The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is a vocal critic of “New Atheism” and of scientism. He has recently written a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy analysing “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”. Parts are interesting and insightful, though unfortunately at times it strays into sneering, rather than disagreeing with and arguing against people. As a proponent of both “new” atheism and scientism I’m writing this response.
Pigliucci states that the defining characteristics of “New Atheism” (a term coined by the media, by the way, not by the “New Atheists” themselves) are, first, popularity (hurrah!), and, second, that: “the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more force-fully on science than on philosophy”. This is perceptive, and indeed some New Atheists have been scornful of philosophy.
Pigliucci remarks on the “scientistic turn” of the atheist movement, and offers:
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.
The second of these definitions is close to the mark, though I’d phrase it rather that all “human knowledge and understanding” is ultimately empirical, that there are no known demarkation lines where rules of evidence and reason stop applying, and that we can call this evidence- and reason-based exploration of empirical reality “science”. Thus to the extent that philosophy or any other discipline produces well-founded answers it is part of the same seamless ensemble of knowledge called “science”.
Pigliucci is right that, whereas in the past the champions of atheism were usually philosophers (Hume, D’Holbach, Russell, Ayer, etc), the New Atheists are more often scientists. Philosophers have a tendency to denigrate scientists as being philosophically unsophisticated, which is partly true and partly unfair, and also partly reciprocated: many scientists share the sentiment of Richard Feynman who explained that he didn’t care whether his son wanted to become a scientist, or what job he ended up doing, so long as he was happy, “but they always manage to get back at you, my son wants to become a goddamn philosopher!”.
Thus Pigliucci says that:
Dawkins’s The God Delusion … has been criticized on different grounds, ranging from a failure to engage with serious theology (assuming there is such thing) or at least philosophy of religion, to caricaturing its target into a hardly recognizable straw man, to eschewing counter-criticism aimed at highlighting the carnage that has historically been brought about by secular-atheistic regimes during the twentieth century.
The phrase “failure to engage with serious theology (assuming there is such thing)” is interesting wording. Is Pigliucci merely reporting that such criticisms have been made, or does he want to imply that they have merit? He seems to realise that there is no “serious theology” that is actually based on evidence, and thus that a failure to engage with it is not a fault, yet still wants to fault Dawkins anyhow. As for caricaturing its target, well, the sort of popular religion addressed in The God Delusion is indeed very popular and influential, and thus entirely fair game.
Further, it is Pigliucci who strawmans here by suggesting that the “secular-atheistic regimes” that wrought carnage in the twentieth century were somehow products of atheism/secularism, when they weren’t, they were products of totalitarian communism (with atheism being a by-product of their intolerance for any alternative power base, such as religion).
Pigliucci lays into The God Delusion at length. He remarks that much of it rehashes well-known objections to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god, saying that they are not new (did anyone claim that they were?). He complains that such objections don’t hold against “rarefied, deistic” gods (but then those are hardly the gods of the politically influential religions that were Dawkins’s target). Then he complains that Dawkins didn’t include the Euthyphro dilemma in a discussion of morality, suggesting that he must be “unaware” of it and saying that this “shows most clearly [Dawkins’s] limitations”.
Or perhaps Dawkins simply didn’t choose to include it? It’s amazing how many complaints against The God Delusion amount to: “it’s not the book that I would have written”, said by authors who don’t sell a hundredth of the books that Dawkins does! Yes, The God Delusion was a popular-level work aiming to persuade the populace, not a technical, academic treatise full of arcane philosophy. But there were already plenty of the latter, and as a simple empirical fact such works are not widely read, however good, and thus not that effective at persuading people.
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.
Well, I disagree, and so do many of the New Atheists. I’ve written about that in “Science can deal with the supernatural”, so won’t rehash the whole argument here. In brief, science can indeed deal with concepts that are vague and only partially defined; indeed a lot of scientific concepts are like that at the cutting edge.
To end the bashing of The God Delusion Pigliucci states that it is “historically badly informed polemic”, and laments:
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.
Do they? Pigliucci gives no quote from Dawkins or his supporters saying that. Here is what Dawkins actually said on the topic in a recent interview:
Interviewer: People talk about “new atheism”. Is there something new about it?
Dawkins: No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll.
Note that neither of those notables was a scientist. With that many of Pigliucci’s strawmen simply vanish, though he continues:
Besides the obvious fact that one can genuinely be puzzled by what exactly qualifies [Victor] Stenger (or Dawkins) to authoritatively comment on the straightforward philosophical matters that make up most of their books, the basic problem with Stenger is precisely the same as Dawkins: he treats the “god hypothesis” as if it were formulated precisely and coherently enough to qualify as a scientific hypothesis, which it manifestly isn’t, for the reasons already explained.
This labeling of territory as “philosophical matters” that scientists are unqualified to talk about because they don’t “qualify as a scientific hypothesis” sounds like a turf-war defence. Pigliucci’s assertion of a clear demarkation between philosophy and science doesn’t convince me. If the “god hypothesis” is about the world around us, and if it has any implications for anything that we can observe (even at tenth hand), then it is a scientific hypothesis amenable to science.
I reject his idea that science applies only to hypotheses that are “formulated precisely and coherently enough”. Indeed that idea itself seems philosophically unsound, since the amount of precision and coherence of a hypothesis is a matter of degree, and thus there would be no obvious boundary where science’s methods of evidence and reason stop working, and that means they can be applied to the “god hypothesis”.
I’m also somewhat surprised by Pigliucci’s implication that, while science cannot deal with imprecise and unclear concepts, philosophy can. Pigliucci doesn’t justify this idea, and it seems at odds with the penchant for micro-analysis of language and concepts in a typical philosophy paper.
When Pigliucci turns to Sam Harris, and his book The Moral Landscape, he complains again about a populist style, and Harris’s deliberate avoidance of terms such as “metaethics” and “deontological”, saying that: “This is so mind-boggling that I had to reread it several times”. Pigliucci insists that:
The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato [the Euthyphro dialogue].
Yet, if that is so convincing, why is that, 24 centuries later, so many of the populace are unconvinced? Is there something wrong with Harris trying again with a more popular style, avoiding terms such as “deontological”? Again, the root complaint seems to be that Dawkins and Harris try to talk to a wide audience and sell many more books, whereas Pigliucci implies one should only talk to fellow academics who know what “deontological” means.
Pigliucci also objects to the scientistic use of the word “science”:
If that is the case, if we get to define “science” as any type of rational–empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his), then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says How Science Can Determine Human Values (my emphasis).
This would be a fair complaint, except that defenders of scientism make explicitly clear that that’s how they regard science. “Rational–empirical inquiry into facts” seems to me a very good definition of “science” as defenders of scientism understand the term. The fact that this idea might be novel to a reader isn’t a refutation of it, since the whole point is to argue against the traditional idea that, for example, philosophy and science are distinct and non-overlapping “magesteria”.
Again, Pigliucci argues for the demarkation between science and disciplines such as philosophy and mathematics:
Surely we can agree that the properties of triangles in Euclidean geometry are “facts,” in the sense that nobody who understands Euclidean geometry can opine that the sum of the angles in a triangle is not 180° and get away with it. But we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such facts.
I for one disagree with that argument. We may well use axioms of Euclidean geometry and axioms of logic to arrive at the sum of the angles of a triangle, but where did those axioms come from, what validates them? What tells you that the logical reasoning used is valid? The answer — I assert — is empirical verification.
Pigliucci perhaps regards it as entirely coincidental that, if one were to use a ruler to draw a triangle on a piece of paper, and then measure the angles with a protractor, that the sum would concur with that deduced from mathematical axioms. I don’t see that as any coincidence at all and assert that axiomatic logic and mathematics derive from empirical observation of our universe. As a historical fact, the ideas in Euclid’s Elements derived from drawing on paper using rulers and compasses, and then deducing ideas about the patterns that resulted. Mathematics and logic are essentially distilled empiricism.
Having bashed the New Atheists in turn, Pigliucci addresses his root concern, the “scientism” that he regards as “a bad move for public atheism”. First, he claims that: “Scientism is philosophically unsound” because it lays claim to areas where science does not belong. However, Pigliucci merely asserts the idea of these different magesteria, rather than actually arguing for such divisions as anything more than arbitrary and convenient labels (just as a continent might have names for different geographical regions, though nothing much changes when one steps from one to the other).
But Pigliucci’s objection is to the language:
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. […] One might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly belongs to philosophy. It would be a puerile and useless exercise, and yet it is not far from the attitude prevalent among the New Atheists.
Well yes, one could indeed call science a branch of philosophy. Indeed it was called “natural philosophy” long before Whewell invented the term “science”. Newton’s great book, perhaps the most lauded work in the history of the “hard” sciences, was entitled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
But this isn’t just a “puerile and useless” exercise, there’s a real point: that knowledge is a seamless whole and that the same rules of logic and evidence apply throughout. Whether one calls the ensemble “science” or “philosophy” is mere semantics (though I prefer the former since, I assert, all knowledge is ultimately empirical), the point is that philosophers such as Pigliucci should not dismiss ideas coming from scientists merely on the grounds that science is not philosophy, and should not argue that scientists have nothing to say about “the god hypothesis” merely because that is instead the province of philosophy.
By all means, Professor Pigliucci, bring everything together under the umbrella term “philosophy” if you so wish. Having done so, now produce an argument for why the god hypothesis cannot be addressed by science like any other claim about the natural world, now actually argue for your demarkation lines.
Pigliucci charges the New Atheists 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.
Biology and chemistry are different fields of intellectual endeavour, with their own styles and scope and different concerns, and yet there is a seamless transition between the two. We call it “biochemistry”, and basic ideas of evidence and reason do not change across that transition. Everyone accepts that these fields inform and enrich each other, and that they need to be entirely compatible with each other, meshing seamlessly. No scientist studying the biology of a cell would dismiss an insight deriving from chemistry on the grounds that that is “chemistry” and not “biology” — the way that Pigliucci wants to disqualify the application of science to what he regards as “straightforward philosophical matters” on which scientists have no qualifications to pronounce.
Pigliucci’s worry is this:
What the New Atheists seem to be aiming at is a replacement of philosophy by science, or at the very least a significant demotion of the former with respect to the latter.
In the sense of the assertion that all knowledge is empirical (and that, for example, mathematics derives from empirical reality), yes, everything is subsumed into “science”. But is it really a “demotion” to be a part of that ensemble? Biology is not “demoted” just because it can be considered a product of the outplaying of chemistry, and thus an outplaying of physics.
We still need the clear-thinking and question-asking that the best philosophers have always done, but seeing that as a part of science benefits both science and philosophy. Good philosophy is invaluable, but I suggest that much philosophy has been misguided precisely because it has not seen itself as an aspect of science, and thus has been too far divorced from a grounding in empirical reality. The field of theology can be held up as a ghastly example of what that leads to.
I don’t agree with all of Sam Harris’s take on morality, but I do agree that morals are the natural product of natural animals, and thus can only be understood from a scientific perspective. Way too much philosophical comment on morality gets nowhere because it is not rooted in that fact.
Good philosophers are invaluable, and will never be put out of a job by (other) scientists. Pigliucci rightly lauds many philosophical insights — his example of the Euthyphro dialogue is one of my favourites also. But the way forward for philosophy is to join the scientistic enterprise, as an esteemed and valuable partner.
Pigliucci says we atheists should:
seriously reconsider how [we] think of human knowledge in general, perhaps arching back to the classic concept of “scientia,” the Latin word from which “science” derives, but that has a broader connotation of (rationally arrived at) knowledge. Scientia includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, mathematics, and logic–that is, all the reliable sources of third-person knowledge that humanity has successfully experimented with so far.
Yes exactly, though we usually use the English word “science” rather than the Latin “scientia” from which it derives. We’re not that far apart! It would be helpful, though, if we talked sensibly about this, and tried to avoid the sneering — and that does apply also to New Atheists who see no value in any philosophy.