Monday, April 14, 2014

Pragmatism as a Dead End for New Atheism

In a culture war, ideas are often dumbed down for mass consumption. In the Age of Twitter especially, the goal is hardly to understand what’s happening, from an egoless, philosophical perspective, which requires doing research and engaging with arguments; instead, there’s a race to capture an idea in as few words as possible so they’ll fit on a bumper sticker. Time is money and science and the free market have replaced philosophy in the public’s imagination, so as far as most modern folks are concerned, ideas must be sold by means of slogans and advertisements, not explained or supported by rational dialogue. And so in the conflict between new atheism and religious fundamentalism, even many atheists who are supposed to be on the more rational side resort to the slogan which has become something of a meme, which is that “Science Wins because it Works.” Atheists are just following the winner, which is science and reason generally, whereas theists are stuck in the past. That’s the familiar modern view of progress which, as John Gray points out, repurposes Christianity’s teleological interpretation of history. Many atheists would indeed prefer to talk about the fallacies of science or about the evidence for the naturalistic worldview, but the new mainstream popularity of atheism, after the 911 attacks, has thrust certain leaders of the movement into the limelight whereupon they’ve been forced to cater to the low expectations of the media. Moreover, these leading atheists, including Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, resort to triumphalist rhetoric as though the conflict turned on the question of which side is more self-confident, as though it were a contest of wills rather than ideas.

Coyne introduces a couple of cartoons on his blog with the above slogan and when explaining how we justify the scientific method, Dawkins says in a public forum that science works, pausing before adding the triumphalist flourish: “bitches.” The meaning of this slogan is that scientific theories can be successfully applied and so the proof is in the pudding, whereas theism and pseudoscience are relatively useless. As Dawkins says, “planes fly, cars drive, computers compute.” So science is obviously justifiable on pragmatic grounds, thanks to its many technological applications. You can argue with a bunch of mathematical squiggles on a page, especially if you can’t make heads or tails of them, but you can’t argue with a car’s engine or with the efficacy of a nuclear missile. Science works and religion doesn’t. That’s one of the new atheistic sentiments that embolden evangelical atheists. In fact, the erstwhile dominance of Christianity used to inspire Christians to similar displays of passive aggression, since power disparities are responsible for much of our more primitive behaviour. Religious fundamentalists still bizarrely trust in their childish narratives, almost as though they’d been transported to the present from the distant past by a time machine. We much prefer to be on the winning side and so we often live in denial when our home team loses the advantage of being able to dominate our enemies. Modernity is marked, of course, by the end of theocracies in the West and by the transfer of power and rights to secular forces, especially to scientists, elected political representatives, and capitalists in relatively free competitions for profit and private property, as well as to women, children, and racial minorities.

The boast that science works plays as a veiled reminder that science and science-centered industries have the power now and that the philosophical issue of Truth is beside the point. “Get on the winning team,” that’s the new atheist’s invitation. In this respect, the new atheist is pragmatic. Of course, these atheists also believe that naturalism is true and that God doesn’t exist as a matter of fact, but pragmatism is the fall-back position. Exasperated by the theist’s foolishness, an atheist will often appeal to the manifest usefulness of science and of reason generally, by way of contrasting the works of the atheist’s team with those of the theist’s faith-based one. Science works in that it vastly improves the lives of all of those living in advanced industrial societies. Science makes technology possible and technology achieves the purposes we set out for it; machines successfully carry out their functions because they’re entwined with natural mechanisms, thus indicating the accuracy of scientific models. Meanwhile, theistic myths and pseudosciences like astrology and psychic prediction don’t work. You can make money from the latter, but only by conning people. Science is obviously no con.

The Pragmatist’s Can of Worms

This pragmatism, though, is a can of worms. If the standard is utility, then we’re talking about the ability to achieve certain goals. Science is useful because through its technological applications it enables us to control natural processes; for example, access to advances in medical science increases our lifespan. To say that science works, then, is to say that science carries out its goal-oriented functions. But if goals are crucial here, the question is whether theism works in exactly the same way, albeit in relation to different goals. Science serves both public and hidden agendas. For example, many nonscientists would say that the main benefit of science is that it makes possible the gadgets that enrich their lives, such as the internet and mobile communication devices. But one of the original hopes for modern science was for progress as secular institutions were expected to replace dogmatic ones like Christianity. Early modern thinkers trumpeted their radical ideas, but as the atheistic utopia failed to materialize after the rise and fall of fascism and communism in the last century, modern leaders have learned to pander to the religious mob, to pretend that science doesn’t entail that their treasured myths are hopelessly antiquated.  

Likewise, religion is effective in achieving various ends. Religious traditions provide for most people’s solidarity, by defining their intergroup relations. While there are also secular clubs, sports, Hollywood myths and so forth, secular forces on the whole atomize us, making us individualistic and producing the ennui, apathy, and cynicism for which postmodern societies are infamous. Theistic belief caters to our feeling that life and the universe are mysterious and sublime, and that belief has justified moral principles for thousands of years. Modern philosophers sought nontheistic justifications of morality, but their arguments tend to run into the naturalistic or genetic fallacies or else they reduce moral imperatives to pragmatic, instrumental ones which are technically neutral towards our goals, in which case a serial killer can be just as “moral” (i.e. efficient in achieving his goals) as a saint. Religious myths distract the masses from the heart-rending implications of scientific knowledge, thus allowing them to pursue their wish to be happy. For example, belief in an afterlife makes physical death bearable for most people, despite our horror of dying and the alien indifference with which natural forces snuff out our inner worlds as our brain dies. Moreover, religious rituals, such as the burying of the dead and the reverence for art and nature were crucial in the emergence of our species from the more limited animal life cycle; archeologists find evidence of theistic belief wherever they find the remains of ancient cultures.

Thus, “Science works!” should be understood to imply that science works in certain domains, which opens up the possibility that religion likewise works in different ones. Science works in the cognitive domain while religion works in the social one. Science tells us the empirical facts while religion has been instrumental in humanizing and domesticating our species. Science allows us to control nature, while religion enables some social classes to control others by demagoguery. Science likewise supports the power elites and enslaves the masses, by means of weapons and intelligence technologies, but these threaten to dehumanize us by forcing us to adapt to artificial environments populated mostly by machines. Religion sustains the conviction that people have dignity and that life is worth living despite what we know about our material nature. The point is that if we’re going to be pragmatic, truth becomes at best a secondary concern and so we must judge technoscience and theistic religion equally in terms of their efficacies. Science and religion both are processes that we set into motion to serve us. Far from science achieving any instrumental victory over religion, religion has been around since the beginning of humanity and is still strong in the US, South America, Africa, and the Muslim world. Moreover, secular utopias fell flat on their faces and modern societies hang together, despite the social damage done by technoscience, only by aping religious institutions, substituting idols like money, fame, guns, or excellence in sports for more traditional sacred devotions. A pragmatist must concede, then, that religion works as well as science. True, the insanity of fundamentalist religion threatens to destroy modern civilization, but only with the aid of the weapons of mass destruction that technoscientific advances have made possible.

The New Atheist’s Dilemma

In any case, a new atheist will reply that pragmatism can be combined with realism, that the usefulness of science is a sign of the truth of scientific theories. Perhaps, then, this is Reason’s great advantage over religious Faith: naturalism’s utility speaks to its cognitive value, whereas the social benefits of religion have no such cognitive significance. As Dawkins says, an idea’s pleasantness is no guarantee of its truth. So perhaps “Science wins because it works” should be taken to mean that science wins in the cognitive domain because it wins in the pragmatic one. Science gets at the truth, as evidenced by science’s many applications. If anything, religion’s particular utility indicates that theism is a delusion, since delusions would be most effective in distracting us from the harsh naturalistic findings.

And yet there’s at least one more wriggling worm in that can. This new atheist’s retort is correct, as far as it goes. But the connection between the potency of technology and the cognitive merit of scientific methods devastates not just the assumption that theism is likely true, but the social utility of science. By conflicting with theistic religion, science makes life harder, not easier. For example, by failing to replace theistic myths with viable alternatives, science makes for the hollowness of secular cultures. Indeed, the rise of fundamentalism is in reaction not just to modernity’s obvious conflict with religious scriptures, but to the threat posed to ancient traditions by a consumerism that strikes even many consumers as an unworthy contender for our allegiance. The very truth of naturalism prevents science from working in the social domain. Indeed, science becomes counterproductive, because it exposes modernists to the existential conundrum. As Nietzsche put it, the question is how we should live after the death of God. Reason frees us from theistic dogma, but it also deprives us of any conviction in some worthwhile purpose to motivate us to freely direct our talents toward one end rather than another. The more we apply reason to model some phenomenon, the more we break it down into impersonal mechanisms, and thus the more illusory becomes our na├»ve self-image, according to which life is full of meaning, purpose, and moral value. What is the utility of Enlightenment and Liberty if the objectifying rationality that enlightens and liberates us forces on us a vision of universal undeadness, entailing not just the absurdity of theistic faith but the superficiality of the very concepts of morality, happiness, and personhood?

The pragmatic slogan in question betrays the new atheist’s narrow-minded scientism. In the wider view, science doesn’t work at all. Arguably, the costs of science’s efficacy outweigh the benefits. Granted, if all you care about is the cognitive domain in which science has prevailed, you won’t be concerned with the social implications of naturalism. But scientism doesn’t end there, since the naturalist must then reduce the concept of caring to some neurological mechanism. Moreover, she must interpret all concepts and thus all alleged symbols in scientific theories as being perfectly meaningless, since there’s no room for such a personal quality as intentionality in this exclusive version of the naturalist’s ontology, which consists only of more and more complex arrangements of causal relations between particles. Scientistic naturalism is thus the proverbial serpent that eats its tail.

Alternatively, if the new atheist wishes to defend her contention that science has overall positive utility, she can curb her scientism by embracing a more inclusive, nonreductive version of naturalism, in which case autonomous domains of inquiry are made possible by evolution and complexification. For example, personhood may emerge from animalistic patterns of behaviour. Any such pluralistic kind of naturalism, however, means that the new atheist’s radical hostility towards religion in general is quite foolish. If people have additional concerns to those posited by biologists, including moral, aesthetic, and spiritual ones, the pluralistic naturalist may have to grudgingly grant to religion its usefulness, assuming the naturalist is going to peddle the pragmatism that informs the slogan about how science is so great because, after all, “it works, bitches.” Thus, whichever path the new atheist takes in its conflict with religion, pragmatism is a dead end. Pragmatic (goal-oriented) naturalism either undermines itself with scientism, assuming the naturalist is concerned only with empirical knowledge, or else it’s consistent with pluralism that may even favour religion at the expense of the secular cultures that arise from technoscientific progress.


  1. What new atheism does, more often than not, is render all non scientific questions irrelevant and pointless. An often quoted piece of wisdom is that science is concerned with the how questions, while religion or spirituality with the why questions. But Atheism would argue that the why questions are delusional, there are no whys, just hows.
    If I argue that a godless universe is a meaningless universe, the new atheist will argue that meaning itself is a stupid construct ( I’m bothered by how few Atheist actually understand meaning, what they usually define as meaning is purpose)
    So the new atheists will try to explain away nihilism by negating the validity of any non scientific question. Meaning and nihilism are philosophical answers to philosophical questions, if you kill the validity of philosophy, then any of its questions, or answers, are irrelevant.
    On a related subject; I am highly disappointed with the new Cosmos.
    Carl Sagan never seemed openly hostile to religion, in disagreement yes, but never hostile. He seemed to have understood where the religious sentiment originated from, and that science was more than just a way to accumulate new facts or better toys.
    The new Cosmos captures none of it. All the spiritual grandeur is lost. But what is sad is that the new Cosmos doesn’t even realized there is something missing. The philosophical excitement is missing because the new atheists don’t even acknowledge there is even a need for it

    1. When you say that new atheists dismiss nonscientific questions, what you're saying is that they're scientistic. That's the charge I make, too, in my dilemma argument above. So we agree that there's that tendency, although I'd say it's not atheism itself that's the source of scientism. I think it comes down to an overgeneralization that's useful in the culture war between new atheism and fundamentalism. Fundamentalists really are anti-scientific, so new atheists beat them over the head with straight-up science, as it were, but they don't stop there: they speak as though science is all they need, whereas theism raises philosophical questions as well. These atheists have philosophical assumptions, but they're often pragmatic ones (e.g. methodological naturalism), which are likewise so closely aligned with science that these atheists think they have no philosophy at all. Their philosophy effaces itself.

      As for Cosmos, I disagree there. As I see it, that show isn't going after all religion, but just the antiscientific, evangelical Christian fundamentalism (e.g. Creationism) that's so troubling now in the US. I don't know how you can watch the show without seeing that it's going beyond the science and defending humanism as well as an aesthetic or spiritual sense of the grandeur of the universe uncovered by science. That's Sagan's spirituality, which is the same as Einstein's and Spinoza's. It's also, roughly speaking, mine. Where I differ, though, is that I face up to the dark side of nature. For example, Cosmos talks about the five mass extinctions. I'd want to think about their philosophical implications. What's the value of life if life is sustained by impersonal, undead processes?

      In any case, again I agree that Why questions aren't all delusional. Indeed, I doubt that mechanistic How questions make any sense without the Why ones, just as instrumental rationality leaves open an evaluation of our ends and not just of our means of achieving them.

  2. Here is an essay by Sagan's daughter about how her parents taught her mortality.

    A lot of the value of life in this view comes from wonder about the incalculable improbability of it and particularly the short time we exist.

  3. Hey Ben, it's been a while since I tackled some of your material (though I still follow your new articles). A translation of this article in Greek can be viewed here.

    If you have an interest in international Church and State politics, you can also take a look at an extensive article on the relationship between the greek national identity, the Orthodox Church and the Hellenic State. Seems like we've attracted a fair deal of attention with the election of our first atheist prime minister (yeah, yeah, I know... he just has a marxist background :P ), and few people in the modern english-speaking nations seem to grasp the full extent of the issue (I blame it on being coddled with a nativitate Church and State separation).

    1. Thanks, Evan. It's so cool to see my articles translated, although I have no idea the translations are real since I don't speak Greek. ;)

      I'm getting interested in Alexander Dugin's philosophy, so I might use that as an entry-point to saying something about the East Orthodox Church. I'll read over your article too. Have you seen my recent, long article on Thomism?

    2. Yes, as a matter of fact I did. Very interesting. Though I have encountered elements of thomistic theology before (e.g. the 5 proofs) it's interesting more on a "history of philosophy" level. I was never really exposed to thomistic theology before I started seriously following the first New Atheists online, since orthodox theology never really evolved down that specific path (Plato and Neoplatonism was always a lot more influential).

      Aquinas was translated in Greek in the 14th c., but never really caught on at all (though probably for political reasons; him being Catholic and all...) Oddly, this theological tradition has emerged mostly now, in the believers' desperate attempt to fight fire with fire; or Atheist with Reason (from para-ecclesiastical groups; not the official Church). Copy-pasting from protestant and catholic sources certainly helps as well.

      If you need any help with finding sources for Orthodox theology let me know. Sadly, I don't know how much material you can actually find in English (apart from patristic texts).