Category Archives: Skepticism
There is a ideological binary opposition presented in much of the popular media for the last few decades about nature and nurture being opposed: it works itself up into the academy too with sometimes strong genetic determinist arguments–generally from scientifically questionable speculations by evolutionary psychologists–and then (admittedly rather rare) arguments from the humanities that everything is sociologically constructed (generally pulling from either Foucaultian influenced post-structuralism or structuralists visions of ideological apparatuses). Really, though, this dialectical opposition seems rooted in the early Enlightenment when both biological determinism and Cartesian special-pleading for the self set out two different visions of the human future.
I, however, increasingly doubt this move: The structural elements that wanted do deal only with the synchronic and not diachronic elements was a methodological move that gets reified into a stance that views ideas as either without a history or having a history, but biology is a historical science. It describes the development of organic life over time through processes that we have not entirely understood but have several mechanistic grasps of. This was why I always found the idea of nature problematic: nature implies as non-human totality, which seems to be special-pleading for the human species, or an undifferentiated totality, which is cognitively empty.
This has led to in re-reading Althusser, which I still find as problematic as I ever did as his hermeneutic for interpreting Marx implies that Marx either didn’t mean or didn’t understand his “true” methodology because even late works have “lingering” Hegelian idealism. This led me to take Althusser’s statement that ideology is not “ideal” but physical as manifested in the way we live and pair it, admittedly even to my mind, dangerously, with some ideas I have seen about the acceleration of human evolution. What I am about to articulate takes care of my view that Althusser’s synchronic understanding of historical materialism actually has the structure of the “means of productive forces” in ideology emerge almost without a history before there was an ideology there.
Even when I was in anthropology classes in the late 1990s, I remember being told that it was the consensus view that human evolution stopped with agriculture removing “natural” pressures from the evolutionary ecology of humans. I remember thinking though: How come Europeans developed lactose tolerance if this were true? Then I read Gregory Cochran’s The 10,000 Explosion, which is controversial and has some severe limitations even in my lay mind, but does talk about how social pressures would have genetically selective impulses and this could show up from disease immunities and, more controversially, relationships to authority and impulse control. Cochran admits that there are real limitations here and that there isn’t enough anthropological fieldwork paired with genetic testing to prove or disprove, but sexual selection in early agricultural society was exactly more extreme than in hunter-gather society since there was far more restrictions put on the survival of children, and in certain extreme examples, chieftains sometimes out reproduce serfs 1000 to 1.
Now I don’t know if we can take it as far as Cochran does, but he get to a point: Ideological and social impulses, which emerge from social arrangements in resource production and distribution actually change us physically. Furthermore, there is evidence that culture exists in any social mammal and thus emerges from “natural” conditions. This is say that both the “essentialist” view and the “social construction” view would largely miss the point: there is no dialectical opposition between “nature” and “nurture” nor does genetic determinism limit all social arrangements, but they modify each other in a feedback loop. Both the rubric of “nurtural” stances (or sociology) and “natural” stance (biology, comparative genetics) describe two different ways that human societies develop and interact. The question of dominance or innateness may miss the point: furthermore, both seem to assume that culture somehow emerges as a modern human conception out of nothing, or solely out of the means of production in ways that make “evolution” not possible. This confuses morphological differences with other differences too easily. There would be little morphological difference in modern humans because our social technologies have enabled us to stabilize our environment, but a variety of pressures socially would emerge to have influence on sexual selection.
So not only is ideology physical in the way Althusser meant as manifested by what we do and not just what we “believe,” but ideological pressures factor into to sexual selection ‘naturally” and thus have real effects there as well. It’s not eugenics or anything so crude at play here but developments from “natural” social responses because unless one believes the structures of production and the structures of society emerge ex nihilo, the social interactions come out of our biological and ecological limitations.
The dialectic of “nature/nurture” isn’t a dialectic at all. It is a false binary. Naturally.
Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually
Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.
If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.
So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.
Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.
It is election day in South Korea, so the dancing girls and old woman handing fliers with numbers on them (as candidates are assigned a number here) with the booming trucks trying through small city streets and crowding the corners. There is not much in American style attack ads and the spectacle is limited for a month or so. In Mohyeon-meon on the outskirts of Yong-in, where my university is nestled in the side of a mountain, I see little of this, but in visiting my beloved in Daejeon and travelling through Seoul, which I do weekly, I see the carnival of democracy.
Of all forms of democracy, I value representative democracy the least: in either its American or Parliamentary form. The tendency for “rational irrationality” to creep into deliberation and the human inability to intuitively understand probabilities make this almost a given. There is one maxim that Badiou gives from his various sets that I take more seriously as I get older: Politics is what cannot be represented. However, I am not taking the purist stance of many anarchists who wish that there are no concessions to spectacles as people’s lives are made and broken in public policy.
At least, in Korea, election day is a national holiday, so people do not work in the mildly warm spring air, one sees children playing in the knocks of the side walk and the edges of the street while street vendors , I stopped by my local fruit vendor and bought some naval oranges. I don’t drive here in South Korea and “New Urbanism” is just, you know, the way cities organically function here for all their problems. So I stop by and interact more with people, even as just as respite from the carnival.
I keep mulling some of my new story in my head: It’s refreshing to be writing something other than critical theory or political blogging for once. Not that there isn’t politics in my short story, even in the long arm of the Hegelian geist: I deal in science fiction because I can critique what is and what could be.
Yesterday I completed most of my spring book buying: I tend to seasonally allot myself reading. In Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanhamoon in Seoul, there is little fiction so no new Paolo Bacigalupi that I wanted, although I have quite enjoyed re-reading his “Pump Six” collection of stories, which rank up their with Philip K. Dick and early J.G. Ballard, as well as China Mieville for writing that truly deals with issues substantively without reading like it is a fictionalized version of a Berkeley culture studies class. So I got a few more shorter Badiou works after looking fruitlessly for anything else by Francois Laruelle.
I noticed a few more “skeptical” titles on religion that I considered: I have become re-engaged with Skeptical Thinkers in both the classical tradition and in the so-called “Skeptic’s Movement.” I am still highly critical of the positivistic inclination in many of the Skeptic’s movement, and the want of consensus of scientists to decide norms from descriptions. In many ways, I find it philosophically undeveloped, and politically naive. The rampant soft-libertarianism, un-reflective left-liberalism, and the acceptance of bad economic thought as well bothers me. Furthermore, I doubt I could get a one of them to put Bertrand Russell, quit whining about relativism and post-modernism without understanding them (or even knowing what isn’t Post-modern or Post-structural.), and realize that criticizing scientific practices in both practical and scientific grounds is often not done out a fear of science, but a love of it within its demarcation.
I consider this a sign of the times, though. The radical Enlightenment never completely one and the few truths of those in the Counter-Enlightenment never really took hold. It is, however, cowardly not to engage with skeptics. After all, I started blogging in order to combat bad science in education and misreadings of science in the humanities, then started combating naivete realism in “Skeptical blogs”–structural frameworks have to be engaged in. As I am not a believer in anything that could be called supernatural, and I detest ignorance as much as arrogance, I should engage with as a person who has come to similar conclusions from radically different means to illustrate the point.
So instead of science fiction, I picked up Jonathan Israel’s massive, “Enlightenment Contested?,” because at the core isn’t this what it is all about? The skeptic’s movement is sort of a popular form of the French Newtonians which pretty much influenced all analytic philosophy. But this book not only goes into thinkers like those considered Counter-Enlightenment, but also Asian influences on the Enlightenment, and how three different variants of the mood of the Enlightenment set the stage for most of political theory in the modern period. As I think we are living in a time when these ideas and the political arrangements, even the aesthetic trends in this, have begun to hit a limit and we can see how they transform.
The spring air calls through the window. One can forget it is an election sense or that even the environment is beginning to show severe signs of wear-and-tear.
Postulate 1: Confusing the rhetoric of science with good experimental or comparative science is as dangerous to scientific enterprise as irrationalism.
Postulate 2: Math is not science unless you are a Platonist, in which case, you should admit you are operating from a non-scientific foundation and placing all of reality on it.
Counting numbers are quantifications of real identities, but those identities also have qualitative identities: the reason why math seems universal is that it cannot easily discuss quality. Operational definitions can deal with qualia, but not subtly or sophistication. Math is a coherence system that can’t justify its first axioms in and of itself. For example, you can explain the different sets of infinities to me in way that refers to anything experientially real.
Postulate 3: The Rhetoric of science is not the demarcation of science, the process is. We should remember this. Just because I say “economics is like evolution” does not mean that fails within the demarcation because I have used scientific concepts and words.
Postulate 4: Science =/= reasoning or logic. Science is a subset of it, but not equal to it. Plato’s forms are logical, they are based on geometric reasoning. They are not science.
Postulate 5: Scientism is a failure to distinguish between the rhetoric of science, the practice of science, and other forms of knowledge. As such, it corrodes the demarcation line between science and nonsense in ways that other forms of irrationalism do not. Not all problems have to be answered scientifically even if they emerge from a world that can be understood in terms of science.
So, apparently, by accident I have started series on figures that are beloved by leftists, progressives, and liberals that I am deeply divided with myself about. Even in February of 2009, I found Hedge’s jeremiad tone to be more reactionary in attitude and elitist in rhetoric than reality really allows for. In his book Empire of Illusion, I thought he was essentially making a conservative argument that took an idealized form of the American past as a given. Historians at HNN agreed with me:
Again: the coarseness, even brutality, Hedges describes in modern popular culture is real and may even be growing in relative prominence. But most of the culture of any time and any place is mediocre at best, and if Hedges assumes that the viewers of pornographic movies or wrestling matches uncritically accept everything they’re shown as a transparent description of reality, he betrays a lack of respect for ordinary Americans not all that different from conservative critics of popular culture (like Jose Ortega y Gasset, also unselfconsciously invoked here) who are at least clear in their own minds about their contempt for the masses whose culture they decry.
At the other end of the social spectrum, Hedges’s critique of the academy is similarly ham-fisted.”Our elites replicate, in modern dress, the elaborate mannerisms and archaic forms of speech employed by calcified, corrupt, and dying aristocracies,” he writes.”They cannot grasp that truth is often relative. They base their decisions on established beliefs, such as the primacy of the unregulated market or globalization, which are accepted as unquestioned absolutes.” Maybe so. But most critics of university culture would say that if there is one thing that characterizes academic life in the humanities, whose influence he rightly notes is shrinking, it is skepticism about the market economy and a doctrinaire insistence on the constructed nature of reality, a form of relativism that Hedges also decries (indeed he’s quite bitter about the state of the humanities on this and other counts). He also manages to lump together the oft-commented upon narcissism of our contemporary meritocratic elite of Ivy-League universities with the old-boy network of George W. Bush — a conflation of two admittedly unattractive, but hardly interchangeable, demographic segments
Hedges is a polemical writer and some hyperbole can be allowed him, but reading his Truthdig columns for four years indicate that this is his pattern. Take this one from August 29 of this year:
We have begun the election march of the trolls. They have crawled out of the sewers of public relations firms, polling organizations, the commercial media, the two corporate political parties and elected office to fill the airwaves with inanities and absurdities until the final inanity—the 2012 presidential election. Journalists, whose role has been reduced to purveyors of court gossip, whether on Fox or MSNBC, descend in swarms to report pseudo-events such as the Ames straw poll, where it costs $30 to cast a ballot. And then, almost immediately, they blithely inform us that the Iowa poll is meaningless now that Rick Perry has entered the race. The liberal trolls, as they do in every election cycle, are beating their little chests about the perfidiousness of the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. It is a gesture performed not to effect change but to burnish their credentials as moralists. They know, as do we, that they will trot obediently into the voting booth in 2012 to do as they are told. And everywhere the pulse of the nation is being assiduously monitored through polls and focus groups, not because our opinions matter, but because our troll candidates understand that by parroting back to us our own viewpoints they can continue to spend their days lapping up corporate money with other trolls in the two houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and television studios where they chat with troll celebrity journalists.
It’s not even that I disagree with him–although I don’t think decrying how money is worse really understands the situation. This has always been part of the American electoral system, its just moved from illicit to explicit. It’s just Hedges knows way more about how to write with spleen than with either a systemic answer or a focused historical critique. It’s the polemic of the bile and the anecdote. Agitprop, reactionary agitprop even, that missed some lost notion of the center-left in America.
Let’s look at this one from December of last year:
The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.
We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.
Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.
We stand naked and defenseless? What exactly is your point, Mr. Hedges if it is already too late, which you seem to think it is. Furthermore, why are you so focused on culture as if it trumps material conditions?
Hedges always speaks as if culture was the sign and economics the manifestation. For someone invoking Marx, he seems to have utterly missed the point.
“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
― Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
This sounds like it could have been written by Edmund Burke or even Oswald Spengler. If our rulers where just more moral like in the good old days is essentially Hedge’s argument. As even Chomsky has pointed out to Hedges, this is ahistorical (the second question is Hedges):
Chomsky says to Hedge’s question about the decline of intellectuals
Which brings me back what Jim Cullen wrote for HNN:
Which brings me another source of confusion. Hedges was trained as a seminarian, and a fierce moral energy is what gave War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is intensity. Righteous anger has its place, and it really worked there. He has also written jeremiads against evangelical Christians and atheists alike. At some point, though, it seems to me that an effective social critique has to move beyond complaining about what you hate and describing what you love, because, as Hedges made clear in that book, love is a force that gives us meaning, too. The power of positive example — in generous and engaged writing no less than in the subject of that writing — can furnish a powerful lesson in its own right. After all these years on the front lines, I really wish Chris Hedges would finally come home to the place that made him — and the place that sustains him still. If he could map thosecoordinates, perhaps a few more of us would find ourselves with him.
Which, by the way, brings to another point about Hedges. I agree with his critique of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but he liked to expand this view to all “atheists”:
Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity. They see the war in Iraq and the greater conflict in the Middle East as an attack on irrational religion and a fight for the civilizing values of western culture. They too divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris — who asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world — describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude, and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. These authors are as culturally, historically, and linguistically illiterate as Christian fundamentalists, reducing one-fifth of the world’s population to their cartoonish visions of what it means to be a Muslim. They are a secular version of the religious right.
As P.Z. Meyers wrote about the same quote, it’s more or less bullshit:
“Most of these atheists”…who has he been talking to? Hitchens and Harris are most emphatically not representative of atheist views on war. When Hitchens spoke at FFRF on the need for strongarming the Muslims in Iraq and Iran into surrender, people walked out on him, and he was loudly decrying atheists as wimps who were weak on the war and were too pro-Democrat, too anti-war. Atheists are politically diverse, and if anything, tend to lean away from the views Hedges assigns to us.
So Hedges likes to condemn what he actually doesn’t understand very well often. For all his railing against the society of Spectacle, which Debord did in a much more coherent and consistent way that him, his jeremaids are part of that same spectacle and, honestly, a bit of a reactionary part of it at that.
Yet, and I do mean yet, it is also this very trait and pension for hyperbole that I admire in Hedges. I too love that he has a big mouth. It almost seems like a dialectical synthesis: for all I reject Hedges’ romanticized view of the past and his ideological incoherence, I must admit I like some of his ideas:
I keep my distance from the powerful. I distrust all sources of power regardless of their ideological orientation. I do not want to be their friend. I do not want to advise them or be part of their inner circle…. I made a conscious choice to report from the developing world and war zones during most of my career. What I witnessed rarely matched the version of events spun out for the media courtiers in Washington by the power elite. As a foreign correspondent I often fought my own Washington bureau, where reporters in suits were being fed a partial version of reality and had a vested interest in reporting it as fact. The longer reporters spent in Washington, the more they looked, sounded, and acted like the power brokers they covered. — from the introduction to The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.
But yet it also gives us:
Financial collapses lead to political extremism. The rage bubbling up from our impoverished and disenfranchised working class presages a looming and dangerous right wing backlash…. (The unemployed and the poor) have lost hope. Fear and instability have plunged the working classes into profound personal and economic despair, and, not, surprisingly, into the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer a belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation. — from “Death of the Liberal Class.”
You see Hedges’s own reactionary nature often gives him clear vision, but in another way, Occupy Wall Street has hit him in the face as well: A populist backlash that’s not right-wing or religious? He’s sees hope in it, but he’s not clear yet:
So seeing Hedges, the left reactionary prophet, is often right. For all the problems I have had with Hedges’s hoping for a center left past, I have to admire his distancing from power. In short, while a journalists who speaks with moral clarity and saw a lot of things develop entirely quickly, but seems to see things in almost Manichean terms, is someone that I want on my side even if sometimes I want him to wipe the foam off his mouth and admit to ideological complexity in some of his opponents. But if Occupy Wall Street gives Hedges something akin to a positive vision that isn’t moaning about how much better the progressives used to be, it’s about damn time.
So whenever someone tells you they believe in “one man + one woman” as in the bible, please point out that they seem ignorant of what is actually in the bible for ideological reasons. I am an ignostic: I don’t even think most concepts of God are coherent enough to reject. That said, it would seem particularly problematic to be inconsistent or outright wrong about what a holy book advocates. One could see this ideological inconsistency as confusing ones personal opinion for G-d’s Even my atheistic and skeptically inclined self would classify this as hubris at minimum.
I have written on Sam Harris before in both his claims about Buddhism, which Meera Nanda has covered better than I, and his claims about objective morality, which Rationally Speaking has covered better than I, his arrogance at avoiding meta-ethics, and his veiled advocacy of pre-emptive violence in The End of Faith, which I have written about at length. On the later, I have been told time and again that Harris doesn’t believe this, but here’s the quote: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. … We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith). Notice how Harris keeps plausible deniability by the use of “may,” which is rhetorically cowardly to boot.
But, before I can called a theist or a religious apologist or some such nonsense, my problems with Harris are largely that I see him as dangerous to science and philosophy. Philosophy because, while he has an Undergraduate Degree in it from Stanford, he seems to not truly understand a quite a bit of the history of philosophy nor does he seem to be able to make a logical argument. What most of my “skeptical” friends say about Harris is that he “sounds” reasonable, and always speaks calmly. They also dislike relativists and post-modernists. I often, however, get the distinct feeling they actually have never read the philosophers they are arguing against. It is almost always a straw-man argument. Few of the words are quoted or addressed directly, which is telling. Why I see Harris as dangerous to science is that he doesn’t seem to respect most accepted notions of a demarcation line. In many ways, I think Harris is making category errors and also trying to more morality into a scientific category: this seems like a slapdash move to confuse correlation/causation on Harris’s part and to confuse descriptive/normative. To put this in logical terms: this is two category errors. Or, to put in my cultural Marxist language, he is trying to committing trying in a process of rectification to support an ideological complex.
This episode is excellent, but not so much when they deal with Sam Harris who they can barely find a philosophical argument in to actually reject. Points where the Partially Examined Life Crew point out that there are philosophical errors in Dawkin’s, particularly a equivocation on different forms of the antropic principle and pointing out that the “Tea Pot” argument which has always seem to me be flippant actually also contains an error. Furthermore, it seems like the “principle of sufficient reason” is a problem for physics in either a theistic or an atheistic frame work. It may be that the “principle of sufficient reason” itself is not applicable to things that happen before motion in our universe gave us some sense of time. This seems like a major problem in physics right now, but it has major philosophical implications.
Still, I wish they have discussed Dennett more and maybe a more philosophically inclined New Atheist like Victor Stinger instead of Christopher Hitchens, who is admittedly a charming and robust polemicist. Dennett’s concept of memes has been problematic to me. I am not the only one who finds problematic either on the skeptical/atheist spectrum. Rationally Speaking has been exploring the problems of the concept for a while (here and here). The problems with meme and memeplexes is that even as an analogy they are incredibly imperfect: they have no physical or material implantation mechanism, they seem to treat ideas has have no sociological or material context, and almost seems like a (pseudo-)biological dualism as it treats ideas as almost self-existing.
Anyway, I am going to quote Julian Baggini, one of my favorite professional atheists:
This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”
But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.
I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.
However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.