In a typically eloquent post on trying to understand those whose beliefs we deem abhorrent, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes an unnecessary swipe at creationists: “Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them.”
I’ve noticed his antipathy to creationists and intelligent design before (e.g. here, here and here). On one hand it’s quite strange. TNC’s writing is almost always clear and well-reasoned. But in this case I’m not at all sure what he’s trying to say. Is it that we should think of creationists as we do liars and charlatans? Or perhaps creationists are liars and charlatans? Given that creationism denotes a specific set of beliefs about Earth and human history, and liars and charlatans are simply bad people, I’m really not sure what the comparison is meant to show.
Sadly, TNC’s attitude is all too common. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word creationist used as a general pejorative, as a substitute for the intellectually careless and morally corrupt. I also can’t count the number of times I’ve heard creationists compared to Holocaust deniers, which TNC also does here. But is that really a useful comparison?
Denying evolution means you deny a very complicated scientific theory whose findings span several hundred million years, has exactly zero practical impact on your daily life (quick: when’s the last time you actually used the theory of evolution?), and may directly contradict your deeply-held religious beliefs. Denying the Holocaust means you to believe it’s okay to kill Jews.
Branding creationists as Holocaust deniers allows us to avoid trying to understand some 40% of our fellow citizens. Many practicing scientists, after all, are creationists. Many, many more are skeptical of evolution. Are they all liars and charlatans? Evangelicals (most of whom are either creationists or intelligent-design proponents) are increasingly active in both environmental stewardship and social justice. Should we treat them as we do Holocaust deniers?
A conflict exists only if you wrongly assume that creationism is a window into someone’s intellectual and moral character. If you wrongly assume that rejecting evolution is akin to rejecting the Holocaust. But they are not at all the same.
What’s even more dispiriting about TNC’s attitude is that it contradicts so much of his other work. More than any other writer that I’ve read, TNC has wrestled with how we portray the dignity and humanity of individual black Americans: “I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.” Shouldn’t we extend creationists the same courtesy? I’ve personally known many creationists, and I assure you they too can be marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested. And yet most of us (TNC is not special here) are content to paint in broad brush strokes. To assert that a belief in creationism makes one a creationist, thereby defining the sum total of their existence and obliterating everything else about them.
It might be more helpful to think of evolution as simply another discrete, technical subject where people use trust as a proxy for detailed investigation, something TNC himself does for health-care and cap-and-trade. There’s actually a lot of research on the importance of trust in scientific controversies, and I’ve very briefly touched on the theme in the past. Now I may be wrong, but I suspect that like me, TNC largely relies on trust when it comes to evolution. We both probably cannot explain the difference between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, or the debate over the Cambrian explosion.
None of this means that creationists’ beliefs are correct. But since we all often substitute trust for reason and evidence, it does mean that they are not necessarily ignorant, stupid or evil.
There are ultimately many people out there who deserve our scorn. There are actual liars, charlatans and necromancers who should be criticized, publicly and harshly. But we must be careful at whom we direct such diatribes. Crude generalizations are not only unfair, they distract us from the important task of determining who really deserves our condemnation. There’s no evidence that creationists as a group should be included and we should try to avoid it.
Given my long standing interest in clarifying the public vocabulary of science and highlighting the diversity of scientific practices, I was heartened to see Barbara Herrnstein Smith raise a similar point regarding belief:
We are all aware of the diverse array of ideas and dispositions that we carry around in our own heads (and bodies): creedal statements learned in childhood, emotion-laden memories and habits, academically acquired knowledge, individually worked-out convictions that vary in strength and articulateness from one context to another, vagrant images, transient impulses, and so forth. In the face of such evidence of the fluidity, variability, and heterogeneity of cognitive states, cognitive processes, and mental content-types, the continued invocation and deployment of static, atomistic, logicist, and dualistic conceptions of belief by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is itself a revealing example of the peculiar (and officially irrational) operations of human cognition. (p. 76)
Portraying either science or belief as simplistic monoliths is unhelpful and obscures more than it reveals.
I just finished Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s wonderful book Natural Reflections: Human Cognition ad the Nexus of Science and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough. One of the best parts is that it’s pretty short (~150 pages) and quite readable–way less dense compared to so much I’ve read in the social sciences.
Smith spends much time examining, and debunking, some recent efforts to explain religion/religious behavior entirely in terms of evolutionary psychology and genetics. More strongly, natural sciences alone offer minimal explanatory power for religion in particular, and human culture and behavior more generally. Our beliefs, attitudes, and cultural patterns depend intimately on context and cannot be traced solely to evolved cognitive processes. As she says eloquently on p. 66:
In seeking to account for any complex behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon, a good starting assumption would be that it was the emergent outcome of multiple factors of various kinds, operating at many scales and levels, interacting over time. The starting assumption of evolutionary psychology and “cognitive” approaches to religion, however, is that the best way to explain any behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon is by demonstrating that it is the outward effect of the activation of some underlying mental mechanism. A methodological tradition of this sort puts a premium on ingenuity with respect to the hypothesizing of mental mechanisms and, by the same token, encourages negligence with respect to the investigation of possibly relevant environmental, experiential, and developmental factors.
Smith goes on to argue that these recent analyses of religion, dubbed the New Naturalists, have a very misguided view of what natural science offers. In trying to construct a grand unified theory of religious behavior, they cherry pick data, distort the available empirical evidence and, in short, engage in some of the very same unscientific practices they accuse the religious of.
Smith does not use these observations as a cudgel with which to bash the New Naturalists (although I wish she had!). Rather, she wishes to highlight that both science and religion are ultimately derived from a similar set of cognitive processes and functions, and there is much overlap between what we call science and what we call religion.
Another message that I found appealing was her insistence that natural science does not provide the only or even best means with which to query religions. There are “intellectual aims and purposes other than those associated with the natural sciences and, accordingly, of other marks and measures of intellectual value” (p. 143). That is, while evolution and genetics are useful and illuminating, they do not tell us everything we want to know. So-called interpretive approaches (history, sociology, cultural anthropology) also have a role. On p. 111:
Although our general structures and modes of operations as biological creatures have been strongly shaped by selection pressures, not everything we do as particular persons involves the furthering of our own reproductive fitness or the perpetuation of our genes. We may also remind ourselves that, as creatures who continue to develop throughout our lives, we are affected by particular experiences that shape our responses, purposes, judgments, and actions…no less significantly than our biological endowments.
In the end, this was a fascinating and eloquent read. I’ll have a big more along with a few minor complaints in a future post. This has gone on long enough.
From page 9 of Natural Reflections:
…contemporary research and theory suggest that the cognitive tendencies that give rise to much of what we call religious behavior, from the positing of superior invisible beings to the performance of ritual sacrifices, are indistinguishable from the capacities and dispositions that give rise to what we call culture more generally. Thus it appears that we could not eliminate the conditions responsible for religion and, with it, the recurrent emergence of some of its most troublesome features without risking the loss of much that we value in culture and, with it, the conditions for human existence.
Another point may accordingly be added. Given the fundamentally ambivalent operations of cognitive conservatism as described here, it is not surprising that lists of the individual costs of religious commitment and of the many crimes against humanity committed under its sway can always be countered with equally long and impressive lists of the personal benefits of religious faith and of the many achievements for humanity performed by those inspired by it. Not is it surprising, given the demonstrated general power of cognitive conservatism, that the final tallies in such cost-benefit assessments appear to have everything to do with the prior cognitive commitments of those doing the tallying.
Not just a hodge-podge, but a miscellaneous hodge-podge. Here’s what I’ve been reading:
But humans keep experiencing suffering and death. Why? What explains the tremendous mismatch between expectation and reality? Are the cures really coming, just more slowly than expected? Or have scientists fundamentally misled us, and themselves, about the potential of new medical technologies?
4. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. I just started this book, which has been on my list since reading this Stanley Fish post. The introduction has already blown my mind and I look forward to reading more. Money quote from a follow-up response Smith wrote to Fish’s post:
Finally and most seriously, I think that the idea of science and religion as counterpoised monoliths deepens prevailing misunderstandings of both. As I emphasize throughout the book, the kinds of things that can be assembled under the term “religion” are exceptionally diverse. They range from personal experiences and popular beliefs to formal doctrines, priestly institutions, ritual practices and devotional icons — Neanderthal burial rites to Vatican encyclicals. The same can be said of “science,” a term that embraces a wide range of quite different kinds of things — general pursuits and specialized practices, findings and theories, instruments and techniques, ideals and institutions (not to mention a share of devotional icons and ritual practices).
I’ve been speaking about disunity of science for a while now and it’s refreshing to see it from a different perspective.
I don’t want to beat this issue to death, but I should draw attention to Matt Steinglass’s impressive take down of Sam Harris. It’s the type of argument that should be made more often. As I stated in my first post on the matter, Sam Harris gets some basic facts wrong. I recommend you read the post in its entirety, but here’s a highlight:
[Harris: But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.] They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you?
Harris continues in this vein later on to ask: “How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision?” These type of careless assertions are scattered throughout Harris’s work. Without them, Harris wouldn’t have much to say.
Take his TED talk. Starting at 10:25, Harris has the gall to say that “our intellectual community” generally doesn’t criticize the burqa or wife-beating in the Middle East. Really, Sam? What intellectual community do you live in? At around 13:45, Harris continues to say that religion is the reason we talk about gay marriage but not poverty or genocide. Again…really, Sam? Apparently Harris hasn’t heard of the numerous religious groups doing just that.
I actually made a much longer list of the childish errors in Harris’s talk, but compiling them all would have been tedious.
Since my last post a few weeks ago, the blogosphere erupted with reactions to this Sam Harris TED talk (video below). Harris strangely believes science can be used to resolve moral problems. Now Harris is wrong of course, and the most trenchant critiques were offered by Sean Carrol (see here, with follow-up here and here) and Massimo Pigliucci. Also check out this and this, and follow the endless links therein.
Taken together all of this does a pretty good job showing that Sam Harris is, well, just plain wrong. He gets his moral philosophy wrong, plays fast and loose with his facts, and makes some very sloppy arguments. The very premise of his talk–that morality is concerned with human happiness–can be refuted in any freshman philosophy class. If you don’t want to go through that, you can take a few days to read a simple introduction.* Some conceptions of morality prioritize happiness, some don’t, and there’s no real objective way to tell the difference. This is really very basic stuff. Harris is entitled to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly an objective claim amenable to scientific investigation. Believing otherwise, as commenter Fion eloquently put it, is “thunderously stupid.”
The common theme in all these critiques is how much Harris is empirically wrong. For all his bluster about the importance of science, Harris clearly can’t be bothered to follow scientific protocols and verify his claims. Rather than rehash what everyone has said about the TED talk (the above links do a fine job skewering him), let’s go back to a Times op-ed Harris wrote last July. Then as now, Harris’s argument is thunderously stupid. Consider this nonsense: “But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”
As one of the responders put it, good thing no one told Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Dobzhansky, etc. that their faith would impede their science. Alhazen, the great Arab scientist, invented the scientific method because of his religion. The overwhelming data indicate that religion does not make science difficult, and believing otherwise is itself unscientific. Later on in the piece, Harris goes on to hope that Francis Collins’ beliefs “will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health.” Well, there’s no reason to hope or worry. We already have much evidence that Collins’ religiosity doesn’t affect his scientific judgment, and no evidence to think it will do so in the future. You don’t get to lead the Human Genome Project by being a scientific slouch.
I’ll make two observations, one general and another specifically about Harris. First, there’s something about these discussions that makes us want to have grand philosophical arguments instead of just looking at the evidence. I’ll have to expand more in a future post, but I find Harris’s entire line of argument quite strange. We don’t need to theorize on some alleged incompatibility between science and faith. We don’t need to pontificate on the nature of scientific reasoning and religious belief. We can just look at the damned evidence. If we do so, we’ll find hundreds of millions of data points all over the world who prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that religious and scientific thinking don’t necessarily conflict. Harris conveniently ignores this data to make some tedious claim on “faith as [it] relates to scientific inquiry.”
Now the 3 people who read this blog know I am nothing if not a fan of philosophy. But as useful as it is, there are times when we must avoid it. There are times when data alone suffices.
The second, and final, thing I’ll say about Harris is: who the hell does he think he is? Yeah, Harris wrote a couple books that got some attention. But as far as science is concerned, Harris is a third rate no-name hack who has accomplished absolutely nothing. And he has the gall to talk smack to the former director of the Human Genome Project! Are you kidding me? In the off chance Harris ever accomplishes anything of note, then maybe he can step on the same field as Collins. But until then, Harris lecturing Collins about scientific thinking is like me teaching Peyton Manning how to throw a football. In both cases we’re way out of our league and should really just shut the fuck up.
*Rox and Geremy deserve special thanks for getting me that book as a birthday gift. I am certain they will not read this post.