Saturday, July 23, 2011

Science, scientism, skepticism, atheism, ethics

I'd been meaning to write a post like this for some time. Various issues within the worlds of science, philosophy, skepticism (which has a foot in both science and philosophy) and related issues have finally nudged me forward.

The first biggie was Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape." I was pleasantly surprised when philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's review on Amazon largely agreed with mine in not only noting that Harris didn't have a good handle on morals and ethics issues in general, but also engaged in thought processes that rightfully could be called scientism.

Then, having read P.Z. Myers (he denies it, but Bob Carroll has a similar take on P.Z.) and Vic Stenger, amongst so-called Gnu Atheists, at least halfway claim to have proved the nonexistence of god, led me a bit further forward in this direction.

Add in the fact that, on a few recent posts on Skepticblog, some commenters there don't get, or else choose to ignore, the difference between empirical evidence for/against a particular idea of god vs. philosophical issues about what versions of a deity might logically be able to exist, and the issue grows.

Add in that a Michael Shermer post about SETI adds to what I see as one problem with many of its most ardent boosters: a quasi-religious faith that extraterrestrial life must exist.

Finally, some browsing on Amazon today, where a couple of reviews of a couple of books, bring back to mind claims that fundamentalist Christians make about horrific atheist murderers, i.e., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and atheists, especially but not just Gnu Atheists, claiming that none of that terrible trio were atheists.

Well, now that I've laid all that out, here's where my thoughts go.

I'm going to tackle issues of religious belief, or lack thereof, and morality.

First, the "terrible trio."

Hitler? Yes, we know that he had a Catholic background and upbringing. What his adult religious beliefs are, we don't know. He cozied up to the Catholic church enough to get it to cozy up to him, while yet, early in his reign, ignoring it when he euthanized the mentally handicapped and others. So, let's bracket him.

Stalin? Yes, he went to an Orthdox seminary as a juvenile. So what. John Loftus went to a seminary. So did I. By this weak argument of atheists, John and I are both still Christians. Fact of the matter is, Stalin actively clamped down on Christianity in the Soviet Union, and otherwise gives clear indications of being an atheist. Beyond that, as Wikipedia notes in its article on Marxism and religion, the USSR was officially atheist.

Mao? We still don't know a lot about his personal life, but he gives no indication of being religious in any way.

As for studies which show that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians divorce as much as atheists in particular or nonreligious in general, that's also true. Two observations, though.

First, divorce is only one marker for morals, and isn't even that strong of a marker. Second, if the divorce rates are the same, that doesn't mean religious people are less moral, at least on marriage, just that they're tied.

Finally, because there are so many more religious than irreligious people in the world, for both better and worse, on both sides of the aisle, confirmation bias can easily raise its head. On the side of religious exemplars, that's because they're so many of them. On the side of irreligious exemplars, that's because deviations away from the moral mean stand out so much more.

This all said, more scientists could stand a little more grounding in philosophy. Not anything huge, but a basic college intro course, or better, an intro to logic course.

This leads to another issue, and back to what is called "skepticism" today.

I have a number of observations to make here.

First, many "skeptics" are unfamiliar with skepticism as a philosophy. I politely suggest addressing that.

Second, per my comment above on scientists, many "skeptics" don't know that much philosophy in general.

Third, many "skeptics" are somewhat to very selective in their skepticism. I'm not expecting perfection, but I politely suggest addressing that.

Fourth, true skepticism has become politicized, in part because of reason No. 3 above. I'm not looking for a "purge" of skeptics, unlike P.Z. Myers wanting to purge conservatives from atheism. A conservative skeptic who is honest about anthropogenic global warming is still a skeptic. A conservative "skeptic" who is dishonest about anthropogenic global warming isn't a real skeptic.

And this is why, like a couple of friends of mine, I weary of the world of "professional skepticism" at times. But, per that last point, if pseudoskeptics, including online trolls, aren't stood up to, they win.

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