning in psychology right now a little too much, especially behavioral science. It doesn’t just tell us about what “mental states” exist and how they “feel” inside a brain. It tells us a lot more than that. For example, behavioral science is showing us ever more that some people are just naturally predisposed with a sense of altruism while others with a sense of self interest. What does this say about Humanist or Objectivist ethics, which ignore the empirical evidence and say that there is only one “ought” way to be irregardless of what “is.” Any number of variations of ethical naturalism would simply say hey, deal with the facts buddy.

    The distinction between what is and what ought to be is in and of itself an ethical statement belonging to certain ethics but not others. So I really have a hard time seeing how it’s supposed to be used when a proponent of an ethics that makes this distinction uses it as a critique of another system that doesn’t. But that said, Utilitarianism definitely isn’t the only option, in fact there are so many variations of natural ethics that it’s hard to even talk about them as any one thing. But the idea of natural ethics in general is to try to make the ethics as transparent as possible and rely on empirical evidence to the greatest possible extent.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I’m recuse myself to save myself any further possibility of confusing anyone and refer to this nice post I’ve found about natural ethics. The article is a good discussion of the ought versus is problem and the comment thread is much more interesting than I could hope to carry on by myself.

    http://crookedtimber.org/2003/07/27/bright-morals/

  • heliobates

    Hey don’t make fun of the cargo cults! They’ve only been waiting for their savior for 70 years. Christians have been waiting for 2,000.

    The Pacific Islanders have some 6,000 years of animism as the basis for their thinking. No continuous culture that undergoes an Enlightenment has any excuse for promulgating the same kind of magical thinking.

    Christian theology, j’accuse!

  • mikespeir

    “Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence.”

    Haught’s got it backward. It’s not that we’re looking for “scientific evidence,” it’s that evidence that’s testable–”provable”–is what we call “scientific.” If the word “scientific” rubs him the wrong way, he can just leave it out. It remains that we need evidence of the same kind and quality that he would accept to justify belief in something he considers doubtful.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Um, sorry, but did John Haught just imply that Jesus is a vampire?

    No, no, writerdd, vampires are invisible in mirrors. Gods can only be seen with mirrors…and smoke.

  • http://lamberthml@hughes.net skeptic griggsy

    Make that haughty John F. Haught! He, Alister McGrath and Alvin Platinga are such shallow thinkers!