The past 10 years has witnessed the rise of New Atheism, particularly in the US and the UK, with leaders who write best-selling books and attract a vociferous following. No doubt the sociologists of science will come up with some interesting things to say about this movement, but it is highly significant that the New Atheists have created deep divisions within their own intellectual community. The latest salvo expressing discontent has been fired by Massimo Pigliucci, evolutionary biologist, philosopher of science and advocate of atheism. In an academic paper, Pigliucci argues that the term "new" does not have anything to do with the public advocacy of atheism. Nor is there novelty in the arguments they use to advance their atheistic claims. However, Pigliucci is able to identify two distinctive characteristics of the New Atheists:
"[The first] is to be found in the indisputably popular character of the movement. All books produced by the chief New Atheists [. . .] have been worldwide best sellers, in the case of Dawkins's God Delusion, for instance, remaining for a whopping 51 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. While previous volumes criticizing religion had received wide popular reception (especially the classic critique of Christianity by Bertrand Russell), nothing like that had happened before in the annals of Western literature. [. . .]
[Secondly, W]hat I see as a clear, and truly novel, though not at all positive, "scientistic" turn that it marks for atheism in general. [. . .] [We will] explore some examples of what I term the "scientistic turn" that has characterized some (but not all) New Atheist writers (and most of their supporters, from what one can glean from the relevant social networks)." (p.144)
New atheists say they trust science, but they redefine science so it cannot lead them to recognise design in nature. (Source here)
It is the second of these characteristics that elicits protestation from Pigliucci: the New Atheists are advancing ideas that call for a firm rebuttal. There is a strong tendency for these new leaders to be rather disparaging of philosophical arguments and base their polemics on the claims that science is the exclusive route to knowledge and that the findings of science supports the atheist position. According to Pigliucci, their approach necessitates a re-defining of science, and he argues that the new definition is indistinguishable from scientism.
"The New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. Indeed, a good number of New Atheists (the notable exception being, of course, Daniel Dennett) is on record explicitly belittling philosophy as a source of knowledge or insight. Dawkins says that the "God hypothesis" should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; Stenger explicitly - in the very subtitle of his book - states that "Science shows that God does not exist" (my emphasis); and Harris later on writes a whole book in which he pointedly ignores two and a half millennia of moral philosophy in an attempt to convince his readers that moral questions are best answered by science [. . .]. All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding." (p. 144)
The paper discusses a great diversity of issues, but we shall note only comments relating to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Two of the issues identified are: his discussion of morality without gods, and his tackling of "the god hypothesis" to show that science-based evidence allows the hypothesis to be rejected. Regarding morality without gods, Pigliucci is unimpressed. Not only does Dawkins pass over the Greek philosophers, he does not interact with more contemporary secular thinkers who have contributed to this issue. Pigliucci draws attention to the Euthyphro dilemma, which stimulates the question: Is an action moral because the gods decree it, or do the gods decree it because it is moral? Plato and Aristotle came to the view that morality takes precedent over divinity. Atheists make a distinction between religion and morality and argue that morality should not be based in the will of a god.
"When it comes to the issue of why being moral, however, Dawkins shows most clearly his limitations. For instance, he seems to be unaware of what many philosophers consider by far the most powerful argument in favor of the idea that gods and morality are entirely logically independent issues: the so-called Euthyphro dilemma posed by Plato in the homonymous dialogue from 24 centuries ago." (p.150)
What Pigliucci might have noted is that the Dawkins promotes the distinction between religion and morality even though he does not use philosophical arguments to justify it. This is why he (and new atheists generally) make frequent references to Old Testament practices, such as slaying enemies and keeping slaves, to show that our sense of morality is such that we would not want to worship the Old Testament God even if he exists. Pigliucci wants to rest his case on the arguments made by secularist moral philosophers; Dawkins wants to rest his case on a scientific assessment of what is morally right; but neither of them engage with the responses of Christian moral philosophers to the Euthyphro dilemma and the secularists, so resting their case appears somewhat premature. (For a brief response, see here. For some discussion, see here).
Turning to "the god hypothesis", Pigliucci acknowledges that Dawkins uses a scientific approach to "make ideas like a young earth, or the slightly more sophisticated concept of "irreducible complexity" championed by Intelligent Design proponents, clearly untenable". Whilst this smacks of spin to members of those groups, the essential point is that there are aspects of YEC and ID that can be addressed using the tools of science. But is the existence of God amenable to scientific investigation? Can God ever be the subject of a scientific hypothesis? Pigliucci thinks not.
"The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a "hypothesis" in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough." (p.148)
No doubt, this challenge to Dawkins' thinking could be discussed further. It might make the point clearer if it was said that science deals with the behaviour of material things, and God is not material - but the Creator of material things. So science cannot put God under the microscope, nor can experiments be devised to test whether he exists. However, this conflicts with the premise of the new atheists that science is the only route to knowledge. Pigliucci draws together his objections to Dawkins' scientism with these words:
"To recap, then, what is considered to be perhaps the quintessential text of the New Atheism is an odd mishmash of scientific speculation (on the origins of religion), historically badly informed polemic, and rehashing of philosophical arguments. Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods." (p.148)
The following quotes summarise the conclusions about scientism. They have already antagonised some of the new atheists and Pigliucci responds to their criticisms here. But more generally, these conclusions are relevant to all who have a stake in the scientific enterprise.
"1. Scientism is philosophically unsound. This is because a scientistic attitude is one of unduly expanding the reach of science into areas where either it does not belong [. . .] or it can only play a supportive role. [. . .] What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with "facts", loosely conceived. So broadened, the concept of science loses meaning and it becomes indistinguishable from just about any other human activity." (p.151)
"2. Scientism does a disservice to science. Despite representing a strong attempt to expand the intellectual territory, as well as prestige, of science, I think that scientism is detrimental to science in at least two ways: internally to the discipline itself, because it represents a misunderstanding of what science is and how it works, which is unlikely to serve well either practicing scientists or graduate students as scientists-in-training; externally because it has the potential of undermining public understanding and damaging the reputation of science." (p.152)
"3. Scientism does a disservice to atheism. Finally, I maintain that a scientistic turn does not do much good to atheism as a serious philosophical position to begin with, contra the obvious explicit belief of many if not all of the New Atheists." (p.152)
As well as drawing attention to the arguments presented in this paper, there are two issues worthy of highlighting here. The first has reference to the place of philosophy in developing an informed mind and a mature judgment. It is noticeable how the scientistic rejection of philosophy is gaining ground. In 2010, Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". A year ago, Lewis Wolpert took the side of scientism when discussing Hawking's views (video here). It is to science leaders like these that Pigliucci's essay is directly relevant. He boldly charges them with anti-intellectualism, because their ideology has made them closed minded about the work of others ploughing in different fields.
"Moreover, it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists (except for the professional philosophers among them) pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field. If they had, they would have no trouble recognizing philosophy as a distinct (and, I maintain, useful) academic discipline from science: read side by side, science and philosophy papers have precious little to do with each other, in terms not just of style, but of structure, scope, and range of concerns. I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor." (p.152)
The second issue is one where I consider Pigliucci to have underplayed the influence of Darwinism on the rise of atheism. In presenting a historical perspective on atheism, the intellectual leaders are identified as philosophers. This is indicated in the following sentence:
"Even in the twentieth century, that is, before the early twenty-first century advent of New Atheism, the ball was still firmly in the philosophical park when it came to defense of or apologia for atheism: just consider the writings of A. J. Ayer, John Dewey, and, naturally, Bertrand Russell." (p.146)
The impact of Darwin's theory on the acceptance of atheism needs a more thorough discussion than is provided in the paper. Pigliucci does acknowledge that science is not irrelevant to atheism.
"On the contrary, atheism makes increasingly more sense the more science succeeds in explaining the nature of the world in naturalistic terms. After all, Hume's arguments against intelligent design were devastating, but he lacked an alternative explanation for the appearance of design in nature, and it was Darwin that provided it. Indeed, I think the Hume - Darwin joint dispatching of ID is an excellent example of how naturalism - qua philosophical position - is the result of the inextricable link between sound philosophy and good science." (p.152-3)
This quote refers to naturalism rather than atheism, and this is to be commended. Before Darwin, we had the Enlightenment, whereby naturalism replaced Christian Theism as the philosophical stance of scientists. Naturalism led to a wave of religious scepticism - but this was expressed within a Deistic worldview. Most of the Enlightenment scholars were still impressed by the pervasive evidences of design and they reconciled this with naturalism by allowing a creative act at the beginning. However, Darwinism brought immense changes - not to the naturalistic philosophy of science (which was already widespread), but in sweeping away Deism (which was perceived as a god-of-the-gaps blunder). Darwinism then made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist, which is what has set Dawkins on his journey to new atheism.
Pigliucci rightly points out that science cannot be extended to cover all aspects of knowledge. However, in calling for a tighter definition of science, he needs to give greater emphasis to the philosophical underpinnings of science. A science that presumes naturalism MUST necessarily end up as an atheistic science. It fails as science because this approach presumes what it then claims science has confirmed. This means that naturalistic science is not objective and is not able to follow the evidence wherever it leads. For example, this is why the advocates of abiogenesis focus their efforts on chemical evolution, as this is the only avenue that naturalistic science permits researchers to follow. Consequently, the information characteristics of life are underplayed and they hope for information to arise by currently unknown emergent processes. The evidence however, points to complex specified information being fundamental to life, which naturalistic science cannot concede. By contrast, theistic science does not prescribe or predetermine outcomes, but it can handle natural processes as well as recognise intelligent agency. We will make progress when multiple working hypotheses can be tested without prescribing philosophical presuppositions for science. This is where education should be heading, not enforcing naturalism as the essence of science.
New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement
Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 37 (1):142-153 (2013)
Abstract: The so-called "New Atheism" is a relatively well-defined, very recent, still unfolding cultural phenomenon with import for public understanding of both science and philosophy. Arguably, the opening salvo of the New Atheists was The End of Faith by Sam Harris, published in 2004, followed in rapid succession by a number of other titles penned by Harris himself, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens.
Pigliucci, P. On Coyne, Harris, and PZ (with thanks to Dennett), Rationally Speaking (5 February 2014)
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