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Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists (2000)


11. Conclusion

Richard Carrier


Religionists are faced with the daunting sophistication, accuracy, and success of science, which can predict and explain everything it can study in terms so mathematically precise that nowhere can be found those ambiguities which are truly distinctive of conscious thought. As for those frontiers where ambiguity remains, the god-of-the gaps champions rush to them in desperation to point at the unexplored, just to say 'see, thought might exist there,' and then the scientists go there, and shine their light in the dark corner, and all they find is precision, the exact opposite of thought. So the champions run to successively smaller battlements, never once winning a single battle. The outcome is a fair guess, since an army that never wins a battle, but continues its retreat for several centuries in succession, showing no signs of a rally, is quite certain to lose the war.[1]

What men like Foster want is an escape from their certain doom by trying to trump up precision as something distinctive of thought, so that they might recover all the ground they have lost. But this does not work. For it is not precision that is distinctive of 'thought' as apart from 'thoughtless mechanism.' Rather, what distinguishes thought over mechanism is ambiguity. It is not mathematical exactness that can prove god's existence. To the contrary, mathematical exactness is the best argument against his existence. For an infinitely-gifted thinker in charge of the world would have little need for math and necessity and mechanical determinism, while on the other hand if such a thinker did not exist, math and necessity is precisely what you would expect to find in his absence. After all, if faith really could move mountains, without the aid of tractors, and especially without the laws of conservation of energy and momentum and the laws of chemical bonding and of gravity and of air pressure and everything else, then there would be evidence of a divine mind at work in the order of the cosmos.

In the end, it cannot seem all that strange to an intelligent person that a universe should function so consistently that it can be defined mathematically. What would be strange is if the universe should defy such predictable precision, and behave in the ways that thought behaves. If compassion truly made one's body invulnerable to harm, while wickedness caused the certain and slow weakening and degeneration of the body, then there would be a valid suspicion of a divine creation at work. If life really was matter infused with an indefinable life spirit, so that there was nothing in any living organism to explain its variation and behavior----no DNA in its cells, no identifiable physical mechanism storing the memory of the species' shape, then divine creation would approach the defensible. If there were no brain with its incredibly complex neuron-function explaining thought, and if no sufficiently-complex organ could be found in our bodies wherein thought might be physically produced, then theists would have an argument. But the fact is that none of this happens. We have no known example in the universe of the world behaving like a mind, nor of the universe having any properties resembling those of the abstraction and ambiguity and purposefulness of thought. It is precisely the lack of such things which entails that the opposite is the case: the universe is a thoughtless machine. It may be an open question whether this machine was created, but it is not open anymore to claim that the maker is still tinkering. If god created the world, he has left it to its own devices, and us to ours.

Foster concludes his book with a perfect example of how the above sort of truth, which disproves the theist's case, is twisted around as if to prove that case. On page 177 he issues the typical lament that "It is not without significance that the fifty years following 1900 witnessed the greatest wars of history and the development of atomic weapons. All this was due to worshipping at the feet of Chance and Necessity." This is the usual polemic of religionists who ignore history, and want to pretend that an era that saw the greatest expansion of freedom, democracy, technology, and medical science as well as the widest spread of literacy and education in the history of Earth, was somehow worse, or more lacking in values, than the preceding century, which watched the most horrifying institution of slavery reach heights of inhumanity never paralleled in history, not to mention the greatest and bloodiest war in the history of America, the Civil War, which killed more Americans per capita than both world wars combined, a war in which half those who fought were actually taking up arms to preserve their right to own and abuse innocent men by the millions. And how is it that those earlier centuries in which kings still reigned by divine right over oppressed subjects the world over, churches still burned and hung people by the tens of thousands, women were nowhere allowed to vote and rarely even allowed to speak in public or to own property, an era when millions upon millions died of diseases that are today rendered harmless by science, when natives were slaughtered in disgustingly huge numbers, even deliberately infected with small pox by men greedy for their land, within one of the supposedly most enlightened nations on Earth, how can anyone pretend that age in our history was in any way better than our present century?

If it is a loss of religion and a turn towards 'chance and necessity' which has caused the changes the world has seen from what it was before 1900 to what it was after----after all, this is exactly what Foster claims----then it follows that we have become more enlightened, more value-centered, by making this change, and not less. It follows that 'worshipping at the feet of Chance and Necessity' has been the best thing mankind has ever decided to do. Of course, Foster's claim is false on the face of it, for I know of no people, neither in my own experience, nor in the records of history, who 'worship at the feet of Chance and Necessity.' To the contrary, if anything, worship has been abandoned altogether by reasonable men, because its replacement----actually finding out what to do and doing it----has been proven inestimably superior. Unwilling or unable to accept or understand that, the David Fosters of the world will continue to produce all manner of illogical theses in their desperate attempt to oppose the cultural progress of man.[2]

[1] This is the "inference to Naturalism," which I discuss further in The Problem with Miracles: the Shaky Groundwork of Corduan and Purtill," which is part of my Review of In Defense of Miracles."

[2] On which see Bill Schultz, Is God A Criminal?."

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