Friday, December 22, 2017

What Matters Is What's True

Richard Dawkins, discussing what motivates religious belief, famously said:
Who cares what you feel like?  Who cares what feels good?  Who cares what makes you feel comforted?  Who cares what helps you sleep at night?  What matters is what's true. - Richard Dawkins
Religionists don't care what motivates their belief, or perhaps it's the case that they willfully ignore it.  But they take great umbrage at the idea that a non-believer could lay any claim to caring about what is true, because their faith tells them that Truth™ belongs exclusively to themselves.  This is a dogmatic assertion.  Don't bother trying to bring facts to the table.  Facts have nothing to do with it.  Reality has nothing to do with it.  To a militant religionist like Mikey at Shadow To Light, an atheist's relationship with the truth is "slippery".  But his own relationship with the truth is taken for granted, because God.  Mikey speculates that the only reason an atheist would place any value on truth is because he comes from a culture with a religious history that values truth.  So the first lie in his article appears in the second sentence.

But to his credit, he provides an argument, feeble as it is, to support the idea that truth doesn't matter in a godless world.  The argument goes something like this:  Truths are divided into two categories.  There are "survival truths", which are facts that affect behavior relating directly to one's ability to stay alive (such as Eating rat poison will kill you), and other truths that don't directly affect survival (such as My mother loves me).  According to Mikey, if there is no God, then survival truths are the only ones that matter, but there is no reason to care about other truths.  That's the argument.  It sounds suspiciously like Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which is based on scientific ignorance, and asserts that evolution provides us no rational justification for the beliefs we hold.  Plantinga acknowledges that certain survival-related beliefs may be reliable, but most beliefs have no rational basis in a naturalistic world.  So Mikey seems to be following Plantinga's lead by assuming that concern for truth mirrors the reliability of beliefs.  One could only care about truth if there is a God.  Which is nothing but religious hogwash, based on theistic assumptions.  Yet another lie.

Mikey does attempt to anticipate what he considers to be the major objection an atheist might raise to this argument:  scientific truth is important to atheists, because it improves our quality of life and because it justifies atheism.  But the truth is that at least to some degree, we pursue science out of curiosity - because we want to know more.  That's what's important to us.  And aside from the fact that science is not merely a survival tool, I'll give him half credit for this, because scientifically minded atheists do believe that science is the best way of obtaining knowledge about our world.  But his reasoning is muddled.  It isn't "scientific truth" that matters.  It is simply knowledge and understanding of reality, and science happens to be the best way to obtain that.  And neither is science a tool to justify our atheism.  Just as Plantinga sees Reformed Epistemology as a means to justify theism, Mikey believes that atheists see science as a way to justify atheism.  But the objective of science has never been to justify atheism, and most people don't pursue science for that reason.  That just happens to be where the evidence leads, when you care to look for evidence-based knowledge. And another lie rolls off Mikey's lips.

But evidence-based knowledge is the last thing Mikey cares about.  He shoots down the idea that "scientific truth" is important on two points.  First, in terms of enhancing survival, he says it isn't what it's cracked up to be:
While we cannot deny technology has improved our quality of life at the present, we can’t deny that it is also responsible for things like global warming, overpopulation, a growing population of antibiotic resistant bacteria,  and weapons of mass destruction.  It could very well turn out that in a century or so, technology will have driven human beings to the brink of extinction. - Mikey
So according to his wacky understanding, if people use scientific knowledge to destroy the planet, that's the fault of science, and it's a good reason to disregard the importance of "scientific truth".  If that's what Mikey thinks, then he should go live in a cave.  But clearly, he doesn't live by that conviction.  Methinks I hear another lie. 

The second point he makes on "scientific truth" is that it really doesn't indicate that atheism is true.  (I know, it's difficult to follow an argument that isn't based on any kind of rational logic, but let's see if we can make sense of this.)  Mikey says that it is only god-of-the-gaps reasoning that atheists rely on to claim that science indicates that atheism is true, because the assumption they make is "no gaps = no gods."  I suppose this makes sense to him, but I don't see the logic.  Does he assume that atheists think there are no gaps in scientific knowledge, and if there were any gaps, we would have to concede that God exists?  That would be god-of-the-gaps reasoning, I guess, but it isn't even remotely like anything that atheists or scientists actually believe.  The truth is that science dispels ignorance, replacing it with evidence-based knowledge.  And while there will always be gaps in that knowledge, god-of-the-gaps reasoning is based on ignorance.  That's why we reject it.  This is just another one of his lies.

You may have noticed that I pointed out several instances of Mikey being less than honest about the position of atheists.  If he wanted to take issue with the things atheists actually say regarding their own beliefs, there might be room for serious discussion of what constitutes truth, and what epistemological approach may be best suited for getting at the truth.  But Mikey isn't interested in any of that.  He assumes without evidence or justification of any kind that Truth™ is with him, because God.  And he assumes that atheism isn't capable of arriving at any truth beyond Duck when the other caveman throws a spear at you.  Mostly what Mikey does is display his tribalistic attitude and hatred toward atheists.  He isn't willing to make an honest assessment of their positions or their beliefs.  His disregard for the truth is just part of the package.  When you turn away from facts and evidence to support what you believe, in favor of theism based on indoctrination and faith, you really aren't in a good position to denigrate atheists' reverence for truth.  You can tell yourself that you have a monopoly on Truth™, and try to convince others of that, but you are really living a lie.


  1. Well, interestingly, Dawkins himself has remarked somewhere that there's no reason to expect us to have been equipped to 'really understand the universe' by our natural evolutionary endowments......

    1. I think Dawkins is right. But put his statement into perspective.

      First, our capacity for rational thinking is greater than other animals, but it is still less than perfect. I have heard theists argue that rationality (as imparted to us by God) has a quality of perfection that is not attainable in nature. That is easily refuted. All you have to do is obverse the things people say, and it is immediately obvious that people who consider themselves rational thinkers are full of shit. Is there anyone out there who exhibits perfectly rational thinking without logical flaws? I don't think so. On the other hand, we are pretty good at thinking rationally, especially if we use tools to help us eliminate biases and errors in our thinking process. We can understand a lot about the universe. But no scientist would argue that we understand it all, or that we could ever expect to achieve a perfect understanding. We do have limitations.

  2. So according to his wacky understanding, if people use scientific knowledge to destroy the planet, that's the fault of science, and it's a good reason to disregard the importance of "scientific truth". If that's what Mikey thinks, then he should go live in a cave. But clearly, he doesn't live by that conviction. Methinks I hear another lie.

    I think this arg is equivalent to: "if Geronimo doesn't like the US Calvary, then he shouldn't use rifles!" .... ?

    1. Also, why is the point wacky? If the applications of scientific knowledge do lead to world destruction, then it's a pretty good argument that humanity would'a been better off without science?

    2. It is wacky, because it isn't knowledge (scientific or otherwise) that destroys the earth. It is what people do with that knowledge. People learned how to burn fuel for heat long, long ago. I wouldn't exactly call that science, but we've been burning fuel ever since. In recent times, we've been burning lots of it, and that's causing problems for the planet. Do we blame science for global warming, or do we look to science for alternative ways to produce energy?

      Through science, we learned how to make nuclear bombs, and there is a danger that we will destroy ourselves with them. But if we do, it will be the fault of some idiot war-monger, not the fault of our scientific knowledge, which clearly has provided us with many beneficial things.

      Mikey makes the argument that we might be better off without any of that. (You can't have knowledge of just the good things. It's all part of the package.) So if he wants to reject scientific knowledge that can be abused, he must reject all of it. He needs to go live in a cave. And don't light any fires, either.

    3. I think the argument is like, giving world-destroying knowledge to a socially and emotionally immature humanity is like giving a loaded gun to a toddler. It's what the toddler might do with the weapon that's the problem, that's true - in a sense - but nevertheless, most would feel the toddler would have been better off without the weapon? And even if the weapon did serve to make the toddler's life more enjoyable in the meantime.....

    4. so you are making the argument that it might be better for us to live without science. That is what I meant when I said that Mikey should live in a cave. But I can't agree with it. Billions of people have lived longer and happier lives with scientific knowledge. Yes, there are dangers. But there is also the prospect of using science to overcome those dangers. And if we limit the ability of stupid people to abuse science (by separating Trump from his nuclear arsenal, for example), so much the better.

    5. Well, someone might even live, other than in a dark cave, but without possessing world-destroying capacities either, perhaps?

      I think the arg - put in a more sophisticated way - essentially is this: if the material/destructive capacities of humanity outstrip our socio/spiritual/emotional maturity levels sufficiently, then the comforts, securities and enjoyments we enjoy from our technological kinds of achievements aren't worth the risk. Even from a naturalist/atheists pov, it might be even argued that continuing in simpler, mythical-based cultures for a longer period might have been better than the current system of supposedly-rationally-based (but somehow still world-threatening) "neoliberal capitalism/imperialism/nationalism".....kinda like that....

    6. it might be even argued that continuing in simpler, mythical-based cultures for a longer period might have been better than the current system

      - In terms of the health of the planet, there's no question that it would have been better. But with science, the lives of humans are definitely improved. The dramatic increase in population is testimony to that. But therein lies a conflict.

      To speculate whether we'd be better off without science, though, seems rather pointless. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The best we can hope for is that we will be wiser in the use of our knowledge.