From the letters page at First Things. Amen and amen.
I once read that the Los Alamos physicists during the Manhattan Project refused to consult doctors. Instead, they read medical books on their own, diagnosing themselves and prescribing their own treatments. They assumed that medical science must be trivially easy for anyone who could master nuclear physics.
After reading Edward Feser’s review of Jerry A. Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact (“Omnibus of Fallacies,” February), I conclude that some contemporary scientists must have much the same attitude toward philosophy. If you can do population genetics or you are comfortable with tensor calculus, then surely philosophical argument must be a snap. No need for any special training. Wing it, and you will be as good as a pro. Sadly, this is not the case, as amply demonstrated by some of the efforts of the “New Atheists.” When a philosophical pro such as Feser subjects their texts to an appropriately astringent analysis, he makes their logical lacunae and sophomoric mistakes glaringly obvious.
If what is done by Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne is the “new” atheism, then I am an unapologetic advocate of “old” atheism. That is, I favor atheist advocacy that is argument-dense and skips the invective. Lampooning your opponents as ignorant Bible-beaters may be lowbrow fun, but it is bad manners, and, more to the point, ineffective. Don’t call them names. Defeat their arguments. That is the worst thing you can do to them. However, defeating your opponents’ arguments requires (a) taking their best arguments seriously, and (b) doing your philosophical homework. “Old” atheism is therefore hard. Caricaturing with broad strokes is easy, but it cannot be said to advance rational debate.
In fairness to Coyne, he is no doubt understandably frustrated that his excellent book Why Evolution Is True still needed to be written. Over forty years ago, Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Even back then it had been true for a long, long time. Coyne is exactly right that the continued cultural resistance to evolution has its source in ideology rather than science, and that the obscurantist ideologies are religiously motivated. However, the way to address this issue is not by setting up simplistic false dichotomies between “faith” and “fact.” True, if you define “faith” as Ambrose Bierce did—“Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel”—then it is easy to equate religious belief with obfuscation. Again, though, the purposes of rational debate are not served.
From the first publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin had religious allies. Darwin gladly accepted the aid and support of such allies. Harvard botanist and conservative Congregationalist Asa Gray was perhaps Darwin’s leading supporter in the United States. Evolution’s conflict is not with religion per se, but with certain dubious theological tenets. The best antidote to bad religion is good religion, but you lose the potential aid of the latter when you tar everything with the same brush.
Keith M. Parsons
The university of Houston-Clear Lake
The university of Houston-Clear Lake
Edward Feser replies:
I thank Keith Parsons for giving us a little of that old-time atheism. That the dispute between theism and atheism is essentially a philosophical disagreement rather than a matter for empirical science to settle is as true today as it was in Aristotle’s age, or Plotinus’s, or Aquinas’s, or Leibniz’s. And as the “old atheist” philosopher David Stove once said, “it takes a philosopher to catch a philosopher.”
Yet as philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once lamented, the scientists of his generation—Feynman, Schwinger, et al.—despite their brilliance, were, compared to the generation of Einstein and Bohr, “uncivilized savages” who “lack[ed] depth” when addressing matters of philosophy. Sadly, the generation of Dawkins, Krauss, and Coyne makes even Feynman and company look like philosophical giants. Combine these premises and we get the conclusion that contemporary skeptics are well advised to look to professional philosophers like Parsons rather than to amateurs like Coyne if they want their atheism to be improved as well as “new.”