This is just to assure readers that I have not simply abandoned you to discuss amongst yourselves. So many questions have been raised by my last two posts (including a post by Jerry Coyne in response), and I am involved in some things that I need to continue to do — which is why I abandoned choiceindying.com briefly — that I need to reflect upon these questions a bit more seriously. I have to say that I am not the odd man out in respect of the question of scientism, since this has been dealt with by a number of top flight philosophers, and I am not sure the point has been well understood. So, back to the drawing board on that question. We will see what comes out in due course. I do need to say a couple things about Jerry’s response. First, I did not say, nor do I say, that the new atheism has been a failure. This is an important qualification. That does not mean that new atheists are always right, however, and it is worthwhile being self-critical about its achievements as well as about its shortcomings. Another thing that I want to stress is that my characterisation of some arguments against religion in terms of “Such-and-so, ergo Jesus,” is not in any way addressed to Jerry, though, now that he mentions it, he has said comparable things before. But it has been such a widespread characterisation of religious argumentation — sometimes justly so characterised — that it was the form in which it came to me. We can be too simplistic in our responses to religion, and, while it may be that not everyone needs to explore the arguments of philosophical theology in depth, it is something that has been done by many atheists, and this argumentation needs to be better known. What it does show is that sometimes atheist argument is lacking in sophistication, and it is important to know that there is very sophisticated atheist argumentation available, which is why I referred to Martin, Mackie and Nielsen. Flew’s God and Philosophy is also highly recommended. And of course there are many others. While I do not think much of Alvin Plantinga’s arguments, especially his idea of god being properly basic (in his language), it is important, notwithstanding, that atheists be alive to the real arguments of philosophical theology, because, as Flew found out (though I still think he was taken advantage of when he was at his weakest), it is always possible that considerations can arise which may lead one to change one’s mind. It may be thought impossible, since these arguments would not be scientific ones, that such should be the case, but I do still insist that there are realms of knowledge that are not beholden to the scientific method. That is one issue that I need to explore further.
One other thing, before I leave this short post to its own devices, is to point out that, in one instance, Jerry Coyne is simply wrong. Jerry says this:
Well, science can’t tell us what we ought to value, for that’s a subjective judgment. But it can help us determine what we do value, simply by surveying people or examining their behavior.
This still won’t get him to values, however. Indeed, he had just said something about Enlightenment values. Indeed, the answer, he suggests is
science combined with humanism, a humanism that comes from adopting Enlightenment values.
Of course, we know that, were we to examine what people value, many would not necessarily be seen adopting Enlightenment values; and, while I think there are good reasons for adopting Enlightenment values, I do think we need to show that they are to be preferred to other values, religious values, the perfect society as Islam or Christianity envisage it, for example. I think these are things that we can know, in a fairly straightforward sense of knowing that is not at the same time scientific.
I should mention one other thing… (see, this is how things go for me!). Jerry mentions my remarks about the structure provided by the religions, mainly, the national churches of Scandinavia. I say this is something that is an aspect of Scandinavian culture, even when people don’t notice. It’s the background to a whole lot of things that people do, even though it may not be referred to by many people in Scandinavian society. All I am saying — and I want to stress this, lest there be a misunderstanding here — is that I am talking about the socio-cultural background to our activities. It’s a point made by Michel Onfray in his <I>Atheist Manifesto</I>. We don’t get away from the epistemology and ontology of religion simply by giving up our personal belief, because the epistemology and ontology of religion are deeply embedded in most cultures, whether we notice this or not. A completely godless culture is something completely unknown, so at least it is not obvious that the eradication of religion would bring about a better state of things than before. This is something that I hope we would be modest about, since it is really unexplored territory. But with that, I will leave things, and come back to these issues at a later date. I am trying to read through Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West and Said’s Orientalism. Whether this produces anything of value you will just have to wait and see.
Oh yes, and one thing more (added later): I do not speak in terms of “ways of knowing.” That, I think, is the wrong way to frame this issue. There are different methodologies, but these do not constitute ways of knowing. To know something we must be able to provide reasons or evidence for our beliefs. Sometimes the reasoning will be scientific, but at other times we may use different types of reasoning. In morality, for example (and this I understand imperfectly for now), there are ways of reasoning to fairly stable moral conclusions that depend upon providing reasons for action, which may have to take empirical aspects of being human into consideration, but are not determined by that evidence. But this is just a blank cheque for now.