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New Atheism, scientism and question begging

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#1 Ken Gilmore

Ken Gilmore


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Posted 02 September 2012 - 07:02 AM

One of the more tedious tactics employed by the New Atheists is to invoke the "Courtier's Response" when defending attacks on religion that are theologically naive. Unsurprisingly, it was first used to fend off criticism of Dawkin's book "The God Delusion" as he:

"...had not studied theology and was therefore unqualified to discuss evidence for or against the existence of God. This is fallacious because, although as a non-theologian he is not technically qualified to discuss the nature of God, as a scientist he is extremely qualified to discuss the nature of evidence. Moreover, any discussion on the nature of God (as anything other than a hypothetical entity) depends entirely upon first proving the existence of God as a real and tangible object." [1]

This criticism misses the point. Apologists such as myself acknowledge that we have the burden of proof in justifying theism. Discussing the theological intricacies of Barth or Moltmann will not convince a person who does not regard the Bible as authoritative. That requires a knowledge of textual criticism, ancient history, archaeology, Second Temple Judaism and other fields relevant to demonstrate the authenticity of the Biblical text, rebut claims such as Jesus mythicism and demonstrate the historical plausibility of the Bible. The central claim of the Christian faith is that Christ rose from the dead - a bold claim to say the least. All one can do here is demonstrate that (1) there was a 1st century Jewish teacher called Jesus of Nazareth who garnered a reputation for healing, ran into conflict with the authorities and was executed (2) within a short time after his death, a new religion had emerged which became influential after a few years and (3) point out that (in the theist's opinion) the natural explanations for the events surrounding these two previous points (theft of body, wrong tomb, mass hallucination, etc) are less plausible than the claim made by the early Christians. However, when a biologist with minimal expertise in textual criticism, ancient history, NT studies or any area of relevance to theology claims that the Biblical narrative is unhistorical or that Christ never existed, the theist is fully entitled to point out those claims for what they are - uninformed.

There is an interesting parallel between the New Atheist dismissal of theology, and the tendency of some to dismiss philosophy as of marginal benefit at best. The philosopher of science John Wilkins has blogged in response to claims by scientists such as Larry Moran and Jerry Coyne that philosophy is largely worthless because it is not scientific:

"[T]hat is exactly the view he has been pushing for some time, and it is also the view that Mlodinow and Hawking, Krauss and other scientists have also been pushing for a while now. I think of it, and we can call it, the Feynman Position (“philosophers are to science as ornithologists are to birds”). It is inherent in the books by Victor Stenger (The God Hypothesis) and Dawkins’ own books. Philosophy is fine if it agrees that religion is irrational or something not to be taken seriously. But when it dares to suggest that we might consider a view, like guided evolution by God, in order to determine whether or not a theist must of necessity be anti-Darwinian (and that given that Darwinian evolution is a fact we have thereby discredited theism), as Elliot Sober has done, then that is the idiocy and arrogance of philosophy!" [2]

Wilkins observes that claims such as these can be rightly criticised for being circular - assuming the truth of something they are trying to demonstrate. He points out the classic example of Christian question begging:

The Bible says that God exists
God does not lie
Therefore, God exists

yet laments [3] that:

It comes, therefore, as a continuing pain to me that scientists will often offer this piece of question beggary:

Science finds out things
Philosophy does not find out things the scientific way
Therefore philosophy is a waste of time and effort

The begged premise here is that only knowing things the scientific way is knowledge, or if the philosopher in question doesn’t say that knowledge is what philosophy offers, that only knowing things the scientific way is worthwhile. Some may even hint that only science delivers beauty, too.

Sam Harris is perhaps one of the better-known examples of such scientific overreach, with his claim that science can answer moral questions. [4] Harris is of course taking on the is-ought problem first articulated by David Hume, and unsurprisingly his thesis was received negatively [5], with positive reception coming generally from New Atheist fellow-travellers such as physicist Lawrence Krauss:

Reading Sam Harris is like drinking water from a cool stream on a hot day. He has the rare ability to frame arguments that are not only stimulating, they are downright nourishing, even if you don’t always agree with him! In this new book he argues from a philosophical and a neurobiological perspective that science can and should determine morality. As was the case with Harris’ previous books, readers are bound to come away with previously firm convictions about the world challenged, and a vital new awareness about the nature and value of science and reason in our lives. [6]

It is hardly accidental that Krauss has also expressed negative views about philosophy [7] and in turn has been criticised fiercely for making such claims. Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher observed that:

Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, he claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” Seriously? I’ve practiced science for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any claim that he might be wrong. Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold. Lawrence, scientists are just human beings, and like all human beings they are interested in mundane things like sex, fame and money (and yes, the pursuit of knowledge). Science is a wonderful and wonderfully successful activity (despite the more than occasional blunder), but there is no reason to try to make its practitioners look like some sort of intellectual saints that they certainly are not (witness also the alarming increase in science fraud, for instance). [8]

What drives this imperial overreach? There's no doubt that science is spectacularly successful at what it does, as evidenced by the growth in knowledge which allows us to sequence genomes and apply the knowledge to improve our quality of life, or land probes on Mars and have them transmit data back to us faultlessly. Of course, its practitioners are only human, and it is hardly out of the question that hubris may at times be detected among the odd scientist. Even though the conflict hypothesis of the relationship between religion and science has long been debunked, not a few scientists act as if religion was in fact a merciless foe of reason which science eventually slew. It is hard not to speculate that those scientists who are in the grips of scientism may well be looking to find the next opponent to destroy, and have latched onto philosophy. Even if that speculation is unfounded, it hints at the fact that there is a curious insularity among some scientists. Wilkins notes:

Scientists live in a kind of self-contained hermeneutic bubble. They simply cannot usually see the point of any view other than their own. If they think science disproves religious beliefs, then so far as they are concerned, any person – scientist or not – who takes religion seriously is simply stupid. Anyone who grants, even for argument’s sake, that there might be pathways of knowing other than the mythical (since no such beast actually exists) “scientific method”, is a mental defective, a liar, or a self serving individual trying to get money out of someone. In other words, for that kind of scientist, they treat religion, philosophy and any non-scientific activity exactly the same way that some religious and science deniers treat science they do not like: as an act of faith that is simply false. [9]

Wilkins is not a theist, so his arguments are not written in order to defend Christianity. Far from it. What he does show is that scientism, the belief that science can answer every question worth answering, and regards legitimate criticism of such imperial overreach as obscurantism, can be a problem for scientists. For theists, the tired 'Courtier's Response' is very much a symptom of that particular problem.


1. http://rationalwiki....ourtier's_Reply
2. Wilkins J "Does philosophy generate knowledge?" Evolving Thoughts 2nd September 2012
3. Wilkins J "Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else" Evolving Thoughts 1st September 2012
4. Harris S "The Moral Landscape" (2010, Free Press)
5. http://en.wikipedia....scape#Reception
6. http://www.samharris...moral-landscape
7. Holt J "Physicists, Stop the Churlishness" New York Times http://www.nytimes.c...hilosophy.html'>June 8th 2012
8. Pigliucci M "Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex" Rationally Speaking April 25th 2012
9. See ref 3
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 Fortigurn



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Posted 02 September 2012 - 07:19 AM

Excellent work, should be a Berea blog post.

#3 Evangelion



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Posted 02 September 2012 - 07:56 AM

Great stuff Ken, definitely worth expanding.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#4 Jan



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Posted 04 September 2012 - 04:59 AM

Even though the conflict hypothesis of the relationship between religion and science has long been debunked, not a few scientists act as if religion was in fact a merciless foe of reason which science eventually slew.

This sort of attitude from some scientists, and which is often picked up by the media, is a problem, I think, for some non-scientist Christians. It can make people suspicious of science in general. I've heard people complain that they are continually upset by hearing pronouncements from the scientific media which assume that the existence of God has been thoroughly disproved and that religion can now be safely disregarded and swept aside. The problem is that the actual science is often rejected, rather than the fallacious arguments of the scientists or commentators involved.

Sorry that this comment is slightly off the main topic of Ken's post, it just struck a chord with me because of recent conversations I've had.

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