2010-09-10

I've got a bad habit

Often, I state my ideas as if I'd invented them, and only afterwards do I realize that I'm neither the first nor the most eloquent person to arrive at the same conclusions. My lack of prior research (call me a shoot-first academic outlaw if you like) for my previous post on this blog once again became painfully evident as only days later I came across a couple of articles--by writers more educated than myself--discussing the exact same points, among others.

I've been reading whatever internet "literature" I could find on topics relating to my recent spate of posts on the politics of atheism, and I've come across a few worthwhile blogs. One of the first blogs that caught my eye was Atheism Analyzed, which is written by a self-proclaimed former atheist. The statements of purpose found in the blog header and in the margins seem to align nicely with my own, but in the first few articles I read I found more antagonistic and rhetorical jargon than interesting thought. In fact, one article attempts to dismantle the arguments presented in a blog post by Massimo Pigliucci but fails miserably. Between overgeneralizations and false accusations, the anonymous author of Atheism Analyzed ("Stan") misreads quotes taken from Pigliucci's post and incorrectly describes Pigliucci's conclusions in his own words. This was obvious even before I read the original article. Given that Atheism Analyzed--which reads more like anti-Big Science propaganda than anything else--took Pigliucci's words out of context, I find it amusing that the author didn't manage to make me doubt Pigliucci even for a second. I'd never heard of Pigliucci before, but even his out-of-context statements convinced me that he had a valid point. Before I left the blog, I made a short comment on the Atheism Analyzed post that refuted the statement that Pigliucci's "strawman" was somehow a fallacy (I'd been in the same situation before on my blog). I didn't understand the response I received, either because I'm not educated enough to understand the ill-defined jargon or because the argument wasn't coherent. Time might tell.

So, I went over to Pigliucci's blog, Rationally Speaking--which he shares with two others--and found something worth reading. I'm very impressed with the articles I've read, even though the informal setting leaves plenty of room for poorly defined terminology and colloquialisms. Despite this, the central message of the post that Atheism Analyzed so desperately wanted to refute comes through loud and clear. I might be biased, of course, but Pigliucci is absolutely correct in saying

Conceptions of gods are infinitely... flexible (or vacuous, if you prefer)... and they are thus simply not falsifiable. This is often (naively) mistaken to imply that no specific claim made by these theories can be rejected on empirical grounds. That’s as manifestly not true as it is besides the point: of course modern science can firmly reject the empirical claim that the earth is a few thousand years old; but since “the god hypothesis” doesn’t behave as a hypothesis at all from the epistemological standpoint, it doesn’t matter. In the cases we are discussing there is no science-like connection between theoretical constructs and empirically verifiable facts, so to “falsify” the latter is equivalent to shooting into a cloud of gas. It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as science.

I don't like how he judges religious belief to be figuratively below science, but other than that Pigliucci is spot on. He goes even further with an idea I hadn't thought of yet:

...even science itself is far from being an activity rooted in reason alone. A standard distinction in philosophy of science is made between the context of discovery and the context of justification. The first one deals with how scientists come up with new theories or ideas, the second one on how they proceed to empirically test or establish them. The notion is that the context of justification is where science works in a rational way, by logically connecting hypotheses and empirical facts. But discoveries are often haphazard and non-rational in nature, with scientists themselves being unable to account for how exactly they came up with a particular idea...

I think that's brilliant. If I didn't hate the phrase "thinking out of the box" so much, I'd probably use it right now to explain how unjustifiable (read: not empirical) thinking is beneficial--if not necessary--as an antecedent to scientific justification.

I'll be reading more from Pigliucci and his gang, and next time I have a brilliant idea, I'll make sure to check his old posts to see if he's already written about it.

No comments: