Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Few Notes Worth Noting

I haven't always had the warmest of responses to the writings of Heather MacDonald, but I embrace this conclusion of a very fine post:

I’m all for gratitude and thanks for the countless unmerited blessings of our lives, but let’s try to direct them at the right source. The human passion for justice is gradually shrinking the territory over which blind randomness once ruled. Medical researchers work tirelessly to ensure that all children have a fair shot at a normal human life. To lessen the number of orphans and widows, engineers fortify buildings against random “acts of God,” as common parlance and insurance premia have it. Agronomists develop pest-resistant crops, to guard against the famines that have plagued humanity throughout history. And as for the blessings of ordered liberty that [Henry Louis] Gates rightly celebrates, those are human achievements that we can either strengthen or destroy. Gates’ generous outreach towards the police is an admirable example of how to shore up the precious rule of law.
Brief though it is, this is a good enough rejoinder to Marilyn McCord's recent appearance on the Philosophy Talk podcast in which she claimed that non-believers cannot be optimistic without betraying a belief in god. This strikes me as an excluded middle fallacy executed with a straw man flourish: to say that human progress is inevitable and irreversible on all fronts would fit the terms of her claim; it would strongly help the claim if she were to bother to point out who is making it, where, and which non-believers are taking it seriously, because I don't have the slightest idea.

On the other hand, to allow for the possibility of limited, measured, stepwise progress in important areas of human concern is reasonable and, not trivially, historically true. We can, as MacDonald points out, continue human lives that only a few decades ago were hopelessly lost, and this is not just progress but progress that matters. We can, of course, lose the gains we make -- a really smart dude who played no small part in another notable, if imperfect, instance of human progress noted that "eternal vigilance" is required to safeguard all forms of progress. Nothing supernatural is assumed or needed.

And while I'm quoting from other blogs, here's Larry Niven, with whom I very nearly always agree, issuing a clarification that reasonable people are justifiably tired of having to issue:
When Pinker and Harris (and Myers and whoever else) say that religion and science don't mix, they aren't making a demographic prediction: nobody means to say that "scientific, religious person" is an oxymoron or a logical impossibility. What we skeptics object to is the continuing social pretense that the mere existence of religious scientists (or scientific religionists) somehow indicates that the truth-apt claims made by science don't conflict with the truth-apt claims made by religions. The fundamental level of conflict that Pinker and Harris refer to, then, is pretty obviously not the practical; in practice, people believe and act in all sorts of crazy, incomprehensible ways, and anybody would be a fool to deny this.
Science and religion coexist in a trivial demographic sense: believers are often scientists, scientists are often believers. Science and religion do not coexist on the level of epistemology: they do not stand on equal footing in deriving reliable truths about the world.


larryniven said...

"...Larry Niven, with whom I very nearly always agree..."

Well, I guess no one's perfect :-p

Dale said...

LN, I'm kind of a doofus that way -- I'm allergic to absolute words like "always." In fact, I can't think of a disagreement. I could probably find one or two if I looked hard for it, but I'm not gonna.