Contempt for philosophy breeds contempt for thinking

Chris Mooney has been promoting a post by Scienceblogger Chad Orzel on the science/religion issue, declaring “Orzel nails it.” I think Orzel’s piece is interesting for an entirely different reason: it showcases the dangers of being ignorant and disdainful of philosophy.

Orzel’s basically says that he agrees science and religion are incompatible, but he’ll declare himself a member of the “they’re compatible” camp anyway, because “as a formal philosophical matter, it’s kind of difficult to show that motion is possible.”–a comment graced by a link to the SEP article on Zeno’s paradox. Zeno’s paradox, for those not in the know, is a very old argument which is supposed show that motion is impossible. But the presence of a very old argument against a possibility doesn’t mean that philosophers have a hard time figuring out how the thing in question is a possibility. In the case of Zeno’s paradox, philosophers are almost unanimous that it’s a bad argument. It turns on seeing that finite quantities can be divided into infinitely many parts, but not that an infinite number of terms can have a finite sum. This criticism is as old as Aristotle (which Orzel would know if he had actually read the article he links to), and is so well established that we’re really outside the domain of speculative philosophy: I originally learned the solution to Zeno’s paradox in a high school math class.

Aside from over-estimating the difficulty of solving Zeno’s paradox, Orzel makes another serious blunder: he compares the fact of motion in spite of Zeno’s paradox to the fact of religious scientists in spite of what he believes to be the logical inconsistency of science and religion. But these cases are only parallel if you think that it’s impossible for people to believe illogical things. The fact of motion shows that there’s something wrong with Zeno’s paradox, but the fact of religious scientists only shows that it can’t both be true that science and religion are logically incompatible and people are incapable of believing illogical things.

Orzel’s argument is grounded in a profound ignorance of philosophy (the false belief that philosophers have a hard time seeing how motion is possible), leading to contempt for philosophical reasoning (philosophers are so silly, why care about them?), which naturally perpetuates the original ignorance (Orzel doesn’t care about philosophy, so he’s unlikely to try to correct his ignorance). None of that is surprising, but it’s striking how he randomly makes the jump from being contemptuous of philosophy to being contemptuous of the idea that we should strive to have beliefs that actually make sense. He seems to understand that philosophy is the currently the number one discipline for learning the basics of good reasoning, but rather than trying to learn some philosophy to improve his abilities over the deplorably low mean, he’s decided “so much the worse for logical reasoning.” This is evidence that disregard for philosophy is even worse than you’d think from just considering failure to learn to think clearly.

Closing aside: by consistently portraying the debate over NSCE policy as a matter of the existence of religious scientists, Chris Mooney is basically lying about what the NSCE’s critics think. What they want is for the NSCE not take a position on the controversial science-religion questions, something Jerry Coyne has been pretty clear about. In the imaginary conversation, most of the believer’s questions can be answered just by stating the facts, and I’m not really sure that Mooney wants the NSCE to be dispensing direct answers to the question about Hell–in some ways, the ideal answer is to say it’s crazy to believe in a god who would send people to hell for believing in evolution, but in some situations that answer could be more trouble than it’s worth.

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8 Comments.

  1. It’s not entirely clear to me which of two errors he’s committing. On the one hand, he might (as you think) be saying something like, “Science and religion are philosophically incompatible, but lots of obviously compatible things break down upon philosophical investigation, so there’s just something wrong with philosophy.” Since philosophy and everyday reasoning are on a continuum, this would quickly lead to a deep global skepticism. On the other hand, he may just be equivocating between between two different senses of compatibility and be trying to say, “Science and religion are philosophically incompatible, but we mustn’t pretend people can’t embrace both at the same time.” On this reading, he’s still missing an important distinction between logical and psychological compatibility (which renders his entire post a non sequitur), but this is a rather more innocent error.

  2. “it’s striking how he randomly makes the jump from being contemptuous of philosophy to being contemptuous of the idea that we should strive to have beliefs that actually make sense.”

    I was certainly struck by that. ‘Zeno’s paradox therefore what the hell.’

  3. Reading his remarks in the comments section, he makes his position a little more clear:

    1. By “compatibility,” he only refers to psychological compatibility, i.e., the ability for human beings to believe and feel comfortable about believing two things at the same time.
    2. Science and religion are compatible in this sense.
    3. Politically, this is the only sense of compatibility we should care about and take as actionable.

    The third claim is his main thesis, and it’s a little less gross than the position you ascribe to him, namely,

    3′. Rationally, this is the only sense of compatibility we should care about,

    which masks an extreme relativism. Still, 3. is pretty transparently absurd in itself, and Orzel is basically cornered by his commenters into admitting that it entails science and astrology/homeopathy/alien abductions/etc. are also compatible in all the ways that politically matter.

  4. Re: Mark: I think he’s making both errors. There’s a sense in which the second is more central to the piece, but the overall effect of the piece is driver by the first mistake.

  5. It is unbelievable that people would attempt to argue that science and religion are compatible in any useful sense by simply pointing to religious scientists, priests who work in science, etc. After all, by the same argument, is smoking healthy? There are physicians who smoke, right?

    A similar argument goes through about “political compatibility”.

  6. Nice analysis.

    I wonder whether part of Chad’s problem might stem from his being a quantum physicist. Students of quantum mechanics are often actively discouraged from trying to make sense of the theory (e.g., of grappling seriously with the measurement problem), and are told to “shut up and calculate” — i.e., just get a pragmatic grasp of the theory, and don’t try to figure out what’s really going on.

    You can see how this could devalue reason to the point where one might shrug his shoulders at an obvious contradiction.

  7. Physicalist,

    Interesting theory. I have a hard time imagining that physics programs are really so bad that they destroy people’s ability to think, but a professor I had last semester did tell me that philosophy of physics is full of refugees from bad physics programs. I initially would have thought Chad’s training would have helped him avoid the screw-up over Zeno’s paradox (doisng physics requires understanding math), but you’re right, it probably works the opposite way.

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