Sunday, November 16, 2008

Picking and Choosing

Sunsara Taylor's "debate*" with Scott Bartchy brought up an important theme in epistemology, ethics and politics: "picking and choosing".

*It wasn't a true debate; Sunsara didn't have the opportunity to address Bartchy's commentary at all.

Atheists often charge that religious people pick and choose from their scripture. Bartchy's rebuttal is that picking and choosing is routine; since everyone picks and chooses, the activity cannot be used to differentiate religion from other epistemic, ethical and political activities. In a sense, Bartchy is correct. Scientists have chosen Einstein's theory of gravitation over Newtons; Darwin's theory of evolution over Lamarck's. Ethical humanism is rife with paternalism and condescension: the road to hell is indeed often paved with good humanist intentions. Modern communists — even those who call themselves Marxist-Leninist-Maoist — typically do not want to replicate Lenin's Red Terror, Stalin's permanent bureaucracy, or Mao's hyper-collectivization of agriculture.

Yes, picking and choosing is routine. What is important, however, is the basis on which one picks and chooses.

Scientists pick and choose theories, but they do not — even a little bit — get to pick and choose experimental results; scientists pick and choose theories based on the experimental results. Experimental results are thus authoritative and foundational.

Two philosophical notions are often employed to rebut the idea that experimental results are authoritative and foundational to scientific epistemology: experimental error and theory-laden observations. If experimental results are authoritative, in what sense can they be found to be in error? If experimental results rest on a theoretical structure, in what sense are they foundational? These notions, however, challenge only our equivocal understandings of authority and foundationalism.

Scientists must account for the literal meaning of all experimental results. To deem a result an "error" does not entail that it is simply ignored; an experimental "error" is simply a result that is explained in a particular way. The theory-ladeness of any observation determines the observations meaning, but it never determines the actual result. A volt-meter is a rather complicated, theory-laden device, but the definition of a volt-meter does not tell me anything about the actual, specific result I will see when I hook it up to some arbitrary battery.

The question we should ask of the religious is not whether they pick and choose, but what do they not pick and choose? What stays constant? What cannot be ignored? What stands as true, literally true?

Christians "pick and choose" about the literal meaning of their scripture. Fair enough, but if you pick and choose from your scripture, then your scripture is not authoritative. Christians "pick and choose" about intuitive notions about God; they do not seem to accept my own atheistic intuitions as veridical. So intuitions about God are not authoritative.

Even the supposedly "axiomatic" assumption that God is omnibenevolent is not authoritative, unless we are to believe that "war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades" are examples of benevolence. To assign "benevolence" to a God is to rob the term of any meaning: whatever happens, no matter how we might feel about it, must be the highest good, and we should all walk around saying, "It's a good life."

So fine, everyone picks and chooses, at least sometimes. But if you're not going to descend into pure bullshit postmodernism, you have to draw some line in the sand: you have to say, "When it comes to X, I'm not going to pick and choose."

With regard to religion, where is this line?


  1. Scientists must account for the literal meaning of all experimental results. To deem a result an "error" does not entail that it is simply ignored; an experimental "error" is simply a result that is explained in a particular way.

    I suppose this is true in a philosophical sense. However, scientists frequently discard "bad data" without necessarily knowing how or why the data are "bad".

    The operational difference between religion and science is that scientists at least attempt to insulate the process of deciding whether data are "bad" from the process of deciding whether data are consistent or inconsistent with a theory or hypothesis. And it is important to recognize that this insulation can be difficult, if not impossible, as a practical matter in many situations.

  2. "It wasn't a true debate; Sunsara didn't have the opportunity to address Bartchy's commentary at all."

    I'm not sure how you could know it wasn't a debate if you only have my account to go by. Did you correspond with Sunsara? In any case, no, it was not really a debate format. It was just Sunsara, Bartchy, then questions.

  3. I know Sunsara Taylor in person; I asked her directly about the event.

  4. May I ask what she thought of it?

    I would distinguish between the picking and choosing of literal meaning and of moral meaning. When it comes to the literal meaning of the Bible, obviously we should pick and choose based on historical and scientific evidence.

    However, the kind of "picking and choosing" that is most relevant is the moral kind. Here it's a little more complicated, because as you've said before, morality is not "truth-apt". Nothing need stay constant; nothing can stay constant. Would we need to modify your argument somehow to account for this?

  5. Miller: I think that most religious people would that moral claims are objective truth claims in just the same sense that claims about physical law are objective truth claims.

    If religious people were to agree with me that moral claims were not truth-apt, or if they were to hold that moral truths are available to naturalism, then in what sense are they religious at all? As Hume noted, a purely mystical religion is indistinguishable from atheism.

  6. And you may ask, but I didn't speak to Sunsara at length. I had emailed her with some suggestions based on your feedback and when I saw her we talked mostly about the philosophical level. The only additional detail I got was that it wasn't a true debate.

    She writes about her experiences on her blog, and she wrote an article about her tour for Revolution newspaper.

  7. However, scientists frequently discard "bad data" without necessarily knowing how or why the data are "bad".

    I don't think this is true, and if it is true, scientists are routinely missing opportunities to learn about the world.

    I don't think it's true because I suspect that often when data is discarded as bad, the reason it's known to be bad is obvious, e.g. that it's wildly inconsistent with the rest of the data and/or its at the limits of the measuring apparatus.

    We don't necessarily need to know the precise cause of the bad result, but there are well-accepted criteria for what constitutes obviously bad data.

  8. My own take is that the part that doesn't move is pretty small. It is a sense that there is you, something greater than you, and that the Something deserves some measure of respect. Beyond that, there are as many differences as people.

    "Something" doesn't have to be God, Satan could just as easily fill the role. And "Respect" doesn't have to mean love, fear, reverence, or anything specific. It's more an understanding that the Something can affect you... like fire. Without respect, it can deal out great damage, but treated with respect and you've got warmth and cooked food.


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