Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bullshit poisons everything

It's not really religion — it's certainly not just religion — that poisons everything: bullshit poisons everything.

Even if we could completely eliminate bullshit, we would not turn the world into a Utopia. Figuring out how the world works is an enormously difficult task. Even just figuring out physics at the most basic level, simplified level has taken the lifetime effort of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people for centuries; throw in all the physical sciences and the cost is staggering. Of course, the benefits to humanity (even counting all the drawbacks, like oil spills and nuclear weapons) have exceeded the costs by orders of magnitude. And if science is hard, politics and economics — negotiating all the competing interests, preferences, talents and abilities of billions of self-interested people — is even harder.

Bullshit is not our only problem, and it's probably not even our worst problem. The elimination of bullshit is not a panacea: it's not a sufficient condition to solve any, much less all, of the world's problems. But bullshit makes everything harder. Bullshit and the toleration of bullshit actively blocks solutions to our political and economic problems. We know this because the most important advance of science has been the scientific method — experimental, empirical falsifiability — which detects and eliminates instances of bullshit.

I can't stress the point too strongly. Scientists today are no more clever or intelligent than people were a thousand years ago. We did not magically leave the stupid field in Francis Bacon's or Gallileo's day. The key to science is not naturalism: Thales was a naturalist a generation before Socrates; the key to science is not logic: Aristotle discovered the laws of logic; the key to science is not reliance on evidence and thorough investigation of the facts: Thucydides pioneered these methods. And yet modern science had to wait a hundred generations after these pioneers. Science had to wait on its true key: total and intentional commitment to the elimination of falsity and bullshit on the basis of evidence and experiment.

Science has not, of course, eliminated all bullshit. The point is that scientists have intentionally adopted the attitude — and built the social systems to fulfill that attitude — that bullshit is intolerable: when they do find an instance of bullshit (and they find it all the time), they ruthlessly extirpate it. Hence, despite their considerable scientific achievements, scientists and devotees of science such as myself look askance at scientists such as Ken Miller or Francis Collins. The essence of science is the intolerance of bullshit, and here are these guys tolerating egregious bullshit in their personal lives. (It's not their conclusion that God exists, it's rather their justification for that conclusion that reeks of bullshit.)

The total commitment to the detection and elimination of bullshit is not a sufficient condition to solving or ameliorating our problems. It is, however, a necessary condition. And the only way to develop this commitment is to socially select against* habits of thought and institutions that definitionally or actually tolerate bullshit.

*As I've often noted, social selection does not mean killing people; indeed killing people is almost always an ineffective and always a grossly inefficient way of selecting against ideas and social constructions.

It's not at all that confrontationalist, anti-religious atheists such as myself have any abhorrence to belief in gods per se. We object, rather, to the bullshit that necessarily supports these beliefs, and the toleration of bullshit necessary to maintain these beliefs and their associated institutions. And it's not that religion has any corner on bullshit; religion is, rather, a "paradigmatic" bullshit-tolerating social institution. Religion too might be the keystone in the edifice of bullshit we've been building for millennia. Undermine religion — and undermine it using a dedication to the detection and extirpation of bullshit — and all the other forms of bullshit — e.g. woo, counterfactual denialism and historical revisionism, epistemic nihilism, Libertarianism — are thereby weakened, perhaps fatally.

It is this abhorrence not of god but of bullshit that I think the accommodationists at best fail to see and at worst refuse to see.

If our goal were only to get people to somehow believe — or believe in, whatever that means — evolution, then it's crucial to make religious bullshit compatible with evolution. We can make bullshit say whatever we want it to say; bullshit can be just as easily compatible with evolution as with creationism. It might take some effort, but anyone who's studied even a little theology knows that theologians have explained away more troubling ideas than a measly four billion years of evolution. And people hold their bullshit near and dear to their hearts: to demand that people not just believe evolution but believe evolution because that's what you have to believe when you have eliminated bullshit, those intent on holding onto their bullshit will be more likely to reject evolution. The accommodationists are absolutely, 100% correct: the anti-religious confrontational stance is not just unnecessary but seriously counterproductive to the goal of persuading people to accept this or that scientific truth.

But that's not our goal. Of course we'd like people to accept evolution — even if you have some bullshit support for it, evolution is absolutely necessary to understand biology — but acceptance of evolution per se is not our goal. Our goal really is to establish the intolerance and abhorrence of bullshit itself into all of our larger social institutions, and we do so by condemning institutions — especially religion — that are built on the foundation of tolerating and promoting bullshit. And of course the accommodationist position is not just unnecessary but at least somewhat counterproductive to our goal.

There's an important asymmetry, though. Accommodationist tactics are not really fatal to the confrontationalist position, but confrontationalist tactics are probably fatal to accommodationism. Accommodationism is just one more form of bullshit, and the confrontationalist position is that bullshit will always be with us; we need to develop attitudes and institutions that continuously detect and eliminate bullshit. But confrontationalism actively and fatally undermines accommodationist tactics: how can the accommodationists say that there's no conflict between science and religious bullshit when people who believe the very same scientific truths are loudly asserting that those truths actively undermine religious bullshit? Confrontationalists don't need the accommodationists to shut up, we need only to openly observe and condemn their toleration for bullshit. But the accommodationists desperately need the confrontationalist to shut up and not make our case, because they cannot openly rebut our case without undermining the foundations of science itself. We cannot actually eliminate the intolerance of bullshit necessary to make scientific progress, but to make accommodationism work it has to remain a dirty little secret that we cannot reveal to the religious.


  1. This is a really great post, Barefoot Bum.

    Thankyou for making the point so clearly.

  2. The Celtic Chimp9/30/10, 4:41 PM

    Very well said!

    I can't watch politicians being interviewed anymore without wanting to slap the interviewer for accepting their bullshit, obfuscating evasions and faux earnestness as actual answers. Bullshiting so common we have a special name for it "Political-speak".

    Religion takes bullshiting to a whole new level. It simply slaps you in the face with its bullshit, doesn't apologise and gets offended if you even hint that they might have just pulled their entire speil directly out of their asses for all the sense it makes and all the proof they have. Offer a logic refutation and they'll happily make up some new bullshit to get around it.

  3. I guess you could say that the accommodationist position is "What's a little bullshit among friends?"

  4. I wouldn't characterize religion as a little bullshit, nor does it appear to be among friends.

  5. Nor would I, but that does seem to be their position.


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