Monday, January 25, 2016

Myths of Atheists and Skeptics

My feet, at Hockeytown Restaurant in Detroit
Atheist philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has provided a list of myths and bad thinking he finds among fellow atheists and skeptics.

Here are some of my favorites, with which I concur.

Science can answer moral questions. False. Pigliucci writes: "No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless."

Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). False. He writes: "No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue."

Determinism has been established by science. False again, "not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism)."

Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy "according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it."

All religious education is child abuse, period. False, Richard Dawkins! Pigliucci writes: "This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!)."

Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Wrong. "Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults."

What do all of these falsehoods have in common? Pigliucci says they are guilty of:

A. Anti-intellectualism. For example, "when noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner."  "Scientism" is one predominant form of anti-intellectualism; viz., "the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community."

B. The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. MP writes: "Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program."

C. Failure of leadership. "Welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can."

- From Massimo Pigliucci, "The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto"

MP adds some nice advice for conducting civil discourse about important issues.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.