About Me

My photo
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, October 18, 2009

Crackpots, crackpots everywhere

Apropos of my last post, have a look at the thread over on Richard Dawkins' site. The scary thing is the number of people - a minority, but a significant one - who want to defend the more crackpot aspects of Bill Maher's thinking. The people concerned appear to be, in every other respect, the kind who are fans of Dawkins: i.e., atheistic, anti-religious types.

Let this underline one of my occasional themes: genuinely moderate religious people are not our enemies. The other side of it is that someone does not become a friend of reason and science (or liberty, if it comes to that) merely by being anti-religious. It's well to subject religion to sceptical scrutiny, and I'll go on doing that - and defending it, and encouraging it in others. But the divide between religious people and non-religious people does not map neatly onto the divide between people who are friends of reason, science, and liberty and people who are enemies of one or more of those values. I wish it were so simple, which would make things much easier for me. But it's not.

As for Bill Maher himself, I have enough regard for him to hope that he'll yet come around to the side of reason on the issue that's been raised with him in Michael Shermer's excellent open letter. In many ways, he's admirable, and I take no pleasure in slagging him off. Please, Mr. Maher, have a good think about what Michael wrote. Do you really believe that you are the only rationalist who is in step here? (Well, he won't read what I say, but I bet he'll read what Michael Shermer has said, and he certainly heard the comment that Richard Dawkins made a couple of weeks ago.)

I really hope that Maher will sort this out in his mind in a rational way, but at the moment my hopes aren't very high.

20 comments:

Jeremy Stangroom said...

"I wish it were so simple, which would make things much easier for me."

Because a world divided into people like us and people like them is so much more comforting, right...?

Still, at least you got the first bit right.

Russell Blackford said...

Why put so uncharitable an interpretation on what I said, Jeremy?

NewEnglandBob said...

"...genuinely moderate religious people are not our enemies. The other side of it is that someone does not become a friend of reason and science (or liberty, if it comes to that) merely by being anti-religious."

Another side to that is that the genuinely moderate religious people are not necessarily our friends. Support by them of issues such as charitable deductions for religions can be quite against our choices.

I am not trying to start a debate on this, just making an observation.

Eamon Knight said...

There's a phenomenom I call "contrarian pseudo-skepticism", which describes individuals whose opinions often seem to be formed by automatically opposing whatever the Received Wisdom happens to be. In our society religion is one of those RWs, and so is mainstream medicine (and science in general). Going against the RW exposes one to certain social risks, but provides the compensation of self-congratulation for having "seen through" the Official Line. If you can gather a following of the like-minded, that's a bonus. So it's not unexpected that some people will display this odd mix of skepticism and credulity. (Note that I haven't read enough Maher to decide whether he really fits the profile).

Anonymous said...

How nice of Professor Stangroom to drop by and grade your essay. He sounds like quite the expert on not diving people into black white categories.

Anonymous said...

That is: "dividing people into black and white categories".

QrazyQat said...

From interactions with certain pseudoscience psuhers (in the Dawkins forum and other places)I see a lot of them argue their cause as they would a religion, with the same fervor and more importantly, the same tactics, as any extremist religious person would. They have essentially substituted a new religion for their previous one.

H.H. said...

If the "new atheist" label has any utility, it's in distinguishing between people who simply hold no belief in any gods (for any reason) vs. people who reject religious faith claims because they do not comport with a consistently rational, scientific worldview. Dawkins, PZ, and others are often accused of being anti-religious bigots, but this is simply not true, as they hold all claims to the same standards, religious or not. Unfortunately, the same does not seem to be true of Maher.

So you're right, Russell. Being anti-religion is not alone sufficient to mark a person as a critical thinker. However, no matter how congenial to the scientific method the religious profess to be, a theist will always be operating with at least one huge intellectual blind spot. No, religious moderates are not "enemies" and common ground must be sought whenever possible. But I think it's important to maintain that faith--in whatever guise--is incompatible with the scientific method. We should never fail to gently remind anyone of this, like we might tell someone it's proper to cover their noses when they sneeze.

Tony Smith said...

Rational is a tool not yet another god. Don't ignore its clear linguistic link to rationalisation.

The overwhelming success of late second millennium science may have blinded almost everybody to the possibility that overspecialised reductionism has limits to what it can tell us because any sufficiently complex system provides opportunities for emergence which can only be reconciled with scientific constraints post hoc. No matter how long you stare at the periodic table, life does not appear through rational processes without the mixed blessing of hindsight.

The ultimate arbiter is observation, but even that only after a couple of huge disclaimers. We have to avoid the kind of observer bias that obscures all the dark matter which we now know with reasonable certainty dominates galactic-scale structure formation. And we particularly need to be careful about instrumental bias, more so as we build instruments that are ever increasingly theory-laden.

What you need is to retain an open mind and a willingness to change it in the face of evidence that is more substantial that a chain of rational deductions from never certain premises, recognising science, math and logic as potent tools but not masters. The world we find ourselves in is historically contingent at every turn. And all our observations are at some point mediated by photons, placing significant resolution limits.

Steve Zara said...

I have no hope that Maher will change. He has too much investment in his position as rebel. I'm afraid I can't find Maher admirable. Maher supports Maher, not reason.

Anyway, I am very pleased that this debate has started. I'm also pleased that the poster Dr Benway is gaining recognition, as she has been involved in the right against irrationality in medicine for some time.

brian t said...

I think you kinda answered your own question, in that you think Maher can change his mind. I think so too, because Maher (through listening to his show) comes across as a pretty smart guy who can evolve his views, and who might be able to admit he was wrong about something. For that reason I think there's no point alienating a powerful ally, but at the same time we shouldn't mince our words when talking about the sheer lunacy of some of his views.

There is a middle ground in this vaccination debate: support for vaccination in general, but legitimate concern about some specific vaccines. I think the Swine Flu vaccine is being rushed to market without adequate testing, while the manufacturers stand to rake in wads of government paper. If Maher wants to make a graceful comedown, that's a window he can use, I think.

Steve Zara said...

brian_t-

Sorry, but that doesn't work.

The concern you expressed about the H1N1 vaccine is just the kind of thing that Maher should NOT be saying, because he is not a medical researcher. That is the issue here - Maher inappropriately feels that he can be an authority on matters that he has little or no expertise about. The problem is either that he has no understanding of what expertise involves, or that he is so arrogant that he feels he can ignore that.

Maher should not comment at all on such matters. He's a comedian, not a scientist.

NewEnglandBob said...

brian t said:

"I think the Swine Flu vaccine is being rushed to market without adequate testing..."

What evidence do you base this statement upon? Published statements have said this vaccine was tested the same as seasonal flu vaccines.

brian t said...

The last couple of comments have got my position back-to-front. It's not my job to point out what isn't being done. I'm looking for evidence of what is being done. Where are the results of the clinical trials? The five trials described on that page are still ongoing, so why are some people already receiving the vaccine?

I've had dozens of vaccinations in my life, with no problems or complaints, and I am currently taking part in a Phase III drug trial (FTY720 for MS), so I'm hardly risk-intolerant - but that's just me. I'm not an anti-vaxxer, so you can put the hypodermics down, people.

Stuart said...

"Maher supports Maher, not reason."

And we have a winner.

SEP

Athena Andreadis said...

Many atheists fancy themselves experts in all domains of science by sole virtue of their atheism (to the tune of: Since I agree with Dawkins, that makes me an expert in everything Dawkins discusses, from gods to genes).

The common threads are 1) reflexive contrarianism, which is contemptuous of experts; 2) the illusion that everyone is the same in terms of knowledge (an illusion greatly abetted by the Internet); and 2) the cognitive dissonance that allows people to use religious arguments and maintain religious mindsets in everything except formal religion.

Russell Blackford said...

Athena said: "the cognitive dissonance that allows people to use religious arguments and maintain religious mindsets in everything except formal religion."

Nice.

Roger said...

"the cognitive dissonance that allows people to use religious arguments and maintain religious mindsets in everything except formal religion."
Yes. The test of someone's rationality is not what they think true but why they think it true.

Parrhesia said...

"But the divide between religious people and non-religious people does not map neatly onto the divide between people who are friends of reason, science, and liberty and people who are enemies of one or more of those values."

Us and them, goodies and baddies, ummah and kuffar, saints and sinners, heaven and hell . . . it's such a childish and destructive way of looking at things, isn't it?

Great post, Russell, btw.

Ophelia Benson said...

Us and them, goodies and baddies, ummah and kuffar, saints and sinners, heaven and hell . . . it's such a childish and destructive way of looking at things, isn't it?

Isn't it - which was Russell's point, I take it, in saying "I wish it were so simple, which would make things much easier for me." That's irony - Russell doesn't really mean he wishes it were that simple, he's acknowledging the baser tendencies in all of us - to oversimplify and polarize - while pointing out their futility.

I love your article for TPM 48, Russell - something for everyone to look forward to!