Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Them Sneaky Catholics

I'm watching the Richard Dawkins interview with George Coyne right now*. 'Father' Coyne comes across, as many Catholics do, as quite sophisticated and scientific in his treatment of evolution. There's a particularly pernicious kind of dishonesty there though - it's often seen in supposedly liberal Catholics who purport to be rational and scientific.

The argument goes like this:
Certainly evolution by natural selection is the best scientific explanation available for the origin of all the various forms of life on earth, I wouldn't dispute that. What I take issue with is the scientist's presumption that there is nothing more to humanity than chemical reactions. Simply look at the glorious works of art, music, and emotion, blah blah blah, there must be something more. That is all I am proposing, and if you allow, I prefer to call that something 'God'.
Sometimes the full thing is articulated in so many words, and sometimes the latter part of the argument is simply implied, but that's the long and short of it.

There are some subtle but venomous logical fallacies in that. I think the major one is the straw man - assuming that science puts a period after the word 'evolution', in ink, then closes the book. No biologist has ever said that evolution as we currently understand it is absolutely the last word, and we are not accepting any new ideas. They leave it at the first bit: that evolution is the best explanation we have right now. If anyone has any new ideas, we'd love to hear them. Bring us your evidence.

Then there's the argument from ignorance. They say "well I can't see how evolution explains the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so I believe there must be a greater explanation." Really, that's not so terrible. We all do this every day, none of us is perfectly philosophically scientific about everything, we'd never get anything done if we were. The problem arises when you try to use this argument to convince others, even when someone is offering a perfectly good explanation for exactly how evolution explains art, or whatever.

There's also an equivocation problem, when they say "all I mean by 'God' is the mystery in nature" then turn around and talk about a virgin birth, a ressurection, and mass produced, bite-sized wafers of man-god-flesh. I don't want to get into all that right now.

In the end, this kind of argument boils down to the God of the Gaps. It's not sophisticated, and most certainly not scientific. It is an outright rejection of Occam's Razor and the null hypothesis, the foundational principles of science. There is never an alternative theory presented, it is merely stating "I don't accept this is all there is (which no one ever said), so I'm going to go ahead and believe whatever I want anyways, with no rational basis for doing so."

This type of argument is perhaps more dangerous than that of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents, because it appeals to the fence sitters. It is likely to attract people with enough sanity to see the Ben Steins and Ken Hams are lunatics, but not enough intellectual sophistication (or courage) to carry their reason to its natural conclusion - that we must accept the simplest explanation that accounts for all the observable evidence, and, for now, leave the rest with an open-ended question mark until we figure that out too.

*I paused it during part 1 to write this, so forgive me if Dawkins addresses all of these arguments later in the interview!

Ugh. Ok, I've watched more of the interview now. Turns out Coyne wasn't really making the argument I thought he was at the beginning (although all of the above still applies!). His view on evolution, as far as that goes, appears to be absolutely correct. At the end, when Dawkins backs him into a bit of a corner, he admits that his belief in God is fundamentally irrational. He uses the word superfluous, that is to say, not necessary to explain anything we can observe. Well again, this is an outright rejection of Occam's Razor. It's also a bit of a conversation stopper, because if you are having a rational debate based on logical arguments, and one person's position comes down to "this has nothing to do with logic or rationality" then there's nowhere to go.

Except possibly to say this: if you are admittedly and happily irrational in even one aspect of your belief system**, then why would you choose to restrain yourself to science and reason in all others? I suppose the answer is "that's something else I'm irrational about" and again, it takes you nowhere. Seems to me that a small willing rejection of reason is no different from an abject total rejection of reason.

** Only in regards to facts! In cases of emotion or aesthetics, I think irrationality is perfectly acceptable for reasons I may or may not explain some day.

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