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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The bullshit we have to have?

Taner Edis (yet another contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief!) has replied to Jerry Coyne and me, over at the Secular Outpost Blog , an outpost, as it were of Secular Web/Internet Infidels.

Taner has an interesting take on this, and his views certainly merit consideration. He says that Jerry Coyne and I "are correct, and obviously so" when we say something like the following:

"[I]n their zeal to defend evolution education, many American scientific organizations, from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Center for Science Education, have endorsed what amounts to a liberal theological doctrine concerning the compatibility of science and supernatural religion. Indeed, they do so with an explicit concern to reassure the public that science is not associated with dirty ideas such as atheism. Given that natural science is notoriously an area where nonbelievers are overrepresented, this is odd. Indeed, some of those nonbelieving scientists who expect to be represented by scientific organizations naturally feel put up upon by all this."

That's a fair enough representation of my position and perhaps of Jerry Coyne's.

What's more, Taner thinks the compatibilist line adopted by the science bodies is "bullshit".

At the same time, he emphasises the political realities, and describes some of them in detail. He thinks that the alleged compatibility of science and religion, and the arguments put for this, are bullshit, and that it's appropriate for him to argue as much in his own books, articles, and blog posts. At the same time, political reality demands that science organisations disseminate this same bullshit to their larger and different audience.

"Very few actually read [my books, articles, and blog posts], and even less care about what I say, so the damage I can do by being honest is very limited. But if my political hopes for science are to be realized, the only feasible way I can see is for more liberal forms of religiosity to provide a buffer zone. I want superficial, bullshit varieties of compatibilism to become the conventional wisdom."

I'm not actually going to criticise this viewpoint, and not just because Taner is obviously an ally, etc. It's because I'm all too uncomfortably aware that this view may be correct, at the end of the day, and that maybe I'm naive in wanting to avoid peddling bullshit views to the wider public. When it's put this candidly, I respect the honesty. Taner's frankness is certainly refreshing compared with what Matt Nisbet might say on the same subject. I should add at this point, that I'm also well aware that (as someone emphasised to me in a private note) people like Eugenie Scott are among the good guys.

But for all that, I'm still uncomfortable about going down a path where we honestly and openly say one thing to a relatively elite audience that reads our books, etc., while applauding when the opposite is said to a mass audience. I'm not dogmatically opposed to elitism, noble lies, and so on. Maybe they sometimes have a consequentialist justification, but they're distasteful at best.

Edit: The above almost sounds like I'm ready to back down. I'm not, and I have larger reasons for not doing so. But I'm impressed that somebody - Taner Edis as it turns out - has finally articulated the hard-nosed view that some bullshit may be necessary bullshit. That's a debate we need to have within the rationalist tent.

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