Friday, May 25, 2007

Why can't we all just get along?

Whenever anyone laments, "Why can't we all just get along?" I always read it as saying, "Why don't you just shut up and do as I say?"

Michael Ruse wonders why those of us who are against religion don't just shut up and tolerate mediocre religious bullshit for the sake of opposing creationism, which is really virulent religious bullshit. The question is self-answering: Because mediocre bullshit is still bullshit; if you tolerate mediocre bullshit, you compromise an important principle contra virulent bullshit.

Ruse trots out his anti-creationist credentials (and good for him) and whines that atheists are being "nasty" to him. Well boo fucking hoo. Dennett says Ruse stands in danger of losing the respect of his peers. Dawkins calls him a "Chamberlain".

Ruse is entitled to his position:
I do not see that committing oneself to science necessarily implies that one thinks that all of religion is false, and that those who worship a supreme being are in some respects at one with the fanatics who flew planes into the World Trade Center. ... I fully accept that many believers are good because of their beliefs. Moreover, I think it is both politically and morally right to work with believers to combat ills, including creationism.
There's a real controversy here; and Ruse is certainly entitled to argue his position.

His argument, which spans almost two full paragraphs, a whopping ten percent of this essay, certainly deserves consideration: Dawkins fails to "acknowledge that few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God ... [and] the proofs are a lot more subtle than these critics recognize." That's it. Sounds to me like a variation on the "bad food and not enough of it" argument.

Ruse holds up Augustine's cosmological proof as an example of this subtlety. It's uncontroversial, though, that that Augustine himself was an intelligent person and his argument subtle. But Augustine proffers this argument sixteen centuries ago; subtle it may be, but it is still wrong and has been proven wrong. Ruse states that he is "absolutely committed to the belief that science is our highest form of knowledge." Is this sincere? Why mention then that "few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God" to defend them?

Ruse does not merely argue his position, but also demands that his opponents remain silent in the name of "unity", while simultaneously calling them dogmatic "true believers", unwilling to listen. Ruse labels his opponents dogmatic because they fail to maintain unity; Ruse seems to think that it is impossible that anyone could honestly disagree with his position, therefore his opponents must fail to listen.

The projection, hypocrisy and utter lack of intellectual integrity is blatant and loathsome.

(h/t to Darwiniana)


  1. Honest debate is never a two-way street for religious believers of any stripe.

  2. It really isn't. There are a few (very few) exceptions, but the fundamental irrationality of religion really makes it difficult.

    There's always some pressing issue that argues for pragmatic accommodationism. If it's not creationism, it's women's rights, or racial integration, or gay rights, or the war in Iraq, or stem cells or whatnot. The story is the same: "Let's go easy on them because we need their help on this particular issue."

    I have some sympathy for this pragmatic position, and if I were more focused on politics than philosophy, I would probably find it stronger. And in a purely political sense, I do actually agree: I'd vote for an anti-war Christian against a pro-war atheist in a heartbeat. Hell, if Ron Paul won the Republican nomination, I'd vote for him over Barack Putnam Edwards.

    But this isn't about politics, it's about philosophy and truth.

    Not only do I disagree with Ruse, but I find his tone patronizing and offensive. If he wants to just put his case out there for pragmatic accommodation, that's one thing. But to cast those who disagree with him as dogmatic "true believers" merely because we consider religion to be silly, stupid and irrational—and are prepared to offer arguments and evidence in support of that position, for Darwinian to characterize this intellectual debate as sectarian, opposed by unreasonable loudmouths is disgusting and indefensible.

  3. That should be "Barack Rodham Clinton", of course.

    My lovely wife is probably correct: only a philosophy geek such as myself would ever confuse Hillary Clinton with Hillary Putnam.

  4. You are far too hard on Ruse, and he is too hard on Dawkins & Dennett. If I really thought they held some of the opinions which he attributes to them, I would be horrified (he's describing someone more like that prat Sam Haris). But your last sentence is dangerously close to ad hominem.

    Neither do I agree with your contention that Augustine has been proven wrong. I actually think there is some mileage in the possibility that causality is another evolutionary epiphemomenon (like morality, god, personal identity, freewill etc).

    It seems probable to me that there is genetic variation in the propensity to religious belief. If so, it may well be that there are people for whom it is the case that the project to convince them that there is no God is analagous to a project to convince some men that that which lies between a woman's legs is not of such all-consuming importance as they believe.

    And if that is so, Sam Harris's project (I am not at all sure of it being D&D's also) to eradicate religion from the face of the earth is entirely pointless. Unless you believe that getting all people to acknowledge the truth is the highest good, at any cost.

    BTW, did you see that Fuller has popped up again? with some stunningly arrogant stuff on which I have not yet called him, because first things first. no one has ever provided – or is ever likely to provide – an even reasonably complete account of how natural selection (genetic drift and whatever other evolutionary forces you wish to add) actually resulted in the emergence of a new species, forsooth.

  5. But your last sentence is dangerously close to ad hominem.

    An ad hominem argument is an argument from the personal characteristics of the person to the truth or falsity of the issue. It's nowhere near an ad hominem; it's definitely an insult, though.

    Augustine has been proven wrong—in the sense that his argument is definitely not sound—insofar as one can draw a conclusion about the origin of the universe from details about causality or movement.

    Whether or not there is a genetic basis for propensity to religious belief, the project of Harris, et al. is not pointless, although it might be futile or merely very difficult. The point, indeed, is similar to your conjecture: to get a critical number of people to acknowledge that falsity and bullshit is the root of all evil.

  6. Oh, and I must say I find Fuller's scientific and philosophical acumen every bit as perspicacious and persuasive as did Judge Jones.

  7. I stand corrected on ad hominem argument, although I certainly don't agree that Ruse is displaying hypocrisy and lack of intellectual integrity. (In passing, I wonder whether I am suffering from an unusual form of ad hominem tendency, in that I have been reading Ruse's careful anti-creationsist philosophy since th early '80s and am now therefore more willing to read his later pronouncements charitably?)

    Augustine - no energy for that one now (might come back to it, not in a spirit of wishing to argue for the sake of it (is there a word for that?), but because it's interesting).

    Futile - yes, OK, I'll accept that word. falsity and bullshit is the root of all evil Now there's an interesting thought, which on the face of it I disagree with. There are far too many repercussions and complications for a comments box though.

    Fuller - yes. All very odd. I found this last night. All the usual crap, "evolution is unfalsifiable", plus some seriously weird stuff about Darwin. I have a nasty feeling Fuller thinks he's Galileo.

  8. I have nothing but unqualified respect for Ruse's work against creationism; as much as I disagree with his recent comments, they do nothing to diminish this respect.

    I think it's contrary to intellectual integrity to argue any position on the basis of anything but its intrinsic merits or lack thereof. To demand agreement on the basis of unity and in the same breath condemn one's opponents as dogmatic is prima facie hypocritical—dogmatism is belief predicated on anything other than the merits of that belief, and "unity" obviously qualifies.

    And I will correct myself: Falsity and bullshit are not the root of all evil. However, I would say that they are always evil, never excused by results, and by themselves the root of quite a lot of evil.

    I'll have to read Prof. Fuller's debate later; perhaps I'll post on it tomorrow morning.

  9. Sigh... I must correct myself again: Falsity is rarely excused by results, and only in the most limited form in the most extreme circumstances.

  10. To demand agreement on the basis of unity and in the same breath condemn one's opponents as dogmatic is prima facie hypocritical—dogmatism is belief predicated on anything other than the merits of that belief, and "unity" obviously qualifies.

    That claim has been worrying me on and off all day, and I finally worked out why. I think we have different definitions of dogmatism. I think of dogmatism as being convinced you're right and uninterested in listening to any debate; but that doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that you are right. In other words, the quality of dogmatism says nothing necessary about the truth value of one's position.

    It is, actually, hard not to become dogmatic about something about which one has thought and read a lot. At a certain point, one stops listening to counter-arguments because one is sure (quite probably correctly) that one has heard them all before. I think the most one (I, anyway) can aim for is actually to listen properly to the arguments and refute them properly, even if I am listening with a perfect internal convinction that I am right....

    I don't agree with Ruse that D&D are dogmatic (in this sense) really, though; certainly not in their published works, although I daresay that in moments of exasperation thye may be.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.