More Thoughts On Scientists In The Public Square

More Thoughts On Scientists In The Public Square August 17, 2009

My previous post today on religious scientists was based on a comment I first made on the blog He Lives in reply to a post there.  Below is a subsequent comment from that blog from “Wandering Internet Commenter” interspersed with my replies to him.

Normative arguments are fun and all, but it never hurt to have at least a small bit of empirical backing to them. You note ‘infamously bad examples of people who bring their faith into the laboratory,’ can you name a few of these examples? Perhaps you’d be able to take Dr. Heddle’s challenge and inform us of how you managed to discern which of the scientists he listed were Christian based on their ‘bad habits of thought’ evident in their work.

The most infamously bad examples of people who bring their faith into the laboratory are creationist scientists who decide in advance that whatever mass of geological indicators there are to the contrary, the earth must be 6,000 years old because they believe (with no good reason) that God told someone that a few thousand years ago.  That’s the habit of taking faith in the Bible as a source of divinely revealed truths into the laboratory and introducing dogmatism there.  Sam Harris has a fine list of Francis Collins assertions of prejudices about the limitations of science and denials of particular pieces of scientific evidence which stem from dogmatic commitments to faith beliefs. And PZ Myes has more criticisms here. And I think that he is terrible at moral philosophy and have critiqued him here and here on this point.  If you’d care to read those posts with my arguments about how Collins has thought badly outside the lab, I’d be delighted to see what you think of them.  But, again, my main point in my previous post was only that even when scientists don’t mix their faith with their science, they’re still not justified in their faith beliefs.  I just made reference to the fact that faith itself is an intellectual vice which represents the opposite of a scientific spirit and would make for bad science wherever it was tried.  If you dispute that, then you just don’t believe that science advanced because of its strict adherence to scientific methods and tests of verifiability, falsifiability, predictive power, unexpected fruitfulness, simplicity, etc. and that the recent couple of centuries of unprecedented explosion of scientific knowledge and technological mastery of the world is sheer coincidence.  The faith-based Middle Ages arguing from authorities and reconciling all their views with the Bible must have just needed more time to discover all this stuff.

If so, it is at least as acceptable and necessary that the religious are allowed to voice their own responses to the atheists–which is precisely what our good host is doing; so far I haven’t heard him demand that Coyne and his fellow ‘New Atheist’ (I dislike the term myself, actually) buddies be silenced in any way.

Well, Mooney, Kirschbaum, and Ruse are arguing exactly that the New Atheists silence themselves lest they ruin science’s acceptance in the public sphere.  So when our good host attacked Coyne it was part of that larger discussion and so I took the chance to stress Coyne’s right to argue about these matters publicly.  Most specifically I was irritated by this quote from the post I was responding to:

nobody gives a whit that Jerry and Richie and Sammy and PZ support evolution—that’s what they are supposed to be doing. Just like James Dobson is supposed to support the gospel. But, like Dobson, they confuse what is good and proper, to teach the fundamentals of what they are (or at least claim to be) passionate about, with what is certainly within their rights but nevertheless unseemly: the culture wars.

I took his acknowledgment of the right of “New Atheists” to be a concession that everyone has freedom of speech.  But his characterization that they should no their limits and stick to supporting evolution less they be “unseemly” engaged in cultural conflict over religion tells me he thinks that these issues of belief are not matters for urgent and passionate public discourse in which atheists from all expertise may and should offer to the public their insights into how their specialize knowledge might illuminate public thinking on these issues.  So, again, I read that as:  “let the church dominate discussions of ‘spiritual’ matters with hegemony and no countervailing dissenting voices in the public sphere because that would ‘unseemly’ violate the sacred separation of non-overlapping magisteria!”

And of course, our host is himself a scientist engaged in these debates, which makes him a hypocrite.

And, worse, he is engaging the public sphere by quite unseemly calling people pinheads and then making facile arguments that because the relationship between science and faith is not a strictly empirically resolvable one that the sophomoric, relativistic viewpoint that  “it’s just an opinion that faith and science don’t mix” follows, with all the connotations of “outside of science you have your beliefs and I have mine, man, and since science cannot settle the disputes, we just have to accept that we see things differently and have different faiths.”  So, while calling people pinheads, he speaks outside of his specialization to wander into epistemology, demanding an empirical argument for what is a normative claim—making it pretty clear he cannot discern the difference between the two.

I don’t suppose you’d insist that scientists are obligated to be as intellectually scrupulous outside the lab as within in matters unrelated to religion as well.

Why wouldn’t I?  Didn’t I just argue that their intellectual scruples should not be left in the lab?  I am a philosopher and I specialize in ethics, I am concerned with scrupulousness in all manners of belief and action, be they matters of inquiry in philosophy, history, social sciences, natural sciences, religion, politics, etc.  I am against irrationalism.  I hold very few philosophical constructive positions with unshakable certainty and on few matters do I have much more than tentative theories.  But I oppose irrationalism on principle and faith in every way that it represents irrationalism.

Richard Dawkins has admitted that his vitriolic attacks against people he doesn’t like, such as President Bush, “have nothing to do with science or the scientific method.”

Good for Richard Dawkins, what does it prove?  He is engaged in public persuasion and he engages with poltiical vitriol.  If he distorts the truth in the process, then he should be embarrassed.  If he makes rationally defensible arguments in a surly way he should be judged as incivil but not intellectually unscrupulous.  We can tease out all these distinctions in assessing political behavior to figure out what are just and unjust means of persuading people of truths in political contexts.  And I will be happy to denounce any number of Richard Dawkins’s actions or even my own where I see that they are ethically questionable—either for failing to be sufficiently honest or failing to uphold principles of charity in debating or public civility, etc. We’re human, we can be criticized for failing to meet ethical standards too.

But, as you go on to admit below, none of that entitles me or any one else are to unjustified beliefs in the political realm or excuses religious scientists who help themselves to unjustified beliefs on Sunday mornings.

His strong beliefs in the immorality of foxhunting apparently come not from reasoned, scientific examination of the issue but from the happy fact that “I was brought up in the country on a farm and throughout my childhood we were passionately against foxhunting and we always refused to allow the hunt to cross the boundaries of the farm.” Yes, yes, this doesn’t prove that Dawkins is wrong, or that theology has any value. But it seems to me that Dawkins–and he’s not the only scientist I could be referring to, either–is as intellectually scrupulous in some matters outside his lab as within. If you’re willing to condemn Dr. Collins, Dr. Heddle, and others like them for failing to be good scientists outside their laboratories because they don’t look at religion rationally, I do hope you’re willing to condemn atheistic scientists like Dr. Dawkins for failing to look at other, secular beliefs and behaviors with a rational, scientific eye.

I do apologize to our host for being a Wandering Internet Commentator with too much time on his hands. Despite the tl; dr nature of this comment, I hope it hasn’t come across as trolling, offensive, or egregiously stupid to anyone.

Dawkins’s own account of how well or badly he formed his views on ethics are irrelevant to me.  Metaethics, ethical theory, and applied ethics are all complicated fields of inquiry with many rich insights to take into account, many of which exceed the vast majority of the population’s specialization.  That includes Dawkins’s since he is a biologist by training and not an ethicist.  So, yes, I take my views on metaethics and ethical theory and applied ethics from my own academic engagement with the specialized texts of these fields.  I take Dawkins’s opinions on biology seriously, I take the insights he suggests might help with ethics seriously, but my stricter formulations of ethical theories also involves consideration of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Korsgaard, Singer, Rawls, Gibbard, McDowell, Solomon, Feinberg, Hare, Ayer, Stevenson, and countless other moral philosophers.  And since I am also a Nietzsche specialist, I also am influenced by major Nietzsche commentators.  And because I care about the relationship between the empirical and the normative, I read a lot of moral psychology, particularly from people like Haidt and Greene.

And based on all of this, I would say that Dawkins’s bases for caring about animals is actually defensible.  I think we can better perceive genuine value or be blinded to it, according to the context of our experiences.  I think there can be influences from our exposure to different situations or modes of engaging the world that affect how well or badly we form ethical judgments.  Dawkins may be more properly morally sensitive for his experience, even if he does not give himself credit for it since he’s primarily trained and habituated in recognizing good scientific arguments rather than good ethics ones.

I wish wholeheartedly that the wonderful work done by philosophers in ethics (and other fields!) was as mainstreamed and having a clarifying effect on the public debate.  My humble blog is my own little pebble trying to make my own little ripple but it would be nice if the major thinkers in the field were more prominent public intellectuals.

But those metaethical debates and the question of how to mainstream them are problems for another day.  To answer your question, yes, I am happy to criticize scientists wherever I can judge they are wrong or that their public arguments outside their specialization are wrong and worthy of refutation.  That does not excuse religious scientists from being challenged for their bad epistemology or for making bad philosophical and theological inferences about what is compatible with scientific knowledge.

For further thoughts on when a scientist’s faith should disqualify him or her from scientific institutional authority.

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