TIA: response to critique of Chapter III

Kelly entitled her critique The Case Against Science?, but she appears to be struggling more and more here. Can she possibly summon the intellectual stamina to respond once the larger caliber shells begin falling in Chapter IV? One begins to wonder….

Vox Day seems to have a proclivity towards using odd anecdotal evidence gleaned from the writings of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens in order to formulate his arguments against atheism, and he continues in the same vein in chapter three. In short order, we discover that “New Atheists” harbor outright hatred for religion and that we “science fetishists” believe that science “dictates” human behavior, rather than merely describing or explaining it.

Kelly says “odd anecdotal evidence”, I say “the foundation of the central thesis of Sam Harris’s book”. Considering that without the Extinction Equation, his entire rationale for the desirability of the end of faith disappears, I’m quite confident that the weight of the evidence is in favor of my position. This chapter isn’t an argument against atheism, it is an argument against the nonsensical and hypocritical way that many people, including atheists, tend to fetishize science. It is essentially one giant reductio ad absurdum, examining the other factor in Sam Harris’s Extinction Equation and judging it by the same standards he applies to Faith.

It is humorous to see Vox attempt to argue that science, not religion, has outlived its usefulness to humanity—a reference to Daniel Dennett’s theory in Breaking the Spell. There are thousands of phenomena that have yet to be explained thoroughly, countless cures for illnesses, and an innumerable amount of problems that can only be solved through the use of science. Ironically, Vox practically contradicts his personal beliefs by claiming that humanity has survived “millenia of religious belief,” but due to things like over-population and global warming, as well as the aforementioned development of WMDs, we may not survive a mere four centuries of science. (Four? He later claims it’s really 60 years.) Considering that the overwhelming majority of scientific advancements have been positive and improved our quality of life, and there is still much work to be done, this argument is not tenable in any way, not to mention that Vox doesn’t even believe that global warming is occurring. (nb: He does attempt to semi-dodge by adding the disclaimer, “If the prophets of…are correct,” but I find that to be borderline dishonesty considering his personal opinion on the matter. Vox is spinning this with centrifugal force.)

No, what’s humorous is that Kelly apparently still doesn’t realize that my global warming skepticism is not dishonest but entirely justified; science has demonstrated quite clearly that global warming is not occurring and has not been occurring for the last ten years. It’s always interesting to see how atheists cling to scientific evidence as some sort of holy grail until it turns against them. Kelly also evades the entire point of my argument. Is humanity in danger or is it not? If it is not in danger, then religion is at worst harmless. If it is in danger, are those threats the result of Man’s possession of the scientific method or not? Kelly also seems to miss the obvious fact that no amount of fabulous and positive scientific advances can possibly outweigh a single negative advancement that wipes out the human race; she never even mentions the multiply-by-zero factor that I mentioned in this chapter. But keep in mind her implied assertion that science is responsible for these improvements in the quality of life, I shall be bringing it up later.

To illustrate his point, he opens up the chapter with a quote from Sam Harris that seems to acknowledge the danger posed by some of these scientific advancements insofar as it gives those with no fear of death (ie—the religious folks who believe that this is merely the prequel to their “real” life in heaven) the ability to destroy all of humanity to fulfill their destiny, whatever they feel that may be. Mutually assured destruction is merely hastening the grand finale of god’s plan for our existence and leaves our supernatural dictator to sort the wheat from the chaff. From that perspective, it almost seems like a good idea. I have no idea what this has to do with Harris’ “Enlightenment utopianism” or the argument that religions have never created an atomic bomb or a carbon-producing, petroleum-guzzling automobile. Religion has also never created a defibrillator or an antibiotic. Why would it? It has absolutely nothing to say about technology of any sort, other than when it is referred to as being evil in some way. It seems that Vox is really grasping at straws here. It’s as if he has created a false dichotomy of the vilification of science and the justification of religion. They are, and should be, completely separate issues. One of the biggest issues that atheists have with religion is the refusal to butt out of science. Science is not the opposite of religion, nor is it a religion. It is a method of explaining facts and observations and the world in which we live—at least to the best of our ability given our limited knowledge at any one point. (Think Descartes in Meditations regarding action without perfect knowledge.) Of course, it’s not as if the five major religions listed by Vox, which oddly excludes Judaism, have not had weapons—the stone and the machete are still popular in some Middle Eastern countries, and that is certainly more painful and torturous than being shot or nuked.

Kelly outright admits that she has missed the point, then goes on to fail to grasp the essential truth of science. (Although she inexplicably manages to note it later.) As atheist scientists from Richard Fenynman to Richard Dawkins have pointed out, science is value neutral. Either all scientific knowledge should be pursued without limitation or religion is one of the many limiting factors which can reasonably be used to guide the direction in which the scientific method is applied by Mankind. I’d be interested to know Kelly’s position, certainly Daniel Dennett and I appear to generally agree that the unlimited pursuit of scientific knowledge is a fool’s game likely to end in disaster. I don’t know why Kelly would think it is odd that a religion practiced by an insignificant fraction of the global population should be excluded from the five religions deemed to be major according to their number of adherents. Ah yes, as the famous plastic philosopher once noted, math is hard!

His ultimate conclusion here is that the real danger is science, not faith. He misses the point that religious belief provides the impetus to use that technology. Not to sound like an NRA spokesman, but weapons don’t kill people: People kill people. Overpopulation, pollution, and advanced weaponry are caused in part by science, but not in the nefarious way that Vox seems to imply. The detrimental effects seen in the post-Industrial Revolution era were both created by science and discovered by science. Hopefully, they will also be solved or at least diminished by science. Abandoning science is certainly not the solution, not to mention the fact that I don’t think anybody, Vox included, wants to go back to the era of plagues, premature mortality, and endless manual labor just to survive. If you do, have fun eating tree bark.

It depends. I think most people would rather eat tree bark and work endless manual labor than perish in nuclear fire or in an outbreak of bioengineered smallpox. Kelly is dancing around the existence of the dangers; she’s rather like a man standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in his hand, arguing his innocence due to a lack of motive. Motive is not the sole factor in determining guilt for a crime, as the conventional formula is Motive, Means and Opportunity. One cannot use that which does not exi
st, therefore the existence of the threat stems primarily from the existence of the means. And of course, as I subsequently show in later chapters, religion is far from the only motive to make use of the more lethal fruits of science.

Vox attributes the “responsibility” for the development of advanced weapons to science. How can science be responsible for anything at all? It is a method, a discipline with no agenda and no ability to do anything for which it could be held responsible. Would it not be the specific people who utilized science in order to formulate the things that Vox considers detrimental? What he does here would be akin to blaming highways for the criminals who use them to escape from police, despite the fact that the vast majority of drivers are on their way to some mundane job. I assert that Vox either misunderstands the meaning of the word “cause” or is just padding his argument with spurious claims.

Kelly just wrote that science caused – at least in part – overpopulation, pollution, and advanced weaponry. But it can’t be held responsible for anything at all? Shake it, baby! This is the inevitable dance performed by atheists whenever science is criticized in exactly the same terms as religion. How, one might as easily ask, can RELIGION be held responsible for anything at all? As is usually the case, Kelly is conflating the concept of moral responsibility with the concept of a causal factor. Her analogy is a poor one, a better one would be to point out that the existence of automobiles causes car accidents. She also very foolishly questions my grasp of the word “cause” when a quick glance at the dictionary would have shown her that she is ignoring the first definition provided in favor of the second.

1. a person or thing that acts, happens, or exists in such a way that some specific thing happens as a result;
2. the reason or motive for some human action

Science is the thing that exists in such a way that some specific negative effects happen as a result. It is therefore a cause of the very ills that both Kelly and I recognize. This is basic English. And she continually fails to grasp the obvious logic that if science cannot be considered responsible for anything she considers negative, it cannot be considered responsible for anything that she considers positive either. This failure permeates her entire critique.

He does attempt to rebut the impending criticisms, some of which are used here, but I find that his analogies are inaccurate. Cigarettes don’t cause cancer if you don’t smoke them, so once again, the onus of responsibility lies with the person making the choice to smoke. Inanimate objects, material or immaterial, cannot cogitate and are only tools used by people. Some people may use pencils to stab people—is the pencil responsible? We can even flip this argument around and say that since religion causes or has caused some negative events, then religion itself is responsible and no amount of good makes up for those atrocities. Vox will argue here that the real danger lies in mutually assured destruction, which no amount of faith is going to cause. That’s true enough on the surface, but what if that faith is the motivation to use such a weapon? Belief in an afterlife of perfection and bliss doesn’t tend to make one prize their, or anybody else’s, time here on earth. If science is responsible for the negative repercussions of technology, then religion should be held to the same scrutiny, and thus his argument that religion doesn’t cause violence is moot.

Her argument would seem to shred the concept of secondhand smoke, now, wouldn’t it? More importantly, cigarettes don’t cause cancer if they don’t exist. Again, she fails to graps the difference between moral responsibility and existential threat. The fact that a cliff cannot be morally responsible for anything that falls off it doesn’t make it any less of a danger.

Vox argues that adherents of a religion should not be blamed for the actions of other, more radical, believers if we insist that all scientists should not be held accountable for the actions of a fringe minority. Again, this seems to make sense, but the fundamental difference between science and religion is that a scientific worldview does not endorse any particular activities—it is not a set of proscriptions and laws upon which your eternal soul depends. His assertion that individual believers are held accountable for the actions of other believers is inaccurate—it’s not the other believers, it’s the belief system. There are no threats of hell or promises of heaven for certain behaviors inherent in science—only the temporal consequences of the justice system. The only way that religion can be viewed as not directly inciting violence is by claiming that the texts upon which a religion is based are allegorical or outdated. All throughout the bible and the koran, violence is encouraged and even demanded. The whole basis for christianity is that god has some kind of bloodlust because of the evil system which he designed that required first animal sacrifice, and finally human sacrifice. We are all deserving of death from the moment of our births (maybe even conception since their argument is that blastocysts are human beings) and without Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice, we would all go to hell to be tormented for eternity. Sounds like good wholesome family values.

Kelly is unclear whether she is arguing that one believer should be held responsible for the actions of another believer or not. Harris, of course, argues that they are. I’d like some clarification from her on this. Of course, based on her earlier arguments, a belief system cannot be responsible for anything. She’s arguing herself into knots.

If the scriptures of any religion are inaccurate or outdated, then one must admit that their god is not omnipotent or omniscient. One of them has to go. Either he couldn’t ensure their transmission without error, or he was just wrong about what was going to happen. If they are outdated, then god cannot be eternally existent as there would be no moment at which his commands or desires would expire. The bible recounts many examples of god changing his mind, (think Abraham and Lot, for example) but such behavior would be impossible for a being that exists outside of time and is unchanging, which leads us right back to omnipotence and omniscience. The whole anthropomorphized omnimax creator being is a concept so absurd that even those who believe in it cannot explain it or agree upon its foundational attributes. That should be a clue as to its veracity.

This has nothing to do with the case against science. Moreover, I deal with precisely this point in a later chapter. Short answer: the Biblical God is probably not omniscient as He does not claim to be in His Word, various dogmas making claims on His behalf notwithstanding.

That makes it extremely ironic that soon after the aforementioned defense, Vox claims that it is better in some instances for humans to remain ignorant of certain things to prevent the damage they may cause. He says, “I am merely pointing out that the evidence suggests that in some circumstances, ignorance may be preferable to knowledge, especially partial knowledge imperfectly understood and enthusiastically embraced too soon.” (p. 50) A better description of religious belief is rarely uttered, although his intent was to disparage science. We would be much better off without the so-called “knowledge” of religion and imaginary sky-daddys. Certainly, the words of Feynman and Dawkins on pages fifty-two to fifty-three are indeed true—science gives one the power to do good and evil. What one chooses to do with it is not the fault of the method by which it was developed. The designers of the first automobile didn’t know about carbon dioxide and pollution resulting in potentially catastrophic global warming. Should they be blamed? Even Henry Ford, who ma
de the mass production of automobiles possible, had no idea what the impact would be. Unfortunately, we just can’t see into the future. It’s like pharmaceutical development—a small percentage of people may have adverse effects, but if it is beneficial to most, then the risk is worth taking. If it is no more effective than a placebo but still has adverse effects, then there is nothing redeeming about it and it should be eliminated.

Kelly is still hung up on blame and not on practical threats. There’s nothing ironic about either statement, Kelly doesn’t understand the issues well enough to recognize that. She is also blissfully unaware of the obvious fact that because science is value neutral, religion not only has a right but a duty to “butt in” to how science is utilized. How, one wonders, does she think Mankind is to decide to make use of a value-free method without applying values from various sources? As for effectiveness, there is no shortage of scientific evidence demonstrating that religion is empirically better for an individual than atheism; by Kelly’s own logic atheism should be eliminated. Now, THAT is ironic.

Vox returns to the Harris argument that science and faith produce a toxic concoction which may eradicate humanity and claims that Harris’ logic is flawed because the real danger is science itself. I think that Vox is missing the point that both components are necessary and the removal of one eliminates, or at least reduces, the danger of the other. Again, if religion is the impetus behind the use of a weapon, even if only insofar as the person who is utilizing it feels assured that a better life awaits in eternity, like a suicide bomber, then religion is to blame for the unjustified use of that which was scientifically developed. Given that science has, in a very short time period, done more good for humanity than religion has in thousands of years, and that the negative effects do not outweigh the positive, we can conclude that it is a worthy endeavor. Religion, on the other hand, has done what? There are a few soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and that’s great, but atheists do that as well. A recent study showed that non-religious physicians were more likely to treat the under-served and impoverished than their christian counterparts. There are missions in other countries, but what good is building a church in Guatemala when people are starving? Is proselytizing to an African woman going to save her child from Kwashiorkor’s disease (a malnutrition related and fatal ailment)? Meanwhile, we have killing in the name of religion, child molestation due to the repressed sexuality forced upon Catholic priests, suicide bombers killing people everyday, and catastrophic events such as 9/11 which kill thousands. Oh, wait, that must have been the fault of the Wright brothers and others who laid the foundation for modern airplanes. One must conclude that an individual’s personal comfort derived from religion is not enough benefit to make up for all of the detrimental effects. Religion should be recalled.

Kelly goes completely off the deep end here, since religion is manifestly not a necessary component of many of the dangers currently posed by science. Whether CERN melts the earth or bioweapons escape the lab or Chinese factories cause the atmosphere to turn the planet into an overheated desert, religion has nothing to do with it. Kelly provides no evidence of religion’s detrimental effects – for which she previously argued it can’t be held responsible for anyhow, remember – and completely ignores the many positive ones that have been exhaustively chonicled everywhere from New Scientist magazine to Reader’s Digest. Her argument smacks of an increasing desperation as she attempts to change the subject; what do child-molesting Catholic priests have to do with the potential threat that science poses mankind? And are they really any more sexually repressed than the public school employees who molest children at a higher rate than the priests ever did?

Vox has a few examples of how religion supposedly doesn’t subvert science, which we all know is untrue. Just the idea that believing things based on faith without knowledge is virtuous is an abhorrent concept that is taught to children all over the world. He does the stem-cell bit, which I’m not even touching because this would be another three pages if I did. Interestingly, he claims that science forms the basis for a system of ethics, which is absolutely ridiculous. A scientist could be a utilitarian, a hedonist, a determinist, a humanist, an anything-ist—science has no fundamental ethical or philosophical worldview. Science is a methodology. Yes, it can influence people and the decisions they make, but that doesn’t make it a religion. Vox Day also doesn’t seem to realize that statistics are meaningless out of their context, and the reason why the US (which is NOT a christian nation) produces more scientific output than France, which he claims as the most atheistic country, but I don’t know where he’s getting that data from, is because we have more money. Shocking, I know. I wonder how much of that scientific output is from his brothers in christ as they develop more sophisticated weaponry.

Now she’s banging on the table about the statistics without knowing the first thing about them or the context in which they are cited. Hopeless. And, of course, since she knows nothing of economics, she doesn’t realize that the USA is not the wealthiest country in the world. Wealth… that’s why Lichtenstein and Norway produce the most science per capita, right?

Science has at times been slow to adopt new theories. Vox uses the example of antibiotics, and there are more, such as hand-washing preventing childbed fever, which killed thousands of women after giving birth soon after that process was institutionalized. Generally, this is because the new idea or product must be proven to work. We have antibiotics now and we know all about germs and hand-washing, so it is apparent that the scientific community relented. Meanwhile, some religions still cling to creationism, whether literally or loosely interpreted, and they have historically balked at every scientific discovery since heliocentrism until it is so well established that they look silly. Then they just re-interpret their obscure ancient myths to fit the new data and make ludicrous claims like Mohammed knew about atoms. The push to clothe creation in science and insert it in schools is a travesty. It’s bad enough that people choose to teach their children fairy tales and to claim certainty where there is none. Religion has, and will continue to, dumb us down, as it makes us complacent participants in some grand play in which we are all just marionettes anyway.

Kelly should speak for herself. Religion clearly hasn’t dumbed me down; since she’s an atheist, I don’t know what her excuse might be. The point, which she again managed to miss, is that the history of science demonstrates that it is scientists who have stood in the way of science to a greater degree than priests and popes ever have. Numerous books have been written by generally pro-science individuals about this problem, irrelevant complaints about intelligent design don’t refute or even weaken the very powerful case against science when it is examined in the same light that is much more often turned on religion.