The Anti-scientific Dogmatism of Atheism, (or: Why Harvard Professor Steven Pinker is a Big, Fat, Stupidhead)

Pinker.jpgSteven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a 2018 bestselling book from the hand of a Harvard professor of psychology which triumphs the accomplishments of science, reason, progress, and humanism. The values of the Enlightenment, he says, have worked. We’re a better species for all of these intellectual developments, which have led to tangible improvements in all human society – longer lives, better healthcare, less violence, more education, broader knowledge, and more happiness. Critics have piled praise on this mega-seller. Bill Gates has called it his “favorite book of all time.”

Not everyone likes it. Pinker claims that liberal and conservative critics of his work alike are offended at his ideas and “really hate progress” (52). In fact, his critics don’t generally hone in on his pollyanna pronouncements. They focus on the fact that he attributes progress to an overly simplistic cause-and-effect relationship with the values that Pinker favors. The Atlantic calls attention to the fact that the scientific establishment upends the emotional attachments and longings of the hometown suburbanite (Gopnik, 4/18; also cf. Szalai, NYT, 2/18), but longing for traditional family isn’t one of the values that Pinker perceives to be contributing to human flourishing. Vox points out that the true challenges to Enlightenment Now are “reasonable points made by knowledgeable professionals about what one needs to prove to give a convincing account of the impact of the Enlightenment” (Hanlon, 5/18), professionals like David Bell, Princeton historian, who questions why Pinker doesn’t engage in any real analysis of Enlightenment thinkers. Rousseau, for instance, was one of the most popular Enlightenment thinkers and didn’t believe in the progress Pinker panagyrizes, and Enlightenment thinkers didn’t oppose religion the way Pinker says enlightened people must. The critics aren’t cynical. They’re rightly confused.

Me too.

My concern is a different one, speaking as a pastor and at least casual theologian. Pinker makes sweeping dismissals of anything he disagrees with, and does so with disregard for science and reason. He attempts to steal ethics from religion and hand it to science, despite the deplorably unethical uses to which science has been given historically, and his treatment of religion is exactly the kind of polemical, polarized nonsense that he is so critical of in the world of politics.

Pinker likes reason when it works for him and otherwise sets it aside – exactly the behavior that he so articulately chastises.

When it comes to ethics, there is a rigorous body of moral commitments which Pinker depends upon. However, it’s not entirely clear where they come from. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person – one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism – requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” (477). So not from there. He tips his hat to the reality that science cannot make definitive ethical prescriptions either, but he seems to hold on to the hope. Elsewhere, Pinker has claimed that maybe ethics can be found in the nature of morality, because evolution produces progress (it doesn’t actually), which is of moral value because Pinker says it is (“Evolution and Ethics,” Intelligent Thought, 2006, 150). Omitted is any consideration of the fact that modern racism was propped up by scientific theories spanning from Charles Darwin himself through the well-educated scientists of the Third Reich. The problem here is not that the science was bad, but that the scientists were bad, and bad scientists will always use the tools of science to forward evil achievements. Science is ethically neutral.

Likewise, on the subject of religion, the optimistic professor says unequivocally, “There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…” (477). Notice the deceptive grouping of the mainstream – answered prayer – with the not so much – spells. It’s like saying, “You know…science, with its gravity, evolution, aether, dark energy, leeching, feminine hysteria, Chernobyl, and Piltdown man.” More importantly, notice that he gives no reason, evidence, or science behind his claim. In a 2004 lecture to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Pinker calls the Bible “a manual for rape and genocide and destruction.” He then goes on to say that he is not aware of any scientific enquiry into the claims of religion, and tries to account for the ubiquity of religion through a quirky, piecemeal explanation that leans on psychological vocabulary without doing any science.

So here’s the kind of scientific evidence I want Pinker to account for. Scientists study first-hand evidence right under their own noses and then account for it. Some time ago, I was leading a Bible study in a room of about 40 people. We were reading miracle stories from the Bible and asking if we should have similar experiences today. A friend of mine, a medical doctor, raised his hand and told me, “Jim, I think God is telling me to pray for someone.”
“Good for you,” I said. Pastors are supposed to encourage these things, but I didn’t know what to do with that.

“I mean right now,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. This is getting weird.

“Someone in this room has trouble clenching his left hand all the way,” he said. I had no experience in such things, and only knew them through televised fundraising charlatans. Fortunately, my thoughts were interrupted.

“That’s me,” said another guy at the back of the room. “I haven’t been able to close my left hand all the way for about 20 years.” He said it didn’t bother him much, and only hurt occasionally. I sent the doctor to pray for the man in the back of the room and made plans to sympathize when nothing happened.

The next day, the man with the injured hand called me on the phone. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “My hand has been healed. Not only that, but when that guy started talking, I felt a warm sensation flow upwards from my feet through my whole body.”

Here’s the deal, Steven Pinker. Both of these guys are still friends of mine. Both can tell you the story. I’ll give you their phone numbers. A medical doctor is not a tribalistic anti-intellectual. Nor am I, actually. Nor are most Christians in America, though you seem to think they are. Furthermore, you can’t write this account off as lacking witnesses, because there was a crowd, nor coincidence, because the doctor described the situation before it happened. You can’t complain that the experiment is irreplicable, because it was, itself, a repeated test of former cases, the ones in the Bible.

The problem with Pinker’s book, and Pinker himself, generally, is that reason goes out the window on the subject of religion. Pinker claims that “we know” religion isn’t true. The problem is that there are Christians at his Harvard, and throughout the Ivy League, and not just among the student body – among the faculties. Neither John Lennox at Oxford, nor Alister McGrath at King’s College, nor Robert George at Princeton, nor Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale, nor Michael McConnell at Stanford, nor Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, nor Martin Nowak at Harvard know that religion isn’t true.

They, like the values that you don’t subscribe to, simply don’t count.

Unintelligent by Design

DarwinOne of the criticisms I’m regularly seeing in discussions of evolution is that those who claim that life shows signs of intelligent design are relying on a “god of the gaps” argument.  The charge is that where they cannot explain how something happened, they’re just answering “God,” without any further intellectual curiosity or explanatory possibilities.  In fact, I’ve heard several skeptics call it “Intelligent Design of the gaps.”

But it occurs to me that if something shows signs of being designed by an intelligent mind, and a skeptic says that such an explanation doesn’t count, what he means is that intelligence isn’t a thing.  Intelligence doesn’t have explanatory power.  You can’t point to something and say that it’s obviously the work of an intelligent mind.  If that’s true, the skeptic of intelligent design must literally be saying that intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, exist.  There must be something behind the appearance of intelligence which isn’t itself intelligence.  The skeptic literally won’t stop looking until he’s found something unintelligent.

It’s a little bit difficult to give credence to an idea being forwarded by someone who from the outset dismisses things that look intelligent.

 

 

My sense for how our design points us towards a designer is in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Debate, Doubt, and Darwin

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Not long ago I posted a review of Darwin’s Doubt which went viral and provoked the response of a fiery graduate student.  The review and pursuant conversation actually provoked a conversation of its own.

A bumper sticker I’ve seen around in Seattle protests the War on Terror, warning that “We’re making enemies faster than we can kill them…” Without wading into matters of national defense and military strategy, I’ll give the author of the slogan this much: Any strategy that focuses too much on attacking people, and not enough on making reasoned arguments, is doomed to fail in winning hearts and minds.

For an illustration, take a look at a post by Reverend James Miller, of Glenkirk Church in Glendora, CA. He recently explained….

Read the rest here….

Changing My Mind on Darwin

ImageSo I’ve changed my mind about Darwinism.  I guess I have to tell you where my mind was to tell you where it now is.

I’ve never invested much study in evolution because I was neither threatened by it theologically nor enchanted by it philosophically.  The biology teachers taught it to me.  I can explain it.  As a follower of Jesus, I can see a viable explanation for how God could do it that way.  I’m also not overly confident that science is fueled by objective curiosity rather than passionate self-interest and ideology, money and power.  Science is motivated reasoning on its best days.

When I listen to militant Christians talk about Darwinism, it’s pretty clear they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  When I listen to militant Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  I guess there are just so many fundamentalists in this debate on both sides, I’ve stayed away from it entirely.  I read a few books about it years ago and felt like there were a few intelligent people arguing for and against, surrounded by a cacophony of lunatics.

I’ve just read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.  Meyer is a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science.  He hangs out with the Intelligent Design people.  His writing is fluid, detailed, and reasonable.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

The book makes the case for the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support Darwinism.  The sudden appearance of new phyla without sufficient time for the mutation and selection process to work is simply unaccounted for by the rocks.

The problem is that when Meyer says things like, “the Precambrian fossil record simply does not document the gradual emergence of the crucial distinguishing characteristics of the Cambrian animals,” how on earth should I know if he’s right?  I don’t have time to immerse myself in paleontology.  I’ll never be an expert.  I just have four hundred pages of articulate, self-assured, well-documented evidence for Meyer’s case.

So here’s how I find my way into a conversation on subjects that are not my primary field of study.  I read the reviews that are antagonistic to the source and just look at the logic that’s employed.  I find that this often gives me the best read on a work.  If the critics are sincere, the reviews are usually precise.

The New Yorker’s review began with a genetic fallacy, presented arguments that Meyer had refuted without mentioning that Meyer had addressed them, and then deferred to another blogger for the scientific content of the review.  It then called Meyer “absurd,” which, given how shoddy the review actually is, was an absurd thing to do.

Then I read the review from which the New Yorker piece got its “science,” which was actually written by a grad student at Berkeley.  Now I have to say that Berkeley is, in fact, one of my fields of expertise, and I know exactly how Berkeley grad students go about their “work.”  Somehow Berkeley selects the crazies and the militants who show the most promise and then teaches them that knowledge is a completely subjective power tool which should be manipulated by those on an ideological crusade to undermine authority.  I’m not kidding.  I went to Berkeley.  That’s what we did.

What’s interesting about the grad student’s review is that it was posted 24 hours after the release of Meyer’s book, and it’s filled with snark.  He’s not having an intelligent conversation, he’s insulting Meyer in order to defend something religiously.  In a later, defensive review, the grad student says that he read the book “during lunch.” He read over 400 pages of scientific material during lunch, and then posted an insulting review.  He says his detractors are just “slow readers.” People who win speed reading competitions tend to cover 1,000 words per minute (maybe 4 pages) with 50% comprehension.  That level of comprehension is almost useless, and it becomes less useful the more information-rich the content.  A book of Meyer’s size would have taken an hour and forty minutes at that pace, with minimal retention, and that’s if you’re not, oh, say, eating lunch.  On top of that, the review is almost 10,000 words long, which would take some time to write, making it highly suspicious that the review was written after the book was read and not before, in anticipation of the book’s release.

See, this is how I know who to trust in academic communities.  The charlatans have no character.  You read the grad student’s defenses of his review (and they sound a little panicked), and you realize that he has been following Christians around and arguing with them for years with an inquisitor’s zeal.  There’s a personal agenda here, and his approach to new information on the subject is anything but scientific.

Now I start to smell a rat, and I change tactics.  Now I really want Meyer to be wrong.  I want one, good, solid review by an objective thinker, maybe even a Christian, who can debunk Meyer.

So then I read Donald Prothero’s review.  He’s a paleontologist and a scholar.  It begins with a caricature and a smear, saying that anyone who questions evolution suffers from confirmation bias (explain Thomas Nagel?).  He then says they have PhD’s in the wrong fields and thus aren’t qualified to discuss evolution (Meyer, again, studied philosophy of science).  Then he launches into unsubstantiated accusations, saying there are errors on every page.  He says Meyer claims the Cambrian explosion happened “all at once.” Now look, I just read Meyer, and he doesn’t say that at all.  This isn’t a mistake.  This is a lie.  The truth comes out as he goes on to refer to Meyer’s religion as a “fairy tale.” Again, I haven’t found a scientific mind.  I’ve found another fundamentalist.

Now I start to sweat.  A host of scientists have endorsed the book (http://www.darwinsdoubt.com/blurbs/).  I want one to reject it on perfectly level-headed grounds, with no patronizing rhetoric.

Another definitive work on the Cambrian Explosion came out in January of this year.  Called The Cambrian Explosion, it attempts to give a scientific explanation for how so much variety erupted in such a short time.  The authors say “the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition.” That means the evolutionists are saying the fossil evidence doesn’t bolster evolution in this particular era.

The New York Times ran a science article last month that said that scientists will spend the coming years trying to figure out what combination of environmental triggers caused the Cambrian explosion.  It doesn’t mention Meyer.  It also seems to leave a big, open question mark about why we need to defend Darwinism at points where the evidence leans away from it.

So now I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t think the fossil evidence does support the current representation of Darwinism.  I think there are some otherwise well-trained scientists who are freaking out, and doing it in widely public and observable ways.  Their lack of command of reason is a tell-tale sign that their motives for defending their orthodoxy are not scientific.  And I believe the failure of the scientific communities to engage in this conversation in a rational way is a manifestation of power brokering rather than honest intellectual engagement.

Could humanity have evolved?  Sure.  But the case isn’t as strong as they told me in biology class.

When is a thought not a thought?

ImageI’m not sure if everyone follows this, so forgive me if this is abstract.  I just kind of find it hilarious and awfully compelling.

If you don’t believe in God, you believe the world is fundamentally matter and that life came about through the process of evolution.  Evolution requires only the survival of the fittest, and survival simply comes about through 4 things: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.  That’s it.  At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.

For instance, an evolutionary psychologist might tell you that mild paranoia actually gives you better chances of survival than realism, so you may have evolved into a kind of paranoia that you now think is an accurate picture of reality.  In other words, your thoughts about what is “true” and “real” simply aren’t, because you’re more likely to survive this way.

That means that when you say “I don’t believe in God,” you are saying that you can’t trust your thoughts to actually reveal reality.  You don’t trust your own thoughts to be true.  As a consequence, your perception that there is no God can’t be trusted to be true, and thus you don’t believe in your own atheism.

If this seems silly on first glance, you might want to give it a second thought.

Hardwired

Philosophers of all stripes are coming to see that scientific methodology can fundamentally undermine itself.

These are the kinds of things I speculate about in

Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

SDG

Watching the sun set over the ocean always feels like the closing curtain to a good play.  Moments like these feel like a sweetly passing sentiment, because we have become so used to God whispering his love that we take it for granted.  We don’t even hear it, a spouse’s “What was that?” to the other who has already left the room.  But the order of the universe is in fact a message from God.

The harmony of creation is a lullaby from a God who is reordering a broken world.  It’s his way of telling us there is still sense in things, even after tragedy.  It’s the strength of the arms that cradle us.  It’s his, “There, there.” Because there is fundamental order “out there,” maybe one day I can have it “in here.”

And thus you can hear the love of nature’s harmony in Bach’s Inventions.  He scratched at the top of his compositions, “SDG,” or Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone be the glory.  If he had not written it there, his music would say it by itself, because the fundamental order that beauty captures glorifies God.  SDG is written on the sunset.  The pulsing rhythm of sunrises and sunsets are a visual drumbeat.Image

Creation’s order plays on our natural love of harmony and structure.  That should be a clue to us as to where we come from.  The idea that order could just spring from a primal nothing should strike us as absurd.  Order has to have come from somewhere.  At least when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, there was a hat.  For those who believe the universe just came to be, there is no hat, and no magician.  Science has changed its mind on this one.  Historically, the predominant view was not that the universe came to exist, but that it had always been.  For those who didn’t believe in a Creator, the idea of a moment of creation was too much of an affront.  In fact, Marcus Aurelius called it logically absurd.[1]  “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” Today, we know universally and conversationally about the Big Bang, or in other words, the magically appearing rabbit.  And this fact honestly makes atheists queasy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein described what this feels like. He said that he sometimes had a certain experience which could best be described by saying that “when I have it, I wonder at the existence of the world. I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘How extraordinary that anything should exist!’ or ‘How extraordinary that the world should exist!’” [2]

And it is extraordinary.  Extraordinary that our hearts long for order.  Extraordinary that we feel like it should be more complete than it is.  And extraordinary that our deepest longings jibe with that which God has promised.  God is a fairly sloppy artist.  He’s left his fingerprints all over the work.

1 The Meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, V.12.

2 Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press,1958), p. 70.