Thursday, February 16, 2006

Debunker Debunked

In the March Atlantic Monthly, a great letter by Justin L. Barrett of the Institute for Cognition and Culture in Belfast responds to a rather silly piece the publication ran back in December. (Unfortunately access to full text of these resources requires a subscription.)

The original article, "Is God an Accident?", by professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, Paul Bloom, is a Darwinian up-dating of Freud's claim that religion is not true, but a psychologically determined behavior.1 In this case the author claims that religion is adaptive, that is, that it helps its adherents to survive the evolutionary struggle better than non-adherents. Unfortunately for the argument, the "debunking" of religion also debunks every other human belief, as Dr. Barrett argues, including the science on which the debunking is based (emphasis added):

To use science to attack religion in this way is misguided and ultimately undermines our confidence in science even more than our confidence in religion. If religious belief is only a byproduct of our naturally selected minds having produced no direct fitness benefits in our evolutionary past, so too are a host of scientific beliefs, including the belief in natural selection itself. This observation leads to an uncomfortable problem for the anti-theist. If our brains (and the thoughts they generate) have arisen only because of their ability to produce survival-related behaviors and not Truth, how can we trust them to tell us the truth about such matters as, say, natural selection? The anti-theist must construct an argument to justify trusting his or her own mind, which could be in the midst of producing “accidental” thoughts and beliefs while constructing the argument! Such an argument, too, must consider the huge psychological literature detailing how human minds systematically get things wrong—from visual perception to higher-order reasoning—apparently to assist in our survival.

Even embracing an evolutionary account of religion, the theist may skate through this epistemological train wreck by insisting that a deity has orchestrated evolution to produce minds that can be trusted to produce true beliefs (at least under certain conditions). Perhaps the deity fine-tuned the nature of the universe from its origin so that our minds—capable of truly knowing the deity—would be inevitable. Or perhaps the deity directed just the right “random” mutations that natural selection then chose, which eventually produced our minds so that they could know Truth.

The point is that the theist may choose to believe in a deity and evolutionary or cognitive scientific accounts of religion without a conflict. The anti-theist’s determination to undercut religious belief via evolution may force abandonment of science itself. If, as Bloom suggests, religion and science will always clash, the blame lies not on the theist but on the anti-theist.

Well, that about cuts the heart out of Bloom's argument.

An extended critique is redundant, but I do have to comment on one additional thing that irked me about the article: Bloom's claim that humans are naturally dualists (i.e., believe that our bodies and souls have independent existences). He invokes a series of examples to support this claim—but all of them are from the modern, post-Cartesian era (as if that were the extent of human history!). Of course he doesn't refer to biblical times in this section, because that would completely undermine his argument.

Despite these shortcomings I do not count Bloom's article a waste of glossy paper. He's sophisticated enough to open with an extended review of recent data showing the commonality of religion in the world. For example, Bloom observes that scientists are only slightly less religious than other folks:

About 40 percent of scientists said yes to a belief in this kind of [personal, biblical] God—about the same percentage found in a similar poll in 1916. Only when we look at the most elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences—do we find a strong majority of atheists and agnostics.

If the silly secularist bulk of the article sweetens it enough to coax liberals out of their mirrored rooms long enough to consider the rest of the world's point of view, then the article certainly has some worth.2


1. Paul Vitz turns Freud's argument on its head (pile-driver?) in his Faith of the Fatherless.

2. The great thing about The Atlantic is that it always tries to position itself in the middle, which allows for an interchange of ideas between disparate political factions. Plus, since only the dead (many are active Democratic voters) have any reasonable excuse for missing the country's turn away from the left, the publication currently serves the function of reconciling liberals to reality. Take for example, "Letting Go of Roe."

Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?", The Atlantic Monthly (December 2005).

Justin L. Barrett, letter to the editor, The Atlantic Monthly (March 2006), 18.


Anonymous said...

Bloom promulgates a fallacious Freudian twist on neo-Darwinian theory by arguing that religious faith is not true but rather a psychologically-determined adaptive behavior that helps its adherents survive the evolutionary struggle better than non-believers. The fallacy of assuming the consequent is, of course, clear: since evolutionary theory must be true, faith is therefore an adaptive evolutionary behavior because... evolutionary theory is true!

Moreover, (and far more important) is that it’s question-begging to assume religious faith can be equivocated to physical (evolutionary) mechanisms on the level of “beingness.” Bloom’s primary error is not the belief that a metaphysically materialist-animated neo-Darwinism necessarily leads to a “debunking” of faith and science or, in fact, of all human reasoning as such (how can material “know” anything -- doesn’t that beg the further question of what knowledge is in the first place?): this is simply a logical consequence of such an epistemologically-limited vision of reality. The grave error at the very outset is an approach to all knowledge that presupposes being is not analogously modal: it is assumed (with no demonstration of its soundness) that equivocal language is sufficient to grasp the “quiddity” or “whatness” of being: each type of being may be equally predicated of the other. In other words, all thought (scientific, faith, poetic, etc.) is ultimately of the same kind of “beingness” as material being, reducible to and fully “explainable” by the instruments and methods of modern empirical science.

This is silly, of course, but certainly understandable in terms of the blindness modern empirical science suffers with respect to other forms of knowledge. This is not necessarily so bad in and of itself: just because modern empirical science cannot “see” or explain substance, virtue, faith, causality (writ large), predicates, etc., etc., is not a bad thing. BUT it is a VERY BAD thing for science to assert or “explain away” such entities by an underlying equivocation of beingness. For example, modern empirical science can only describe red light as 650nm electromagnetic radiation, and further nuanced additions from quantum mechanics changes nothing for the existential experience of the color red people see is never addressed. Science cannot adequately account for the fact that one can put a penny in one’s pocket, but one cannot put the color copper in one’s pocket: a penny can be of a copperish tint, but the color copper cannot be a penny! That alone demonstrates that being cannot be equally predicated of all being.

Modern empirical science jettisons by definition from the full explanatory force of philosophical arguments two important causes: formal and final, while limiting itself to the material and efficient. (Note, mathematics does employ the formal cause, but only in a very rarified way -- relying on the first accident of real being (continuous quantity as extension and discrete quantity as number).) But that’s okay. Modern empirical science must jettison these in order to do its job effectively, for the same reason it must jettison any considerations of supernatural or natural influences beyond the control boundaries of its experiments. (When one conducts experiments, one hopes to isolate them from human influences, for example.) There’s nothing wrong with this. But when science claims faith can be explained away, well, that’s only so much bunk.

Lawrence Gage said...

Interesting..., but your assertion that Bloom is "assuming the consequent" is only true in the case that belief in Darwinism requires a prior disavowal of religion. Now, it might be true that any serious consideration of Darwinism is incompatible with your own form of religion (some brand of Christianity, I would guess), but how can you assert that for all religions in the world, or even all forms of Christianity?

Even then, what if evolution IS Bloom's religious belief? The assertion of many anti-Darwinists is that Darwinism can be held only on faith because it lacks any solid evidential support.

I think a fair reading of Bloom's argument is that he ASSUMES Darwinism to be true (as most secularists do) and goes on to explain the prevalence of religion in Darwinian terms. It's not evident he's trying to PROVE Darwinism. As far as I can tell there's no logical fallacy in the form of the argument, but perhaps you can indicate where I am mistaken.

Content-wise Darwinism is analogous to a flea because it is explanatorily vacuous, as I have written: Providence and Chance (and follow-up here: Intelligence Transcends Science). I don't think it merits fear for your faith.

The rest of what you say about science's blindness to qualities and being is very good. I do appreciate your posting it.

Let me add that along with disregard for the analogy of being goes disregard for the analogical nature of matter, that is, an absolutization of matter, which dates from the time of Descartes.

I also like what you say about science's blindness to two of Aristotle's four causes. I've actually been planning to base a post on exactly that subject.

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...


I believe you may have misunderstood the thrust of my argument regarding the fallacy of assuming the consequent.

First, consider the formal structure of the fallacy of assuming the consequent:

P1. If X, then Y.
P2. Y.
C. Therefore, X.

In other words, what is assumed as a premise to be true (If X), is allegedly confirmed as a true conclusion by the argument (therefore X). Clearly, one cannot do this, and for this reason the argument is formally. But, it’s worse than that because the premises themselves are questionable, and hence materially the argument cannot come to a certain conclusion.

With respect to my particular point, I’m not focusing on the “prior disavowal of religion” (especially with regard to my own faith). What I’m pointing out (at the risk of belaboring the issue) is the fallacious formal structure of Bloom’s argument. That kills his argument relying solely on formal logic.

Now, what about material logic? Let’s say I grant him the validity of the premise that neo-Darwinism is sufficient in terms of its explanatory import. But, what about the premise regarding religious faith? Doesn’t it assume that religious faith arises as a particular response to environmental pressures aimed as preservation of a species? And doesn’t this beg two things, i.e., (1) the overall validity of the premise itself, and (2) that religious faith can be equivocated to the same level of beingness as neo-Darwinian mechanisms? To make this clearer, let’s substitute Bloom’s terms into the structure above:

P1. If Darwinism [is true], then religious faith arose as a mechanism of preservation/survival.
P2. Religious faith arose as a mechanism of preservation/survival.
C. Therefore, Darwinism is true.

With respect to the material nature of the premise of religious faith, it’s this that I (hopefully) explained to be a false premise in the second part of my message (thank you for your kind words, by the way), i.e., in the reduction of religious faith (or any human thought) to the same kind of being as the (alleged) mechanisms of Darwinism.

So, my overall conclusion: BOTH the formal structure AND the material nature of at least one of the premises are not valid… and this from a professor at a well-known, elite university!

My apologies that the initial overly-summarized presentation led to confusion.

Lawrence Gage said...

Yes, truly the Lord "has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts..., and exalted those of low degree" (e.g., without PhDs).

Our difference is over the form of Bloom's argument. I think it's quite a stretch to say he's attempting to prove Darwinism. But perhaps you can point to contrary textual evidence?

It is very clear to me that he's arguing that religion can be explained in Darwinian terms (for which he has implicitly assumed the truth of Darwinism). That is the reason I say you can claim he is "assuming the consequent" only if your religion were a priori against Darwinism.

To summarize, you are misreading the whole point of Bloom's article.


Anonymous said...

MJ (or LG):

Sorry, but it may again be that I was not clear: my first comment stated that the formal aspect of Bloom’s assumed overarching background logic was far less a problem than the equivocation over beingness issue.

I agree with you that the Darwinian premise is an assumption... although, I would qualify this by adding that simple-minded classifications of Darwinism as a “faith” or “religious” system is an incorrect labeling of the worldview lurking behind many Darwinist’s support of the theory: religious faith is a significantly different animal from worldviews (such as metaphysical materialism), and I simply don’t buy into that kind of facile reductionism -- “religious-like” a priori commitments, such as those made by Lewontian, etc. notwithstanding.

I also agree with you that the main thrust of Bloom’s article was not a direct defense or “proof” of neo-Darwinism.

However, you would be hard-pressed to convince someone that Darwinists (just as their ideological counterparts who support the fraudulent science known as ID Theory) don’t use their own non-scientific interpretations of certain scientific findings to ultimately buttress their overall vision -- in this case neo-Darwinism. They do... all the time. THAT was my point.

Why? Consider the many scientific findings that are used (through a particular materialist interpretive matrix) to justify the validity (nay, in some cases even soundness!) of neo-Darwinism: Dawkin’s theory (?) of meme’s, Dennett’s views on (non!)free will, Singer’s process utilitarianism, cognitive neuro-science findings, genetic comparisons with chimpanzees, the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers in the fields of anthropology and archeology, etc., etc., to which has been added, of course, Darwinist views of religious faith. Hardly a day goes by in which certain scientific findings are used to (implicitly or explicitly) point to neo-Darwinism as the big CHEESE for how and why life arose and prospered on earth. You were correct to note the presumption of Darwinism (which, you’ll note, I granted only to stay on the track of my argument)… but nevertheless it wasn’t my point.

I’m focusing on the meta-significance of using findings across to (illicitly, in my opinion) buttress scientists’ confidence in the alleged validity of neo-Darwinism. You’ve focused (correctly) on the narrow aspect of Bloom’s article. I used the example of Bloom’s particular case to make my broader point, and there can be little question that Bloom’s overall position is formallyfallacious from the perspective I presented.