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.