The Importance
Of Critical Thinking
Darrell Rowbottom

From: "Darrell Rowbottom"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: The Importance of Critical Thinking
Date: Wednesday, February 07, 2001 7:48 AM

Dear Mr. Walker,

Please excuse the list format of this letter, but my time is rather limited. (Note, first, that I am not an apologetic -- I am, rather, a weak atheist in your sense.)

i) Re: Noncognitivism and Demarcation

In your 'What is Atheism?', section ii (on Noncognitivism), you quote Martin:

'a case can be made that religious language is unverifiable and hence factually meaningless when it is used in a sophisticated and nonanthropomorphic way.' (Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 77)

This is curious, especially in a text written so recently, since the link between verifiability and meaning, which led those such as Schlick to declare boldly that "Metaphysics is meaningless", has come under sustained attack over the past century. Hardly any philosopher worth his salt would want to support the failed logical positivist programme, and with good reason.

For example, even if we were just to take 'verifiability' as a criterion for demarcation between science and non-science (surely less pernicious than using it to demarcate what is 'meaningful'), then physics would be unscientific. For what is verifiable? Only singular statements, about constant conjunctions of events in the present (or maybe, more controversially, in the past). History is a graveyard of failed scientific theories, each of which was thought to have been 'verified' at the time (epistemically speaking), although that clearly was not the case. Why, then, make the assumption that we are on any better ground today? (Better ground in terms of truth-likeness of theories, rather than empirical adequacy thereof.) Since you claim to be a sceptic in the Humean tradition, you are surely aware of the problem of induction, and must therefore recognise that to posit natural regularities is just to beg the question.

Of course, we might look to Popper's later anti-inductivist philosophy of science, and suggest that falsifiability would be a better demarcation criterion. Unfortunately, this fails as well. Take Newton's First Law of Motion -- that a body will remain at rest, or continue to move at constant velocity, unless acted upon by a resultant force -- as a case in point. If I see anything accelerate, I can always posit an invisible 'force', hence this 'law' is unfalsifiable. But we would hardly want to suggest that it is unscientific, taken in context!

It is my opinion that claims about the existence of God, or any other suprasensible/unobservable entity, are meaningful, provided that one subscribes to a non-epistemic theory of truth (e.g. correspondence theory). In the context of a Judao-Christian God, we understand what it is to 'know', and we understand the meaning of the quantifier 'all', and we can thus understand what 'omniscience' suggests (and analogously for 'omnipotence'). This is not to say that such a posited entity (God) would not have limitations -- for example, it might exist in time (thus be unable to have 'knowledge' of the future), and it's 'omnipotence' might only stretch to things over which we, as humans, might in principle have power over (e.g. God might not be able to change the laws of deductive logic). Indeed, discussing the possible boundaries of such an entity, in order for it to be properly metaphysically possible (which is to say, there is a possible world in which it exists) can be most illuminating.

In short, the question of whether God actually exists is a real one, provided it is metaphysically possible. (And I think this is the best place to focus the discussion, once a theist has been kind enough to demonstrate that his notion of 'God' is metaphysically possible-something which many theists, those of the naive 'I just know he/she/it does' variety, completely fail to demonstrate.)

ii) Re: Scepticism about Science

It is interesting that you seem to place a great deal of faith in science -- you are, so to speak, a realist about science. At least a semantic realist, for you believe that the theoretical terms in science have putative factual reference -- that is to say, are capable of being true or false. {See your comments here: http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9402.htm}. This is opposed to the instrumentalist view of science, which would have it that theoretical discourse is eliminable, and that theoretical talk is just 'disguised' talk about relationships between phenomena.

On an epistemic level (again, accepting a correspondence theory of truth), we might question whether the aim of science is truth. Might it not, instead, merely be 'empirical adequacy'? (I discuss here the aim of science, not the aim of scientists -- an analogy would be in chess, the aim is to checkmate one's opponent, whereas an individual player might strive for fame or fortune.) Questions such as these are important -- nay, vital -- for the sceptic about religious claims, if his views are not to become hypocritical. For exchanging one form of 'blind' faith for another is hardly the way to proceed.

But rather than harp on at length about the philosophy of science, I shall cut to my central point:

iii)

Associating yourself with science, any more than religion, is a rather dangerous tactic/strategy, simply because many scientists are not critical thinkers. (Take the pronouncements of Bohr, Heisenberg, and Born, subsequent to the development of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, as an example -- see postscript). And it is critical thinking that we should really be promoting (as agnostics, or weak atheists) -- for it is only through such a vehicle that one begins to learn respect for one's fellow woman, and for her opinions.

The more people who recognise the Socratic sense in which a true philosopher knows only that he knows nothing, the better.

I cannot help but think that our (the Western world's) schools and universities must take much of the blame. Dogmatism is so rife, even in the once hallowed halls of the academy, that it is near-impossible to be taken seriously in questioning the status quo (some philosophy departments, though not all, are exceptions to this rule). Imagine the comical image of Bohr telling Einstein to leave the fifth Solvay Conference: "I'm sorry, Albert, but our attempt to indoctrinate you has failed. You are now excluded from these proceedings". An apocryphal example, perhaps, but consider the analogy of a science lecturer and a student who appeared to be asking 'deliberately awkward questions'. Is the scene still so unthinkable?

In short, it is dogmatism -- not theism -- which resulted in your 'holiday' behind bars. And it is dogmatism, be it in a legal, religious, scientific, or political context, that we must strive against.

Yours faithfully,

Darrell Rowbottom

P.S. Should you wish clarification of my points about science, I invite you to have a look at section 1-1 of my thesis-in-progress, which can be found at the following URL:
http://www.btinternet.com/~d.p.rowbottom/essays.htm

(See my previous dissertation 'Are Realism and Quantum Mechanics Compatible?', section 1, in regard to the curious claims of Bohr, Heisenberg and Born.)

N.B. Please do not edit this letter if you wish to publish it on your web-site. It is written in British English.

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