Monday, July 5, 2010

Rosenbaum Stew

LarryNiven has more fully cataloged the shortcomings of Ron Rosenbaum's recent blast of anti-atheist vitriol (and so has Ophelia Benson), but I want to add a few more illustrations.

Rosenbaum begins by affirming a noble mean lying between two extremes:

[R]ecently, with the rise of the "New Atheism" — the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens — I believe it's important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.
Unfounded certainties are the great failing Rosenbaum sees on every side, against which he bravely upholds a sensible middle. Readers familiar with the conventions of this familiar diatribe will note that it bothers to address only the side of those certainties it imputes to atheists. To wit:
Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas.
What is Rosenbaum's proof that these nasty atheists have this "faith" he mentions? Assertions, of course -- assertions uncluttered by evidence.

Consider Christopher Hitchens, one of his principle targets. In chapter 6 (page 86) of God Is Not Great, Hitchens mentions present-day unknowns and controversies in biological science, which would be a good place for him to avow the "faith that science will tell us eventually" that Rosenbaum ascribes to him. Hitchens:
[A]ll these disputes, when or if they are resolved, will be resolved by using the scientific and experimental methods that have proven themselves so far. [emphasis mine]
Had Rosenbaum read beyond the cover of Hitchens' book -- which is, admittedly, boldly cantankerous, with its garish yellow jacket and provocative assertion about so famous and beloved a character -- he might have read the "or if" in that passage, two small words that indicate that Hitchens is expressly uncertain that science will answer every question it now finds unanswerable. As Hitchens is not even sure science will resolve all currently-open questions in relatively narrow precincts of evolutionary biology, the burden lies on Rosenbaum to prove that Hitchens is more certain -- more "faithful" in science -- with respect to deeper, broader questions of the "why is there something rather than nothing" ilk. Rosenbaum cannot be bothered to meet that burden any more than to show a strong hint that he has read or listened to Hitchens's views in this area.

Instead of building an argument by citing relevant particulars, Rosenbaum pits straw-men against heroes such as Thomas Huxley:
Huxley originally defined his agnosticism against the claims of religion, but it also applies to the claims of science in its know-it-all mode. I should point out that I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don't believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything. Agnosticism doesn't contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties.
Rosenbaum has thoroughly routed the straw-man, but what about the thinkers he has mentioned? As it was with Hitchens, he shows no sign of having read beyond book covers.

Had he done so with respect to Dawkins's The God Delusion, he would have seen that Dawkins discusses and quotes from Huxley's view of agnosticism -- citing this URL,, in note 30 of chapter 2. Dawkins cites Huxley in the course of delineating two forms of agnosticism, one for questions for which no evidence can ever be gathered (e.g., is your red the same as my red), and another, more nuanced version that is better attuned to probabilities, and more useful to rigorous inquiry, namely
the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it (or don't understand the evidence, or haven't time to read the evidence, etc.) ... There is a truth out there and one day we hope to know it, though for the moment we don't.
Dawkins goes on to locate the question of god's existence in the second of these modes of agnosticism:
Either god exists or he doesn't. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probabilities.
Thereafter Dawkins establishes a seven-mark scale for certainty on the question of god's existence, with seven being the view Rosenbaum imputes to atheists like Dawkins (that there is certainly no god). Dawkins, pridefully speaking for himself, puts his view at six on the scale.

Ron Rosenbaum has demonstrated how to combine the act of not reading with lazy assertions to produce a stew of intellectual dishonesty. He has demonstrated nothing of value about atheism, agnosticism, science, or contemporary thought.

1 comment:

larryniven said...

Oh - you can use my real name now, or if you prefer to do the first-name-only thing that's good, too. Ophelia convinced me to become nonymous.