Ron Rosenbaum’s New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.”  It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism.  In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.

Rosenbaum opens with this gem:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.”  Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means.  Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible.  At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize.  As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.

The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph.  He writes,

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed.  The “certitudes” of atheism?  What might those be?  How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything?  Groan.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding.  First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all.  It is a lack of a belief in any deity.  Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist.  Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god.  If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist.  It’s just that simple.  In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well.  Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.

But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”  I can’t see that it is.  Seriously, who holds that view?  We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will?  I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view.  And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet?  Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer.  Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing.  Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason:  no one has said this.

Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared.  They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing.  In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously.  I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.”  I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything.  What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place?  Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all?  Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case.  Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay?  You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.

I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point.  Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold.  In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:

Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions.  The hubris here could take down an elephant.  Seriously, Ron?  You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course?  Really?  Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.

Groan.

Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.”  Nice pat on the back there, Ron.  It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world.  That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.

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Prince Charles Blames the World’s Ills on…Galileo?

Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...
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In an article published in the Times Online yesterday, Prince Charles, the person next in line for the throne in England, said that science is to blame for the various issues, from environmental to economic, facing the world today.  In specific, it is the mechanistic view of the world at the core of scientific explanation that the Prince believes has led to the West being “de-souled,” and that is the root of all our problems.  He said,

This imbalance, where mechanistic thinking is so predominant, goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.  This is the view that continues to frame the general perception of the way the world works, and how we fit within the scheme of things.  As a result, Nature has been completely objectified — “She” has become an “it” — and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.

Yes, the very same science that is responsible for the incredible increase in quality of living, human lifespan, knowledge of how the world works, and countless other things is what is at the heart of every problem we have.  Or not.

This kind of absurdity always annoys the piss out of me.  I don’t know that it’s possible to overstate the benefits that science has afforded our species.  Certainly, if you take things like eating, drinking, giving birth to fertile offspring, protection from the elements, community and interaction with loved ones, or any of the other aspects of human life that we generally think to be desirable and valuable, science is the single greatest boon we could ever imagine.  All of that stuff has increased thanks to science.  Yet, here we have someone who is learned and supposedly knowledgeable making the ridiculous assertion that it is, in fact, this very same science that is the cause of human misery.

And what’s the cure?  Apparently something mystical and mysterious.  It’s hard to say.  From the article:

Speaking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies to mark its 25th anniversary, the Prince — who is patron of the centre — said that the West had been been “de-souled” by consumerism.

He said that the present approach to the environment was contrary to the teachings of all of the world’s sacred traditions. The desire for financial profit ignored the spiritual teachings.

“Over the years, I have pointed out again and again that our environmental problems cannot be solved simply by applying yet more and more of our brilliant green technology — important though it is.

“It is no good just fixing the pump and not the well,” he said. Talk of an “environmental crisis” or of a “financial crisis” was actually describing “the outward consequences of a deep, inner crisis of the soul”.

Honestly. I’m not sure what the Prince is actually proposing here.  Putting aside the question of whether our “present approach to the environment” really is “contrary to the teaching of all the world’s sacred traditions,” though I am wildly skeptical about such a claim, what is it that spiritual teachings are supposed to do for us?  How are spiritual teachings going to give homes to the homeless, feed the hungry, provide for the poor, or heal the sick?  What exactly are these teachings supposed to do at all?  Further, once we have figured out what these great cures are supposed to be, how are these spiritual teachings going to achieve those goals?  I can only assume that the Prince is aware that spiritual teachings were the dominant means of solving problems for most of human history.  It is only recently, by the Prince’s own counting since Galileo, that science has been the means by which we come to solutions for the bulk of our problems.  And yet, it does not appear as though the times when spiritual teachings dominated that environmental and economic problems all magically went away (see what I did there?).  Given that, what reason is there to think that abandoning the amazingly successful solution machine of science in favor of the old failed method of spiritual teachings is going to help us out with anything at all?  I see none.

While I’m taking apart the nonsense the Prince said, Nature is not a “She.”  Nature does not have a sex.  It does not even have a gender.  Nature cannot be harmed, it cannot be destroyed, and it cannot be betrayed.  Nature does not care. When we all die, Nature will continue to be the same, and it will not even notice our passing.  Seriously, what kind of hubris must one have to think that Nature is human-like?  Hey, guy, you’re just not that cool.  Get over yourself.

It is hard to believe that someone of the level of sophistication of a future King could be so woefully ignorant and clueless.  But here we are.  At least we can be thankful that he is mostly just a figurehead with little genuine power or influence.

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Poverty, Values, and Why I Don’t Like Ruby Payne

I have training as a philosopher, but I pay my bills through my employment at a Community Action Program, working with the homeless.  Unsurprisingly, working on the practical side of a field in which one has lots of theoretical understanding can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.  I certainly wouldn’t expect any of my coworkers to be able to summarize Rawls’ Difference Principle (let alone trace the connection between A Theory of Justice, Johnson’s Great Society, and the subsequent CAPs that were a result of the Economic Opportunity Act), but their lack of interest in foundational issues in economics, politics, and ethics sometimes shocks me.  Recently, I had an especially polarizing experience with my co-workers when I was required to sit through the Bridges out of Poverty workshop, based upon the book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne.

If you are not involved in social work, you may be unfamiliar with the work of Ruby Payne, which is primarily based upon anecdotal observations about the "hidden rules" of social class.  Despite the fact that Dr. Payne’s "research" is widely dismissed even by sociologists for its lack of methodological rigor, the revelation that poor people have different attitudes about food from rich people appears to be profoundly enlightening to some people, at least if anecdotal observations of my co-workers is any in indication (maybe I should write a book).  To be fair, the Bridges Out of Poverty program is well-intentioned, at least as far as I can tell.  Though after a seven-hour workshop I was still unable to identify a single explicit foundational principle or specific directive, the implicit theme seemed to be that people in different classes see the world differently, and the general directive seemed to be that we should be sensitive to that fact in our work with the indigent.

The polarizing moment came when talk moved to values. After spending the better part of a morning listing less-than-revelatory observations about how poor people view violence, bedtimes, school performance, and other aspects of everyday life, the speaker cautioned us that these views were not good or bad and the program was only meant to inform us about the different ways in which people in different classes view the same issues.  I raised my hand and commented that this seemed like a bit of an exaggeration.  "Surely," I said, "we can appreciate that a person living in the inner city has reasons to fight or sell drugs, and we can still make a value judgment about why that behavior is bad."  I was met with polite nods, but nobody seemed to appreciate that my comment was a subtle criticism of the myopic relativism of the program.  I tried again after lunch.  The speaker said explicitly that we were not there to make judgments about the values of the different classes, only to learn something by observing their differences.  This time I was more explicit.  "But, surely," I blurted out, "we all know that this program and the work that we do is biased toward the values of the middle class.  I mean, we may understand why poor people don’t value education the way middle class people do, but we still make a judgment that education is valuable, and we push that value to our clients."

This time I was met with blank stares.  Several of the other participants volunteered less-than-useful responses which belied the fact that they really didn’t understand my point.  Each response was some version of,  "But, poor people really do want the same things as middle class people, they just don’t have the tools/knowledge/resources to achieve those things!"  After succeeding in annoying everyone in the room, I waited until break to take up the issue privately with the speaker who nodded sympathetically when I explained that debate about the empirical effectiveness of different means to the same end is not the same thing as a genuine difference of values.  "Insofar as there is a genuine disagreement about values, I don’t think that any reconciliation is possible," I said, "But, don’t get me wrong.  I think most people value similar things, which is why outreach programs are useful.  We aren’t teaching people to value different things, we’re teaching them better means to their ends."  Again, I was met with a blank stare, but, perhaps believing I agreed with her, she nodded and walked away.

As I tried to explain to my coworkers, my objection to the Bridges Out of Poverty program is not an objection to the implicit middle-class value judgments that give social work its motivating force.   For the most part, I share the same values as my coworkers, and I share the intuition that most of the practices that we push through education and outreach are attractive to our clients precisely because they share those values as well.  (Of course, this is another way of saying that I don’t really believe that class plays a major role in determining values in this first place.)  My objection is to the absurd and contradictory combination of explicitly stated relativism and implicitly assumed objectivity that is pervasive in the work of Ruby Payne and the people who follow her.   And, it maddens me that so many people in social work seem to miss this rather simple point:  Either values are objective, or they are not.  If values are objective, then they are not relative to class.  Also, if values are objective, then there is a fact of the matter about how people should behave, and we absolutely can and should make judgments upon people who fail to promote objective values.  If values are not objective, then it is silly to argue about them.  The only discussion worth having is about which actions are more efficient means to the promotion of values, not about the values themselves.

Though I find the contradiction between explicit relativism and implicit value objectivity worrisome, I have a pretty good guess about why it is so pervasive in my field.  On almost every level, education and outreach work is based upon the assumption that the poor have some control over their poverty.  Political activists can organize strikes, mobilize voters, and publicly denounce economic policies that create and maintain class disparity.  Social workers take on clients who have very few resources and try to improve their condition by giving them information alone.  We may privately believe that poverty persists because of huge variation in the distribution of political and economic power which will never be altered by changes in individual behavior, but our job is to reassure people that they will be able to get out of poverty if they work hard, follow the rules, and take advantage of the meager resources provided by public welfare programs.   Unfortunately, the belief that hard work and education will get you out of poverty implies that individuals who aren’t getting out of poverty are either not working hard enough or are ignorant about the resources available to them. It’s a hard truth, and nobody wants to admit it, but discussions about why different classes value different things are pointless.  The discussion we need to have is about why different classes have different things.  Community Action Programs like mine were founded upon a very simple, value-driven principle:  Poverty is a bad thing.   We don’t need a framework for understanding it.  We need practical strategies for ending it.

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