All this aside, there are times when I find it extremely difficult to resist. It is particularly hard for me to let something lay when someone else makes an issue of it. This is precisely the case of Rob Knop's latest post, in which he attempts to insert a wedge between religion and woo while still maintaining the validity and importance of science. His post is such a quintessential example of that protected status for religion that I find so harmful to our society that I find myself drawn into yet another Web-delivered argument. I don't write this post with the hopes that my argument with Knop will go any better than last time, but rather because it is important to me that I try.
Without further ado, then, let us look at what Knop has to say. It's a long post, so by necessity I will pick out the bits I feel most deserving of response-- go read it for the full context of his remarks.
Why do I mention this? Because I see a lot of those who call themselves skeptics making exactly the same mistake— judging another field of intellectual inquiry on what they believe to be the one true way of reason. They dismiss things as trivial or childish based on criteria that fail to be relevant to the field of human intellectual activity they’re trivializing. Specifically, there are a lot of people out there who will imply, or state, that the only form of knowledge that really can be called knowledge is scientific knowledge; that if it is not knowledge gained through the scientific method, it’s ultimately all crap.At this point, Knop has made it clear that he intends on revisiting his false equivocation between religious fundamentalists and "fundamentalist atheists" (full disclosure: Knop apparently considers me to be a member of this group). By using phrases like "one true way of reason," Knop conveniently ignores that skepticism, atheism and rationality have no central dogma beyond a sort of pragmatic honesty: if you are going to claim that your methodology (or way of reason, in Knop's vernacular) works, then it had damn well better work. As a part of that, yes, you must be able to verify that your "way of knowing" produces useful results, or else you cannot legitimately say that your methodology is a valid one.
The scientific method, then, which Knop elevates to the level of dogmatism in order to build his straw man, is not a dogma at all but a formalization of those ways of learning that have been shown to work. Far from being immutable or the "one true" way, science is adaptive and self-correcting. Already, then, Knop's equivocation fails on the basis that he's not describing skepticism as is espoused by the atheists he is so reviled by, but rather his own funhouse mirror version. We've got a lot of post left to cover, though, so let's press on:
What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? It’s not a scientific question, but it is a question that is trivially obvious to those who study literature, culture, and history. And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion.If there is one sure way of pissing me off, it's to tell me that something "isn't a scientific question." Given that science is the methodology of pragmatism, such claims are no more than a way of giving up reasoned analysis. As someone who has made a career out of cultivating and exploring his own curiosity, few things are more offensive to me than someone putting such ultimate limits along my path. I don't expect that Knop refrain from doing things that offend me, however, as that would make the world a much more boring place--- rather, I would hope that as a fellow scientist, Knop would feel the same curiosity and lust for knowledge that renders such a claim so offensive to me.
The burden, however, of demonstrating that analyzing Frost versus the 7-year-old writings of Knop lies within the realm of science is one that I shall have to take on to truly make my point. In that vein, then, note that in addition to the "hard" sciences such as physics and chemistry, we have a full array of social sciences that are dedicated to applying scientific (that is, useful) methods to social questions. Such questions inevitably deal with the behaviors of entities each composed of many more than 10²³ particles, so that the "hard" sciences are completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the questions. Thus, we have found it useful to develop alternate methodologies that sacrifice some degree of exactness and objectivity in exchange for an enhanced ability to cope with such overwhelming questions as that proposed by Knop.
Ultimately, though, we must expect that the methods of analyzing Frost must lie within science for one simple reason: Frost existed within this reality, was a physical being and produced tangible objects that are amenable to study. Frost was, just like you or I, a citizen of the physical universe. Even if one posits the existence of a soul to try and escape this fact, the soul then influences the physical world by some mechanism that is not completely random, and thus can be examined. Knop's question is as scientific a question as any that could be asked, in that it is a question that concerns physical objects and that can be answered using useful and robust methodologies.
Of course, this is all a distraction from Knop's apparent point to mentioning Frost and his younger self. Rather, Knop accuses those who make reference to Russell's teapot of being akin to those strawmen that would discard Frost as useless due to the apparent uselessness of stories written by seven-year-old children. Indeed, Knop makes this accusation quite clear:
If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.Pray tell, then, what is the difference between Russell's teapot and, just to make the discussion concrete, Christianity? Besides, of course, that the teapot is a gendanken intended to provide an easy example of the kinds of arguments that can and should be made against religion. All of Knop's strawmen aside, I have never heard of anyone claiming that Russell's teapot invalidates all of the world's religions, but rather that the gendanken explains why we should insist upon claims being testable. Religion is, in actuality, a complex and multi-faceted thing which many atheists and skeptics take a great deal of effort to understand. That along the way we find such examples as Russell's teapot useful is far from using the teapot as "a means of dismissing all of religion."
If Knop is interested in dragging atheists through the mud for overly reductionist arguments, then perhaps he should start by not reducing us to such a caricature of our actual arguments. That would include, for instance, not saying things like this:
There are quite a number of skeptics who openly say that they cannot see the difference between religion and belief in UFOs, Homeopathy, or any of the rest of the laundry list of woo that exists in modern culture.There is of course a difference between religion and homeopathy: there's a hell of a lot more religious people in the world. Mind you, that's not the only difference, but the most immediately important one. As a consequence, religion alone has earned itself a special status in our society as immune to rational analysis and criticism. The point that I and others that agree with me tend to make isn't that religion and woo are the same, but rather that they draw from there is an important commonality to be found in their mutual rejection of rationality. This hypothetical reductionist that is blind to anything but that commonality, important as it is, is no more representative of actual atheists than any other strawman presented thus far.
On the other hand, Knop pretty much nails it with his next claim:
The assertion is that being religious is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw, that these people are not thinking rationally, not applying reason.Yes, that is precisely what I have said here and in many other venues, though presented in much more judgmental terms than I find are appropriate to the assertion being made. Rather, I would put it differently by asserting that religion is not philosophically compatible or logically consistent with rationality.
Of course, the part of this assertion that people repeat far less often is that religion is not unique in that regard. There are many other intellectual "flaws," a great many of which I will admit that I am afflicted by. Why I focus on religion, then, is that it is relatively unique in being celebrated and enshrined despite that it is defunct as a means of learning-- of accumulating accurate knowledge.
I could go into much more detail on this point, but for now let me leave it for now, as I would like to get onto Knop's next point:
It’s fine to believe [that religion is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw], just as it’s fine to believe that the Big Bang theory is a self-delusional social construction of a Judeo-Christian culture. But it’s also wrong.Read that again, please. Knop is saying that it is fine to believe something that is wrong, and is it is with that assertion that I most passionately disagree with him. In my life, I strive to ensure that I believe only things which are true, and so I will admit that I have very little basis for understanding Knop's assertion here. Even moreso, when Knop continues thusly:
Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science.This is a statement which is not new to me, but which I have made no recent progress towards understanding. I doubt that Knop intends to say that his god is impotent in that it is incapable of affecting the material world, and so I presume that Knop is asserting the existence of an untestable and yet still physical phenomenon. As I said before, however, this is where I must take earnest and profound offense: learning does not stop where it is convenient for the religious, and so we should not impose a priori limits on understanding the world just because of someone's god. Either Knop's god is impotent or it is material in the sense that it affects the material world; if we insist upon the latter, than the methods of science (sometimes called "methodological naturalism" in this context) must be able to study the patterns by which his god affects the world.
It is in the context of this assertion that I find Knop's closing comments so difficult to agree with:
But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist.Knop has admitted in his post that there are a priori and impregnable limits to the limits of rationality, something which I do not admit or agree with. In doing so, there is at least one "bit" with which I am more willing to be a skeptic than is Knop. While overall, Knop may be more or less skeptical than I am (I really don't know which is the case), I cannot agree with the claim that his endorsing of religion is compatible with the skepticism he practices elsewhere in his life.
It is truly unfortunate, however, that Knop's approach to arguing for this controversial claim is to build such silly and distorted strawmen of atheists who might otherwise be more inclined to ally themselves with him in fighting the woo that he so rightfully expresses a passion to fight.
Note: Rob Knop said a great many things in his post I did not address, in the interests of brevity (believe it or not). Please don't take this posting as being a fair summary of the entirety of his argument, as it is intended only as a response to those points I found most objectionable.