Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. II

In a previous post I looked at the early paragraphs of a column written by Tania Lombrozo in The Boston Review in which she argues that science can afford people the same quality and quantity of existential satisfaction as is offered by religion. I replied in my post that Ms Lombrozo makes some unfortunate claims in the early going of her essay which cast doubt on the reliability of what comes later.

Sadly, what comes later does little to alleviate that doubt.

She speculates freely, for instance, about possible psychological explanations for why belief in a purposeful creation is so widespread, but she never considers the possibility that perhaps so many people believe that the universe and life were in some way created because that explanation makes more sense than does the idea that it all just happened by accident. At least it makes more sense to anyone who's not already committed to metaphysical naturalism. Here's some of what Lombrozo writes:
[P]sychologist Paul Bloom argues that creationism and belief in God may be “bred in the bone,” byproducts of the very evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind....some have claimed that humans are “promiscuously teleological,” saddled with a tendency to construe objects and their properties as designed for a purpose. Understanding the natural world in terms of design suggests some prolific operator behind the scenes, so theistic stories of creation fill a useful explanatory role for the teleologically minded.

Relatedly, humans appear to be overzealous in our attributions of agency, inclined to posit some sort of person or beastie at the slightest provocation—the sound of a broken twig in a forest, the creak on an old staircase, or the face-like constellation of whorls in a cloud....The comforts afforded by religious beliefs in the face of death also play a role in promoting the idea of a creator.
All of which is to say that, for her, the plausibility of competing theories is not relevant to which explanation people will believe. Rather, there must be some psychological neurosis that causes people to reject metaphysical naturalism and embrace supernatural creation. The credulity of these poor souls must be due, ironically, to psychological hang-ups bestowed upon them by the very evolutionary process that these people are rejecting.

But there's also another possibility for why so many are so intellectually obdurate about this matter: Science is hard to understand. Lombrozo quotes Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker: “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.”

Well, maybe so, but could it be instead that it's hard to believe Darwinism because the human brain is specifically designed to be able to distinguish intuitively between the products of chance and physical forces and the products of intelligent engineering? Clearly, the information content of living things, their specified complexity, is very difficult to explain in terms of physical mechanisms we know to be operating today.

Lombrozo adds that,
Indeed, many psychologists have argued that, beyond the desire for comforting religious belief, additional tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially difficult to understand and accept, particularly when applied to the case of humans.
This is a clever tactic: The reason simple-minded folks don't believe Darwinism, she avers, is because they're just not smart enough. Smart people, which we'd all like to be, embrace Darwinism. Dumb people, or people with psychological maladies, which none of us want to be, reject it. The problem with Darwinism isn't the theory, it's with the doubters who are just not bright enough to understand it, or so her reasoning goes.

She erects a straw man by shifting her discussion from evolution writ large to natural selection. The number of people who doubt natural selection is probably vanishingly small, but Lombrozo equates natural selection with the Neo-Darwinian "grand narrative" that all of life developed naturalistically from prebiotic ingredients into all the amazing life forms we see today solely through the action of natural processes, chance, and time. It's that Grand Narrative about which people are skeptical. It's the claim that natural selection, unaided by intelligent guidance, can produce a human brain from some primordial ooze that elicits snickers from those dull-witted skeptics Ms Lombrozo finds so puzzling.

Finally, people often draw inappropriate conclusions from evolutionary claims—conclusions that they prefer to reject. One study asked undergraduates to identify whether the truth of evolution would have negative, positive, or neutral implications for a host of social and personal issues.

The researchers found that the overwhelming majority of students queried believed that evolution made it harder to find purpose in life, threatened the existence of free will, and justified selfishness and racism, among other undesirable ends. These claims are examples of what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy,” the error of deriving “ought” from “is”—an error that readers often make in response to strictly descriptive scientific findings. For example, the idea that genes are selfish might offer a compelling description of some evolutionary dynamics (though even that is controversial), but it doesn’t follow that human selfishness is appropriate.
She's right about some of this. She's correct when she states in so many words that it doesn't follow from the fact that we've evolved selfishness that therefore selfishness is right. What does follow, though, is that neither our tendency to be selfish nor our tendency to be racist is wrong.

Lombrozo misapplies the naturalistic fallacy. It would indeed be a mistake to argue that because we are a certain way that we therefore should be that way, but that's not the real danger inherent in denying free will and human purpose while affirming that we are genetically prone to selfishness and racism. The danger is not in people concluding that we should be that way, though some atheists have certainly drawn that conclusion, but rather in concluding that it's not wrong to be that way.

There's a considerable difference between arguing that because things are a certain way that therefore they ought to be that way and arguing that because things are a certain way that therefore, on atheism, it can't be wrong for them to be that way.

The former would indeed commit the naturalistic fallacy. The latter, however, is just common sense.

We haven't yet discussed Lombrozo's reasons for thinking that science offers all the consolations, and more, of religion. We'll do that in a future post.